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.

 

 

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back – The Dynamics of Denial in Post-Milošević Serbia

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During the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Bosnian Muslim protesters held up a banner with Aleksander Vučić’s war-time statement that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

By Koen Kluessien -

 

2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Every year on 11 July the massacre is commemorated as on that day the Bosnian Serb forces took over the United Nations Safe Area in Potočari. For the past decade it seemed as though Serbia was moving forward in the process of reconciliation: the former president Slobodan Milošević was transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); the former commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces Ratko Mladić is currently on trial at the ICTY; former president of the Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić has received his sentence; and official apologies by the Serbian government have been made. However, many Serbian politicians still relativize the events that have taken place and deny any relation of Serbia to the massacres. After the transfer of Milošević to The Hague, war propaganda made way for denial.

 

In 2013 I was fortunate enough to briefly ask a question to former President of Serbia Boris Tadić. Even though the former president is considered to be a progressive politician, he still relativized Serbia’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide when he made his public apology in Sarajevo in 2004:

 

I apologize to all those who suffered from crimes committed in the name of the Serb people. However, the Serb people did not commit these crimes but rather criminal individuals. It is impossible to blame one nation for this because the same crimes had been committed against the Serbs. In this context we all need to apologize to one another, and if I need to be the first to do so here I am.

 

When I confronted Tadić with his half-hearted apology he responded by saying that he was not able to answer my question at that moment. He explained that I needed to understand that he was no ordinary man. He drew a distinction between his private and public opinions; as a former statesman he could not share his views. Tadić unintentionally pointed out why the change in political rhetoric and diplomacy since the transfer of Milošević have been so fragile. Politicians have to please both the European Union and Serbia, making public apologies a double-edged sword that always have to be followed by a ‘but’.

Although after the transfer of Milošević to the ICTY the content and tone of the rhetoric changed from the  regime’s literal denial to a more interpretive form, the denialist mechanisms remained the same. Much of the rhetoric used by the post-Milošević politicians arose from a narrative constructed and used in the eighties and nineties. The Serb politicians still used the self-fabricated national myths with a clear political goal in mind. Before and during the Milošević regime this political goal was the restructuring of Yugoslavia to benefit Serbia’s national interest. After the transfer of Milošević, Serbian politicians strived to solidify the already existing narrative. Solidifying this narrative of the regime was needed as Serbian politicians entered a political battle for the support of the people. This meant that the few liberal attempts to reform the discourse were defeated in the battle for legitimacy by a political pattern that relied on the inherited nationalism.

After the transfer of Milošević, politicians had chosen an ‘opportunistic pacification of the past’. The core of these politics was formed by the idea that the national identity and dignity of Serbia needed to be defended. When the ICTY and the EU tried to break through this strategy, they applied a policy of combining Serbia’s compliance with the tribunal to its position in international politics. There was a strong urge among Serbian politicians to play a role in international politics through European Union membership and international economic aid. However, a change in politics and ideology would not be accepted by a considerable part of the Serbian people. The government’s pragmatic reasoning behind the efforts to co-operate with the ICTY made sure that the results just barely reached the requirements of the international institutions. Moreover, with the ICTY and EU being more interested in ‘streamlined justice’ than reconciliation, both parties seemed to have reached an unspoken agreement of a mere superficial change in Serbian policy and rhetoric.

From 2008 onward it became even more clear that the prospect of EU membership was not sufficient to win the legitimacy of the people anymore, resulting in a denialist rhetoric that resembled that of the Milošević-era. Serbia’s economy had made an uneven progress since 2000, but had come to a halt when the global crisis reached Serbia in the autumn of 2008. Eventually, the combination of the economic depression, the further rise of unemployment and the lack of a resolute EU accession policy resulted in the collapse of the coalition. The leading Democratic Party lost power in the summer of 2012, making way for a more nationalistic and radical coalition. Surveys have shown that the prospect of EU membership would not guarantee the legitimacy of the people anymore as there had been a dramatic drop in the support for accession from 73 percent in November 2009 to only 41 percent in December 2012.

This drop in support for EU membership seemed to coincide with the Serbian politicians ‘falling back into old habits’. In the past decade Serbia had worked towards the European norms of accession. However, with the majority of the Serb people no longer supporting accession to the European Union and the battle for legitimacy in the minds of the politicians, the denialist narrative was starting to resemble the rhetoric of the old regime. Serbia had obtained the formal status of an EU candidate state in 2012, but with the Serbian media being manipulated by politicians, a weak judiciary, and an economic crisis rearing its head, the political change seemed to have come to a halt. The political climate seemed to become more grim. As Sonja Biserko (founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia)  stated:

 

[Current president and prime minister of Serbia] Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksander Vučić especially, it is primitive. Now this is overtaking the institutions in such a brutal way. The incompetence, the primitivism. Who is going to reset Serbia after them? I don’t know. They are a disaster, they are like the floods of Serbia.

 

The first Serbian president ever to visit the memorial site in Potočari was Boris Tadić in 2010. It took five years for another Serbian official member to attend the commemoration, Aleksander Vučić. However, when Vučić attended the ceremony his visit was overshadowed by the angry crowd pelting rocks at him. Many Bosnian Muslims had not forgotten Vučić’s war-time statement that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Some people in the crowd held a banner with the quote to remind him of his past. Moreover, Russia had recently vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have described the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide. The Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, consequently called it a “great day” for his country.

The rhetoric of post-Milošević politicians may be a more ‘cleaned-up’ version of the nationalism from the nineties, it is still driven by a strong denialist undertone. Especially with the plummeting support for Serbia’s EU accession policy, it seems that Serbia’s path to reconciliation will remain a bumpy one for quite some time.

 

Whose Genocide? An Analysis of the Definition of Genocide

Sarah McGowen/Flickr

 

Sarah McGowen/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

By Marieke Zoodsma -

 

Almost 25 years ago, the countries that once formed Yugoslavia were disrupted by heavy violence. The consequences of this bloody war, as I also wrote in my previous article on missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are still alive and present today. The judgment ruled in the Croatia vs. Serbia case by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague this week was one of these echoes of the Balkan wars, except this might be seen as the final closure of one bitter chapter. The crucial and leading question that led this chapter to endure for a quarter of a decade; did either one of the parties commit acts of genocide?

 

For Croatia, who filed the suit at the ICJ in 1999, genocide had been committed during the three months bombing by Yugoslav forces of the town of Vukovar in 1991. Serbia, considered to be the legal successor of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, filed a counter-claim of genocide in 2006 for the crimes that were committed during ‘Operation Storm’ in 1995 – an operation led by the Croatian army to re-take the territory that had been lost to the Serb forces in 1991. The fifteen judges of the ICJ this week rejected both claims of genocide, thereby ending one of the most bitterly contested disputes left by the Balkan wars. Not only does this judgment open up the way to more peaceful relations between the two countries (as Serbian president Nikolić repeated in the media), it also eliminates the question of the compensation of damages, and spares the European Union the humiliation of having one member state (Croatia) and an applicant member (Serbia) state being found guilty of genocide.

 

The main argument for genocide to be rejected was that “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” was missing in both claims. This leads us to the definition of genocide, which has been controversial ever since its inception through the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. According to Article 2 of the Genocide Convention:

 

“… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”

 

There are several striking aspects to be found in this definition of genocide that can be seen as problematic. What exactly is meant by ‘in whole or in part’, at what point is such a proportion of a group destroyed that it can be seen as ‘in part’? Also, the distinction between victim categories are rather limited by leaving out other historically targeted groups such as political or economic groups. And who is the genocidal perpetrator, the agent of destruction? Can this be one person, a group or should it be a regime? But what has often been called one of the core issues with the UN definition of genocide is its inclusion of the word ‘intent’. How does one prove ‘intent’? How does one connect a ‘genocidal intent’ to the actual events that happened on the ground? As seen in the ICJ-ruling of this week, or in others before that at the ICC (International Criminal Court) and ICTY ( International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ), proving intent turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of this definition, for scientists as well as jurists in a court of law.

 

There is no doubt that terrible crimes have happened during the Yugoslav wars, and the ICJ judgment emphasizes that crimes against humanity did occur. However, the assumption of explicit prior intentionality as the criteria for genocide is often difficult to reconstruct or to connect to specific behaviour. Although a campaign of annihilation might be evident, intent might not be publicly declared and therefore difficult to demonstrate where no proof of thoughts exist. The only expression of a guilty state of mind would be a confession, public statements or speeches. Such expressions are rare to almost non-existent, not even for acknowledged genocides such as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. The court ruling in the Croatia vs. Serbia case was therefore not very surprising, especially since no Serb or Croat has ever been charged with genocide in each other’s territory. In its decision, the court wrote, “What is generally called ‘ethnic cleansing‘ does not in itself constitute a form of genocide. Genocide presupposes the intent physically to destroy, in whole or in part, a human group as such, and not merely a desire to expel it from a specific territory.”

 

So where does this leave us? The obvious conclusion is that the generally used definition of genocide creates more ambiguity than it resolves. Social scientists have been trying to escape the ‘conceptual muddle’ created by the inclusion of genocidal intent in the definition of genocide by using different definitions, by excluding the word altogether or by substituting it for a different term. In the world of international criminal law, however, ‘intent’ is included in the definition of genocide that is incorporated in the statutes of the international courts, thus making it impossible to avoid the problems created by it. As Natasha Kurt, lecturer at King’s College London, rightly states; “Ultimately this case shows the politically motivated nature of the claims and counterclaims by both Serbia and Croatia, which cannot be upheld legally”.

 

The ambiguity of genocide has made it an attractive and thereby misused and misunderstood concept. It is considered the crime of all crimes, the denotation of absolute evil, and has therefore been applied to – justifiable or not – very different situations of mass violence. But genocide does not only consist of the killing sites where the murders were carried out. Genocide is not just an event, it is a long and enduring process – a continuum of destruction – involving many agencies, actors, and institutions. The intentionality of such actors and institutions to commit genocidal acts is, as is seen in cases before the ICJ and ICTY, highly unlikely to be proven in court. Perhaps it is thus time to depart from the narrow definition drawn in the Genocide Convention and start exploring, as social scientists have done, a broader, less political or morally challenged, definition to define the crime of genocide.