Comment: Bosnian Serbs Refuse to Confront Past

Will the wall of Bosnian Serb denial over war crimes ever be breached?

Comment: Bosnian Serbs Refuse to Confront Past

Will the wall of Bosnian Serb denial over war crimes ever be breached?

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

The tribunal thought it had made major headway towards one of its stated goals this week when a Bosnian Serb commander pleaded guilty to organising the execution of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in July 1995.

It had come the closest it ever had to establishing an indisputable truth about what happened during the fateful days after the fall of Srebrenica.

From a vantage point in The Hague this is how it looked. Momir Nikolic, a respected soldier who himself came from Bratunac and had a solid nationalist reputation, admitted that the Bosnian Serb army meticulously planned and carried out the executions.

If that would not put an end to the persistent Serb claims that the massacres never happened, that all those killed were soldiers, or that the Muslims killed each other in a fight over whether or not they should surrender, it’s hard to imagine what would.

So what was the fallout from Nikolic’s plea in Republika Srpska, RS?

Unfortunately, not what the tribunal would have hoped for. Nikolic’s admission mostly met with silence in Bosnia. Only three leading daily newspapers there even reported that Nikolic had admitted guilt, and only one of those was in RS. Radio and television stations gave it scant attention as well.

In fact, the only discussion or debate about what the prosecution viewed as one of the greatest triumphs of the tribunal’s history was among Srebrenica victims’ groups. They who were upset that the prosecution had dropped the genocide charges against Nikolic and recommended a lesser sentence in exchange for the plea.

In RS, most people were not even aware that Nikolic had made a guilty plea, and those who did know did not see it as ground-breaking.

"Nikolic's confession is a betrayal of the Serb nation as a whole,” a 50-year-old unemployed refugee from Glamoc who gave his name as Luka R told an IWPR reporter.

Others insinuated that the plea amounted to nothing more than Nikolic looking out for his own best interests. "Everyone has the right to choose how to save his skin before the tribunal,” a mechanic who gave his name as Milan S said.

Branko Todorovic, Human Rights Watch’s representative in RS, said that he believed the Nikolic confession was an important step that would allow ordinary Serbs to confront the atrocities that were committed in their name. But he was disturbed by the lack of coverage the plea received.

"The silence of media and political circles in the RS is worrying. It means that there are still very few people prepared to confront the truth," he said.

However, there was some indication that Nikolic’s admission was having an impact in RS.

After Biljana Plavsic, a former Bosnian Serb president, pleaded guilty in October 2002 to crimes against humanity for persecuting Bosnian Muslims and Croats, Bosnian Serb political parties immediately took pains to denounce her and distance themselves.

They did not do likewise with Nikolic, and that silence may be telling.

A senior official in the opposition Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, Nebojsa Radmanovic, said it was hard to comment on what reasons Nikolic had for admitting his guilt. "It is also very hard to talk about the implications of his admission,” he said.

Perhaps that is because many of the people Nikolic’s names in his confession still hold prominent positions in the Bosnian Serb leadership – one is a member of parliament and another still holds a high position in the Bosnian Serb army.

Rather than denying the truth, it seems the Bosnian Serb establishment are trying to remain silent in the hope that ordinary people and international community will either not notice, or forget, that Nikolic’s plea ever happened.

And with it, their role in covering up war crimes.

Stacy Sullivan is IWPR project manager in The Hague. Gordana Katana is an IWPR contributor in Banja Luka.

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