International Justice/ICTY: Jan ‘09

IWPR report on Visegrad atrocities helps to expose problem of war crimes denial.

International Justice/ICTY: Jan ‘09

IWPR report on Visegrad atrocities helps to expose problem of war crimes denial.

Wednesday, 18 February, 2009
Balkan commentators have said a report by IWPR journalists on the attitudes of residents in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad towards war crimes could help people in the region face up to their recent past.

On January 5, Bosnia’s most influential newspaper, Avaz Daily, republished the special report, Visegrad in Denial Over Grisly Past .

The piece, which was first published on the IWPR site at the end of December, focused on the refusal of many Serbs in Visegrad to accept that war crimes against Bosniak civilians were committed there during the early Nineties conflict.

Bosnian Serb cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic are currently on trial at the Hague tribunal, accused of responsibility for atrocities perpetrated in the town. The men, who both plead not guilty, are charged with burning 140 Bosniaks to death in barricaded houses.

In 2002, Mitar Vasiljevic was sentenced by the tribunal to 20 years in prison, after being convicted of aiding and abetting the murders of seven Bosniaks in Visegrad.

Judges on that case wrote that Visegrad was subjected to “one of the most comprehensive and ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian conflict”. They noted that no other Bosnian town other than Srebrenica underwent a more drastic change in ethnic composition following the war.

Yet in spite of this, those people interviewed by IWPR reporters Rachel Irwin and Edina Becirevic on a field trip to the town in November last year claimed to know nothing of any war crimes committed there.

“I don't know, even today, what happened in Visegrad… I only know what people tell me,” said local politician Brane Topalovic, when questioned by the IWPR reporters.

Irwin and Becirevic’s piece caused a stir when republished in the region, said editor and reporter with Avaz, Almasa Hadzic.

“Judging by the number of phone calls we received from our readers after publishing this report, I can say that it really attracted much attention in Bosnia,” she said.

“Since the authors of this article are IWPR journalists – and IWPR is known for applying very high standards to its work – what they said about the situation in Visegrad was taken very seriously.”

Hadzic added that Avaz – which was found to be the country’s best-selling title in a recent newspaper survey – had published several IWPR articles in the past and would continue to do so in the future.

She said that stories like the Visegrad piece, as well as the reports on war crimes trials that IWPR produces regularly, could help victims come to terms with their experiences.

“In addition to the [Hague tribunal] rulings, objective and non-partisan reporting on these issues is often the only satisfaction to the victims of these crimes,” she said.

A few days after Avaz republished the article, it also appeared on Serbia's largest electronic newspaper, E-News and the website of Belgrade-based Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

Director of this organisation Sonja Biserko said they republished this report because it highlighted a serious problem with war crimes denial in the region.

“I don’t think the main cause of this [seemingly low awareness of war crimes] is lack of information,” she said.

“It’s just that very small numbers of people are ready to face up to their responsibility for war crimes; it's much easier to simply deny that these crimes happened,” she explained.

Commenting on the article, Denis Hadzovic from the Center for Security Studies, CSS, in Sarajevo, said he believed that it accurately reflected the situation in Visegrad.

“When it comes to denying war crimes, it's obvious we still have a problem there, and we cannot expect changes overnight. We are all witnesses to the fact that it very rarely happens that an individual confesses to the crime he or she committed,” he said.

“I think it is important to continue to write about this, because reports such as that of IWPR can awaken people's consciousnesses.”

Dejan Menges from the movement Dosta (Enough) said he was very familiar with subjects covered by IWPR.

“I spent the whole war in Bosnia and I know a lot about the atrocities that were committed here, but IWPR's article gave me goose-bumps. Nothing in it was new to me, but the tone of the article and the way it was written can not leave anyone unmoved,” he said.

“I'm sorry that there aren't more reports like this on many other towns in Bosnia with similar problems. They could really open people's eyes.”

Menges, too, said he was unsurprised that people in Visegrad seemed reluctant to acknowledge or discuss war crimes.

“The hardest thing is to admit something to yourself, and people in this country are still not ready to admit that crimes were committed and to move on. They always blame somebody else,” he said.

He said that it was extremely important for people to face up to the past, so that new generations could learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.

“IWPR's special report on Visegrad is really excellent. It will be a shame if it doesn't reach people in Visegrad. They are the ones who can really benefit from it, while others can use it as a great source of information and a warning for the future,” he concluded.

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