Do we have enough energy for a clearer commitment and decisive action? Do we have the creativity? Do we have the courage and will to act?

Acceptance speech – Vesna Terselic

Madam Speaker, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Colleagues, dear Friends.

I am really happy to be here and grateful that the work of the hundreds of people working on peace, human rights and women’s issues has finally been recognized. This also means a lot to me personally because it is a sign that the work which Antiwar Campaign Croatia has done has not been in vain. Thank you.

When I started school there was still the habit of showing movies from World War II to children in the school auditorium. The movie I remember was about Kozara, showing long lines of people running from their villages before the Nazi Offensive. I was eight at the time and had not quite caught up with classmates in the cheering on of the Partisans and booing whatever the Nazis did.

Surely my heart was on the side of the Partisans but somehow I could not get into this football match atmosphere. At the beginning the movie showed the horrible hardship of refugees, while the second part showed the Partisans succeeding in winning over some units of Nazi soldiers. And then the revenge started.

Suddenly there was a scene of blinded Nazi soldiers stumbling through  the forest. In place of their eyes there were just bloody holes. There was a wave of real excitement in the auditorium. Most of the children around me were shouting out: “Yes, yes, you deserved it.”

I started crying and couldn’t stop. They had to take me out and call a psychologist. While the picture of intentionally wounded soldiers was difficult enough, it was the reaction of the other children which was an even greater shock.

What created such a great problem for me was, simply, this acceptance of violence. That the blinding of Nazi soldiers seemed OK to the children around me because it was a kind of justice in their view. I was perhaps more horrified by their reactions of cheering than with the fact that the Partisans had been so cruel in their revenge.

I suppose that in today’s world, kids are influenced by waves of violence – some virtual and some very real – and by scenes of slaughter from different corners of the world brought into their rooms via TV screens. For kids violence is not something repelling in itself, but comes mostly as part of the story about “winners and losers”.

Their levels of sensitivity regarding violent acts of kids and adults is then challenged. With diminished sensitivity there also comes the accepting of severe murder, torture and mutilation as something acceptable – just because of the simple fact that this happens so often.

And I keep wondering what we can really accept. Can we afford to accept violence as a fact of life? Can we afford to even welcome it? I myself have a need to draw the line somewhere. I am certain that I cannot accept the massacre in Srebrenica.

I still do not know how to simply continue living after this. I was there just one time, in 1996, looking at the barren fields, completely emptied of any meaning. There was no sign of regret, not even a small candle lighted near the road which for many thousands was the last thing they would ever see.

People from Sarajevo live there now – between the ruins and ditches in the earth where the earthly remnants of murdered people had been thrown. After a few minutes I fled with the urgency of escaping from the question of how to reconstruct the dignity of living in such a place. How could one ensure that children growing up among the ruins would respect others when they are surrounded with living memories of the massacre.

Maybe I was only able to fantasize what would be needed to ensure decent life again. But there is so much that I do not have any hope that it will be accomplished in the foreseeable future.

Accepting the fate of Srebrenica would surely place me on the side of the silent majority which does not contribute but only observes. And somehow through not raising one’s voice, this contributes to standing up for and supporting a world in which too many people are killed. While saying a loud NO might at times look quite powerless, it is still immensely more powerful than silence.

I see the facing of violence, the confronting of violence and the understanding of violence as an important task. It is the task of recreating human dignity. It is the task of keeping at least a small light burning in the face of the bitter wind of destruction.

All that the Antiwar Campaign Croatia was doing was but a modest attempt to create islands of non-violence and sanity in the bloody river of madness which we called war.

I recalled my early childhood experience when I watched the lines of people fleeing their homes at the beginning of the war in 1991 and during the time when we were just establishing Antiwar Campaign Croatia. A small group of people had gathered to do something to prevent a further outburst of war having lost the illusion that we could quickly put a stop to the War.

Eventually we could not stop it at all.

In 1991, there were less than 20 of us who, while we did not know how to confront violence, were clear in our commitment to non-violence – and had the curiosity and openness for learning. For supporting people who refused to kill we did not need skills so much as we needed quite a lot of courage. For direct human rights protection more knowledge was needed and serious work was started in 1992.

In 1992, we were further strengthened in our efforts when the Center for Peace-Osijek evolved out of the dream of 2 people and it soon attracted many more people. During that summer international volunteers came to work with children in refugee centers. Out of this grew the Suncokret project.

In December, a group of women established the Center for Women War Victims, which directly supported women refugees and their children.

1993 saw the organization of the first training in non-violent conflict transformation, and which was later held for more than 5000 teachers. 1993 was also a year of new beginnings and was especially exciting because of the start of the Volunteer Project Pakrac´ the first attempt at peace building in a town cut in two by the demarcation line.

When I say peace building I am not speaking about the attempt to reconcile while issues of justice have not been addressed. Dialogue, even if very loud and confrontational, is more than welcome.

The lessons learned in Pakrac were later used in Gornji Vakuf/Uskoplje and Travnik in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In Croatia, we will continue with the peace building training at basic and advanced levels, we will continue to support conscientious objectors, and to work on human rights.

Before I came here, I went back to Pakrac, this time with a television crew to document the situation there nowadays. To see how the process of peace building was proceeding after the war. And it wasn’t really moving. This area and all of Croatia was ethnically cleansed. Very few Serbs remain here and their return is not safe.

Despite the extensive reconstruction of houses in the area, even Croats who have the chance are moving to more prosperous places. There are hardly any possibilities for employment. This is surely not the future which the first volunteers who came to this town to help to establish communication envisioned.

While postwar reality is bitter, it does not prevent small local organizations in trying to make it better. The Women’s Club and Youth Club are trying to do their best to alleviate the suffering. Sometimes not much more than that can be done.

It is not by chance that the women’s group has the most vivid activities. Women are usually the first to go in to risk communication and who dare to do such things in order to rebuild the broken links in society.

As this century of violence comes to a close, I would like to mention some contributions and point out that it is because of radical feminists who, in the seventies, came to ask the question: “who owns our bodies?” that the understanding of violence has come at least as far as it has today.

Out of the understanding that men do not own women’s bodies came the whole movement against family violence which helped us to understand that in nearly every neighbourhood all around the world there are battered women and children. Who need to be empowered to resist.

I would also like to give credit to all the people involved in the preparation for the adoption of the General Declaration of Human Rights, adopted fifty years ago, and thus giving us a tool to confront violations through legal institutions at local, national and international levels.

I also want to give credit to the role-models of non-violence such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King who spoke “to the power”, as the Quakers used to say, and went straight into the conflict and gave an example of behaviour by which injustice needed to be addressed and transformed by non-violent means.

And I would like to give credit to the people working in grassroots groups all around the world trying to create a culture of non-violence and which link their efforts to networks such as War Resisters International and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, both established in the final year of the First World War.

Antiwar Campaign Croatia borrows from all three sources and combines a dimension of human rights, women’s rights and conflict transformation in its efforts. The empowerment of each human being is at the very heart of that work. Since its beginning, every new individual joining has been seen as the most precious and most important result of this peace work.

Each new committed person means one more step in the breaking of the culture of silence and obedience. Each person who raises their voice for her or his interests and rights diminishes the possibility of the powerful to start a wave of massive violence again.

Not that the several hundred people who work in civil initiatives resisting the prevailing of intolerance would be in the position to prevent the next war, but there are still many more people who are willing to act on their behalf and on the behalf of their neighbours. Because it is only if we react to every single violent motion that things might change.

Who can afford not to deal with violence? Who can afford to close their ears when a neighbour is beating his wife? Who can afford to look on while refugees are being bombed in Kosova? Who can afford not to act when a woman in Stockholm does not dare to walk out of her house after dark? Who can afford to look on silently when ancient forests are destroyed in order to satisfy our consumer passion?

It is normal that we sometimes feel helpless and overwhelmed – just like my mother who keeps storing things for “just in case”. Food and soap might be needed “in case of another war”. When my mother was six, Italian fascists arrested her together with her cousin because they had been carrying resistance leaflets.

After a few minutes of hesitation, they let my mother go. But her cousin Erna was killed. After a few weeks in prison. She was only eighteen. One of the far too many killed in this century. My mother knows that things can get really bad and violent and that is why she tries to store things and “be ready”. But, actually, which is the way to be ready and to challenge violence?

My mother is afraid. Many others are also afraid. Afraid to face what – in my opinion – is the single most important problem of this century. Afraid to even look at violence. Afraid to think beyond violence. Afraid of the capacity hidden somewhere deep in human beings to commit the most horrendous of crimes. Or somewhere near to the source of real compassion.

I would like to invite you to learn and try and maybe begin your day with these questions: What can I do today to confront violence? Which responsible choice can I make to construct a new world beyond violence?

That what is needed is more than the alleviating of suffering, more than doing only one good thing per day. Living through the pain of facing violence, naming it, pointing a finger to it and empowering people to find another way. What can I do at the different levels ranging from the personal to the highest political ones?

What can I do to influence the decisions of government and international institutions which chose to act far too late  in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina and only after the horrible massacre in Srebrenica.

Let us not allow that to happen in Kosova. Now is still the right time for introducing international transitional authorities who would ensure space for negotiations.

Every day of indecisiveness brings us closer to the next massacre. The more power one has the more one is responsible for events which could have been envisioned but have not been prevented. OSCE will most likely not manage with its far too small forces and limited mandate; they may soon be cornered into the role of a helpless observer in increasingly severe fights.

The lesson of the inefficiency of international organizations acting without a clear political aim and not having sufficient financial backing, could have been learnt with Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Do we have enough energy for a clearer commitment and decisive action? Do we understand that money, energy and time should be invested now? Do we have the creativity? Do we have the courage and will to act?

Vesna Terselic
Documenta _ Center for Dealing with the Past
Human Rights House
Selska cesta 112c
HR-10000 Zagreb