On September 9, 2021, the children’s section of the Dositej Novakovic Library in Negotin was scheduled to hold a promotion for the book “This is My Country, Here I Command,” by Veselin Sljivancanin. Although in the end the library cancelled this event, the question remains whether war criminals had a place in public institutions, particularly in cultural centers where they have the opportunity to present their works, which typically deny established facts about the wars of the 1990s, to a wider audience.
To answer this question, first we must remember who Veselin Sljivancanin is. During the war in Croatia, he was a Major of the Yugoslav People’s Army and the security officer of the First Motorized Brigade and Operation Group South. In the case known as “Vukovar Hospital”, Sljivancanin was, together with Mile Mrksic and Miroslav Radic, accused by the ICTY of participating in a joint criminal enterprise with the goal of persecuting Croats and other non-Serbs who remained in the Vukovar hospital after the city fell. He was arrested in his apartment in 2003 and extradited to The Hague, where he was convicted in 2009. After the verdict was examined in 2010 he ended up being sentenced to 10 years in prison for aiding and abetting the murder of 194 war prisoners at the nearby Ovcara farm. The verdict states that Šljivančanin took the Yugoslav People’s Army away from Ovcara, putting the prisoners in the hands of local and paramilitary forces, even though he could have easily predicted they would be killed.
Since his release in 2011, he has been living and working in Serbia. In addition to being a member of the Governing Board of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, he is mostly devoted to writing, publishing and promoting his books in public places, usually in cultural centers across Serbia. He is a prolific author, having in just several years published multiple books, with titles like “I Defended the Truth”, “Son, Be A Man”, “Honey and Bile”, “In Service to the Fatherland” and the latest one, “This is My Country, Here I Command”. In his writings, as he has stated, he describes difficult days spent in prison and his struggle to prove the truth in front of a hostile court.
Veselin Sljivancanin is not the only one to start a new career after some time spent in prison for war crimes. However, he does seem like the most active one, when it comes to self-promotion. Since 2012, he has had about 30 book promotions across Serbia, mostly in libraries and in cultural centers. Therefore, the public had the opportunity to listen to his version of the events in Vukovar, and more generally the wars in the 1990s, in Belgrade, Uzice, Nis, Subotica, Krusevac, Ivanjica, Krupanj, Aleksinac, Pirot, Brus, Ljubovija, Sid, Vrnjacka Banja, Bogatic, Vladicin Han, Cuprija and many other cities and towns. His version of the events is the same as the mainstream narrative in Serbia – he argues that Serbs were just defending themselves in the wars, that they are the victims of an international conspiracy and that convictions in the Hague do not matter because that court was founded only to judge one side. In fact, what Sljivancanin offers through his books is just the majority opinion in Serbia, which has remained consistent for decades. For that he has the support of the ruling party, which enables him to perform in cultural centers across the nation. Places that were supposedly designed for promoting cultural and scientific works have become places that promote war criminals, and spread nationalism and the ideology of Greater Serbia. The fact that he can do these things so often and with such confidence, as can other convicted war criminals, suggests that this is a perfectly normal occurrence. We can see that they hold in their hands cultural institutions, but also national television stations and most national newspapers. There is no room for debate there, no room for conversation and exchange of opinion, where one could hear about established facts, stories from victims and their family members, or about the need for those responsible to finally be condemned and prosecuted after 30 years. Simply put, in Serbian society every other consideration is subservient to maintaining the image of the Serbian leadership’s faultlessness, and everyone else’s responsibility. No matter how many convictions are reached at The Hague, no matter how many easily accessible facts about the events of the 1990s are released, the nationalist narrative promoted on TV and in public spaces is stronger – because it has the support of the ruling party, the media and the whole state apparatus.
Veselin Sljivancanin picked an appropriate title for his book “This is My Country, Here I Command”. Because really, Serbia is commanded by Sljivancanin and a group of people in power who are also the most responsible for the wars of the 1990s. They are the ones that keep us away from confronting responsibility, away from building a positive relationship with our neighbors, and away from respect for the judicial process and human rights. Nearly thirty years have passed since the wars ended, but it seems like we are as far away as we ever were from condemning those crimes and removing the criminals from public life.
The author is the Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Center.
Translated by Luna Djordjevic