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Regional Report: Bosnians Finally Get Justice

Survivors of Srebrenica and Zepa shed tears as Milosevic stands trial for crimes committed in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
By Amra Kebo

As the second part of the war crimes trial against Slobodan Milosevic opened at The Hague last week, a group of women crowded into a small apartment in Sarajevo to watch the proceedings. Members of the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Association, all are still searching for relatives who disappeared during the war. They had been waiting for this moment for years, now it had come they gathered together for moral support.

With the prosecution and defence cases for Kosovo complete, the court has moved on to consider alleged crimes committed during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The Bosnian state-wide Public Television Service, PBS, attracted widespread criticism for not broadcasting live the indictment for the former when it was read out at the opening of the trial in March. This time they did, allowing many to hear for the first time the scope of the charges against the defendant.

The mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa campaign for the victums of the most infamous single crime committed during the war, the execution of 7,000 unarmed men and boys in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. But right across the Federation, the trial has been long awaited as the beginning of justice for the 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared during the 1992-5 war.

The trial has not been so eagerly awaited in Republika Srpska, RS, however. There, Radio Television Republika Srpska, RTRS, unsurprisingly provided limited coverage of the new phase of the trial, as most of the alleged crimes were committed on RS territory.

Mindful of the forthcoming general elections on October 5, politicians across the country were strangely muted in their response to the trial, maybe fearing that their remarks would be misused or misinterpreted.

Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnian foreign minister and president of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, was one of the few who did venture a comment. “This is a trial against a vision … that would have dragged this whole region towards more crimes and even greater tragedy,” he said, stressing that the wider attempt to employ genocide to divide Bosnia-Hercegovina and neighbouring countries was in the dock, alongside the defendant himself.

The mothers of Srebrenica made no such distinction, however. Every time Milosevic spoke, they responded with tears and boos. His claims to have sought peace provoked derision. "Milosevic should come and visit the largest morgue in Europe which is a direct result of his peacekeeping work," muttered Munira Subasic, chairwoman of the mothers’ association. Thousands of bodies exhumed from the mass graves scattered across eastern Bosnia are still held at the Memorial Centre in Tuzla, awaiting identification.

Fadila Memisevic, the chairwoman of the Society for Endangered Nations in Sarajevo, hopes that the trial will establish that Bosnia-Hercegovina was a victim of external aggression. "I am looking forward to a triumph for justice, not a triumph over Milosevic," she said. While the war was still in progress, in March 1993, the Bosnian government brought a case for damages against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, at the International Court of Justice - also in The Hague. If the Milosevic trial establishes once and for all that Belgrade did launch an aggressive attack on Bosnia, then the case for damages will be strengthened.

However, Professor Smail Cekic, director of a local institute for investigating war crimes, argued that establishing Milosevic's personal responsibility was equally important. "If we are asking who among the political and military leadership was most responsible, Milosevic's name certainly tops the list," he said.

Just as many in the Federation have greeted the trial with a collective sense of relief, many in RS bridle at any implication that they share a collective responsibility for the crimes under consideration. In Banja Luka, history professor Jovanka Kovacevic denounced the trial as "shameful". "Slobodan was our main support during the war and now they are putting him on trial," she said indignantly, apparently unaware that Milosevic is denying directly supporting the RS war effort.

Bank clerk Svetozar Lazic preferred to dismiss the trial as a farce. "Just as they failed to document his responsibility for events in Kosovo, so they will fail again in the cases of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina," he said.

Maybe fearing a conflict with the international community in the run-up to the elections, RS politicians were judicious in their comments. Rajko Vasic, spokesman for the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, said that Milosevic's trial could provoke a renewed outbreak of nationalism among the Bosnian Serbs, which would in turn raise passions among the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).

The notion that confronting Bosnian Serbs with crimes committed by their forces was ill-advised because it would provoke a defensive reaction, was repeated by Miroslav Mikes, chairman of the Socialist Party of Republika Srpska, SPRS. "That would not be good for Bosnia-Hercegovina, because we must look toward the future, and not keep turning back to the past," he said.

Mikes added that the RS parliament had already considered - and rejected - Bosnia's claim that the FRY had launched an aggressive attack in 1992, so The Hague did not need to examine that particular question. It was a revealing comment, as Mikes appeared unaware that tribunal conclusions will carry considerably more weight with the International Court of Justice than those of the RS parliament, which could hardly be considered impartial when it comes to the question of the Bosnian war.

But among all the voices in RS came one that might have offered some succour to the mothers of Srebrenica, as they watched the proceedings on television in Sarajevo. Desnica Radivojevic, the Bosnian Serb chairman of the Srebrenica Municipal Council, commented that all the people of Bosnia should use the Milosevic trial as a way to face their past for two reasons: to show that the war was indeed the result of aggression, but also to honour the dignity of the many victims.

Amra Kebo is an editor at the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje and Gordana Katana is a Voice of Amerika correspondent based in Banja Luka.

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