Today marks the seventeenth anniversary of the fall of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica, which led to the most serious war crime in Europe since World War II. In what has become an annual ritual, 520 more coffins were brought to the memorial complex outside the U.N. base at Potocari with the newly identified remains of Muslim men and boys executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. (See photograph above.)
There is a simple -- and horrifying -- explanation for why it has taken so long to identify the dead. In a belated attempt to cover up the crime, Mladic's men dug up mass graves containing the remains of the victims and scattered the bones all over north-east Bosnia. It took a massive international effort involving hundreds of investigators, forensic scientists, and DNA specialists to establish what happened. In some cases, remains were found in twenty different locations before being returned to loved ones.
It would be good if Bosnians of all ethnicities could remember this tragedy, pay their respects to the victims, and move on, as happened in Germany after World War II. Unfortunately, despite a wealth of corroborative evidence that around 7,000 prisoners were systematically executed, there are still many people who deny the basic facts of what happened at Srebrenica. As I showed in a previous post, this denial industry is being financed in part by the highest authorities of the Bosnian Serb statelet known as Republika Srpska.
After six weeks of procedural delays and arcane legal wrangling, the trial of Ratko Mladic finally resumed today with a harrowing reminder of why it is so important: the voice of a victim.
When the Bosnia war began in March 1992, Elvedin Pasic (photographed giving his testimony above) was fourteen years old. Although he lived in a Muslim village, he went to school with Serbs and Croats. They played soccer and basketball together, celebrated each other's holidays, watched the same movies, and hung out with the same girls. Then, almost overnight, the horror began.
Shells began landing in Pasic's village on the second day of the Muslim festival of Bajram, a holiday marking the end of the month of fasting. For the next five months, his family was chased around Bosnia by Serb forces. Now 34, Elvedin choked up repeatedly as he described how his father, uncle, and 150 other friends and neighbors were killed in retaliation for the death of a Serb soldier.
It was easy to understand why prosecutors chose Pasic to speak on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the three and a half-year Bosnia war. He delivered his testimony in fluent English learned as a refugee in the United States. His detailed recounting of atrocities seen through the eyes of an innocent teenager made him a particularly convincing witness.
It turns out that genocide denial has a price tag -- and a hefty one at that. Financial records from the Bosnian Serb entity known as Republika Srpska reveal that a Hague-based group of pseudo-experts that calls itself the "Srebrenica Historical Project" has received more than $1 million from the cash-strapped mini-state over the past five years.
As diligent readers of this blog will know, the Srebrenica Historical Project specializes in questioning, and in many cases denying, basic historical facts concerning massacres carried out by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic in July 1995. It is led by a 62-year-old Serb American "lawyer" from Chicago named Stephen Karganovic (photographed above), who claimed, in an interview with me last year, that fewer than a thousand Muslim prisoners were executed following the fall of the United Nations "safe area."
An exhaustive international investigation of the Srebrenica events, involving teams of forensic pathologists, DNA specialists, demographic experts, and detectives has established that Bosnian Serb forces murdered around 7,000 Muslim prisoners in a series of massacres between July 12 and July 16, 1995. A further 1,000 or so Muslim men and boys were killed as a result of ambushes and armed clashes as they tried to reach Muslim-controlled territory north of Srebrenica.
What is most alarming about the Srebrenica Historical Project is not that there are people out there claiming that black is white, but that the denial industry is being financed by the Bosnian Serb authorities. A rough analogy might be the German government and parliament voting every year to fund the research of David Irving and other revisionist Holocaust historians.
Here is a breakdown of the annual subsidies to the Srebrenica Historical Project, approved by the government and parliament of Republika Srpska.
Here in the United States, we have been riveted all day on the Supreme Court health care ruling. But another judicial ruling, across the Atlantic Ocean, has significant implications for international law on genocide, which has been the subject of heated debate. It is also likely to affect the trial of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, whose "double genocide" trial is now due to resume on July 9.
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal today ruled that the vicious spasm of ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats that accompanied the beginning of the Bosnia war in 1992 did not rise to the level of genocide. They made this ruling in response to a motion for acquittal by former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic. But they also found that genocide had occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995, when around 7,000 Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serb troops.
The ruling will make little practical difference to Karadzic, who also stands accused of numerous "crimes against humanity" and violations of the "laws and customs of war" between 1992 and 1995. But it does focus attention on the charged question of how to define genocide, a subject that I have attempted to deal with in previous posts here and there.
Controversy over proper use of the G-word dates back to the 1948 United Nations convention on genocide, which emphasized the subjective motivations of the perpetrators. Genocide is defined as mass killing or other acts with "the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical, racial or religious group." In other words, it is not enough to murder a large number of people. In order to be convicted of genocide, you must also be shown to have "genocidal intent."
One of the primary goals of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal -- beyond the obvious one of punishing the guilty -- is public education. The tribunal views itself as a kind of "truth commission" in a part of the world where facts are malleable things, filtered through the lenses of rival ethnic groups and political parties. The first step to national reconciliation is an agreement on precisely what happened.
That at least is the theory. In practice, as I discovered by participating in a recent "outreach" session organized by the tribunal in the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Bijeljina, a more nuanced, elliptical approach sometimes works best.
Remember that Bosnia is a country where children are taught completely different narratives about the fratricidal war of 1992-95. In both school and home and through the media, Muslim students learn that Serbs began the war, and committed terrible atrocities. Their Serbian counterparts are raised to believe that the war was started by Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to control all of Bosnia.
I was intrigued to see how tribunal outreach officer Almir Alic (photographed above) would handle a room full of Serb, Muslim, and Croat law students from different parts of Bosnia who had been invited to attend a week-long "human rights school" in Bijeljina. Situated close to the border with Serbia, Bijeljina had a 34 percent Muslim population prior to the war, but was "ethnically cleansed" and is now overwhelmingly Serb. A Bijelina resident told me that "99 percent" of the population believe that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is a hero.
Visiting the village of Lazarevo, where Ratko Mladic was finally captured in May 2011, I received a vivid reminder of the nature of war in the former Yugoslavia. The present-day community owes its very existence to the practice of ethnic cleansing, which became such a noxious part of the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.
I took the above photograph in the graveyard of Lazarevo, founded more than two centuries ago by Swabian Germans who emigrated to the rich Danubian plain of Vojvodina under the Habsburg empire. On the right, you can see the graves of the original German inhabitants, in an untended, overgrown part of the cemetery. On the left, you can see the well-cared for graves of Bosnian Serbs, who were resettled here after World War II.
The Germans were expelled from what was then Lazarfeld by the Communist regime of Marshal Tito in 1945 as collective punishment for their alleged cooperation with the Nazi occupiers of Serbia. Their land, and houses, went to the families of communist partisans from Bosnia, including several relatives of Ratko Mladic. The newcomers arrived from the south on the so-called "trains without a timetable" that were organized to facilitate the great migration.
According to the 2002 census, only one German is left in Lazarevo, whose population of 3,308 is 95 percent Serb. Prior to World War II, the village was almost exclusively German.
The story of Lazarfeld/Lazarevo illustrates a couple of unpleasant truths about warfare, Balkan style.
The photograph above is a picture of me and the man who sheltered Ratko Mladic for a period of nearly five years up until his arrest in May 2011, his cousin Brane. I describe my meeting with Brane in an extended profile of Mladic in this month's Foreign Policy magazine, which has been posted on the website here.
I was introduced to Brane through his kum, a uniquely Serbian institution that is a combination of neighbor, trusted friend, and godfather. The Serbs have a saying "God in heaven and kum on earth." Truth be told, my relationship with the kum was somewhat tenuous, through the friend of a friend. I met the kum an hour before I met Brane. No matter. If the kum vouches for you, that means you are ok.
"An American has come to see you," I told Brane in the now-rusty Serbian that I learned while working as a reporter in Belgrade in the late 70s, waiting for the legendary Marshal Tito to die. "I hope you have nothing against Americans."
It may not have been the most felicitous of introductions, as Brane emitted a stream of curses about the country that bombed Serbia in 1999 and the Bosnian Serb army in 1995.
As Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell might say, losing track of your legal documents on one occasion can be considered a misfortune. Repeating the same mistake a second time is beginning to look very much like carelessness.
The hapless prosecution team in the trial of Ratko Mladic have now conceded that they have failed a second time to make available thousands of documents to the defense that they are required to release under the disclosure rules of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. That left the judges no alternative but to suspend the trial indefinitely while they sort out the bureaucratic mess.
It now seems virtually certain that the long-awaited Mladic trial, which opened on May 16 in the Hague with a two-day presentation by the prosecution, will not resume until after the court's annual recess over the summer. The trial was originally scheduled to resume on May 29, but the date was pushed back until June 25 after the prosecution first acknowledged disclosure problems.
Ratko Mladic has been described as "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally-a charismatic murderer." What drove the Bosnian Serb military commander to order Europe's deadliest massacre since World War II? Could it have been prevented? Michael Dobbs, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fellow, investigates.