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'A severe pronouncement of Serbian victimhood'

Thousands of Serbian protesters clashed with police after the arrest of war-crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. Psychologist Sabina Cehajic-Clancy, who has spent years working with Bosnian Serb youth on conflict resolution, says the unrest is unsurprising.


Protesters overturned garbage containers, broke traffic lights and set off firecrackers in downtown Belgrade on Sunday, decrying the arrest of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic.

Mladic was arrested last week after 16 years in hiding and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

For many Serbs, in and out of the country, Mladic is not the monster he is made out to be in the Western media and is now doomed to face an unfair trial at the ICC.

Mladic was indicted by an international war crimes court in 1995 on genocide charges for the Srebrenica massacre and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.

Sabina Cehajic-Clancy is a Sarajevo-based social psychologist and heads the Balkan Institute for Conflict Resolution, Responsibility and Reconciliation. For the past 8 years her work has focused on how Bosnian Serbs, aged 16 to 26, deal with their group’s past moral violations.

Her research has been conducted in the Republic of Srpska, officially a Bosnian territory, but where Serbs are the majority and run many state institutions separately from Sarajevo.

She told FRANCE 24 that ethnic Serbs are reacting to Mladic's arrest in view of the past wrongs commited against them.

FRANCE 24: Is the anger that was expressed by Serbians something you have confronted in your research among Serbian youth?

Sabina Cehajic-Clancy: I would have liked to see a different reaction, but what we are witnessing is consistent with my eight years of investigation. I have been looking exactly at how Serbian youth deals psychologically with their heritage of burden their former leaders have left, and how do they deal with their group responsibility for atrocities, such as the Srebrenica massacre, committed by their group members.

The results consistently show what we are seeing now: youth are very protective of their group, and that includes their former leaders. This is not fake, this is not something done for show. They sincerely believe he is their hero, someone who fought to restore injustices their group experienced in the past.

Personally, it took me a long time to accept the validity of these findings. How can an ordinary 17-year-old girl or boy - who goes to high school, who has a Facebook profile, who has no memory of the Bosnian war - regard and defend Mladic as a hero?

In general my research has shown that people will always find a justification for the atrocities their group has done - they will do everything that is psychologically possible to justify the actions of their leaders or other group members. Findings have consistently shown the activation of moral disengagement strategies.

People start to dehumanize victims, in this case Bosnian Muslims, as a defense mechanism. They say they are basically deserving of their suffering, not because they want the other group to suffer, but because this idea eases their way of dealing with a moral burden of their group.

We have found this same tendency in other countries. Colleagues have found similar results in Chile in how people justify the mistreatment of Mapuche people. They have found similar trends in the USA in the way people view the occupation of Iraq and the civilian casualties of that war.

F24: What is it that we don’t understand about Serbians in Western Europe?

S.C.C.: People start to dehumanize victims before they can kill them. In my own research, we have found that people are still dehumanizing victims to deal with the knowledge that killing has occured in the past. It is a continuous process. In other words, victim dehumanization can also be regarded as a psychological post-killing process.

This trend has been established in quantitive research, and it also appears in qualitative studies. I have conducted many interviews about youth’s perceptions about the Srebrenica massacre, for example, where it is common to hear things like “the deaths have been exaggerated” or “if they had not been killed, we would have been killed.” The excuses range from explicit denial to various moral justifications.

What is paradoxical is that when I ask youth if these events should be part of the public discourse they will say “no, this is in the past. We need to move on.” But at the same time there is an obsession with talking about atrocities committed against Serbs in World War Two. There is a severe pronouncement of Serbian victimhood across all generations.

One problem is the information teens receive, from families, but also from institutions and the media. Accounts of World War Two will focus exclusively on atrocities against Serbians and have no mention of Jews or the Holocaust. This is (an) officially adopted curriculum that is the same across the Republic of Srpska, not just what they hear at home.

F24: Is the prospect of joining the EU interesting Serbians, or are they anti-European?

S.C.C.: Unfortunately I have not looked at the questions or measured it in any scientific way. My general judgment is that it depends on who you ask. The official politics of Serbia are pro-Western, pro-EU.

I don’t think Serbians tend to be against the EU, but they have other values and priorities: Serbianhood. Their land, ideology and history. A majority of Serbian youth would tell you they would choose poverty over giving up some part of their Serbianhood.

The level of identification is very high. It is very high across all groups, but it is especially strong among ethnic Serbs.

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