In 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was formed in the wake of the massacres in Prijedor. It was to hold those most responsible for the violence in the region to account. Yet many are dubious about its achievements.
PRIJEDOR/BELGRADE/THE HAGUE — It is said there can be no peace without justice and no justice without truth. But in Bosnia, nothing is ever that simple, or idealistic. Twenty-two years after the Dayton Peace Accords put an end to the war, the Balkans are still struggling with life after conflict. There is peace; but it is an uneasy one. And as for justice and truth? It depends who you ask.
High on a hilltop in the Bosnian Krajina, concentration camp survivor Sudbin Music points to a deep trench filled with water, “at the end of 2013, September, I was here, at the beginning of the exhumation process.” Music is from Prijedor, where in 1992, the Bosnian Serb army began its campaign of extermination and ethnic cleansing. It had been directed to do so by the Bosnian Serb political leadership, including Radovan Karadzic and Momcilo Krajisnik, which had just adopted six strategic objectives, including dividing Bosnia into ethnic enclaves and eliminating the border with Serbia.
Court documents show Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, had responded to the directive rather chillingly, saying, “Do you know what this means? Who will have to implement this goal but the army? Do you think you can just move people like that, as if they were a set of keys? What you are asking me to do, gentlemen, is called genocide."
That is how Music and his brother ended up being the only men in their village left alive. The rest of them ended up here, in the Tomasica mass grave. Investigators found more than 400 bodies, “packed together like sardines.” The marks from the digging are still clear; excavators have ripped the earth into trenches, churning up brilliant flecks of purple rock. Yellow daisies have also begun to grow wildly, creating little patches of colour over the disturbed earth.
“When they found the bodies, they were so safe [well-preserved], you know? This area was a mine, so when you're burying bodies so deep in minerals and they don't have contact with oxygen, they are mummified. I saw [the body of] my neighbour for example. He looked just a little different because of the pressure, but I recognised the tattoo on his hand. It was a very strange moment for me.”
In Bosnia, there is an ominous saying, “Stay silent, someone can hear you!” That is nowhere more apparent than here. This grave is not hidden — it’s on a hill top. Serb houses are so close in the valley below that you can see the smoke rise from their chimneys, and when it’s quiet, you can hear the ding of a cow’s bell, a dog howl, a rooster crow. The idea that rumbling trucks filled with bodies, excavators digging graves and machine gun rattle could have gone unnoticed is absurd. Still, it took 17 years before two local Serbs who participated in disposing the bodies here finally revealed the grave’s location.
The UN Security Council voted to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1993, not long after the massacres in Prijedor. The aim was to hold accountable those most responsible for the hurricane of violence that was tearing the Balkans apart. To date, the ICTY has convicted more than a dozen people over what happened in the Prijedor area, though hundreds of people are estimated to have participated. Further, unlike Srebrenica, these early killings have never been classified as genocide.
Two-thousand km away in The Hague, Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY Serge Brammertz explains, “What we have tried to establish with Tomasica was that these systematic killings also occurred very much in relation to the other municipalities, where it was obvious based on the evidence we have presented that … several hundred people have been executed, mass graves have been prepared, the transport of the bodies to the mass graves was taking place. So those killings were not the result of combat, but really of systematic elimination.”
The verdict against Ratko Mladic was the last chance to prove in an international court that genocide was committed in Prijedor, indeed that it was committed anywhere outside Srebrenica. Prosecutors failed. Mladic, like Karadzic before him, was found not guilty. Instead he was convicted of the remaining 10 counts and sentenced to life in prison.
For victims and survivors, it seems they will just have to live with the fact that justice, as they see it, will never be served here.
Music and others are frustrated not just because of what they see as the ICTY’s failures, they are frustrated by the lack of truth that has come out. Music was only a teenager when he was sent to the Trnopolje concentration camp. Officially, it’s a school. And, much like the truth, its walls have been literally whitewashed. Outside there is no memorial to the camp’s victims, instead, there’s one to the Bosnian Serb soldiers who kept them here.
To their supporters, they were not criminals. Far from it.
“This, I would say, is still today one of the biggest challenges: that the majority of people in the former Yugoslavia have not accepted the wrongdoings by members of their own community,” Brammertz says. “They are still refusing to accept that they have somehow been taken hostage by political and military leaders of their own communities to justify the crimes of the past.”
Across the Drina River in Serbia, it’s no better. In fact, here there are not only efforts to deny the extent of crimes committed by Serb and Bosnian Serb forces, but efforts to protect the accused. In the case of Ratko Mladic, explains Serbia’s former Chief War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukicevic, “he never left Serbia and he was heavily supported by the state.”
In an old travel agency in Belgrade, protected by two bodyguards, Vukicevic explains how hard it was to carry out his job, under threats and intimidation even from his own government.
“The biggest pressure manifested in the form of obstruction. We simply didn’t have any support,” he says. “The worst period was during Prime Minister Kostunica’s tenure [2000-2003], who in such a deceitful manner carried out activities against us through his minister of justice, Stojkovic.”
Vukecevic stood down from his role at the end of 2015. He’s been barred from practicing law ever since, accused of being a traitor for prosecuting Serbs. Yet under his tenure, despite the odds, Vukecevic managed to track down Radovan Karadzic, who had been living in Belgrade as the new age healer Dragan Dabic. It was a coup for the prosecutor’s office and for the ICTY. It didn’t happen through the sheer good will of the Serbian government, however, but because Serbia wanted to join the European Union. The ICTY tied EU ascension and funding to cooperation.
“Serbia never did anything — as in Serbian governments — if they were not pushed to do those things. Milosevic, Karadzic, you know, everybody who was delivered to The Hague, they had to do that because the international community, the EU, USA they insisted on that,” says Nemenja Stjepanovic, from Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre.
But now the Tribunal is ending. It has indicted 161 people and convicted 84. There are no arrest warrants left to serve. Survivors say without the tribunal there would have been no way anyone would have been held responsible and no way the millions of pages of testimony, state documents, damning intercepts and witness statements would have ever been found or compiled. Yet according to prosecutors, there are thousands of war criminals still walking around in the Balkans, free. Local courts are now tasked with indicting them, but there is little incentive to do so other than truth and justice.
And in 25 years, with so many different versions of history, so much still buried under secrets and lies, there is little hope justice will finally prevail in the Balkans.