An interview with Zarana Papic, prominent Serbian feminist and supporter of the Belgrade circle

Women in Black


* I shall begin with the usual question of why, in the course of the 1990s, so few Serbian intellectuals publicly declared their opposition to Milosevic either in Serbia or abroad?

That´s really three questions in one. First, the number of Serbian intellectuals who have been and remained opponents of Milosevic's regime is quite small. Secondly, there have been practical barriers: we have rarely been invited to speak in Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Thirdly, we have long been too depressed by the whole war climate to establish contact on our own initiative with such papers as Feral Tribune.

I do not myself like to speak of intellectuals in general or their supposed mission, but it seems to me that the problem of Serbian dissidents lies neither in any lack of information about independent media outside Serbia, nor in any diffidence about contacting unknown editors, but in the self-enclosure and self-isolation of our dissident circles. Among even the most independent intellectuals there exist various layers of reserve and suspicion. You have ´opponents´ of the regime who are worse fascists than those in power. The acceptance of genocide is unfortunately spreading and is now embracing even those intellectuals who in the past long resisted the temptation to become nationalists.

* It is clearly not easy to be an opponent of Milosevic´s regime. Why did you choose to stay in Serbia and pay the price of isolation?

Terror and repression in Serbia have been carefully planned, but they have never been systematically applied except to the media; this has left social areas in which one has simply not been noticed as an opponent of the regime. It is a terrible thing to say, but like a chameleon I remained invisible to those in power. I have a 'correct' - i.e. Serb-sounding - name, so that Seselj´s supporters could not ´discover´ me by looking in the telephone book or threaten me for having a Croat or Muslim name.

In personal terms, I stayed primarily for family reasons. As a feminist and a pacifist, moreover, I did not appear very dangerous: no one listened to my critique of nationalism, so I could say whatever I liked. You must understand that in Serbia civic initiatives are really very weak, so that there is no reason to fear them or suppress them. I belonged to Belgrade alternative circles even before the war, and this simply continued into the l990s. Remaining in Belgrade meant for me spending a great deal of energy every day just in order to survive the great collective pressure of homogenization: in order not to internalize the psychological elements of fascism or resort - if only at the most intimate level - to stigmatizing or even hating the regime´s numerous list of Others.

The integrating power of fascism

Many of my colleagues from the opposition, however, have indeed gradually internalized some of the elements of fascism: the ´Serb nature´ of certain territories, the heroic Kosovo past, the holy objects of the Church, or the attitude of surprise as to ´why NATO is suddenly bombing us for no reason at all.´

If you want to know how I resisted society´s schizophrenia, I can say that it was an exceptionally exhausting matter, which with time became ever more difficult, since right now the NGO scene in Serbia scarcely exists. Furthermore, Serbian independent circles have lately started adopting a guise of ´weary affrontedness´ - along the lines of: We´ve been protesting such a lot against Milosevic, yet no one from abroad recognizes this, and they even bomb ´us´. In other words, during the past few years the independent circles too have lapsed into the narcissistic rhetoric they have learnt from the ´infallible´ regime.

During the air attacks, the civic activists of Belgrade demanded ´a little more time´ to bring down Milosevic from within, without foreign intervention; but this just goes to show once again how unaware they are that they long ago spent all their historical credit.

* How did you react to the images of war coming from Vukovar, Sarajevo... ?

I knew what was being planned long before the first TV pictures began to arrive. Those pictures showed the realization of a hegemonistic Serbian policy articulated in the mid eighties. I knew that the JNA would take the side of Milosevic´s genocidal ideology. I can describe what happened as the most nauseating participation in a collective crime - in the first instance a crime committed against Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians, but also a crime against the Serbian people, which was never given the possibility to separate itself democratically from the other republics of former Yugoslavia.

War was presented to us as ´the only option´ already in 1989, when Milosevic went off to Gazimestan and there renewed the Kosovo myth before a million Serb men and women. Like Hitler at a rally of SS units, Milosevic ´descended from the heavens´ (sceptics would say landed in a helicopter) onto the ´holy ground´of Gazimestan, in order to inform us that the time had come for new heroic battles - i.e. war.

* How do you explain the popular fascination with Milosevic?

The people - the inhabitants - of Serbia did indeed go through a phase of absolute fascination with the leader and fascistic homogenization through him. Everyone submitted to it: men and women, old and young, educated and uneducated. The re-invention of Serb patriarchal society developed at epic, political, literary, scientific, Christian and pagan levels - to reach a mythic all-embracing unity.

What united the people was not so much a vision of future Serb ´exploits´ as fear. Fear of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia´s breakup, the ´void´ heralded by the collapse of the hegemonistic Yugoslav nation. Milosevic exploited this to the full. He sent a message to the men that they were to fight ´heroically´ for the preservation of Yugoslavia, while to the women the message was to shut up.

Much effort was expended to evoke and revive Serb World War II traumas. Much was also done to revive Orthodoxy among the population of Serbia, but the symbolic identification with World War II was probably most important: for instance, we were given a continuous visual presentation - between 30 and 60 minutes of TV every day - of the exhumation of mass graves in Herzegovina.

Bones and relics

The media were used so that people would once again internalize the traumas of Ustasha crimes. Exhumation of the bones was in reality a preparation of the ground for new graves. Propaganda was used to create the feeling that Serbs are the main ´victims´ , who therefore have the ´right´ of revenge and the ´right´ to wage new wars and commit crimes. Karadzic, for example, stated that ´Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina have a right to preventive defence´. In other words, he amnestied in advance the crimes that were to come, by exploiting the traumas associated with the unearthed bones from 1941.

So there was a particular ´peregrination of the trauma´, just as there was a shift in time of national identity - back into the past - and a shift of responsibility for war crimes exclusively to the Ustasha side, while Chetnik crimes were methodically set aside. Reality was divided schizophrenically into a virtual reality of the media and the ordinary reality of the war, with the media reality for many people becoming far stronger than anything they saw with their own eyes. This is all part of a ´re-invention of the trauma´ by the state and through the state-controlled media: a carefully planned revision of the historical balance sheet. The media, however, were not responsible for the war - they merely obeyed the political leadership. The media did, however, forge the Serbs indifference: the trauma became so internalized that Croatian and Bosnian victims could never reach the sacred status of the allegedly ´primaeval´, ´greatest´, Serbian, victim.

* One could perhaps describe this as a fictionalization of the trauma?

Yes, not only a fictionalization but also a transfer of the local Bosnian-Herzegovinian drama across the Drina, to the population in Serbia which had never experienced that trauma. You must remember that Sumadija [central Serbia], unlike Bosnia, had not had the experience of either multi-ethnic society or war. For the inhabitants of Sumadija the Muslims have always been Turks, but thanks to the war propaganda in the 1990s they simply became mortal enemies. Another aspect one must not forget is the attempt to return the population to Orthodoxy. The church once again started to teach people how to be good Serb men or women, for example by parading round the so-called ´relics´ (i.e. sacred bones) of Tsar Lazar, which were ceremonially carried from village to village throughout Serbia, thus fusing the year 1389 with the year 1989. The relics ´confirmed´ that to be a Serb is in fact a vocation, an invitation to become a victim, since we Serbs are in fact a ´heavenly people´.

The print media and TV adopted a narrative model that stressed ´incomprehension of the injustices committed against the Serbs´ and, concomitantly, the ´Serb right´ to refuse to live in peace with other nations who ´for centuries´ have behaved in an evil way towards us. So we had a verbal and a visual, a horizontal and a vertical, preparation for war. The war actually arrived late: indifference and genocide were psychologically ready for activation as early as 1989. It was even accepted that some ´less good Serbs´ would also be sacrificed: those who could not fully belong to Greater Serbia.

* You have said that the influence of feminism and of anti-war groups like Women in Black was minimal. What made women line up behind Milosevic?

Like all other civic initiatives, the feminist movement in Serbia has been steadily declining. It too had nationalist currents, but Women in Black are a consistent example of both physical and symbolic protest against war, against nationalism, against all kinds of ethnic cleansing, and against all kinds of violence committed by male-dominated society. They have kept me going. But feminists are a minority in the Serbian population. Why did the majority of Serbian women side with Milosevic? It is because they too embraced a schizophrenic role, an absolute separation of their private and public identities. They wished to be ´mothers of great warriors´, they wished to sacrifice themselves - you must know yourself how easily women internalize the position of victim. In patriarchal societies they cannot imagine themselves outside this role of being a victim.


You have spoken of the Milosevic regime´s Turbo-Fascism. What do you mean by that?

I know that Fascism is a historical term; that the history of Nazi Germany is not the same as that of Milosevic´s Serbia. However, in post-modernist and feminist theory we speak of so-called ´sliding concepts´, when a new epoch inherits with some additions concepts belonging to an earlier one. In my view we should not fear the use of ´big terms´ if they accurately describe certain political realities. Serbian Fascism has its own concentration camps, its own systematic representation of violence against Others, its own cult of the family and cult of the leader, an explicitly patriarchal structure, a culture of indifference towards exclusion of the Other, a closure of society upon itself and upon its own past. It has a taboo on empathy and a taboo on multiculturalism. It has powerful media acting as proponents of genocide; it has a nationalist ideology; it has an epic mentality of listening to the Word and obeying authority.

The prefix ´turbo´ refers to the mixture of rural and urban, pre-modern and post-modern, to the reinforcement of pop culture and heroin, as in the case of Arkan´s wife the singer Ceca Velickovic. I speak of Turbo-Fascism since like all fascisms it involves also a pejorative renaming, alienation, and finally removal, of the Other: Croats, Bosnians, Albanians. Well before all the killings in the war we Serbs had an economic embargo on Slovene goods, i.e. a ban on things - on all objects symbolizing the Slovene Other. That is how fascism is introduced: you order people not to consume Slovene milk, you set about objectivizing the Other by way of a thing that symbolizes the whole ethnic group. You ban all relations with the Other: the order was that one should not touch, look at or buy Slovene milk. Anyone who bought it was reported by the shop assistants or by other customers to the police. That is how people were taught to hate the ´Slovene Body´. Without that aversion to the Body of the Other, the massacres and murders of so many Croatian, Bosnian and Albanian bodies would not have been possible.

* So the Drina functioned as a symbolic border beyond which empathy no longer existed?

Yes. The Serbs of Serbia have no feeling of responsibility for anything that occurred on the far side of the Drina, since the people over there were not human beings - they were objectivized enemies. You must know that it was not the ordinary inhabitants of Sumadija who went ´over the Drina´ to wage war and kill, but the most primitive Serbs and volunteers. You may say that my views have something to do with the fact that I was born and grew up in Sarajevo and that thanks to my origins I am somewhat more ´resistant´ to the Serbian regime - though this does not follow automatically, since many people born in Sarajevo subsequently became more militant fascists than the Serbs of Serbia - but I experienced the Serb crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the destruction of all reason: as not just a repetition but a reinforcement of the fascist crimes of the past.

* How would you describe the phenomenon of ´suspension of conscience´ on the part of soldiers who committed war crimes?

For the sense of individual conscience to be suspended, there must exist some kind of super-conscience which permits its suspension - there must be a policy of collective amnesia for crimes. The army, for example, is a type of organization that by definition persuades you that the collective is absolutely above the individual and in this way ´cleanses´ you of individual responsibility. If you commit a crime within a military or paramilitary formation, that means you have been thoroughly brainwashed: you kill because this is your mission, your holy task.

Layers of responsibility

Is there an ´awakening´ from collective psychosis?

Even if someone does accept this collective ´super-conscience´, there still remains within him or her the previous, real, rudimentary individual conscience, which will appear when it is needed. For example, after a change of regime. I expect, after Milosevic´s fall, that the nation will collectively turn coat and announce that it has always respected human rights and neighbouring ethnic groups - you probably know the Serb opportunism summed up in the saying ´I´ll vote for you when you've come to power.´ It is like an internal cancer which cannot be removed by any outside change, not even a change of government. I would not be optimistic so far as any awakening of responsibility among the inhabitants of Serbia is concerned. I believe we are still far away from any understanding that it is legitimate to have one´s own individual conscience, and that this is the measure of a civil society. We are still far away from any understanding that there exist a whole range of layers of responsibility for the crimes committed: for example, responsibility for remaining silent, for forgetting, for hatred, for media propaganda. The responsibility for remaining silent is the most complicated, since silence includes agreement, but also awareness of repression - and even a shadow of doubt.

* Do you support the notion of symmetry between Croat nationalism and Serb nationalism?

No. The Serb and Croat nationalisms are quite different. Some facts cannot be denied: for example, that the JNA sided withSerb nationalism and waged a war of conquest not self-defence.

* Tell us something more about male and female bodies and their representation in Serbia during the 1990s.

First of all, the male body underwent a deconstruction of the peaceable and relatively urbanized identity that it had achieved under socialism. Secondly, the male under Tito´s regime always inhabited the border between rural and urban: he lived in the village and worked in the factory. He was a sufficiently hybrid creature to retain many epic and pagan elements that would later under Milosevic´s regime be transformed into the masculine ideal of the warrior. Milosevic very carefully constructed the ´Serb hero´ with his male phantasies - he permitted the highest heroism in words, particularly his own words, which meant that the greatest national hero did not have to do much in reality. Like Dobrica Cosic he only ´gave the word´ and through words fulfilled his genocidal phantasies. Once again schizophrenically, our heroes are civilians who delivered messages of war - they did not cut throats or murder but gave the orders for those things to be done. All males in Serbia were subject to a media brainwashing in the course of which they had to identify with the Leader. The male population was gripped even more strongly by fascination with the Leader than was the female. Milosevic´s war regime was designed for patriarchal males, for whom only males are subjects: women are objects (ornaments or trophies).

Male love

* This also involves a degree of homoeroticism ...

As in every patriarchal society. You will recall Vera Erlich´s studies of the Dinaric patriarchal zadruga society, where the eldest female has the ritual duty to kiss and wash the feet of the youngest male. As for the homoeroticism of Milosevic´s regime, I recall the image conveyed by TV at the start of the 1990s, when the Leader went to visit Kosovo. In the first village he visited, the oldest villager stepped forward from a line of ceremoniously assembled men—i.e. the symbolic wise man representing the whole community, who traditionally embodies the male authority of the whole community - in order to kiss Milosevic´s hand. This was not only homo-erotic but also infantile, since the whole community was submitting symbolically to ´paternal authority´. We are dealing here once again with the avoidance of all individual responsibility: the ´father of the nation´ is responsible; we ´little children´ did not know what we were doing, we just obeyed ´Daddy´.

Male identification with the Great Leader also opened a space for molesting women: what matters is what the males from the local tavern think; women are not important at all. But there is a paradox: the Serb warriors are so humbly obedient to Big Father Milosevic that they in fact accept the female role as defined by classic patriarchal societies: they are passive, they have no right to speak, they fear the Father´s anger, they submit to his desires. The warriors de facto play the role of frustrated patriarchal wives of their ideological leaders.

* How would you describe the Body of the warrior, the Body that did not just watch but also waged ethnic violence?

We are talking here mainly about the poorer strata, lumpen-proletariat or rural poor, which gave birth to Bokan and Arkan as well as many members of The Eagles. These were the only ones who really did set off over the Drina to ´defend Serbdom´, while the great majority, which will never be accused of the crimes committed, sat at home and enjoyed Arkan´s Travels and the ´Balkan Cinema´. A special layer of sadists went off to terrorize, loot and murder, but only at weekends - as a kind of ´short break´. Others joined various paramilitary units and so became part of the ´great body of the Army´. The Body that killed, therefore, was that which had fully merged into the collectivity; that which fully gave up its individuality. Its ´reward´ was that the violence it wreaked led to public affirmation (Bokan gave most interviews, so can most easily be analysed; Arkan was more taciturn).

One should not forget the role of the mystifying Orthodoxy and Russophilism which provided the warriors with ´missions´ - which, in other words, sanctified the Body that killed. In contrast to the government which did not dare to legalize the ´heroism´ of its killers, the Church rewarded them with a symbolic capital. The only ´heroes´ the state legitimized were politicians or intellectuals in political service. Arkan´s men and other such death-squad volunteers until recently received no money or privileges from the state: in legal terms they were ´outsiders´. Yet, through another schizophrenic splitting, they were the centre of the Greater-Serbian phantasy. That is why many people in Serbia could invent justifications in the form of ´We didn't take part in the war´: not only has there been no official recognition for the ´services´ of the ethnic cleansers, but also the killers were few in number compared to the majority of Serbs who watched and supported the war from their armchairs.

The female Body

* How about the female Body?

The journey into the past did not avoid the female Body either. It had to suffer the return to tradition and the deeper patriarchal glorification of the Serb warrior ´mentality´ and the male body. Women remained silent and censored themselves so that they would not be subjected to violence. Silence became a universal norm: sons and fathers remained silent before their daughters, brothers before their sisters, women before other women. The sediments of socialist emancipation of women once again worked in Milosevic´s favour: his wife Mira Markovic - at least in the beginning - exploited her image as a sociologist and emancipated woman. Since she never proposed suspending the right to abortion or any such legal measure that directly denied women control over their own bodies, women in Serbia did not believe that they were immediately endangered. The rights of women in Serbia were thus suspended without their noticing - it was not spelled out to them. In any case, they were far too concerned with inflation and elementary survival.

When all other social institutions in the system fall apart, when there are no more child benefits, when men lose their jobs en masse or are mobilized, the whole burden falls on the family and on women. Women queued, secured food (kinfolk from the village played a crucial role here), cooked, looked after children and the elderly, worked. Within the family, but only in that private zone, women became stronger than ever - i.e. they took on the Big Mother role. At the same time they underwent a new ruralization through a forcibly ´extended family´ - which began to involve daily care for a wide circle of cousins, since that was one way of acquiring food. Herein perhaps lies part of the answer as to why Milosevic does not meet with more resistance from women: it is more important to survive than to resist.

Serbian men who have lost their jobs and do not carry the burden of looking after their families either - what do they do?
They either do nothing because they are depressed (after all, they have lost public power), or they engage in black-market activities, or they become war volunteers. In each case they are lost and confused. Unlike the women, no one has ever taught them how to survive on a minimum.

* What has happened to sexuality?

It exists only in Serb ´neo-folk´ music, where it is greatly magnified. Examples of the allegedly ´happy´ female Serb Body, a plump body acting out permanent submission and joy over its sexual accessibility, are furnished by a whole series of so-called ´turbo-folk queens´ (singers). They play with oriental melodies, with an oriental setting and movements - but not just to arouse tavern emotions and relax the clientele, but also to inflame pro-fascist emotions (with the lyrics of their songs).

* Has presentation of the female Body as an ´always accessible object´ in the long term also encouraged rapes ´over the Drina´?

The singers are Chosen Serb Women (exclusively Serb) who alone have the right to invite men without violence or rape to the sexual act. They are there to ´comfort´ the rapists in the sense of showing them they are still potent. Violence is wreaked solely upon the bodies of women of other ethnicities. Serb women are not raped ´systematically´. In the national propaganda they are presented as Mothers and Sisters—so they are raped only sporadically, secretly and at home. Telephone SOS-line data indicate that violence against women as a rule increases after the evening TV news.

There is a hierarchy in Serb violence against women. The greatest is violence against Albanian women, which is not even recorded, since they have no rights whatsoever - they are ´things´ (the whole of Serb war fascism was trained in the relationship of Serbs towards the Albanian ethnos during the 1980s). Violence against Croat and Muslim women is a matter of a warrior´s ´prestige´ and ´positive´ self-affirmation. Violence against Serb women is usually presented as an ´excess´ or hidden.

Concerning sexualization of the female pop-singer´s body, I should add that the very fact of the empty space left on the Serbian folk scene by the disappearance of non-Serb ethnicities also represents a kind of licence for violence against the bodies of those who are ´not there´, those eliminated Others. It is interesting that the greatest symbolic and material destruction of the Body of the Other was carried out at the end of the 1980s in the south of the former Yugoslavia, with the suspension of Kosovo´s rights; while the real war violence began at the start of the 1990s in the north, in Slovenia. As in all schizophrenias, reality took time to reach the centre of its virtual obsession: chronologically speaking Kosovo was the last to be engulfed by war and GreaterSerbian occupation, which based itself precisely upon the Kosovo myth.

The psychopathology of money

* How, from an anthropological point of view, would you describe the body of Mira Markovic?

Today it is a sick, swollen, bloated body; a body that never appears autonomously, but only coupled with that of Slobodan Milosevic. What we have here is the despotic psycho-dynamic of a couple (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) that is self-sufficient. Slobodan Milosevic´s body is entirely petrified and inflexible: the embodiment of rigidity and spasm. In recent years Ms Markovic has been transformed in the media into a supposedly ´weak, shivering´ body, the body of a ´little woman´, a ´frail, shy´ servant of the patriarchate, her hands atremble like some ´confused mouse´ as she drops her vote into the ballot box. But at the same time she is an Alexandra the Great who dreams of China and India and whose phantasies of a Greater Serbia are being fulfilled by Slobodan Milosevic.

* In other words the presidential pair is essentially asexual?

Absolutely. We are dealing with ascetic, inflexible bodies, bodies full of water.

* Like dead bodies thrown up by a river ... ?

And they´re white. Greyish-white like corpses.

* Whereas Arkan and Ceca represented an abundantly rouged and sexualized Serbian ´royal couple´?

Yes. They were a ´sexually active couple´and a realization of the Serb fairy tale: from nothing to the stars (I feel free to add: ´and back again´). They were married in accordance with the epic tradition: a mass of wedding guests, she dressed in Serbian folk bridal costume, he in a copy of the uniform of Vojvoda Misic [a Serbian Balkan War and First World War general]. Ceca´s task was to bear at least three children, since she was president of the ´Third Child´ foundation. Ceca was the ´sister´ who became a ´wife´, and who is permitted by her husband to be sexually provocative because it is ´for the good of the people´. Once the concert is over, however, the Queen returns to her ugly fortified mansion in Dedinje [exclusive Belgrade neighbourhood] and has no thought of wanting anyone but Arkan.

As for the ´royal´ pose of Arkan´s men after the King´s death, at Arkan's funeral Ceca in her demeanour and her hairstyle and her dress acted out the role of Jacqueline Kennedy. The only thing she lacked was a small son by her side. Apart from that, she behaved in total accordance with Orthodox custom: she remained enigmatically silent, she did not weep, she withdrew from public life. It seemed to me, incidentally, that her face showed a trace of relief. In a similar way, the rest of the nation is waiting for someone from outside to ´take care of´ Milosevic and thus save them. This, however, will not happen. Nothing will change until the Serbs take responsibility for their own fascism.



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