In November 2013, possibly the largest mass grave from the recent Bosnian war was discovered in the village of Tomasica in the vicinity of the East Bosnian city Prijedor – over 470 bodies of Bosniaks and Croats killed by the Serbian forces have been excavated so far, and the excavations are continuing. It is now estimated that the grave contains between 700 and 1000 bodies. The discovery of the Tomasica grave, in a country where over 8000 people are still missing and many war-related issues remain painfully unresolved, provoked a potent reaction of horror, grief, and anger; it forced thousands to re-live their wartime experiences, loss of family members, memories of mass murders and tortures conducted in eastern Bosnia in the early 1990s. In a divided country, the Tomasica events once again brought to the fore the silence of the Serbian political structures on the issue of war crimes, and directed the public’s attention to the numerous problems in the recent functioning of the UN’s ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia] in The Hague (which, in 2013, marked twenty years since its foundation in). But Tomasica, quickly becoming a most powerful symbol for the trauma of the Bosnian war, has also been symptomatic of the persistence of mental suffering in the war’s aftermath: the person who led the International Commission of Missing Persons investigators to the site of the grave was a Serbian witness – an army conscript ordered to unload dead bodies into the grave from a truck in 1992. He reportedly testified that he could not bear to fight his own demons any further, that he had been seeing a killed Bosnian man’s open eyes following him everywhere, and that his testimony brought him relief. How have the Bosnian and other former Yugoslav societies dealt with psychological traumatization caused by the 1990s wars? How has war trauma shaped the development of those societies in the aftermath of the conflicts?
From the beginning, the Bosnian war has been coached in clear psychiatric terminology. The ideological explanations of the outbreak of the war were tightly related to the discourse of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and, at the beginning of the conflicts, the central role was played by psychiatrist politicians and their references to trauma and insanity. Serb war politics in both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was designed by a prominent psychiatrist of Freudian orientation turned Croat Serb leader Dr. Jovan Raskovic and his protégé in Sarajevo Dr. Radovan Karadzic. It was within a decidedly psychiatric and psychoanalytic discourse that both Raskovic and Karadzic conceived of their respective political roles. Both attempted to introduce madness and trauma as central political categories, with the result that post-Communist politics in Yugoslavia became defined as a form of ‘mass psychiatry.’ In Raskovic’s view, ‘For the Serb, the unconscious desire for nation is paramount and has been suppressed by the ideology of class consciousness;’ post-Communist politics thus needed to forge a proper ‘path to the Serbian Oedipal emancipation.’ A proper psychiatric political leadership was thus critical for the success of this project of political transition and national liberation. Within such a carefully crafted medical discourse, even a planned and coordinated act of genocide could be interpreted as the final expression of ‘healthy madness,’ an irrational delirium which emancipated the nation from its own archaic, primitive Other – the Ottoman legacy, the Muslim presence – and set it firmly on the road to modernity and healthy nationalism.
In a very different context, the psychiatric language has persisted well after the war’s end: the interpretations of the conflict and its aftermath still revolve around the theme of open wounds and psychological re-traumatization. The universality of psychological discourse about the Bosnian war has indeed been one of its most striking characteristics: almost every war crimes-related legal decision in both local and international courts tended to provoke a psychologically-termed response from different victims’ groups. The recent acquittals of high-ranking Serbian and Croatian military and political functionaries at The Hague Tribunal led to a number of negative reactions, especially from Bosniak associations, who reported their loss of faith in the tribunal and considered its decisions an insult to their traumatic experiences. The November 2013 decisions of the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg and the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina to release ten Bosnian Serb war crime convicts – six of whom were accused of participation in the Srebrenica genocide – due to a procedural issue and re-try them, further reinforced the negative atmosphere among survivors: Munira Subasic, who lost twenty-two male family members in Srebrenica, said that she felt victimized all over again, and that the criminals ‘could even be standing behind [her] back.’
However, in spite of the potency of such language of psychiatry, the post-Yugoslav states have consistently demonstrated their disregard for the actual psychological problems of their populations. In the aftermath of such a brutal war which primarily targeted civilians, psychological traumatization has remained the subject of non-governmental organizations or autonomous victims’ associations and mainly depended on personal initiative, while no organized or systematic state medical assistance was ever implemented; as a result, a great majority never received any psychological help whatsoever. No meaningful policy for dealing with the war trauma was ever formulated, and masses of traumatized citizens were rarely offered any help in dealing with their persisting mental issues – other than the diagnosis of PTSD and meagre financial aid in the case of certain groups of military veterans.
Part of the reason has been, of course, that the wartime destruction has left these states economically impoverished, with state medical services shrinking, of low quality and increasingly corrupt (particularly in Bosnia, whose complex institutions are often paralyzed as a result of manipulations of ethnic politics). But perhaps even more importantly, the countries most deeply involved in the conflicts of the 1990s – Bosnia and Serbia – have failed, for a number of structural reasons, to integrate the memory of the war into their post-conflict self-image and identity narratives. As a consequence, no stable politics towards understanding and treating the 1990s war trauma has emerged: medical interpretations of war-related mental wounds exist in specific social and cultural contexts and tend to be determined by the collective memory of the conflicts in question, reflected through a collective understanding of the place of those conflicts in the society’s history.
Psychiatric and psychological definitions of war trauma in any particular society tend to reflect the dominant socio-political narrative, and are symptomatic of the most pressing problems the society is dealing with. Dealing with psychological traumatization after war involves attempts to fit potential solutions to lingering problems within the dominant narrative. Twentieth century war psychiatry has proven this numerous times, not least in Yugoslavia itself. For example, in the aftermath of WWII, when various Yugoslav populations were dealing with different forms of profound psychological traumatisation, it was soldiers’ trauma that attracted the state’s undivided attention and became the symbol of wartime psychological suffering. What became known as ‘partisan hysteria’ or ‘partisan neurosis’ was a complicated and apparently unique psychiatric condition, which, according to leading Yugoslav psychiatrists of the era, only affected the victorious soldiers of the Communist resistance movement. While in other combatant countries soldiers’ neurosis mainly comprised anxiety states, shivering or combat fatigue, ‘partisan hysteria’ presented a radically different clinical picture. British, American, Canadian or French soldiers, although on the winning side, suffered from a psychiatric disorder which signified their wish to withdraw from the frontlines, and was symptomatic of their fear of and emotional distance from the battles; by contrast, the Yugoslav partisans’ dedication to the war’s causes was reportedly never compromised, not even when they clearly suffered mental consequences: ‘partisan hysteria’ consisted of epileptiform trance-like seizures, during which soldiers re-enacted their battle experiences, yelled, ‘shot’, ran, even gave political speeches, and thereby expressed their ‘fighting spirit’. Once they recovered from their attacks, the ill partisans would usually not remember anything they did or said during the seizures.
According to Yugoslav psychiatrists and members of the political authorities of the new socialist state, the most striking feature of ‘partisan neurosis’ was that it revolved around this ‘fighting spirit’, the partisans’ continued willingness to fight and re-live battlefield experiences. Instead of being a symptom of fear or exhaustion, it demonstrated the Communists’ continued dedication and courage. The constructed uniqueness of partisan neurosis served very well to underline the uniqueness of Yugoslavia’s postwar political and military position – as a socialist country which bred a large, independent and ultimately victorious Communist resistance guerrilla movement. In many ways, the official interpretation of ‘partisan hysteria’ was an advertisement for Marxist politics and what it could do for the military morale: it created soldiers whose commitment did not falter even when they were facing the worst of their demons. While Western armies conscripted soldiers and forced them to the frontlines to fight for the interests of the capitalist state, the Yugoslav partisans were volunteers in a uniquely egalitarian people’s army and their interests were identical to those of their new socialist homeland.
However, the postwar revolutionary Yugoslav realities were also fraught with a series of problems as reflected in political and psychiatric interpretations and clinical treatment of partisan neurosis. While the ‘partisan hysterics’ were heroes, they also became a symbol of the pitfalls and complexities of an increasingly socially mobile society. One of the most pressing concerns of the postwar period concerned massive social and economic dislocations and elite turnover – this was indeed what made the Yugoslav postwar transformations into a veritable social revolution. But difficulties were still rather formidable, and the Communist Party worried about some of its own members, including those with little education and of peasant origins, and their capacities for contributing their fair share to the revolution. This became particularly important since the new political and military elite was now to be recruited from the ranks of peasants and workers. So it turned out that ‘partisan hysteria’ reportedly only affected partisan soldiers of peasant origin and with little if any formal education – precisely those about whose potential the Party itself was so ambivalent. As psychiatrists and psychoanalysts explained, and the Party tended to agree, it was those undereducated and immature (‘primitive’) young soldiers who simply could not deal with the pressure of their new high-ranking positions, and then broke down, using their neurotic seizures to remind others of their past military achievements and abilities. ‘Partisan hysteria’ was thus portrayed as the pathology of the social revolution. Therefore, the psychiatric understanding of WWII soldiers’ trauma and its treatment reflected the official narrative of the war and resistance, and ‘partisan hysteria’ was seen through the lens of Yugoslav society’s main preoccupation. The concept was a symptom of its time, and its psychiatric and political connotations served socio-political and economic functions in the turbulent postwar times.
However, fifty years later, the political and social situation following the wars of Yugoslav secession was radically different, and the wars’ effects, meanings and interpretations remain far from clear. In Bosnia, the divided state structure prevented the emergence of a unified narrative of the conflict, as different groups and political alliances within the country constantly challenge each other’s interpretation of war events and wartime suffering, while victims’ associations remain in the lurch, manipulated, impoverished, forced to regularly re-live their worst experiences and to prove the authenticity of their pain. Indeed, the post-1995 set-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not do much to alleviate the re-traumatizing feelings of injustice: the political leadership of one of the two entities, Republika Srpska, remains stubborn in its chauvinistic rhetoric and refusal to take responsibility for wartime massacres and crimes against humanity, and regularly strives to prevent commemorations of the dead and memorializations of war crimes sites (such as former concentration camps) on its territory (in the most recent example of this trend, Hatidza Mehmedovic, of the association ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’, was summoned to the police of the Serbian entity to make a statement regarding her ‘illegal entrance of private property’ after she went to the agricultural cooperative’s hangar in the village of Kravica to pay respects to over one thousand Bosniak men and boys killed there in 1995). Wartime concentration camp internees can still run into their former guards and interrogators in the streets, because only the highest-ranking perpetrators have ever been legally prosecuted. Hundreds of families have been unable to close the war chapter in their lives because the remains of their missing relatives – children, parents, siblings, spouses – have not yet been found or identified. During the war, the Serbian armed groups conducted a campaign of systematic rape, but this crime remains somewhat of a taboo, even now that rape victims have finally been recognized as civilian war victims, after the 2006 Berlin Golden Bear winner film ‘Grbavica’ by Sarajevo’s Jasmila Zbanic brought the issue to the forefront of the country’s political debate.
In Serbia, war veterans from the recent conflicts face similarly formidable obstacles to reintegration in civilian society and especially to receiving sustained state-sponsored medical and psychological help. In this country, the role of perpetrators and questions about individual and social responsibility for mass war crimes has complicated the process of dealing with the memory of the wars. The Serbian state’s ambivalence about its own role in the 1990s wars has resulted in its failure to address the responsibility issues squarely; instead, the country’s governments have continuously chosen to distance themselves from past military involvements and human rights violations, and focus on the (rather uncertain) future of European integration. But this does not only harm the country’s relations with the rest of the region but also leaves former Serbian soldiers in the lurch. Many of the veterans who are now in dire need of psychological assistance have been struggling unsuccessfully with what they saw and did in Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, as well as with developing a stable self-image. How do perpetrators mourn their losses and suffering, and how does a society come to terms with its own citizens whose war participation has been marred by mass war crimes? According to her recent PhD dissertation on Serbian war veterans with PTSD, Belgrade clinical psychologist Olivera Markovic noted that the majority were extremely dissatisfied with their current social and economic position, and resented the state’s neglectful treatment of them as a group (as one of her interviewees said, ‘I defended my country as a patriot and became war invalid, but now I see that this is of nobody’s concern …’). The core problem, in Markovic’s opinion, is that their own relationship to their war activities has become deeply ambivalent, due to the Serbian society’s negative evaluation of the wars of Yugoslav secession, and in particular of the wars’ achievements. This in turn shaped the veterans’ perception that their suffering was in vain, which was reinforced by the state’s sustained neglect of their needs or indeed of their existence. In the absence of any sustained official attempt to come to terms with the wars, war veterans have largely remained unable to make much sense of their involvement in the conflict and of their role in postwar society. Quite ironically, it is one of the most staunchly anti-war non-governmental organizations in Belgrade that developed the only meaningful program aimed at war veterans, and helping them deal with their own psychological issues.
The treatment of ‘partisan hysteria’ in the 1940s Yugoslavia demonstrates the extent to which perceptions of and programs for psychiatric treatment of war trauma depend on the political understanding of wars. In the twentieth century’s culture of universal psychologizing of society and the self, memories of wars tended to be formulated and reinterpreted through the lens of psychological trauma, so that perceptions and the fate of traumatized war veterans or civilians were tightly related to their societies’ collective understanding of the conflicts in question. What happens, though, when the war, which has left hundreds of thousands of victims with severe psychological wounds, has no place in the official memory? Or when, as in Bosnia, over twenty years after it started, the war hasn’t quite ended for so many of its victims? The close relationship between historical memory and treatment of psychological trauma helps to explain the official disregard of mass psychological suffering in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Neither Serbia nor Bosnia has created a stable and coherent political framework for understanding the war, which would make it possible to integrate the issue of war trauma and psychological victimization in the life of the two societies. Certainly, the example of ‘partisan hysteria’ is not one to be followed, but it nevertheless shows that society’s relevance for providing psychiatric and psychological help to war victims and veterans can be intensive and sustained. Maybe there is a way to avoid the overtly political implications of such involvement, and to change the relationship between the politics of memory and the politics of war trauma treatment. It would have to result in the provision of meaningful and considerate psychological assistance to troubled individuals, which would also equip them to become fully-fledged democratic citizens and gain their voice in public discussions of the wars, and it might help these societies overcome their own collective traumas, confusions and denials. This might happen through activities of both the states and a variety of NGOs active in the field of psychology or war memorialization. In this way, re-thinking the meaning and implications of the 1990s war trauma on an individual level could eventually re-shape the collective understanding of the war in a more constructive way.