Vesna Teršelič: “During the Russian aggression, we in Europe once again became aware of the importance of insisting on justice”
White walls depict a group of brave, determined people. Behind the extraordinary mural “Whistleblowers” created by Croatian artist Miron Milić, dedicated to all whistleblowers fighting against non-transparency, are the offices of some of Croatia’s most well-known human rights organisations. Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past is one of them. It is here that we meet its director, Right Livelihood Laureate Vesna Teršelič to talk about the interplay between peace and justice in the post-Yugoslav countries.
Shifting from the dispute over facts towards dialogue on interpretations
Teršelič received the Right Livelihood Award in 1998 jointly with Katarina Kruhonja of the Centre for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights (Croatia), who is also a Documenta board member. The Award was a recognition of Kruhonja and Teršelič’s dedication to long-term peace-building 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 emerging civil society in the 1990s.
Now, 25 years after receiving the Award, Teršelič welcomes us in her busy office. During the Second World War, the building provided shelter to Italian refugees. Now, through the vital work of Documenta, the building honours its past by providing hope to thousands of Yugoslav war victims.
Documenta was founded in 2006 to encourage the process of dealing with the past, establish the truth about the Yugoslav war and shift the discussion from disputing facts, such as the number of people killed, to a dialogue on interpreting the facts.
Did the shift from a dispute to a dialogue happen? Just like history, the answer isn’t black and white.
Teršelič confesses that in some way, part of her work is still where it was 25 years ago when she received the Right Livelihood Award.
“For most of the victims [of war crimes] investigations aren’t concluded,” she says. “For most of them the thirst for justice remains unsatisfied.”
She goes on to name several reasons for this, including a lack of expertise among prosecutors and insufficient financial recourses. Moreover, more than 60 per cent of war crime trials in Croatia are held in absentia.
“Regional cooperation among the post-Yugoslav countries isn’t even at the level it was when Croatia joined the European Union in 2013,” she explains. “There are many open issues, but it is important not to think about justice only through the lens of criminal justice but also to look at the importance of reparations and obligations of state institutions [to support survivors].”
However, there are also positive changes and they are centred around education and youth. During the last years, Teršelič and her team found new ways of working with young people, and together with different partners they established educational programmes at the national and European level. They also work on the production of new, innovative didactic and integrational materials to bring the multilayered history of the 20th century closer to the younger generation.
It is not an easy task, especially taking into consideration 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 Genocide of 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 are investing a lot of energy to document facts, to record personal memories,” says Teršelič. Throughout the years they have recorded over 500 interviews with witnesses of war times in Croatia and other post-Yugoslav countries.
Teršelič and her team’s comprehensive approach to formal and non-formal history education and dealing with the past is paying off. For example, in 2007, Documenta published “Supplement for history textbooks on recent history”, which sparked heated 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 received extraordinary travel and study opportunities. These opportunities have helped them develop multiperspective views, something that gives Teršelič hope.
“One of the sad consequences of war is the pressure to have a simple one-sided interpretation,” she says.
Lessons from the Yugoslav war
Teršelič’s work is primarily focused on the post-Yugoslav countries but the methodologies and vision that she and her team have developed over decades are used beyond the region. Since 2014, under Teršelič’s leadership, Documenta has cooperated with many Ukrainian civil society organisations. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Documenta has also started to cooperate with local Ukrainian authorities, prosecutors and institutions prosecuting war crimes and supporting survivors.
According to Teršelič, in the period during and immediately after the Yugoslav war, war crime investigations weren’t of a high quality. Prosecutors and state authorities didn’t have the necessary expertise.
“That is why I now welcome prosecutors coming here from Ukraine: I am fully aware of the tasks which are in front of them,” she says. “All the tasks of supporting survivors require cooperation between civil society organisations and governmental institutions; I would say it also demands clear awareness of feminist principles.”
She also cooperates with colleagues from Russia, including 2012 Right Livelihood Laureate Memorial, which has a clear stance against this war.
She hopes that Ukrainian authorities won’t repeat Croatia’s mistake when it comes to reparations to war crime victims. The first law on reparations appeared in Croatia in 2015, providing a framework for survivors of sexual violence in wartime. Teršelič says it didn’t come early enough.
“This law was passed 30 years after the beginning of the war. For the children of those who were killed, there is nothing in that law,” she says. “Reparations came, and it is good that they came, but it was very late.”
Speaking of the Russian war in Ukraine, Teršelič is visibly distressed: “I unfortunately fear that the war will go on and I’m sadly aware that every day, with every new person that is killed, there will appear new scars which will take decades to, maybe not to heal, but make life bearable… I cannot imagine how many decades will be needed to end it.”
Reflecting on the essence of her work, informed both from her professional and lived experience in the war and post-war time, Teršelič concludes that “it’s this interplay of peace and justice, how to combine acknowledgement with the trust-building work.” For Teršelič, this is becoming relevant not only for Croatia and other post-Yugoslav countries but for the rest of Europe.
“During the Russian aggression, we in Europe once again became aware how important it is to support each other and to insist on justice and to look at what steps can bring us closer to justice, closer to peace,” says Teršelič.
The work to which Teršelič has devoted her energy and wisdom for the past three decades doesn’t bring quick results. How does one keep hope alive when tangible progress may only be seen many years from now? 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,” says Teršelič.