Gruppenbildung ohne Feindbilder ? (1992 - Kopenhagen)
Veranstalter: Österreichische UNESCO-Kommission und Volkshochschule Brigittenau


The practise of group identities without enemy images (1992 - Copenhagen)
hosted by the Danish Secretariat of the Unesco World Decade for Culture



Mirjana Polic-Bobic (Zagreb)

How Does a Group Recognise Itself as an Enemy Image? [*]

The contributions for this meeting were encouraged to speak about the practise of group identities without enemy images. The example given about the company (i.e. sharing daily hardships) and not the enemy as the nationalising factor among the French conscripts in the First World War reminded me instantly of a phenomenon symptomatic of a similar group integrating factor I saw in Zagreb in November and December 1991, as I happen to work near the hotel where a larger group of those inhabitants of Vukovar that somehow got out during the two last days of the siege of the city were lodged for a period of time.

There is no direct parallelism between the example given in the call for papers and the one I have proposed myself to describe in the following, mainly for two reasons. In the first place, French soldiers or conscripts in the First World War formed a huge separate group within the society, while one cannot speak of the Vukovar group in terms of soldiers or conscripts sorted out of the rest of the society consciously and with a very determinate purpose: those that were lodged in the hotel were mostly members, or rather the remaining parts of former families. Secondly, not even men in the group had previously joined it as soldiers. They were the inhabitants of a city who became a sort of volunteers, soldiers or simply defenders after they realised they have to fight back if they are to survive.

However, the link between them and the nationalising or integrating factor among the French soldiers consists in two points: both of them had to deal daily with fierce and (in the Vukovar case) far better armed enemy, and in my quick association of a marginal, but exceptional sign of the idea of belonging together and sharing hardship which I actually saw among them on several occasions: several of the members of that group would embrace each other tightly while they were sitting in big armchairs in the hotel lobby and either talking or being silent (which seemed to be the predominant attitude on the occasions I saw them). In a culture where people like expressing themselves by rather sharp gestures, this particular gesture in men's company belongs almost exclusively to farewell parties before conscripts leave for the army, and it also forms a part of some of the oldest men's folk dances. There have been no investigations of the integrating factors among the members of this particular group, or any similar or analogous one so far. What could be perceived from their testimonies to the TV and to the press, let alone dialogues with some of them, was that they referred to their profound worries about the appalling number of those reported missing as well as to the extent in which each family had been affected by the high number of casualties in the community as a whole, to the hardships they had been through and to the solutions of some of the most difficult problems daily bombing presented (shelters, power generators in the hospital, the wounded, the new-born babies, food and water supplies). When referring to the attackers, they would almost as a rule point to the difficulty they had when trying to understand their reasons as well as the grade of cruelty they exercised.

The expulsion of the inhabitants of Vukovar from their homes is not the first case of ethnic cleansing after the Second World War, and far from being the first one in former Yugoslavia before and during the 1991. However, it was the first one to be so vividly televised, and the fact that it did not pass unperceived makes it different form the others: the presence of the image on TV-screens during several months prevented the case from being sent into oblivion too quickly, like it happened to the Shiite minority in Iraq, and to some others. It was transmitted widely and from points of view that the reporters found suitable or justified. So as the shots of it reached quite far, the question about not only the opinion about it, but the attitude towards it, or overall images of it that inevitably appeared on different levels is legitimate. What follows is an attempt to point to the attitude it caused in different surroundings, which in this paper stand for different types of discourse.

Several reports from Vukovar the day it fell provided for, or at least pointed to, probable guidelines for the possibly friendly or unfriendly images of the group. Various TV nets presented the sight of the survivors leaving the city in ruins in a long file in a clearly expressive mix with the yellowish photos of the bombarded Guernica as well as with those of the exodus of the Jews from Prague and from the Warszaw ghetto during the Second World War. The brief comments that followed pointed invariably to the black spots in European collective memory and can be summarised as follows: "Is it possible that we see happening once more what we thought belonged exclusively to European bad conscience?"

At the same time, however, a different point of view has been promoted through the media: those TV reporters who were escorted to the spot by the Yugoslav People's Army together with some high politics dignitaries offered reports in which the interpretation that the city (although destroyed) was not attacked but freed from the "evil fascists" who apparently lived there by some fatal mistake while the city was secretly waiting to be freed was almost taken for granted. That particular case of the display of power of the TV as the most efficient agent in the image-forming today deserves special attention: the shots of Yugoslav People's Army officer greeting and soothing their fellow-Serbs (which their own soldiers bombed for months together with the rest of the population) obviously could not be explained easily taking into consideration the images of the same case presented previously. There are two elements that can possibly account for the change. Either the scenes of the attackers (who were no longer presented as such, but as faithful sons of their own nation) soothing those that survived (their own) attacks, or the authority of the highly esteemed political figures witnessing it all (which may automatically stand for the righteousness of what he is witnessing). Shortly afterwards, the first one among these reports won an important international contest in the field, allegedly due to the importance the subject acquired on the TV nets during 1991.

Obvious divergences in the treatment of the phenomenon, which virtually obeys a rather recognisable scheme, on the part of different witnesses and their reports made way for an amazing freedom of judgement upon it. The term "freedom" in this case almost takes the meaning of "irresponsibility" because the totality of its context was surprisingly seldom being taken into consideration.

What was going on with the Vukovar survivors in the meantime? Apart from whatever hardship they have been going through, the situation they were in prevented them from either the awareness of the controversial image they acquired in the reports and comments upon them or from taking part in the current image-forming. As the unfavourable image-formers analysed them only very seldom either as a group or individually after the exodus (the uneasiness of the contrast with those who were put to live in their demolished homes after they left probably presented too wide a gap to be spanned) they cannot even be given the status of a sheer object of observation or description. As their very existence has become too unpleasant to be dealt with, which was obvious from the first TV-comment mentioned above, they have actually been pushed aside and instead of them or those like them as a symptomatic product of the situation, several types of arguments and mental constructs freed from the weight of the factual situation appeared and started to circulate.

What all the comments of that type have had in common was the binary structure: the situation was usually presented as a balanced sequence of motives, causes and results which depended entirely upon its internal dynamics, and as such had nothing in common, nor had any contact with either the geographical or the cultural space inhabited by those who were able to form and give opinions about them. Notions as "ancient hatred" and the like were promoted among them and they started to create a barrier of substantial differences between the space commented upon and the one that provided the comments and explanations. Due to the charm of the parallelisms they have been finding and using as a way out towards the conclusions they found suitable, the conclusions often ousted real analyses.

I will try to present the fate of my group on the basis of some of the issues characteristic of the war against Croatia in 1991 taken up by the discourse of two ideologically and intellectually influential groups by trying to explain why it was doomed not to make itself recognisable by the "rest of the world" through the concepts they use.

One of the issues is the mass, systematic and strategically planned rape of women of all ages on one part, and its understanding as well as the response to it on the part of a very active trans-national feminist movement in the former Yugoslavia on the other. Since the first reports on ethnic cleansing in Croatia appeared, long before the term got into use in international press and politics, there had been reports on rape as one of the most frequent means of terror in the occupied areas as well as in the first concentration camps, mostly not localizable by international political actors or foreign press (which because of that became virtually equal to non-existing). Eighteen months later, the studies on war crimes, including this issue, showed the magnitude of the problem and the variety of levels it left the impact on. The Vukovar survivors have given more than one piece of evidence that one of the first things Yugoslav Army did after having entered the town was to divide prisoners into female and male groups, take children above 14 from their mothers if they were males and keep them in separate camps. That was the beginning of the practise widely spread later on in Bosna and Hercegovina. The problem should have, by all means, been a temptation to the feminist discourse.

Why was there no response to it on the part of the members of former feminist groups in former Yugoslavia? Being transnational groups whose apparently marginal, but virtually stable and important social position needed the image of their country as a harmonious multicultural community of equal rights for all ethnic groups, they were confronting a problem which they obviously were not able to handle because it clashed with their basic hypothesis: social problems existing in Yugoslavia are not based on ethnic inequalities, but on the division on genders. Such a standpoint has been exploited for a long time by Yugoslav feminists and has always proved useful: the division of the society into the man/woman pattern blurred other possible patterns which could have shown other possible approaches to the same - obviously troubled - society. That same pattern had proved useful in an analogous case, previous to this one: namely, the maltreatment and misuse of the woman's body as an effective element of the decades-long terror of the Yugoslav Army on Kosovo because once analysed, it would proove what they have desperately trying to conceal: namely, that the Yugoslav society was divided into one privileged big nation and all the others, who were considered bad by nature because they were the "others" and the official politics always treated them as a potential danger for the unity of the country, and that all those issues that might have been perceived as the man/woman division should also be examined in the light of that basic and all-pervading division. So they decide to substitute the problem which touches the core of their movement ideology by those issues that help their desperate attempts to put together the pieces of war-torn Yugoslavia, without recognising that it was Yugoslavia who tore itself into pieces: they write about the new borders as the new "walls in Europe", aiming at the freshness of the symbolic value of the Berlin wall in European minds, about the prospects for the ban of the right to abortion without a single mention of the phenomenon of mass rape or connection between the two, or about the commonplaces of tough daily life in a communist country well known from the world-famous novels written by Czech dissident fiction authors, such as the lack of underwear or cosmetics which resulted in an uniformed looks of all women, etc.

The second pattern that has failed to deal with the issue in the way in which it could have expressed some important features of its own nature, and will be mentioned as a complementary to the previous one, is the one that investigates the rights of the minority groups within wider social contexts. While Vukovar was struggling for survival, their inhabitants were not recognised (as a rule) as a smaller group within a bigger group (i.e. belonging to a smaller nation: Croatian, attacked after having had been left defenceless, defenceless by definition because in Yugoslavia they had never been admitted to professions that had to do with arms such as police, secret police and army) and a demonized group (labelled as inherently fascist and evil, always ready to work against the unity of the country). Shortly after they had been expelled, Croatia was internationally recognised as a sovereign state, and by that means the group passed to form part of the majority with its own territory, government and army. The change blurred the factual attributes of the group once again: Those international groups or institutions that have been investigating the rights of the national minorities in the recently recognised Croatia centred their attention mainly on the Serb national minority. There is, however, a point in which the survivors of the siege of Vukovar, had they been approached, could have given interesting pieces of information, because the groups which defended the city integrated also the members of the minorities living in it: Hungarians, Slovaks, Ukrainians.

The basic doubt following these considerations is whether or not a description or a consideration of social and political phenomena that appeared in South-Eastern, Central and Eastern Europe recently, which include our group, is possible within the schemata used in the types of discourse mentioned.

The description of the phenomenon of mass rape where the victims had been chosen according to their ethnicity as war against women blurs not only the element it is referring to, but also helps to blur the rest. At one point it contributed to the marginalization, or neglect, of the real problem, but on the other hand, it has brought itself into a dead-end street once the phenomenon has finally been recognised and labelled in the case of Bosnian (Muslim and Croat) women. Has it, by so doing, expelled itself from a serious debate about that or any other similar issue?

A negative answer would probably be the right one, because a general reluctance to question the efficiency of their own schemata and criteria, characteristic of the two types of thinking mentioned in this paper, represents just a clean-cut example of a well-known phenomenon of intellectual laziness and promptness to evade researching any issue that puts to trial the justification of one's basic presuppositions. They proved to be as surprised by the events as the international political actors, and therefore they defied them by not analysing them but by trying to judge them instead, which is exactly how the political actors confronted the same issues.

The falsity of the construction: men fighting women, matches perfectly the falsity of one of the politicians' dilemmas: whether to use the term "blockade" against those who have caused slaughter and destruction or not, because the term has aggressive connotations. The disregard and open hostility towards the pleas Vukovar women repeatedly made for their sons' and husbands' return from the concentration camps on the part of leading ex-Yugoslav feminists - on the grounds that it put forward such a traditionalist social structure as a family instead of preferring their female identity - matched perfectly with the expressions of surprise on the part of determined centres of political power that any ethnical group should identify its ambitions with the notion of national emancipation, since that step in the evolution the European society has been overcome in the eighteenth century. Thus the prevailing self contentment finds the existence of phenomena that do not fit into their constructs useless and annoying, and thus the Vukovar group turns out to be as unwelcome an image as that of those directly involved in the attack against it.

Once the phenomenon has been so thoroughly marginalized and pushed to the unconscious, the intellectual and moral relevance of the discussions sustained about it should have lost their validity. However, whenever any of the arguments they put forward was used to shield political performances on the part of the powerful political actors outside former Yugoslavia unfriendly to our group, or when the political and the intellectual discourse ran in parallel, the constructs parallel to the reality described turned out to be quite powerful. Political power and the power of the media which spread it blurred the lack of argument. Politics seemed to have given them the necessary flavour of reality they could not provide for otherwise. The new collaborators very trickily made the next step they both needed in order to maintain the credibility of their discourse: they consciously pushed the issue to the margins, or almost out of the world they belong to, and by placing it there they reaffirmed their position of the centre, of that one who prescribes criteria and opens the gates of the "civilised world", as they referred to themselves.

That division into "us" (civilised world) and "them" (the pretentious uncivilised outskirts) finally took the place of analyses or field research results. Once the "other" has been pointed out as the different one in the sense that it has been placed on an inferior stage, any political standing or pragmatism applied to him has been allowed just in the same way it was institutionalised in the Spanish politics towards the American Indians, who were assigned the role of the "others" 500 years ago.

This division establishes a new geographical division into safe areas opposed to the areas that seem to give ground to whatever is unexpected, chaotic, dreadful and repulsive: air raids, slaughters, concentration camps, destruction, hunger.

So from that optic angle our group ends up in the place of the enemy. Enemy of the ordered world or of certain types of discourse? What this article has tried to show is the latter: it is just a part of this world, or a part of the "new world disorder" as the press has recently put it. What its new position can prove, however, is that those types of discourse that aim at globally valid answers to the dilemmas they believe to be identical everywhere and which they artificially uniform by their basic hypotheses, fail at the attempt to reduce the reality to the images they only can conceive of.

© Mirjana Polic-Bobic, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Zagreb, Croatia

[*] to be quoted as:
Mirjana Polic-Bobic »How does a group recognise itself as an enemy image?«, Paper presented at the 2nd UNESCO expert meeting in the series Overlapping Cultures and Plural Identities on "The practise of group identities without enemy images" in Copenhagen, 3-5 December, 1992, hosted by the Danish Secretariat of the Unesco World Decade for Culture.

Gruppenbildung ohne Feindbilder ? (1992 - Kopenhagen)

The practise of group identities without enemy images (1992 - Copenhagen)