Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkan Youth to Follow Karadzic Trial Closely

But will proceedings help new generation come to terms with the past?
By Velma Šarić

Muamera Sulejmanovic was only six years old when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992. Growing up in Srebrenica, she remembers her pre-war life as a pleasant one.

“We were all at home in Srebrenica,” she said. “We lacked nothing. All of us lived together; my father had a good job, we were just happy. And then in 1992 times of hunger and suffering came along.”

During the 1992-95 wars which tore the former Yugoslavia apart, today’s Balkan youth were just children, who struggled to understand what was going on.

The trial of the former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic at the Hague tribunal, due to resume on March 1, has sparked their interest, even if opinions often seem as divided as among the older Balkan generation.

Nonetheless, experts hope that the Karadzic trial could significantly help young people come to terms with the past.

Lejla Mamut, programme developer at the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, CJR, in Sarajevo, said that the justice process, including the Karadzic trial, was “the most effective medicine for the harm done during the war”.

“This could be one of the remedies used to regain the trust in judicial bodies and reduce the space for manipulating events, causes and consequences of the war,” she said.

Sulejmanovic says her worst memories were from July 1995, when she had to leave Srebrenica, together with her mother and three sisters, after the enclave fell to Bosnian Serb forces. She lost her father and many other family members in the Srebrenica genocide.

She now lives in Sarajevo where she studies at the local university’s philosophy faculty and has been following the Karadzic trial closely, although she believes there is a limit to how much closure it can bring to survivors of the war.

"Nothing could replace the pain and loss of the victims. Whatever the verdict is in the Karadzic case, it will not suffice for those who've lost someone," she remarked.

Karadzic, the first president of Republika Srpska, RS, and the former supreme commander of the RS armed forces, is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the massacre of almost 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.

The indictment alleges that Karadzic was responsible for genocide, crimes of persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".

After spending years on the run, Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade on July 21, 2008. His trial started in October 2009, but was halted after the accused, who represents himself, refused to appear in court.

The judges then appointed a stand-by counsel for Karadzic and postponed the proceedings until March 1 this year, in order to give the counsel enough time to prepare. If Karadzic again refuses to show up in the courtroom, he will lose his right to self-representation.

According to Tanja Gataric, a young woman from Banja Luka, there is interest in the trial among RS youth as well. Gataric says she and some of her friends have been following the developments in this case for a long time.

"The reason is that from 1992 to 1995 many had suffered and been through hell - and I mean all citizens of Bosnia: Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. All of us have had some terrible wartime experiences and it is important that those who had created wartime policies are held responsible,” she said.

“The war has taken Bosnia backwards 50 years, and this country truly deserves to become a civilised European country.”

She believes the trial will make a difference to the youth of Bosnia, but added, “Those who think rationally have never been filled with hatred.

“We are all Bosnian youth and we all have common problems, such as unemployment.”

Muhamed Mesic, a young lawyer from Tuzla, shared Gataric's opinion on common problems in Bosnia. “The decrepit state of our economy, the unstable political situation, the depressing international isolation – youth in Bosnia and Hercegovina are indeed blessed with more than a handful of problems,” he told IWPR.

“But then I guess that the issue of justice is paramount because it has touched so many people's lives in such a profound manner that it cannot be ignored.

“I see the Karadzic trial as just one of many bricks in this path: not the only one, but an important one. And [bringing to justice] those [accused] of past crimes is a necessity if we wish to build a safer future.”

But in RS and Serbia, there are young people who idolise Karadzic and his military commander and fellow war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic, who is still on the run.

In order to support the two indictees, they have created groups on different internet portals where their roles in the previous war in Bosnia are glorified.

In a report broadcast in Facing Justice, a weekly radio programme produced by IWPR and Radio Free Europe, RFE, the majority of Serbian teens interviewed considered Karadzic a patriot who had been unjustly imprisoned at The Hague.

One teenager from Belgrade said, “My grandma told me that Karadzic was the biggest Serb hero because he had done so much for the Serbs.”

Dinko Gruhonjic, a journalist and assistant professor at the University of Novi Sad, said that such attitudes were the result of the wartime generation’s reluctance to come to terms with the past.

“Young people in RS are not guilty of the conditions they grew up in,” he said. “It is their parents' fault - the culture of denial and silence.”

Gruhonjic warned that the ultimate consequence will be a generation more extreme than their parents.

“Of course, things will develop in a different direction if the value system in Bosnia, and particularly in the RS, is changed but this generation of RS youth is hopelessly infected with the myth of Karadzic as a Serb hero,” Gruhonjic stressed.

Marijana Toma, the coordinator in Serbia for Impunity Watch, an international non-profit group based in the Netherlands, believed that the Karadzic trial could advance reconciliation in Bosnia.

However, she had reservations about the fairness of local media coverage and “whether the facts established at the trial get into textbooks.

“For now, based on the history curriculums in the region, this seems impossible.”

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist and Maria Hetman is an IWPR contributor.