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

VIEWPOINT: No Closer to Home

Srebrenica survivors cannot return as long as foot-soldiers implicated in the genocide remain at large.
By H.N.

The phones rang all day in the office of the Mothers of Srebrenica. It was August 2, the day General Radislav Krstic, the highest ranking Bosnian Serb military official to be arrested by The Hague, was due to be sentenced for his participation in the massacre in July 1995.

Journalists all over the world were eager to hear from us, from those who had lost their loved ones in the killing fields of Srebrenica.

For six long years, we had waited for The Hague to bring someone to justice for the crime. For six years, we had waited for a verdict calling the tragedy what we knew it to be: genocide.

Now the judgement was finally delivered, and suddenly we were silent. We didn't really know what to say. What did we expect? Had we, in fact, expected too much?

The reality hit that, for those of us survivors, those who lost family members, tomorrow would be just another day. August 3 would bring one more morning when we would awake thinking of those who are no longer with us.

If you calculate it in days, Krstic's sentence is hardly lenient. He will spend a further 15,816 mornings in prison for genocide. (He gets credit for time served, so has already knocked off more than two and a half of his 46 years.)

But if you take into account that around 10,000 males aged 13-70 were brutally murdered in the space of three days, it turns out that Krstic got around a day and a half for each of his victims - or two and a quarter days per fatality, if you use the judges' minimum death toll estimate of 7,500. On this basis, a paltry sentence indeed.

Either way, there is little solace in the fact that Krstic is likely to die in prison. His punishment will not bring back those who perished. But it is a necessary step towards justice. The dead, and family members who survived, demand it.

Bosnian Serbs should welcome it, too. Reaching out towards justice is the only way they can free themselves from the responsibility for war crimes that has fallen upon their entire nation.

Our association, Mothers of Srebrenica, has visited The Hague several times. Our aim was to present the court with the demands of the victims' families. The key requests are that the tribunal investigates the role of the international community in the massacre and produces more indictments for genocide and war crimes to reflect the full scale of the crime.

Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic were the political and military leaders of Republika Srpska from the very start of the war and have been indicted for Srebrenica. Yet even if they are brought to The Hague, they would not be tried solely for Srebrenica. While the world would see their arrests as a triumph of justice, this alone would hardly bring justice to Srebrenica.

Besides Karadzic and Mladic, only Krstic, Dragan Erdemovic, a soldier from the unit which took part in the massacre, and Lieutenant Colonel Dragan Obrenovic have been detained by The Hague for Srebrenica. So far, only Krstic and Obradovic have been accused of genocide and war crimes. Erdemovic, who personally acknowledged that he killed over 120 people in the village Pilica, near Srebrenica, received a light sentence of five years in exchange for testifying against Krstic.

This is the sum total of those so far accused of participating in the Srebrenica genocide. Tribunal representatives have explained that they will only prosecute those at the top of the civilian and military hierarchy. What about the rest?

Even if the big players all end up behind bars, the women of Srebrenica will not be able to return to their homes as long as the lower-level suspects, those who were actually involved in the killings, are still at large.

Think of all those who helped General Krstic: killing 10,000 people in three days is a mighty task. The victims' hands would need to be tied together first. Trucks and bulldozers would need to be in place for transport and burial. Lots of buses were required to ferry around captured Bosniaks.

For this task, the police and municipal services of towns in eastern Bosnia had to be mobilised. Within the armed forces, besides the generals, numerous lieutenants, captains, majors, and paramilitaries would have taken part in the Srebrenica atrocities.

Yet these people are not only free, many of them still hold influential political positions in Srebrenica and other cities in eastern Bosnia. Those who are brave enough to return have no fear of running into Karadzic or Mladic. But they know that those the tribunal considers small fish are still on the streets, and represent a direct threat to the security of anyone who might come back.

Hague officials say these perpetrators should be tried by local courts. Except for the Constitutional Court, post-Dayton Bosnia does not have any other joint judicial institutions. Both entities have their own courts with separate laws. Courts within the Bosnian Federation cannot arrest war crimes suspects in Republika Srpska. Federation police cannot cross into Republika Srpska, and vice versa.

That leaves the task of arresting and trying war criminals to the Bosnian Serb police and judicial system - something which is simply unimaginable.

So maybe now we know why we were silent the day Krstic was sentenced. It was not the triumph of justice, but only its very beginning.

Hajra Catic, the president of our association, lost her husband, Junuz, and her son, Nino, in the massacre. She didn't answer the phones on the day of the judgement because she was invited to go to The Hague to witness it in person.

She watched Krstic carefully. Wearing crutches and without his artificial leg - he later stepped on a landmine - he might have hoped for someone's pity. Hajra says he bit his lip while the judge read the long summary of the ruling, with details of how many people were killed by his troops.

The verdict is good, Hajra told journalists in The Hague. No one can now deny that Bosniaks were subjected to genocide.

Krstic executed thousands of sons, brothers and husbands in the name of a political entity, Republika Srpska, that he will never see again. As he turned to begin serving his sentence, Hajra wiped a tear.

H.N. is a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre now working for an international organisation.

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