Belgrade, user's photo, Slavica Miletić

Belgrade, user’s photo, Slavica Miletić

I am not a monster, I am a writer!
(Radovan Karadzic)

One hundred and forty-one old men

Over the weekend of the 19th and 20th of July 2008, the town of Key West in Florida played host to one hundred and forty-one — Ernest Hemingways. Hemingways from all over America gathered in Key West in a competition for the greatest degree of physical resemblance between the famous writer and his surrogates. This year the winner was Tom Grizzard, in what is said to have been a very stiff competition. The photograph that went round the world shows a collection of merry granddads, looking like Father Christmases who have escaped from their winter duties, that is to say like Ernest Hemingway. The old men, who meet every year in Key West on Hemingway’s birthday, took part in fishing and short story writing competitions

Another old man …

The following day newspapers in Croatia carried a photograph of an old man who has no connection at all with the hundred and forty-one old men from the previous article. In Croatia on 21st July 2008, Dinko Sakic died, at the age of eighty-six. Who was Dinko Sakic? Sakic was the commandant of the Ustasha concentration camp of Jasenovac, where Jews, Serbs, Gyspies and communist-oriented Croats were systematically annihilated. After the war he managed to escape to Argentina, and it was not until 1999 that the Argentinian authorities handed him over to Croatia, where he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

At that ‘historic’ moment, many Croats saw the sentence of Dinko Sakic as an injustice because for them that same Independent State of Croatia (in which Dinko Sakic had killed Jews, Gypsies, Serbs and unsuitable Croats) was ‘the foundation of our present Croatian homeland’, as the local priest, Vjekoslav Lasic, put it on the occasion of his death. The priest was in fact merely expounding a thesis put forward by Franjo Tudjman, the first President of Croatia (since Ante Pavelic), and the ‘father of the Croatian nation’. ‘That is why every decent Croat is proud of the name Dinko Sakic,’ announced the priest Vjekoslav Lasic, adding that he was ‘proud that he had seen Sakic on his bier dressed in an Ustasha uniform.’ The funeral of old Dinko Sakic at Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb on 24th July 2008 was attended by some three hundred people. Even aged criminals have friends. Three hundred people is a pretty decent number

And another old man …

On the day of Dinko Sakic’s funeral, another old man rose from the grave in Croatia. Zvonko Busic Tajko — the Croatian Mandela, or the most renowned Croatian emigre (as some Croatian newspaper headlines put it) — landed at Zagreb airport on 24th July, to an enthusiastic reception by a crowd of some five hundred people. Busic was returning to Croatia metaphorically from the grave, but in fact out of American prisons where he had spent thirty-two years. Way back in the 1970s, with his American wife, Julienne Eden Busic, he and a few friends had hijacked an American aeroplane on its way to New York, because ‘he wanted to draw the attention of the world to the unjust position of Croatia in the former Yugoslavia’.

This gesture of ‘political activism’ (as the Croatian papers defined Busic’s terrorist act) ended ingloriously, because Busic’s explosive device led to one American policeman being killed and another losing an eye, and Busic and his wife ended up in prison. Julienne was released on the eve of Croatian independence, she got a job in the Croatian Embassy in Washington, and later in Croatia, in Franjo Tudjman’s personal security service. The Croatian army built a villa on the Adriatic coast, so that she would be able to dedicate herself fully to writing her autobiographical novel ‘Lovers and Madmen’ and to her political activities, lobbying for her husband’s release from prison.

Among those gathered at Zagreb airport were Croatian politicians, patriots, pop singers (Marko Perkovic Thompson, for example), priests, children sitting on their fathers’ shoulders and holding their welcome drawings up to the cameras, young people shouting Ustasha slogans (For the homeland ever ready!) and singing Ustasha songs. ‘The Croatian Mandela’ made a patriotic speech and quoted a verse from Ivan Gundulic’s poem ‘Osman’, which every Croatian primary school kid knows by heart:

The wheel of fate spins around
And around ceaselessly:
He who would be above is cast down
And he below is left on high.

Zvonko Busic added that, thanks to the good Lord and free Croatia (at last I am in my free homeland!), he had climbed high, while, according to the logic of the wheel of fortune, his enemies had fallen down. The only person, to comment briefly the following day on Busic’s resurrection was the Croatian President Stipe Mesic (His motive could have been patriotic, but the method he applied was the method of terrorism). Zvonko and Julienne Busic told the newspapers that they wanted a little peace, athough Busic’s lively speech, his evident excitement at finally finding himself ‘among his own people’, and the five-hundred strong crowd suggested precisely the opposite.

Doctor Velbing and Mr Hide

On the 21st July 2008, the day Dinko Sakic died, all the world’s newspapers carried a photograph of an old man with a long white beard and white hair, coquettishly gathered on the crown of his head like a kind of diminutive Samurai pigtail. This old man had no connection whatever with the Hemingways of Key West, nor with the late Dinko Sakic, nor with Zvonko Busic, who was to land at Zagreb airport three days later. This old man looked as though he had fallen out of the file of some Hollywood agent: like a third-rate actor specializing in the roles of Merlin and Gandalf in film fairytales. The old man was arrested in Belgrade by the Serbian police just as he was getting into a number 73 bus. It turned out that the old man was called Dragan Dabic, or rather Dragan David Dabic (3D), or rather — Radovan Karadzic.

From the moment of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Balkan butcher and European Osama Bin Laden, the media were overwhelmed with countless farcical details: Karadzic’s unsuccessful attempts to get involved in football and his derisive nickname ‘Phantom’; his statement that Yasser Arafat was first an international terrorist, then twenty years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize (an echo of Tudjman’s claim that some authority on the Nobel Prize had once flattered him saying: If you were not a Croat, General, you would certainly have received the Nobel Prize); Karadzic’s frenetic 1986 student speech from the roof of the university; his activity as a police informer; his financial fraud and embezzlement; his collection of children’s verse ‘There Are Miracles, There Are No Miracles’; his alleged mistress who also has two names; his website shop where you can buy a little velbing (from well-being) or a ‘cross-shaped composition of the smallest velbing for your personal protection to be worn on the chest’ or a large velbing or ‘spacious cross-shaped composition which harmonises a whole space’; the decoration on his website, a Jewish three-branched (!) menora which is in fact the Orthodox three-fingered blessing in disguise; his cheap aphorisms which seem to have been copied from Paulo Coelho (Man is the most perfect instrument!).

The exchange of commentaries circulated on the Internet and in private emails. They included mention of the film ‘The Hunting Party’, set in the forests of Bosnia, through which Richard Gere hunts the notorious Bogdanovich, played in the film by the Croatian actor Ljubomir Kerekes… And then a friend of the author of these lines dug out on YouTube a video clip from ‘Barbarella’ in which Dr. Durand Durand (3D!) sets hisExcessive machine in motion and performs his ‘Sonata for the Executioner and Various Young Women’. What possible connection can there be between Barbarella and Karadzic? None whatever. Apart from the fact that the Irish actor Milo O’Shea, who plays Dr. Durand Durand, is extraordinarily like Ljubomir Kerekes, that is to say Dr. Bogdanovich, from the film ‘The Hunting Party’, in other words like Karadzic before his complete make over.

Despite everything, this heap of trivial rubbish circulating in the media served Karadzic himself well, in his transformation from a notorious murderer into clown in order to placate a potentially hostile crowd. Intrigued by the farce of his disguise, many people managed to forget that this same Karadzic-Bogdanovich-Dabic is sitting on a pile of anonymous human corpses, and there is a large, silent, nameless heap of witnesses, including the women of Srebrenica, for whom this whole media circus around Karadzic is like salt on an open wound.

The truth will out …

Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Serbian Epics’ – the best and fullest portrait of Karadzic to date – was made as long ago as 1992. Everything in the film is so clear and explicit that this documentary on its own could serve as an indictment against Radovan Karadzic. In the intervening years, Karadzic’s criminal file has become notoriously public, and the new details which have flooded the media since his arrest have merely confirmed what we all knew: that Karadzic is a murderer, sitting calmly on a pile of the corpses of people whom he himself killed and all the time the only thought buzzing in his head is – how to survive. An enormous human mechanism has been keeping Karadzic alive, the same mechanism that preserved Milosevic for years: servants, like-thinkers, admirers, assistants, petty and large-scale criminals, the police, the state apparatus, politicians, murderers, fighters, patients, women, friends, priests, the church, believers, dealers, people — both sick and quite ordinary.

At this moment, many Serbs are lighting candles and praying for their man in prison in The Hague. Ordinary citizens, aging rockers (Bora Djordjevic), members of the ultra-right group ‘Honour’ (Obraz), Serbian radicals, supporters of Vojislav Seselj, Tomislav Nikolic, Karadzic, with children at their head — a boy and a girl — they are all marching at this moment through Belgrade, shouting slogans of support for Karadzic, threatening the Serbian government, The Hague Tribunal, the world. Many Serbs — who otherwise have no idea what to do in the face of a sudden ‘blow’ in their household, when, for example, there’s a faulty tap in the bathroom, or if their wife ends up in hospital — suddenly display supreme organisational skills and political agility: Karadzic has been arrested — a heavy ‘blow’ has been struck against their ‘Serbdom’. Every blow against Serbdom has the effect of an adrenaline injection.

Following the false news of Karadzic’s arrest in 2001, ‘defensive’ meetings were instantly organised in Karadzic’s native village and some other places in Montenegro. Supporters from Montenegro and Serbia gathered, Chetnik songs rang out, priests waved censers around. Karadzic was proclaimed a ‘haiduk’, ‘poet’, ‘fighter’, ‘saint’ and ‘symbol of Serbdom’. People fell into poetic raptures (We will not hand Karadzic over! Wake up Serbian fire! Radovan is a spark in the rock. Whoever betrays the spark be damned! May all belonging to the traitor be damned a thousand times!) Those present were given masks of Karadzic’s face. The Montenegrin backwoods sent a message to the world: We are all Radovan Karadzic, in other words the people behind the masks brazenly admitted their complicity in genocide, both real and mental. The main slogan of the Chetnik organisation ‘Honour’ is: Every Serb is Radovan! — and it could be seen in recent days again in the streets of Belgrade.

Is Karadzic, Radovan, really an exclusively Serbian monster? Let us not forget the fact that Karadzic easily crossed the borders between such ‘irreconcilably different’ peoples as the Croats, Serbs, Bosnians and Montenegrins, he spent his summer holidays in Croatia (making only one single linguistic error, the experts maintain). In the end, if for no other reason, then because of Karadzic’s longevity and his ability to rise up again like a phoenix, one might ask how many citizens of former Yugoslavia were – Radovan Karadzic!?

Children, grandchildren, mutants

The lack of a symbolic lynching of Karadzic — now, when it would have been possible — demonstrates that the problem is deeper and harder, and that it is not after all confined to ‘Karadzices’: swindlers, prophets and profiteers, doctors of the human soul, grudge-bearers who drag out of dusty chests their personal affronts and transform them into ideologies, necrophiliacs, bone-diggers, bullies, exterminators, murderers, drummers-up of collective hysteria, local ‘butchers’ and ‘vampires’ for whom many citizens of the former Yugoslavia have been obediently sticking out their necks for two decades now. The problem is that all these sycophants of fascism — Karadzic included — do not excel themselves in the quantity of evil they produce, but in an invisible form, in the seed they leave behind them, in their children, and their grandchildren.

And those children, grandchildren, mutants, have sprung up healthy and handsome, in the course of these last twenty years. These are the children with Chetnik caps on their heads, who demonstrate throughout Serbia against Karadzic’s arrest. Or singer Marija Sefirovic whose three-fingered sign of the cross spread throughout Europe, although she was unable to explain its purpose (In the name of mother, father and you know… — she tried irritably to explain to a Dutch woman journalist), and who, in winning the Eurovision Song Contest, as she put it herself, won for Serbia. These are the enthusiastic supporters of the ‘granddads, of the Serbian radical Tomislav Nikolic (the author of the statement ‘God created the world in six days, and it took me two to shake it up’); these are the bullies who beat up Gypsies and homosexuals in the streets of Belgrade; these make up the drunken, ecstatic crowds at concerts by Ceca Raznatovic-Arkan.

These young mutants are from Bosnia, they go on the rampage during football championships and wrap themselves in Croatian, Serbian and Turkish flags as in a protective placenta. They are the secondary-school children from Makarska who recently had themselves photographed for their school almanac with a swastika in the background, ‘for fun’ (It’s not a swastika but an Indian symbol of love and peace, a pupil explained meekly) and strutted about wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Über alles‘ (We meant that we had matriculated, it was over, we were above all others, explained another even more meekly). These are the children who appear at concerts by Marko Perkovic Thompson in Ustasha uniforms and raise their right hands to the level of their noses, while their granddads — Croatian academicians, writers, journalists, doctors, generals, philosophers and publicists — write open letters of support for an illiterate, third-rate turbo-folk singer such as Thompson, defending his right to express uncensored Ustasha ideas in our free Croatian homeland.

They are the young members of obscure pro-fascist parties in Serbia; children with tattoos, whose bodies display Pavelic’s face; customers in shops freely selling fascist souvenirs; the ‘brave’ attackers of tourists, foreigners, homosexuals and — Gypsies. These are children who wear crosses round their necks, who regularly attend Catholic and Orthodox churches and Muslim mosques, who hate each other, or some third party, and all join in hating — Gypsies, Jews, Blacks and homosexuals. These are young contributors to chat-sites who, I presume, know of their brothers the young Hungarian fascists (Magyar garda), who rose up to defend ‘Magyar values and culture’; the young Bulgarian fascists of Bogdan Rassata, who ‘defend Bulgarian values and culture’ and for ideological reasons beat up Turks and Gypsies; the brutal Russian children, who beat to death anyone whose skin is darker than Putin’s …

They are members of ‘Honour’ and similar ultra-rightwing groups who lure children with the cheap glue of love of God and the homeland, Serbian Serbia, gallant armed forces, the crucified fatherland and the suffering nation (We need new heroes, Obilices, and new Maids of Kosovo!). These children are young Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins and Bosnians who use both open and closed web fora to sow and graft their hatred and proclaim that the war is not yet over …. The local press, local authorities and local politicians do not pay attention to the ‘children’, ‘cases’, ‘hooligans’, ‘troublemakers’, ‘unpleasant, but understandable incidents’ in what is otherwise the successful daily life of transition.

Meanwhile Radovan Karadzic can stroll peacefully in his Hugo Boss suits into the courtroom in The Hague. His work is done.

A procession of collective shame

The work of the Hague judges is to prove individual guilt in the war crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia and they, the judges, will be the first, I presume, not to agree with the emotional and hazy thesis of collective guilt. It seems, however, that the mere trial of war criminals does not have the power to carry out a real catharsis or to set in motion real social change. For without the admission of collective responsibility there can be no successful de-nazification. For many citizens of former Yugoslavia, regardless of the actual scale of their responsibility and guilt in the recent war, which, we emphasise, is not equal or the same, those who are to blame for everything are always — the others: for the Croats it is the Serbs, for the Serbs the Muslims, the Kosovo Albanians, the Croats, the whole world

All of them blame the communists, Tito and the Partisans for everything. And then the ‘Americans’, the ‘Russians’, ‘Jews’, ‘Europe’, ‘the world’, unfavourable stars, destiny. All, without distinction, insist on interpreting the events — which they themselves initiated, which they failed to prevent, or in which they themselves took part — as natural catastrophes in which they are exclusively the victims. In that sense Karadzic’s schizophrenic fragmentation into gusle-player, psychiatrist, would-be footballer, ecologist, police informer, Chetnik, murderer, politician, would-be Nobel laureate, thief, poet, tutti-frutti guru, Orthodox mystic, into Radovan Karadzic and Dragan David Dabic — is a typical local sickness, the result of a general social lie, a profound moral and mental disturbance, a madness which their milieu continues persistently to treat as though it were normal.

There is a hope that, with the arrest of Karadzic and contrary to what the young mutants proclaim, the war will finally end. There is a childish hope that we will one day come across the following little newspaper announcement: On the 21st of July 2018 – the day of the arrest of the criminal Radovan Karadzic, sentenced to a hundred years in prison for genocide in Bosnia – in the Montenegrin town of Meljina known for its traditional festival of gusle-playing, there was a ‘procession of collective shame’, consisting of one hundred and forty-one old men. The old men had false beards and false white hair gathered on the crown of their heads in a pigtail and they voluntarily exposed themselves to being spat at by the crowd, which this year had gathered in large numbers to participate in the ritual of repentance. In this ritual ‘the old men’ (every year there are new volunteers and everyone has the right to participate in the ritual only once so that all interested volunteers can have their turn) express their awareness of the crimes committed, of the fact that these crimes were committed in their name, with their full knowledge or even with their participation, they confess their responsibility for their crimes and apologise wholeheartedly to their victims.

July 2008

Dubravka Ugresic, born 1949, is Croatian literary scholar and writer. During the Bosnian war, her strong anti-war stance and criticiscm of both Croatian and Serbian nationalism meant she was branded a traitor and ostracised by the media, politicians, fellow writers and anonymous citizens. She eventually left the country in 1993. Her novels have been translated into twenty languages and her essays published in major international newspapers and magazines. She is currently based in Amsterdam where she works as a freelance writer.

This article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 16 August 2008.

Translation (published on done by Celia Hawkesworth. She has translated two of Dubravka Ugresic’s books into English for Weidenfeld and Nicolson publishers: ‘The Museum of Unconditional Surrender’ 1998, and ‘The Culture of Lies’, winner of the Heldt Prize for Translation, 1999.

Pešč, 05.09.2008.

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Dubravka Ugrešić

Dubravka Ugrešić rođena je u Hrvatskoj. Završila je Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, a u Institutu za teoriju književnosti pri zagrebačkom Filozofskom fakultetu bila je zaposlena dvadesetak godina. Napisala je tri knjige za decu, studiju o savremenoj ruskoj prozi, brojne članke o ruskoj književnosti, prevela je sa ruskog Borisa Pilnjaka i Danila Harmsa i uredila, između ostalog, antologiju ruske alternativne književnosti.

Objavila je knjige priča “Poza za prozu” (1978) i “Život je bajka” (1983), romane “Štefica Cvek u raljama života” (1981), “Forsiranje romana-reke” (1988), “Muzej bezuvjetne predaje” (1997), “Ministarstvo boli” (2004), “Baba Jaga je snijela jaje” (2008) i "Lisica" (2017), kao i zbirke eseja “Američki fikcionar” (1993), “Kultura laži” (1996), “Zabranjeno čitanje” (2001), “Nikog nema doma” (2005), “Napad na minibar” (2010) i “Europa u sepiji” (2013). Dela su joj prevođena na gotovo sve evropske jezike.

Predavala je na više američkih i evropskih univerziteta (pored ostalih, na univerzitetima Harvard, UCLA, Columbia, te na Slobodnom univerzitetu u Berlinu). Dobila je i više važnih književnih priznanja (Austrijsku državnu nagradu za evropsku književnost 1998; Nagradu za esej “Jean Améry” za celokupno esejističko delo 2012). Bila je finalista za Man Booker International Prize 2009, a esej “Karaoke kultura” bio je u najužem izboru za National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism 2011. Godine 2016. dobila je Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Živi u Amsterdamu.

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