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.

 

 

Srebrenica Remembered: 21 Years Later

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre, July 2015. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

Yesterday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and others all over the world remembered the genocide that took place in Srebrenica – a small town in Eastern Bosnia – in July 1995. As much as Srebrenica used to be famous for its thermal spa resorts in Yugoslav times, it is now known to the world as the place where one of the worst atrocities after the Second World War in the European mainland has taken place. During those dreadful days, approximately 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Under the auspices of an UN peace-force, which was there to protect the large Bosnian Muslim population that sought refuge in and around town, the troops of Ratko Mladić carefully sorted out the men from the women – the men to be executed in the nearby fields or warehouses and the women to be bussed to the Bosnian Muslim safe area around Tuzla.

 

Of the estimated 8.000 victims of the genocide, so far only 6.615 bodies have been identified and buried at the Potočari Memorial Centre. Each year new mass graves are found from which the bodies are exhumed and identified. In case of a positive identification, these victims are traditionally buried by their families during the mass funeral that is part of the commemoration on the 11th of July. This year 127 victims were brought to their final resting place. The fact that this process of searching the lost is already taking over twenty years is not only because of the time-consuming task the exhumation and identification of bodies from mass graves take, but also because many mass graves simply have not been localised yet. As I wrote before, the mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location.

 

Last year, WHN-colleague Koen Kluessien and I visited the commemoration in Srebrenica – during its 20th “anniversary”.  Srebrenica and its surroundings were for a couple of days the stage of an international media circus, with the coffins of the victims and the tears of their families as perfect attributes for clean shots. During last year’s ceremony, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić was chased away by a stone-throwing crowd because he – as well as many other Serbian officials – refused to acknowledge the massacre as genocide. This year, families of the victims demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime were not to be invited at the ceremony. As a result, no official from Belgrade or the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) came. Quarrels such as these turn the ceremony each year into a political game.

 

The events that happened in Srebrenica do not only keep a large part of the former Yugoslavia busy, but also those countries that were back then closely involved. Commemorations are being held in the United States, memorial sites are set up in the United Kingdom, law suits are started in the Netherlands against those that are deemed co-responsible, and investigations are conducted to shed more light on those crucial days in July. In March this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced ‘big fish’ Radovan Karadzić to forty years’ imprisonment in Europe’s biggest war crime trial since Nuremberg. The judgement clearly states Karadzić’s direct involvement in the killings:

 

“As the President of the RS [Republika Srpska, MZ] and Supreme Commander of the VRS [Army of the Republika Srpska, MZ], the Accused was the sole person within the RS with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed. Yet far from intervening to prevent the killings from taking place at all, the Accused himself ordered that the Bosnian Muslim male detainees who were then being held in Bratunac be transferred elsewhere to be killed; they were then taken to Zvornik and killed.”
Karadzić’ Judgement Summary, 24 March 2016, p. 13

 

Karadzić’s appeal is currently under the jurisdiction of the Mechanism for International Tribunals, the follow-up of both the Yugoslav and the Rwandan tribunals.

 

For the people of Srebrenica, life goes on as a divided town under poor economic and social conditions (Bosnia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world: 42%), with many abandoned skeletons of houses of those who didn’t return. Last year, I asked a restaurant owner – who earned his year income only during the commemoration – about his thoughts on the turmoil, media circus and political games that were being played. He told me: “We can turn Srebrenica into a museum which will only be opened around the 11th of July, that’s fine. But then we have to decide that that is the course we want to take”. That is what is happening now in Srebrenica.

 

Searching the Lost

Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

 

Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

Photo: Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

By Marieke Zoodsma -

On our way to Prijedor, one of the major cities in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, my host points out over the green, mountainous, and sunlit landscape and tells me: “Right over there behind those houses, they just found a new mass grave”. A couple of minutes later he explains that the men found in the grave are probably the men missing from the village up on the hill in front of us, since there are still so many unsolved cases. It is October 2013 and the  International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) has just discovered one of the largest mass graves of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) nearby the small town of Tomašica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The mass grave had the size of a football field, measured some 10 meters deep, and would, according to officials, hold the remains of around 1,000 Bosniak and Croat men, women, and children – as several media outlets reported. Until now, 435 bodies have been recovered from the grave of which 284 have been identified and buried in July 2014. According to the numbers of the ICMP, from the 30,000 persons that were registered as missing person at the end of the Bosnian war, so far 22,000 persons have been accounted for. A large number of the remaining missing persons are from the region where this mass grave was found, the Krajina. The big and looming question that remains: how could it take 18 years for such a mass grave, a couple of hundred meters from local houses, to be found?


“The issue of missing persons can only be solved if the local community changes their attitude regarding the war crime that was committed” (Karčić 2013). The grave at Tomašica is located close to the border between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two entities in which Bosnia and Herzegovina is split up after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements in 1995. During the war, Prijedor (which was to be included in the Republika Srpska) and its surroundings saw ethnic cleansing taking place on a massive scale – with as many as 52,000 non-Serbs being forcibly expelled from Prijedor’s total 120,000 pre-war residents. Three of the largest and most notorious concentration camps during the Bosnian war (Trnopolje, Omarska, and Keraterm) were located in the city’s vicinity. Professor Pettigrew (professor of Philosophy, Southern Connecticut State University) writes: “The mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location”. Perhaps this must be seen as the most poignant explanation for the fact that not one individual living in the surroundings of Tomašica (and, for that matter, other mass graves) found it appropriate to notify local and international investigators about the existence of it. The three mutually exclusive narratives (that of the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims) about what happened during the war, who started it, and who is to blame, keep on being perpetuated in Bosnian society today. One of the key ingredients of the Bosnian Serb narrative is the denial of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina – hence the denial of the existence of mass graves since that would counter fact their story.


With the finding of mass graves and the uncovering of new facts, the search for truth is continued – often even revitalized. On December 13, 2014, local as well as international media reported that 15 Bosnian Serbs have been indicted for crimes against humanity over an attack on a village near Prijedor in 1992. During this attack, 150 Bosniak men, women, and children were killed and their bodies dumped in the Tomašica mass grave. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have desperately tried to reopen their case after the Tomašica-site was found, especially the cases of the so-called ‘big fish’. For the trial against the former Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić it was too late. However in the case of Ratko Mladić, former Bosnian Serb military leader, new forensic evidence stemming from the mass grave has recently been tendered.


The challenges with the search for missing persons is not unique for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Forced disappearances are rife in conflicts and are often used as an explicit tactic of war. They wreak havoc on families and certain villages in Bosnia were left after the war without any male inhabitants. Besides the grief these families have to live through, such circumstances have high economic consequences for rural, patriarchal societies where the male is the main breadwinner. In the Bosnian film Snijeg (unfortunately only available online without subtitles) the ramifications of such a situation are vividly put to life on the big screen.


This year, 2015, the 20th commemoration of the ending of the Bosnian war will be held – the silence of those missing looming over the ceremonies. For the people in the small village up on that hill in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is what is happening now.

 

Further reading: An Appeal for Truth: The Human Rights Chamber and the Search for Missing Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hikmet Karčić (2013)