Yesterday, I was interviewed by Zoran Stupar of Dnevno. Here is an English version of that interview.
Mishka Gora: Remembers with disgust those who did not respond forcefully to Serbian aggression.
I believe the only moral response to what happened in Croatia and then Bosnia was to meet force with force. If the international community had sent troops to fight with the Croatians in 1991 then the war could have been nipped in the bud, and what we witnessed in Bosnia may never even have happened. Even if we accept peacekeeping as a sufficient response, British troops should have been liberating concentration camps as they did in the 1940s instead of stifling under an unconscionably weak UN mandate.
Australian Mishka Góra came to Croatia in the middle of the war, although she originally planned to visit Europe as a tourist. As a humanitarian worker in the war, she witnessed many horrors and has now transferred her wartime experiences onto paper. The book ‘Fragments of War’ is already on sale, including on Amazon, and on Friday will be presented to the public. The book clearly illustrates who started the war in Croatia and who betrayed Croatia; for the foreign reader, she hopes to clarify what legacies the war has left for Croatia today, and she especially condemns the verdict against generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. Today, her main occupation is caring for her three children, and in addition to her writing she is also a photographer.
How did you come to Croatia during the war?
In 1993, I had planned to do a grand tour of Europe, but I felt too distressed by what I was seeing in the news to do so. It didn’t seem right to ‘play the tourist’ somewhere like Venice when people were suffering as victims of war a relatively short distance away in the middle of Europe. I wanted to do something to help.
So initially I came as a field worker in the spring of 1993 but ended up managing a humanitarian organisation and even worked briefly for the UNHCR as a Protection Officer on a special assignment. I stayed for four months and divided my time between refugee camps and the day-to-day bureaucracy of aid work. I had no family or business connection to Croatia, but I’d met various people from the former Yugoslavia growing up in Australia.
What are your strongest memories of the war?
If there is one positive thing I remember about the war, it is the generosity of those who had lost everything. In particular, I will always cherish the selflessness of a Vukovar defender who had ended up in a concentration camp for 271 days and who gave me a cross he had woven from the threads of an army blanket while in captivity.
One of the most negative memories I have is of pacifist ideologues who could not see that their insistence on non-violence was irrational, ludicrous, and ultimately immoral. I believe we have a grave moral duty to halt or repel aggressors and render them unable to cause harm (by the use of lethal force if necessary), that self-defence is not only permissible but a duty, so the stubborn self-righteousness of outsiders who insisted on their right and responsibility to interfere but who nevertheless condemned the use of arms to stop the slaughter of civilians is one of the things I will always recall with utter disgust.
Many people think that the Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia places blame for the war on Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina and that the conviction of Gotovina and Markač was a step in that direction. What do you think?
It undoubtedly appears that way, and I don’t think there is any denying that we are witnessing moral equivalence as an end result. I would, however, be wary of ascribing intent or a “mission” to an entire organisation – this is exactly what the ICTY has so erroneously done to Croatia and its generals (amongst other things) – especially when the avowed mission of the ICTY has always been to avoid collective responsibility. I think the reality is more complicated.
I certainly think that the ICTY was probably set up based on an incorrect assumption of the equal guilt of all parties in the conflict – in the West, there has always been a haughty dismissal of the entire region as the “barbaric Balkans” – and this assumption has poisoned the entire process of law at the Hague. It was also manifested in the Dayton Accords, which demonstrated that the international community didn’t care who was the perpetrator and who were the victims, and now we are even seeing it in the highest courts of justice.
That is not to say that there aren’t individuals at the ICTY who may have a mission to ascribe moral equivalence in order to justify the shameful inaction of the international community during the war, but I think a great deal can be explained by the moral relativism of modern society, the corruption and incompetence of politicians and lawyers, willful ignorance, and the menace of over-bureaucratisation. So, while I agree that the ICTY is engaging in moral equivalence of the most reprehensible kind, I would add that there are underlying factors that shouldn’t be ignored. Whether the ICTY is deliberately setting out to replace notions of truth and justice with the false equality of political correctness or merely lost the ability to discern right from wrong, it is failing to adhere to the most fundamental principles of justice. The upshot of this is that Croatia should never have allowed its hard-won sovereignty to be undermined by signing the Rome Statute and should instead be following the sensible example of nations like the USA and Israel.
Do you feel that the international community should have reacted differently in a political and military sense?
Yes, I abhor appeasement, and I believe the only moral response to what happened in Croatia and then Bosnia was to meet force with force. If the international community had sent troops to fight with the Croatians in 1991 then the war could have been nipped in the bud, and what we witnessed in Bosnia may never even have happened. Even if we accept peacekeeping as a sufficient response, British troops should have been liberating concentration camps as they did in the 1940s instead of stifling under an unconscionably weak UN mandate. Later on, after the success of Operation Storm, the international community again had the opportunity to do the right thing, but instead of consolidating on the military successes under General Gotovina in both Croatia and Bosnia to restore a lasting peace they gave away half of Bosnia to the Serb aggressors. This was utter madness and a complete betrayal of the principles we fought for in World War II. What the legacies will be of this cowardly and irresponsible reaction to the Serb attacks on Croatia and Bosnia only time will tell.
When you first entered Vukovar you were stunned. What do you remember mostly from your days there?
Visually, I remember the annihilation, the awful ruins of an entire city that defy description, the buildings that remained so very beautiful despite the destruction that had been wreaked upon them. Those scenes of devastation will haunt my memories forever. However, I also have very strong memories of the Serb occupation, of people who hadn’t managed to escape and were suffering persecution simply because they weren’t Serb, and of the Serb disdain for Vukovar. There were no efforts to make Vukovar habitable again in the aftermath of the siege. It was as if they wanted to wipe Vukovar off the face of the earth, destroy any trace of the harmony that used to exist, and deny the multicultural and cosmopolitan past of the city. Their passion for its annihilation was so strong that they had been quite indiscriminate in their attack, destroying Serb buildings along with everything else, and I will always remember that – the intense hostility to civilisation itself.
On several occasions in your writings you mention mixed marriages between Croats and Serbs.
Yes, there were many mixed marriages and in one case the husband wanted to kill not only his Croat wife but also his half-Croat son. But, to be fair, I also came across cases where the Serb spouse was deeply opposed to the actions of his or her countrymen and the couple stayed together, but this usually meant moving overseas and breaking or loosening ties with their Serb relatives.
You have written a book ‘Fragments of War’. Why did you decide to make this a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction and not entirely documentary?
There were a number of reasons I decided to “fictionalize” my book. Firstly, I wanted to protect the identities of the people I knew, and changing names isn’t always sufficient. My characters are based on real people, but often they are two or three people thrown into one or I have changed identifying characteristics. Just as I wouldn’t gossip about a friend, I don’t think it’s right to expose other people’s private lives in a book. Secondly, real life isn’t very neat and tidy – I’m not sure people would actually believe my story if I told it as it really happened, simply because that time in my life was unpredictable, haphazard, and at times utterly surreal. Thirdly, I wanted to convey other perspectives of the war – the viewpoints of people who were participants and victims – and that would have been very difficult if I had written only in the first person. Fourthly, for me, the war has connections with WWII that I wanted to explore as a historian in the form of vignettes scattered throughout the book. Finally, Memory is a tricky phenomenon. People often remember things differently only one or two days after an event. I am writing about something that happened nineteen years ago, so I don’t want portray my memories as fact. For me, it is more important to convey the truth of my experiences than to document exactly who said what on a certain day.
Could you treat us to a sentence or two from your book?
“It didn’t matter that none of us were actually Croatian, we all felt like we’d come home. We felt safe, even though almost half of Croatia was either occupied by the enemy or within range of their artillery, and it was as if dark clouds of fear and anxiety had been dispelled by the torrid Adriatic sun.”
Did you do humanitarian work in other countries after Croatia?
After my work in Croatia, I continued to work with refugees but on the other end of the process: resettlement. I worked in both Australia and the USA, mostly teaching refugees English and about the culture of their new home country. I particularly enjoyed working with the Bosnian refugees, as I felt at home drinking turska kava with them and understood what they had been through, but it was also difficult at times because I often felt enraged that they could never go home – because the international community had awarded the Serb aggressors half of Bosnia. One of the unexpected problems when I was in the USA was that my students had two teachers, the other an Englishman, so when our class graduated they did so with very British accents, almost like the Queen’s, and the local Americans (in the Deep South) could hardly understand them.
What do you do now?
I currently spend the bulk of my time as a housewife and mother, but in between the household chores and caring for my young children I work as a writer and photographer. I find I am most productive when I am busy with a variety of activities, so I tend to only spend one to two hours of each weekday writing, though for specific articles or projects I will write in longer spurts. As far as photography goes, my assignments are mostly weddings on a Saturday and they fit very nicely into my schedule.
When was your last visit to Croatia and when will you come again?
My last trip to Croatia was in 2000, and this formed the basis for the epilogue of ‘Fragments of War’. I hope to visit again soon, hopefully to launch a Croatian language edition of my book, but I am expecting my fourth child at Christmas, so it certainly won’t be this year!