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Campaign aims to collect one million signatures and create fact-finding commission for the events of 1991-2001

You can divide up a land, a state, even a country. You can even divide up people and families. But sharing is another story, particularly when it comes to history. Agreeing on a shared narrative can sometimes be an impossible task in a place where history can be used as weapon against your enemy. And no one seems to want to tell the history of what happened in the ex-Yugoslavia, or rather everyone wants to tell it their own way. But one group has decided that it's time to try and reconstruct a shared history. PeaceReporter sat down with Maja Micic, promoter of the Coalition for Rekom and director of the Belgrade Youth Initiative for Human Rights. Their goal is to collect one million signatures by July 31.

How was the Coalition for Rekom born and whose initiative was it?

Three different human rights organizations started the campaign, in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Humanitarian Law Center, Documenta, and the Research and Documentation Center. The organization has more than 1600 members, including human rights organizations, and victims groups, as well as individuals involved in these organizations.

What is the goal of the initiative?

We would like to create Rekom, a regional commission aimed at shedding light on war crimes and serious human rights abuses in the territories of the ex-Yugoslavia during the period 1991-2001. It's important to point out that we're talking about a commission whose primary interest is verification of facts that would be established by all of the countries in the region. The regional component is extremely important and a precondition for uncovering the truth of the events that took place here during the nineties. The work of the commission will not threaten in any way what's already been achieved by court cases, particularly those taking place in The Hague. One of the main objectives of the commission will be to give the victims an opportunity to tell their stories, because we haven't heard the voices of victims enough in the coverage by regional media. We're faced with a situation in which every day information is being distorted, and so it's very important to get to the facts and to avoid the various versions of "truth" coming from different countries, whatever side they're on, which are often manipulated to promote national political interests. At the same time, we want to give some space to the victims in order to develop a sense of empathy in our society now that the war is over.

How many signatures have you collected so far and how many do you hope to collect?

Right now there are two thousand young volunteers in the entire region collecting signatures from citizens to support the initiative. I'd like to stress that most of these are young people and that the campaign began on the same date, April 26, in every country and that it's still ongoing. So we want to show that the citizens support this commission. The signatures collected will be presented to the presidents of the various countries in the region, which will essentially mean delivering the petition into the hands of those state agencies whose responsibility it will then be to form the commission. The idea of the commission and those collecting signatures is to put pressure on them and then to monitor their work, to make sure they carry out their duty to account for all those who died in the conflicts in the nineties, collect as much information as possible on those still missing, and come up with recommendations for making sure that the conflicts that took place here in the nineties never happen again. The signature campaign will continue through the end of July. So far, at the regional level, we've collected between 350,000 and 400,000 signatures.

As civilians, how did you make the decision to work at an institutional level, to get government agencies involved?

So far they're not involved. We're still at the informational stage with certain members of government and political parties, trying to convince them that Rekom is necessary. We think the only way a commission like that can be effective is if it exists on an official level, created by all of the countries in the region and not just an NGO. Only by getting the countries in the region involved can we be certain that the commission will do its job.

What major obstacles have you encountered?

The project started a few years ago and it constitutes the most substantial public discussion to date on human rights violations and war crimes that took place in the nineties. We have presented this campaign as something that's in everyone's interest, something important for all citizens, for every human being, something that no decent person could not support because it's not connected to any one political party. We've come up against different sorts of problems in different countries-people who are against campaigns of any sort, verbal attacks from nationalists in every country, like in Croatia where our volunteers have had to deal repeatedly with verbal harassment. Sometimes people think the commission is anti-Serbian, or anti-Croatian, or anti-Bosnian. For instance, in Serbia one common prejudice is that human rights organizations deny the existence of Serbian victims, that they're only there to recognize victims of other nationalities, which is of course false and easy to disprove. Which is why it's important to emphasize that in this project the victims are involved, people of various nationalities and veterans associations, that there are more than 1,600 people taking part... That's how we try to break down resistance to the initiative.

Does you have any plans to teach the history of those years in schools?

What's been done so far, mostly in Serbia, is in the area of informal instruction, not with the government. We've launched various informal educational projects in an attempt to fill in the gaps in the education system in Serbia, where there still hasn't been any real reform. Textbooks still tend to deny what happened in the nineties and they're filled with stereotypes that are being passed on to young people in the schools. So we've been active in this area as have a number of other non-governmental organizations.

What influence have the arrest of Mladic and the conviction of Gotovina had on your work?

General Gotovina was convicted just a few days before the start of the campaign and it caused a huge stir in Croatia that made it more difficult to collect signatures. That might mean that the society isn't yet ready to face its past in the way it needs to. What we've tried to emphasize throughout the region is that all of the facts have to be uncovered and that every single victim should have a name. After Ratko Mladic was arrested most of the media coverage focused on trivial details about his life and there was no real attempt to let victims talk or to understand what Mladic was accused of. Both politicians and the media did their best to move the discussion in another direction. In Rekom, we keep insisting that it's very important to listen to the victims and to talk about facts, that that's something we should do as a society not just because of political pressure from international institutions or the EU. We have to destroy the value system that allowed Mladic to do what he did. So Mladic's arrest shouldn't be thought of-as it often is here-as something we have to do in order to be considered for EU membership. It should be thought of as a duty of our society.

In both cases, Mladic's arrest and Gotovina's conviction, the role of international justice and the court in The Hague are at issue. Will there ever come a time when an international court is no longer necessary?

We can't forget about all the work that's been done by the court in The Hague and everything they're still going to do, especially when it comes to Ratko Mladic. For instance, the Srebrenica massacres were classified as genocide for the first time in the sentence against general Krstic. That's an important step, especially as our society begins the process of confronting the past, a process that can't be turned back once it starts.

Have you gotten a lot of media attention?

Yes. They've talked about us a lot and it's been mostly positive. But there have been some very negative experiences with media to the extent that the effort to resist our campaign has played out there as well. But mostly we're just talking about the usual biases human rights organizations have to deal with in the region.

Christian Elia and Francesca Rolandi
Translated by Gary Cestaro