Resisting the War in Yugoslavia: Thoughts on Empowerment and Disillusionment


Bojan Aleksov

The turning point in my life came when I joined the Yugoslav People's Army in September 1990 to do my compulsory military service. I had neither a genuine understanding of the political situation in Yugoslavia nor developed pacifist beliefs. Soon after I enlisted, the state of military preparedness of my unit, based in Osijek, Croatia, was raised. I could feel and would soon participate in the dissolution of--and bloody war in--former Yugoslavia.

Because of the tense political situation and their personal fears, the officers often treated the soldiers with abuse and violence. My unit was in a constant state of war readiness, exposed to the harshest drill imaginable, and subjected to numerous interrogations by military security officers. On May 2, 1991, we were alerted during lunch and sent to Borovo selo (near Vukovar), where there was a clash between Croatian police and Serbian villagers. The horrifying pictures of dead bodies and burnt houses shocked me and made me conscious of my situation and the expectations that the military officers had for me. Throughout that summer, this scenario repeated regularly. 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.

As a consequence of these events, I developed a strong disgust for the Army and began to question its role in the Yugoslav crisis. I could sense its greed for power and privileges wrapped in ideological formulas. I didn't want simply to accept my "fate": obey absurd orders, adjust to the war, and acquiesce to the contempt, mistrust, and hysteria that were feeding it. During the summer months many soldiers from Slovenia and Croatia deserted from the Yugoslav Army barracks even as the officers described them as cowards, traitors and enemies. But I could not instantly change my feelings about my friends who deserted and consider them enemies; I could only understand and share their fears and concerns. Their decision to desert was spontaneous and often not political. But by deserting they were sending a semiconscious message to those of us who stayed behind, to officers in command, and to all soldiers and civilians equally.

On August 7, 1991, my unit was ordered to Djakovo, Croatia, to protect an isolated military campground and ammunition and weapon storage. I was very afraid and attempted an escape. I was stopped by guards. Instead of finding freedom, I was taken to the highest officer in command. The next morning, I was in the central military hospital in Sarajevo and was released after eleven months of service with a statement that said I was, "mentally unable to serve in the army."

Still questions remained. Was deserting the war enough? I had come to believe that there was no cause for which I should die or kill. My friends and family provided a positive environment that supported my decision, even as it took time for me to realize all of the political implications of my action. The general atmosphere in Belgrade was completely different. Most of the people were unaware of what was happening a mere hundred and fifty kilometers away. Many supported the war and did not know what it was really like. As news arrived of the deaths of some of my fellow soldiers, I realized what a miracle it was to get out of the army. I was determined not to remain silent about their deaths, but to talk about my experience with as many people as possible. Not only was I persuaded never again to take up arms, but also I felt the need to do something against the war. Thus, my contempt for war, the military, and violence developed from personal experience and became the source of my political activism trying to help those who, like me, did not want to go to war.

Whether and how desertion was meaningful to anyone else besides those of us who deserted is still hard for me to judge. The wars went on without us and it always seemed there was enough cannon fodder for generals and politicians who waged the wars. Some indirect evidence might suggest another view. Serbian 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 the traitors and deserters on our side as much as they did on the enemy.

Back in Belgrade, I joined the antiwar protests organized by the Center for Anti-War Action (CAA). There were daily vigils in the Pioneer Park. We established a permanent office, giving counseling and distributing alternative information. In addition, we organized a peace caravan to Sarajevo, fearing for the future of Bosnia if the war spread there. We launched a campaign to collect the hundred thousand signatures necessary for a referendum in which the citizens of Serbia would vote on whether soldiers from Serbia should fight beyond its borders, but we managed to collect only 60,000 signatures. Disappointed, we remained committed to our cause and in the spring of 1992 we organized some of the biggest peace protests ever in Yugoslavia even as war in Bosnia was in the air. Actively resisting the war, I could overcome some of the feelings of guilt and shame I had for leaving my friends in the army. I could transform those negative feelings into positive energy.

In July 1992 I attended the annual international meeting of conscientious objectors in Larzac, France, where I met activists from all over the world who supported the right to conscientious objection and desertion. I met people who had spent years in prison or hiding or exile because of their refusal of military service. Later I would discover that there were those in Yugoslavia who did the same, but their fate was hidden from the public. There were other people in Larzac who were not directly affected by conscription or war or imprisonment, but they were equally resolved to support those in danger and "to struggle for the removal of all causes of war." Only at that moment did I realized that the few of us who resisted the war in Belgrade were not alone. My instinctive feelings gained self-awareness and became a political stand.

As the war in Bosnia raged on, there were more and more deserters coming to Belgrade and hiding there, but they found very little support and understanding. Women in Black (WiB), a small women's group which stressed women's public resistance to war and militarism, acted as some of the most outspoken advocates for war resisters and deserters because of their anti-war politics. With WiB I collected information and wrote regular reports about mobilizations, trials of objectors and deserters, and resistance to war. We also tried to offer concrete help to those in need. We provided lawyers and other forms of care to objectors from Serbia; for deserters coming from Bosnia, we tried to find shelter and counseling and, for some, safe passage to other countries.

We found little support for our work at home, but Women in Black, initiated as a result of international contacts and exchange, worked from its beginning to establish a strong international solidarity network. Solidarity became our chief motto. Some women in our group came from war areas and we became deeply involved in work with refugees, work that could not have been done without solidarity from our foreign friends. Unfortunately, international solidarity was often misunderstood. Some who received solidarity acted as victims, while others who offered solidarity acted paternalistically. Frequently, we overlooked these problems because we had no energy to take care of ourselves and our fellow activists once we had dealt with the refugees and other war victims.

The most important aspect of our work were the links and relationships we established with individuals and groups from the "enemy" side. Refusing to accept division, hate speech and propaganda, or the isolation that comes from ignorance, we strove to have our eyes and ears open to the stories and opinions of "the other." A special chapter in the WIB annual anthology, Women Crossing Borders, was always dedicated to the ritual of crossing the borders--even between countries and peoples at war--and the empowerment gained by witnessing, knowing, and testifying about "the other."

Other doubts and problems arose along the way, 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 received the support they needed. Major human rights organizations claimed they were entitled to a refugee status according to the Geneva Convention. Around the world, major newspapers and television media reported on the issue. The resisters fled an internationally condemned war and escaped from political leaders who had been accused of war crimes. NATO planes dropped leaflets inciting people to rebellion and desertion. Many deserters 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 needed protection. Other NATO countries ignored them, refusing to issue visas or accept any of the endangered deserters. The Hungarian authorities were left to resolve the issue on their own. Disbelief turned to desperation and rage at the treatment of the Serbian deserters and war resisters. Again, the only relief came from a few small antimilitarist groups in the NATO countries. Their solidarity allowed the deserters never to feel alone and through their work the deserters and war resisters received the necessary moral and material support. These actions served, if not to empower, then at least to reduce disillusionment. Despite all our efforts over these many years, desertion in Yugoslavia remains a shameful act and conscientious objection is little known, unpopular, and legally undefined.

In the summer of 2000, members of Women in Black and I were personally targeted for severe repression by the regime of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. The regime became increasingly repressive as it feared losing power. My friends and I lived at the hectic pace of an activist's life and tried to deny that we were in any danger, so we were completely unprepared for arrests, maltreatment and torture. Finding myself in this situation, I felt terrified and helpless. Indeed, there was little my nonviolent activist friends in Serbia and abroad could do. Despite all the previous times in which we had set ambitious and noble goals for ourselves--and striven with all our force to achieve them--there was suddenly nothing we could do to help ourselves or our closest friends when they were in danger.

After I was released and escaped from Belgrade, the most precious aid, comfort and understanding came from my long-term activist friends. But the sharp contrast between the support and care that they offered and the attitude of some other friends--activists who succumbed to panic, suspicion, rumors, and even plotting--was as demoralizing and discouraging to me as the torture I endured while in the hands of the state security. Unable to overcome their own fears, their insecurity about the future, and their lack of self-confidence, these friends exposed some of our own most basic failures. Because of the constant pressure we faced from the political and social environment and from our own goals and expectations, we often left unresolved problems of interpersonal relations, teamwork, and mutual confidence. We recognized the need for dialogue and discussion among ourselves and the need to combine and strengthen our individual powers in the group. We even saw the importance of being prepared for different roles. Yet we tended to prioritize 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.

Eventually, the Milosevic regime collapsed because of the breakdown of its own structures, the united effort of the opposition, and international pressure. For us nonviolent social activists, the change in regimes opened many new avenues for social engagement. But it also brought new challenges and raised old doubts. The main focus of our discontent, Milosevic, disappeared, leaving behind less visible, but almost unaltered, structures and mindsets that kept him in power for so many years. The question arises, how much did we change the existing patterns and relationships in society? Were we able to use the power we found in ourselves and in our groups to empower others and to influence decisions about important issues in public policy--and even more importantly, in our everyday lives? Or did we exhaust our new-found power on ourselves?

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