After entering Srebrenica, on July 11th, 1995, general Mladic said: “I give this city to the Serbian people. After many rebellions, the time has finally come for our revenge against the Turks in this country“. In the movie about the Scorpios, which we were able to see thanks to the Humanitarian Law Fund, we saw hieromonk Gavrilo giving his blessing to the Scorpios before they committed the massacre in Srebrenica, saying: “My brothers, the Turks have risen from the grave and attacked Serbian sanctities. Make your army strong and able to overpower the enemy of the people“. Those days, the minstrel sang: “Let’s show the entire world that Bosnia is our motherland and not a Turkish province”.
I chose these quotes among many others to illustrate the ideological and cultural context of the massacre. I chose these three specifically to illustrate that the context was the same on all levels: from a minstrel, folk singer, to the church – which Mirko Djordjevic said provided the “spiritual logistics” for the massacre – to the executioner, general Mladic. This is why I will try to answer two questions: why the history and the massacre, why the history in general and – why the Turks.
History is the key ingredient of national consciousness and that image of who we are is made based on real and, even more often, erroneous interpretations of the past. This is normal, everyone does it, it happens in all societies, but there is much more of this in societies that have some problem with the present, which find it difficult to manage or solve problems, and to progress. These are the societies that pander to themselves, as is often heard here: we produce more history than we can consume. This is another one of those self-deceptions and delays of dealing with their real problems. In Pescanik, we called it a collective Peter Pan syndrome, where society refuses to grow up, because it seems that in childhood – which, for society, means in history – everything was safer, warmer and more certain.
If we agree on this explanation of why history is important, we come to the issue of Turks. We’ve all heard and continue to live in the mantra on “500 years of Turkish slavery” and I think that it’s the key to our historical consciousness. As part of a research conducted a couple of years ago by the Belgrade centre for human rights, which was later published as the book “News from the past”, Strategic marketing asked a so-called representative sample 120 questions which were prepared by a group of historians I was a part of. These were identity questions related to the nation and history. Now, I am going to present some of them to you.
One of the questions was “In your opinion, what is the most important event in Serbian history”. The interviewees were able to give their own answers. 48% of them, i.e. almost half of them, said something about the Turks: the battle of Kosovo, the First uprising, the Second uprising, etc. The battle of Kosovo was the absolute champion with 22%. Some successful periods of our history, the famous golden ages, weren’t even mentioned. So, it seems that we don’t count successes.
We also sked the question “Describe the period of Turkish rule” and offered three possible answers. The first was “Centuries-long Turkish yoke”, the second was an attempt of rational explanation where we said, “Like every great empire, this had its ups and downs”, and the third answer was “I don’t know”. 76% of people chose the mythological claim of 500 years of Turkish yoke. Only 23% were even able to imagine some other answer. The most terrifying thing is that only 1% said that they didn’t know. When other questions were concerned, about 30% of the interviewees said that they didn’t know, which is also very worrying. But everyone knew the answer to this question.
And finally, we asked the citizens whether all Serbian monuments were destroyed during that Turkish yoke. And 63% said Yes, which means that 63% of people aren’t able to think rationally about that subject and can’t remember the monuments in Kosovo and monasteries which clearly survived the Turkish rule. That myth is so powerful, that it makes them neglect their own experiences. The myth is stronger and that’s why they answered the way they did. This research was done professionally, and the interviewers paid attention to the answers given by men, women, young, old, educated and uneducated. Complete consensus of men and women, young and old was achieved only on these questions related to the Turks. However, I must stress that the young have the toughest attitude towards the Turks. So, our assumption that it’s fading away is not true, since we saw that the young are at the forefront of this.
Today we are giving a public lecture on Srebrenica, and examining the matrix of our learning about ourselves. The Turks are our mental time limit. The year 1389 is the beginning of our new era. That’s where things begin, or end. Turks are the buzzword, they are an excuse, they are an explanation for everything. They are the irrational solution to every real problem. Streets are dirty because of those 500 years. Communism happened because of the 500 years. We can’t manage democracy – because of the 500 years. We can’t go on because of the Turks. We forget that we had 200 years since the creation of the modern Serbian state and could have done something.
If someone took the Turks away from us, we would have to face ourselves. They are the key to our identity and our key excuse. Hence Ratko Mladic’s speech. That’s why the battle in Srebrenica was against the Turks, that was the way of dehumanizing them, which makes it OK to kill them. Hence the relationship towards the Srebrenica massacre and denial of the genocide. Because it’s more than a mere denial. To acknowledge the Srebrenica genocide is to penetrate the deepest layers of our identity. If we admitted that crime to ourselves, our historic perspective would change. Everything would turn upside-down and Matija Beckovic’s „leftover of a slaughtered nation“ would lose its morally superior position of a victim, who, by default, can’t be a butcher.
If we were to move to the other side, become a genocidal nation instead of a nation which suffered genocide, construction of the existing national identity would collapse and a new one would have to be built. Therefore, I think that learning about Srebrenica is a key lesson about our own history, and I hope that books that historians throughout the region are jointly developing, textbooks on the history of the wars in Yugoslavia from multiple perspectives, will be a contribution to this.
Translated by Marijana Simic