I face constant tension in my research that I have not yet been able to resolve. I work with a category of actor that is often overlooked in both academic and media accounts of war: the victims on the side of the perpetrator, sometimes called “complex” or “impure” victims. In particular, I work with Serb women who lived through the 1992 to 1995 siege of Sarajevo, when the Bosniak (Muslim)-majority city was held under siege by Bosnian Serb forces (VRS). A collectivist narrative of Serb guilt and Bosniak victimhood became cemented as international media coverage showed Serb snipers purposefully targeting civilians, hospitals, and Islamic cultural and religious monuments. But deep inside the siege, a second layer of violence unfolded. Serb civilians who had remained inside the city became targets of what I call an inner zone of retributive violence that has become a public secret since the war.
I sometimes envy the more inhabitable moral positions of researchers who work with widely-accepted victims of war: researchers whose vision for their work seems clear and commanding, who move to “amplify” the voices of their participants without hesitation because they largely agree with both what those voices say, and what their message does. In a conflict as asymmetrical as the siege of Sarajevo, in a war as asymmetrical as the Bosnian war, this silenced history of violence is not one that can be amplified easily.
Researchers writing about sensitive conflicts have often had their work appropriated and misconstrued. The potential of this happening became particularly pressing for me after recent political development in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In February 2019, after I had completed my year of fieldwork, Milorad Dodik, a leading Bosnian Serb political figure, announced plans for a controversial new commission: the “Independent International Commission for Investigating the Suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo in the Period from 1991 to 1995.” He also annulled the report of a 2004 fact-finding commission into the genocide at Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces killed over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in a matter of days. In its place, he created an “Independent Commission for Investigating the Suffering of All Peoples in the Srebrenica Region from 1992 to 1995,” a commission that would look not only at the Bosnian Serb forces’ crime of genocide, but also at much smaller attacks by Bosniak forces against Serbs in the Srebrenica region earlier in the war.
These commissions are deeply troubling. Not because they aim to uncover facts about the experiences of Serb civilians in the war, but because they seek to sanitize and re-write the past in the process. Coming from an ethno-nationalist government that thrives on denial, these commissions are pre-programmed to showcase the suffering of Serbs while relativizing the responsibility of Bosnian Serb forces. The commissions have thus been heavily criticized by numerous international scholars as a blatant manipulation of the language of transitional justice for the purpose of fueling ethnicized grievances and fomenting divisions in an already-fragile state – as well as inspiring extremists around the world.
The creation of these commissions makes it more difficult to write about Serb women’s experiences of suffering in and after the siege without ceding data to the ethno-nationalists. The strategy I have adopted has been to write about Serb women’s experiences of suffering without ever dis-embedding them from the broader context of the war, and its undeniable asymmetry of violence. I keep the siege’s internal zone of retributive violence nested inside the larger external zone of VRS aggression.
But there are moments where this nesting feels unfair to the women whose lives inform my research. Reflexively, I want to convey their narratives just as I received them, dwelling unapologetically on what they endured. I want to repay them, in this way, for the gift of their time and their stories. As scholars, we have come to anticipate and produce a particular “genre” of victim testimony, a genre that defines both what it is to speak and what it is to listen, or to bear witness. Researching impure victims demands a subversion of this genre, especially in times of revisionism, when the work we publish can be taken and misused. Instead of freely amplifying the voices of my research participants, I have to ration them.
Jelena Golubović is a 2021 Banting Fellow who will be joining The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy this fall. She is currently a sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University.