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War Propaganda, Mass Violence, and Post-Conflict Reconciliation

BY Alyssa Webb


War Propaganda, Mass Violence, and Post-Conflict Reconciliation

BY JORDAN KIPER, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

On a chilly November night in Sarajevo, I mediated the first reconciliation meeting between presidents from two of the largest veteran organizations in Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina, which I helped to organize and facilitate. Their meeting, which turned out to be very cordial, aimed at accomplishing two goals that many former ex-fighters in the Balkans now share: to reconcile with former enemies and thereby work together as veterans to promote peace in their respective countries.

This reconciliation meeting grew out of my fieldwork with ex-fighters and survivors in Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, even though it was not the focus of my research. My work centers on emic understandings of the Yugoslav Wars, which I investigate through the opinions and life histories of survivors and ex-fighters.

Jordan Kiper IMG_0568 - Version 2My work in the Balkans began as an undergraduate when I went to Serbia as an independent scholar to learn Serbo-Croatian and to study the regional effects of language policies designed after the wars. Years later at the University of Connecticut, I began working with Richard A. Wilson on the effects of war propaganda and inflammatory speech acts, with special attention given to the relationship between language and mass violence. Given the important case study of the Yugoslav Wars, including an array of recent legal precedents and new theories about war propaganda based on events at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), I decided to return to the Balkans for fieldwork. My goal was to assess the effects of war propaganda as asserted by the ICTY and to test several hypotheses developed by scholars of mass violence, many of whom based their ideas on case studies of Yugoslavia Succession.

From 2011 to 2016, I spent over 18 months working with ex-fighters and survivors in former conflict regions of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia Herzegovina. Doing multiregional work that crisscrossed former war zones was often challenging insofar as locals were suspicious of prying outsiders; and because of the nature of my research questions, many suspected me of being affiliated with the ICTY. On one occasion, in the village of Hrtkovci, which was effectively ethnically cleansed after a speech given by Serb nationalist Vojislav Šešelj, nationalists literally chased me out of town. Despite occasional threats, most of my fieldwork was still very pleasant, especially when accompanied by my wife who, from 2015 to 2016, undertook a photography project alongside my field research. With the help of many assistants, we completed our projects, which yielded telling results. However, what we took away from our experiences was a piece of the Balkans, which now feels like a second home. We were deeply impressed by the shared hospitality and humaneness we were shown. Not only were survivors open to our inquiries but so too were ex-fighters. In fact, many individuals invited us into their homes and shared their stories with us, often remarking that they were eager to finally share their perspectives.        Jordan Kiper IMG_0678

As many ethnographers will attest, conducting fieldwork depends on establishing trust and genuine rapport with participants, which we accomplished through honest intentions and cultural competences.  My wife and I learned we had to closely observe cultural norms in order not to engender what is known as inat, a local form of spite used for social control. We also had to engage in druženje: that is, “becoming friends” with our participant population via open conversations and honest signaling, which was often done over drinking coffee or rakija (a local brandy). This also consisted of gaining a community’s trust over weeks or months at a time by literally getting our hands dirty and helping people with their work, allowing us to know one another first and foremost as individuals before we got down to fieldwork. Getting to know so many different people in various regions, we also learned that it makes no sense to say “people of Bosnia believe …” or “Serbian ex-fighters fought because of …” Our extensive with different people—from survivors of crimes against humanity to former paramilitary combatants—revealed to us that the Balkans remains a place that is still largely misunderstood and too often Orientalized by outsiders.

This has become very apparent to me in my own research. For instance, many theorists who have not undertaken field research or basic ethnographic observations in the Balkans too quickly attribute the fratricidal violence of the Yugoslav Wars to dormant ethnic hatreds. These hatreds were allegedly suppressed during Tito’s reign but unleashed by nationalistic war propaganda during Yugoslav Succession. I conducted hundreds of interviews with survivors and ex-fighters and surveyed over seven hundred individuals, finding that survivors and ex-fighters from different regions have significantly different opinions and experiences regarding mass violence. Still, the most significant predictors of participating in mass violence across populations were being subject to strong religious or moral peer pressure to participate in conflict; being recruited and participating in a violence cadre that ritually indoctrinated fighters; or being identity fused with one’s religious group. Contrary to many theorists, war propaganda had differing effects in each region, but religious war propaganda and false news reports were identified as significant factors contributing to mass violence.

Jordan Kiper IMG_0677Coming full circle, the most unexpected outcome of my research is a reconciliation project between veteran’s organizations in the Balkans. It began in May 2016, when I was asked by Serbian veterans to help put them in touch with Croatian and Bosnian veterans, with whom I had also conducted fieldwork. In November of 2016, the first meeting took place between the organizations’ presidents, and it was a success. Because the veterans wish to make their reconciliation efforts a veteran-to-veteran project, I have also helped them connect with a team of US veterans who have also worked on veteran-to-veteran reconciliation projects. With the aims of having a second meeting in 2017, we are all hopeful about where the project could go.