“The truth is important for future generations!”

Slavenka Drakulić about the war of aggression in Ukraine and her experiences of the Yugoslav Wars: The important reason why war crimes must be prosecuted is to corroborate the truth about this war.

Renowned Croatian journalist and writer Slavenka Drakulić compares the crimes in the former Yugoslavia, which she has analysed in depth, with those currently being committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

In her book They Would Never Hurt a Fly. War Criminals on Trial in The Hague, Slavenka Drakulić portrays the fates of more or less famous individuals involved in crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, based on her detailed analyses of material and trial records of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

In her stories, she refers to the psychology of manipulated citizens – back then, ordinary people who used to be waiters or fishermen by profession had become desensitised and were suddenly capable of doing even the most atrocious things: torturing, raping and killing their former compatriots or neighbours – just because they belonged to a different ethnic group.

“I hope this is my last book about the war,” the author said in 2004. “Who would have thought at the time that my book would be so topical today?” she now tells the Slovak daily Denník N.


Even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, security agencies in several countries had pointed to Russian propaganda statements. Ms Drakulić, you bring to mind that it was precisely the politicians’ misuse of the media that also led to the war in ex-Yugoslavia. In what ways – leaving aside the new technologies – are the campaigns back then and Russia’s current propaganda similar, and what are the differences?

We see the same approach, the same principles, and the same goals. The only difference is the context in the respective countries that employ such methods. A fundamental goal of propaganda is to distinguish between “us” and “them”. If you clearly designate who “they” are, all that is left to do is to turn them into enemies, to deny their humanity. This is preparing for war, where a soldier no longer recognises that he is killing other people, whether they are combatants or civilians; he must be programmed to destroy non-beings.

“The most explosive mix of war propaganda evolves from historical half-truths to which a few national myths, prejudices, lies and promises are added.”

I saw how propaganda worked in the former Yugoslavia. Each of the former communist countries had, after all, its official historiography that was controlled by the Communist Party. The less people know about the truth and the facts, the easier it is to manipulate them. The most explosive mix of war propaganda evolves from historical half-truths to which a few national myths, prejudices, lies and promises are added. Of course, this is easier in a totalitarian regime than in a democracy. The nature of propaganda is, however, always the same and the West also knows how to make good use of it. Do you remember Donald Trump and Fox News?

You have written that the world is paying much more attention to Ukraine than it did to the Balkan Wars years ago. Do you feel that the international community has learned something from past mistakes? Do you expect it to still intervene in any noticeable way, not only after a dramatic increase in civilian casualties?

Unfortunately, we learn nothing from history, or at least not enough. You can only draw a historical parallel with the wars in the former Yugoslavia to a certain extent. Although Putin’s strategy is similar to the one used by Slobodan Miloševič, Russia, unlike Serbia, is a military world power that is particularly dangerous because of its nuclear arsenal. The European Union did not pay much attention to the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, because those wars did not pose a threat to anyone except the fighting parties. In contrast, this war is already changing the political balance of power and people’s everyday lives. Politicians must take it seriously. But whether this will prompt direct intervention, for example by NATO countries? I quite doubt it.

You have written about actors in mass crimes in the Balkans that were handed over to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. What do you think of current efforts to document war crimes in Ukraine?

I am glad that the crimes of Russian troops in Ukraine, such as those committed in Bucha, are already being investigated by the International Criminal Court. Leading international law expert Philippe Sands argues for setting up a special tribunal to investigate the crimes of this war of aggression. It would be enormously important for war criminals to actually stand trial for at least two reasons: it would clearly confirm the facts and it would serve justice. The Hague Tribunal ultimately tried only two hundred criminals, despite thousands of suspects. It was physically impossible for all of them to face such a trial.

However, the tribunal achieved something very important for our future: since all details had been verified in the course of the trials, it was possible to corroborate the truth about the events that took place. Just take the massacre of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. Had we left the definition of truth to Serbia, there would have been no massacre at all. It was only in 2010 that the Serbian parliament was pressured into issuing a statement apologising for Srebrenica. There were similar examples on all sides involved in the fighting. The truth is important for future generations, much like the lesson that war crimes must be punished and that it is never too late to do so, following the spirit of Nuremberg. The only difference is that Germany alone has made enormous efforts to come to terms with its past. This cannot be said of any other society.

You emphasise the difference between collective responsibility and collective guilt, since guilt can only be declared by a court, and for each single individual, that is. What about the former Yugoslavian states – have their societies accepted collective responsibility after all these years? What does a society need to do this, what would Russia, for example, need?

Ten, fifteen years ago, with the wars in Yugoslavia still fresh in everybody’s mind, there was much talk in Europe about the national reconciliation process. Europe supported this process, both financially and logistically. It should have been similar to the one in South Africa: the guilty confess their wrongdoing, and their victims forgive them, all under the eyes of the public. However, this did not work for us, we realised that we needed a different approach – to put it simply, we needed institutions. The wars started from the top down, so it would have been logical for the reconciliation process to start in the same direction. Anyway, ordinary people met again right away, they communicated and did business with each other. They were just not sure whether it was “politically correct” to get involved with the enemies, even though they were no longer enemies. That’s why it is so fundamental that this process is supported by the political leaders in particular, not only symbolically and with empty rhetoric, but also through educational programmes. And that is not what happened here; Serbia’s and Croatia’s history books still look the same as they did thirty years ago under the influence of nationalism. In Russia, it would suffice if they took Germany as an example. That’s not an easy path for a non-democratic country, but there, too, a new generation of politicians will take office one day and hopefully bring with them a new way of thinking.

What do you make of the proposals to speed up Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership? Do you assume that, if anything, it is a symbolic act in times of war rather than a real opportunity to shorten the demanding accession process that the Balkan countries also had to go through? For example, it took almost one and a half years for the EU to confirm Croatia’s candidate status after its official application, in Serbia it took more than two years, in Turkey twelve.

It is difficult to predict anything at this point. To give you a small example: Just a few years ago, the issue of refugees (in that case, non-European migrants) was politically crucial in very single EU state and even decisive for the outcome of elections. And today we see millions of Ukrainians being welcomed with open arms. We would have never thought that we would see another war in Europe with Russia being the aggressor, not to mention the threat to use nuclear weapons.

“One thing is certain: this war is changing our lives here and now, in economic, ecological and perhaps even political terms – through a shift to the right across the continent. Europe will arm up, that alone is bad enough, I don’t think we need to make any more predictions.”

For the time being, the EU appears as united as rarely before, and NATO also seems to be reviving. It is precisely in the course of the war that Ukraine is finally shaping its own national identity, the exact opposite of what Russia wanted to achieve. So far, we have never seen accelerated accession negotiations, but that, too, could possibly change. One thing is certain: this war is changing our lives here and now, in economic, ecological and perhaps even political terms – through a shift to the right across the continent. Europe will arm up, that alone is bad enough, I don’t think we need to make any more predictions.

Original in Slovak. First published on 25 April 2022 on Dennik N.
Translated from German into English by Barbara Maya.

This text is protected by copyright: © Lucia Virostková / DENNIK N. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team. Copyright information on pictures and graphics are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Eleven unidentified bodies exhumed from a mass grave were buried in Bucha, Ukraine on Thursday, 11 August 2022. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky / AP / picturedesk.com

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