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The warped reality of a Serbian mass murderer

Editor’s note:

In the article which follows, Canadian ambassador Sam Hanson reflects on the aftermath of the massacre of civilians at Srebrenica during the Bosnian civil war of 1992-1995. The 1990s were one of the most politically complex and murderous periods in the history of the Balkans, and a full sorting through of who was doing what to who is a study in itself. Herewith a brief backgrounder:

The old communist federation of Yugoslavia comprised six “republics”, the largest of which was Serbia followed by Croatia and Bosnia/Herzegovina. At the time Yugoslavia was disintegrating in 1990/91, the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina consisted of three main national communities: Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) who constituted roughly two-fifths of the population, Serbs one-third, and Croats one-sixth. When parliamentary elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 1990, parties representing each of the communities gained seats in rough proportion to their population and briefly formed a coalition government under the “joint presidency” of Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic and Serbian Democratic Party leader Radovan Karadzic. Within a year, however, the Bosnian Serbs had abandoned the national parliament in Sarajevo, formed their own “national assembly”, and established the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina later known as the Republika Srpska. At the same time, Bosnian Croatians created the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia.

Undeterred, the official but now largely Bosniak government held a national referendum on independence 29 February/1 March. The referendum was boycotted by the majority of Bosnian Serbs but nevertheless attracted a turnout of over 60% of the population, virtually all of whom (officially 99.7%) voted for independence. The following month Bosnia and Herzegovina was accorded international recognition, and a month after that was admitted to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the presidents of Serbia (Slobodan Milosovic) and Croatia (Franjo Tudjman) had been discussing partitioning Bosnia and Herzegovina and forming a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia. Once independence became a reality, they moved to support their respective communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina including supplying weapons to the militias which had been forming. Bosnian Serb members of Serbia’s Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) which still had units in Bosnia and Herzegovina changed the insignia on their uniforms, seized YPA military stockpiles, and formed the Army of Republika Srpska. By mid-1992, Bosnian Serbs controlled most of the country and embarked on the “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosniaks. The Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska was a former high-ranking officer in the YPA, General Ratko Mladic.

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Croatian President Franjo Tudjman once wrote an impenetrable book called The Desert of Historic Reality. Ratko Mladic might well feel he is lost there.

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb General Mladic personally directed the atrocity at Srebrenica in which over 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were massacred. There is even television footage of Mladic patting small children on the head and assuring everyone they would be all right. In 1996 he was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Mladic was still at large on July 11, 2000, when I attended a religious service to mark the fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, held in nearby Potocari. Although there was heavy security provided by the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR), much credit was due to the organizers, who kept the program resolutely dignified and non-political, and to the Republika Srpska Ministry of the Interior and police, who displayed a level of professionalism for which they had not hitherto been noted.

At the time, as Canadian Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was a member of the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board, charged with overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords. There had been some debate about whether Steering Board members should attend the ceremony. There were concerns our presence might “politicize”, not to say inflame the situation. There were concerns about safety and security, not only ours but the Bosniak mourners who would be attending.

Although there was initial consensus that Steering Board ambassadors would not attend, in favour of attending a suitable event in Sarajevo, this did not last very long. Most ambassadors, as well as the High Representative and the UN Special Representative, attended. Transport was provided by RAF Chinook helicopters which flew with machine gunners positioned on their open loading ramps.

The Republika Srpska Interior Ministry deployed about 750 police to maintain order in Potocari and along the route from the landing field. These were in turn monitored by International Police Task Force (IPTF) monitors. There was also a heavy SFOR presence consisting mainly of US troops, so heavily armed and armored that they resembled tanks with legs. Local inhabitants watched quietly from the roadside and from upper windows, their expressions unfathomable.

The ceremony was attended by 55 or more busloads of displaced persons and refugees from Srebrenica, mainly women and children, for a total of about 3,000. Although SFOR and IPTF had expressed concern about the practicality of providing security for any more than 15 busloads, there were no serious incidents. There was some heckling as the buses passed through Bratunac, north of Potocari, where a Serb veterans organization had earlier issued a provocative statement denying that anyone had been hurt, much less killed in Potocari. In Srebrenica itself, one partially restored returnee house was burned down the night before, for the second time in the past few months.

The service was conducted by the head of the Bosnian Muslim community, Reis-el-Ulema Mustafa Ceric. It took the form of a “dzenaz-namaz”, a funeral service held in the absence of the deceased. The ceremony took place in an open area near the Potocari battery factory where the men of Srebrenica had been separated from their families and taken away, never to be seen alive again. At that time some 7,400 remained unaccounted for.

Before beginning the service, Ceric described the occasion as “a day of remembering Srebrenica.” “We have come here not to judge, but neither to forgive,” he said. “We are here so everyone will know that we have not and will not give up the search for justice. Please, God, let our sorrow be our hope, let the punishment be justice, and let Srebrenica never be repeated.” At the conclusion, he asked those assembled to “leave peacefully and return to your homes”. They left peacefully, but most had only refugee accommodation to return to.

The July service at Potocari has become an annual event. Each year the remains of those identified during the previous twelve months are laid to their final rest. About 2,000 still remain to be found or identified.

Mladic was not arrested until 2011. His trial began in 2012 and ended on 22 November of this year, when he was found guilty on one count of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was acquitted on one count of genocide. He was sentenced to life in prison.

As the presiding judge began reading the verdict, Mladic erupted in a rage. “It’s a lie”, he shouted. “Everything you said in this courtroom is a lie”. He threatened to do something obscene to the judge’s mother. He was removed from the courtroom and the reading of the judgement continued.

Was it just bluster, or did Mladic somehow believe that it was all lies?  Did he somehow convince himself, over twenty-two years, that Srebrenica had never happened? That the footage was falsified, the documents forged, the witnesses perjured? That the dead were not dead, and the bones were not bones?

According to a joke I heard in Zagreb during the conflict, the truth is whatever is agreed upon. It is as if Mladic thought that by withholding his agreement he could nullify the reality that had been proven at trial.

On multiple occasions during the conflict, those blamed for an atrocity would insist in the face of reality that the victims’ side had targeted their own people in order to discredit their opponents. If that did not work, they would accuse those who had discovered the crime of being foreign spies. This happened so many times that I would not have been surprised to learn these tactics had been laid down in some Cold War-era propaganda manual.

The former Yugoslavia was always a fragile state, with weak institutions and weak rule of law. If it had been a person, its obituary might have read that it had had a difficult birth and a sickly life, and that it eventually died of malignant nationalism, the disease it was born with.

It is a mistake, however, to ascribe the conflict to “ancient ethnic hatreds”. Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians did not come together in one state until after World War I. Prior to that, they may not have thought of each other with much affection, but they did not have much reason to think of each other very often. During World War II, however, approximately ten per cent of the population died in a vicious civil war (overlain by the Nazi and Italian occupation) in which conflicting ideologies were amalgamated with national and religious identities. The Ustase were not just fascist, but Croat and Catholic. The Chetniks were not just royalist, but Serb and Orthodox. The Partisans were not just anti-fascist patriots, but communists bent on a revolution that would completely sweep aside the previous order.

Following the war, there was no institution stronger than the cult of personality of Yugoslavia’s strongman, Joseph Broz Tito, and no stronger imperative than to maintain social order by repressing “ethnic chauvinism” as firmly as necessary. This involved a lot of wilful amnesia and the promotion of an official mythology. The truth was what it had to be. But whatever the official truth, the war had left bitter memories with clans, families and individuals, some of whom were still alive as the economy deteriorated and society began to unravel in the years after Tito’s death in 1980. People like Milosevic, Tudjman, Karadzic, and Mladic began to revive these memories and exploit them to promote their own alternative version of reality.

So, Mladic may not have believed what he said in his outburst, but he may have believed that he still had the power to impose his own reality and require that it be believed. He was the product of a society in which the power of the state was used to impose a useful narrative, whether it matched reality or not. Mladic may have been making a last attempt to say “Of course I’m lying. You know I’m lying. I know that you know, and you know that I know you know. But I have the power and so you must not only say you believe me. You must find the will to really believe me”.

Winston Smith, after all, eventually found the will to love Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984.

Gen. Slobodan Praljak, the Croat general convicted of war crimes against Bosniaks took poison in open court rather than accept that he had lost the power to insist on his version of reality. Ratko Mladic now has to accept that he no longer has that power either.

 

Sam Hanson

Sam Hanson is a retired Canadian Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in international security affairs and regional conflicts. An intrepid diplomat with a propensity to find himself in war zones, Sam served as Canadian Representative in Croatia from 1992-94 and Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1999 to 2003.

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