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.

 

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.

 

The Land of Blood and Honey – Western Media and the Framing of the Western Balkans

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.
Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly build mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

 

By Koen Kluessien -

 

It has often been stated that the history of the western Balkans is “written in blood”. With the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo igniting the First World War, the occupation and resistance during the Second World War, and wars and genocide in the 90s, many people would agree with this statement. However, constantly portraying the region as a barbaric and bloody region has created the notion that war could break out again at any moment in time. Especially with the refugee crisis currently culminating in the western Balkans, many media outlets are connecting real problems in the region with the unrealistic idea of an immediate outbreak of armed conflict.

At a conference in Darmstadt earlier this month German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that closing borders within Europe could lead to military conflict in the western Balkans. “It will lead to a backlash,” she said. Referencing to the wars that raged in the region in the 90s, she added: “I do not want military conflicts to become necessary there again.” As a result many renowned online and print media outlets used clickbait-like headlines such as Foreign Policy’s article “Is War Going to Break Out in the Balkans?”. The Guardian contributed to the discussion with an opinion piece titled “We should heed Angela Merkel’s warning of a new Balkans war”. However, the bold title was immediately followed by a statement indicating that it would be an exaggeration to speak of a lingering armed conflict already..

Fed up with all the Balkan stereotypes, online platform Balkanist posted a poignant blog that does not explain what one should not write about the Balkans, but mockingly stating what you should write as a “Balkans expert”: “you should mention that this “friendly” and “vibrant” atmosphere makes it difficult to imagine that so much “barbarity” or “bloodshed” was visited upon the region so recently”. Where does this urge to frame the western Balkans as a region in which the imminent threat of armed conflict is ever present stem from? Because needless to say, this current journalistic trend that Balkanist is referring to is not new. Popular belief that was propagated by many journalists during the wars of the 1990s saw the cultural differences within Yugoslavia and the ancient animosities between the republics as the root cause of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ethnic conflict that followed. The 45 years of communism in Yugoslavia were seen as merely a hiatus in which the history and memory of the different people were suppressed. The idea of “ancient hatreds” among the Yugoslav people was promoted, with the dissolution of the communist state as the event that triggered the suppressed hatred and latent emotions.

Even Bill Clinton, at the time President of the United States of America, adopted this view: “how long has the war been going on? Since 1991, in essence. That’s 4 years. It’s tragic; it’s terrible. But their enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years.” However, this explanation is problematic. There have for example never been any repressive measures initiated by the Yugoslav government against the ethnic groups. This was not needed as there was no violence or interethnic confrontation to repress. Granted, there were still memories of the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists who killed a large number of Serbs. However, there is an important gap between collective memories and open conflict. The suppressed memories will not be disruptive until they are, for instance, directed by an extremist leader. In the case of Serbia, that leader was Slobodan Milošević.

Milošević reconstructed the collective identity of the Serbs and in this reconstruction he added a collective sense of victimhood. This sense of victimhood would eventually direct the collective memories to the political goal and it would contribute to the outbreak of interethnic conflict. A speech given by Milošević to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the military victory of the Turks over the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1989 clearly showed how this idea of victimhood could feed the outbreak of conflict. At the time the other Yugoslav republics were already shocked by the messages Milošević tried to convey and it would later be seen as a warning signal of the violence that would later come:

 

Today, six centuries later, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past.

 

This lost Battle of Kosovo was a chosen trauma, that had been passed on each generation. The memory of the Battle of Kosovo clearly shows how trauma can feed ethnic pride and eventually incite a group to avenge its ancestors. This becomes clear when the narrative is seen in the context of the war and massacres of the 1990s. For example, the Srebrenica genocide was put in this narrative of victimhood. According to Serbian politicians, the Srebrenica massacre had a symbolic purpose, the genocide was seen as an opportunity for the Serbs to take revenge. Various strands of national history became a source of inspiration for Serbian nationalists. General Ratko Mladić even mentioned this historical importance when he entered the empty streets of Srebrenica:

 

Here we are, on 11 July 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift. Finally, after the rebellion against the Dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region [emphasis KK].

 

This victimhood-centered propaganda continued when Milošević forcefully portrayed the Croats as Ustaše and Bosniaks as Islamist fundamentalists. Any opponent of a Yugoslavia where Serbia dominated was put down as a threat to Serbia.

The nationalist and radical rhetoric still echoes through the politics in the western Balkans. Indeed, one should not downplay the problems that are still very much present in the region and are a direct consequence of the wars of the 90s. As Dr. Jochen Töpfer, expert in South European politics at Berlin’s Freie Universität, stated: the wars of the 1990s are ‘dormant rather than solved.’ But especially because of this lingering nationalism it is unwise to dramatize current events and consequently alienate the western Balkans from the rest of Europe. Merkel is clearly trying to create fear among the politicians and stop them from closing their borders for refugees. However, it is dangerous to create fear among politicians in countries in which there is already widespread poverty and a struggle over the already few resources with half a million refugees added to these already existing problems. Both politicians and media outlets should refrain from these oversimplified statements as it clearly does more harm than good.