#09 Prejudice
Bianca Seberkste

20 Years After the Outbreak of the Bosnian Conflict

...have the prejudices been resolved?

Prejudice is everywhere and all human beings foster some sort of bias against someone or something. It has even been said that prejudice determines the structure of human thought and learning.

As a rule prejudices sound harmless; they are part of daily life and often reiterated jokingly or even coquettishly. All over the world. Prejudices vary – they are regional, sexual, based on distinguishing optical characteristics – creativity seems to know no bounds here. The Oxford Dictionary defines prejudice as "preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience and dislike, hostility, or unjust behaviour deriving from preconceived and unfounded opinions." All too frequently, such opinions are adopted from the direct environment, from family, friends, and acquaintances. If we want to battle prejudice, we therefore need to contend with both the individual and his or her social environment.

"It is pointless to attempt to demonstrate to a prejudiced person that their prejudices are baseless."

Russian author Turgenev took a sceptical view of our ability to counteract prejudice, stating that it was pointless to attempt to demonstrate to a prejudiced person that their prejudices were baseless.

If Turgenev was right with his pessimistic assessment, prejudice can, if not directly cause a war, at the very least fan the flames of conflict.

"Montenegrins are lazy, Bosnians are stupid, Slovenians are miserly, Macedonians are bigoted"

In a song by Montenegrin musician Rambo Amadeus entitled "Predrasude" - prejudices[1]- he sings: "Crnogorci su lijeni, Bosanci su glupi, Slovenci su skrti, Makedonci su zadrti..." – "Montenegrins are lazy, Bosnians are stupid, Slovenians are miserly, Macedonians are bigoted". If we expand the above list to include two more ethnic groups from former Yugoslavia and the qualities attributed to them in the region (here the Balkan Peninsula): Serbs are arrogant and Croatians are sourpusses. Not particularly earth-shattering accusations at first glance and certainly no reason to go to war. But they are clearly quite negative.

A wink and nudge accompanied by the words "Grandpa is talking about the war" are often used to discount the stories told by older people. But what happens if Grandpa does not talk about the war, if absolutely no one does? After the Second World War people in many places tried bury traumatic experiences by refusing to speak of them – a practice also popular in Yugoslavia. A veil of silence was woven and thrown over what had occurred, and coming to terms with the past was a completely foreign concept. At least where it could have endangered the fraternity and unity -- bratstvo i jedinstvo – that Tito proscribed as a holy formula for his country. The process of coming to terms was replaced by an "official truth" of sorts that was drummed into the people. But a hint of something remained, seemingly shared by all sides: the feeling of having gotten the short end of the stick, of having lost, of being victims – and a sense of constant mistrust. Mistrust of the foreign, of the other. Under the mandatory measures Tito enacted to keep Yugoslavia up and running (the prison and labour camp on the island of Goli Otok has become the embodiment of this political oppression) this mistrust remained hidden, though it was never completely removed.

The concessions Tito granted the individual republics in the 1974 constitution in response to the loss of power demonstrated that he was at least partly aware of this failure: he knew that he had not succeeded in planting bratstvo i jedinstvo in the hearts and minds of everyone. Since that old feeling of mistrust could not simply be switched off, people on all sides began digging around in the old historical bag of tricks. Historians like Franjo Tudjman became the leaders of nationalistic groups. Every form of nationalistic argumentation, whether it applied to an assertion of rights or the assigning of blame, was justified by history. History became the argument, and "self-defence" became the general moral cudgel (here in both the figurative and the literal sense). Bozo Skoko published an interesting study on the power of the stereotypes employed. Taking the image of Croatians held by the Serbian population during and after the war, he demonstrated how perception of another ethnic group can change. The image of the "sourpuss" was quickly transformed in popular opinion to that of the separatist, the chauvinist. This served as an explanation, even an excuse, for all the mistakes made by one's own side: the "self-defence" identified above. Similar patterns can be identified on the opposite side – a caveat to ensure we do not accidentally advance prejudice here.

Negatively charged prejudices find their counterparts in the tangentially pseudo-historical treaties that took the place of the old "Titoian truths": positively charged myths. These are often no less dangerous, as they were certainly not here: the idea of the Croatians as the defensive wall against the Occident, the Serbs as the heroes in the fight against the Ottoman Empire, the omnipresent myth of the victim (for Christianity, for heaven, for everyone else...). But also the myth of treachery – the betrayal of the orthodox brothers who subscribed to their Ottoman occupiers' beliefs, who underwent "Turkification" (accusations made against Bosnian Muslims)[2]. And currently topical again, as evidenced by the speech given by Slobodan Milosevic in honour of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Amselfeld in 1989: the myth of the heroism of the Serbian army, and of the betrayal of Prince Lazar.

"Ethnic cleansing" – the order of business in the Bosnian War

The terrible effective power of these thought constructs and prejudices came fully to the fore in the Bosnian War (1992 to 1995). This war erupted along lines of ethnic tension and ultimately claimed around 100,000 lives.

A short review: as a result of the impending collapse of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, the tension among ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina flared up, erupting into warlike hostilities in places (in Croatia in particular) in 1990 and 1991. While the majority of the Serbian population advocated staying in the Yugoslavian Federation and close ties with Serbia, the desire for an independent state was expressed among Muslim Bosniaks in particular. The fear was that in a Yugoslavia that had lost Slovenia and Croatia, Serbia's power would grow too great. In contrast Croatians from Western Herzegovina in particular supported the stronger backing of or even integration into Croatia. In 1992 the situation escalated militarily.

The most haunting experience was surely the genocide of Bosnian Muslims as represented by the massacre of Srebrenica.

The atrocities that resulted have still not been entirely worked through to this day. The most haunting experience was surely the genocide of Bosnian Muslims as represented by the massacre of Srebrenica. In July 1995, around 8,000 Muslim men of all ages were slaughtered in this Muslim enclave by troops from the Army of Republika Srpska. These murders were committed under the command of Ratko Mladic.

Nonetheless – and this is an enormous difference from the reaction to the Second World War and one that allows us to hope that lasting peace might be achieved this time – the horrors were not covered by a veil of silence. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was founded in den Haag in 1993. (Alleged) criminals from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia have been brought before this court to pay for their crimes. Initially the verdicts reached by the tribunal caused mass protests in each respective convict's homeland. Today reactions tend to be rather mild – if we ignore the media's systematic and vocal indignation. Even the verdict against Croatian General and former Foreign Legionnaire Ante Gotovina was met by surprisingly little backlash[3]. It is problematic, however, that the media are still in the hands of those who contributed considerably to the outbreak of the war. We can only assume the very limited presence of an "independent press".

This is a fundamental problem that can be identified in all the states formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, though it differs considerably from country to country. The media stylises alleged criminals as heroes, and reinterprets "ethnic cleansing "[4] as liberation offensives. Collective blame for the crimes of the past is assigned to entire ethnic groups and as such there is a clear and present danger of new (old) prejudices taking root. We'll look at one example:

"But there are Serbs and Bosnians out there..."

It is the year 2008, and as dusk falls (we had been invited to visit friends in a village in the back country of the Dalmatian coastal city of Zadar) we are told: "You cannot walk to the train station!" We were dumbfounded, and asked "why ever not?" "It is getting dark" came the response. It was indeed getting dark, but there were four of us including two men. And surely at this time of day there would be few cars on the rural road that linked the village we were visiting to the small city of Benkovac. We saw no real problem, and expressed ourselves thusly. The response: "But there are Serbs and Bosnians out there..." My mouth fell open in surprise and the sentence ran through my mind again. "But there are Serbs and Bosnians out there..."

It seems that all this has resulted in part at least from persistent prejudices that have dictated the public's perception for centuries at times – and unfortunately appear to continue to do so.

Since then I have thought a lot about this experience and spoken with a great number of people. It would be too easy to simply accuse those involved here of falling victim to prejudice. After all, the entire region was occupied by the Serbs until 1995 and part of the autonomous Krajina Serbian Republic. The war in Croatia officially ended in 1992. Three years later in two violent offensives the Croatian Army unilaterally reincorporated the Serbian occupied territories in the back country of Dalmatia (the "Serbian Republic of Krajina") and East Slavonia into the motherland. To this day there are still active minefields. We can be happy not to have been involved in what happened in the region. Still: my friends were not speaking from personal experience alone. They were expressing a mixture of old, inherited fears with newer – much worse – experiences their entire families has gone through. This example can be applied to all of the widely differing regions in the states that succeeded Yugoslavia. In Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo – traumatic events have occurred everywhere over the past 20 years: displacement, rape, murder.

It seems that all this has resulted in part at least from persistent prejudices that have dictated the public's perception for centuries at times – and unfortunately appear to continue to do so. More needs to be done to ensure that these do not again lead to the catastrophe that went hand in hand with the collapse of the former multi-ethnic state; working through the occurrences of the past 20 years will not be enough. It is even more important to focus on a fundamentally new way of thinking, one in which old thought patterns – and prejudices – are questioned and – in the best case scenario – refuted.

The ICTY is scheduled to complete its mandate this year. As the reactions above describe, this only represents a small portion of the work still needing to be done. Nobel Literature Prize Winner Ivo Andric once wrote that Bosnia was "a country of hate and fear"[5]. If we take Bosnia as representative of all the states that succeeded Yugoslavia which – though in very different constellations – all have fairly ethnically heterogeneous societies, we can but hope that this assessment soon numbers among the outdated prejudices of the past.


[1] He refers to himself as a "musician, poet and media manipulator". In 2012 he expanded his already rather exciting discography by representing Montenegro at the Eurovision Song Contest. This is added without prejudice.

[2] Under the Ottoman occupation a segment of the Bosnian population converted to Islam (for different reasons, though fiscal ones are most often cited). In addition to pertinent historical works like Misha Glenny's "The Balkans: Nationalism, War and Great Powers," readers interested in learning more may find Yugoslavian Nobel Literature Prize Winner Ivo Andric's dissertation "The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia under the Influence of Turkish Occupation" (1924) of interest.

[3] This reverberated violently in the Croatian press, but the public hardly reacted at all. The general's conviction was appealed.

[4] This term first came into use in English- and German-speaking regions during the Yugoslavian War. Since then it has been used to refer to the removal of ethnic groups from distinct regions through displacement, resettlement and murder. As a euphemism for the genocide that occurred, the term is, however, controversial.

[5] In his story "Letters from 1920" Andric refers to "Bosna je zemlja mržnje i straha". Unfortunately we do not know whether Angelina Jolie based the title of her film "The Land of Blood and Honey" on this as well or solely on the paradise topos of a country where milk and honey flow.

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