Film Review: A Good Wife – The Family Life of a War Criminal

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

 

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)


By Koen Kluessien and Marieke Zoodsma 

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing (moving) images from the wars in the former Yugoslavia are those shot on the so-called Scorpion Tape. The tape is named after the paramilitary unit that produced the video, Škorpioni – who curiously named themselves after their favorite weapon, the Škorpion vz. 61 machine pistol. The Scorpions, founded in 1991, were a Serbian nationalist paramilitary group consisting of several hundred armed groups who were involved in multiple combat operations during the wars. The full-length 2-hour tape depicts the activities of the unit between 1994 and 1995, with the Trnovo murders in July 1995 as its disturbing climax. It shows how members of the unit transport six Bosniak men who were captured after the fall of Srebrenica, physically and mentally abuse them, and finally execute them. In Serbia, where a culture of denial about (Serbia’s involvement in) the war crimes is widespread, the video caused huge commotion after it was made public in 2005 during the trial of Slobodan Milošević, leading to several arrests of those Scorpion members captured on the tape.


So, one might ask, who kept the tape for all these years? Who knew about its existence and why did that person come forward with it after ten years? A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)
, one of the featured films of the Movies that Matter Film Festival 2016 and now On Tour, questions such as these are cleverly intertwined in the storyline. The film shows the family life of one of the members of the Scorpion unit, several years after the war. It is reminiscent of the ordinary life of a mobster that is told in the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the story focuses on the criminal activity of mafioso Tony Soprano but primarily aims to depict the everyday life of his family. This is also the aim of A Good Wife: instead of outlining the life of Serbian paramilitary Vlado (who even has an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano: fat, slightly balding, and with an appearance that breathes authority) it focuses on his wife Milena. The film asks the question what the family members of a paramilitary – or a mobster for that matter – know, and more importantly, want to know.


According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, this paradox of both knowing and not-knowing lies at the heart of the concept of denial (read here Marieke’s article on current day examples of denial and Koen’s article on genocide denial by Serbian politicians). Denial is intrinsically partial as some information is always registered. What is important is what one does with that information. Milena knows her husband was in the military during the war and we see her watching the news about the aftermath of the mass atrocities committed by Serbian units. However, she does not ask him any questions, not even when she sees him getting heavily agitated after watching a human rights activist comment on the war crimes on the television. She has a suspicion but does not have an “enquiring mind”, as Stanley Cohen would call it.


Alienation and demonization are often heard reactions to distance oneself from the cruel actions of perpetrators of mass atrocities. It is easier to see perpetrators of mass violence as intrinsically evil people. They can thereby remain the so-called “Other”; something that stands so far from us that we do not truly have to understand it. A Good Wife excellently depicts the opposite. It provides the audience with a unique insight into the ordinary life of a war criminal, when the violence is over and life turns back to “normal”. Yes, Vlado is easily annoyed, has a bad relationship with his eldest (progressive) daughter, and is still an overt believer of the nationalist Serbian cause – but furthermore comes across as the average husband. We see him buying jewelry for Milena’s birthday, sitting at the head of the dinner table, and going out together with friends. As the film progresses, however, coping techniques cannot hold back his lingering trauma and it starts to affect his family life.


The key scene in the storyline of A Good Wife is the moment when Milena finds a copy of the Scorpion tape in one of her husband’s drawers. Unaware of what the tape actually contains, she turns it on and sees her husband and his comrades commit the above-described crimes. Heavily upset she turns it off. The leading question of the film remains, now that she cannot deny the involvement of her husband in these crimes, what will she do with the evidence?

 

The actual Scorpion tape was found by Nataša Kandić, a human rights activist from Belgrade, who tracked down one of the Scorpion members that was in possession of the tape. There had been twenty copies, but when Slobodan Medić Boca (the commander of the Scorpions) realized that the images could be used against him, he ordered the destruction of the footage. However, one Scorpion who was not present at the executions and did not have good relations with his former comrades made an extra copy and hid it in Bosnia. On the same day, the tape was sent to the Special Prosecutor for War Crimes in Belgrade and to the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY. When the video was played in Serbia, it was the first time Serbia was confronted with a crime committed by Serb forces in Bosnia.

 

Serbian politicians later acknowledged the crime. At that point it seemed like the Serbian “state of denial” was about to change and Serbians would be ready to deal with their past. Indeed, many people still give credit to the tape for “sending shockwaves through society”. Unfortunately, the truth is slightly different. Quickly the discourse changed back to usual statements showing the unwillingness to confront the past. The taped killings were relativized by pointing out crimes committed against Serbs that were still unpunished. When asked why the video had not had more effect, Dejan Anastasijević, a journalist for the newspaper Vreme, responded: “Public opinion [has been] cemented by now – it’s been 10 years. All I can say is that the capability of the human mind of refusing to face unpleasant facts keeps on amazing me”.

 

A Good Wife depicts the family life of a war criminal as if they were your neighbors. Hopefully, it will also prove to be not only a thought provoking film filled with well-written symbolism and moving actors but also a step forward in taking down the wall of denial in Serbia.

 

 

The Power of the UN to protect Humanity – Part I The Security Council

sc-vote-on-syria
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UN Security Council meeting on Syria, on December 18, 2015. Take a good look at who raised their hands and who did not (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

 

By Iona Mulder -

 

The UN was founded after the Second World War with the primary goal of protecting peace and security in the world. One of the most important elements of this goal is the protection of people all around the world against similar atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime; these atrocities are now framed as crimes against humanities and genocide. But who decides and how is decided within this unique and powerful international organization, that currently includes 193 states, that action is necessary to confront issues of crimes against humanity? I will provide insight into this question in a series of several articles. The intention is not to be exhaustive, but to provide a top-down overview of the decision-making process of this powerful organization, to show its competence and its weaknesses. This first article begins with the top of the chain were political decisions for action are taken: the Security Council.

Although the UN as a whole can be seen as leading the politics of the international community, its power is bound by the obligation to respect the sovereignty of states. The right to sovereignty means that the UN cannot interfere within national affairs without the permission of the state itself. This rule is the number one principle of international law. However, the Security Council forms the exception; it is the only organ that can in specific situations interfere with this fundamental principle of sovereignty – even with the use of force, often described as “use of all necessary means”. It can do so in the name of the protection of international peace and security, as described in Chapter VII of the founding charter of the UN. Whether a situation is a threat to peace and security and what measures should be taken, will be determined by a vote of the fifteen states that are a member of the council. There are five permanent members, US, UK, Russia, China, France, those countries that were considered as superpowers after The Second World War, and ten non-permanent that change every two years. These world-changing decisions on peace and security issues are made by the representative of the members states simply raising their hand, as if they were in a classroom. Live-streams of the voting meetings can be viewed at the website UN television. A decision, called a resolution, will be accepted when nine of the members vote in favor, and none of the permanent member uses their right to veto a decision.

Since the end of the eighties, the Security Council has often considered widespread international crimes against humanity as a threat to security of the international community. Examples of such situations are Former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The more recent case of South-Sudan shows how the decision-making at the Security Council ideally works. Last November 11th, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, made a visit to the young state of South-Sudan. His role as a Special Advisor is to collect information and advice and warn the Secretary-General and the Security Council of the UN on grave human rights violations of ethnic and racial origin that genocide that might escalate into genocide. The reason for his visit was continuing reports of ethnic violence in South-Sudan. In a speech before the Security Council he stated: “Last week, I saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it. I urge the Security Council and Members States of the region to be united, and to take action.”

Already since 2011 there is a UN mission stationed within South-Sudan named UNMISS with the mandate to protect civilians, monitor, investigate human rights, and to give assistance to build up the new state. Over the years the mission was already expanded. However, as Adama Dieng has specified within his speech before the Security Council, neither the UNMISS nor strong calls upon the South Sudanese government, not even a ceasefire that was established in 2015, have led to a positive progress of the stability and security of the country. On the contrary, the violence has increased and spread over a larger area; the government army is overall feared by the population, and the current South Sudanese President Kirr made statements that incite even more violence among the different political/ethnic groups within the country.

Following Adama Dieng’s advice and call to take action before the Security Council, the Security Council decided last December 16th to expand the UNMISS even more with 4500 soldiers and broaden its mandate. This mandate now includes among other things the unlimited access for the Special Advisor to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence and actively participate in the mission in the implementation of the ceasefire, including the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of different armed groups in South Sudan. In this case, the Security Council took the words of the Special Advisor into account and took action to protect the population of South Sudan. There are, however, two loopholes. First of all, the Security Council is not obligated to council the Special Advisor if the member states are not interested in doing so. Secondly, the member states might not vote for any action or one the permanent members can use its right to veto to uphold any action. This often happens when political interest come into play.

The most compelling example nowadays is the case of Syria. Special Advisor Adama Dieng has made fifteen public statements on the desperate situation of the civil population in Syria. He has not once been invited by the Security Council to speak about this subject. Moreover, Russia has used its veto right six times since the beginning of the conflict to uphold a UN Mission with a mandate regarding the protection of civilians or the persecution of those responsible for violence against civilians and the use of chemical weapons. China has taken the same position five times. The reason for Russia and China to do so is their political alliance with the Syrian government. If they would allow such a UN mission to be implemented, this would minimize the power of the Syrian government and thereby damage their political interested. Henceforth, the Security Council is completely paralyzed to take any action. It is undeniable that the Security Council is failing to fulfill its responsibility to protect the population of Syria.

The situation in Syria is the ultimate display that the UN system to prevent any large-scale human right violations is dependent on the political will of the members of the Security Council and primarily the permanent members. The five permanent member states can stand in the way of the protection of many innocent civilians, merely because it is against their own political interest to so, even when all the other members are of the opinion that measures are imperative to secure the safety of certain populations. It is clear that if the Security Council wants to function as is intended by its founders, the voting powers must be distributed more equitably among the UN member states. This very critical note aside, the Security Council intervenes in some situations to protect civil population when a state is unable or unwilling to protect them, as is shown in the case of South-Sudan. The following question is, of course, will this action minimize or halt the violence. The UN human right protection systems involve many other organs than the Security Council and the Special Advisor. Their role, work and the success of their actions on the ground will be discussed in the following articles of this series.

“There is no way that I am going to be a bystander” – Interview with Professor Samuel Totten on the Nuba Mountains in Sudan

Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY
Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY

Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY

By Iona Mulder -

The Nuba Mountains are situated in the South of Sudan, near the newly formed border with South Sudan (see map). Even though the area does not have a high population rate, it is home to fifty-two different tribes, all with a different tongue. While Muslims and Christians have always lived in peaceful coexistence, the region has been in conflict with the central Islamic government in Sudan for decades. During the civil war (1983-2005) against the Northern government, the Nuba people chose the side of the Southern military coalition (the SPLA), but the Nuba region remained part of the North after Sudan was split up into two new nations.

To achieve a more thorough understanding on the conflict in the Nuba Mountains I have contacted Samuel Totten, a renowned professor in genocide studies and a specialist on this specific subject. During this interview he explained that he became familiar with the Nuba region by coincidence, but that he soon decided to dedicate his lifework to the region and its people. In this interview (part text, part audio) he explains how he became familiar with the region, the (inter-)national politics with regard to the conflict, how he perceives the cultural and social relations between the Nuba people, and his ideas about the future of the Nuba region and its people.

Question 1: How did you become acquainted with the Nuba region and what did you experience during your travels in the area?

Listen to how he got to know the Nuba Mountains and the people living there…

 Continue….

In January 2011, I was doing research in the region on the atrocities that occurred in the Nuba region in the 1990ties – a tragic part of their history, which I defined as a genocide by attrition. While I was there a new conflict between the people of the Nuba region and the Northern government started. The Nuba people were outraged that they were not allowed to veto the referendum about the split up of Sudan into two nations since the rest of the people of the South were allowed to do so. The referendum was a means to vote and decide whether the South would remain with Sudan or not. In the end, it was decided that the South would create its own new nation. However, during negotiations between the North, the South and some international parties who were involved, it was decided that the Nuba region remained part of the North.

Out of the conversations I had with the Nuba people at that time it became clear that they were highly aggravated about this decision and were ready to fight to avoid becoming part of the North. Many of the Nuba people said: “we know that we are not going to be treated right and therefore we are ready to pick up our weapons”. Most of them were convinced that they would be better fighters than during the last civil war, because they had gained experience fighting together with the SPLA [read more about the SPLA in my first article]. The Nuba told me that they were not just fighting for their independence. Their fight was aimed to achieve a much greater goal: to overthrow the Northern Government in Khartoum, the capital city of Northern Sudan, and to establish their own government. Thus in June 2011, the war between the Nuba people and the Northern Government broke out, and the government started to attack villages with Antonov bombers.

After June 2011 I felt compelled to go back for two reasons. First of all, I had made a lot of friends in the Nuba region so I was concerned about the wellbeing of a lot of people. Secondly, I wanted to continue my research on the genocide by attrition that occurred there in the 1990ties. In June 2012 there was another reason that made me decide to go back. I had heard strong rumors that both the US government and the UN were considering the possibility of establishing a humanitarian corridor. This would enable them to bring food up to the people that were forced to live in caves as their farms were being bombed. Such a mission was of central importance to prevent the Nuba people from starving to death; it was impossible for the Nuba people to grow food in the caves since the mountains existed out of solid rock.

However, by May 2013, nothing had happened. Because neither the UN nor the US had acted, I decided that there was no way that I was going to be a bystander, because I actually knew what was happening. Since I am also one of the few people that knows in detail what has happened in the 1990ties, when these people starved by the thousands, I found this was the opportunity for me to either really act on the behalf of other people or to get out of this field entirely. How can I write about this subject, know what is happening, and still be a hypocrite and not go?

Question 2: In one of your articles about international intervention, you wrote about the importance of a good warning system, adequate force, and most importantly, the presence of political will. You have explained that the US thought about an humanitarian intervention in Sudan. Yet, nothing has happened. Can you explain why the US does not have the political will to intervene?  

The answer to that question is really complex. First of all, the US government definitely knows what is going on. The US acknowledges the issues of the region since the current residence has appointed a Special Envoy to Sudan. In 2012 Princeton Lymand, a US researcher for the Special Envoy, spend a lot of time doing research in Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Furthermore, at my initiative, a group of sixty genocide scholars around the world sent seven or eight registered letters to President Obama, the special advisor on genocide, the secretary general at the UN and many others, about the situation in the Nuba Mountains.

So it is clear that people know, but the US does not have the so-called political will. The initial excuse was that the comprehensive peace agreement (established in 2005) between the North and the South was still very delicate. The US government had put much effort, as did other members of the international community. Also, the war went on from 1983 until 2005 and took two million lives. Therefore it was huge accomplishment that this agreement was signed and the US did not want to risk this delicate peace between the North and the South to fall apart.

However, bearing in mind that the peace agreement was signed in 2005 while we are now discussing the situation in 2011, there clearly were other considerations for the US and UN not to get involved. First of all, the US had long been involved in trying to establish some form of resolution for the fighting in Darfur, a conflict that has been going on since 2003. So the US stated that they were already preoccupied with this complicated situation. Another reason for the US not to interfere in Sudan were the political threats by Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan. Al Bashir stated that if anybody would attempt to cross the border into the state of Sudan without his permission, they would slit their throats. With this statement Al Bashir tactically threatened with war if anyone would infringe on the sovereignty of Sudan. Another consideration of the United States was the presumed existence of a small US drone basis on Sudanese soil in order to keep an eye on any terrorist cells that might be heading over towards Afghanistan, Iraq, or possibly Yemen. It is therefore presumable the US and Sudan made a quid pro quo, in which Sudan gave permission for the drone basis while the US silently agreed not to intervene in the Nuba Mountains.

To complicate matters even more we also have to include the perspective of American citizens, who did not want another unsubstantiated war as the one in Iraq. For something to happen it, the question of intervention will have to go through the Security Council, of which at least two members have a close relationship with Sudan: Russia and China. China has large petroleum interests in Sudan and is selling lots of weapons to Sudan. Russia is selling a lot of weapons. Both of them would therefore use their veto-right to uphold any resolution of the Security Council to intervene in Sudan.

Consequently, in May, June and July 2013 nobody was getting food in the Nuba Mountains and people were really starting to suffer. This was the moment I decided to step up, or disappear.

Question 3: You mention that Al Bashir called the conflict in the Nuba Mountains a rebellion. Authoritarian leaders often use the argument that there are no crimes against humanity or genocide in their country, but that it is just a rebellion, a civil war, in which no intervention is needed. Would you say that systemic aerial attack by the government against the Nuba people constitutes a genocide or not?

No, I would not say that these aerial attacks constitute a genocide. Many anti-genocide activists and scholars have called it a genocide. However, I think this is another example of a case in which the term and concept of genocide is used too easily [See the article of Marieke for more information about the definition of genocide]. I have been there, I have seen what is going on. Similar as in Darfur and during the civil war with the South, Antonov bombers come out and bomb civilians. While they bomb the villages, children, women and elderly are being killed in really horrific ways. For this reason, it is more than a war: the Sudanese government commits crimes against humanity against the people of the Nuba Mountains. Now is this genocide? I do not think so because, in contrast with the genocide by attrition in 1990ties, people are not yet dying of starvation. There is still enough food in the Nuba Mountains for most people to have one meal a day.

However, when I was there in December 2014, the situation had changed. These Antonov bombers were flying over left and right, all day long, plus they had MiG jets out there, that were attacking villages. If these attacks continue to ramp up and if nobody will do anything about it we will see genocide by attrition without a doubt.

Question 4: Could you elaborate on the opinions of the Nuba people with regard to the conflict? Do the Nuba people view their situation as a war, or do they perceive the conflict as an intended massacre against the Nuba?

There are a lot of different opinions about the situation. But most people I spoke with see it as a continuation of the civil war. The only difference is that this time they want to fight all the way to Khartoum. Also, most people do not really use the terms that we use. What they do say is: “Yes, we have been bombed, yes we are forced out of our farms, we don’t have food. Yes, we need help getting food”, but that is all.

Another interesting thing is the Nuba people do not blame the international community for not intervening. They are not asking for the UN, because they think that they are going to win. I think they are at the point where they are completely fed up with their situation. They have been beaten up for forty years now, they do not want to go through it again, therefore they plan to finish it off for once and for all.

Question 5: Do the Nuba people perceive religion and ethnicity as essential factors of the conflict or are other aspects, such as regional solidarity and social-economic issues, more important?

I have come across a lot of scholars who say that the conflict is not an issue of ethnicity, race, religion or culture. Instead, they argue that it can best be explained along the lines of geography; who controls the land and who controls the resources. But to most of the Nuba people I have interviewed, the conflict can be defined in racial, religious, ethnical and cultural terms. They also talked about the loss of control over their lands but this seemed a secondary issue. Almost everybody refers to the Government in Khartoum as Arabs, while they refer to themselves as black. Often you cannot tell the difference by the gradation of their skin, yet the Nuba people feel stereotyped and suppressed by the Arabs. I have heard them say: “the Khartoum’s just see us as slaves. We are not given the freedom to practice their own cultural practices and religion.”

The government of Sudan also tried to enforce Sharia Law – a religious but also a legal issue. Evidently, this is an important reason for the tension between the Northern Government and the Nuba people, for both Christians and moderate Muslims. They want to practice their religion in the way they want. Prior to the government going in and causing what they consider absolute chaos into their lives, the Nuba people  lived side-by-side and nobody cared about differences in religion and how these different religions were practiced.

Listen to the story of his Christian interpreter whose name is Ramadan…

This issue is the origin of the conflict. However the direct provocation of the conflict in 2011 was the Nuba people’s dissatisfaction about their exclusion of the referendum to decide about the split up of Sudan and the fact that they remained part of North Sudan.

Question 6: How do you think the conflict will evolve in the region? What are the perspectives of the Nuba people? 

Hear what he has to say about the future of the Nuba Mountains…

Question 7: One last question: What is your personal plan for the next few years?  Will you continue to travel to the Nuba Mountains to bring food and medicine?

Listen to his plans for the next years….