Bosnia’s Reckoning

There exists that constituency of people for whom the advent of July is less an occasion to relish summer than to cast the mind’s eye back to what Judge Fouad Riyad at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague called some of the ‘darkest pages in human history’- the bloodiest massacre on European soil since the Holocaust, at Srebrenica.

This month, they will assemble again for a 12th anniversary: the survivors and bereaved – many of them to bury the remains of their dead at the cemetery in Potocari, where, in 1995, Serbian death squads carried out the ‘selection’ between women and children and men and boys – so as to summarily execute the latter – while Dutch soldiers tasked to protect the UN-designated ‘Safe Area’ looked on.

Survivors will inter the skeletons of their loved ones, meticulously re-assembled from various ‘secondary’ mass graves into which the Serbs ploughed them, and given a name after matching up scattered pieces of the same human being and DNA testing of relatives (that  operation  in  itself a miraculous entwinement of forensic science and human rights activism). A dear friend of mine, Hasan Nuhanovic, will be among them, his father’s bones having been finally re-united this past year by the International Commission for Missing Persons. It was a grisly post-scriptum to the massacre: that the Serbs exhumed the dead they had bulldozed into fields around Srebrenica and transported them to these remote ‘secondary’ sites, that the evidence of their atrocity might be hidden, so that for months, the byways of Eastern Bosnia were heaving with trucks loaded with human remains, yet no one breathed a word. And this is central to the present discourse, which is about reckoning – of the lack of it – with the recent past in Bosnia.

It is time to confront a bitter reality: that the estimable and intense focus on Srebrenica, and the massacre’s iconographic centrality in the memory of the slaughter in Bosnia, is double-edged. The fact is that Srebrenica – both the brutality of the killing and calculated betrayal by the so-called ‘International Community’ – was a not an isolated event; it was the culmination of what had been happening, and was allowed to happen by the West, for more than three years before the massacre. Srebrenica involved the avoidable slaughter of 8,000 people over five days, after the equally avoidable mass-murder of hundreds of thousands of others over three years. Srebrenica is the emblem of those other massacres, concentration camps, savage ‘ethnic cleansing’ on a vast scale, organised mass rape, relentless shelling of civilians – women and children – and of hospitals – and the bloody siege of a great capital, Sarajevo, while the ‘international community’ either connived with the Serbs (as in the cases of Paris and London) or else looked on and dithered, forbidding the Bosnians to arm themselves and mount effective resistance to the Serbian juggernaut.

The focus on Srebrenica thus risks reaching a point at which the anniversary distracts from – rather than draws attention to – all those other atrocities that began with the hurricane of violence unleashed by the Bosnian Serbs (and imitated by Bosnian Croats) in 1992, right through to the massacre of 1995 – in some places whose names we know, and others we have never heard of. Some survivors and bereaved from Srebrenica even claim special status, with a protest camp beside the football stadium in Sarajevo – thus dividing the victim people into dichotomous emotions between respect for those from Srebrenica, and their own feelings about their own sufferings and losses elsewhere, which neither claim, nor will ever have, special status.

This dilemma over Srebrenica’s iconic status was most manifestly articulated during the 10th anniversary of the massacre, two years ago – an event which combined heart-wrenching grief among the bereaved and survivors with a bulimic pilgrimage by politicians and diplomats who converged to shed crocodile tears for the crime of inaction in 1995, and feign remorse before hurrying to their next engagement. Srebrenica became something of an international confession box: blurt your sins, and come away feeling absolved. Apart from the then High Representative Paddy Ashdown, whose tears at Potocari are real ones, I doubt any of those who paid their hollow tributes also paid much mind to what had happened across Bosnia for three years before the massacre.

I wonder how many reflected on Visegrad, down the road, where Milan Lukic is currently accused at the state court in Sarajevo of having locked hundreds of civilians – the elderly, children and babies – into houses and incinerated them alive, while also turning the lovely Ottoman bridge that spans the Drina into a human abattoir of bodies flung into the river, turning the turquoise current red with blood.
How many will have considered what happened at Foca, upriver, where – as elsewhere – women and girls, like the Nazi’s ‘Joy Divisons’, were raped all night and every night in a special camp, to the point of madness and sometimes suicide, by beasts enjoying a bit of gratification after a day’s killing and an evening’s drinking Sljivovica plum brandy.

How many of these politicians bothered to turn up a month later, in August (I didn’t see any, nor any other year) to the annual commemoration we hold at Omarska, the concentration camp into which it was my accursed honour to stumble in 1992, with ITN – an inferno of random and often recreational mass killing, torture, mutilation and beating. Omarska, whose commander, Zelko Mejakic, now stands trial in Sarajevo, was the kind of place where one prisoner was forced to bite the testicles off another, while pigeons were stuffed into his mouth to stifle his screams before he was killed. The guards watching this barbarity were described by one witness at The Hague as ‘like a crowd at a sporting match’. Omarska: where the Orthodox holiday of St. Peter was marked by a drunken orgy of killing – prisoners slashed to death, shot or tied to a pyre of burning tyres.

The list is endless: the slaughter in concentration camps at Kereterm, Luka and Susica by Serbs and at Dretelje by Croats (and, indeed, at Celebici by Muslims). The unrelenting sieges of Bihac and Gorazde by the Serbs and of East Mostar by the Croats. Croats locking Muslim civilians into cellars in the village of Ahmici and setting them ablaze, after Serbs had done the same in and around Zvornik. The savagery in Bjeljina, Brcko, Bosanska Samac, Kluj, Vlasenica … and the razing of tens of thousands of villages to the ground whose names we do not know. And perhaps above all, before the eyes of the world, the prolonged carnage and torture of Sarajevo, driven – as General Rakto Mladic himself instructed his gunners, ‘to the edge of madness’.

I write this from a little town called Cerska, which fell to the Serbs in March 1993, before which 776 people were killed over a year – not counting the hundreds more who escaped, heading for the respite of a ‘Safe Area’ called – Srebrenica. In Cerska, some 70 refugees in flight from a place called Vlasenica – mostly women, children and elderly people- were killed when the school in which they were quartered took a direct hit. Another 75 – again mostly women, children and elderly this time in flight from another place, Kamenica – were killed when the hillside mosque in which they were packed also took a direct hit. Cerska is but one in thousands.

And let it not be forgotten for a moment that for the three years leading Up to July 1995, during which all this and more happened, the men now fugitive and wanted for genocide – who masterminded and oversaw those three years of open bloodbath, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic – had their hands eagerly clasped by international statesmen and military commanders respectively. Karadzic’s by the likes of Lord Carrington, Cyrus Vance and David Owen, beneath the chandeliers of London or Geneva, who saw in him not a war criminal but a fellow politician with whom to negotiate while the bloodletting con
tinued. And Mladic’s by the likes of Generals Wesley Clarke and Bernard Janvier, who saw in his squint – as they dined with him on suckling lamb – not that of a butcher of humans but a fellow professional soldier with whom to do business. How Karadzic and Mladic must have laughed in grateful, contemptuous disbelief at the diplomats’ and UN generals’ complicity and/or impotence over the murderous mission they undertook in 1992, culminating in the massacre of 1995.

Quite apart from the scale of violence before and beyond Srebrenica, we find ourselves in a curious legal situation. An accumulation of court decisions at the ICTY war crimes tribunal and the International Court of Justice in The Hague leaves us, broadly speaking, with genocide established at Srebrenica, but not – for some reason – during three years of systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ (Karadzic’s term) by death or deportation. So that the killing of the 8,000 is genocide, but locking families in houses and burning them, clearing swathes of land of an ethnic group and establishing a gulag of concentration camps, is not. Srebrenica is thus dislocated from the wider genocide of which it has become the icon. The ruling at the ICJ also leaves us with genocide at Srebrenica, but no responsibility (beyond failing to prevent it) on the shoulders of the country, Serbia, where the entire project was conceived, without whose inspiration and help and arms the genocide could not have taken place, and whence units came to Srebrenica as they had done throughout the war. I was once passed the military papers of the General in charge of all Mladic’s logistics, up to and including Srebrenica, Djorde Djukic – stamped annually ‘Yugoslav Army’ in Belgrade. Legally, though, it is as if we have a Holocaust, but no Third Reich.

All this matters because the principle victim people of this war, the Bosniak Muslims, are forever being asked by the ‘Internationals’ – as they call the pompous, ill-informed colonial career stratum that oversees them – to ‘reconcile’, to move on. Of course this is to be hoped for in the long run, for reconciliation is a premise for peace. But Bosnia does not live in peace; it exists in an absence of war. For there is another word in the English language, a harsher word than ‘reconciliation’: Reckoning.  Reckoning summons the perpetrator more than the victim. Reckoning entails coming to terms with what happened and why, staring oneself in the mirror.  It demands apology, commemoration, reparations and amends. Only once reckoning has been achieved is reconciliation possible, and thence peace.

But there is no reckoning in Bosnia. Another singularity of Srebrenica is that it is the sole atrocity officially admitted by the authorities of the ‘Republika Srpska’ statelet to which the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic was foolish enough to sign up to at Dayton in 1995, having bowed to Western pressure and stopped his generals, at last turning the tide, from winning the war and uniting his country – as would have happened if the Bosnian offensive of 1995 had continued. A commission established by Republika Srpska in 2003 did admit ‘a serious violation of international humanitarian law’ at Srebrenica, but only after being scolded by the irrepressible Paddy Ashdown to go away and try again after a grotesque initial report blamed the slaughter on mass suicide by, and in-fighting between, Muslims.

Despite the commission, however, there continues this nonsensical waltz between justification and denial, even over Srebrenica. In the Bar Venera in central Srebrenica, beefy leather-jacketed lads with shaven heads insist there was no massacre (while one wonders what they were doing 12 years ago) and a veteran officer of the murderous Bratunac Brigade that summer, Milos Milovanovic, tells me that the cemetery at Potocari is a fake. Meanwhile, though, the rhyming refrain is painted on walls and sung at football matches: NOZ ZICA SREBRENICA – Knife and Wire Srebrenica – a vile reference to garrotting which, far from suggest a reckoning, indicates pride at what was done and willingness to do it again. When Ahmed and Nura Begovic returned to build their house in Potocari in 2001, the Serbian neighbours welcomed them by flaying their cow one night, and leaving the carcass for the Begovics to on the doorstep next morning.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Bosnia, Milomir Stakic, wartime president of the ‘Crisis Staff” in Prijedor which ran Omarska (currently serving the only life sentence directed from the bench in The Hague) insists that ITN’s unforgettable footage of the camp, and that at Trnopolje, in 1992 is of Serbs in Muslim camps, while his deputy, Milan Kovacevic, who died while on trial in The Hague for genocide, said in a haunted confession to me one winter morning in 1996 that the prisoners had to be rounded up because the Muslims were planning a ‘Jihad’. One wonders whether these people are crazy or just pretending to be crazy. In the ‘Wisky Bar’ over the road from Omarska, men in fatigues insist – ‘it was all lies, there was no camp here’.  When survivors returned to defiantly rebuild the village of Kozarac, whence many of Omarska’s inmates came, they also put up a carved wooden sign reading: The Biggest Little Town in the World’, but it was sawn down by local Serbs, overnight. The sign on the road to Kozarac is decorated with graffiti reading: ‘Stamp Out the BALIJA’ – a term of abuse for Bosniak Muslims equivalent to ‘gypsy scum’ – hardly a sentiment of reckoning.

The great indicator of reckoning is, of course, the expression of remorse in the physical form of monuments – as so articulately demonstrated in modern, democratic Germany, where reckoning with the Holocaust has been painful, in earnest and successful. It is not the Jews who are building monuments in Berlin and museums like that at Dachau, but the Germans. It is a perilous stretch to make analogies between the Shoah and what happened in Bosnia, but – in search of the appropriate terminology when writing a book during the war – I was authorised by the then director of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Walter Reich, to use the term ‘echoes’ – ‘echoes, loud and clear’, he said.

The loud echo of camp Omarska is now lucratively up and running as an iron ore mine again – many of the camp guards back in their old jobs – owned by the third richest man in the world, London-based steel baron Lakshmi Mittal. And when a group of survivors and I tried to organise the erection of a monument to their dead in the Omarska mine, the project met with cautious co-operation from Mittal Steel (which hired a bungling Anglican cleric to come up with some daft idea for a ‘Garden of Peace’) but none whatsoever – keen hostility indeed – from the Bosnian Serb authorities. The monument which stands at the Trnoplje camp is not to the thousands of Muslims killed, tortured, raped and beaten there, but to local Serbs who fell on the front line, miles away.
And what of the dead? The spine-chilling cemetery at Potocari is an estimable, almost privileged, exception: where is the ritually commemorative mass graveyard for those who perished and whose remains have been excavated (or were never found) at Omarska and Kereterm, or along the valley of the blood-soaked Drina and its hinterland; along the Una and Sava rivers, in Central Bosnia, Mostar and Herzegovina?

There are none; for there is no reckoning. And why should victims reconcile with the perpetrators of crimes that are not even admitted, let alone reckoned with? Reckoning comes when the Serbs build a monument to what they did at Srebrenica, and not just at Srebrenica – that is the fundamental point. The reckoning needs to be everywhere else as well. When the Serbs build a monument to those who perished at Omarska, for instance. Then the reconciliation can begin.