Veran Matic's speech at the opening of the conference

Belgrade, May 18, 2001


Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Dear Friends:

At the beginning of the opening ceremony of the international conference "In Search of Truth and Responsibility – Towards A Democratic Future", I would like to remind you that it is a part of the process initiated when the madness of war overwhelmed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), the process which has been unfolding parallel to wars, crimes expulsions and the destruction of cities, towns and villages. Independent media, non-governmental organisations and some political parties – have constantly opposed the wars in the region, speaking publicly about the crimes committed and naming the criminals responsible for atrocities. One can neither claim that there were many such institutions nor argue that their activities were broad enough in scope to bring about some more radical changes, but the fact remains that they did exist and quite often operated in almost impossible conditions. At the beginning of this conference I would like us to recall all those who displayed their humanity and  kindness in those troubled times. In the process of facing our own past we have to identify not only the perpetrators and the crimes committed but also the events and individuals who could serve as role models in terms of humanity.

This conference is part of the ongoing processes in the region regarding an open discussion on finding an authentic way to confront our recent past. The complexity of the events does not allow direct and customary transfer of experiences from other regions. However, all these experiences put together could provide us with the basic elements for determining efficient forms of activities which in turn could help us heal the wounds of the nations in these parts, establish a lasting and stable peace, strive for prosperity and establish a new cultural model as a negation of the previous one that triggered war and led to atrocities.

The Development of a democratic society will be further delayed if we do not actively contribute to both a cultural and spiritual renaissance parallel to processes of reform in the country. The core concepts underlying these activities should be made public and the facts about wars and their consequences, culprits and those responsible, and particularly the victims and what happened to them should be made available to everyone.

In my profession, namely journalism, the truth is the core and the key. Without searching for truth and going public with it, journalism would not make any sense. Moreover, without the trust of the members of the public, that is, their conviction that what journalists report or write about is true, journalism cannot survive.

For the past ten years we have been both witnesses and participants in the chain of events related to the fabrication of various and quite often conflicting strains of "truths". Some of those so-called truths were mere fabrications, some were highly selective, and normal rhetoric and discourse often served to convey the messages of aggressive hate speech.

We endeavour to put an end to such an attitude towards truth. We endeavour to break the vicious circle involving victims' sufferings and acts of revenge because, if "our" side does not cease considering ourselves exclusively entitled to the role of victim, while the roles of culprits and perpetrators were to be reserved for the "other" side, it would be impossible to determine what actually happened and face the times in which revenge and conflicts would cease to be the driving force behind the events from which history is made.

Radio B92 and a large number of independent media in Yugoslavia and Serbia have been working during the past years under extremely difficult conditions. Nonetheless, though struggling to secure their own survival, they have never given up on fighting against hate speech, violence, war and intolerance. Their main weapon in the struggle was truth about what actually happened in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. Today, when all the former Yugoslav republics have, in principle, embraced peace and democracy as the ultimate values they should strive for, it seems that the moment has come to engage in serious work on disclosing the full truth, determining the degree of individual responsibility and gradual initiation of the reconciliation process among nations. Of course, we are aware of the fact that the political and economic situation is still extremely unfavourable as well as that those retrograde nationalist political parties and movements, which survive by spreading hatred and provoking conflicts, are still strong. Nonetheless, this is precisely why the challenges to our endeavour are so formidable. Truth, and this is my firm conviction, cannot possibly destabilise the social and political situation. The most recent public opinion polls, whose results will be presented afterwards, indicate undoubtedly that the public is ready to listen to and accept, above all, the testimonies of the witnesses and the victims. Regardless of how deep-rooted their prejudices and stereotypes are, and these had been encouraged and developed in the past years by the media and official policy of the former regime, ordinary people are ready and willing to hear the testimonies of the victims. The most recent horrible case regarding the disclosure of a refrigerator van full of corpses and the attempt to hush it up provoked disgust and outrage among common people after which the public demanded that the full and comprehensive truth about this incident be brought to light. This is yet further proof that when there is no fear and media manipulation, truth becomes a natural human need which must be satisfied. This is precisely why truth does contribute to the stabilisation and democratisation of society. The independent media, and RTV B92 in particular, are well aware of that fact.

The preparations for the conference "In Search of Truth and Responsibility – Towards A Democratic Future" began over six months ago. This is a natural continuation of our activities related to our work in the media, publishing, culture and arts. As far back as early 2000 in Ulcinj, Montenegro, the first international gathering focusing on the issue of "Truth, Responsibility and Reconciliation" was organised. This conference was the first event to deal with this important issue in public. Our friend Alex Boraine, the vice-president of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the president of the Institute for Transitional Justice encouraged us in our efforts to pursue our goal when he visited Belgrade in 1999 when the first drafts of this program were being made. Also I have to emphasise that we enjoyed the enormous support of the Open Society Fund and Sonja Licht, Arie Nayer and Mr. Soros himself. Colleagues from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, journalists and peace activists have also offered considerable moral support, and the fact that we have also participated in the process of establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Bosnia-Herzegovina has helped us determine which way to go. Finally, the establishment of the Yugoslav Truth and Reconciliation Commission, regardless of some controversy and suspicion, has proved that we are not alone with regards these ideas and concepts. In this sense we will be able to discuss openly various models and experiences of similar commissions from around the world.

This Conference is, of course, only the beginning of a long, complex and strenuous process which will inevitably involve the whole of Yugoslav society. It is impossible even to imagine this process unfolding independently of similar processes in the states where there were wars. This is also, indisputably, a challenge for forthcoming generations. But we must face it first.

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