'Imagined suicide': self-sacrifice and the making of heroes in post-war Croatia by Michaela Schäuble

'Imagined suicide': self-sacrifice and the making of heroes in post-war Croatia

By Michaela Schäuble (University of Tübingen)

Based on reflections during 12 months of fieldwork on gender-related recollections of war and violence in a central Dalmatian town in post-war Croatia, this paper explores how the traumatising experience of militant conflict (1991-1995) and subsequent affliction are dealt with on an individual level. Drawing on the example of a carnival episode in which one of my core interlocutors embodied a suicide bomber, I employ the concept of 'imagined suicide'. As a category of ironic commentary on global terrorism, yet an emblematic expression of discontent in a desolate post-war setting, 'imagined suicide' constitutes a concept in which violence is playfully performed as a politically creative force. My aim is to decipher the symbolism in which the dynamics of (imagined) violent action are embedded and to interpret its communicative messages in terms of intentional annotation of the actors' own reflections on their lives.

'The handmaids of teleology are Catastrophe and Revolution' [1]

Dalmatia: guarding the margins of Europe

When I told a young colleague at the Centre for Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb that I had decided to do fieldwork in the small town of Sinj in Central Dalmatia, she was rather concerned and said: 'I want you to know that we are not all like the people there. You have to make sure you contextualise the place. In Sinj they are all warriors and eager to defend what they think is Croatia. Even if I personally do not know what that would be…'. Although she was instantly aware of and slightly embarrassed by her own worry that Croatia might not be 'properly' portrayed in my dissertation, her reaction was quite symptomatic. A number of other acquaintances in Zagreb agreed that 'the people there are as hard as the stones of the landscape they are living in,' or that 'they are extremists. They either love you or hate you-there is no between.' In short, the region is a stronghold of Croatian nationalism that liberal urban Croatians did not want to be associated with. Somewhat intimidated yet eager to interpret these comments as a first encounter with my future area of research, I primarily noted the naturalistic character of the stereotypes ascribed to rural Dalmatians.

Located on a plateau between the Dinaric mountain range that separates Croatia from Bosnia and the coastal city of Split, Sinj is a town of approximately 23,000 inhabitants. The barren landscape significantly influences their modes of existence and bears a strong resemblance to other 'catastrophic' regions in the Mediterranean (Horden and Purcell 2000:298), with traditionally weak infrastructure and a subsequent high degree of subsistence farming.

Upon my arrival in Sinj, I realised that the local population had to some extent adopted the stereotypes associated with them, but that they had re-signified their meaning. Describing themselves as 'true Croats', they held an image of themselves as fierce and courageous fighters, incorporating their regional traditions, nationalist emotions, and long-established fervent Catholic faith against differing ways of thinking. Everyday life in Sinj was to a large extent characterised by a strong dissociation from urban lifestyles. 'The people in Zagreb are arrogant and think that we are backward farmers. But they have no idea how we live here. The biggest problem in Croatia today is that the sacrifices people have made for our country are not equally shared,' said a local Franciscan priest, thus indicating that those who were not directly afflicted by war could not have as loyal a relationship to their home country as, for example, the inhabitants of conflict-torn areas such as Sinj. [2]

At present the two most revered institutions in Sinj are the prominent Marian shrine of Gospa Sinjska, and the widely renowned knights' tournament Sinjska Alka. According to the legend, dating back to 1715, attacking Turkish troops were defeated by a small number of local warriors through the help of a Marian apparition. In the Alka games the historic battle is annually re-enacted, thus reviving the imbalanced combat as a celebration of local bravery and resistance against intruders.

Self-victimisation and self-sacrifice

The Alka is one of the main features of official versions of local identity and the following passage from the town's authorised homepage on the internet helps to illustrate some revealing aspects of regional self-stereotyping: 'The Alka tournament has survived with few interruptions until the present day, adapted in conformity with regional characteristics, yet making a vital contribution to the formation of the ethics of heroism and self-sacrifice that have always guided the people of the Cetina district.' [3] Referring to the ethics of heroism and self-sacrifice that still seem to constitute a vital interpretative figure or even frame of action for current socio-political conduct, the text implies a connection to the religiously informed concept of martyrdom which is based on these very principles. [4]

Many Croats, and Dalmatians in particular, conceive of themselves as guards of Europe and entitle Croatia Antemurale Christianitatis ('bulwark of Christianity'), a phrase that dates back to the Mediaeval Crusades at the beginning of the Ottoman invasion. Indicating that they and their ancestors have successfully protected, and still protect, the borders of Europe against intruding forces 'from the East', this theme increasingly carries the reproachful implication that their historic role is not adequately acknowledged in Europe today. Such discourses-alongside alleged inequities during the past decades-stimulate the gradual formation of a self-image that can be called a collective victim identity (see Jalušic 2004). Modes of systematic self-victimisation are not only used to reinterpret past events, but also result in a rhetorical negotiation of current political matters. [5] They are particularly likely to be ascribed mythical qualities when they are both derived from and applied to violent conflicts. In short, concepts of heroism, martyrdom, and self-victimisation that shape local mythologies in all regions of the former Yugoslavia, also interact with the destructive, traumatic effects of experienced as well as committed violence in contemporary post-war Croatia. The negotiation of such conceptual processes is part of everyday life as they are acted out on an informal symbolic level.

As an example I will describe and analyse the 'playful' embodiment of a suicidal terrorist during a carnival, enacted in 2005 by one of my closest friends and main interlocutors in Sinj. Utilising theories of dramatisation and phenomenological description, I draw on the socio-historical contexts in which this performance was acted out. My aim is to decipher the symbolism in which the dynamics of (imagined) violent action are embedded, and to interpret its 'communicative messages' in terms of intentional commentary of the actors' own reflections on their lives. Although the focus of my analysis lies in expressive aspects of human behaviour, I will also draw on instrumental features in the incident described, such as motivation, rationale, means and possible ends (Blok 2000:27-28).

Performing terrorism: 'Hello America, greetings to your twins'

My closest ties in Sinj were with the Covic [6] family. And although I was not directly living in their house, I was a quasi-permanent guest, taking part in their everyday social life. One of the four adult sons of the family, 31-year old Marko, is unmarried and still lives with the parents Joško and Ivana. In early February Marko told me that the carnival was coming up, and that the local costume ball was considered a major cultural event in town. For days on end he would disappear into the tool shed and build an elaborate construction on metal racks. Using the mount of a discarded backpack, he attached two parallel gas cartridges, equipped them with pointed tips, and additionally applied small blinking green and red lamps. Soon he revealed that he would dress up as an 'Arab suicide bomber'.

After he had finished the decoration of his gear, he attached a cardboard sign to the cartridges that read:

Bok Amerika, pozdrav vašim blizancima! Vidimo se druge godine!

(Hello America, greetings to your twins! See you again next year!)

When leaving for the ball, he wore camouflage army pants, black army boots, and a loose-fitting white shirt. Additionally, he glued on an exaggerated black, bushy moustache. Carrying his 'suicide-backpack', Marko underwent a visible metamorphosis. He looked utterly grotesque and funny, yet at the same time threatening. To me, the gas cartridges on his back resembled miniature twin towers as well as two missiles. He himself referred to them as 'my rockets'. Combining a Croatian army uniform with the mock 'Arab' look, and an explicit comment on the attacks of 9/11, Marko created a hybrid by which he managed to symbolically display violence and at the same time caricature it.

The most paradoxical detail of his costume, however, was the kaffiyeh, a checkered Palestinian headdress that his parents had bought as a souvenir in Israel. The Covics are very devout Catholics, and in 1996 after the end of the war, Joško and Ivana-out of gratitude for the survival of their sons-had gone on a pilgrimage to Israel. This background story of the kaffiyeh gives the whole incident an even more bizarre twist. 'I totally look like Arafat,' Marko chuckled with the scarf wound around his head.

The fact that Marko chooses to enact a Muslim seems the obvious thing to do, as Muslims are the most apparent suicide bombers to the Western imagination. Even so, for a nationalist Croat this performance implies an important and yet again highly paradoxical element, which entails various interrelated dimensions. [7] First of all, the hostile Other that is constructed through the Croatian self-assessment as historical Antemurale Christianitatis, and that is likewise incorporated and revived in Sinj's Alka mythico-history, are Ottoman Muslims. 'The "modern idea" of Europe seems to have been initiated […] precisely in opposition to Islam,' writes Rastko Mocnik (Mocnik 2002:111). The concrete historical presence of the Ottoman Empire has traditionally been conceived as an Oriental, genuinely non-European element, which still prevails in prevalent discourses linking Balkanism to 'the Ottoman legacy'. Up to today, all versions of Croatian nationalism are constructed in vehement, direct opposition to the idea that Croatia is part of the 'Balkan'-a region strongly associated with its Ottoman, and therefore Muslim, legacy. And finally, Croatian militia and armed Bosnian Croat forces fought a cruel war against Bosnian Muslims during the so-called Homeland War (1991-1995) in the neighbouring Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Yet although it seems a vital constituent of regional self-conception and self-esteem in this part of the country to forcefully maintain the border towards the adjacent Muslim Other, Marko still chooses to jokingly annul the established disassociation and even to embody the potentially threatening 'Oriental element'.

Deciphering statements of violence

In his article The enigma of senseless violence, Anton Blok writes that: '[v]iolence makes statements and it is the task of anthropologists to decipher them. They are greatly helped in this because violence often has the character of theatre and performance in which things are "said" as much as they are "done"' (Blok 2000:31).

Dressing up as a suicide bomber is clearly a symbolic action and not to be understood as a real threat. One recognizable statement of this performance, however, is the public articulation of discontent directed towards the United States of America. Knowing that Marko is politically well informed and aware of the fact that the attacks on the World Trade Centre are ascribed to the Al-Qaeda network and not directly connected with the suicide bombings in the occupied territories, I was even more puzzled by his 'offensive performance' (Goffman 1971). By nonchalantly linking the two realms, he constructed himself as an allegoric figure that represented a macro-community of violence.

When I visited the Covics the day after the carnival, Marko proudly showed me a fancy trophy: he had won the first prize in the costume competition.

One might ascribe this carnival episode to the boredom of small-town life, but I rather understand it-as I understand carnival on the whole-as a cultural performance that opens up space for 'an alternative mode of collective behavior' (DaMatta 1991:62). Carnival and concealing outfits allow statements to emerge and be brought into relationship with socio-political actuality, which in the normal course of events would be invisible or marginal. They are complex manifestations of, and humorous commentaries on, the social world. As a commentary with its multiple dramatisations in which the world is reproduced, choosing a particular carnival costume is a conscious dialectical act that involves many levels and circuits of self-reflection. Victor Turner described the social operation of cultural performances such as Marko's as 'magic mirrors, each interpreting as well as reflecting the images beamed on it' (Turner 1987:24).

The fact that Marko's costume was widely discussed and awarded the first prize indicates that he had touched on a vital topic, and communicated it in a manner that people in the town could relate to. He recognised and creatively utilised the role played through seemingly irrational and imaginative acts of symbolic communication, in regard to tackling critical issues in times of socio-political crisis and severe change. Drawing on mythological notions of martyrdom and self-sacrifice, he assigns his guise an almost sacral character, but at the same time ironically deconstructs the threatening potential of the weapon by dancing, drinking, and having fun with 'his rockets'. Whereas a major goal of an actual suicide bomber is to be concealed up to the last minute, Marko visibly carries his armament on his back. His show can therefore also be understood as a paradoxical visualisation of secrecy that contributes to the de-mystification of faceless terror.

For a better understanding of this scenario, which I call 'imagined suicide', it is important to note that it takes place in a post-war community where violence is a widespread means of communication, and where openly aggressive behaviour-particularly among male youngsters-is even perceived as prestigious.

Branitelji: the case of Croatian ex-combatants

The social context that is interpreted and reflected in Marko's performance is largely defined by war violence and its manifold consequences. Suicide is not an unusual phenomenon in post-war Croat society. Increasing rates of suicides committed by ex-combatants, and also noticeably mounting violent behaviour against others by this group, keeps startling the public. In Croatia, since the end of the war in 1995, more than 1,300 former male soldiers have committed suicide. [8]

The authors of the 2004 Annual Report of the Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace in Croatia state that:

'although there are no reliable statistics available, our impression […] is that the number of suicides and suicide attempts continues to rise. This was highlighted by the suicide of the leader of the Association of Croatian Defenders Suffering from PTSD in November and a report on Croatian Television (HRT) that 18 people had committed suicide during the first eight days of 2005.' (CWWPP 2004)

The situation is made worse by the fact that there is hardly any or no outreach of psychological assistance or suicide prevention work for branitelji [9] in rural areas. Natalija Basic notes that 'many combatants hoped for post-war ranks comparable to those of soldiers who had fought in World War II-i.e. public prestige, privileges, careers and reputable positions in the military, public sector or in politics' (Basic 2004:107, my translation). And although the case of the branitelji is widely recognised in the media and various (mostly nationalistic) political parties use their fate for propaganda, very little is actually done for ex-combatants in terms of social and professional reintegration, health care, financial and psychological support. This neglect causes especially visible long-term harm at the family level. The most frequent socio-psychological problems associated with war-induced distress, apart from suicide and suicide attempts, are alcoholism, drug abuse, and a notable increase in domestic violence [10] (see also Basic 2004).

When I asked Marko's father Joško, an eloquent man in his mid-60s, what he thought the reasons for increased violence and suicides amongst branitelji were, he answered:

'They have fought for Croatia, you know, and now they see that the government is selling the whole country to foreigners. Our politicians are corrupt and put everything in their own pockets. Well, maybe that's not the main reason for the suicides, but it's still an important factor.'

'What's the main reason then?' I asked.

'Aggression. It's against our mentality to be aggressive and to kill people. And many soldiers feel their conscience (savjest) now and all those images emerge. I have talked to many branitelji who told me that they have constant nightmares. Once it starts, you can't control it […]'

From the first part of Joško's comment one can infer a genuine critique of current politics and the lack of public recognition regarding the achievements of the branitelji. In addition, Joško explicitly contests the stereotype of the Balkans as having a 'culture of violence'. [11] The statement that 'it's against our mentality to be aggressive and to kill' indicates dissociation from violent war crimes. But at the same time, comments like Joško's form a sharp contrast to the public image of the branitelji as brave and intrepid defenders of the homeland. The social reality of the majority of veterans in post-war Croatia is embedded in the contradictory context of rhetorical glorification on the one side, and low social status as well as suppressed feelings of guilt on the other side.

The mimetic implications of 'imagined suicide'

Marko himself had been one of the first volunteers to join the Croatian armed forces after the republic's government announced a general mobilisation and declared a 'war of liberation'. [12] In 1991, when the initial military actions began, he instantly returned from Germany where he had just been offered a well-paid job, in order to defend Croatian territory. Without previous military experience or particular training he was stationed in a missile defence unit in the mountains close to Sinj, monitoring air traffic. Today, ten years after the ceasefire, he is severely traumatised and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [13] Due to trauma-related syndromes such as insomnia, flashbacks, anxiety attacks, hyperreflexia and lack of concentration he has difficulties getting a steady job. But despite his illness he has not been granted the official status of an invalid and is therefore not eligible for provision of work programmes or a disability pension.

In an interview that took place a few months after the carnival episode, Marko drew an utterly depressing picture of his situation. He thought of himself as unpredictable and potentially dangerous when 'those memories and feelings get out of control'. He referred to himself as a 'ticking time-bomb', indicating that he was afraid of this 'untamed power' that lurked within his body. The war, he said, destroyed his life, and he felt that he had sacrificed his health, his education and career prospects as well as his hope for a better future-all in order to recognize now that he has been let down by the very state he fought for.

I am not implying that by dressing up as a suicide bomber Marko claims to be a potential terrorist or hints at actually planning to commit suicide. Nor am I implying that the public recognition he gained from his performance equals an acceptance or legitimation of actual assassination attempts. Rather, I suggest reading his performance in terms of the concept of mimesis.

Drawing on Erich Auerbach's (1967) concept of mimesis, the difference between the performer and the performed is as much a prerequisite for mimetic imitation as it is an attempt to eliminate difference, to integrate the other, or even to transform oneself into the other. The French philosopher Roger Caillois writes that in mimetic productions, and through the use of masks in general, officiants are transformed into:

'all types of terrifying and creative supernatural powers […] He [the individual] temporarily reincarnates, mimics, and identifies with these frightful powers […] The situation has now become reversed. It is he who inspires fear through his possessing this terrible and inhuman power. It was sufficient for him merely to put on the mask that he himself made, to don the costume that he sewed, in order to resemble the revered and feared being and to produce a weird drone with the aid of a secret weapon, the bull-roarer, of which he alone has known the existence, character, operation, and function […] At the time of the festival, dancing ritual and pantomime are only preliminary. This prelude incites an increasing excitement. Vertigo then takes the place of simulation. As the Cabala warns, one becomes a ghost in playing a ghost.' (Caillois 1979:87)

Transferring this concept to Marko's 'play', the 'terrible and inhuman power' would refer less to terrorism itself, than to the violence he has experienced during war and still experiences within his own body in the form of recurrent panic attacks. By dressing up as a suicide bomber, Marko-on a symbolic level-personifies his worst fear, namely turning into a dangerous time bomb. It is also significant to note that after having served in a missile defence unit, he transforms himself precisely into a living missile. He becomes the hostile power that jeopardises his mental and physical health.

Inverting immobility

The attacks in New York, Djerba, Madrid, London, Istanbul and elsewhere have shown that 'terrorist violence' is organised in a global network that stretches across borders and is not bound to the country of origin of the executers or the persons behind the assaults. On 9th September 2001 Mohamed Atta and his fellow-combatants boarded airplanes and transcended the scope of locally restricted agency. Marko, on the contrary, experiences that he is inevitably bound to the place where he is born. Due to his war trauma, unemployment and his consequent lack of money, he is spatially as well as socially immobile. His 'missile-backpack', which startlingly resembles a futuristic 'jet-pack', seems like the materialisation of a dream of expanded mobility on an individual level.

When asked what he hopes or wishes for-for himself as well as for his country-Marko simply answered 'to be left in peace.' On a personal level this statement indicates that he feels most comfortable when wandering alone in the mountains and does not have to interact socially with other people. On a broader level, he said, he was hoping for Croatia's independence from international politics, particularly from US foreign policy and from demands by the European Union.

My interlocutors in Sinj described most countries of the Western hemisphere as 'materialist, without morals, and, worst of all, without faith'-a perception that prevails not only in rural Croatia but also in vast areas of former Yugoslavia (see also Colovic 2002). Along with the threat of the growing influence of global forces this view is increasingly shared in many underprivileged parts of the world. I do not claim that such discontent leads in any direct way into terrorism. However, the concept of martyrdom as a 'fantasy ideology' that suggests moral superiority might at least facilitate this association.

Martyrs signify immortality. This inviolability stands in opposition to many young Croatian men's current experiences of vulnerability and 'de-masculinisation' through the loss of their socially ascribed role as breadwinner. 'I can't marry and have my own family as long as I have no job and earn no money of my own,' says Marko. The widespread de-professionalisation obstructs the reconstruction of (male) identity in post-war settings (see also Basic 2004 and Blagojevic 2004). Marko's case illustrates that the immediate effects of the war are clearly gendered, and so are the reactions regarding war-induced socio-economic disruptions and subsequent practices of conflict resolution. [14]

Masculinity, combat and (post-)modernity

'Violence is interwoven with masculinity and the human body often serves as a cultural medium, as a source of metaphorical material to symbolize power relations,' writes Anton Blok (2000:33). Many veterans in former Yugoslavia have reported that violence plays an increasingly important role in their personal conflict behaviour (Basic 2004:107, Blagojevic 2004:77). In this respect it might be dangerous to underestimate such cultural performances as Marko's symbolic staging of a suicide mission-in which he turns his own body into a weapon-as harmless playful gestures, particularly since numerous ex-combatants in former Yugoslavia still own different kinds of guns, along with live ammunition. Dozens of recently published newspaper reports refer to incidents with ex-soldiers who either used their weapons to kill themselves or to solve private conflicts violently. Rob Nixon writes of the psychological and socio-political situation of former soldiers in post-war settings: 'The dissipation of the enemy constructs that secured their employment and the waning of the old regimes have rendered many professional soldiers violently insecure, as they ponder fates ranging from tribunals and prison to unemployment and evaporating pensions' (Nixon 1997:80). In the case of former Yugoslavia this insecurity does not only affect professional military forces, as large parts of the male population aged 17 to 65 were involved in military actions in the war between 1991 and 1995. Like Marko, most young men who went to war before completing their education have had hardly any opportunity to train and qualify for other work today. Factors such as low economic status, financial dependency, the feeling of government-sanctioned injustice, as well as the lack of recognition and perspectives all contribute to an extension of the originally war-inflicted trauma. Young men are highly disillusioned and anxiously face the quickly proceeding cultural change along with the impoverishment of their home countries. In addition to the trauma of war they suffer from 'the trauma of modernity' (Croitoru 2003, my translation).

Due to their indeterminate state between publicly acknowledged heroism and social oblivion, the branitelji are particularly susceptible to political manipulation. Traumatising experiences in the past, along with a desolate economic situation in the present and unpromising future perspectives, repeatedly pave the way for ethnic nationalism, and have proved to lower the threshold for violence. Fortunately, the assumed redemptive potential of collective violence has so far not culminated in politically motivated terrorist acts in post-war Croatia, as some preconditions recognised by anthropologists are lacking. 'Promoting prerequisites [for terrorism] can be specified: groups excluded from communication, blockade-experience of political actors, a large reservoir of personnel, as well as "markets of violence" operating as retreat- and deployment zones,' writes Georg Elwert (2001:6, my translation). The most powerful prerequisite, however, is the conviction that non-violent political actions have no effect. In the case of former Yugoslavia, this awareness is prevalent and deeply rooted in the previously described worldview, in which people experience themselves as victims of history and historiography.

Violence: a politically creative force?

Suicide is one of the loneliest acts imaginable. But for someone like Marko, whose principal wish is to be 'left in peace', 'imagined suicide' might seem an appealing concept. At the same time, politically motivated suicide-be it real or imagined-secures integration into a communication structure that aims at threatening and actually influencing international politics. Marko's performance can be read as a (playful and ironic) 'vision' that is inspired by previous terrorist acts, attempting to change prevailing power relations. Simultaneously, he might have been dreaming of a social prestige that he, as an unemployed branitelj, is denied in real life. Inverting the feeling of being powerless, place-bound and immobile, he symbolically turns himself into a missile-driven superhero. For people who experience political impotence on a daily level, and for whom the capacity to act equals violent action, suicidal terror appears to create the illusion of empowerment (Elwert 2001).

On a socio-political level, this 'vision', as my article tries to illustrate, is not limited to Islamic fundamentalism, as is widely supposed. Rather, it amounts to quasi-millennial imaginations that are grounded in a feeling of moral superiority, in a radically contrasting context of material, socio-economic and political marginality. 'We do not need Europe, but Europe needs us,' was a comment that I came across on a regular basis in Croatia. Rather megalomaniac statements like this are used to invert 'Western' self-essentialising tendencies and to draw a boundary against a new Europe that is perceived as being reigned by a 'Euro-rationality without god', as the Croatian lyric and journalist Nenad Piskac once put it. This sentiment of moral or ethical supremacy is what Croatian and other ex-Yugoslav nationalists have in common with disillusioned, marginalised groups all over the world.

'Terrorism is propaganda of action, a language of action that we often do not understand properly, because we are idle, feel safe, or because we already avoid the trauma and thereby correspond with the dreams of the culprits. The primary statement of Al-Qaeda's attack strategy is the death wish, the plain aggression against the disturbing other' (Hauschild 20.03.2004, my translation).

Apart from commonly felt political and economic powerlessness, as well as shared feelings of moral superiority, it is the joint perception of this 'disturbing other' that increasingly brings into association otherwise unrelated communities.

In former Yugoslavia, the search for the ones to blame for war and present misery perpetuates desperate visions of (self-destructive) vengeance. Focal points of these vindictive feelings are the United States and Europe, whom many hold responsible for prior wrongs in Croatia and for not having intervened early enough during the last war. Mile Krajina, a Croatian folk musician and composer of new epic songs, puts it as follows:

Fierce war rages waged in Croatia
While Western Europe is silent…
Land of Europe, may you be damned
For letting the Serbs commit crimes,
Open your doors to Orthodoxy,
Place a tight noose around your neck.
Now you yourselves will lose your heads,
The Thames and Seine will fill with blood.

(Krajina 1994:42, quoted and translated in Colovic 2002:44)

Not unlike Marko's 'message', this song expresses the bitterness that is felt vis-à-vis the supposed let down. It also contains a symbolic threat, hinting at the fact that there would indeed be enough willing personnel to take revenge for endured injustice.

Given a retaliatory attitude, revenge-and suicide as a vigorous means of revenge-may constitute a radical and violent response to emotions of powerlessness or futility. In order to approach the 'rationale' behind suicide missions, suicide should therefore be understood not so much as an act of self-killing, but in terms of self-sacrifice. When regarded as sacrifice, through which the suffering and discrimination of the whole community can be annulled or avenged by a hero's donation of his own life, suicide might be considered a highly sociable act.

Drawing upon an existentialist legacy, the British anthropologist Edmund Leach described violence as a wide-ranging productive power to imagine and bring about socio-political change: '[A]ll creativity, whether it is the work of the artist or the scholar or even of the politician, contains within it a deep-rooted hostility to the system as it is' (Leach 1977:20). Along these lines, to dream up a suicide assault can be understood as a highly violent and (self-) destructive yet resourceful, imaginative act, which aims at changing 'things as they are' on an individual psychological as well as on a socio-political level.

I argue that one of the main prerequisites for 'imagining suicide' in relation to violent terrorist action is the prevalence of mythological notions and narratives of martyrdom, based on the self-righteous assumption of moral superiority in a context of radically divergent socio-economic and political marginalisation. Self-sacrifice and martyrdom are historically developed cultural conceptions of Judaeo-Christian origin, which are recklessly underestimated but gradually prosper in societies in which the fascination with violence as a politically creative force prevails.


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[1] Horden and Purcell (2000:301). back

[2] The area surrounding Sinj witnessed some of the most extreme violence both in World War II and in the post-Yugoslav wars. In 1941 after Germany had declared war on Yugoslavia, the fascist Ustaša (from ustanak, uprising) were put in charge of the Nezavisna Država Hrvatska (Independent State of Croatia, acronym NDH) by the Axis Powers, and carried out a cruel genocide amongst Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and a number of Communist Croats. Despite these atrocities, many people-particularly in Sinj and in the countryside surrounding the villages-strongly identified with the Ustaša and the Hrvatski Domobran (Croatian Home Guard) whose declared aim was to 'liberate Croatia from alien rule and establish a completely free and independent state over the whole of its national and historic territory' (Horvat 1942:432, quoted in Tanner 2001:125). By the end of the war in 1945, however, the Ustapi were utterly defeated by Tito's communist-led partisan troops. In several Partisan massacres, thousands of presumed Ustapa sympathizers and Croatian civilians had been killed-crimes that were completely silenced and hushed up in Tito's Yugoslavia. But the memories of Partisan violence re-emerged and became a crucial factor in the rise of Croatian nationalism in the 1990s. In Sinj, the commemoration of victims of the 'communist regime' is vital up to the present day, and in many ways superimposes memories of the recent war. Sinj is situated on the immediate border of the so-called 'Krajina' region with a historical Serbian majority. In 1991 the 'Krajina' was proclaimed a Serb Republic, but was recaptured by Croatian forces in the 1995 military offensive Oluja (Operation Storm). In this 'operation', which was later declared the 'biggest single forcible displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War' (Silber and Little 1995:358), hundreds of Serbian civilians were killed, thousands of houses destroyed, and more than 200,000 people evicted. back

[3] http://www.dalmacija.net/sinj/sinj_1.htm [accessed on 18.04.2006] back

[4] The original meaning of the Greek word martyr is simply 'witness', but as stated in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 'the idea of suffering came by the end of the first century to be connected with the bearing of witness or being a martyr' (Encyclopaedia Britannica 38th edition, 1987, 15:458). A martyr is 'one whose testimony to the truth as he sees it leads to and culminates in his death' (ibid). See also Hasan-Rokem (2003). back

[5] Recent discussions, be it in relation to the anticipated EU-membership in 2009 or the challenging collaboration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), are perceived as the continuation of previous 'wrongs'. back

[6] To protect the privacy of the people I have been living with, I have decided to use pseudonyms throughout the text. back

[7] I am especially grateful to Stef Jansen for pointing out this aspect to me. back

[8] It is striking that suicides and attempted suicides in the whole of former Yugoslavia after the war seem to be related to gender. To my knowledge none of the many women soldiers on all sides have committed suicide, whereas suicides of male ex-combatants are still noticeably on the rise. See therefore also Friedlin (12.12.2001) and Stanimirovic (20.06.2002). back

[9] Branitelj, or branitelji (plural), is the official term for Croatian war veterans, and can be translated literally as 'defender' (from braniti, 'to defend'). This terminology reflects the official perception of the Croatian military actions (1991-1995) as mere defence operations, whereas the factual role of Croatian militia is falsified and significantly played down. back

[10] The 2003 Commission on Human Rights Report by the United Nations states that 'there is evidence to suggest that the currently high levels of family and community-based violence in Croatia are directly related to the ongoing impact of the armed conflict' (Coomaraswamy/United Nations (UN) Report E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1. 2003:353). back

[11] There are countless accounts of the Balkans as a 'powder-keg' and even current scientific texts claim that the area is especially prone to violence. In her renowned book Imaging the Balkans, Maria Todorova has pointed out that the Balkans have traditionally been described as the 'other' of Europe, and the term 'Balkanisation' has gradually 'become a synonym for a reversion of the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian' (Todorova 1997:3). back

[12] In May 1991, President Franjo Tudman established Zbor Narodne Garde (The Croatian National Guard) from the ranks of police reservists as a quasi-independent army. The troops were poorly equipped and badly organised, as Tudman initially did not aim to defeat the Serbs militarily but calculated on winning international recognition. Nonetheless, he mobilised scores of volunteers who were willing to go to war and defend Croatia against 'Serb aggression'. A year later, in April 1992, the Bosnian Croats in Hercegovina set up their own militia, the Hrvatsko Vijece Obrane (The Croat Defence Council) or HVO. back

[13] In their study War Stress: Effects of the War in the Area of Former Yugoslavia, Mirna Flögel and Gordan Lauc (2003) mention that there are currently more then 10,500 diagnosed cases of PTSD patients in Croatia, whereas a multitude of cases are still unregistered. Referring to Bulman and Kang (1994), they report: 'Studies estimated that patients suffering from PTSD have up to seven-fold increased incidence of suicides, and four-fold increased risk of death from all external sources' (Bulman and Kang 1994:604-610, quoted in Flögel and Lauc 2003:4). back

[14] Marina Blagojevic states that '[m]en have shown a certain lack of adaptability to the socio-economic upheavals and, more often than women, have tended to use self-destructive strategies, such as psychological withdrawal, the abuse of drugs and alcohol' (Blagojevic 2004:76). back

About the author

Michaela Schäuble studied social anthropology and comparative literature at Tübingen (Germany) and Yale (USA) Universities. In addition she has trained as a documentary filmmaker at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology (Manchester University). At present she is working on her PhD dissertation, entitled 'Recollecting violence: gender, religion, and national identity in a central Dalmatian town'. Her particular interests include visual anthropology, gender and representation, social memory, as well as the Mediterranean and issues of globalisation. She can be contacted at michaela_schaeuble(AT)web.de.

Anthropology Matters Journal ISSN: 17586453 Publisher: Anthropology Matters url: www.anthropologymatters.com