INTERVIEW: Slavenka Drakulić on her support for Ukraine, the power of reading in wartime, and the humanity of perpetrators

Slavenka Drakulić in Zagreb. (Jared Goyette/Chytomo)

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Croatian writer and essayist Slavenka Drakulić has experienced a resurgence in popularity in Ukraine in recent years. The reason is both telling and somber: as she explained to Chytomo in a recent conversation, Ukrainians readers turned to her collection of essays “They Would Never Hurt a Fly” following the discovery of mass graves and witness accounts showing that Russian troops had committed mass executions of civilians and other war crimes in the town of Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, in 2022.


The book chronicles war crime trials in The Hague related to the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Its enduring power is a testament to both Drakulić’s masterful prose and its focus: the essays provide an unflinching look at both the crimes and the people who committed them. One harrowing essay, “One Day in the Life of Dražen Erdemović,” recounts the testimony of a soldier who, as a member of a firing squad, executed dozens of civilians. His commanding officer had threatened to execute him when he said he didn’t want to participate, and he later “flipped,” becoming a witness for the prosecution at The Hague.


The decision to focus on perpetrators was one she grappled with before writing the book, as she discusses in “Why We Need Monsters,” the last essay. “If one attempts to write from the viewpoint of the perpetrators, to try to understand such people, how close can one come to justifying their acts? Can we, in fact, understand war criminals? More importantly, why should we even try?” she asked. The answer she arrived at was yes; doing so helps us understand how perpetrators “came to be” and the forces and circumstances that shaped their beliefs and actions. Further, by doing so, we can better understand that these killers are not “monsters” or somehow fundamentally different from “us,” the rest of humanity.


In “They Would Never Hurt a Fly” and throughout her work, Drakulić does tell victims’ stories, notably including those of women who were victims of rape. However, her willingness to look closely at, and even humanize, perpetrators of war crimes, as well as their families, may not always sit well with readers. This was evident during a contentious moment at her recent appearance at a panel at the Lviv Book Forum earlier this month. The topic was an essay in her most recent book, “War Is The Same Everywhere,” in which she draws parallels between the experiences of a Russian and a Ukrainian mother who both lost sons to war.


Ukrainian journalist Yana Brenzey challenged Drakulić’s comparison, arguing that the Russian man had a choice not to come to Ukraine. “Are we blurring the line between good and evil by saying their experiences are shared?” Brenzey asked.


Drakulić responded that her focus was on the shared grief of losing a son, not to equate their entire experiences. She added that a mother couldn’t be blamed for her son’s actions.


Anne Applebaum, a prominent American-Polish historian and writer, also faced scrutiny on the panel. The Ukrainian media and social media reaction was highly critical of both. Media columnist Lena Chichenina commented, “Many who study Russia still don’t grasp its threat, a realization that often comes to Ukrainians only after experiencing war. The search for ‘good Russians’ continues.”


Drakulić addressed the controversy in a wide ranging interview with Chytomo, which also covered her views on the relationship between war crime tribunals and peace, the role of propaganda and the power of reading during war. The text below has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.



Slavenka Drakulić durring an interview with Chytomo in Zagreb.

Slavenka Drakulić during an interview with Chytomo in Zagreb


Chytomo: Could you elaborate on your response to the question from Yana Brenzey, and do you understand why your response and the topic generally is painful for Ukrainians?


Slavenka Drakulić: It is not so difficult to understand Ukrainians, I think, especially if you experienced a war yourself.. In war, any war, people deny humanity to the enemy. This is understandable , they need to do it in order to be able to kill them — in this case, in a defensive war.


You know, during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the daughter of general Ratko Mladić committed a suicide. General Mladić was the top commanding officer of the Serbian troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina and his soldiers committed a number of war crimes, execution of about 8.000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica among others. Later on he was arrested and sentenced as war criminal at ICTY in The Hague. Allegedly, his daughter, a medical student, killed herself when she learned what her father is doing in Bosnia. I wrote an essay about him and I wrote it from the perspective of the father, about his pain as a parent losing a child. I have to say that some reactions to that were rather harsh criticism, very much in the spirit of Brenzay question.


But I think we should distinguish between a parent and a citizen, a general of the enemy army in his case. I am sorry to say, but enemies are humans. His pain is great as any other father that has lost a child, and he is entitled to it because, he, too, is a human being and as such, deserves pity. But he is nevertheless guilty for atrocities committed under his command.


In the case of losses of sons of a Russian and an Ukrainian mother, they too deserve pity for their loss as mothers, as human beings.


Chytomo: Before this interview, we chatted about how you’ve seen your books grow in popularity in both Iran and Ukraine in recent years. Can you tell us more about each, and what you see as driving interest in each country?


Slavenka Drakulić: It is an interesting phenomenon about how books found their way to readers in two different countries and two different situations. A couple of years ago, all of a sudden, I started to get emails from Iran. I then discovered that several of my books were translated into Farsi language illegally… and one that has been particularly popular, “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.” It was this one that most readers mention and identify with. There is logic in that, totalitarianism, be it of a secular or religious type, is just the same.


It is different in Ukraine. There I was present with translations of several books before the war. But after the Bucha massacre, after war crimes were committed, my book “They Would Never Hurt a Fly” was the one Ukrainian readers wanted to read. The reason is obvious; it deals with war criminals at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia) in The Hague.


Chytomo: You have consistently engaged with Ukraine, speaking at panels and giving interviews, since the start of the full-scale invasion. What, from your experience, compels you to do that?


Slavenka Drakulić: I really felt some kind of responsibility as a journalist in the first place because I also felt the same after our wars in Yugoslavia in 1991–1995. As a journalist, you just couldn’t stand and watch. I wasn’t a war correspondent and was more engaged in trying to understand and analyze where the war came from and also to follow the real destinies of real people — that is, victims. Because this was the most important thing during the Yugoslav wars for me.


And now, of course, for the same reason. And I felt, ‘Okay, what can I do?’ I can voice my protest. I can say “It’s terrible, it’s horrifying.” This is really aggression and so on. But then again, I follow the war as closely as I can because I did not go to Ukraine, but I tried to publish books there and participate in public debate — supporting Ukraine. Of course.


Chytomo: You mentioned They Would Never Hurt a Fly, which focuses on war crime trials at the Hague. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s formula for peace includes a provision to establish a “Special Tribunal regarding the crime of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.” Critics have said that any demand for a tribunal is unrealistic and shouldn’t be part of negotiations.


Based on your experience and work in the Balkans, how important (or not) are war crime tribunals/trials and justice for war crime victims for lasting peace? What could a tribunal accomplish in this context?


Slavenka Drakulić: I know about these efforts to create a war tribunal for Ukraine, and I think it’s, of course, a good idea. And we had the ICTY for former Yugoslavia, the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, working for almost 30 years. But from that experience, I concluded that the tribunal, the trials of war criminals do not have much to do with peace. I do not see the direct connection because I have to say that the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia performed early still during the war, and it did not help. It didn’t help for several reasons. One of them is very serious: The courts and justice, in general, work very, very slowly to get to the point where you indict people, where you bring them in and get them to the court. Just to give you an idea about how it works, what the result is: about 2,000 people were indicted, and only about 10%, about 207, went to trial. And for that, it took almost 30 years.


But there is another connection or benefit for trials. And that is that you can demonstrate to the people that war crimes should and have to be punished and are going to be punished.


The other good reason that I saw in our situation post-war is that such a tribunal brings facts; it brings truth. And it is very hard to come to the truth, and truth should be the basis of justice and vice versa. There is no justice without truth. But also, there is no history without truth. So if we don’t have an international trial, with all the facts, testimony, witnessing, documents, and so on… If there is no tribunal, it will be more difficult to actually establish a good foundation or a good basis for writing the history afterward, and we have to think about that too.


Chytomo: In They Would Never Hurt a Fly, you pay close attention to the moments when victims or victims’ families confront the accused attacker on the witness stand. Based on your work and extensive interviews with victims, how important is it that women victims of rape in Ukraine also be able to see their attacks stand trial?


Slavenka Drakulić: It’s very hard actually to say because they — the victims of rapes and mass rapes, mostly (though not all) Muslim women who had been assaulted by Serbs — they came as witnesses. And of course, you have to volunteer as a witness. And it was very dramatic. From what I have seen, it is something that you don’t want anybody to go through. Under normal circumstances, victims of rape often don’t report the crime (to police). It’s also with this case,there are not many volunteers who come to the court to serve as witnesses because it’s dramatic and it’s painful. It is important for them, but generally, they don’t have to be in the courtroom. There are people who want to come, women who want to come forward as witnesses. But it’s such a hard experience for them. It is more important for them to see that their attackers are going to be punished.


Chytomo: How would you compare the genocidal ethno-nationalistic rhetoric we have seen on Russian TV with what was being propagated on Serbian TV during the wars in the Balkans?


Slavenka Drakulić: War, any war, does not start with killing. Before that, you have to mark the enemy, to convince people that it is the enemy, to light the flame of emotions, namely hate. All this serves as psychological preparation for the justification of killing. People, in general, need such justification; it takes away individual responsibility from them and puts it on the leadership, government, military, etc. Of course, the rhetoric of war propaganda is specific, but almost everywhere the same — now in Russia, before in Serbia and Croatia, also in Rwanda.


Indeed, in the case of Rwanda, two Rwandan journalists have been sentenced to life in prison, and a third to 35 years for their roles in fueling the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were murdered.


Chytomo: Can you tell us about something that gives you hope for Ukraine now?


Slavenka Drakulić: Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhk sent me a letter with a photo of one of her readers, who sent it to her. And it’s a photo of a candle burning and a book. And Oksana said “This is what we do in Ukraine. If we have a candle, we use it for reading.

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