Persecuting Persecutors

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

‘Dear Nobel Committee Members:

We write to nominate Nataša Kandić and the Humanitarian Law Centre for the Nobel Peace Prize of 2018. Ms. Kandic and the Centre are based in Belgrade, Serbia.

In 1992, Nataša Kandić founded the Humanitarian Law Centre (Fond za humanitarno pravo) to document egregious human rights violations committed during the conflicts associated with the former Yugoslavia’s demise. Of particular importance were the conflicts in Croatia (1991 and 1995), in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992 to 1995), and in Kosovo (1998 and 1999). These human rights violations came to be viewed as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. The gruesome ethnic cleansing campaigns of which they were a part led directly to deaths of more than 100,000 people, the rape and torture of tens of thousands more, and the displacement of millions’.

This is the beginning of the nomination letter for the Nobel Peace Prize signed by two US Members of Congress. When it was announced in the Serbian media, it immediately started the storm of negative comments. The concerned public found at least three lines of argument against Nataša Kandić and HLC: they are traitors, and Serb or self-haters, regardless of the fact that she and HLC were mostly gathering testimonies and evidence against human rights violations and against war crimes on all sides. The second line of argument was that the nomination came from the US, which means that she and her organization are spies and are working for the CIA. The third, which was never said aloud or written aloud but has been omnipresent in Serbia is that she is a woman and, being a woman, she ought not to interfere in the realm of men.

To start from the end – Serbia is nominally and on paper a society that promotes equal gender rights. Our prime minister is a woman, and a proclaimed lesbian too, and that is great. But, when it comes to expressing critical opinions on the matters of state policies, then it is much more convenient to be a man. There are a few very much hated women in the public sphere in Serbia, and all of them belong to the NGO sector, and all of them have been speaking openly and critically of all governments from Slobodan Milošević onwards. Among them, Nataša Kandić is probably the most hated, but one cannot forget Sonja Biserko, or the late Biljana Kovačević Vučo, or Borka Pavićević, to name just a few more prominent. Serbian men fear intelligent women, especially those who are not afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Deep down inside, in its core, the Serbian society is very patriarchal. It is phallocentric, and it is ruled by men for men. That is why the terror in the public is far greater from Nataša Kandić. She is someone who by ‘natural order’ should not be allowed to speak.

Serbian society is polarized. There are no public debates, there are no reasonable arguments, there are only fights, accusations, insults, even wars that end with annihilation of the opponent. However, the hatred toward the US is almost a common denominator to all the poles in it. The Americans bombarded ‘us’ not only in 1999, but also in 1944. These are the facts, but they were not the only ones. In WWII those were the Allies, and at the end of the twentieth century it was NATO. However, we are forgetting that, while some of the US foreign policies in the Balkans should be questioned, were it not for them, there would have never been a peace agreement in Dayton, and the war in Bosnia would not be over. Were it not for them, Milošević’s regime would have never been overthrown.

The fact is that there were more Serbs than others prosecuted by the ICTY in the Hague. However, people tend to forget, especially when it comes to their own nation, that the Serbs were the first who had weapons, since they received them from Yugoslav Peoples’ Army. But more than that, has it not been written in the Book, the Holy Scriptures to which the attackers on Nataša Kandić like to hold: ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye’? meaning that first we need to clean up our own backyard and just after that we should look into someone else’s.

Still, there is another logic in proclaiming Nataša Kandić a Serb- or self-hater. It is connected to Jewish self-hatred, as defined by, for example, Theodor Lessing, but in the Serbian version of the usage it is connected to the feeling of self-victimization. It means that by proclaiming Nataša Kandić a self-hater, the public identifies itself with the Jews who have their own self-haters, and since the Jews are THE victims of the twentieth century, so the Serbs are also. The proof for that statement lies in Jasenovac, a concentration camp formed by the Ustaša in Independent State of Croatia during WWII. As far-fetched as this may seem, at the beginning of the 90s, Enriko Josif, a Serbian Jewish composer, stated that Serbs and Jews are ‘heavenly nations’, meaning ‘chosen’. These parallels between ‘chosen people’ were very popular during the 90s, based on the historically non-proven and thus wrong notion that the Serbs are not anti-Semitic. This is as false as any stereotype, and the public forgets that Serbia was among the first Judenrein states in Europe at the very beginning of Holocaust. Constant refusal to build a Holocaust memorial centre in Belgrade also proves in a way that things are not as straightforward as the establishment wants them to be. Thus, if one proclaims Nataša Kandić a Serb- or self-hater, s/he means that the Serbs are victims, not perpetrators, and this kind of generalisation is what Nataša Kandić stands against. She and the HLC have been doing all they can to prove that individuals committed crimes, and that certain crimes have been organized in certain ways and should be defined as genocide. But that does not mean that all the Serbs committed crimes, and that all the Serbs took part in the genocide against Bosnians in Srebrenica or against Albanians in Kosovo. Quite the contrary.

The hatred towards Nataša Kandić is unfortunately a sign of how deeply Serbian society is in denial. The sooner it starts confronting its own skeletons in the closet, the better it will be for all of us who live in Serbia, and who have, some of us repeatedly, been called self-haters. But as Danilo Kiš concluded his novel Hourglass by quoting Talmud: ‘It is better to be among the persecuted than among the persecutors’.

Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.