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War Violence, Sexual War Violence and Victimhood in Reconciliation Narratives of Survivors from the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of pedagogy.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6151-0934
2016 (English)In: Linking Theory and Practice: The Conduct of Sociology.: 87th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association., Oakland, USA, 2016, 10-10 p.Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

In this analysis of the retold experiences of 27 survivors of the war in northwestern Bosnia, the aim is to describe the informants’ portrayal of “war violence”, “sexual war violence”, “victimhood”, and “reconciliation” as a social phenomenon as well as analyzing the discursive patterns that contribute to constructing the category “victim” and “perpetrator”. The violence practice during the war is portrayed as organized and ritualized and this creates a picture that the violence practice became a norm in the society, rather than the exception. When, after the war, different categories claim a “victim” status, it sparks a competition for victimhood. All informants are eager to present themselves as victims while at the same time the other categories’ victim status are downplayed. The stories of reconciliation are connected to the past; the interactive consequences of war-time violence are intimately linked to the narrator’s war experiences. The interviewees distance themselves from some individuals or described situations. It is common that the portrayal of possible reconciliation is transformed into a depicted implacable attitude, thus the interviewees negotiate their stances: they articulate between reconciliation and implacability statements.

This study shows that after the war in Bosnia, the interpretations of biographical consequences of violence are intimately connected to previous war experiences. Narratives on the phenomenon “war violence” and “sexual war violence” depict a decay of pre-war social order. The use of violence during the war is described as organized and ritualized, which implies that the use of violence became a norm in society, rather than the exception. 

The narratives on the phenomenon “war violence” produce and reproduce the image of human suffering and slaughter. Those subjected to violence are portrayed in a de-humanized fashion and branded as suitable to be exposed to it. In these stories, morally correct actions are constructed as a contrast to the narratives on war violence. In these descriptions, the perpetrator is depicted as a dangerous, evil, and ideal enemy. He is portrayed as a real and powerful yet alien criminal who is said to pose a clear threat to the social order existing before the war. The narratives on wartime violence, war perpetrators, and those subjected to violence during war are enhanced with symbolicism of ritualized ethnic violence (“cockade,” “chetnik,” “Serb,” “Muslim,” “warlord”). On one hand, the narrators make an ethnic generalization based on the differences between the ethnic categorizations; on the other hand, they present their own physical existence and ethnic identity and that of those subjected to violence as being threatened by the violent situation.  

The disintegration of the existing, pre-war social order produces and reproduces a norm resolution that enables the ritualized war-time use of violence. This development allows the normalization of war violence in this time period even though the result, as this study shows, means human suffering and the slaughter of humans. This study presents this development in society ambivalently, as both allowed and normatively correct (during the war) and as prohibited and condemned (primarily in retrospect, in post-war narratives). It seems as if the category “war violence” and “sexual war violence” means different things depending on whether it happened during war or not, whether it is retold or observed, and who is telling the story. For some persons, violence targeting civilians during the war is an act of heroism.

The Holocaust during World War Two was in many cases highly efficient and industrialized; the typical goal was to kill from a distance, impersonally. Researchers have noted that those who climbed the ranks to leadership positions or were in charge at concentration camps seemed to have engaged in very personal, sadistic acts in Germany during WWII. Is there an interaction of rank/power in wartime and level of motivation/energy input required for violence (ie, those in charge require less energy input because of the factors that put them in charge in the first place)? The stories and phrasing in this paper emphasize a distant, evil, and/or powerful leader who motivates the crowd (perhaps in part by symbolically reducing an ethnic target to something like a dog or rat) or gives orders, with the distinction from Holocaust violence that the leaders in these stories were neighbors, etc., of those they were harming and killing.

In general contrast, the war violence in Bosnia was more broadly characterized by the individualized use of violence, in which the perpetrators often knew those subjected to violence. The stories reveal that firearms were seldom used; instead, the weapons were baseball bats or knives. These features can be compared to examples of violence in Rwanda, where the violence was more similar (and even more “savage”) to that in my material than the typical examples of industrialized extermination violence of World War Two.                  

The perpetrators in this study are often portrayed as people who enjoyed humiliating, battering, murdering, and inflicting pain in different ways. This characterization is a contrast to Collins (2008), who suggests that soldiers are not good in acting out close violence and that individuals are mostly inclined to consensus and solidarity. An explanation, in my study, of the soldiers’ actions can be that soldiers in a war are pressured into being brave in close combat, the aim being to reign over the Others, the enemy. During war, enemies are targets of violence, to be subjected to it and neutralized. Soldiers and police in northwestern Bosnia were not close to any battlefield, and civilians thus were framed in the enemy role. By exposing civilians to violence, soldiers proved their supremacy over the enemy even when the enemy was an abstract type, unarmed and harmless. Another explanation might be found in the degree of mobilization and emotional charge that occurred before the war, through the demonization of the enemy. People were probably brutalized through this process.

Those interpersonal interactions that caused the violence continue even after the violent situation is over. Recollections from perpetrators and those subjected to violence of the war do not exist only as verbal constructions in Bosnia of today. Stories about violent situations live their own lives after the war and continue being important to individuals and social life. Individuals who were expelled from northwestern Bosnia during the war in the 1990s are, in a legal sense, in a recognized violence-afflicted victim category. They suffered crimes against humanity, including most types of violent crimes. Several perpetrators were sentenced by the Hague Tribunal and the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina on War Crime. The crimes committed in northwestern Bosnia are qualified as genocide according to indictments against former Serbian leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. All of the interviewees in this study experienced and survived the war in northwestern Bosnia. These individuals have a present, ongoing relation with these communities: Some live there permanently, and some spend their summers in northwestern Bosnia. An analysis of the processing of experienced or described violent situations in a society that exists as a product of a series of violent acts during the war must be conducted in parallel both at the institutional and individual levels. Institutions in the administrative entity Republika Srpska deny genocide, and this approach to war-time events becomes a central theme in future, post-war analysis of the phenomena “war violence,” “sexual war violence”,  “victimhood,” and “reconciliation”. The existence of Republika Srpska is based on genocide committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, it is very important to analyze the political elite’s denial of the systematic acts of violence during the war that have been conveyed by the Hague Tribunal, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina on War Crime, and Bosnian media. The narratives in my empirical material seem to be influenced by (or coherent with) the rhetoric mediated in these fora. When informants emphasize extermination and the systematization of violence during the war, they produce and reproduce the image of a mutual struggle on a collective level. The aim of this struggle seems to be that the described acts of violence be recognized as genocide.

Another interesting aspect of the phenomenon “war violence,” “victimhood,” and “reconciliation” to be examined in a future analysis, regards the stories of perpetrators describing violent situations. Conversations with these actors and an analysis of their stories might add a nuanced perspective of the phenomenon “war violence,” “victimhood,” and “reconciliation”. Another question that emerged during my work on this article is, What importance is given to stories told by the perpetrator of violence and those subjected to violence in the development of a post-war society? I believe it is of great importance to study stories in both categories. By recounting their stories, those subjected to violence could obtain recognition and some degree of self-esteem and the perpetrators be given a chance to explain to themselves and others, display shame over their actions, and possibly restore their social status. Without this type of process, those who are subjected to violence risk a life without recognition, and the perpetrators risk being permanently bound by their war-time actions, a clearly unstable foundation for the future development of a post-war society.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Oakland, USA, 2016. 10-10 p.
Keyword [en]
war, war violence, war crime, victimhood, sexual war violence, perpetrator, victim, reconciliation, narrative, perpetrator of violence, subjected to violence, violence, humiliated self, stigma, emotion, resistance, de-ritualization, power ritual, sociology, Bosnia and Herzegovina, crime, forgiveness, implacability, war memory, recollection, traumatic memory, personal memory, ethnography, collective memory
National Category
Sociology (excluding Social Work, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology)
Research subject
Pedagogics and Educational Sciences, Special Education; Social Sciences, Peace and Development Studies; Social Sciences, Criminology; Social Sciences, Police Work; Social Sciences, Social Psychology; Social Sciences, Social Work; Social Sciences, Sociology
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-51847OAI: diva2:916164
Linking Theory and Practice: The Conduct of Sociology. 87th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association, Pacific Sociological Association, Oakland, USA (20160330-20160402).

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