Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

The post-genocide society

Dr Janja Bec-Neumann

sociologist, genocide researcher, author and lecturer


I would like to focus and somehow go back to the topic 'Post-genocide society'. How do we live after genocide? For those who survived and for new generations. I think that this traumatic event is transgenerational. I am the third generation after the Holocaust in my family. My grandfather was killed, executed in the concentration camp Semlin (Zemun), near Belgrade, where the whole Jewish community, 90% of them, disappeared, was killed. I am not a direct victim. I am not a survivor. My mother is a survivor. But I am the third generation affected, until now, with this trauma and with this pain. And I believe, deeply, after all those years that I am involved in this topic, that we have to talk about it. We have to listen, because in my family we had what we in sociology call a ‘double wall of silence’. That is when the side of survivors doesn't talk about their experience in order to protect the children from the pain and suffering which they've escaped or survived. In one moment children are growing up very quickly, you know that. Children have the possibility to listen to different stories and they are asking questions: 'What's happened? Tell me what's happened.' And without an answer from the mother, from parents, from society, from this gallery, from Hasan Nuhanovic, from books, from Goldstone – we, the children, myself when I was a child or you now – we close our wall. And this process is called 'double wall of silence'. I wish that you break, that you shatter the silence. It's not easy, but it's better to know that wars are terrible. It's even more terrible not to know anything about these wars. This is a sentence from Dan Bar-On, my colleague and my partner. We’ve worked together and together we have established the course "War Crimes, Genocide and Memories" at the University of Hamburg in 2002, together with professor Riedesser. Dan Bar-On and professor Riedesser are not alive, but the course has some results and impacts. You can find more about that.

I think that it's very important to learn, especially survivors and all who are indirect victims after genocide in Srebrenica, and to establish one new culture we didn't have until now. I repeat, the role of the ICTY with all its mistakes – and we can organize ten, hundred conferences about that – is important. I deeply believe that without the ICTY, in 1993 and not today - the time is very important, kairos is very important, the Greeks had two words for time: kairos and chronos, kairos is the time when we have to do something in the right moment. And it was kairos for us to talk about that, to collect evidence, with all obstacles, but I don't want to open that question because we don't have time. To work it through - this is the new culture. And to say: 'Yes, it's painful for me. It's painful for me and I want to talk about it. I want to know and I want to understand.'
The first level of the process of working it through, psychologically and emotionally, is what we are doing now - to listen and to collect the evidence about violent acts which are part of our life today. This is the first level and it is very important to have facts, evidence and to establish what has really happened with my family, with my community, with my village, with people who are part of my life, or to societies on micro and macro level. The second step is that we have to put violent events, traumatic events, individual or collective, in a frame: historical, religious, ethical, moral or emotional. With a frame we can apply this understanding. First we have information, after that we have knowledge and then we have understanding. Without a frame, without context, it's very problematic to define in which way we are going.

The third level is a very strong emotional reaction. The fourth level is a very strong contra-emotional reaction from another side, let's say in a conflict. And the fifth level, the one I want, is the one this society, this post-genocide region, once will have. This is the time when we could liberate ourselves from pain or from events and the persons who provoked our pain and our trauma. This is a short model how to work through the trauma, especially in this region. I mentioned in the first part that this region didn't work through trauma for centuries in a culture of silence and a culture of lying and manipulation. I think this is very important.

I don’t have much time, less than in the first part, but I would like to open the question about reconciliation. I think that we live now in an environment – and I'm talking more about you, the next generation – where everyone in using this word: reconciliation, with or without understanding what it means, sometimes to abuse or manipulate people etc. Reconciliation in not a term from the social science discourse. Reconciliation is from the religious discourse. Reconciliation is a term from the religious discourse applied in the social sciences and even more in politics, in everyday life politics. What is more difficult to understand is that reconciliation exists only in Christianity: Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. Reconciliation as a word does not exist in Islam and Judaism. I mentioned the genocide in Guatemala against the Mayan people and I mentioned the genocide in Cambodia against the Khmer people. In both languages the word 'reconciliation' does not exist. They use the word 'healing'. Healing by knowing what has happened and healing through the heart. The Khmer language and the Mayan language are totally different languages, but the practice is similar. Genocide as a social practice creates new categories, new words, and you know about that, as well.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was possible in South Africa because of the great leader, Nelson Mandela, what prosecutor and judge Goldstone already mentioned. I'm afraid that we don't have such leaders in this moment or maybe I cannot see them, because almost the same political elite is now in the top positions, if not the same people with the same ideology. Your generation has a very difficult legacy. I really wish you to work through and to find the way for healing after this long trauma.

I want to share with you also a positive experience, my own experience. I told you I am coming from Vojvodina. I was born there and I declare myself as ‘Vojvodjanka’. In the last census, about 40.000 of us are a new category of reality. About 40.000 of us declared ourselves in the census as ‘Vojvodjani’.

I would like to share with you something very important. In the process of healing, I think, it's important to know that 200.000 of us left because we didn't want to apply our potential for violence and killing against our former country citizens. We were citizens of the same state. 200.000 not 20. Raphael Lemkin, the father the Genocide Convention said: 'The numbers are very significant.' It means that so many people, not twenty, not thirty, that is important as well, but 200.000 of us left and didn't come back, in order not to participate in what we felt could happen. We didn't know that.

I would like to share with you a true short story. In the village Tresnjevac, we could translate the name as 'the village of cherries', near the border with Hungary, in May, in this time, approximately in the beginning of May, already 200 men from this village were mobilized for the war in Bosnia. They were mobilized and six women, who were not organized and who were without a plan, from a local ambulance and local kindergarten, stopped the buses and the men were not sent to the war in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, in Gorazde, in Srebrenica and all those places. It would be a good end of my speech to tell you about the brave men and women who didn’t want to go. But within few hours the village of Tresnjevac was in the siege, surrounded by 92 military tanks for three months. Because they were so scared, this top political and military elite, of this movement of deserting which was born in this village. Many of them were in prison after military trials, some of them committed suicide and the great majority left. And I see in this deserting movement in Vojvodina a grain of hope that you can trust us, that we are not going to betray you again. And for me, this is better than reconciliation. We have to create an atmosphere that you can trust us again with our proof that we are not going to betray you again and again. And this is my message to you today: to reflect, to trust, to listen and to talk. Thank you.

Janja Bec-Neumann, Germany & Vojvodina-Serbia
Born in the house on the Danube in Zemun/Semlin. B.Sc. in Engineering in Technology, University of Belgrade and Ph.D. in Sociology, University of Zagreb, University of Cambridge and ILO-International Labor Organization. Since 1991 anti-war activist and since 1994 anti-genocide researcher, writer and professor. Author and co-founder, together with Dan Bar-On , University David Ben Gurion, Beer Sheva and Peter Riedesser, University of Hamburg, of MA course “War Crimes, Genocide and Memories: The Roots of Evil, I want to Understand”, the first such a course in post-genocide societies of former Yugoslavia; University of Sarajevo (2002-2007), IUC-Inter University Centre, Dubrovnik (2003-2008), University of Hamburg (2005-2006). Author and co-founder, together with Women in Black, of “Sophie Scholl School-We will not be silent” (Belgrade, 2012)

Books: ”Why the Wars in Yugoslavia?” ( 1993), “Shattering of the Soul”(1997), “Sewing up the Blue” (2002), “Archipelago Atlantis” (2004), “Darkness at Noon: War Crimes, Genocide and Memories”(2007), “Talks with Richard Goldstone” (2007), “Talks with Luis Moreno Ocampo” (2008) “La Destruccion del Alma” (2013)
Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Nominated for Peace Prize of German Booksellers 2014. Nominated for Raphael Lemkin Prize 2015. Citizen of honor of municipality Kljuc 2005.