Foca, a town in eastern Bosnia on the banks of the Drina River. (AP Photo/Sava Radovanovic)
By Refik Hodzic
Foca, eastern Bosnia, December 24, 1992, around midday. A tall, dark-haired man with an angry look in his eyes and a patch from the local military police unit of the Bosnian Serb Army on his arm walks briskly through the center of the small town. He has two girls with him. Naked, clutching some clothes in their arms. He drags one by her hair, a large knife in the other hand. The second girl is trying to walk faster, ahead of him, blood dripping from her nose and a cut above her eye. “Go on, you fucking whores,” shouts Radomir Kovac. “I am going to take you to Drina, slit your throats and throw you in the river.”
“He turned the knife around and hit me on the head with it. I had a bump on my head from the blow. I was completely exhausted and afraid, and my knees just wouldn't hold me up. I had no strength whatsoever,” one of them would recall some 17 years later in her testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). She was 22 at the time, taken from her home by Serb soldiers along with hundreds of other women from surrounding Muslim villages to be detained in one of several rape camps in and around Foca.
“He brought us to where the Cehotina and Drina rivers meet. And I just looked back at him, because I wasn't able to go forward. But I always thought, ‘You're not going to slit my throat. You're not going to slaughter me alive.’ The tide was high, and I thought that I would throw myself into the Drina, that I'd rather drown than have my throat slit,” the girl, now a women known as witness FSW-75c, recalls. At the last moment, Kovac is stopped by one of his friends, who tells him that some Montenegrins offered 500 German Marks for each of the girls. It pays not to kill them. Better to sell them on.
The two girls, beaten and bloodied, are paraded naked through the center of Foca again. On their way they pass the municipality building. There are people there, going on about their business. Some walk by without a word, some look on, some greet Kovac merrily, pointing and laughing at the girls. Nobody tries to help them.
Nobody thinks of it, for this is now a new, accepted reality in Serb-held parts of Bosnia, in which Muslims (Bosniaks) are de-humanized to the point where they deserve everything that happens to them, no matter how horrific. In this new normal there cannot be any empathy for people deemed a virus, a “disease which has historically been eating into the healthy tissue of the Serb national being,” as Biljana Plavsic, member of Bosnian Serb Presidency, infamously stated.
The creation of this new reality was a key pre-requisite for the implementation of the strategy of “separation of peoples” designed by Radovan Karadzic and the leadership of his Serb Democratic Party as a method of achieving their ultimate political goal – the establishment of an “ethnically pure” Serb state on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Karadzic’s poisonous legacy
Being from Prijedor, I had to come to terms with the devastating impact of Karadzic’s vision on my family, my community, my birthplace, my life. As a journalist and later as a staff member of the ICTY, all that I have done during the last 20 years has somehow been shrouded in Karadzic’s dark shadow. I know too many people who buried their own children. I know too many people who are still searching for their children’s bones to bury. I know too many people who murdered, drunk on Karadzic’s vision of Bosnian Serbs’ right to self-determination in which childhood friends were turned into “historic enemies.”
Often I have dreamt of the day he was going to pay for it all, when justice will be served upon him, cold and merciless. And then, more than 20 years after he was first indicted, the day came. Or rather, it crashed upon us all, with its media frenzy, with hundreds of opportunists keen to be part of the spectacle in whatever way available, with a cacophony of voices calling for his head, calling for him to be beatified, voices screaming “genocide”, voices warning of dire, dire consequences should the judgment be used to change the status quo his crimes created, voices demanding, pleading, threatening…
Amidst this deafening noise, Karadzic entered the courtroom with a beaming smile, probably counting on the day’s outcome, satisfied that the fruits of his bloody labor in Bosnia and Herzegovina - his new normal of division, hatred, mistrust and separation - are alive and flourishing.
The judgment contained no surprises, unless one counts the acquittal on charges of genocide in municipalities like Prijedor as a surprise. I don’t. According to judges, evidence was insufficient to show that Karadzic and his co-perpetrators intended to physically destroy Bosnian Muslims and Croats in these municipalities. In Srebrenica yes, said judges, and he was duly convicted of genocide for the 1995 annihilation of some 8,000 men and boys. But elsewhere he just intended to exterminate, not physically destroy, judges ruled. Unpalatable use of legal nuance, yes, but not surprising.
||Most importantly, Karadzic was convicted of leading the joint criminal enterprise which employed extermination, murder, torture, rape, forced deportation and widespread persecution of Bosnian Muslims and Croats to implement the vision laid out in a document titled “Strategic Goals of Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” of which two are crucial: the creation of a Serb state on Bosnian territory and the physical separation of Serbs from other peoples inhabiting these territories.|
The drastic nature of methods envisaged for implementation of this strategy was best captured by the reaction of the newly appointed commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, General Ratko Mladic. He climbed to the podium at the meeting of the Serb assembly on May 12, 1992, where the document was first presented, and addressed the politicians before him: “You can’t sift people through a net so that one people falls through and the other remains. What you are asking me to do is pure and simple genocide.” This did not mean Mladic would refuse the request; once the decision was made he implemented it with fervor and fanaticism.
Much of Karadzic’s judgment had already been written in previous verdicts against his co-perpetrators, members of the Bosnian Serb political and military leadership: Momcilo Krajisnik, Biljana Plavsic, Radoslav Brdjanin, Stojan Zupljanin and others. Although only a few new facts emerged, the judgment laid out in detail the picture of Karadzic’s key role in creating an ideology that de-humanized the non-Serbs to the point where their extermination became a legitimate, necessary national effort.
The judges were precise in describing this evidence: “Radovan Karadzic was at the forefront of developing and promoting the ideology and policies of the SDS and creating the parallel governmental, military, police and political structures that were used to establish and maintain authority over Bosnian Serb-claimed territory and further the objective of [removing non-Serbs through commission of crimes]. He was central in outlining the goals of the Bosnian Serb leadership including separation from Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, the take-over of Bosnian Serb-claimed territory, and the creation of a largely ethnically homogeneous Bosnian Serb state. Karadzic was also a central figure in the dissemination of propaganda against Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, which identified them as the historic enemies of the Serbs and insisted that co-existence was impossible. He played on this historical narrative and his rhetoric was used to engender fear and hatred of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats and had the effect of exacerbating ethnic divisions and tensions in BiH.”
This is Karadzic’s most poisonous and most important legacy: the creation of a new reality in which Radomir Kovac was regarded as a hero, and girls in his ownership reduced to vermin whose lives and dignity were meaningless to their Serb neighbors. All the crimes –the killings, the torture, the systematic rape and the genocide –were possible because of this new reality that reduced non-Serbs to a problem that needed to be solved in order for Serbs to attain freedom and security.
### End of the era of criminal justice
As I write these words at my desk, I can hear my daughter humming “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers from the adjacent room, while in the bedroom my wife is feeding our newborn son. Just another evening, perfect in its simplicity, but not one that we will register as “memorable”. Yet for the likes of Radovan Karadzic, an evening like this will remain an unattainable dream for the remainder of his natural life. For what he has left of his life will amount to the miserable existence of a convicted war criminal, bound to end in a bleak, bare cell in one of Europe’s prisons.
A fitting end for a man who has destroyed hundreds of thousands of ordinary lives as he pursued his dream of an ethnically homogenous ethnic state? I don’t know. Indeed, what could be a fitting end for a man with such a poisonous legacy? I just know that 20 years of anger and thirst for retribution dissolved into a new realization: I just want this man out of my life. I don’t know what constitutes a fitting punishment for someone like him, but there is some comfort in knowing that with his trial over, he would no longer participate in the reality his crimes created. It is this reality we have to deconstruct, dismantle and transform.
The starting point in such an endeavor must be the realization that the end of Karadzic’s trial brings an end to “the era of criminal justice” in our search for the serum to counter his poison. This does not mean the end of war crimes trials as such, but instead the end of our reliance on criminal justice to transform our society.
We gained mightily from this era: there are mountains of gathered evidence, countless facts about crimes have been established beyond a reasonable doubt. A number of perpetrators have been removed from our midst, and the judiciary in Bosnia and Herzegovina is in relatively good shape to pursue the perpetrators of these crimes for as long as they and their victims are alive.
At the same time, we need to accept that in these 20 years of criminal justice efforts, the Karadzic’s new normal in Republika Srpska - and its reverberations in Bosniak and Croat communities - has not been significantly affected.
|There has been much baseless expectation and careless manipulation among Bosniaks over what these trials could bring about: from catharsis in the Serb nation, to the ultimate historical record of the conflict, to the abolition of Republika Srpska. None of these were grounded in solid precedents nor did they ever have any realistic “roadmap” that clearly charts the causal relationship between the trials and the desired outcome.||
Fueled by opportunistic opinion makers from media and academia, religious and political leaders, these expectations often hinged on some big power suddenly waking up to the vast scope of injustice and suffering confirmed in ICTY judgments and somehow acting to reverse the results of Karadzic’s genocidal effort. Years have been wasted in the recycling of such myths, heavily reliant on victimhood as the backbone of Bosniak identity, which in turn paralyzed any meaningful conversation on reconciliation and anathemized notions of acknowledgement and forgiveness. Perversely, ICTY trials were somehow seen by many as a possible way to win back the territory and the constitutional framework lost in the war.
At the same time, the Serbs have been sold the same story by their leaders, but told from a different perspective: that somehow the ICTY’s judgments were designed to criminalize every Serb who has fought in the war, and that they would be used to somehow undermine Republika Srpska and Serbia. Of course, every leader from, Slobodan Milosevic to Milorad Dodik (with the possible exception of Zoran Djindjic), always positioned himself as the only person capable of “defending” the Serb people, saving Serbia from humiliation and protecting the RS from abolition.
Every time this grip of fear and manipulation would loosen and people began to focus on their meager livelihoods, on the rampant corruption and plunder, there would come a manufactured crisis to draw them back into the Karadzic-created reality of a nation under siege surrounded by “historic enemies” and their allies in the international community. Instead of progressing and putting as much distance as possible between themselves and Karadzic’s methods of achieving Serb political goals in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serb political establishment went full circle and again started embracing his ideology, rehabilitating his ideas and celebrating those who implemented them as national heroes.
The consequences of this bipolar dynamic have been devastating. The paralysis of positive social processes to which this dynamic has contributed has allowed the political elites on both sides to plunder, unchecked by the constantly re-traumatized populace. The younger generation, which is always the most important agent of social change, has either been forced into thinking about leaving or has largely been infested with most virulent forms of nationalism and hatred, often growing up in the “ethnically pure” communities forged by the conflict. Civil society has largely atrophied, burdened by donors’ agendas and a lack of legitimacy among the people. Militant extremism is on the rise in all ethnic groups, actively fanned by hate speech in the media and on social networks.
Granted, there are organic processes in which people reconnect: trade, sports, and some civil society initiatives. But these advances are weak and fragile, constantly under assault from the mighty machinery of the political establishment and the institutions it controls. Instead of human rights policy seeking to repair victims and prevent conflict from recurring, the society is trapped in a continuation of war by “other means.”
This has to end if we are to avoid sliding back into armed conflict of some sort. It doesn’t mean that pursuit of justice for war crimes has to be abandoned in favor of forgetting, but it does mean that the dominance of criminal justice as the preferred cure for our broken society needs to end, and that collective energy needs to be directed to other means of dismantling Karadzic’s legacy. It means that instead of endlessly going in circles around ICTY trials, we need to open a serious public debate on acknowledgement and reparations.
### A case for acknowledgment and reparations
Some years back I interviewed tens of survivors of the notorious Prijedor camps and families of those who were killed in 1992. I was trying to understand how they perceived the justice meted out in war crimes trials in The Hague and in Bosnian courts. While they all differed on how important sentences were, how the act of testifying shaped their views and most other aspects of court proceedings, one thing they all agreed on: in terms of importance, court justice came a distant second to acknowledgment of their suffering by the authorities and their Serb neighbors. One former inmate of Omarska summed it up: “The recognition of my suffering is more important to me than material compensation of any kind. If there was a public effort of the local Serb community to say ‘yes, we know what happened, we recognize it’, it would mean more to me than all the jail terms, all the money in the world. That would lead to reconciliation.”
So there it is: if, as the Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic likes to repeat, Serbian political establishment genuinely wants reconciliation with Bosniaks, acknowledgement is the crucial first step. It is a moral imperative, affirming that our humanity has survived atrocity, but it is not devoid of pragmatic value: it is in the long-term interest of Republika Srpska to acknowledge the crimes Karadzic used to achieve political goals set out at the outset of the war and announced on May 12 ,1992.
||The reasoning for this is relatively simple, as it relates to the current paralysis and prospects for the future. If there is no acknowledgement; if Karadzic’s methods of extermination and genocide are not de-legitimized in the Serbian political discourse; if the Bosnian Serb political leadership doesn’t fully disown his methods; if the denial and rehabilitation of perpetrators persists; if there is continued intimidation and discrimination of non-Serbs, then Bosniaks (or any other reasonable person) must conclude that this Republika Srpska is in fact the continuation of the Karadzic’s project, designed to complete his work and cement the outcomes of his extermination effort.|
If this is indeed so, then Bosniaks have no alternative but to regard Republika Srpska as a hostile presence and a security threat. Consequently, any mention of Republika Srpska possibly declaring independence or in some other way pursuing increased autonomy or closer ties to Serbia constitutes an act of escalation, which could in theory result in borders of a hostile state running, for example, through the hills above Sarajevo. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
It is simply unimaginable that Bosniaks would ever allow themselves to be in a similar situation again. Not without a fight anyway, and this time around the fight would probably have devastating consequences for all, but primarily for Republika Srpska considering its current geostrategic position and the military balance as compared to 1992.
So, to reiterate, for Republika Srpska acknowledgement is not only a matter of obligation to its non-Serb citizens targeted for extermination and genocide by its military and police – it is a matter of political necessity. The alternatives are bleak: the current debilitating paralysis and/or recurrence of armed conflict.
It is not as if Serb leaders have far to look for inspiration: there has been a period from 2003 to April 2006 when Republika Srpska (albeit under pressure from the international community) made shy first steps in this direction through a televised acknowledgement of the Srebrenica genocide by the then president Dragan Cavic. This unprecedented act of public acknowledgement stemmed from an inquiry into the events surrounding the fall of Srebrenica conducted and paid for by the RS. During these years, its public broadcaster RTRS regularly screened SENSE Agency reports from the ICTY trials. There was a serious effort to establish a truth commission at the state level, and in Prijedor, for example, there was a substantive conversation about a memorial at the site of Omarska concentration camp. Things were going in the right direction.
However, after the demise of constitutional reforms in 2006 known as the “April package”, Serbian political strategy in Bosnia turned from acknowledgement towards aggressive denial. The RS President Milorad Dodik personifies this shift - once vehemently opposed to Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, a man who publicly acknowledged genocide in Srebrenica, today is known as the most vocal genocide denier who doesn’t miss an opportunity to mock Bosniak victims and justify Karadzic’s methods.
In such atmosphere, the apology by Dragan Cavic is today seen by most Bosnian Serbs as an act of treason. Political leadership of the RS uses every opportunity to reject facts about the crimes committed by the RS institutions against non-Serbs and to deny victims basic rights to memorialization. The case of Prijedor and the refusal of the local Serb authorities to allow the memorial for 102 children killed there in 1992 stands out as the illustration of the heartlessness and racism of this politic. Their actions are allowing for the new normal forged by Karadzic’s policies to rear its ugly head again.
### What way forward?
So, what forms should acknowledgment take? Apologies from key political leaders are symbolically important, and as long as they are genuine they can catalyze other processes of reckoning with the past. However, bearing in mind farcical attempts at apology in the past – such as the former Serbian president Boris Tadic’s qualified mumblings, or the fiasco of the current Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic’s visit to Potocari in the aftermath of his feverish campaign against the UK resolution on Srebrenica in the UN SC – we must look beyond these largely ceremonial acts. To reverse the effects of Karadzic’s crimes and years of denial, much more needs to be done.
First, public denial has to stop now, today. The mockery of victims of some of the worst atrocities, including Srebrenica, Markale market massacre, Tuzla Kapija massacre and others, emitted almost daily by Serb politicians and amplified through public television, radio and other media in the RS and Serbia, is nothing short of hatemongering. Its effects on any prospect of reconciliation are corrosive and they diminish, if not destroy, the capacity of victims to forgive. In addition, such language forms a continuum with the similar practices of Karadzic’s circle and his media during the conflict, further cementing the perception among Bosniaks that today’s Republika Srpska is indeed the same hostile presence whose forces committed countless atrocities.
There are a number of other concrete steps that need to be taken.
Public media form the key arena where the shift from denial to acknowledgement must happen, considering the destructive role of Serbian and RS media in the process of dehumanization of non-Serbs, their ongoing negation of suffering inflicted upon non-Serbs and their effort to rehabilitate convicted war criminals. In addition to amplifying messages of acknowledgement from political leaders, public broadcasters need to produce and commission content that presents facts about crimes of Serb forces based on evidence gathered by the ICTY and other credible sources. Programming featuring voices of non-Serb victims needs to be produced to humanize them again, and to demonstrate that empathy for the other is not an act of betrayal of Serbdom, as Karadzic’s ideology teaches. These are mere examples of what needs to be a concerted media effort which would signal to both Serb and non-Serb audiences that Karadzic’s new normal is being dismantled.
Another key frontline is the education system. Evidence of the crimes committed by the Serb forces, their systematic nature and the impact they had on the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina must find their way into the history curriculum at the primary and secondary level. Textbooks at these levels must be cleansed of inflammatory language directed against non-Serbs, which paint them as “historic enemies” of Serbs. University curriculum in faculties of law and political science, which now serve as breeding grounds for extreme nationalism and revisionism, need to be reformed to include the study of systematic crimes against non-Serbs, analyzing their root causes and consequences. Additionally, universities in Belgrade and Banja Luka would be well advised to establish a joint institute for the study of genocide, which would have specific programs at graduate and post-graduate levels focused on researching various aspects of the crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Lastly, substantive efforts need to be made by local authorities in Republika Srpska to memorialize the suffering of its non-Serb citizens. Memorials should be developed in close consultation with families of victims and survivors, both in places of suffering such as sites of detention camps, but also in communal areas where they will be visible to the current inhabitants and serve an educational purpose. To signal their reparative role and the reinstatement of non-Serbs as equal citizens to whom local authorities have an obligation, such memorials should be publicly funded.
The positive effect of these basic acts of acknowledgement will be significantly increased if they are accompanied by a set of reparations. The primary aim should be to address the harm inflicted on non-Serbs by the Karadzic-led criminal enterprise and finally transform them from enemies into fellow citizens.
Contrary to the propaganda, which surrounded the ICJ lawsuit Bosnia filed against Serbia for genocide and aggression, such reparations would not amount to hundreds of billions of dollars, but could be a mix of symbolic and material reparations which could be easily afforded by Republika Srpska and Serbia.
The first step could involve settling numerous cases of former camp detainees who have filed lawsuits against the RS for non-material damages before national courts. Such settlements could include a combination of symbolic payments and benefits under a program designed first and foremost to acknowledge the RS obligation to those who suffered harm at the hand of its security apparatus. One source of funds to support such a program could be located in the millions of Euros the RS government pays out every year to the families of the accused and convicted for war crimes, while the remainder could come from a fund established for this purpose with the help of international community.
Such funds could be used to support employment of families of victims who reside in the RS, and scholarships for the children of victims and survivors. Additionally, victims’ families and survivors should be afforded benefits such as free health care, tax breaks and housing assistance. In reality, this would not incur huge costs to the RS budget, as the number of victims’ families and survivors residing in the RS is relatively small, but the recognition of their rights would have a huge impact in distancing the current government from Karadzic’s policies.
Lastly, the areas inhabited predominantly by non-Serbs which were specifically targeted for destruction by Serb forces need to be classified as areas of special interest for the RS government in relation to development and reconstruction. This would potentially encourage a more permanent return of non-Serbs, who have so far been left to themselves and international assistance to repair the damage inflicted by intentional destruction and plunder. The policies adopted by local authorities at present are nothing short of discriminatory, with Prijedor a prime example: this year’s municipal budget allocated more money for a stray dog refuge than for assistance to non-Serb returnees. Development of these areas could only benefit local communities, as the improved infrastructure and a change of attitude by local authorities could attract investment from non-Serbs currently living abroad, whose economic potential is significant.
"In the long term, we could have a chance of a lasting, stable peace, with constitutional arrangements built on the basis of a consensus reflecting present political, economic and cultural factors, rather than on the rotten foundations of the legacy of Radovan Karadzic."
The time to act is now
The possible effect of such new approach by the authorities of Republika Srpska and Serbia could be transformative, and not only in dismantling the reality Karadzic created. It would signal a clear break with his methods of pursuing political goals, which have now been authoritatively documented and judged as criminal in the ICTY verdict.
Such distancing from Karadzic’s crimes would help legitimize the Bosnian Serb political position within Bosnia and Herzegovina and the international community. It would go a long way to delegitimize Bosniak perception of Republika Srpska as a security threat and provide Serbs with a platform to rightfully demand reciprocity in acknowledgement and reparations action from Federation of BiH in relation to Serb victims of war crimes. Lastly, it would force Bosniaks to abandon victimhood as the primary source of political legitimacy in building their relations with counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and internationally, finally forcing them to discern legitimate Serb political interests from the genocidal effort of Karadzic’s joint criminal enterprise.
And this is just a start. In the long term, we could have a chance of a lasting, stable peace, with constitutional arrangements built on the basis of a consensus reflecting present political, economic and cultural factors, rather than on the rotten foundations of the legacy of Radovan Karadzic.
I fully understand that this proposition may be dismissed as naïve in view of the current reality shaped not only by Karadzic’s crimes but also by the violent plunder that has over the last 20 years created a Hydra of intertwined political, criminal and business interests. Likewise, an increasingly chaotic regional and broader geopolitical context is far from conducive to the political will necessary for such changes, to say nothing of the broader challenges posed by climate change and an aging population. I am aware that this text may draw no more than laughter upon one look at the people currently in charge, to whom it is supposedly addressed, and their politics.
Such reactions would certainly be understandable. For these solutions may indeed require true statesmen whose vision extends beyond short-term political and material gains for themselves and their party colleagues, and considers benefits to their people and the peoples with whom they share this country.
But if we have not been irreversibly changed by Radovan Karadzic’s attempt to extinguish every ability in us to regard the pain of others, then we will embrace the moral imperative and human rights dictums that should catalyze such policies. At the same time, the bleak alternative of the continuation of frozen conflict and a real prospect of its escalation make them a matter of pure political necessity. And urgency.
Belgrade, evening of March 29, 2016, amphitheater of the Faculty of Political Sciences. The room is full of twentysomething first and second year students eager to hear panelists cross swords over a loaded question “Do law and justice exist in The Hague?” The panel comprises Kosta Cavoski, an ultranationalist law professor and a fervent Karadzic supporter, Goran Petronijevic, one of Karadzic’s lawyers, and Nemanja Stjepanovic, a journalist and researcher from Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center. The discussion quickly escalates into Cavoski and Petronijevic competing in throwing insults at the ICTY and openly misrepresenting mostly everything about Karadzic’s verdict. Their vulgar remarks draw thunderous applause from the students. Stjepanovic tries to bring the discussion back to the evidence on which the judgment is based, but his voice is drowned out in shouts from the audience and the other two panelists.
At one point Cavoski starts mocking the judgment about the systematic campaign of rape of Muslim women and girls in Foca (which includes the testimony of witness FSW-75). His “jokes” about Foca women are met with deafening laughter and mockery from the audience. Students of Belgrade’s University are laughing at the harrowing stories of rape and sexual enslavement of girls as young as 12. Astounded, Stjepanovic asks how they can laugh at something so horrific, at all the evidence about these crimes contained in the judgment. A young, beautiful girl from the third row responds: “We laughed when we read the judgment, why shouldn’t we laugh now?”
We are running out of time.
Refik Hodzic is a journalist from Prijedor, former spokesman of the ICTY, currently the Communications Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice.