Rattan Bhorjee

Naked Politics Blogger

20 years ago, the worst scenes of butchery since the Second World War were witnessed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The breakup of the former state of Yugoslavia led to fighting between ethnic Bosniak Muslims, Croats and Bosnian Serbs. In spite of this simple description, this was a very complex conflict. What was crystal clear though, were the war crimes carried out by each side, most notably the Bosnian-Serb forces who embarked upon a destructive path of genocide, deportations and tyranny. This includes the genocide at Srebrenica where, in a carefully planned operation, Serb forces transported over 8,000 Muslim men and boys from a supposed UN ‘safe zone’ and shot them all before dumping their bodies into mass graves. The 1,425 day siege of the capital Sarajevo which led to the deaths of 10,000 people, over 5,000 of them civilians, and the setting up and placing of Bosniaks and Croats in what can only be described as concentration camps. All carried out by Serb forces and all of which is regarded as ethnic cleansing.

In the eyes of the international community, the person seen as most responsible for these atrocities was the political leader of the Serb Nationalist forces and President of the self-declared Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) in Bosnia: Radovan Karadžić. Often seen on the frontlines, the public figurehead of the Bosnian Serb forces justified his heinous actions in the name of “protecting Serbs” to the world’s media. His denial of committing any wrong-doing continued right up to the dying days of the war where he was forced into hiding after an internationally-sponsored indictment. 13 years later in 2008, after eluding the best efforts of the CIA, SAS and others, Karadžić was finally caught in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, hiding in almost plain sight as a new-age spiritual healer.

On the 24th March Karadžić was found guilty of 10 out of the 11 charges he faced at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), including the genocide at Srebrenica and several other war crimes and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment, something that is surely a life sentence for the 70 year old. But is this enough?

Many survivors of the Bosnian Serb atrocities who have waited 21 years since the indictment to the eventual sentence were dismayed at the fact a formal life sentence wasn’t handed down, or even a death sentence. Particularly so after Karadžić, a man whom they find synonymous with war, death and destruction, has shown so little remorse for his actions and refused to accept that any of his actions were in any way unjust, let alone genocide, and were the faulty of a few rogue individuals. In spite of this, Karadžić has been labelled the “sole person within the Republika Srpska with the power to prevent the killing of the Bosnian Muslim males” according to the presiding Judge, O-Gon Kwok. Radovan stated: “I know what I wanted, what I did, even what I dreamed of, and there is no reasonable court that would convict me”.

However, there are many in Serbia and in the majority ethnic-Serb areas of the Balkans region that laud Karadžić as a national hero. Thousands of ultra-nationalists attending a rally in Belgrade to hear Vojislav Seselj himself indicted for war crimes, condemned the court that found Karadžić guilty on the night after the sentencing. Seselj has even compared the prisons on which Karadžić is being detained in to “Hitler’s Camps”, which has a certain irony coming from a man who aided the largest atrocities on European soil since the Second World War.

What is obvious here then is the deep divisions still prevalent within the region and that the wounds of war are nowhere near close to healing. The ethnic divisions that were enflamed during the Bosnian war are somewhat improving, although the bloodshed of over 100,000 men, women and children still hangs heavy, especially with the families who lost loved ones in such horrific circumstances. This has been directly held responsible for more Muslim men from the region travelling to the Middle East to join jihadist organisations per capita than any other European nation, as a way of revenge to what their people have suffered.

However, the ultranationalist factions only represent the views of a diminishing number of Serbs. The majority are now more concerned with peace, and if leaders like Radovan Karadžić have to be brought to justice then so be it. The sentencing of Karadžić represents a symbolic point for International justice, which is still a relatively new idea. As can be demonstrated from the longevity of the process of capturing and charging Karadžić, it is a long way from perfect. But the hope of it aiding cohesion and unity in the region by putting away such a nefarious individual is still better than nothing at all.

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Last Update: April 28, 2018