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The Scorpions: Human Rights Violations in the Bosnian War

Natasa Kandic, 'From Atrocity to Redress in the former Yugoslavia', London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Thursday 29 January 09.

[London] A pretty horrible night out this week found me inadvertently watching a documentary about The Scorpions, a Serb militia during the Bosnia conflict. The film is mostly made up of footage shot by the Scorpions themselves as they made their way towards Srebrenica in 1995. Years later, a member of the Scorpions decided to hand the video over to human rights activist Natasa Kandic, who introduced this week’s screening at the LSE. It became an important part of the case against Slobodan Milošević, and opened the eyes of many in Serbia to the grimy underside of their recent history. 

When we first see the six Bosniaks, some of them mere adolescents, they are lying in the back of a truck, their hands tied behind their backs, whimpering. Some other men are kicking them in the back of their heads, saying they stink like shit, probably because they’ve crapped themselves. When we return to them later, they are being marched into a clearing where a group of Serbs then shoot all but two of them in the back and make the survivors drag their bodies to where they will be buried. The remaining two are then shot dead amid the battered ruins of an old stone outhouse. A couple of the Serbs empty their magazines into a twitching body. 

There was a fascinating resignation in the faces of the Bosniaks as they walked to their deaths. They didn’t squirm or run, plead or cry out. There was no burst of red, no elaborate last gasp or slow collapse to the ground. They fell suddenly and unspectacularly. The only drama they exhibited came as their friends picked up their bodies and their heads fell back, faces already turned a ghostly white and mouths hanging open as though horribly screaming. 

The events in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s are a fascinating insight into the power of myths and narratives. They are testament to the pliability of morality and rationality; to just how artificial and yet utterly real nationalism can be, and the horror it can inculcate. 

Lest anyone in the audience doubt the resilience of such constructions, some tactless idiot was on hand to prove it. He sat at the back of the room, and managed to get the first question in after the film. He used the opportunity to angrily rant about atrocities carried out by the Croat Ustashe during the Second World War, and other "justifications" for what we had just witnessed on the screen. Kandic couldn't quite believe someone could react to the film in this way and pretty much dismissed him. But this individual's reaction spoke volumes about the nature of that conflict, in particular the way in which acts of murder and brutality were absorbed into legitimising renditions of history, so that individual deaths were stripped of any individual meaning. The lunatic barbarism of it all created a self-fulfilling momentum, self-legitimating and acceptable. The resignation of the Scorpions' Bosniak victims to their personal fates is what made the film so haunting to watch; it suggests an acceptance of atrocity that goes beyond the extreme few who perpetrate it.

And as the idiot in the room reminded us, this discussion did not end simply because NATO bombs and convoluted international administrations have put a lid on them. After the talk, this man wandered the room trying to get people to look at pictures of atrocities perpetrated on Serbs. I wanted to say to him that, to our eyes, the film was not anti-Serb, but simply anti-the murder of children. When Kandic began reporting human rights violations against Croats and Muslims, she received endless abuse in Serbia calling her a spy, a traitor, a prostitute. When she reported abuse against Serbs, no one called her anything. In war, all violations – even murder – are subjective.

The Balkan wars horrify us in the West because they do appear so peculiarly personal, tied up with emotive grievances and long-term grudges that are alien to the sanitised way in which we engage in and view violence. Sober strategic objectives; cautious and carefully regulated tactics; sternly debated, democratic moral justifications – all are subsumed within personal vendettas, furiously carried out. In the West, we prefer to pretend that our wars are short. We can’t begin to imagine a conflict that starts, as far as the protagonists are concerned, in the 15th century, and in which the grandchildren of combatants are legitimate targets. The line between civilian and combatant is blurred because people become more than units engaged in a tactical battle over tangible objectives, they become signifiers of the myths that bind the nation together. But, then,  I wonder whether Western military terms such as ‘collateral damage’ stem from a similar need to legalise and legitimise murder. Isn’t that just as much a myth? Motives and justifications for killing are always subjective, however apparently civilised one's society.

For the families of the murdered Bosniaks, that subjectivity continued to compel long after the loss of  sons and brothers. A Serb court ruled that the Scorpions featured in the video could not be directly linked to the Serb military command. The individual men got stiff sentences for the killings, but no compensation was ever paid to the families. "That is not justice," Kandic simply concludes.

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