transcripts

Transcript Ep 6 – Dogs of War with Iva Vukusic

Disclaimer:

Asymmetrical Haircuts is produced as a podcast, meaning it is meant to be listened to and not read. Because of this, we recommend that you listen to the episode while reading, because the written word does not do justice to the emotion or tone used by our speakers. However, because we recognise there might be bandwidth issues or you might be using a hearing aid, we have provided written transcripts for all our available episodes.

Iva Vukusic 

I don’t do anything that doesn’t have anything to do with mass atrocities. That’s just where I am in my in my life right now. That’s all that I really read. And I haven’t let read like a really nice book about anything else and I don’t know, five, six years, but that makes me good at my job, you know.

[INTRO TUNE]

Justice plays an important role.

I consider this tribunal a false tribunal, and indictments false indictments.

Such abhorrent crimes must not go unpunished.

Proceedings will be long and complex.

All rise.

Janet Anderson

Hi, Stephanie. We’re here doing Asymmetrical Haircuts yet again, but we seem to be in a cemetery this time.

Stephanie van den Berg  

Yes, we have a very special location because where we have our guest.

Iva Vukusic

Iva Vukusic.

Stephanie van den Berg  

And Iva has a research assistant.

Iva Vukusic

True. Joy, a small cockapoo.

Janet Anderson

But Joy isn’t your only research assistant. She’s this week’s one. You have them regularly.

Iva Vukusic  

I babysit dogs. They keep me company, as you know. So some people were just like, “Oh, hey, we’re going away for three weeks, would you mind?” And look, she even has a bow tie. And so they were like, “Oh, would you mind babysitting our dog?” And then she came to meet us. And I thought this this ‘poopy’, that’s how we call them, this ‘poopy’ has potential. Right? And you see, now it’s really, she’s really nice. So…

Stephanie van den Berg

So this is your PhD stress reliever?

Iva Vukusic  

Yes. Absolutely. And general life stress reliever. Yes, her and all of her other buddies that we… you see. Look at this face. How could you not? It increases your life quality and your happiness by 25%, immediately.

Stephanie van den Berg 

Yeah, we have a whole picture of Twitter feeds of different research assistants with the book she’s reading now. So we’ll put that up on the website so you can see. Iva, we’re talking to you now about your PhD, about paramilitaries. But tell us a bit about the other stuff you do. So that we don’t only think of you as paramilitary lady.

Iva Vukusic

So I work at Utrecht University. I teach there as well. So I teach genocide and mass violence in the historical context to students. I provide a lot of commentary for media own trials and things like that. 

Yeah, and I’m finishing now my PhD. So that really is dominating my time. But one I think always needs to have some other things going on as well just to be able to sort of take a breath, and then return to it a little bit later.

Stephanie van den Berg 

Can you tell us what you’re researching exactly… what’s your PhD gonna say?

Iva Vukusic

So my PhD is just days from being submitted to my supervisors. I write about Serbian paramilitaries in the breakup of Yugoslavia. So I basically look at where they come from, what they do, what kind of violence they commit, how they transformed throughout the 1990s. And what did they do to the state and society that they “belong to”? So it’s a study of sort of the life cycle of Serbian paramilitaries and the wars of the former Yugoslavia.

Janet Anderson 

Who might we have heard of in this context? I mean, for somebody who’s not a specialist on the Balkan wars, particularly in paramilitaries, give us some examples.

Iva Vukusic

They would have probably heard of Arkan. Who is this? I it’s very difficult to describe him. He was this very sort of accomplished, organised criminals/smuggler/government hired assassin/paramilitary commander and pop icon, and also a little bit of a politician. So they might have heard of him, or they might have heard of the Scorpions, because they were part of the Milosevic trial. That was this really important video that was shown. So some of these people I think are, you know, that your audience may have may have heard of before.

Stephanie van den Berg

When you look at Arkan and other paramilitaries in Serbia, they are not just paramilitaries, as you say they’re kind of pop icons, they have their own kind of cultural aura around them. How do you see…Do you see that still, in current Serbian society?

Iva Vukusic  

Well, I think there’s there’s a couple of things that that make them. Some of them are actually I think, even iconic. Legija for example, he was the commander of the Special Operations unit. He’s now serving a long prison sentence for killing the Serbian Prime Minister in 2003. I think there’s, there’s a bit of sort of appreciation, so to say, of masculinity that goes into this.

Janet Anderson

What do you mean masculinity?  

Iva Vukusic

I mean, that there’s a reverence for men who seem like men. Buffed up and they carry weapons, and they sweep women off their feet, and they defend the nation. I think there’s a certain reverence and public space for that kind of thing. I think there’s a… I think there’s a history of paramilitary and irregular armed forces in the region, historically in the 19th and 20th century. So I don’t think it’s a new thing in Serbia or… or the region more generally. So I think there’s a couple of things like that the fact that Arkan married this enormously popular pop singer, I think, also contributed to this. So I think there’s a couple of factors that make that makes some of these men really pop icons, basically.

Stephanie van den Berg  

You say it’s, it’s all over the region, it’s still the same, this appreciation, is that also what what kind of aided the rise of militias? Why in this war did you see so many militias or do we see them everywhere, but they’re just more flamboyant more out there in this one in the 1990s Yugoslav wars?

Iva Vukusic

I think research shows that irregular armed forces, paramilitaries, militias or pro government militias, there’s a varied ways in which they’re called in research. I think there’s that’s really a global phenomenon. And it’s not a modern one, either. But something that I think made them very common in the former Yugoslavia was first of all government action. So these are not necessarily some spontaneous sort of groups that just spring up out of nowhere. In the Serbian case, I think they were very much a result of coordination between various government institutions that had an interest in setting up sort of an auxiliary force to the regular army. So I, I think there’s… I think there’s often sort of purposeful action behind it by governments and government institutions, that it’s not necessarily often the case that just sort of people rise up spontaneously.

Janet Anderson 

How do you actually do the study of these people? Is it all related to the evidence that was heard at the former Yugoslav tribunal? And now the mechanism, the following on tribunal, that or, or is it from other sources?

Iva Vukusic

So I mostly use ICTY. So you will see the tribunal archives from the past 25 years of trial, there’s a couple of trials that I use more, more than more than others. But I complimented these sources also with for example,  memoirs of people that were involved be it political leaders or military leaders as well.

Janet Anderson

So they were proud of what they did. They wrote their own memoirs.

Iva Vukusic

Some of them did Legija, for example, who I already mentioned, who is serving a sentence for several crimes, but also the murder of the prime minister. He wrote sixteen books, actually, not all of them as sort of about himself, but a lot of them about sort of military life and, and that kind of thing. 

But I complimented also, for example, there were trials in Serbia, on the murder of the prime minister and other abductions and other crimes that these people were involved in. So transcripts, documents, military reports, intercepts, obviously witness statements as well. 

But I also complement that with media interviews with video and… and images. So it’s really a patchwork of different kinds of sources. 

But more than anything else really does the ICTY archives. I’ve spent a couple of years working in prosecution in Bosnia, so sort of hands on experience from there in those cases as well. So yeah, as I said, ICTY cases, archives, mostly but not exclusively,

Stephanie van den Berg

And in the ICTY archives, we see a lot of your frustration on Twitter, where you show the stuff that doesn’t get shown. Where it’s like Dear Mr. Mladic, redacted, redacted, redacted. How unpractical is it for you, as a researcher to have this, all this redacted stuff?

Iva Vukusic

It’s very, very frustrating. I think what I want to say is that I i understand that there’s legitimate reasons for things to be sometimes redacted and closed off to the public in war crimes trials. But I think in some cases that discussed paramilitary engagement in the former Yugoslavia, and most notably, for people that follow this trial, the Stanisic and Simatovic case, it is a very sort of non transparent process. For a researcher, that’s a frustration.

Stephanie van den Berg

Stanisic and Simatovic, just to clear up who they are, this is the trial that is one of the few trials that is still ongoing at the mechanism. And it is the two men who ran the Secret Service under former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

Janet Anderson

I think we should also clear up again that, apparently, there’s somebody who’s actually chipping away at a gravestone making a beautiful grave stone for somebody. And that’s what we’re hearing sort of the banging in the background, as well as we’re out here, in this amazing space,  walking, well we sat down for a moment, but we’re generally walking Joy, our research assistant, who’s decided to go to sleep to sleep in the shade, because we’re being so boring.

Iva Vukusic

So it’s a warm day. And it’s really a beautiful space. This is this is a wonderful cemetery. I come here sometimes for walks, and I think it’s such a beautiful surrounding, she’s probably really relaxed and just wants to chill out.

Janet Anderson

Does your research assistant actually contribute then? does she bark once for Arkan and twice for Stanisic? What does she do?

Iva Vukusic

Her main responsibility is to keep me sane. That’s what she does. So I think just the company and sort of the positive energy because PhD research is draining. It’s emotionally, quite taxing, and intellectually as well. So Joy and her other assistant friends that I sometimes host are just there to, you know, to just keep me sane.

Janet Anderson

Okay, back to the more important questions. Stephanie.

Stephanie van den Berg

Well, I… the last time we talked, or I think when I was at a research… you talked about reading the transcript of Legija’s trial and you thought you had found the title for your thesis. So I’m really wondering now with its days from being turned in, is it going to be called that?

Iva Vukusic

No, that’s actually from the Scorpions trial. So this is Slobodan Medic ‘Boca’ who was the scorpions commander, who was being tried in Serbia for the murder of six people after the fall of Srebrenica. And in the context of talking about the unit, he says something along the lines of “I love pussy, the rifle and the state. And that’s what I’ve, you know, that’s, you know, that’s everything about me. And I’m not sorry about being a guy like that”. So for a while, I was sort of joking that my book is going to be called The pussy, The rifle and The state, and then, you know, subtitle Serbian paramilitaries in the breakup of Yugoslavia. I don’t know if that’s going to fly with the editors, once I submit my manuscript. But you know, I’m definitely putting it out there on the table, because jokes aside, I think… I think it says quite a lot about sort of the kind of men that some of these men were. So absolutely, not everyone, but I think it talks about this masculinity, it talks about militarism, and it talks about sort of the sense of duty towards this the state. So I think it really perfectly sort of encapsulates some of the… the feeling that some of these guys had.

Stephanie van den Berg

What did you seen in your, in your research about what kind of person should we be scared of? Can you see a pattern?

Iva Vukusic

Let me just first say that as much as it seems sort of counterintuitive, maybe we should not necessarily think that all of them are murderers, and rapists, because they’re really not. These are thousands and thousands of people that went for various reasons to fight in… in irregular armed forces and paramilitaries. Some of them are horrible rapists, and murderers. Some of them are unenthusiastic murderers. But some of them are observers who sometimes sort of end up through peer pressure, through economic pressure, through being young and naive, all kinds of reasons, sort of lead people into irregular armed units and paramilitaries. 

Some of the things that I can sort of notice is that you know, there’s a lot of these guys that are about the pussy, the rifle in the state. But beyond that, there’s a lot of really unremarkable people who had unremarkable lives before and went to unremarkable lives after they went from back… from… from war. So that’s something that I really noticed that that sort of clashed a little bit with my own preconceptions about what it was to, to expect. Also, I should also just say that there’s a variety of paramilitaries, and there’s actually quite a lot of difference between them: how they’re set up and what kind of violence they commit. So it’s a little bit difficult actually, to say, you know, who, who would be like a typical paramilitary member? 

Janet Anderson

I was wondering about this actual term paramilitary in itself. It just means irregular armed forces. But there are many different types you say.

Iva Vukusic

in academia, there’s never a ‘just’ anything. I just want to say that’s a very good question. I really legitimate one. The first year pretty much I’ve spent trying to figure out what that means. I can’t say that there is a there is a consensus in academia or in practice about what is meant when one says paramilitary. Based on all the research that I’ve done, and based on other people’s definitions, I came to define it as a organised group of men. So it’s a group of men that is, it’s mostly men, right? It’s armed, it has a certain structure, it’s organised. It has some kind of an insignia or a way of others to recognise it. It is also hierarchical in some way. And it has a political goal, meaning that we need something to differentiate it from just like an organised crime gang with no particular political goal. So those are I think some of the things that are important to say about paramilitaries and different people in different contexts sometimes define it a little bit differently. But it’s basically any unit that when established is not part of the regular army or the police.

Janet Anderson

What kind of violence we speaking about, that these people are involved in?

Iva Vukusic

Well, something that was very common in the former Yugoslavia, obviously, were sort of arbitrary arrests. And then after that, beatings and killings, just people sort of being taken to a prison, beaten, and then dying, as a result of that are being shot. It was very common to abuse civilians in some way. But torture was actually not something that all the units were involved in, there’s a certain type of unit that is, for example, more likely to I don’t know, rip your nipples off, or things like that. So that’s something that I, for example, didn’t know. And I used to sort of, and I think not only me, but I think generally speaking, every single book about the breakup of Yugoslavia mentions paramilitaries, but they tend to treat them very often in bulk. And I think that’s a mistake. Because there’s a lot of differences between them, how they operate, who they actually recruit, how they recruit, and what they do once they’re out there.

Stephanie van den Berg

We talked about your research, and that there’s certain groups of paramilitaries more likely to commit the kind of atrocities and torture and what have you learned about what influences that?

Iva Vukusic

Well, researchers in other contexts shown that, for example, alcohol and drug abuse is something that often contributes to people losing this in essence, sort of inhibition, and then engaging in maybe some kind of behaviour that they normally wouldn’t. 

But I think it has a lot to do with recruitment. Some units are very liberal about accepting pretty much anyone. And then people join in with all kinds of reasons. Sometimes those reasons have to do with personal vendettas and ways of enriching themselves and ways for example, having the opportunity to torture the guy that slept with your wife 10 years ago. 

So I found some of that to be inspired, sometimes by very personal reasons and personal targeted kind of violence. So recruitment, alcohol, and drug abuse. And I would say, a third factor, which is not about the individual, as much as it is about the state and sort of the context. It’s impunity. If the state or the authorities in the area that is torn by war, or where conflict is going on, if there is no initiative by the authorities to actually arrest and prosecute people that do the most horrific things, then those are much more likely to happen again. I mean, it’s not surprising, but it’s really something that is shown in in patterns, if you look at it systematically,

Janet Anderson

If you spent quite a few years working in this very specific area and making your own definitions and really getting a lot of information. What was it that drew you into it to start with?

Iva Vukusic

Well, I guess it depends a little bit on what we consider a start. I started working on war crimes trials about 15 years ago. So for context I’m 38. And it’s because I think for two reasons. One is that I’m a former Yugoslav myself. So I was alive when there was a war. I, luckily wasn’t directly victimised by it, but I saw a lot of damage that… that war can do. And I observed a lot of that sort of eroding my own society. So that’s one reason I’m a former Yugoslav, it seems like it’s something that concerns me and that I should know about.

Janet Anderson

But why specifically paramilitaries because there’s so many aspects to your war?

Iva Vukusic

That that’s where I got started off… sort of 13 years ago, and then I through studying trials and war crimes, I figured out that paramilitaries are one of the actors that gets mentioned most often. But I think as I said before, we’re a little bit, it’s not always clear enough. It’s not always… it’s Yeah, it’s just not clear enough the difference is between these different actors and how exactly they were set up. And what exactly did they do? 

Because as I said, in every single book about the former Yugoslavia, you have paramilitaries, but there’s actually very little detail about a) perpetrators and b) perpetration as action. What do they do? We know this if you watch trials, but if you read books, you don’t know you know, okay, they beat people up, but… but how? They kill people. Okay, but how? What patterns can we see? And I think that’s important because they can that can also enrich research elsewhere. And I think that’s why paramilitaries are a really good actor to study because they’re important and they’re understudied.

Stephanie van den Berg

Okay so, studying all these trials and and learning about the… what paramilitaries do and why they do it. Has it taught you something about your own country, which is Croatia, and how the war over there went. Does it give you a different insight?

Iva Vukusic

It gives me a different insight or sort of more details, because coming in I already knew a lot about the former Yugoslavia I spent, you know, 10 years working more controls in the region. So I, I would say it gives me depth understanding about the former Yugoslavia. Croatia not as much I mean, Croatia was obviously involved, but it doesn’t give me like, “Oh my god, I never knew”, you know, nothing like that happened. 

But I think something that it did… did give me is that obviously when you research Serbian paramilitaries, you start off with research and paramilitaries point. So I now understand much more about various kinds of units and various kinds of places. 

And what I figured out there is that paramilitarism as a phenomenon is really global. It has a wide historical reach a lot of variety and dynamism. And I think the way wars are ongoing and are likely to go on in the future, also have it for example, with private military companies. I think paramilitaries are something that we’re going to have to look at with much more attention because I think we’re moving away more and more from regular military kind of conflict. And I think we’re looking more into these more ambiguous ways and fighting, you know, with outsourcing violence and that kind of thing. And I think in that regard, paramilitaries is a really important.

Janet Anderson

So it showed you more about how universal this is, then it is necessarily about this being a Balkans thing.

Iva Vukusic

Yes, it’s… it’s I would say it sort of has two tracks. One track of the research is to figure out the details about the former Yugoslavia and the Serbian paramilitaries specifically.

And the other track is to (say) “Okay, what does this that we found out about Serbian paramilitaries Tell us about paramilitaries more globally?” I think that’s something that when you’re trying to do research, you do your topic, but you’re also trying to speak to issues that are wider than that. 

Stephanie van den Berg

Okay, so do you also get contacted maybe by people working on Syria? Syria is another conflict where there’s a lot of different armed groups, semi-organised paramilitaries.

Iva Vukusic 

Absolutely, we have had contact and a colleague of mine in Utrecht actually, Uğur Üngör, is working on Syria specifically. But there’s a lot of other people who work on Iraq and who work at Columbia, and who work on all kinds of different contexts, present and past. 

And it’s really something that you can that you can see across cases, variety, in one sense, but also in the other sense, there are commonalities they can see across cases. And I think it’s really that kind of conversation that is going to push us forward in terms of research.

Stephanie van den Berg

And do you see yourself now I mean, this is the former Yugoslavia, you almost have your PhD finished. So then what’s next?

Iva Vukusic 

Well, I think in order to do really, really serious research, one needs to be you know, really sort of dipped into language and culture. So I don’t want to be pretentious and be like, “Well, yeah, tomorrow, I’m just going to start doing Iraq”, because that’s not how it works. And it shouldn’t, that’s not how it should work. 

But I would definitely I’m definitely staying in war crimes and… and mass violence and in war crimes trials, be it in academia or in practice. And and that’s something that I’m committed to.  Now what specific context, what specific job and what specific project? I don’t know, I’m looking forward to just getting my PhD done. I do a lot of teaching as well, I have a lot of other stuff going on. But in any case, I’m committed to war crimes trials and war crimes and mass violence research. And we’ll see where it takes me.

Stephanie van den Berg

So you’ve done this before, because you were our first guinea pig. And we have three questions, we always ask on Asymmetrical Haircuts. So we’re going to ask you again, what is the one thing that people get wrong about your research?

Iva Vukusic 

That I’m always sad and depressed. And that this kind of work is automatically you know, it’s  “oh poor you. Why do you do this yourself?” I hate that, don’t you know. I love my work. This work is interesting. And it’s intellectually stimulating, and I think it’s important. And this attitude of “poor you, why are you doing this yourself?”, I really don’t do that.

Janet Anderson

And is there one question that people like us journalists never asked you that we should have asked you?

Iva Vukusic 

Well, that’s that’s a very good question, I guess background because you always have such a small, you know, window to tell a certain story and I think researchers are generally like “but context! but footnotes!” you know. So I think that’s something that I think journalists, because of their job, they are sometimes thrown into things and I get it, but I think for journalists, I think it would always be a good idea to try to get as much background and as much context as… as possible.

Stephanie van den Berg

Okay, and then the last question is, is there anything you’ve read or seen or heard recently that you found really interesting and maybe has nothing to do with, you know, mass atrocities?

Iva Vukusic 

I don’t do anything that doesn’t have anything to do with mass atrocities. That’s just where I am in my in my life right now. That’s all that I really read. And I haven’t let read like a really nice book about anything else in I don’t know, five, six years? But that makes me good at my job, you know.  

What I would recommend? I’ve read a billion books and people can you know, find me on Twitter and ask me if you have specific questions, but something that I would recommend for sort of broad audiences. It’s a documentary that was recently released on the trial of Ratko Mladic. I think I’ve seen 1000 billion documentaries on war crimes and war crimes trials, half of them are not very good. I think this one is excellent. And and it’s… it’s in depth, it’s not sort of focusing on you know, scandal and “oh, my God, this guy’s a monster”. So I think it’s a really good for people that are just, you know, broadly interested in the topic. I think the documentary The Trial of Ratko Mladic is really an excellent investment in terms of time. 

[INTERLUDE MUSIC]

Janet Anderson 

What a great recommendation Iva gave us on that walk. I really enjoyed it. And I really enjoyed that documentary, as well, because it gave you such an insight into both sides, both defence and prosecution. You enjoyed the walk, Stephanie?

Stephanie van den Berg

I enjoyed the walk. And I was told by somebody who listened to the podcast, and it’s very good that both me and Iva had to walk so we couldn’t talk as fast as we normally do at each other. I really also enjoyed The Trial of Ratko Mladic documentary and I would recommend everybody to go and watch it, I think you might still be able to see it on Uitzending Gemist in the Netherlands.  

So we want to thank Iva for coming on the show and taking time off from writing her PhD thesis for the university of Utrecht. She’s also a visiting research fellow at King’s College in London in the War Studies Department. 

Janet Anderson

And we should also say thank you to her for lending her dog to us… so she did the walk as well. 

Stephanie van den Berg

Yes. So also, thanks to Joy, the cockapoo who is very good boy or good girl during all of the talk and didn’t bark once which was not so good for radio but very lovely for talking. Since this walk, I spoke to Iva and her thesis has been handed in. 

Janet Anderson

Yay!

Stephanie van den Berg

Yeah, she’s gonna defend it in a couple of months. It’s called Serbian paramilitaries in the breakup of Yugoslavia, sadly not The Pussy, The Rifle and The State, which I’m hoping that the book will be called that. But we’ll look out for that. So we’ll tell you how the thesis defending went in a couple of months. In the meantime, thank you very much to listening to Asymmetrical Haircuts.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

Disclaimer:

This transcript was generated using online transcribing software, and checked and supplemented by the Asymmetrical Haircuts team. Because of this we cannot guarantee it to be completely error free. Please check the corresponding audio for any errors before quoting.

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