VIEWPOINT: Sarajevo Stoic Over Halilovic Indictment

Bosniaks are coming to terms with their own soldiers being sent to The Hague, but resent the fact that the biggest war criminals are still walking free.

VIEWPOINT: Sarajevo Stoic Over Halilovic Indictment

Bosniaks are coming to terms with their own soldiers being sent to The Hague, but resent the fact that the biggest war criminals are still walking free.

Saturday, 29 September, 2001

The departure of a Bosniak general for trial at The Hague tribunal has been greeted with stoical calm by his community - in sharp contrast to the uproar that usually greets indictments in other parts of the war-ravaged country.


But beneath this outward calm, one cannot help but feel the strong undercurrent of bitterness among Bosniaks who believe themselves to be the major victims of crime during the war years.


The defendant in this case is General Sefer Halilovic, now retired from the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, BH, and serving as minister for refugees in the Federation government. He arrived at The Hague last Tuesday to be charged with responsibility for two massacres in September, 1993.


In one of the atrocities, at Grabovica, 32 Bosnian Croat civilians died. In the other, at nearby village, Uzdol, 41 Bosnian Croat combatants and civilians were killed. The indictment says Halilovic was leading a military operation, known as Neretva 93, when the massacres took place. It asserts that he neither tried to prevent the crimes nor punish the perpetrators.


The general, who surrendered voluntarily to The Hague, is pleading not guilty, according to his lawyer, Faruk Balijagic. He argues that Halilovic was neither the commander of the BH army, nor in Grabovica, at the time of the outrages.


"We'll be back soon," Balijagic promised before flying off to The Hague. His courtroom strategy might include blaming the crime on Sarajevo's then political leadership headed by Alija Izetbegovic.


In fact, so far, much of what Balijagic and Halilovic have said badly incriminates Bosniak wartime leaders. A greater part of these accusations have already been listed in Halilovic's book "Cunning Strategy", published locally soon after the war.


The Federation government held an extraordinary session on hearing that Halilovic had been indicted. It was attended by him and Prime Minister Alija Behmen who stressed his administration's readiness to abide by The Hague's indictments.


Behmen said this would help establish the truth about who did what in Bosnia, implying that if Bosniaks could send one of their own to trial then the country's other communities should be equally ready to do so.


Halilovic told the session, "I would like to kindly ask all of you present here


to do all in your power and see to it that all cases such as Grabovica be prosecuted and the real perpetrators punished."


A sharp distinction needs to be made between the dignified handling of the Halilovic case and the attitude of Bosnia's Serb and Croat communities which treat their war crime suspects as heroes and refuse to believe their guilt. But this, however, does not mean that Bosniaks have less respect for one of their own who faces charges in The Hague.


There are several reasons behind Sarajevo's disciplined reaction to Halilovic's extradition.


Firstly, the Grabovica massacre was not covered up to the same degree as crimes elsewhere in Bosnia. No responsible Bosnian could, nor seeks to deny the story, and well understands the doctrine of "command responsibility", established as a precedent during many cases prosecuted by The Hague.


People in the Federation take pride in the openness which enabled local media to uncover the Grabovica case, believing it denotes moral superiority over other communities which covered up war crimes and refused to let their heroes stand trial.


This attitude can be ascribed to a conclusion that might be disliked by many: the degree of awareness of one's own crimes is proportional to the degree of one's personal suffering.


The public attitude in the Federation clearly demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge truth and to value personal freedoms as a means to help build a new society.


People here scorn what they regard as the more inward-looking attitudes of the Bosnian Serb and Croat communities. Following the Halilovic departure to The Hague, there was a sense of disgust at the way Republika Srpska leaders hailed his indictment as proof that "not only one people nor one leader are responsible for wartime events".


But the silence with which Halilovic's surrender was greeted in the Federation hides a deep local frustration. The public believes the international community time and again fails to make a distinction between victim and perpetrator, starting with the Dayton Peace Accord which declared no losers nor winners.


Bosniaks are coming to terms with their own soldiers being sent to The Hague, but resent the fact that the biggest war criminals are still walking free.


What's more difficult for locals to comprehend is the energy with which the chief suspect of America's recent tragedy, Osama bin Laden, is being hunted down, compared to Bosnia's war crimes suspects.


For a population that looks outwardly calm, strong emotions are bubbling beneath the surface.


Zlatko Dizdarevic is senior columnist for Sarajevo weekly Dani.


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