All victims have the right of acknowledgement of their suffering

Vesna Terselic, born 1962, was founder of the Croatian Anti-War Campaign. For the „dedication to a long-term process of peace-building and reconciliation in the Balkans“, she was honored with the Right Livelihood Award in 1998, together with Katarina Kruhonia from the Centre for Peace, Non-Violence, and Human Rights. In 2004, Vesna Terselic established „Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past“ . The key reason was the experience of suppression and falsification of war crimes between 1941 and 2000. In an alliance with more than 900 organization and individuals from all ex-yugoslavian countries, Vesna Terselic works hard to establish regional truth commissions in 2011. This could be a great chance not only for the victims but also for the whole region to overcome the hardened structures of ethnic entities.

What is your personal vision on peace and reconciliation?

I personally prefer the word „peace-building“, not „reconciliation“. „Reconciliation“ puts a huge burden on the victims. They fear that they would be forced to „reconciliation“ before their suffering is acknockledged. For me the precondition of sustainable peace is acknowlegding of suffering of the survivors of violence. And therefore it is very important that the names of survivors and victims are known and also the conditions in which violations took place. I believe that every victim who suffered has a right to truth, justice and reparations, and also has a right to a guarantee that such acts will not be committed any more. The governmental institutions have this obligation, and it is very important to advocate that.

You are the director of Documenta in Zagreb – what is the goal of your organization?

Documenta documents, especially war crimes. We go from village to village, from place to place, from house to house, documenting what happened to the people, to the killed and missing. Before we make that we do an extensive research in books, in newspapers, in scientific institutions and so on, of everything what happened. In the field, through speaking with people, we gather data. This is ongoing, and it is very expensive. For documenting human losses in Croatia we might need the next five years, and I am not sure will we have funds to continue even for the next year. This truth-finding should be done by scientific and governmental institutions. And because there was no political will to do that we actually started to do it ourselves, because we realized that this work simply has to be done.

Do you also record personal memories?

Yes. In the next three years we plan to record five hundred interviews. We put some interviews on our webpage. The new good thing is that we translate them also in English so that they are accessible for people from other countries. We believe that this personal view on war is very important. It includes not only what happened but also how it was for the survivors and what they need now.

An interview can be dangerous for victims. Many things can be sticked in behindness, they are coming up again. What about the psychological treatment afterwards?

For these 500 interviews we have psychologists. There was and is support to speak up. But these 500 narrators are not necessarily the survivors of the most cruel war crimes. With these interviews we not only cover the nineties, we cover a very long period of time, from 1941 on. The memories should be preserved for contemporary but also future generations. The official narration about the Second World War, extrajudicial executions in the aftermath of war and the other wars is not rich enough, it is simplified. And the personal voices bring to us how it was.

Did you discover links between the violence in the Second World War and the next war?

Acts of violence during the Second World War and in its aftermath has contributed to the preparations of war. They deserved also as executions for the next acts of violence. As facts have not been properly documented and suffering was not acknowledged, it was easy to manipulate with numbers and incite fear.

It that a reason why you also monitor war crime trials?

Yes, we monitor them systematically since 2004 together with other organizations from Croatia like the Centre for Peace, Non-violence, and Human Rights in Osijek or the Civic Comitee for Human Rights in Zagreb. We thought about constructive criticism to prosecutors because we would like to encourage investigations to move faster. We would like to have so many crimes processes as it is possible. Survivors look at the trials as the most practical and the most important facility for them.

Why do you suggest a regional truth commission?

Beside realizing what courts eventually are doing is limited, we advocate a regional commission on establishing facts about war crimes and other human rights violations. To build a regional truth commission is the common proposal of human rights organization, organizations of victims, women´s groups and youth organizations. It is a coalition of more than 900 organizations and individuals from all post-yugoslavian countries. So I believe that we contribute to a move towards sustainable peace, and that this acknowlegdement of suffering through saying what happened would have healing effects on survivors and the whole society.

And you think that peace-building is possible through this complexe form of truth-building?

Yes. Because facts about killings and missed people cannot and should not be disputed. It should become inpolite to dispute facts. Interpretations will always be different on the different sides of war, I believe this is democratic. But we should not dispute how many where killed in Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo. Let´s establish lists of names. People should be known as well as the circumstances under which they disappeared or have been killed. Families of missing people should find informations. For example in Croatia the number of missed people is more than 1.900, for the whole Balkans it is more than 15.000 missing and more than 120.000 of killed and missing.

You collaborate with more than 900 organizations – how is it possible?

We gather on very huge events, on forums, on which there might be more than 300 people. But mostly we gather on small events with between 20 and 70 people which are mostly organized in small towns directly affected by war. Now we discuss about a statute of regional commission. On the 1 June 2011 we will give our proposal parallely in Sarajewo, Zagreb, Belgrade, Pristina, Ljubljana, Skopje, Podgoriza to the parlaments, governments and presidents of our countries.


Our demand is that they should establish such a commission. It will have legitimacy if it is supported by governmental institutions. We cannot do that as civil society. The different governments of the different countries should establish a joint commission through international agreement. The regional commissions as we discuss it now would have a seat in Sarajevo and offices in different countries.

The commission would work more or less like in South Africa?

The commission would function like other truth commissions. Its goal is to establish facts. It would have sessions on which victims from different sides of war would speak out and would deal with different war crimes in different towns. But it would also have sessions dealing with the responsibility or role of institutions and media in preparation for war and in carrying out different dimensions of war. It would have these different sessions finally to prepare a report in which facts will be documented, with the names of killed and missing and a list of detention camps and places where people were been raped or tortured. For us as human right organizations and for survivors it was very important to discuss such an initiative. Since 2006 we are in dialogue how to do this, how to establish facts on a regional level, from the perspective of different ex-yugoslavian countries. And the commission is our proposal.

Interview: Ute Scheub

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