Srebrenica: Prolonging the wounds of war

The international community's promise of justice in Bosnia has erected a barrier to reconciliation.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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The British Foreign Office reportedly sounded out possibilities for using foreign secretary Jack Straw’s presence at the international commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica, on 11 July 2005, to call for a ‘statesmanlike initiative’ of public reconciliation between Muslim, Croatian and Serbian Bosnian and regional leaders (1). The British government suggestion received short shrift from Bosnian representatives on all sides.

The commemoration of Srebrenica, the site of a massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims when the UN protected safe haven fell to Serbian forces under General Ratko Mladic in July 1995, has little to do with any desire for reconciliation in Bosnia. In fact, the call for reconciliation flies in the face of the demands for justice raised by Balkan women’s groups, such as Women in Black, or by international and regional human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Helsinki Human Rights Committee or the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade. The head of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee in Bosnia, Srdjan Dizdarevic, argued: ‘This is absolutely stupid, totally unacceptable that on the tenth anniversary there should be forgiveness for everything.’ (2)

Forgiveness and reconciliation will always be anathema to those who focus on war crimes. Some see the proposal for reconciliation as akin to ‘genocide denial’, asking ‘How can there be reconciliation without justice for the victims?’. For many Western journalists, attempts to use Srebrenica as the starting point for common discussions of a multiethnic future for the region can only be at best hot air and at worst an attempt to whitewash the truth (3).

Most commentators hold that, 10 years on, justice still hasn’t been done. Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic are still free from the confines of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. The families of those killed at Srebrenica complain that many of those responsible will never be indicted and that, even when the ICTY does pass judgement, justice is compromised by witness plea-bargaining and by light sentences. From the point of view of the victims, it is unlikely that justice can or will ever be seen to be done.

The crimes of war, of civil war in particular, do not lend themselves to legal forms of reparation. Law is effective and legitimate when it is based on a social or political consensus. The attempt to apply the law to the atrocities committed in the Bosnian war has led to frustration, disappointment and division. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Srebrenica, where the ICTY has ruled that the Serb takeover of the town constituted the one act of genocide of the Bosnian war. The families of the victims have been encouraged in their hopes that their loss will be recognised or recompensed, but they are unlikely to be satisfied regardless of the number of international memorials or the length of the prison sentences of Karadzic, Mladic and others. For families who lost relatives and loved ones who fought on the other side of the war, the special recognition of Srebrenica as a genocide is seen as a slight to their suffering, which to them is just as deep.

Local Serbs have responded to the commemoration of Srebrenica by demanding the recognition of their own suffering, including a rival ceremony to erect a seven-metre cross in a neighbouring village commemorating 49 Serbs who died in a raid by Muslim army forces operating from the international safe haven (4). They point to the fact that Nasar Oric, the Bosnian Muslim military leader in Srebrenica, is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes committed during his defence of the town. Major-general Lewis MacKenzie, the first commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo, suggests that ‘evidence to date suggests that he was responsible for killing as many Serb civilians outside Srebrenica as the Bosnian Serb army was for massacring Bosnian Muslims inside the town’ (5). A Belgrade newspaper recently published a 16-page supplement entitled ‘The Book of the Dead’, listing 3,287 Serbs from the Srebrenica region who died during the Bosnian war. For the families of the Serbs lost in the conflict, they do not deserve any lesser status as victims (6).

The dispute over the commemoration of Srebrenica has been less about any denial of war crimes than about the recognition of personal suffering. This same struggle has taken place over every alleged war crime committed in the context of the Bosnian war. When I was in Bosnia last week, I witnessed a similar discussion being played out in the small Bosnian Muslim town of Konjic, about halfway between Sarajevo and Mostar.

I was speaking at a conference on democracy and human rights, and the documentary film, Slijepa Pravda (Blind Justice), directed by Aldin Arnautovic and Refik Hodzic, was shown to a crowded auditorium. The film called for justice to be done at the ICTY, and interviewed a number of victims and NGO advocates who were critical of the ICTY’s failures in this regard. The film considered the case of the internment camp at Celebici, about seven kilometres down the road from Konjic, where Serbs were held and abused, which formed the basis of one of the earliest Hague ICTY war crimes trials. Two elderly survivors were interviewed, retelling the horrors of the camp and stating that they could never return to Konjic without justice being done.

Blind Justice was countered by another film by a local film-maker. This short five-minute film consisted of a car journey through Konjic at the end of the war in 1995; there were no words, merely a music soundtrack as the journey revealed the devastation of the town (from Serb shelling). One story of wartime suffering was met with the demand for greater recognition for others’ wartime suffering. Many local people in the auditorium felt that the first film was one-sided as it focused on the suffering of one group (labelled a war crime at The Hague) at the expense of the acknowledgement of their suffering (which was not given special international recognition).

The international focus on war crimes has created a deeply divisive atmosphere, which is hostile to local attempts at reconciliation. This was brought home to me when at one point in the Blind Justice documentary the directors interviewed a youth political association in Prijedor. Calling itself ‘For Prijedor’, the youth, from different ethnicities, wanted to campaign to put common interests first and be a multiethnic alternative to the established nationalist political parties. The film directors asked the For Prijedor spokespeople about their attitude to war crimes and victims’ justice, and they replied that they had no policies on war crimes – and when pressed, said that they did not care about the war.

When I asked one of the film’s directors, Refik Hodzic, why he was so hostile to the future-orientated approach of the For Prijedor group, he stated that their ‘exotic multiculturalism’ was hard to believe, and that for a group in Prijedor, located near the internment camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, this approach was unforgivable and an insult to the dead.

The call for justice is a call for the international community to live up to its promises of restitution for the victims of war and the punishment of war criminals. However, it is clear that the ICTY can only ever be selective in its judgements, and that legal approaches to war crimes can never include every act of war or recognise every victim. Claims for recognition for victims of war crimes can never be satisfied. Are the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany satisfied that justice was done? Or the families of victims of communal violence in Northern Ireland? Postwar reconciliation has little to do with legal judgements and much more to do with the practice of getting on with life and developing shared interests in the present. It is unlikely that Anglo-German relations would have been so improved if every act of aerial bombing in the Second World War had been condemned as a crime and justice had to be done before reconciliation. The Bosnian people have not had a chance to get on with their own lives and to forget, if not forgive, in their own time.

The international attempt to judge selective acts of the Bosnian war as war crimes has meant that 10 years after the war ended there has been little chance for reconciliation. Bosnia is now heavily dependent on international regulation and support, and is ruled by an external appointee with the power to impose laws and sack elected politicians. The extension of external regulation, from the one-year transition provided by the Dayton peace agreement, has been largely legitimised by the international focus on abuses on all sides and the need for justice to be externally overseen.

The call for the recognition of different parties’ suffering during the war is seen as an important claim for external resources. Without an external promise of justice, the Bosnian people would come under more pressure to look to their present needs and develop some common conception of their interests. Those who sought compensation for past abuses would be more openly opposed by those who saw an interest in overcoming the past and focusing on the interests of common survival. The call for ‘justice before reconciliation’, in these circumstances, would be seen as a luxury that only those who did not have to engage in society to earn a living could afford.

Tragically, the international community’s focus on the war has given succour to the most reactionary and backward political forces in Bosnia. It is no surprise that those least engaged socially with Bosnian life are most vocal about the war, either those who are émigrés living abroad, and therefore isolated from any attempts to reconcile after the war; or those who work for internationally funded NGOs, and least dependent on local connections. Those most socially excluded from Bosnian life have been able to dictate the political agenda and oppose the politics of reconciliation, because their social weight has been artificially reinforced by the international dominance over the politics of the tiny state. Without political, social and economic dependency on external actors that are legitimised by the idea of Bosnian victimhood, it is unlikely that the war would have remained so central to Bosnian life.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy. He is the editor of Peace without Politics: Ten Years of State-Building in Bosnia, out shortly from Routledge; and author of Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton, Pluto, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) and Amazon (USA)).

(1) Bosnians spurn Straw’s plan for reconciliation, Ian Traynor, Guardian, 1 July 2005

(2) Bosnians spurn Straw’s plan for reconciliation, Ian Traynor, Guardian, 1 July 2005

(3) Pompous ceremonies will do nothing without justice, Jonathan Steele, Guardian, 1 July 2005

(4) ‘Bombshell in the Balkans’, Tim Judah, New Statesman, 11 July 2005

(5) ‘The real story behind Srebrenica’, Lewis Mackenzie, Globe and Mail, 14 July 2005

(6) Serbs turn their backs on their past, Ian Traynor, Guardian, 11 July 2005

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Topics Politics


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