The white walls represent a group of courageous and determined people. Behind the extraordinary mural “The Whistleblowers” by Croatian artist Miron Milić, dedicated to all whistleblowers fighting against non-transparency, are the offices of some of the human rights organizations the best known in Croatia. Documenta – Center for Dealing with the Past is one of them. This is where we meet its director, Right Livelihood winner Vesna Teršelič, to talk about the interplay between peace and justice in post-Yugoslav countries.
Moving from dispute over facts to dialogue over interpretations
Teršelič received the Right Livelihood Award in 1998 jointly with Katarina Kruhonja from the Center for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights (Croatia), who is also a member of the Documenta board of directors. The award was recognition from Kruhonja And by Teršelic dedication to long-term peacebuilding and reconciliation in the Balkans. In fact, together they were among the leaders of a peace movement that was the main driving force behind Croatia’s nascent civil society in the 1990s.
Today, 25 years after receiving the award, Teršelič welcomes us into his busy office. During World War II, the building served as a shelter for Italian refugees. Today, thanks to the vital work of Documenta, the building honors its past by giving hope to thousands of victims of the Yugoslav War.
Documenta was founded in 2006 to encourage the process of dealing with the past, establishing the truth about the war in Yugoslavia and moving the debate from contesting facts, such as the number of people killed, to a dialogue on the interpretation of facts.
Has the transition from an argument to a dialogue occurred? Just like history, the answer is not black and white.
Teršelič admits that in a way, part of her work is still where it was 25 years ago when she received the Right Livelihood Award.
“For most victims (of war crimes), the investigations are not completed,” she said. “For most of them, the thirst for justice remains unsatisfied. »
She then cites several reasons for this, including the lack of expertise of prosecutors and insufficient financial remedies. Furthermore, more than 60 percent of war crimes trials in Croatia take place in absentia.
“Regional cooperation between post-Yugoslav countries is not even at the level it was when Croatia joined the European Union in 2013,” she explains. “Many questions remain unanswered, but it is important not to think about justice only through the lens of criminal justice, but also to examine the importance of reparations and the obligations of state institutions (to support survivors ). »
However, there are also positive changes, focused on education and youth. Over the past years, Teršelič and his team have found new ways of working with young people and, together with different partners, have implemented educational programs at national and European levels. They are also working to produce new innovative educational and integrative materials to bring the multi-layered history of the 20th century closer to the younger generation.
This is not an easy task, especially considering the context of the region where, as Teršelič explains, one must consider at least three eras of the past: the aftermath of the First World War; the Second World War, including the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma and Serbs; and the Yugoslav War.
In Teršelič’s work with different layers and narratives of the past, healing through sharing, listening and appreciating different war experiences is essential.
“We invest a lot of energy in documenting the facts, in recording personal memories,” says Teršelič. Over the years, they recorded more than 500 interviews with wartime witnesses in Croatia and other post-Yugoslav countries.
Teršelič and his team’s comprehensive approach to teaching formal and non-formal history and dealing with the past is paying off. For example, in 2007, Documenta published a “Supplement to Recent History Textbooks,” which sparked lively debates in the country. However, today, most of the controversial contents and methods used in the “Supplement” have become a standard part of history textbooks in Croatia.
Additionally, since Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, the country’s young people have benefited from extraordinary travel and study opportunities. These opportunities helped them develop multi-perspective visions, which gives Teršelič hope.
“One of the sad consequences of war is the pressure for simple, one-sided interpretation,” she says.
Lessons from the Yugoslav War
Teršelič’s work primarily focuses on post-Yugoslav countries, but the methodologies and vision she and her team have developed over the decades are used beyond the region. Since 2014, under the leadership of Teršelič, Documenta has cooperated with many Ukrainian civil society organizations. Since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Documenta has also begun to cooperate with local Ukrainian authorities, prosecutors and institutions that prosecute war crimes and support survivors.
According to Teršelič, during and immediately after the Yugoslav War, war crimes investigations were not of high quality. Prosecutors and state authorities lacked the necessary expertise.
“This is why I now welcome prosecutors from Ukraine: I am fully aware of the tasks that await them,” she says. “All survivor support tasks require cooperation between civil society organizations and government institutions; I would say that it also requires a clear awareness of feminist principles.
She also cooperates with Russian colleagues, notably the Right Livelihood Laureate Memorial 2012, which has a clear position against this war.
She hopes that the Ukrainian authorities will not repeat Croatia’s mistake when it comes to reparations for victims of war crimes. The first law on reparations appeared in Croatia in 2015, providing a framework for survivors of wartime sexual violence. Teršelič says it didn’t come soon enough.
“This law was passed 30 years after the start of the war. For the children of those who were killed, there is nothing in this law,” she said. “The repairs arrived, and it’s good that they arrived, but it was very late. »
Speaking about the Russian war in Ukraine, Teršelič is visibly upset: “Unfortunately, I fear that the war will continue and I am sadly aware that every day, with each new person killed, new scars will appear that will last for decades. to, maybe not to cure, but to make life bearable… I can’t imagine how many decades it will take to end it.
Reflecting on the essence of his work, inspired by both his professional experience and his lived experience during and after the war, Teršelič concludes that “it is this interaction between peace and justice, how to combine recognition with work building confidence.” For Teršelič, this becomes relevant not only for Croatia and other post-Yugoslav countries, but also for the rest of Europe.
“During Russian aggression, we in Europe once again became aware of the importance of supporting each other, insisting on justice and thinking about measures that can bring us closer to justice and peace “, says Teršelič.
The work to which Teršelič has devoted his energy and wisdom over the past three decades does not bring quick results. How can we maintain hope when tangible progress may not be visible for many years? For Teršelič, these are the two answers: the resilience of survivors and the curiosity of young people who come to volunteer at Documenta.
“They come with very good proposals: how to continue, how to initiate things in a different way,” explains Teršelič.