Serbs Balk at Atrocity Stories

Serbian people are reluctant to come to terms with the war crimes committed by the former regime

Serbs Balk at Atrocity Stories

Serbian people are reluctant to come to terms with the war crimes committed by the former regime

Serbia's new government is now making hesitant efforts to bring Serbian war criminals to justice but finds it difficult to drum up the support of a reluctant populace. Without public backing, the government will have trouble achieving real cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.

Ministers are well aware that action on war crimes is vital if the country is to receive Western financial aid and membership of international organisations. But first they must persuade their people who, after 10 years of propaganda under the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic, are loathe to believe that Serbians committed any war crimes at all.

In the Serbian popular view, Serbs were victims of atrocities perpetrated by their neighbours. It comes as an unpleasant shock to learn about Serb crimes, such as the infamous Srebrenica massacre. Many Serbs still refuse to believe it. A television programme on Srebrenica drew angry criticism that it was a fabrication by hostile foreign media. Viewers complained that national pride was being undermined.

The new authorities are treading cautiously. When Milosevic was arrested, he was charged with corruption and abuse of office, not war crimes. This could change. A law is being drafted to facilitate cooperation with The Hague tribunal and enable war criminals to be extradited. This law should come before the Yugoslav parliament at the end of May.

On April 24, Colonel Svetozar Radisic, Yugoslav army spokesman, said charges were brought against 183 soldiers for criminal acts committed from March 1, 1998 to June 26,1999 in Kosovo.

At the same time, 143 Albanians arrested in 1999, at the time of the NATO bombing, have been freed from several prisons in Serbia. The media has also reported that a Supreme Court has ordered the release of a further 1,753 Albanians.

In mid-March, the Serbian deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, publicly accused the police of committing mass crimes in Kosovo. He said some units of the Serbian army and police took advantage of the war to conduct lucrative business with "enemy Albanian terrorists". This drip feed of information is slowly opening the eyes of Serbians.

The arts world is playing its part as well. A young Belgrade theatre director, Bojan Djordjevic, chose a play by Croatian writer Slobodan Snajder as his graduation project at the Arts Academy in Novi Sad. It concerns a Muslim woman who was raped by Serbs. Such issues have never before been staged in Yugoslavia.

Last month, exactly eight years after the war started in Bosnia, the Belgrade TV station ANEM - which covers most of Belgrade, and is rebroadcast in some of the biggest cities in Serbia - began showing a documentary series entitled "The Siege of Sarajevo" by the well-known Bosnian journalist Suada Kapic.

The channel then produced its biggest shock of all, broadcasting a BBC documentary "Cry from the Grave" on the Srebenica massacre. Serbs for the first time found out how Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 people in the town in July 1995. The two-hour film showed the Republika Srpska chief of staff, General Ratko Mladic, indicted by The Hague war crimes tribunal, issuing orders. Harrowing testimonies by survivors were also shown.

The programme brought an avalanche of complaints. Angry viewers called in to say the film should never have been shown. A secretary at TV ANEM said, "We had hundreds of calls - this was the biggest criticism we have had since we started two years ago."

The secretary said viewers asked how much the station had been paid "to show such lies" and claimed that this was yet more evidence that the entire world is against the Serbs.

One viewer, Miodrag Ivanovic, from Belgrade, said there probably was some truth in the Srebrenica story, but asked why no one in the West talks about Serb vicitms.

Miodrag said he had no interest in the war and lived 'underground' for seven years, trying to dodge conscription. He only wanted to see the end of the regime - and with it the chance of travelling abroad. But despite the fact that he never supported the war, he felt unable to fully believe a documentary about Srebrenica made by a foreign TV crew.

A well-known Belgrade psychologist, Zarko Trebjesanin, said the documentary was painful for Serbian people, and their reluctance to face

unpleasant truths is only human. He said the best approach would be for the Serbian media to gradually bring the reality of the war home to the Serbs and so "purify our souls".

Marina Grihovic is a journalist for Belgrade daily Blic

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