Last Friday, on October 4, 2019, SVA, the prestigious New York art institution served as a platform to spread dangerous propaganda and cruel disinformation by showing The Weight of Chains 3. This film directed by Boris Malagurski says that it presents an analysis of crimes against climate change among other things. In fact, it is a Serbian propaganda film disguising ethnic cleansing and war atrocities that Serbs committed against Croats, Bosnians and Albanians after the break up of Yugoslavia. The Weight of Chains 3 is very much like the Joseph Goebbels and the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment propaganda films. It is not a work of art. It is not about environmental issues or climate change. It is about twisting imagery and language to rewrite history and hide the horrid war crimes of twenty some years ago. SVA should not serve as breeding ground for reprehensible storylines dishonoring the memory of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
I am a 34-year-old man living and working in the New York area. I am a New School alumnus with a Master degree in International Affairs. I was a war refugee at fourteen years old. I still get chills and my entire body shakes when talking about my life in Kosovo during the War of the 1990’s. This doesn’t happen when I describe my experiences briefly and in academic terms like – ethnic violence, genocide etc.. It really kicks in when I speak with family members and friends who survived the war.
It was March 30, 1999 in Prishtina, Kosova, when my family and I relived the story of Kindertransport. Until that day, we had been experiencing what seemed like a never-ending nightmare. We had seen far too many families vanish. Children, elderly, women and men were massacred daily in rural parts of the country. Peaceful protests in Prishtina, the capital of Kosova, ended violently with people getting beaten up, arrested, and disappearing without a sign. No fourteen year old should see dead bodies lining up the streets. There should be no refugee experience in anyone’s life. Those who commit crimes against humanity should not dictate history according to their terms. Presenting terribly patched up propaganda pieces only serves to magnify the lack of basic respect for life. No words resonate better with me about surviving war than Roosevelt’s saying, “I have seen war. I hate war.”
By March 30th, 1999, life was all about physical survival. For weeks my family and I had been on the move from one neighborhood to another. People kept talking about which part of the city was going to be hit next. Finally, on that day, the Serbian armed forces knocked hard on the door, armed for combat, shouting and cursing in Serbian, threatening us to get out fast. The streets were filled with Albanians and commanded by armored vehicles. Soldiers with machine guns pointed towards the crowd monitored every single move. Lined up, we were directed to walk towards the stadium. Everyone feared that we were approaching the designated mass-shooting destination. Then the crowd continued to be led upwards ending up at the city’s train station. Unlike those in the rural areas who were killed and raped, the plan for us was ethnic cleansing.
We spent the night at the train station, out in an open field, surrounded by Serbian armed forces. It is that clear sky filled with stars that still scares me the most. In front of me there were soldiers with machine guns. Behind me there were thousands of people including my family. I remember my mother pulling me closer, so she could be the shield in case they decided to shoot. I remember shaking hard because fear had kicked in and had taken control of my body. As I shook, my mother and my cousin kept massaging me to calm me down. I couldn’t stop for a while. I don’t know how long it lasted, but that’s what re-emerges when I really get into that moment. This was just that one night. There is plenty more that happened throughout my childhood thanks to the legacy of Yugoslavian oppression, and Serbian regime, which kept getting progressively more violent and nationalistic. More, so much more happened after that night. Malnutrition, hours and hours of walking towards the border with Albania, life in refugee camps, scenes of despair, hopelessness, tears, screaming….
SVA showing The Weight of Chains 3 is heartbreaking. This event was not about promoting art or different viewpoints; it was promoting despicable lies. The Serbian army killed more than twenty thousand people in Kosova. There were thousands of rape victims, a number of them have committed suicide and many still suffer from PTSD. There are thousands of people still missing. Everything was destroyed at the hands of the Serbs, including mosques, Catholic churches, cultural centers, libraries etc.. Many Albanian Americans like me, who have gone through similar or much worse experiences, cannot sit silently. We survived through the war. We cannot let anyone obfuscate history with the intention of undermining historical facts documented by neutral parties. To be clear, before NATO bombings, the US diplomacy did give peace a chance. Kosova’s autonomy was violently taken away by Serbia in 1989 and Milosevic was never interested in giving it back. The violent strategy goes beyond Milosevic and it is rooted in Serbia’s political elite including Serbia’s respected SANU - Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. In 1986, SANU had helped set the stage nourishing a sick nationalism. At one point one of its noted members, Batakovic, stated, “The robber mentality of the ethnic Albanian tribes (given their incredible powers of reproduction) developed into a dangerous threat to the biological survival of the Serbian nation in Kosovo and Metohija.” Works of this kind make it clear that Milosevic was a tool rather than a planner of worst crimes seen in Europe since the end of World War II. Serb historian Latinka Petrovic has quoted SANU’s President Antonije Isakovic declaring that Serbia was prepared to solve the problem of defending the Serbian nation in the midst of Yugoslavia’s identity crisis: a) It was not going to be done in Serbian territory, b) it would cost about 86,000 lives (obviously not Serbs, or less Serbs, as it’s fought in other territories.) Isn’t that what we saw as Yugoslavia broke down?
Should SVA and other educational or cultural institutions accommodate conspiracy theories that the US Capitalist system somehow had evil intentions and NATO bombings were all planned as a way to destroy the great Yugoslav – Serb led project? There is plenty of research on this subject with facts, Hague tribunals based on evidence of crimes and other means of proving who had zero disregard for cultural heritage, innocent lives and the environment. SVA promoting an “alternate” truth which undermines history from twenty years ago is disgraceful at best. On a more personal level, I am irritated at SVA for being duped into doing something that goes against its guiding principals. My older brother is an SVA alumnus. His story is no less heart wrenching than mine. He was forced to leave Kosova in 1992 to avoid being drafted in the Yugoslav army fighting the Serbs' war against innocent civilians in Croatia. As oppressed Kosovar Albanians, the drafted youth often ended up killed with zero accountability or clarity on why or what had happened. The youth of Kosova had to give up their dreams of going to college and fled into unknown territories. My brother had to figure out his life on his own as a teenager, always looking back, worrying about his family, and helping any way he could. As a sculptor in New York, and a proud SVA alumnus, he lives his life focused on creating and building. America is a place where you sculpt your own dreams and focus on making them reality. Art is using your imagination to give life to the unthinkable and compelling.
At The New School, I was continuously encouraged by my professors to think critically, to be an active citizen, and to fight for what is right. Freedom of speech is priceless. Art is a valuable part of life. Art is supposed to be provocative and drive change. I expect that of SVA, The New School and all other educational institutions. Serbia’s Academy of Sciences and Arts had a great name too, but there was no art once it started to twist facts for political purposes. Instead it became a promoter of violence.
Kosovar Albanians have given their lives to defend their freedom and all it entails. We continue to follow our dreams. We work hard. We are not faceless or voiceless. Nobody can tell our stories, but us. We believe that SVA is a catalyst for innovation and social responsibility that represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For that reason, SVA should absolutely distance itself from Goebbels like propaganda maliciously prepackaged and sold as art.