Life goes on – but the scars remain

Just over ten years after Goran Basic came to Sweden as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, he travelled back to his ethnically cleansed village. As a researcher in sociology, he wanted to try and carry out a non-judgemental study and interview survivors about forgiveness, reconciliation and the role of victim. One thesis and ten years later, he has now published his research articles.
“Previously, it was difficult for me to put into words what had happened, but thanks to the research, I found the analytical concepts I needed to talk about what happened during the war and afterwards.”

Goran BasicGoran Basic returned to the area around his home town of Ljubija in 2004 to conduct a study of a post-war society. Ljubija is in north-western Bosnia, today part of Republika Srpska. Close by was the notorious Omarska concentration camp, where between 3 000 and 6 000 Bosniak and Croat civilians were held during the Bosnian War. Hundreds died of starvation or were beaten to death. Mass graves are still being exhumed in the vicinity of the camp; one in Tomašica is suspected to hold up to 1000 missing persons.

“Most of those I interviewed in Ljubija knew me and my family from before the war”, says Goran Basic, and explains that during his stay in his former hometown he received death threats from people who refused to believe that he was there to do research and thought he was spying on them. For the remainder of his visit, he didn’t spend two nights in the same place.

Goran Basic’s parents also live in Sweden, and even though they holiday in the former Yugoslavia nowadays, they have never returned permanently to the region. According to Basic, this is fairly typical for Swedish Bosnians whose homes and property are in areas that are now occupied by the ‘wrong’ ethnicity. They would not consider returning to their old villages. However, the Bosnians who applied for asylum in Germany have returned. They were only given temporary residence permits, and for economic reasons they often had no other alternative after the war than to return to their old homes, even if these were located in areas that had experienced ethnic cleansing.

Goran Basic interviewed Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – former camp prisoners, perpetrators of violence and passive onlookers – about reconciliation, forgiveness and the role of victim. He interviewed former camp prisoners now resident in Scandinavia about how they managed to move on with their lives after the humiliation and terror of the concentration camps. He was surprised that, despite traumatic experiences, they had got on quite well. Most of them were well established in Swedish society.

“I had expected more mental illness. However, these people had managed to move on”, he says.

In order to move on, it has been very important for them to talk about their experiences. Many have written down what they experienced – not for publication, but so that their children and grandchildren can read about it. But have they forgiven the perpetrators?

“In a way you could say that they have reconciled themselves to how life has turned out”, says Basic. “Those who live in other countries go to Bosnia on holiday. Those who have returned or who still live there testify to everyday cooperation between the different ethnic groups. Even if life will never be the same again, they don’t believe a new war is a possibility.”

However, forgiveness is not on the cards. A common thread throughout Basic’s interviews with former prisoners is that they cannot forgive those who persecuted them in the camps, but neither would they want to take revenge.

The former camp prisoners are critical of truth and reconciliation commissions. They do think it is important for the perpetrators to admit their guilt, but that is not enough. For justice to be done, punishment is also necessary, in their view. Moreover, the perpetrators must express real remorse. These three criteria – justice, admission of guilt and real remorse – must be met, according to Basic’s studies, if reconciliation and forgiveness are to be possible.

However, in order to establish guilt, agreement is first needed on who the perpetrator and the victim are. Legally, there is no doubt who were the victims, according to Goran Basic. The Hague Tribunal has made that clear. However, the role of victim is interesting from a sociological perspective.

“Today there is competition for the role of victim”, says Basic. “Everyone paints themselves as a victim, even those who are perpetrators in a legal sense. One of the reasons is that they are much worse off economically than those who were forced to flee to other European countries. Their view is that they have been made a scapegoat for the actions of others and that they are now used as cheap labour by those who have returned and who are better off.”

Several years have now passed since Goran Basic did his interviews. They were originally intended to form part of the work on his PhD thesis, but then he got research funding for a different thesis project – about children in care – and the interviews were shelved.

Over the past year he has dusted them off, re-analysed them and published them as articles in various journals.

“Of course it was a challenge for me as a researcher to carry out a non-judgemental study of events that had affected me and my relatives. However, it felt like an important thing to do and it fills a gap”, says Goran Basic, who feels that it is still difficult to find non-judgemental analyses of what actually happened in Bosnia during the 1990s.

Ulrika Oredsson

Published articles

Goran Basic has published the following articles about the war and post-war period in Bosnia:

• “Konkurrensen om offerrollen i överlevandes berättelser efter kriget i Bosnien”. Tidsskrift for samfunnsforskning

• “Ritualer i koncentrationslägret. Avståndstagande, moral och anpassning i före detta lägerfångars berättelser från Bosnien”. Statsvetenskaplig tidskrift

• “Förlåtelse, försoning och oförsonlighet i överlevandes berättelser efter kriget i Bosnien”. Sociologisk Forskning

Goran ­Basic interviewed Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks about forgiveness, reconciliation and the role of victim after the Bosnian War 1992–95.