barry_king (barry_king) wrote,

Admit You're the Rabbit

I have a colleague, Peter Lippman, who is a curious mixture of human rights advocate and journalist, kind of a Joe Sacco who doesn't do comics. His travels and writings on Bosnia are extensive, nuanced, and thoughtful. He's a witness in the best sense of the word, and still goes Back to B-H twenty years later to see how things are progressing.

Every once in a while, he sends out his latest writings. One of them came in today, and in it he documents an interesting conversation on collective guilt, how it relates to war crimes. It feels very relevant to me today.

I can never forget that people are just people, inclined to take care of themselves before taking care of others. Religion and philosophy tell us not to behave that way, but we don't listen. Or we try, but it's hard. My point here is that I find it understandable when people keep their heads down while crimes are going on. I just wish they wouldn't.

Back in October I was sitting in the old section of Sarajevo with my friend Hikmet, the Višegrad activist I've mentioned before. In that city, terrible abuses took place in 1992, with mass expulsion, mass execution, throwing people into the Drina River and shooting them, and locking people in houses and setting them on fire. For all practical purposes Višegrad, whose population was once more than fifty percent Muslim, is now empty of Muslims.

Hikmet told me, "I believe that the people of Višegrad are guilty. Višegrad is a small town. Everyone knew what was happening. Everyone knew who was running things. No one did anything. Now, someone could at least be anonymously informing the authorities about the mass graves. Someone did that in Foča and 55 remains were found. But no one has done that in Višegrad. They are all guilty. I think Višegrad should be punished. If we [the Bosniak population of Višegrad] are not allowed to live there, the people of Višegrad should not be allowed to live well. And they aren't - people are leaving."

These were the words of Hikmet. When he spoke of punishing the entire town of Višegrad because they were "all guilty," I felt uncomfortable because I oppose collective punishment on principle. This tactic, used in war and in low-intensity conflicts over the millennia, has been outlawed, but it is still widely practiced.

I contemplate my own involvement in wrongs that are being done, for example, in the vast US financial support for Israel's atrocious, long-term mistreatment of the Palestinians. I don't like to feel guilty and I don't respond well to shaming. But I am embarrassed by US policies in general. I prefer to ward off a sense of guilt by being responsible, by trying to take responsibility, as an activist, to make these things stop.

Other human rights activists that I know have different answers. One prominent leftist commentator, John Gerassi, was a professor at Queens College in New York a couple of decades ago when I studied there. He told me, "The IRA has the right to attack British civilians because they are upholding a fascist regime in Northern Ireland."

I wasn't comfortable with this reasoning. And for that matter, the Palestine solidarity organization that I work with explicitly condemns the targeting of civilians as a tactic, as perpetrated by any side.

I had the chance to talk to Hikmet about these same questions again a few weeks later, and he had the opportunity to elaborate. I said, "Aren't we Americans just as guilty with regard to Palestine as the Serbs of Višegrad were for what happened in 1992? It's being done with our tax money."

Hikmet answered, "You can't compare Americans' responsibility in Palestine with the local Serbs' responsibility in Višegrad. You don't see what's going on directly. You didn't witness what happened in Fallujah, in Iraq. In Višegrad, people saw the houses burning. These things happened in their own neighborhoods. People who live there are directly responsible for what happened because no one has come forth to say who robbed the people, and who burned the houses."

Q: Are you saying that people know what happened and who did what?
A: "Višegrad is a small place, especially the center of town where some of these things happened. The deportations happened from the center of the city. They would bring in five or six buses, round people up, and deport them. Say you're a Serb and you're going to the store to buy eggs and bread. That Serb saw his neighbor being expelled. He knows who drove that bus. How is it possible to do nothing, and to say nothing, if you knew that neighbor for thirty years?

"There were a couple of cases where some Serbs said to their neighbors, 'There will be killing tomorrow.' Someone took and guarded some Muslim children for a year, and took care of them.

"In another situation, there were 25,000 people who took part in the conquest of Srebrenica. Ok, their children didn't understand what those soldiers were doing. But didn't any of their wives ask what they were doing, what they had done?

"On the 17th of July in 1995 [after the fall of Srebrenica], civilians came to Srebrenica and looted the town. There were grandmothers who came and carted televisions away in wheelbarrows.

"You can't compare that kind of direct involvement and guilt to the responsibility of the Americans for what's going on in Palestine or Iraq. A better comparison would be what happened when the Japanese were rounded up in the US during World War II and taken off to the internment camps. How did people react then?

"I would like to see those Serbs of Višegrad punished, not to be able to live well, at least economically. Their hope is that tourism will save Višegrad. We can campaign against that tourism. They are creating a 'new Višegrad,' one that has erased any influence from the Ottoman period.

"In Višegrad the komunalci, the city sanitation agencies, were those who cleared away the bodies from the streets. This was an institutionalized project, coordinated by a bureaucracy. And in Vlasenica there are official, stamped documents ordering the war crimes.

"Whoever wanted to leave Višegrad had to get a stamped document of permission to leave. There were only three officials who could provide this document. There was one family that tried to stay, by signing a document of loyalty to SDS. They signed. They were killed about a month later. One of the children escaped with that loyalty document, that's how we know about it.

"So you can understand why I don't think people are innocent there. Everyone in the municipal infrastructure was involved. And in the hospital, doctors refused to treat wounded Muslims. Some Muslims were taken away from the hospital and killed. There was one man who escaped from the hospital, through a window, that's how we know these things happened."

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