Supporting Conscientious Objectors and Deserters in Times of War: an objector’s perspective
A native of Belgrade, Serbia, Bojan Aleksov became an anti-war activist in 1991. Since 2007, he has been a lecturer in Balkan history at University College London. His very personal perspective on anti-war activism in the former Yugoslavia appeared as 'Resisting the Wars in the Former Yugoslavia: An Autoethnography' in Resisting the Evil: [Post-]Yugoslav Anti-War Contention. Here, he writes from the same personal perspective about how to support conscientious objectors and deserters in times of war.
Conscientious Objection (CO) was never going to be easy, certainly not in Serbia during the 1990s.
Throughout history, people have strived for peace and yet our past often looks like a succession of wars. It's one thing to want peace, another to achieve and maintain it. 'Others' are usually blamed for war and aggression, while we see ourselves or our people as victims. We claim that we are defending ourselves from these vicious 'others'. Even big powers and their more imperially inclined elites usually justify their wars as preventative, defensive, 'good' wars, while enemies are only after 'bad' wars. Indeed, the greatest achievement of modern times in preventing war, or limiting its disastrous consequences, has so far only been to set some rules of how to wage war, and some conventions on war crimes.
Understandably, many have been dissatisfied with this partial solution, from the founders of great religions and philosophers, to grassroots peace activists. Grappling with the paradox of how to eliminate the very possibility of war, most have come to the conclusion that the only way to truly embrace and enable peace is to start from oneself, to set one’s own example of refusing war. There have emerged a myriad strategies, from pacification, self restraint and discipline, to, last but not least, conscientious objection, which gained particular traction in the 20th century.
I grew up in the former Yugoslavia, where, for many reasons which would require a chapter of their own to explain, there was no tradition of pacifism. Conscientious objection was an unknown notion even though generations of religious objectors had been imprisoned for it. The war which erupted in 1991 came after years of preparations and a series of violent incidents but nevertheless, to all well intentioned people it was a huge blow and a shocking surprise: after all, we never think the worst will actually happen. Needless to say, without preparation and a pacifist tradition, it was impossible to consolidate and channel the rather massive resistance to war which emerged, ranging from fleeing the country, hiding from call ups, to outright desertion from the battlefield.
I was in the army doing my regular military service and so my shock and disappointment were particularly great, as was my disgust with the war which unfolded before my eyes and in which I was supposed to pick a side. My objection was personal and based on experience. On one occasion we were attacked and had to return fire. I remember that event as the most idiotic situation – we were all scared to death, and no one knew where to shoot. I didn’t even know how to formulate or express my feelings and just wanted to get out. After my attempt to escape failed I was sent to military hospital and eventually released on the grounds of being 'mentally unable to serve in the army'.
Embarking on Conscientious Objection Activism
Back in my hometown Belgrade I wanted to do more, to tell others about my experience and to stop this madness that was unfolding. But authorities repeatedly closed borders to prevent men from leaving the country, harsh legal and extra legal measures were employed against deserters, and the media focused on 'traitors' and deserters from our side as much as on the so called enemy. I joined anti-war protests and encountered a group of women called the Women in Black, whose feminist slogan 'not in my name', and insistence on the moral responsibility to face the truth, speak up, and resist, fitted very well with how I felt and what I later discovered was also a philosophy of conscientious objection. Unexpectedly for me, these women, who were older than me and the other (potential) deserters and objectors, became our most natural allies.
There was a generational divide and gender gap to surmount and problems inevitably crept up. For the Women in Black, it was important that they were supporting deserters and conscientious objectors because of their political convictions and because they chose to do so, not because they were fulfilling a predetermined gender role of being supportive mothers or sisters. We the deserters and conscientious objectors, and the Women in Black themselves, had to think seriously about the division of labour in the informal group we formed, and ensure that tasks were not automatically assigned according to gendered expectations, whereby women, for example, would always perform caring work, often invisible to the public, and men would assume more public facing, authoritative, directive roles.
For many young men, it was difficult to accept the feminist ideas which the Women in Black advocated. And, having met other conscientious objectors from around the world at various conferences, I have come to realise that this is not only an issue for young men in Serbia. Our values and ideas often clashed but I became convinced that we young male conscientious objectors needed to learn and adopt feminist ideas and values. Working together with women inevitably undermined preconceived notions of masculinity too. Sharing the space with Women in Black and depending on their support meant that there could be no compromise in some issues and that men (conscientious objectors) had to adjust their behaviour and ideas rather than the other way around.
With this experience, I realised that having good allies is the most valuable asset it is possible to you can have, and that they can be found, and should be sought, in what might seem unlikely places. In our case for example, the hard rock and punk scene became our most effective method of channeling information to young people about conscientious objection so we also hung out with some diehard punks. Obviously not everybody was or could be happy or satisfied with all arrangements all the time. What is useful is to establish some bottom line when making any political alliance. Machismo, for example, was simply not tolerated and some people for this or other reasons abandoned the group or activism altogether. In other cases we had to work hard to reach compromises and in some cases had to learn that a divisive issue is not worth arguing about: you can just walk out if you don't like loud music, for example.
Having described some of the conflicts we had among ourselves, however, I do not want to exaggerate them: for the most part, we were stronger for being a collective of otherwise lone voices resisting war and militarism, struggling together with the denial and apathy dominating the rest of our society. We were marginalised by all major media and political forces capable of making a difference.
Abroad, despite verbal condemnation of the Serbian side of the war, there was no enthusiasm for preventing or stopping the war. Neither the UNHRC or any other relevant international organisation ever considered Serbian war resisters rightful refugees. The situation for young military conscripts and for we activists only seemed to change from bad to worse, with the impact heaviest on our morale, even challenging something as simple yet crucial as the sense of shared humanity that had kept us going all these years. We needed to be constantly prepared for bad news and a bad reception, but we were often naive. Nowadays, there is much greater awareness of this danger, and even training for dealing with it. At the time, we were kept going by friends from abroad, ordinary people and activists from many countries who continuously supported us. I learned about mine and everybody’s right to conscientious objection and a whole century of resistance. International solidarity was simply indispensable to us, and I believe it would be for anyone declaring conscientious objection, anywhere in our militarised world. International, grassroots solidarity meant deserters did not feel alone, and through the work of activists abroad, deserters and war resisters received the moral and material support they needed. Their actions served, if not to empower, then at least to reduce disillusionment among us. Yet it is important to be careful of the paternalism that can come with foreign support and, most of all, the sense it can foster of being a victim.
Another key aspect of our work was to establish links and relationships with individuals and groups from the so called enemy side. They were like minded people that we knew from before the war or were discovered to us by our foreign friends. As all communication lines were broken we could only meet abroad. Later on there were regular meetings between Serbian and Croatian anti-war activists in Mohács, a town in Hungary close to borders of both Croatia and Serbia. More importantly and again thanks to our foreign friends, peace activists in former Yugoslavia were the first to discover the advantages (at that time there were only advantages) of email communication to overcome borders and information walls. Once we established lines of communication it was much easier, although many other problems between us were more difficult to overcome. We could at least spell out and share our grievances or exchange often different understandings as humans do in most situations. Refusing to accept division, hate speech and propaganda, or the isolation that comes from ignorance, we strove to have our eyes and ears opened to the stories and opinions of 'the other'. Eventually it became possible to undertake joint actions and projects or issue joint statements despite some differences that would always persist.
Many setbacks, challenges and disappointments arose along the course of our activism, the worst being our inability to heal the broken or save the endangered. Despite our efforts, many objectors and deserters remained in jail or in hiding. No matter how much we tried, we felt our hands were tied. When hundreds and thousands of young men fled from Serbia to Hungary to avoid participating in all out war against NATO, we thought that they would receive the support they needed. Major human rights organisations claimed they were entitled to refugee status according to the Geneva Convention as they fled an internationally condemned war and escaped from political leaders who had been accused of war crimes. Around the world, major newspapers and television media reported on the issue. NATO planes dropped leaflets inciting people to rebellion and desertion, something we could not do and something that is strongly prohibited in all countries. And yet many deserters in Serbia risked their lives to escape and cross the closed borders. Those who stayed behind were arrested and condemned to long term imprisonment. Despite all the attention they received and all the suffering they endured, when the deserters reached Hungary, a NATO member, these men were offered none of the protection they needed. Again, the only relief came from a few small antimilitarist groups in the NATO countries, reminding us not to place too much faith in governments and international organisations, but rather in grassroots organisations and activists.
Because of the constant pressure we faced from our political and social environment, and the pressure we put on ourselves in terms of our own goals and expectations, we, as conscientious objection activists, often left problems of interpersonal relations, teamwork, and mutual confidence unresolved. We recognised the need for dialogue and discussion among ourselves and the need to combine and strengthen our individual powers in the group. Yet we tended to prioritise other tasks that could be more easily measured and achieved. Consequently, some of us could not endure the strain. Today, in retrospect, I can see that these problems did not develop so much because of our weakness, but because we set our own expectations, and perhaps even our principles, too high. Thus my first piece of advice to other conscientious objection movements is to be realistic and not too unforgiving with yourselves and with your own communities. Secondly, reaching out for support, including international solidarity, is important, but it is equally important to be prepared for disappointment when this support does not come from the official sources who might make a difference. Finally, it is equally important to be open to support and solidarity from unexpected quarters. This may be an opportunity for internal or personal development, as well as being movemen saving in its own right – or even life saving.