Ask questions, speak up, disobey!

IssueDecember 2003 - February 2004
Feature by Vesna Jankovic

When it all started, back in 1991, I could hardly imagine where it would end.

In the summer of 1991 we were just a handful of people concerned about inevitability of the coming war. For more than a year the situation was “cooking”, but it still looked as if a political agreement about the future of Yugoslavia could be reached. In the meantime, in fact since 1986 when Milosevic gained political power in Serbia, Serbian nationalism became political and received academic and media support.

Suddenly it was openly broadcast, manufacturing the myth about brave Serbs, who won all the wars, but were always defeated by mischievous politicians. Of course, it didn't take long before Slovenian and Croatian nationalists started arguing that Croats/Slovenians were the biggest victims of the Yugoslavian dream. Victims everywhere. Followed by arguments about “our” rightness, culture, advances, bravery... Followed by arguments about “their” bloodthirstiness, political and economical dominance, cultural backwardness... And soon the media was full of historians proving all this was true since the 7th century; linguists trying to convince us that we had never spoken the same language, and of course politicians screaming that the freedom of the nation was all that mattered.

And then, in the summer 1991 the war started. First Slovenia. It lasted just about one week, not much blood, but then the Slovenian media and politicians were well prepared: with a well-organised war press centre, news all the time, excellent coverage, powerful political statements. Not a bit inferior to CNN's coverage of the Gulf war, war in Afghanistan, and again in Iraq. Well-orchestrated noise - and the Yugoslav army was defeated, withdrawing all the weaponry to Croatia and Bosnia. The media was full of political and military analysis, and I could sense how the blood was boiling in the veins of my co-citizens. Yet, it was summer, and the sky so clear and peaceful, I thought: maybe I should not listen to this fear rising in my belly.

The media war

A handful of us, mostly friends from the emerging women's and ecological initiatives back in the '80s, started the discussion; trying to define our position, trying to keep some common sense in the growing madness. And the Antiwar Campaign was born. Planning possible actions and activities, one of the first was ARKzine, an antiwar fanzine, because one thing was clear: the media war preceded the actual fighting, and in order to keep civil, antiwar, impartial awareness alive, we had to create our own media!

Soon afterwards the first issue of ARKzine was born: 16 pages, A4 format, 500 copies. It simply announced the existence of the Antiwar Campaign, stated our commitment to dialogue and a political solution, our willingness to cooperate with all peace-minded people, no matter their nationality, and listed all peace groups and initiatives in all the Yugoslav republics, that we knew of. A friend who was a professional graphic designer made it look really good, and we all loved it. Using all possible channels, we sent it around, and soon we had to photocopy some more copies! A group of ex-Yugoslavs living in Germany began translating it into German, and it became the main source of information for the German-speaking peace groups.

Life was going on at the speed of light. Fights broke out around the military barracks in town, blackouts in the evening, and more and more hatred and fear in the official media. And we were busy with organising peace concerts, the first workshops on nonviolent action and communication, exploring the legal possibilities for consciousness objection, hosting foreign journalists and more and more peace activists, coming to see for themselves and asking how they could help.

Just four weeks after the first issue of ARKzine, the second one appeared. This version was more ambitious, with four more pages, and this time, thanks to financial help from a German peace group, 1,000 copies were produced. Covering issues like patriotism and pacifism, conscientious objection, nonviolent conflict resolution, ecology and war, women and war. In the midst of war and general depression, we were bursting with energy, optimism, building international contacts, exploring new ways of organising and communicating. Being inspired, motivated, committed. Being a peace activist at that time was a wonderful, though often exhausting way to stay sane, and even to grow immensely.

Hurrah for hackers!

In the autumn of 1991 the telephone lines between Croatia and Serbia were cut. Soon after it was easier to get in touch with somebody in Germany, than in Bosnia. Eric Bachman, American-German peace activist and trainer brought the idea of email and BBS-ing (Bulletin Board System) in order to maintain the precious contact over the borders alive. Back at that time very few people were using the Internet, but nevertheless we decided to give it a try. It took us about nine months to establish Zamir BBS in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo! Exchange was maintained through Bielefeld in Germany. Hurrah for hackers and modern technology! Hurray for international solidarity!

Zamir became important, not just for keeping the information flow between peace, human rights and women's groups across ex-Yugoslavia, but also for building and keeping international contacts alive and, more and more, for organising actions on the national level within the country, discussing different issues and building the civil community. I remember “Electronic Witches” and American volunteer Kathryn Turnipseed travelling all around the region, teaching activists how to use this new technological miracle. I remember discussions about Zamir netiquette, how open or how closed we should be? And what a paradox: while the whole region was going backwards, peaceactivists in the Balkans were part of the contemporary digital revolution, proving its most human-friendly possibilities!

Space for dissenting voices

After the first year of the war, it became clear that it would not end soon, and the domestic political situation deteriorated: human rights abuses of Serbian citizens living in Croatia, concentration of political power in the hands of a small nationalist elite, reduction of civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech. At the beginning of 1993 there were almost no independent newspapers in Croatia. The best political journalist were fired, and the mainstream media turned into brainwashing machines. And suddenly ARKzine stepped from the complete social margins into the big media arena. Empowered by several professional journalist, and financially supported by international foundations, printed in the newspapers print shops in tabloid format in runs of five, six and finally ten thousand copies and distributed via official newspaper stands.

While in the first phase its main purpose was strengthening the emerging peace and civil scene, enhancing internal discussions, and exchanging information, now the purpose had shifted. We were aiming at the larger public, bringing “counter-information” about all kinds of human rights violations in the country, giving voice to all kinds of dissidents - political, academic, cultural... opening space for all kinds of minorities - national, sexual, theoretical.

Everything was here, from sharp political analysis, feminist reviews, gay rights, new media theory to rave parties. A beautiful mix of generations, opinions, activism and theory, politics and culture, high and low. Inspiring chaos, a temporary autonomous zone, proving that no matter how hard the officials tried, they couldn't impose complete control! We were the factor of disorder, the piece of the puzzle that didn't fit in, inviting people to disobey their fear, to ask questions, to speak up.

“Pro-Serb foreign mercenaries”

Even though the circulation wasn't high, ARKzine reached “cult” status, mostly among young people and intellectuals. The mainstream media even helped us, launching occasional attacks, and denouncing us as international mercenaries, pro-Serbian, Yugo-nostalgic, and so on.

Personally, I was never afraid of the possibility of public persecution, but I did feel a certain uneasiness whenever I was asked in an official institution what I did for living: “ARKzine?! Ah, you are those...” Rare support, and more often a sort of gazing away - “I don't want to know”... and rare open and outright attacks. But still, a sense of isolation and awkwardness.

However, many more sleepless nights were produced by constantly living on the edge of economic survival. We were fundamentally dependent on grants, because sales didn't bring enough money to cover all our expenses. As one of the rare independent media publications in the country, international foundations were eager to keep us alive, but ARKzine was somehow too alternative, too radical, too “leftist” to get enthusiastic and substantial support.

The other causes of uneasiness were the occasional reactions coming from the civil scene itself. Because of the unpopularity of their work, peace and human rights activists developed a certain disbelief towards the media in general. Yes, ARKzine was representing their work and promoting the values they supported as well, but still. It was never really good enough, and the tension within the editorial board between journalists and activists broke up from time to time into the open conflict, causing some people to leave.

The end

In 1998, after another “financial crisis”, ARKzine faded away from the media landscape in Croatia, which, by that time, was quite different than it had been 4-5 years earlier. Most of the journalists had found better paid jobs in bigger media, some young authors were inspired to start their own fanzines or even journals, activists went back to their activism... But ARKzine is still an important document, a witness of the dark times, during which it tried to keep the candlelight burning... for the sake of truth, light, freedom, love, friendship, laughter, joy, openness, disobedience, non-conformism ... and a bit of craziness too.

Topics: Balkans, Media