Bosnia: living with ghosts

Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic may serve only half of his 40 year sentence, as he is eligible for early release. Survivors say he condemned their families to death, and them to a life of misery.

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

Updated Mar 27, 2016

High in the far eastern mountains of Bosnia, approaching the chilly dusk of spring, the clouds sit low and heavy. The scene looks very nearly mythical. But amid the blanket of white that almost covers the pine forests, reality is ever present; yellow police tape flutters between the trees, across mine fields. The haphazard cemeteries on the side of hills that stick out like crooked teeth. The craters of mortar shells, 20 years after they fell, carved deep into the ground. And in the valley below, white tombstones stretch out, row upon row. An impossible silent testament to the dead. This is Potocari, Srebrenica.

Bosnian Serb forces unleashed a hurricane of violence across the Balkans between 1992 and 1995, as they tried to carve out a Greater Serbia. Radovan Karadzic was President of the self-declared Bosnian Serb entity, known as the Republika Srpska and, thus, Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The Hague convicted him of 10 charges relating to his role, including genocide and war crimes.

His forces were accused of genocide in seven municipalities, including Prijedor, as early as the first months of the war. He did not hide what was happening and in 1992 warned those who stood against his forces, "Don't think that you will not take Bosnia and Herzegovina into hell, and Muslim people perhaps to extinction."

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that’s what Karadzic effectively tried to do, though not in those areas, but in Srebrenica.

That drive to exterminate the non-Serb population not only condemned the dead, but the survivors, who are mostly left alone to live with the ghosts.

Sitting in her house on a hill, where her backyard is literally a minefield, Hanifa Dzogaz explains how the decisions of the Bosnian Serb leadership continue to haunt her.

"They [my sons] used to play football in the garden when they were kids. My husband and I used to sit and support the winner. Those were my happiest days and I can't forget them. Every time I go to sleep I see them playing football in my dreams. But when I wake up my sons are gone."

Her sons were 21 year old Sabahudin and 19 year old Samir. As the Bosnian Serb forces advanced on the town, led by Ratko Mladic, they fled, "My oldest son handed me his tobacco tin for safe keeping… he said, bye Mama, I'll see you in Tuzla. Then both of them ran into the woods behind the house."

She and the other women headed down the valley to the Dutch-run UN safe zone, then located at the sprawling Battery factory in the valley. This was the last time she saw her sons alive.

The former Dutch UN base in Potocari where many Bosnian Muslims attempted to take refuge. Most of the sprawling complex is untouched, though part of it hosts an art museum.

A witness

It was a hot summer’s day when 17 year old Nedzad Avdic set off with his father and uncle to Tuzla. It was about 100 kilometers North West of his home town and it was still daylight. Though he did not know Hanifa's sons, nor their father, they were in that same column, heading in the same direction. As Srebrenica rests along the Serbian border, there were few other places to run.

As it turned out no one was safe. Later in the day, Mladic's men surrounded them.

He remembers how dead bodies littered the sides of the road on the way to the killing fields, the screams, the shots that rang out as the sun dipped, and how a soldier had even asked Nedzad and the others to choose the place they wanted to die, "They started killing at night. It was obvious it was the end. I was hiding behind people on the truck and afraid to get off. Everybody wanted to live a little bit longer. Eventually, I got off. Bullets were hitting people around me. People were screaming. I saw lines of men fall down. A soldier gave orders for the others to check that people were dead, and if they weren't to shoot them again. One of them stood in front of me, he didn't know I was alive. In front of my eyes he shot the man next to me. When they left, I waited to die."

In the bloodbath of killing 8372 men and boys, including Hanifa’s husband, two sons and Nedzad’s father and uncle, they left alive a witness. Though shot three times and terrified, he would later testify at The Hague against Karadzic and his henchmen. A then-teenage boy who would help convict a former president.

Twenty one years later, Nedzad supposes this destiny is why he lived, though he could not understand it for a long time.


Karadzic is not a monster in everyone's eyes. Especially not in his former stronghold outside Sarajevo, Pale. Here they say The Hague is wrong. Karadzic is a hero and he should never have been arrested, let alone convicted.

Indeed, because of him Bosnian Serbs have an autonomous state, the Republika Srpska, of which both Pale and Srebrenica are parts. It was awarded to them in the 1995 Dayton peace accord.

In a function hall in the middle of the town, on the eve of Karadzic’s war crimes verdict, some of the most prominent members of the Republika Srpska dined, shoulder to shoulder. Not a common public site in a country where half the population is jobless and very near poverty.

Tables ran the length of the room, overflowing with cuts of fatty pork and other delights. The Rakija, a potent alcohol made in the Balkans, flowed freely from cup to cup. In the center of the official table sat the President, Milorad Dodik. To Dodik's left, Karadzic's wife, Ljiljana Zelen Karadzic dragged on a cigarette and chatted stoically to supporters. To Dodik's right, also under a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, sat Sonja Karadzic, Radovan's daughter. Her father was just hours away from a verdict and she did not wish to speak publically. Dodik - on the other hand - did.

He was there, much like the Karadzic clan, to defy the ICTY and dedicate a school dormitory to their former president.

After the unveiling, Mr Dodik blasted the ICTY as a political machine, "What is disputable is the actions of this court, which practices selective justice only. Karadzic himself is an example of it. You have Bosnian [Muslim] war criminals like Naser Oric who slaughtered and killed people, and he's defending his case as a free man, walking down the streets of Sarajevo. But Karadzic, who was politically involved but never ordered any killing, is being prosecuted just because he is the only living member of the government at the time."

That's not always been Dodik's position. After the war he argued strongly that Karadzic and Mladic were subjecting all Serbs to collective punishment because they refused to turn themselves in. He says he now regrets that position. There are also elections coming up and nationalist sentiment is running high.

Never forgive, never forget

Back in Potocari, survivors see this show as further salt in the wound and the trial and verdict given to Karadzic ring hollow here.

Hanifa’s sister-in-law, Mejra Dzogaz, a widowed mother of three dead boys, sits in her house in the valley. She lives a stone’s throw away from the cemetery. The bones of her boys, her husband, and thousands of others are her neighbours.

"They can try him as much as they want, but he already sentenced our kids to death. There is a sea of white tombstones out there. Each one represents a single person. No matter what the verdict, it means nothing to us. There are plenty of Karadzic’s and Mladic’s around here. Many war criminals have government jobs and we see them every day."

Indeed, many of those men and women convicted in the early days of the tribunal have returned to live in the streets they once terrorised.

In many ways, it creates an uneasy peace in a country with at least three different versions of the truth. And makes it very difficult for people to forget, let alone forgive

Author: Soraya Lennie