Guilt As Destiny

03/14/2015 03:28 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015

Diaspora communities played a major role in feeding the fires of conflict in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As Paul Hockenos detailed in his book Homeland Calling, émigré communities of Serbs, Croats, Kosovars and others supported nationalist leaders, funded guerrilla armies, returned to fight in the wars and serve in the new governments, and even generated some of the more extreme ideas that shaped the genocidal agendas of the players on the ground.

Less attention has been paid to the émigrés who worked on behalf of peace and reconciliation in former Yugoslavia. These activists supported peace organizations in the region, helped to spread the word of human rights violations, and worked in large numbers for international organizations, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.

Sociologist Mira Oklobdzija is one of these latter émigré activists. When I met her in Zagreb in 1990, she was a human rights activist and active on feminist and anarchist issues. She left Croatia not longer after, but for personal reasons, not because of the war. Relocated to the Netherlands, she began to raise money to support independent media in former Yugoslavia.

"From Amsterdam, I'm sure that I did more than I could have done from Zagreb," she told me when we met again 23 years later in Trieste. "I collected enormous amounts of money, including from the Dutch government, which went to Feral Tribune, Vreme, and so on. I couldn't have done that kind of thing in Croatia, but it was possible to achieve it with a few others in Amsterdam."

Still, she felt guilty. In the early 1990s, she wrote an unpublished essay entitled "Guilt as Destiny" that conveyed her feelings. "I just gave it to a few friends who were abroad, who also didn't live in Yugoslavia any more," she said. "They told me, 'Oh yes, I feel the same.' It talked about feeling guilty because you are somewhere else. I was feeling worse than people who were getting used to things in Belgrade and Zagreb, before things got worse there. For example, one day I was sitting in Amsterdam and calling my mother. This was when Zagreb was bombed a few times. I asked, 'How are things today?' And she said, 'Peaceful.' And then, all of a sudden, she says, 'Oh my god, it's coming again!' Then you hear the air raid siren. You're in Amsterdam and you can hear the siren over the phone, and they are afraid, and you can do nothing."

It was not long before Oklobdzija began to address a different kind of "guilt as destiny." She began to work for the Tribunal. She would end up spending more than a decade there before retiring and moving to Italy.

We met shortly after a series of controversial Tribunal verdicts exonerating top Serbian and Croatian military leaders. Those decisions had proven so exasperating to one Tribunal judge, Frederik Harhoff, that he distributed a letter to friends and associates in which he took issue with these verdicts. The letter was reproduced widely on the Internet, and Harhoff was disqualified from serving in the case against Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party.

The verdicts were also disappointing for Oklobdzija. "You really have the feeling again that you are losing your life and time and energy, and for what?" she said. "I had a similar feeling in the 1980s. You were doing things for the common good and what you got was war. Then you work in an institution like the Tribunal and something like this starts to happen at the end of the mandate. Again, you have the feeling: did I waste my time trying to do this? It's very unpleasant and frustrating."

The Interview

In the 1980s, we all thought that a lot was going on in Yugoslavia: a lot of intellectual curiosity, many new and vibrant trends. In your opinion, what happened? Why did that trajectory suddenly hit a dead end with the rise of nationalism and then the outbreak of war?

The 1980s were a golden age for alternatives. Belgrade was the most vibrant center at that time. Whenever I would go there to see friends, my friends from Zagreb wanted me to take them there. There were good theaters and many alternative people offering new ways, calling for political action, more human rights, more freedom. It was not like Poland where there was a huge movement. (Although there had been a huge nationalist movement 10 years before in Serbia.) Leftists never became a power like that. They became a sort of social force with some influence as a sort of social corrective because they were intellectuals, actors, known people: persons whom people would listen to. We were writing petitions all the time. And we had a lot of good times!

Petitions related to something going on in Yugoslavia?

Yes, for changing laws, helping imprisoned dissidents, and the like. At the end of the 1980s, I was in the center of Zagreb gathering signatures for a petition and one of my activist friends said, "What is this? It's public! There's no mystery, no secrets, no danger anymore!" It was like my encounter with the police. In the final analysis, with our petitions and our activism, swimming against the tide, we had a very strong feeling that maybe we could change something. We didn't change anything. We just got the war and lost 10-12 years of our lives.

We were not a movement. We were just a big family with a serious intention to change something. At the request of Nebojsa Popov, I wrote an article published later in Republika in Belgrade entitled "What Is To Be Done?" When he phoned me I asked him, "What is to be done by whom? You and me?" He said, "Our group of people." I wrote a text, and at the end, I quoted Lazar Stojanovic, who said that the energies are gone and the terrain is rough. I said that the terrain was always rough, and let's hope that not all the energies are gone. Many people continued in different ways. Some entered politics directly. Those who could do something useful got positions, which were sometimes used well, sometimes not. The 1980s were extremely interesting times in terms of social happenings in Yugoslavia.

When I came to Amsterdam, I had six months off from my Institute to prepare my doctoral thesis. I found a mentor in Amsterdam immediately. Then I started to feel guilty. One of the things I wrote then was "Guilt as Destiny." It wasn't published. I felt guilty. I stayed in Amsterdam for personal reasons -- the father of my daughter was living in Amsterdam. I didn't finish my doctoral thesis. Instead, I started working for an NGO focused on helping independent media in Yugoslavia.

I met Branko Horvat, the economist, at that point. He came to Amsterdam in 1992 as part of a reunion of intellectuals from Belgrade and Kosovo. I had a Tibetan cap on. One of the sociologists from Kosovo came to me and said that they, the other participants from Kosovo, thought I was a pro-Serbian sent to provoke them because I was wearing a Montenegrin cap. I said, "No, it's Tibetan!" That was funny.

What was not funny was my encounter with Branko Horvat there. We were not close, but we knew each other rather well. He'd persuaded me to be the last president of the Association for a Yugoslav Democratic Initiative in Zagreb before the war. I wanted to greet him, but he just turned his head. I went up to him and said, "Professor, you don't remember me?"

He said, "I do, but can you tell me why you left?"

I started to explain: "It's not political and..." Then I felt stupid. Why should I explain my life to anyone?

From Amsterdam, I'm sure that I did more than I could have done from Zagreb. I collected enormous amounts of money, including from the Dutch government, which went to Feral Tribune, Vreme, and so on. I couldn't have done that kind of thing in Croatia, but it was possible to achieve it with a few others in Amsterdam. And I didn't finish my thesis. All my friends who stayed in Zagreb finished their doctoral theses. And they have academic careers. I originally didn't want to work at the Tribunal, at the UN, because I knew when I finished working there I would be too old to start an academic career again. It was also not the money that attracted me, though I have to say that the salary was great. Rather, it was the feeling that we were doing something against the bad guys. I hope that we did at least something, though I often wonder if it was good enough. Especially nowadays, with a number of wrong Trial Chamber decisions.

When did you write the essay "Guilt as Destiny"?

At the beginning of my stay in Amsterdam, 1991 or 1992.

Why didn't you publish it?

I didn't know where to publish it. I just gave it to a few friends who were abroad, who also didn't live in Yugoslavia any more. They told me, "Oh yes, I feel the same." It talked about feeling guilty because you are somewhere else. I was feeling worse than people who were getting used to things in Belgrade and Zagreb, before things got worse there. For example, one day I was sitting in Amsterdam and calling my mother. This was when Zagreb was bombed a few times. I asked, "How are things today?"

And she said, "Peaceful." And then, all of a sudden, she says, "Oh my god, it's coming again!" Then you hear the air raid siren. You're in Amsterdam and you can hear the siren over the phone, and they are afraid, and you can do nothing.

I was calling another friend a lot when Belgrade was being bombed by NATO. . She said, "For me it's important that my sons are out of the country so that they can't be mobilized. And maybe we Serbs deserve it." She was sitting in New Belgrade in a 15-floor building. I didn't feel better because of her philosophical approach to the danger of bombs. Some people wanted to stay, some wanted to go but couldn't. You start to compare yourself to those who want to leave but can't.

Did it ever occur to you that if you went back you might have had to leave again immediately?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.