Execution Video Jolts Serbia's Memory

Graphic images shake Serbs' collective amnesia about wartime atrocities in Bosnia.

Execution Video Jolts Serbia's Memory

Graphic images shake Serbs' collective amnesia about wartime atrocities in Bosnia.

Tuesday, 2 August, 2005

As Serbia reels from the broadcast of the execution of six men from Srebrenica, analysts say the public's reaction to the footage may mark a watershed in the whole process of truth and reconciliation.

The horrifying images of mass murder were first made public on June 2, at the trial of the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague.

The prosecution showed segments of a two-hour video – copies of which had been handed to them and Serbia’s war crimes prosecution office by the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade - in which members of the feared Serbian paramilitary unit, the Scorpions, executed six young men in cold blood. Four were teenagers and the other two in their twenties.

The killings took place in July 1995, after the fall of Srebrenica, near the village of Trnovo, on the slopes of Mount Jahorina, in Republika Srpska. The victims had been brought there by truck.

The prosecution insisted the Serbian interior ministry controlled the Scorpions, and that the former must have given consent for the latter to be transferred to the RS, where they perpetrated the crime.

Serbia's war crimes prosecution office has submitted a request to the War Crimes Council demanding a criminal investigation of seven men who they say were involved in the killings.

Four have been detained, while the rest are on the run. The Serbian interior ministry's anti-organised crime department has announced that Slobodan “Boca” Medic, one of the Scorpions' commanders, is among those arrested.

The arrests took place on June 1 2005, in several separate actions near Sid, in Vojvodina, where the Scorpions' training compound was situated earlier.

"After the publication of these images, nothing will be the same," Janja Bec-Nojman, a professor at the University of Hamburg Institute for Peace, told IWPR.

She has researched the issue of war crimes and genocide for 12 years and believes this footage will help break a conspiracy of silence on Serb crimes in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen. Few Serbian broadcasters made much of the report and the print media did not put the gruesome images on their front pages.

Svetlana Lukic, a journalist from B92 journalist, told IWPR, “The media is predominantly nationalist and wants to play down and minimise this horrible event as much as possible."

Opinion polls also suggest public attitudes to war crimes reflect the position on the issue taken by institutions they most trust, such as the Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC.

Although an Orthodox priest was shown in the footage, blessing the Scorpions unit, the church has not reacted.

"The fact that the church is silent about this is unacceptable," Mirko Djordjevic, a theologian, told IWPR. "The church should not bless weapons under any circumstances or any excuse, yet it supported Milosevic's war policies for years, and there's substantial documentation to prove this."

In contrast to the church, political representatives were quick to condemn the executions.

At a press conference on June 2, Serbian prime minister Vojisalv Kostunica described it as a “brutal, heartless and shameless crime”.

Even the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, whose own president Vojislav Seselj, is in the Hague facing war crimes charges, urged parliament to adopt a special war crimes resolution.

Aleksandar Vucic, a senior party official, said the resolution should condemn all such crimes committed in former Yugoslavia in the strongest terms.

Vucic said Seselj himself had called him from The Hague after the footage of the massacre was shown. "In that phone call, he [Seselj] said these monstrous crimes had to be condemned immediately," said Vucic.

The politicians may have been stirred into action by the arrival in Belgrade of the Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor. Carla del Ponte visited Serbia one day after the footage of the executions was revealed in the UN court.

Another factor is fear that the US Congress may adopt a draft resolution on Srebrenica, declaring the former Yugoslav government endorsed the execution as a part of its policy of aggression and ethnic cleansing.

There are still many signs that Serbia's political elite is far from ready to face up to the issue of Srebrenica. When eight NGOs recently submitted a Srebrenica Declaration, condemning the crimes perpetrated in eastern Bosnia in July 1995, parliament refused to discuss it.

"The Serbian political elite is not ready to face up to the crimes that were committed," said Vesna Petrovic, whose NGO, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, signed the declaration. "Verbal condemnations of the crime are not enough."

Petrovic said one sign of hope was the growing number of citizens who said they now trusted the Hague tribunal.

Aneta spoke for many, when she said, "It's time we faced up to what happened in our recent past. It's good that these pictures have been made public because too many people here don't know, or don't want to know, what happened in Bosnia."

But another person IWPR interviewed on the street illustrated the problem that rights activists still face. "These images are false," said Sinisa of the Srebrenica video footage. "Thanks to technology, you can do whatever you like."

He said the release of the footage had been timed to coincide with the visit of Del Ponte to Belgrade.

"Denial of war crimes has been a predominant phenomenon in Serbian society," Lazar Stojanovic, Belgrade film director and peace activist, told IWPR.

"These images clearly reveal Serbia's involvement in the crimes committed in Srebrenica. Forcing the state to admit guilt over the part it played in these atrocities is a prerequisite for reconciliation with all the peoples Serbia waged war against."

Some Belgrade analysts hope the release of the footage of the executions may be a prelude to arrests of more high-profile figures than the Scorpions.

"I'm sure Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic will be arrested soon," Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, president of the Human Rights Lawyers' Committee, told IWPR. After such gruesome images, Vuco added, it will be harder to stir up public opinion to their advantage.

But analysts also warn of continued resistance to such arrests from the old guard and from unreformed institutions, such as the police and the army.

"The process of reconciliation and of confrontation of crimes will be hugely hindered by resistance and manipulation," warns Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

Dobrivoje Radovanovic, a psychologist and associate of the Institute for Criminal and Sociological Research, agreed. "To start the reconciliation process, you need to change people's mind-set and that's a complex thing to do," he said.

Radovanovic said many army officers still justified all the crimes their side committed by saying the others also perpetrated atrocities, and they still vigorously defended Milosevic's policies.

"Such people – and there are many in Serbia – are the main reason why the video footage of the execution should be rerun on television as often as possible," said Radovanovic. "Such repetitions are crucial if we want to change people's attitudes."

"Every society has its own rhythm and dynamics in the reconciliation processes," said Bec-Nojman. "This process is slow and takes a long time but it's not impossible."

Zelimir Bojovic is a BIRN contributor and journalist with Deutche Welle. BIRN is IWPR’s localised Balkans project.

Support our journalists