While trying to illustrate the inter-ethnic hatred that reigned in his native Bosnia in 1993, a deserter who had just arrived in Belgrade told me: 'You know, these Serbs hate Bosnian Muslims just as we hate Albanians.'
The 'we' this deserter used was supposed to mean 'us - normal people', who don't hate each other (except for the Albanians). Though disparaging Albanians was quite common and self-implied in former Yugoslavia, I could do nothing but vigorously confront him, saying I did not hate Albanians - something that I was not sure he could understand at the time. Another deserter explained he would not fight for the army where 'faggot' officers hid in the back instead of courageously leading their soldiers.
Failing to organise visibly
In Serbia it was extremely dangerous and almost impossible for deserters to speak out in public. But even once they found secure refuge away from the war, most deserters failed to realise the political implications of their actions and thus failed to stress them publicly.
Some were worried for their families back home, others were ashamed of what they had done and would rather remain silent and some would make silly comments like the ones above.
Getting deserters to speak out in public against the war was, however, just a small challenge in the series my friends at Women in Black and I experienced in our efforts to help organise deserters politically.
Some deserters suffered badly from the circumstances and consequences of their desertion and became very vulnerable, depressed and hard to communicate with. Other preferred to have the past finished with and chose not to have to face it again by organising, assisting others, advocating their own rights or demanding improvements in their own position.
Many were just interested in receiving some humanitarian aid - which would ease their difficult living conditions while in exile or hiding. There were also those, why not tell it, who, though escaping from and rejecting an inter-ethnic war, then objected to connecting, never mind sharing anything in common with, deserters from the other side.
On a more practical and human note one should acknowledge that deserters are a very specific gender and age group of war refugees. One of the most arduous tasks for deserters in our “Safe House” was to organise the washing-up. There were no family bonds and so emotional ties and confidence could hardly develop among these young men. Instead, we had to face arguments, suspicion and once even a theft occurred.
Neither heroes nor cowards
Having said all this, I do not mean to question our ambitious and noble principles and the goals we set out to achieve in our approach to deserters. My point is that one should see deserters as neither cowards, traitors or fifth column - as states and armies describe them - nor as anti-militarist or pacifist heroes.
In many cases their decision to flee was spontaneous and often not “political”. The deserters might not share our political views and some are not even pacifists. But by deserting they sent a clear if semi-conscious message to those who stayed behind, to the officers in command, and to all soldiers and civilians equally.
Many risked their lives to escape and cross the closed borders. Many of those who stayed behind were arrested and condemned to long-term imprisonment. Others spent long periods in hiding. Almost all had to endure pressure from their families and most of them went through serious personal crises. On the other hand they found very little support and understanding and if abroad they were not awarded necessary protection as war refugees.
Turning negativity into action
Those of us who believe that there is no cause for which one should kill or be killed still have plenty of reasons to continue supporting deserters. And there is still so much to be done in former Yugoslavia and so many mistakes to be learnt from.
The right to conscientious objection and mechanisms for the protection of COs and deserters in times of war still needs to be adopted as a part of international law. Anti-militarist groups need to build and strengthen support networks so that no deserter is or feels abandoned.
As nonviolent socialist activists we have to work on our strategies for transforming negative feelings into positive energy and action, turning disillusionment into empowerment. While putting our efforts into working with deserters, refugees, and the victims of war and violence, we need to continuously question how they affect and relate to the existing patterns and relationships in society that contribute to generating the war and violence we are trying to confront.
Deserters are neither cowards nor heroes. They are human beings who help us to understand better the causes and consequences of wars.