IIn June 2011, I watched from London how the war criminal Ratko Mladić, captured after 16 years in hiding, appeared in The Hague. I hastily gathered my thoughts into an article for this post. As a Bosnian refugee in London, like Sarajevan whose life was altered by the actions of war criminals like Mladić, I was not jubilant, but perhaps cautious, I was hoping that the legal process would give us at least some justice.
Almost exactly ten years later, this time in Sarajevo, I watched the news as Mladić listened to the final verdict on his crimes. In 2017, he was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to life in prison. Both Mladić and the prosecution appealed. Prosecutors did so because they wanted to broaden the genocide charge to include events in six municipalities, including the murder and expulsion of non-Serbs from the Prijedor area in 1992.
He had never been to Prijedor before the war. When I was a young journalist during the war in Sarajevo, I watched in horror when journalists Ed Vulliamy and Penny marshall concentration camps discovered where thousands of people were murdered, raped and tortured. Suddenly, the snipers and the bombings, as well as the famine, during the siege of Sarajevo didn’t look too bad in comparison.
As life would have it, when I came to London as a refugee, I ended up working with survivors from the camps in Prijedor, more than 2,000 of whom were resettled to the UK in the 1990s. The stories of torture and inhuman treatment that I have heard from them were so violent and traumatic that genocide didn’t seem like a strong enough word to describe it.
I went to Prijedor for the first time in 2008. Many of the war criminals had returned to their old jobs and lives, while the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat survivors were still searching for their loved ones. I was involved with youth charity Most Mira (Bridge of Peace), founded by Kemal pervanic, one of the survivors from the camps in the Prijedor area.
The visit felt haunting and out of this world. Knowing what I knew about cruelty and torture, it was difficult to meet the teachers and talk with them about the logistics of an upcoming youth festival, knowing that they were guards in the camps and had blood stained hands. It was difficult to look at the beautiful landscape, where each rose bush could be hiding a mass grave. I was honored by the worthy challenge of the survivors who were slowly returning, rebuilding their destroyed homes, and continuing to search for missing persons.
As it turned out, both appeals were rejected in The Hague. In short, Tuesday’s verdict indicated that what happened in Prijedor and five other cities was not genocide. But Mladić will spend the rest of his life in prison as a war criminal for the genocide he committed in Srebrenica in 1995.
Limitations of the legal process of this type are difficult to square with the reality of our losses and what we have experienced. General Mladić did not spontaneously decide to commit genocide in July 1995, yet all other atrocities that took place since 1992 are not included in his sentence. This is especially difficult to process because there is evidence that in May 1992 he calmly clarified in an assembly with his political leadership, also convicted war criminals, that what they were ask him to carry out a constituted genocide.
One way to simplify what happened is to imagine that at the Nuremberg trials, the accused Nazis were convicted of atrocities in concentration camps in Poland, but not in concentration camps in Austria. They would still receive the same sentence, but the question is what would be the impact on the survivors and what would be the political and historical consequences?
From the moment the murder of 8,372 people from Srebrenica in July 1995 was legally declared genocide, denialism became part of the Serbian nationalist narrative. The denial of genocide has been described as the final stage of genocide.
So this verdict marks the end of the international justice process, but Bosnia and Herzegovina will remain hostage to continued obstructionism and the rewriting of history: Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik responded to yesterday’s verdict by speaking about the Genocide “myth” in Srebrenica.
Justice may never be fully achieved, especially for those who are still searching for missing loved ones. That is why the present moment must be about honoring the survivors, especially those who testified in The Hague, and the dignity with which they respected the verdict.
Looking back to June 2011, some of my modest hopes have been fulfilled. Mladić lived to be tried and heard from more than 100 witnesses. Like Radovan Karadžić, he will spend the rest of his life in prison. In 2018, The Hague Court Archives Center It was opened in the iconic Sarajevo City Hall, Vijećnica, to give electronic access to all court records. Despite attempts to deny what happened, independent legal evidence for these crimes will be available for eternity.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism