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

Fraught Tribunal Legacy Gathering

Conference exposes conflict-related tensions and resentments that still to swirl around the Balkans.
Despite efforts to foster reconciliation in the Balkans, the Hague tribunal still has much work to do in this area, panellists and audience members said this week at a conference focused on the court’s legacy in the region.

“In Bosnia and Hercegovina, there is no reconciliation, there is no coexistence,” said Branislav Dukic, heads of the Association for Republika Srpska Camp Inmates, in a session on the tribunal’s legacy for victims and communities.

The meeting exposed tensions not only between the different victim groups but also between the groups and the panel of experts on the stage.

Directly addressing the panel, Dukic went on to allege that “3,256 Serbs were killed in Srebrenica. Why don’t you focus your research on that?”

Dukic seemed to be referring to Serb civilians allegedly killed by Bosnian army forces in the town of Srebrenica. Hague tribunal judges have stated that Serb civilians were detained, mistreated and even killed in Srebrenica by Bosnian troops during 1992 and 1993.

The town was subsequently the site of a massacre in July 1995, in which Bosnian Serb forces murdered some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. It is considered the worst single atrocity to occur on European soil since World War II.

In response to Dukic, the panel moderator, former tribunal president Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, asked, “Are we going to cooperate?”

“If we can’t cooperate in this room, we have problems,” she said.

“I have lost 22 members of my close family,” said Munira Subasic, of the victims association Mothers of Srebrenica. “I am still searching for the remains of my young son.”

“If anyone has the right to talk about the holocaust, the Serbs have that right,” retorted Dukic, going on to describe the harm he said was inflicted on Serbs by Bosniaks.

The conference was held in The Hague on February 23 and 24 and focussed on the court’s legacy in the Balkans, in terms of local war crime courts, victims’ issues, and capacity building.

The panellists, who were all distinguished scholars, lawyers and activists, tried to address the concerns coming from the audience.

“We are discussing minor issues while the house is on fire,” said Refik Hodzic, tribunal registry liaison in Bosnia.

He spoke about how a friend of his recently travelled to the Bosnian town of Omarska, the site of a notorious detention camp run by Serb forces during the war. Thousands of Bosniaks and Croats held there were tortured and killed.

However, Hodzic said that when his friend asked where the camp was, “the local people said, there never was a camp, it was all something the Muslims made up”.

Hodzic said this example, as well as the atmosphere in the room, illustrated the extent to which there has not been any meaningful reconciliation in the region, and that people still cannot agree on what happened during the war - despite numerous Hague trials that have tried to establish exactly that.

Dukic told panellists “not to try to impose your truth on us.

“You have to listen to the victims even if it’s very emotional.”

Another member of the audience, who did not identify, said that the tribunal judgements only “deepened differences”.

He said that each ethnicity – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – saw the convictions of their own people as unjust.

“The Hague tribunal is writing history,” he said. “But that’s wrong. Historians write history, not tribunals.”

Natasa Kandic, of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, noted the hostility in the room.

“Are [people] opposed to establishing facts?” she asked. “That’s one thing in the interest of all of us, and that should be our starting point.”

But, as other panellists noted, it is complicated for people on all sides of the conflict.

“A Bosniak is so involved with his own [trauma] that he doesn’t realise that Serbs also have their own [trauma],” said Mirsad Tokaca of the Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo, who noted that he himself is a Bosniak.

“We are unable to look each other in the eye and listen,” he said, adding that people need to get away from thinking “only my truth is what’s valuable”.

The victims’ emotional remarks were at times a jolting contrast to the formality of the conference room, filled with government and United Nations officials.

In his closing remarks, tribunal president Patrick Robinson welcomed their participation in the conference.

“Let no one regret those comments,” he said forcefully. “Let no one apologise. [The comments] reflect the reality of those groups. That was their suffering. We cannot move forward without appreciating their suffering.

“Beneath the divisiveness is a sincere attempt to find a solution.”

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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