In July 2019, IWM and the University of Hull received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for an eighteen-month series of research networking activities investigating the significance of the United Nations Television (UNTV) film and document collection. In the course of three workshops, we aimed to gather experts and practitioners from different academic and professional fields with perspectives on how this material could be useful today, three decades after the Yugoslav wars began, and to connect with some former members of UNTV, who generously shared their time and recollections, and listened with an open mind.
One early discovery from these dialogues was that the appreciation for the collection’s possibilities that researchers such as myself felt when approaching them today was different from those which dominated the impressions of UNTV’s own staff, as they looked back twenty five years. In connecting directly with the documents that UNTV had produced or that had been stored in its office, and the films UNTV had made, as well as the tapes from other sources that had entered its video library, we were seeking as a research team to form understandings of what UNTV had tried to do. Roy Head, looking back as UNTV’s former chief producer, said very bluntly that he believed UNTV had failed, as he explains in his article for this site.
United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) did not, of course, manage to bring a peaceful end to the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It even failed to protect civilians in the cities that the UN Security Council had designated Safe Areas, most catastrophically of all when it withdrew from Srebrenica in July 1995 and allowed the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) to commit genocide there. UNTV, for its own part, did not manage to make itself a trusted source of broadcast information on a large enough scale to counter nationalistic disinformation coming from state media: in that regard, it failed in its purpose. Nevertheless, approaching the films and documents with my understanding as a historian of media and nationalism during the Yugoslav wars as well as a historian of peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, the very fact that UNTV attempted to intervene in former Yugoslavia’s so-called ‘media war’ is notable – as I have been able to explain at greater length in an article for Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.
Two particular interpretive frames from peace and conflict research might seek to contextualise why, even though the mission did not succeed, UNTV’s films and documents can still be sources of fresh insights. One frame is that of historical reasoning. Even though the outcome of the Yugoslav Wars and United Nations Protection Force’s (UNPROFOR) mission are known, there is still value in understanding the circumstances in which that outcome came about, and the alternative outcomes which, at the time, were evidently plausible enough that money and effort could be spent on them. Yet hindsight often deflects us from considering them. One essay on the break-up of Yugoslavia by the sociologist Ana Dević is titled ‘What nationalism has buried’: she meant that, because the break-up ended in war on an ethnonational basis, scholars since have pored over intellectuals’ debates to do with nationalism, while contemporaneous intellectual dialogues about social inequalities or alternative economic and constitutional models have been far less studied. In the same vein, the ending of a conflict often diverts attention away from episodes that might have brought about an different ending. The year 1994 in the history of the Yugoslav Wars contained many such episodes, and UNTV in the form we were researching it began its operations in that very year.
It is easy to forget how – in 1994 - it was widely hoped that a peaceful end to the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina might still be possible. UNTV’s films were directly made to promote that outcome, and papers in the IWM’s document collection showing the rationale behind the films and the process of making some of them also show the presence of such hopes in UNTV’s daily work. If a peaceful ending still did seem so possible up to the end of 1994, historians must then attend to the steps that prevented that outcome– both those taken in 1995 and those that had already been taken to make peace less likely. Those steps were being taken in spaces far beyond, and also far above, UNTV. UNTV’s document collection is somewhat less comprehensive for 1995 than 1994, but in a more fragmentary way does still illustrate strategies being re-thought and abandoned because the mission was failing. The collection also gives glimpses of the incident where a UNTV team witnessed the aftermath of the Grubori massacre in late August 1995 first-hand.
Another useful lens in peace and conflict research is its concern with what it actually takes to make peace, and what ‘peace’ might practically involve. As well as studying conflict and post-conflict situations, researchers learn about the everyday peacemaking that goes on in society, by exploring how people, institutions, and social groups have understood that question themselves. Then we can ask what different interpretations and visions of peace were in play, and where power resided in determining which forms of peace-building would be prioritised or set aside.
The most powerful actors in the international community during the Yugoslav Wars, for instance, believed that peace was a matter of bringing three so-called ‘warring factions’ to the negotiating table and forcing them to agree a territorial settlement by making compromises over what land should ‘belong’ to which of the three ethnic groups: this was the model of peace eventually implemented under the Dayton Peace Agreement in November and December 1995. Citizens of independent Bosnia-Herzegovina and their allies believed that peace entailed the UN stopping aggression against their country as soon as possible, which it failed to do. The Croatian government believed that having UNPROFOR push the Serb Democratic Party militias which had occupied Krajina and Eastern Slavonia out of these regions of Croatian territory was an essential precondition for any peace under the auspices of the UN. Much of the Croatian public agreed, after what civilians had suffered during the war, and believed that, if the UN would not act, then the Croatian military should.
As well as seeing how peace was interpreted on different sides of the conflict, we can also look inside institutions to understand how the meanings of ‘peace’ were being worked out there. In my article for Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, for instance, I suggested that, by realising that the ‘media war’ in former Yugoslavia was intensifying processes of ethnic separation which could possibly be countered by broadcasting the same information films across all sides of the lines, UNTV was putting into practice a subtly different understanding of ‘peace’ than that espoused by UNPROFOR’s high command. The very fact that UNTV’s films were depicting everyday situations rather than violence and its aftermath was, according to some participants at our second project workshop, quite striking for the time that they were made.
Moreover, as Ivor Sokolić reminded us during the same workshop, UNTV’s films might have additional value now for younger people in the region who did not live through the war and have only formed their visual impressions of it from television, as well as from family video and memorabilia. This is besides the meanings we knew they would have for somewhat older people from the places shown in the films, especially those who were displaced from them and did not see what became of their hometowns during the rest of the war – and the meanings they would have today for those who had featured in them. A case in point is the individual from Tuzla who reconnected during our project with UNTV’s footage of himself and his friends as teenagers playing in their wartime rock band.
By the time we came to our third workshop, therefore, our sense of the collection’s potential was much stronger than when we had gathered for our first workshop in September 2019 – a time when few of us had even seen more than a handful of the films for ourselves. Our discussions have been dialogues across professional communities of practice and what we each understand as significant or valuable in the collections, or in the mission itself. The content that stands out most to me, a historian who already has a specialist understanding of the context within which all these items fit, might not be the same content that stands out most to a museum professional communicating themes about late 20th century peace and conflict to a public who by and large do not have that context (including IWM’s important youth audience, who were not born when these wars took place and do not even remember mainstream UK media coverage from the time). The workshop researchers, moreover, had the time to deconstruct the texts and films that UNTV’s staff had made at pace, under pressure to maintain the twice-weekly broadcast schedule, within a mission mandate that regulated what they did, yet was beyond their influence.
Much was revealed about different modes of experiencing the war. Reporting from former Yugoslavia was a life-changing experience for international producers and filmmakers, in UNTV or any other media organisation, and often altered their perceptions for good. At the same time, they had chosen to go there, and their process of learning about the social realities of former Yugoslavia was just beginning. UNTV’s international staff, when on duty, were treated as representatives of UNPROFOR; as foreign passport holders, they could cross borders that their local co-workers could not; and they could leave when their contracts were up. Though many foreign media professionals kept up enduring ties with the region, ‘home’ for them was another place. Their many, and diverse, experiences of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina sat side by side, when we come together, with the experiences of experts from the region, whose memories of these years are of their own home country being destroyed and their own immediate communities being torn apart.
Just as our workshops have had to bridge these very different standpoints of experiencing the Yugoslav Wars, we can reflect that a similar gulf was experienced between international and local workers within the UN mission. During my first cooperation with IWM, as a postdoctoral researcher on another AHRC-funded project (Languages at War: Policies and Practices of Language Contacts in Conflict), I interviewed former interpreters as well as former peacekeepers who had been involved with the UN and NATO missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina: interpreters’ stories of how they had felt about foreign peacekeepers starting to unlearn their misconceptions about Bosnia in real time often struck very different emotional chords to peacekeepers telling the same stories.
Compared to the many narratives of locally-recruited interpreters collected during ‘Languages at War’, however, the UNTV document collection has little to reveal of the voices of its locally-recruited staff, still less the wider publics of the region who formed its target audience. This is a consequence of the collection’s nature – comprising as it does production documentation and administrative correspondence. UNTV’s local staff were essential to the workflow of producing the films and producing the unit’s institutional knowledge, but they appear in the documentation only in the context of recruitment and promotions, or annotations made to subtitles. Thus, we should acknowledge what the collections do not contain, as well as what they do.
One gap I personally found surprising, for example, stems from our wider knowledge that UNTV, as part of UNPROFOR, was deeply unpopular in Croatia especially. The document collection contains evidence of that unpopularity being expressed at government level, yet very seldom are there any complaints to UNTV from members of the public in Croatia, or indeed from any other post-Yugoslav countries. We have speculated whether such complaints might have been directed to other parts of UNPROFOR and are now in the main UNPROFOR archives, or indeed vocalised to UNPROFOR spokespeople and other representatives, but rarely written down.
While the UNTV collection on its own does not, therefore, offer an all-encompassing history of UNTV and its reception in the region, the glimpses it gives into how UNTV functioned on an everyday level and the rationale behind it are almost certainly too fine-grained to have been preserved to this extent in any other part of the peacekeeping mission. Through the knowledge we and IWM have gained through working intensively with the collection, fresh conversations on the wider context of media, public information and peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia can begin.