Author: Goran Božičević

ABOUT THE WILLINGNESS TO HAVE A CONVERSATION

Thoughts of an old peace activist

A conversation about what happened, I mean. About ''what you did to us''. If we have to, we can also have a more difficult conversation, ''about what we did to you''. ''How did it all start? Why? But actually, a deeper question: Why?''

A few questions, and I immediately perceive the silence, uneasiness, nervousness.  

''About what you did to us, yes, we need to have a conversation about that. I have never dreamed that it could happen to us, horrendous. What we did to you is nothing. At least in comparison to the evil you did. You, not all of you, I know. Your army, your government, those you continue to vote for, you have never distanced yourselves from them. Why do you keep voting for them? We keep voting for our politicians, too, you say? That is not the same thing, do not change the subject.''

The above sentences simply slipped from my tongue, easy and without any problems. I have been listening to them for decades in different versions. Conversations that take place in persons' heads, in certain groups, conversations that are the same, but they are not, depending on who engages in them.

''When we were in Norway, all of us together, we socialised all the time, it was great. Since we came back, we almost do not greet each other. Everything is the same as before. Why did they take us there?''

The question is serious and it CANNOT be asked: Will we discuss war openly and honestly? The second question is: Are you ready?

Yes, it is true, this question cannot be asked. If it is a private conversation between two persons, it can be asked. It stays there. Veterans gather during peace meetings, workshops, discuss in groups until late in the evening. And that's it. Conversations do take place. Why are we unable to ask the question? What do I mean when I say that?

Because nobody talks about it, for a myriad of reasons. ''Because I am sick of it, because I talked about it hundred times, because I am not willing to share some things with anybody, because I don't want to remember it, because nobody cares, why should I start first.''

There are many reasons, contradictory reasons, meaningful, but actually hollow reasons. We do not talk about the war freely and openly, and every of the mentioned reasons is not irrelevant, but it is also not crucial. The willingness to have a conversation. Is the willingness there? Where is it? What's the problem? The answers lie in the questions at the beginning of the text, everything is there, one only needs to be able to read. I will try to order them, maybe it will become clearer to us.

One, FEAR

It is not crucial, but it does matter. A lot. And that is also its purpose. To stop the conversations. Real conversations. People who survived the war rarely fear something in the times of peace. So, it is not fear, but at the same time it is. A fear we are unaware of. Stoked by those that it suits. The fear of oneself is the worst, the strongest, the most invisible one. If I start talking about some of the things I have seen or done, where will I stand? Will I be a witness, perpetrator or victim? We have given some space to conversations about victims, they matter, and without such conversations there is also no negative image of the enemy. Frequently, there is no compassion for a victim, but rather accusations of others, they are to blame. A difficult, dark and accusing sentence. Unfortunately, this is a fact, true suffering of people is being instrumentalised, quite easily. An accusation that causes fear. ''We are not afraid of them, but rather afraid that things might repeat. This is why we have to close the ranks.'' It is difficult to admit that you have seen it, but have not done anything about it. Or maybe you have and it would have been better if you had not.

Two, WE

The collective. Above me, 'we' bigger than 'I', not because it consists of 'many Is', but rather because it must be bigger than me. People, nation, religion, all of them are big, and 'I' does not matter. Nation does. Conversations are allowed as long as they serve the collective. One can say whatever they want, have a conversation with whomever they want, as long as they do not touch the sacred things – us, our honour, nation, religion. There is no discussion about these. How can we have a conversation while there is a guillotine above our head that says: Do not slam your own people! The fear from your own people is there. For a long time, I was convinced that it was crucial, but it isn't. The fear from oneself, that a person will betray themselves, what does that make them? A traitor. Is there anything worse than a traitor?

Three, SHAME

''I have no reason to feel ashamed.'' I have heard it so many times. Shame is something for children. Or women. It is not for men. Shame is not masculine. Shame is a feeling, we do not talk about feelings. ''I can tell you what happened, give you pure facts, not feelings. That's for wimps.''  Who will admit that they are a wimp? Is it allowed? What happens after the admission? Who will live with it?  

Four, STRANGERS

I do not mean only foreigners, those that do not speak our language or barely speak it and are funny. I mean all those who are not part of my story. What do they want? Why do they ask me to tell them what really happened? Who do they work for? Do they know more than me? Or they know nothing at all, do not understand, and pretend that they do. Sometimes it is easier to talk in the presence of strangers. They are outsiders, they do not know or understand, and they are interested, they listen carefully. It has a healing effect, but then again, what does it bring? One can even talk to the dog, it will nod its muzzle, it is all the same. I do not understand those strangers, it is their fault, nothing would have happened if they had not played their games. What are they now again up to? What do they want? Why should I trust them?

Five, GUILT

Slavenka Drakulić calls it the 'television syndrome'. Everyone was stealing TV sets, plundering empty houses, there are no innocent persons, even those who did not do it are guilty, not all of us. It was during the war. What was I supposed to do? The feeling that I was also responsible, that I did not do what I should have done, that I did not prevent it, that I was like everyone else, is a powerful paralyser. What is he talking about? Should I tell you that I was also beating, plundering, turning a blind eye? It was during the war.

Six, IT IS TOO DIFFICULT

It sounds like an excuse, and it is one, but maybe the fairest one. Veran Matić, the former director of the independent TV station B92 from Belgrade, said the following during a roundtable discussion in Zagreb in 2000: ''We were the first ones to show a documentary on Srebrenica. Phones kept ringing after the film. Everyone was answering, including me. People were mad, angry, cursing, attacking us. I was talking to a man from Kragujevac, and I told him: 'We have been talking for 20 minutes in a civil manner. I see that you are upset, but you are a well-educated and polite person. Why is it so difficult for you to accept that it is all true?' And his answer says it all: 'How am I supposed to live with it, if I accept that it is all true?'''

Seven, IT IS TOO LATE

A lot of time passed, many persons died, new generations are here, they do not understand that period and do not know the people that I would like to tell them about. It is too late, I should have done it earlier, I missed the boat. It does not sound bad, but this might be the worst reason, the proof that we are inventing them, saying anything only to say (to a greater extent) to ourselves and others (to a lesser extent) that it makes no sense to have a conversation. 

Eight, IT IS EARLY

Those in power prefer silence, not trouble. We say only the best about ourselves, and we are polite when talking about others, however, if it is needed – we tell the worst about them. ''Everything has remained the same since the 1990s, parties, people. Look at the people who are leading today. All of them were in the first ranks in the 1990s. Or they swear by those that were in charge back then. Nothing has changed and my story would not change anything. I would only make a fool of myself, nobody will listen to me.'' It is not early, it cannot be early half a century after the war. Say it again, let time pass.

Nine, IT IS NOT THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE  

It is never the right time and place for something we dislike. And it is always the right time and place to get rid of a burden. For all of us that deal with topics such as entering into a dialogue, facing the past, it is necessary to open our eyes and prick up our ears. We will rarely, actually never, hear that it is not the right time or place. That is not said, because if we say it, we give our permission to discuss the topic when it is the right time and place. If it is not pronounced, it means that it is not there, that moment simply must be experienced. How? Let us remember all those 'failed' attempts, meetings, public discussions, round tables, discussions over coffee or beer, which 'never led to any results'. Everyone who is dealing with facing the past easily identifies with this list. The truth is that there are no 'failed attempts', there are only differences in expectations, our impatience, focus on results instead of a person, veteran, returnee, the woman sitting next to us and talking to us, while we do not hear her. All these 'failed' conversations constitute an experience, teach us something, sharpen our senses, blunt our overzealous impatience, prepare us for THE conversation. When we are ready as well, it may happen. Our task is nothing else but another journey, maturing towards a time and place, towards an occasion.

Ten (...)

There is no number ten, nor one, nor two or eight. We do not act according to 'steps', 'classifications', 'logic' or in a rational or irrational manner. A lack of judgment is a powerful skill. I do not talk to a veteran of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO)/Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina… who is… and who is not… There are no labels. Only interlocutors. This is how a conversation starts. Once the layers of labels, stereotypes, prejudices are cast aside, we accept that we do not know anything about the person in front of us. When we accept that we are afraid to know more about the person inside us, that being afraid is ok and that we are analysing ourselves in spite our fear. Willingness to have a conversation? It is always there. Always. This is why all these fictitious reasons against it are needed. A conversation is dangerous. In what way? Can one end up before the court? No, that is not the reason. It is dangerous because it sets us free. Everyone knows this, this is why we are afraid of it. Once we start being honest to ourselves, to our family, neighbours, comrades, former enemies, anyone else, we become free.

What do we do with it?

Live in peace with our imperfect selves. And with other persons. Just as living beings, human beings, live and should live together in peace. Just as we played cards, smuggled cigarettes and lots of other items on no man's land during the truce. Liberty offers plenty opportunities, and many of us are tired, there are too many options, and the world has also changed. This is why we use excuses, in order to stay in an imaginary and fake past that keeps us safe from all ugly things that happened. Excuses are not our friends, there are only tests of our strength and our joy of living that smoulders as long as we live. They are like alcohol, cigarettes, staring at the TV, they imply postponing life. Why? Maybe because many people around us deep down believe that they do not deserve a life, especially not a nice, happy and quiet life. As a result, they are afraid of being set free in a conversation and refuse to leave their prison. ''What do I do with the freedom? ''

Whenever we encourage conversations, we should keep in mind all the complexity that I tried to tackle in this essay. People are extremely complicated beings. There are millions of reasons why we cannot achieve peace. However, it is only a reminder that we have to keep up, that we need to make attempts and fail, because that is the path towards liberation. Some of us have understood this, some are starting to understand, and some still need to understand this. By having an honest, human conversation about their misapprehensions and mistakes, about everything they did wrong and about how they would never repeat it. About the fact that there is no 'us' behind which they hide and that they do not need, about the fact that they no longer wish to hide. The beauty of peacebuilding is like the beauty of everyone who loves and takes care of life just as a gardener would do. Just like the beauty of work of a teacher, physician or a composer. The beauty lies in the fruits in case of which we never know when they will arrive and what they will be like. As a result, we are always surprised and pleased.

Buje, Goran, for Forum ZFD in Sarajevo, November 26, 2020

Goran Božičević, a peace activist, was born in Zadar in 1962. He has been a peace activist since 1993. He worked in all former Yugoslav countries, Ukraine, Albania, etc. He is a peace educator and founder of PIRamiDA trainings. He is also the author of the book Gradnja dijaloga – Izabrani primjeri rada na pomirenju u Hrvatskoj (Dialogue Building – Selected Examples of Peacebuilding in Croatia). His interests include Quakers and Mennonites. He lives in Buje, Istria. 

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