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Event Recap: War Crimes, Youth Activism and Memory in the Balkans

Yesterday I attended an interesting event on ‘War Crimes, Youth Activism and Memory in the Balkans.’ Much of what I know about young people seeking out transitional justice mechanisms stems from my experience with youth in the Tamil Diaspora, who are currently leading efforts to promote international investigations into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Attending this event was especially interesting to learn how other youth are engaged on this topic.

Credit: AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic

Credit: AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic

Arnaud KurzeTerm Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University 

Arnaud’s presentation focused on a chapter from a book he will be publishing on ‘Justice Beyond Borders: The Politics to Democratize Human Rights in the Post-Conflict Balkans.’ In 1989 the Soviet Union imploded and gave way to independent states through peaceful means. Mostly in the former Yugoslavia, this turned into a bloodbath over the span of a decade. While the war not only damaged cultural and historic sites, it also cost over 140,000 people their lives. Long before the international community were able to put feet on the ground to intervene, experts and lawyers and diplomats tried to solve and stop the war by peaceful means.

In 1993, a United Nations Security Council resolution created the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  The legacy of that court is tremendous in terms of humanitarian and international law with defining issues on rape, genocide, and joint criminal enterprise. It also created a spillover effect with domestic war crimes and prosecution in Bosnia. In a span of 20 years, the ICTY had over 160 accused, whereas the court that was created through the spillover effect, the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber, in 5 yrs surpassed the number of cases to 166.

While the initial mission was to bring sustainable peace across the region, it was questioned by those on ground, the victims, who didn’t see their demands being fulfilled through that selective justice. We have a culture of building memory sites. Most recently in the last 5-6 yrs we also have a joint effort from the bottom up by different organizations to create a regional truth and fact finding commission called coalition for RECOM. While I was doing fieldwork in the Balkans over several years, I realized there was a new emerging actor within these different groups – and that was youth. Youth were foot soldiers for the RECOM campaign to get signatures to establish that commission. Because of the existence of these movements, there’s a new and deliberative space being created.

Research on Post-Conflict Justice in Former Yugoslavia Has Been Primarily State-Centric

Research on the former Yugoslavia, when it comes to transitions and post conflict justice, has been highly dominated by research that is state centric. We look at state institutions and look at main key actors in government or through the international community.  Although there’s research on civil society, there’s not a monograph yet on the issue of post-conflict justice. That’s why it’s really important to take a new stance to complement what’s been done and to understand more closely the dynamics between these different actors.

A lot of times we look at youth as the problem child — what can we do to integrate youth back into society after trauma? I would like to open up a discussion on the role and importance of youth and show how they’ve created a new space that is important and fragile and also problematic at times when it comes to dealing with the past across that region.

It’s important to have a specific design and methodology when one grapples with these newer research questions when we look at youth, they might not necessarily have a computer anymore. They run around with their smartphones and text and twitter and post on facebook and communicate via these means so I can’t just go to the national archives and ask what I can find on youth activists. It’s something where I have to go into the trenches, I have to do participant observation, follow youth around. Some of them do have offices now, but a lot of times their offices are a dorm room or it’s the park bench, so this is a very different setting when one tries to grasp a new actor across the region.

Examples of Youth Activism in the Balkans

Former Serbian President Boris Tadic gave his symbolic support to the truth commission initiative. The problem here is that the symbolic support is a first step but it was necessary to get official support from the government to legitimize the body from a transnational level. What we see here, is a phenomenon, from the bottom up. They are seeking now to work in consensus with the government. It’s almost like a lobbying effort to present ideas and make sure it gets to the right institutional/key stakeholders. That is not the case with youth activists. I want to draw an example from the Sarajevo Roses project. It was coined during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 and 1995 when Serbian forces were occupying the city. Artillery was hitting the city when a shell hit a target on the ground, the blood imprint left a picture of a rose that citizens coined. Over time, these historic memories have fallen into oblivion due to urban sprawl and development.

A few years ago, the youth initiative for human rights (YIHR) in Bosnia decided to remember these sites and armed with spray cans, they highlighted and marked with bright red paint these sites wherever it was visible and laid down a few roses to commemorate. This was highly controversial from hugs and support to minor aggressions in public. This was something very sensitive and the idea was to confront the public and provoke reaction on the ground.

Credit: YIHR Kosovo

Credit: YIHR Kosovo

The second movement in youth activism was the OTPOR movement in late 90s. They got together with the objective of toppling Slobodan Milosevic and eventually succeeded in 2000. The goal here was regime change to a topple head of state and that is not at all the case for youth activists across the former Yugoslavia because conditions and context is different. We are on route to democratization.  In Kosovo, the youth initiative built a brick wall that is the size of an open air theater and filled it with over 1,700 names of victims. Here, it wasn’t only Albanian Kosovars that were on the wall but also Serbian victims. Again, it sparked extreme criticism and support because societies are still in denial and we have different contexts where society has a certain collective memory about the past and on the local level, these youth activists are trying to change this and spark a debate and break that silence.

I call this a strategic confrontation space because on a local level they reenact and use performance art to stimulate discussion that is interactive. The idea was to bring together these communities and introduce it into society. It is risky – it comes at a price. When we see it in Kiev or Sophia, it started out as peaceful protests and we have performance activists, musicians, artists, who use these tools to make it clear there is change needed in the country. It turned out that the state repression/apparatus was too strong and it turned sour and on the activist side the non-violence also turned into active/engaged fighting.

While this chapter was on the Former Yugoslavia and war crimes, I’m currently able to create and launch a bigger database that collects practitioners, youth activists, online, across several regions spanning from MENA, Asia, and Latin America. I would like to create a bigger tool to understand what youth is as a vector of change and how youth are engaged in these different spaces.

Remarks from Q&A

Using English and Local Languages to Target Different Language Groups

In the Balkans when we look at the youth activist network, it’s interesting that it’s become a mishmash of the local language and the English language. They try to be pure to tell their local constituents about their research and activism but because of western influence some of elite youth activists have traveled the globe and they come back with experience. English in activists circle has become the lingua franca. But it comes at a price, when you look at smaller villages; English is not the main language, so it becomes a problem. RECOM has funding from EU and other external sources and because they were communicating in English at first, they didn’t think to create a message in different languages. Only in year 2 or 3, they realized they had to translate it. Now they’re almost a PR firm targeting different markets for a human rights cause.

Motivation & Family Background of Engaged Youth Activists

My previous assumption was if there was a loss of someone in the family or if parents were activists in the 80s that would incite youth to go on that path and engage with activities to deal with it. While there are these cases, I also saw that there are also activists that were only tangentially affected by the war. They might’ve had to go into a shelter when there was an alarm in the city or they may have heard/seen scenes on TV, but more or less they were sheltered but not personally affected, but they are very much engaged in these issues.

Effect of Global Human Rights Discourse on Local Youth Activism

Preliminary data shows that because of the economic situation, they can’t get a job and want to do something that is useful and a lot of times more established human rights organizations send out their staff to recruit at universities. This is the trickledown effect that the global human rights discourse has introduced over time, but it has now been reshaped and adjusted locally. Through support from outside grants and local and homegrown programs, they might take people to concentration camps and this is something the youth activism doesn’t necessarily have to have a personal attachment to war. Some are only 17 years old and the war was 20 years ago, and they haven’t seen the war.

Distinguishing the Impact of Previous Wars and Its Impact on the Family Pscyhe

In many of my interviews, a lot of times without asking questions about World War II, it came up. That’s a memory that’s very heavy. That was one of the key issues for months. The coalition for RECOM and the truth commission was debating when is the starting date for the truth commission. Should we go all the way back to World War II or should we start with 1989. They finally decided to start in 1991 when the first hostilities happened.  This is a question that comes up and still needs to be dealt with.

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2014 by in Event Recap.

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