Cultural Centers – Places That Cultivate a Culture of War Crime Denial

On September 9, 2021, the children’s section of the library “Dositej Novaković” in Negotin was scheduled to hold a promotion for the book by Veselin Šljivančanin “This is My Land This is Where I Command” (Ovo je moja zemlja ovde ja komandujem). Although in the end the library cancelled this event, the question remained whether war criminals had a place in public institutions, particularly in cultural centers where they have the opportunity to present their works, typically about denying established facts about the wars of the 1990s, to a wider audience.

To answer this question, first we must remember who Veselin Šljivančanin is. During the war in Croatia, he was a Major of the Yugoslav People’s Army and the security officer of the First Guards Motorized Brigade and Operation Group South. In the subject known as “Vukovar Hospital”, Šljivančanin was, together with Mile Mrkšić and Miroslav Radić, accused by the ICTY of participating in a joint criminal enterprise with the goal of persecuting Croats and other non-Serbs who remained in the Vukovar hospital after the city fell. He was arrested in his apartment in 2003 and extradited to The Hague, where he was convicted in 2009. After the conviction was examined in 2010 he ended up sentenced to 10 years in prison for aiding and abetting the murder of 194 war prisoners at the nearby Ovčara farm. The conviction states that Šljivančanin took the Yugoslav People’s Army away from Ovčara, putting the prisoners in the hands of local and paramilitary forces, even though he would have known they would be killed.

Since his release in 2011, he has been living and working in Serbia. In addition to being a member of the Governing Board of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, he is mostly devoted to writing, publishing and promoting his books in public places, usually in cultural centers across Serbia. He is a prolific author, having in just several years published multiple books, with titles like “I Defended the Truth”, “Son, Be A Man”, “Honey and Bile”, “In Service to the Homeland” and the latest one, “This is My Land This is Where I Command”. In his writings, as he has stated, he describes difficult days spent in prison, his struggle to prove the truth in front of a hostile court, but also to “debunk” the acts of some of his fellow inmates.

Veselin Šljivančanin is not the only one to start a new career after some time spent in prison for war crimes. However, he does seem like the most active one. Since 2012, he has had about 30 book promotions across Serbia, mostly in libraries and in cultural centers. Therefore, the public had the opportunity to listen to his version of the events in Vukovar, and more generally the wars in the 1990s, in Belgrade, Užice, Niš, Subotica, Kruševac, Ivanjica, Krupanj, Aleksinac, Pirot, Brus, Ljubovija, Šid, Vrnjačka Banja, Bogatić, Vladičin Ha, Ćuprija and many other cities and towns. His version of the events are the same as the mainstream narrative in Serbia – he argues that Serbs were just defending themselves in the wars, that they are the victims of an international conspiracy and that convictions in the Hague do not matter because that court was founded only to judge the one side. In fact, what Šljivančanin offers through his books is the same majority opinion in Serbia that has remained consistent for decades. For that he has the support of the ruling party, which enables him to perform in cultural centers across the nation. Places that were supposedly designed for promoting cultural and scientific works have become places that promote war criminals, and spread nationalism and the ideas of Greater Serbia. The fact that he can do these things so often and with such confidence suggests that this is a perfectly normal occurrence. We can see that they hold in their hands cultural centers, but also national television stations and most national newspapers. There is no room for debate there, no room for conversation and exchange of opinion, where one could hear about established facts, stories from victims and their family members, or about the need for those responsible to finally be condemned and prosecuted after 30 years. Simply put, in Serbian society everything is secondary to maintaining the image of the Serbian leadership’s faultlessness, and everyone else’s responsibility. No matter how many convictions are reached at The Hague, no matter how many easily accessible facts about the events of the 1990s are released, the nationalist narrative promoted on TV and in public spaces is stronger – because it has the support of the ruling party, the media and the whole state apparatus.

Veselin Šljivančanin picked an appropriate title for his book “This is My Land This is Where I Command”. Because really, Serbia is commanded by Šljivančanin and a group of people in power that is also responsible for the wars of the 1990s. They are the ones that keep us away from confronting responsibility, away from building a positive relationship with our neighbors, and away from respect for the judicial process and human rights. Nearly thirty years have passed since the wars ended, but it seems like we are as far away as we ever were from condemning crimes and removing criminals from public life.

Ivana Žanićis a law expert with a master’s degree in chain of command and responsibility in international courts’ jurisprudence. In the last couple of years she has been working on sexual crimes during wartime. She is the Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Center.