The unsung heroes of the Balkan wars

Twenty years ago last week, Serbian snipers fired on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators in Sarajevo, launching a brutal siege that brought ethnic violence in the Balkans to menacing new heights.

In the two decades since, attention has understandably focused on the deeds of the architects and perpetrators of the Balkan wars. Confronting the truth about how the violence was planned and orchestrated, many have argued, is an essential step in getting formerly warring factions to reckon honestly with their responsibility for what transpired.

But this point should apply no less to the conduct of those who behaved honorably during the war, daring to cross the lines of ethnic division that too many of their fellow citizens chose not to traverse.

Such people were not as rare as commonly assumed, the Serbian human rights advocate Natasa Kandic told me when I traveled through the Balkans several years ago, though she warned me that finding many willing to share their stories would not be easy.

One reason for this, it turns out, is that some paid for their defiance with their lives. Among them was Srdjan Aleksic, a Serb from a town called Trebinje who, in 1993, spotted a Muslim he knew getting accosted by a Serbian soldier. Aleksic intervened and helped the Muslim escape, an act of outsized courage that unfortunately prompted several other soldiers to leap into the fray. They began belting and pummeling him in broad daylight, with plenty of people standing around. No one stopped them. By the time Aleksic was wheeled into the emergency room of a nearby hospital, he'd fallen into a coma, and was soon pronounced dead.

His act, and the price he paid for it, has not been entirely forgotten. As Srdjan Aleksic's father, Rade, told me when I visited Trebinje, the man his son saved moved to Sweden but comes back to town every year to pay his respects. Whether Serbs who still view the war through a nationalist prism see him as worthy of respect is another matter, of course. Aleksic was, after all, a witness to Serbian cruelty. He was also a victim of the passivity of others who stood by as he was beaten to death.

I did eventually meet several people who'd crossed similar lines and lived to talk about it, albeit at the price of becoming social outcasts. So it was with Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who, in 1991, was entrusted by a Serbian officer to separate the Serbs from a throng of mostly Croatian prisoners inside a detention camp so that they could be moved to a separate area and spared from mistreatment. Jevtic proceeded to pick out more than a hundred Croats, calling them by false Serbian names. The prisoners in question were from Vukovar, his hometown.

Given that he'd risked his life for others, one might imagine that Jevtic received a hero's welcome in Vukovar after the war, at least from the city's Croatian residents. But as I discovered when I visited him there in 2008, this wasn't the case. In the official Croatian narrative of the war, Serbs featured as the villains responsible for Vukovar's bombardment and destruction. Many Croats in the city treated Jevtic shabbily precisely because he was a Serb who couldn't be thrust into the role reserved for his ethnic group, I was informed. Jevtic felt no more at home among Serbs in Vukovar who knew that he'd helped Croats — people who remained, in their eyes, the enemy even so many years after the war.

In a region still cleaved by divisions and wedded to nationalist narratives of the war, it's perhaps not surprising that those who extended compassion across ethnic lines have been slow to be recognized, much less honored. This reluctance is not, though, unique to the Balkans. As the historian Jan Gross has noted, Poles who sheltered Jews during World War II were often ostracized decades later by their neighbors. "Their existence was a reproach, calling forth pangs of conscience," Gross has observed. It was far easier for Poles to depict Jews as "crypto-Communists" who had abetted the Soviet occupation of Poland in 1939 and therefore deserved no protection.

Getting recognized was not important to him, Jevtic insisted when I brought the matter up with him one day. When, a year or so later, I learned that some of the Croatian prisoners he'd helped had successfully appealed for him to receive a medal from the Croatian government for his conduct during the war, I thought of this. Perhaps the medal really didn't matter to Jevtic. But bestowing it wasn't merely about him. The belated recognition brought a sense of closure to the men he'd saved. More important, it conveyed a message to people in the Balkans who, even today, remain reluctant to acknowledge the unheralded heroes in their midst.

Journalist Eyal Press is the author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times.

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