Erich Rathfelder (69) is not a correspondent, but THE correspondent. Since 1987, he has reported from former Yugoslavia. Back then, in the years before the Serbian wars of conquest, he had the opportunity to get to know important intellectuals, including Zoran Djindjic, who brought democratic reforms to Serbia as Prime Minister much later, and who was murdered by a mafioso in 2003.
But let’s start at the beginning: After studying History and Political Sciences in Munich and Berlin, Erich Rathfelder became a teacher, before researching agrarian structures in Peru. During his stay, over several years, he wrote books about the subject, as well as about development policies.
It was in 1983, when he joined the German daily “Die Tageszeitung”. It did not take long, until his critical positions on the totalitarian, socialist regimes got him entry bans. Neither the GDR (Eastern Germany) would let him enter the country, nor Czechoslovakia, Albania, Romania or Bulgaria. So he ended up in an Eastern reform country: Yugoslavia. There, he learned a lot about that multi-ethnic state. When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, Erich Rathfelder became a war reporter. Since, he has released several books on the subject. Today, he is still at the Adriatic coast and in Sarajevo, most of the time. Imanuel Marcus, who worked with him as a fellow correspondent during the Bosnian war, spoke to Rathfelder.
Magazine79: You have been an expat in former Yugoslavia, mostly Croatia, for 29 years. Do you actually feel like an expat, or have you become Croatian, in a certain way?
Erich Rathfelder: I don’t know whether expat is the right label. I feel I live in the triangle Sarajevo, Berlin and Split. Mostly, I am in Sarajevo. I am a German, not Bosnian or Croatian, and I am watching the developments down here through the eyes of a German, with all their complications, in respect to the past. This is about the problem of dealing with the bloody past of this region. It is helpful to look at things from the perspective of a German. This includes the problem of nationalism and the issues arising with the transition from socialist structures to market democracy, which is working only partially.
Magazine79: You live in Ciovo, a small peninsula north of Split. The Adriatic coast in Croatia is one of the nicest spots on this continent. Do you still have eyes for the beauty? And what is the nicest spot down there?
Erich Rathfelder: Indeed, it is nice here, above all in spring and fall. I also like Bosnia and Sarajevo, in particular. But I am not a local patriot.
Magazine79: The beauty turned ugly and bloody in 1991, when the Yugoslav Army tried to end the struggle for independence in Slovenia, before turning to Croatia and Bosnia. The worst atrocities since the Third Reich were committed, many were even too gruesome to mention here. You covered these wars for several Swiss and German newspapers. How do you remember these times today?
Erich Rathfelder: This is one of the main topics I am writing about: dealing with the past. What we are facing now is a new war, a war about the interpretation of history. National intellectuals are trying to interpret the events of the last war and World War II from their national point of view. They don’t want to find any common ground of interpretation, they want to prove their nation is right and a victim of history. This applies to Serbia, above all, but also to Croatia, and to the Kosovo Albanians as well. In Bosnia, everything is more complicated: Older people on all sides still have the memory of living together in harmony, back then. But because of the division of political structures since the war, which by the way was not a civil war, and due to the Dayton Peace Accord, each constitutive nation, especially nationalists and political powers, are trying to dig ideological trenches between the people.
They are constantly renewing hatred. So, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have three or four empirical worlds. The fourth wing, in society, consists of people who are thinking independently, who are mostly minorities, such as Jews and Roma, old and new socialists, artists, human rights advocates and people with experience in the West, who want to be part of the E.U.. These groups of people still communicate with each other.
Bosnia, Sarajevo in particular, is still the center of former Yugoslavia. All those conflicts came up here first. At this stage, it is not decided where these societies will go. The main problem in Bosnia is that Croatian and Serbian nationalists are still trying to spread their ideologies here, and they are pretty successful doing so. Supported by the Orthodox Church (Serbs) and the Catholic Church (Croats), they want to destroy the tradition of living together. Now, also Turks and Arabs are trying to influence the Bosnians, the Muslims of Bosnia and the region.
Everywhere, the rural population is the victim of disinformation and religious oriented, political ideologies.
Magazine79: The Yugoslav Army did not like you much. Neither did Serbian paramilitary groups or the Croatian Army. You got into tricky situations, to say the least. Not just once, everything around you seemed like a scene in a bad action movie. What happened, when they attacked you, while you were driving in Bosnia?
Erich Rathfelder: That was a long time ago and personal experience of this kind does not matter today. Being a war reporter is a dangerous job anyway – not only at the front lines, but even more, if you publish facts about the killers and their lies. This applies to all sides in the conflict.
Magazine79: You have authored several books on the wars and victims in Bosnia. What should have happened in 1992? How could this time of terror have been prevented? What should Europe have done, in order to save lives?
Erich Rathfelder: There is a lot of literature about this. What I am interested in today, is not only to find evidence for this or that aspect. I want people on all sides to find a way to be shattered about the events. But that is a hard goal to reach. Recently, I produced a film with Amela Maldosevic and Philippe Deprez, a documentary about the survivors of concentration camps in Prijedor, who came back to their homes and live there again, in a very different environment.
In 1992, Serbian nationalists and military fractions took over the region of Western Bosnia. The community of Prijedor had around 100,000 inhabitants. The campaign of ethnic cleansing started at the end of April, in 1992. With about 44 percent, Bosnians were the biggest group in that society, the Serbs were around 42 percent, and there were far less Croats. The aim of Serbian forces was to expel all non-Serbs, so that they would become the majority in the region. They used terror to reach their goal, by pushing people out of their homes, by arresting the most important middle class people. They brought them to concentration camps in Omarska, Keraterm or Trnopolje, destroyed their houses, raped the women, and murdered more than 3,500 people within two months.
In this region, there was no war. All of this was done by political will, involving a strategy. In 2014, the largest mass grave Bosnia, in Tomasica, was opened, and more than 400 victims were found. We filmed this scene and interviewed survivors, members of the Serbian population, politicians and intellectuals. In spite of all of this, 10,000 Bosnians and Croats came back to their destroyed houses after the war. But they are not welcomed there. In the society of Bosnian Serbs, the events are not being recognized. The Serbs say, all of the crimes were invented by Muslims and Croats, who only wanted to blame the Serbs. Talking about “concentration camps” when referring to the camps in Prijedor, creates anger among Serbian ideologists until today. They do not want to accept the facts and they claim, the investigation in The Hague and by Western journalists was anti-Serbian propaganda. I believe, a society can only have a future, if and when it is talking about its own crimes, and not so much about the crimes of others. Above all, the Serbian leaders are still not able to do so. The same applies to the Croatian nationalists. Nationalists still want to keep their old position of hatred, on all sides. With that film, at least we reached some Serbs, younger and older. They were touched. Victims organisations of both sides are talking with each other, human rights advocates of both sides are working together.
Magazine79: We are based in Bulgaria. Many Bulgarians are angered when they look back at the times of the embargo against neighbouring Serbia, as well as the U.S. attacks on that country, during the Kosovo crisis. All of this affected Bulgaria, a poor country struggling to rise, in a negative way. How would you explain the necessity of those military operations to critical Bulgarians?
Erich Rathfelder: Well, they should look beyond the horizon. Normally, people don’t do so, I know. They only see their own small interests. But what would have happened, if the Serbian radicals would have killed not only tens of thousands of people in Prijedor, Foca, Visegard, Brcko and finally in Srebrenica, during the Bosnian war, but if they also had expelled the entire non-Serbian population in Kosovo with all the implications, including mass murder and mass rape? Those critics in Bulgaria should ask themselves, which moral position they are taking. What is happening now, in Syria and Kurdistan? What about refugees from those regions? What does society in Bulgaria think about these places? Do they reject help for refugees, or not? You see, sometimes one needs decisions from outside, from the highest level of politics in Europe, in order to defend moral and democratic standards, which benefit everybody.
Magazine79: Thank you so much, Erich.
The film mentioned: “Zemlja tvrda a nebo visoko” (“The Land is Hard and the Sky is High”), Sarajevo 2014. Directors and scriptwriters: Amela Maldosevic, Erich Rathfelder, Philippe Deprez (in cooperation with Bosnian Television RTBH).
Books by Erich Rathelder (in German).