The Bosnian War: Complicity and denial

Ratko Mladic is guilty. But what about all the others who were involved?

At the highest level, two people have been held accountable for the atrocities committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian War. In 2016, Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Karadzic was also found guilty of orchestrating the shelling of Sarajevo and the use of 284 UN peacekeepers as human shields in May and June 1995.

In November 2017, former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic was imprisoned for life for genocide and other atrocities. The tribunal decided that Mladic “significantly contributed” to the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, where more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered – the worst atrocity in Europe since World War 2. Over a period of 24 years, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has indicted 161 people, of whom 83 were convicted and a further 21 trials are ongoing. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the Mladic case was “the epitome of what international justice is all about”.

Unlike Karadzic (who, in a written statement to the tribunal that convicted him, accepted that as political leader of the Bosnian Serbs he bore “moral responsibility” for crimes they had carried out), Ratko Mladic refuses to accept reality. He has the blind support of many people in Serbia itself and in Serbian circles in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They regard the tribunal as politically motivated and deny the guilt of their “hero” and his accomplices – many of whom are still at large.

In “Ratko Mladic will die in jail. But go to Bosnia: you’ll see that he won” (The Guardian, 22 November 2017), the journalist Ed Vulliamy, who covered the Bosnian War, wrote that Mladic faced:

“Two counts of genocide: one for Srebrenica, the other for what happened in the ‘municipalities’ elsewhere in Bosnia. Here serial atrocities were committed by troops under Mladic’s direct command over those years, while the international community dithered, and worse. The whole idea of the Hague tribunal was as much an act of contrition for that failure as it was ambition for international justice. Mladic’s pogroms included more mass-murder, torture, mutilation and rape, in the camps at Omarska, Trnopolje and Keretem in north-west Bosnia. To the east, in Višegrad, civilians – including babies – were herded alive into houses for incineration, or down to a bridge to be shot, or chopped into pieces, and hurled into the river Drina. Then there was the wholesale demolition of countless towns and villages, and the ‘cleansing’ of all non-Serbs, by death or deportation; the razing of mosques and Catholic churches; the gathering of women and girls into camps for violation all night, every night. And the rest.”

Vulliamy has written two extraordinary books about the war: Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War (1994) and The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia: the Reckoning (2012). They make for grim reading.

According to political scientist Adrian Gallagher, genocide is “when a collective source of power (usually a State) intentionally uses its power base to implement a process of destruction in order to destroy a group (as defined by the perpetrator), in whole or in substantial part.” But the State does not act alone. As we know from Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Argentina, and Rwanda, genocide involves state-sanctioned policies and their systematic implementation.

Many, many people were individually responsible for the horrors of the Bosnian War. For the genocide that took place, Radovan Karadzic is politically and morally responsible and Ratko Mladic criminally and morally culpable. Yet the complicity of others taints the future. Who are they? Where are they? And during Bosnia’s time of greatest need, where was the rest of Europe?


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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