“The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity.” ICTY Trial Chamber on sentencing Ratko Mladic to life in prison.
General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, was convicted of 10 counts of war crimes, crime against humanity, and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on November 22, 2017, and sentenced to life in prison. Why aren’t all Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) overjoyed?
They aren’t unhappy that he was convicted of those crimes. They’re distressed that he was not convicted of genocide for the Bosnian Serb campaign to drive out non-Serbs from over 40 municipalities at the beginning of the war in 1992 (the prosecution charged him with genocide in six of those municipalities). No one has been. The 22 years from indictment to conviction is also not a cause for rejoicing. Nor is impunity for the 1000s of hands on perpetrators.
The ICTY Trial Chamber found that the VRS had committed mass executions, forcible transfer and deportation, brutal rapes of women and children as young as 12, detention and near starvation in camps. Two of the three judges (Judge Orie dissenting) found that the physical perpetrators in five municipalities “intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslims in those Municipalities as part of the protected group,” a necessary finding for genocide. But they concluded it was not genocide because those murdered were not a “substantial part” of the protected group, another requirement for a finding of genocide.
While agreeing with the prosecution that four “joint criminal enterprises (JCE) existed,”* the Trial Chamber decided that the evidence did not support a finding that the purpose of the “Overarching JCE” included the commission of genocide in the Municipalities. That let Mladic off the hook for genocide in the Municipalities. He was, however, found guilty of genocide for the Srebrenica JCE that resulted in the murder of 8,000 men and boys and the forcible expulsion of all non-Serbs from that region.
Some of the incidents that led two judges to conclude that physical perpetrators intended to commit genocide in the Municipalities were:
• In Sanski Most, Bosnian Serb forces forced 28 Bosnian Muslim men to jump off the Vrhpolj Bridge one by one, then shot them in the water. Only one survived. Four other men were killed on the way to the bridge.
• Twenty-four Bosnian Muslim detainees suffocated while being transported to the Manjaca Camp detention center, after being forced to consume salt and denied water for the nine hour trip.
• At the Keraterm Camp, chemical gas was thrown into a room, causing detainees to panic and try to get out. As they exited, the guards and soldiers executed them with automatic weapons. Between 190 and 220 were killed.
• In detention camps, “[D]etainees were forced to rape and engage in other degrading sexual acts with one another. . . .”
• Many Bosnian women were raped. At “Karaman’s House in Foca Municipality, several groups of women, and girls as young as 12 years old, were routinely and brutally raped.”**
It has been estimated that from 3,000 to 6,000 people were killed or disappeared in the Prijedor region alone (including at the infamous concentration camps at Trnopolje, Omarska, and Keraterm). In 1992, the first year of the war in Bosnia, 45,000 people were killed, nearly half of the total killed (100,000) during the entire war. Bosnian Serb forces raped anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian Muslim women throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. Evidence of all those murders and rapes could not be presented in one trial, which lasted four years as it was. Though the Chamber found that the murderers and rapists in each of these municipalities had an intent to destroy a part of the protected group of Bosnian Muslims, they didn’t combine the numbers, thereby creating a silo effect. The killing of 24 men with intent to destroy the Bosnian Muslims as a group was not a substantial part of the entire community of Bosnian Muslims living within territory claimed by the Bosnian Serbs. Therefore, the Trial Chamber held, Mladic, the commander of Serb forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, could not be held responsible for genocide in the municipalities.
Right or wrong, this is a legal argument. It does nothing to assuage the grief of those who lost their families when the Bosnian Serbs forced forty of them into a house, locked the doors, and burned it down. As the screams subsided and the flames died, the killers passed around a bottle of plum brandy. Nor is it a comfort to Fikret Bacic who lost his daughter, son, wife, mother, and 14 other relatives when Serb forces ordered them out of the house where they, with 26 other women and children, had sought safety, killing all but one young boy.
Moreover, tens of thousands of Bosnian Serbs who shot the guns, locked the doors, lit the match, and shared the plum brandy were never held to account. They live ordinary lives in the cafes and streets of Sanski Most, Prijedor, Koto Varos, Foca, Kljuc, Vlasenica, Bratunac, Zvornik. . . . The Bosnian Muslims who returned to those areas see them daily. A woman turns from her table in the café and sees her rapist, casually drinking coffee or rakija. He looks through her or gives a haughty smirk. An elderly man walks slowly through the square, where a group of adolescents are hanging out, laughing, enjoying the sun and free time. Quite possibly, they are children of the men who murdered his children, when they were the same age or younger.
Journalist, Janine di Giovanni, who reported on the war, wrote in a New York Times Op Ed after the Mladic verdict:
“As I saw firsthand, the men who did the truly nefarious acts — those who pulled the triggers on women and children, who dug the mass graves in Srebrenica, who took part in the mass rapes in Foca and other towns in Bosnia — walked free. Those men, to me, were the truly evil ones.
"Many years after the war, in Srebrenica, I met a broken woman who had been held in the notorious Foca gymnasium as a teenager and raped dozens of times. Justice for her was a laughable illusion. She told me that she saw one of her rapists every day in the village that they both came from. She knew he would never go to The Hague and face justice: Very few men were tried there for rape.
“It was she, the victim, who dropped her eyes in shame when they passed each other on the street, and he, the rapist, who walked by triumphantly. This was not a rare occurrence. I interviewed mothers and daughters who were raped side by side and still saw their rapists in the towns they had returned to after the war.” fn. 1
Bosniak Poet, Darko Cvejetic gives voice to this reality:
“I am trying to capture it in a poem, this coexistence of the killer and the victim, this relationship, this situation which is now escaping rational analysis. I have seen things, where people as harmless as bunnies become military commanders, and who after they stop being commanders go back to “normal,” to being bunnies again.”
For an insightful and beautifully written account of Prijedor then and now, see Refik Hodzic’s ““Flowers in the Square. A Struggle for Justice in a Bosnian Community Whose Significance Resonates Far Beyond the Balkans,” from which this quote was taken. http://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/subsites/flowers-square-prijedor/
Justice was done in part by convicting Ratko Mladic, the man who commanded the forces who carried out the atrocities and murders. It felt too late for some (22 years after the end of the war in Bosnia and more than six and a half years after Mladic’s arrest). Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosnian survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, told The New York Times after the verdict: “This should all have been behind us by now. The only thing that is behind us is that war.” Even with Mladic’s life sentence, it can never be enough for those who lost everything, their worlds turned upside down, changed forever. But without a conviction, the Tribunal would have ended in infamy. For all its shortcomings in its near-quarter century existence, it brought a measure of justice to some and provided a beacon for the permanent International Criminal Court to follow.
As the writer Srdjan Garcevic, concluded:
“Even if ICTY has not managed to punish all those who contributed (and still contribute) to this shame, at least it brought some solace to those who lost too much, and gave us a touchstone from which we can begin to understand the bloody depths of our common embarrassment.”
Most disturbing, nationalism continues to hold sway in Serbia and Republika Srpska,*** where Mladic is hailed as a hero and martyr and the governments refuse to acknowledge that genocide occurred in Srebrenica, let alone in the Municipalities, let alone that Serb forces were responsible. In Republika Srpska, Bosnian Muslim and Serb children are segregated and taught different versions of history in school. And Vojislav Seselj, commander of paramilitary forces in Bosnia who was acquitted by the Tribunal in an inexplicable and outrageous decision (it is on appeal), is currently a member of Parliament in Serbia. General Vladimir Lazarevic, convicted of crimes against humanity, now teaches at Serbia’s top military academy. As Lydia Gall of Human Rights Watch warns:
“Unless governments in the Western Balkans, and their EU and US partners redouble their efforts to bring those responsible for wartime crimes to justice and make a commitment to establish an independent commission to unravel the truth about the region’s bloody past, there is a danger that history will repeat itself.
“Without these combined efforts, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which resurgent populist nationalism in the region and heightened tensions could spill into violence.”
What Refik Hodzic writes about Prijedor is true for all the former Yugoslavia:
“For Prijedor has a chance to be a community where humanity will be a value above the myths about ethnic superiority, inferiority of “others,” celebration of crimes and discrimination, only if it faces the truth about the crimes that changed it so. . . . But it is important that the reckoning with the past is honest and thorough, and that the outcomes of this reckoning are built into the history of Prijedor in a manner accessible to its present and future inhabitants.”
Leaders and politicians in Serbia and the Republika Srpska provide the nationalist rhetoric that prevents healing, just as they led the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, neighbors and friends, to hate and kill one another. If anything, their disinformation has intensified: "[The] time of shame is over and the time of quiet pride has begun." [Ana Brnabic, Serbian Prime Minister]’; "We were told for too long to be ashamed of our war heroes [convicted of war crimes, but no longer." [Aleksandar Vulin, Minister of Defense].
Srdjan Garcevic provided a hopeful response to the Mladic verdict:
“While too few people still know about the amount of suffering heaped on those from other nations, and still too often wave criticisms away with whataboutism, all around the region an enormous number of people are connected by a strong underlying feeling that the wars in 1990s were a shameful mistake that left us all poorer and more miserable, especially given all the sacrifices we had to make.”
The question for the people is how to hear each other over the duplicity of their leaders. “As long as we keep telling stories to shield ourselves from accepting how deeply embarrassing and futile our wars were, we will still not see the shame nor humanity in each other, and reconciliation will stay on the horizon, as opposed to an achievable goal.” fn. 2
*A Joint Criminal Enterprise is, in simplified terms, a method of holding an individual accountable when he/she shares a common criminal purpose with others and at least one of them takes action to carry it out. Each JCE member is held responsible for the crime.
**Rape was used as a weapon of war, intending to force Bosnian Muslim women to birth Serb babies.
***The Dayton Accords that ended the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 divided that country into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (consisting of Bosnian Muslims and Croats) and Republika Srpska (consisting of Bosnian Serbs), thus giving the aggressor Bosnian Serbs the spoils of war in exchange for a cease fire.
fn. 1: Janine di Giovanni, “Flawed Justice for the Butcher of Bosnia,” New York Times Opinion, November 22, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/opinion/mladic-hague-bosnia-butcher.html
fn. 2: “Confronting the Shame of Nationalism After Mladic Verdict,” December 7, 2017. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/blog/confronting-the-shame-of-nationalism-after-mladic-verdict-12-04-2017