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

EXCHANGE: Too Soon for a TRC

Bosnia is not ready for a truth commission when there is no real rule of law and no consensus on the recent past.
By Vildana Selimbegovic

What are students learning in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Even a brief analysis of textbooks, initiated by independent journalists and intellectuals, reveals a depressing reality.

Serb, Croat and Bosniak elementary school students are taught totally conflicting histories, with propagandistic narratives invented by nationalist parties. Such history books are accompanied by literature textbooks in which authors are carefully divided into "our" writers and "their" writers.

The international community did its part to make the division complete. Outside experts intervened in determining the content of textbooks and bowed to the principle of moral equivalence, preferring the description of "warring sides" to any clear allocation of responsibility. The international censors thus decided to throw out big words such as "aggression", "genocide", and "war crimes".

Unaware of these concessions, former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke visited Potocari, near Srebrenica, last year - five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement which he brokered. Holbrooke shocked the already confused local students when he told them that they were standing on soil that was soaked with the blood of Bosniaks killed in the biggest war crime in Europe since World War Two.

What was the problem? Some may believe that wielding red pens over school textbooks softens harsh realities and directs children in Bosnia towards tolerance and co-existence. But the fact is that it only sustains a society built on different truths.

One of the primary goals of the National Coordinating Committee for Establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a more tolerant future for the country's younger generation. This is an admirable objective that anyone would support. But to realise this goal, such a truth commission must be built on a solid foundation. Holbrooke's visit to Potocari is a good illustration of why it is impossible to launch a truth commission now, when the conditions are not in place.

Simply put, there was no one to listen to Holbrooke's message in Potocari. The survivors from Srebrenica - mothers, spouses and children of the some 7,000 men slaughtered - had nothing new to hear from him. They have lived through the horror of Srebrenica and they know very well what happened. At the moment, their greatest concern is that the remains of their loved ones have not been found, identified or buried with dignity, and that those indicted for war crimes have not been punished.

When survivors, many now living in the capital, travel to Srebrenica, they still need to be escorted by UN police monitors and SFOR soldiers. Unable to return to their homes there, these families live under the threat of eviction from their current places of residence - flats abandoned by Serbs and Croats who now wish to return to Sarajevo. The Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action allegedly uses funds for Srebrenica survivors to buy cars for party activists.

In short, everyone speaks of their tragedy, but Srebrenica families do not know what to do or where to go. Of course, not a single one of these tormented women has the ambition to be a leader of her own association. Instead, men preside over Srebrenica organisations and - in accordance with the customary Bosnian power game - are more often in the business of looking for a compromise rather than the truth.

Those living in Srebrenica today have even less interest in hearing what Holbrooke had to say, as it opens the way to a certain detention centre in Scheveningen. The American's words served as an uncomfortable reminder that somewhere in The Netherlands there is something called the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The Serbs who now control Srebrenica know the tribunal will not accept one-sided truths. They know that Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and other generals orchestrated the shelling of Sarajevo water queues, of children playing in the snow or of Tuzla students attending a modest graduation night.

There is hardly any need to mention that the political leadership of Bosnia at the time also ignored Holbrooke's statement. A few days before general elections, politicians did not want to vie for votes while burdened by Bosnia's gloomy and difficult reality. The painful truth they avoided is that Bosnia is a land of crimes that have not been prosecuted, of refugees who have not returned to their homes, of public funds that did not go to repairing houses and of aid money that bought an illusory peace.

That is the biggest problem for Bosnia-Herzegovina: the war ended without a winner. The country was not divided, but it is internally separated. The lords of the war remained as owners of the peace, while the international community failed to find a formula for carrying out its own decisions or reinforcing a functioning government.

In such a situation, the easiest choice is to take a red pen and cross out big words and goals. The result is a kind of false reconciliation in which Dzemaludin Latic, known for his attacks against people in mixed marriages and his Bosniak nationalist ideology, casts his vote for the spokesman of Serb fascism, Velibor Ostojic, electing him chairman of the parliamentary committee for human rights. Nationalists in power do each other favours, and consent to textbooks that teach us nothing.

Trust is one thing, but reconciliation is something different. The problem in Bosnia is that those who led the country to war never really fought among themselves. These nationalists, trusting each other to pursue corrupt political ends, formed an anti-communist coalition before they entered the war. Now, five years after Dayton, they are announcing a new one. Whatever the honourable goals of the civic groups in supporting the truth commission, there is no way it could remain fully independent and uncorrupted by this dominant political context. Already, Mirko Sarovic, Republika Srpska president, has announced the formation of a special truth and reconciliation commission for the Serbian entity.

True respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law is the only way to extricate Bosnia from this moral swamp. Only when the basic elements of the European Convention on Human Rights are respected in Bosnia will it be possible to take a step further. Law must be implemented, and this can only be done by governments, not truth commissions. When property is returned to its owners and when they can use it as they wish, a crucial precondition for truth will be fulfilled.

But the overriding reality is that this country has no future until the most painful truths reach all of its citizens. The work of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague therefore deserves the most urgent priority.

Only after the tribunal uncovers the truths of graves dug in the soil of Srebrenica, Prijedor, Sanski Most, as well as Paklenik, Kazani and Ahmici, only after the chief prosecutor pronounces a comprehensive verdict for crimes against humanity, will it be possible to consider forming a truth commission. Only after every citizen of this country understands that former Bosnian Serb leader Momcilo Krajisnik did not fight for his own people, as even Bosnia's war-time President Alija Izetbegovic explains, but that his so-called struggle caused death and suffering, will conditions begin to be met in which a truth commission could function.

Only then could such a commission hear from witnesses and help write history textbooks for Bosnian children who will have no confusion about what happened in Srebrenica.

Vildana Selimbegovic is editor-in-chief of Dani magazine in Sarajevo.

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