In a small room in the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial centre in the eastern Bosnian village of Potocari, 30 women, many wearing traditional hijabs, sit in front of three large televisions. They stare silently at the screens. From the side of the room, a scrum of journalists and camera crews watch the women silently watching the TVs. The women have waited 22 years for this moment, and the international media don’t want to miss their reactions when it arrives.
The screens show a live broadcast from the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. The ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ are here, on 22nd November 2017, to witness its verdict on one of the most divisive figures from the Yugoslav Wars that raged between 1991 and 1999, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, known by many as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’. These are the women whose fathers, husbands and sons were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the genocide of 11th-22nd July 1995 in Srebrenica, just a few miles south of Potocari. Most of the 8,000 men and boys who were killed are buried in a sprawling cemetery next to the memorial centre.
“Bastard!” shouts one of the women when the camera zooms in on Mladić. Another turns away, weeping silently. Many of the women saw Mladić in person, back in 1995, when he passed through Srebrenica shortly before the massacre. Mladić would remain a constant presence on Bosnian TV for the next 16 years, even after he went into hiding to escape prosecution by the ICTY. After an international manhunt he was finally arrested in northern Serbia in 2011 and brought to the Netherlands where he was charged with acts of genocide, persecution, murder, extermination, deportation and forcible transfer in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and 15 other municipalities in Bosnia.
The Mothers of Srebrenica hope this will be the last time they will ever have to see Mladić’s face. Today, they hope, they will be handed some kind of closure on the darkest chapter of their lives.
One of the Mothers not at the memorial centre in Potocari to watch the verdict is Hasiba Salkić. She couldn’t bear to see the man who ordered the killing of her two sons, not even on TV. The stress would be too much, she says, so she’s staying at the family home in Srebrenica, where she now lives alone. We meet two days before the verdict and she takes me to the Potocari cemetery, where a seemingly endless number of white gravestones – narrow, tall columns of marble, like little minarets – disappear from view over a grassy hillside. She walks to a plaque bearing all 8,372 names of the victims killed in and around Srebrenica. “Here are the Salkićes,” she says, pointing at the names of her family members, arranged alphabetically. “All of them,” she says with a sigh. “One next to the other.”
“These are the women whose fathers, husbands and sons were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the genocide of 11th-22nd July 1995 in Srebrenica”
In June 1995 the Salkić family took shelter in the UN army base in Potocari from the war that was tearing apart Bosnia, pitting Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Serbs. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, had fled from other parts of the country and found a safe haven in Potocari, Srebrenica and the surrounding areas, which had been declared a UN protected zone. A Dutch UN battalion was stationed there and had to deal with an increasingly tense atmosphere. The Bosnian Serb army under the command of Ratko Mladić began to close in.
Salkić saw Mladić with her own eyes when he passed by their compound in a vehicle. “He was five metres away,” she recalls. “He was giving kids chocolates. People were hungry, we didn’t have anything and he was giving out chocolates while his own camera crew filmed him.”
The atmosphere changed when the cameras were turned off. “Mladić started screaming. ‘Alija [Izetbegović, then leader of Bosnia], fuck his mother. He can give you chocolates’.”
The Bosnian Serbs soon overran the enclave, outnumbering the lightly armed Dutch soldiers. Mladić ordered the women to be separated from the men and boys. The women were sent by bus to the nearby city of Tuzla. The men and boys were led into nearby forests, empty schools and warehouses, and executed.
It was the worst massacre in Europe since World War II, and was later declared to be an act of genocide by the UN. Rafik and Omer Salkić, 20 and 25 years old at the time, were separated from their mother on 11th July 1995. She never saw them again. Years later, in a mass grave, proof of their deaths was uncovered. Three bones from each son were all that was found.
When we reach her sons’ graves, Salkić prays, lifts her hands to her face and whispers through her tears: “My children. My beautiful children.” She kisses each marble stone.
To hide evidence, the Bosnian Serb forces are alleged to have moved some of the initial mass graves to different locations, meaning that many bodies could not be fully recovered. Some bones were found in one mass grave, with others from the same body in another, miles away. “Even if he were young enough to serve a whole life sentence, it would not be long enough,” Salkić says of Mladić. “Even if all those involved in the killing, burying, digging up and reburying were caught and all punished with death sentences, it would not be enough.”
In the small town of Bratunac, a few kilometres further north along the road that connects Srebrenica and Potocari, Vojin Pavlović is hanging up posters bearing the face of Mladić and the words, written in Serbian Cyrillic script: ‘You are our hero’. It’s the day of the Mladić verdict and Pavlović, the president of a nationalist NGO representing Bosnian Serbs in the area, has made it his mission to show that there are people in Bosnia who support the former general. “Look at his face,” he says, gesturing to the posters. “You can see in his eyes that he does not have one bit of evil or hatred inside him.” Pavlović and his colleagues even went to hang the posters in Srebrenica. “We want to build a monument in Srebrenica to Ratko Mladić,” he says. “We hope to finish it before July.”
“We don’t consider it an act of genocide. Nobody on the Serbian side does”
Pavlović is convinced of Mladić’s innocence. And he is not the only one. Many Bosnian Serbs believe that the massacre at Srebrenica was either fabricated or that the numbers of victims has been hugely exaggerated. They see in Mladić a man who did what he had to do to protect the Serbs in Bosnia. “We found the courage to stand behind him, and we know that all citizens of Republika Srpska think the same way,” says Pavlović.
Republika Srpska is one of the two new territories into which Bosnia-Herzegovina was split by the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War, part of the broader Yugoslav Wars, in December 1995. It occupies the northern and eastern parts of the country, shares a border with Serbia and is ruled by Bosnian-Serb nationalist president Milorad Dodik, who’s been seeking independence for Serbs in Bosnia over the past few years.
After the war many Bosniaks fled to the other new territory, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Srebrenica remained a Bosniak-dominated enclave within Republika Srpska. When the war ended, a Bosnian law was amended to that ensure a Bosniak would always be mayor of Srebrenica. But nowadays the population is split evenly between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs. People tend to avoid speaking about the war. Many of the perpetrators of atrocities during the conflict are still alive and free today.
The provision that the mayor of Srebrenica has to be a Bosniak was lifted in 2012 and in 2016 a Serbian mayor, Mladen Grujičić, was elected. Grujičić, like the leaders in Banja Luka, the seat of power in Republika Srpska, and the Serbian capital Belgrade, denies that the events which occurred in Srebrenica in 1995 amounted to a genocide.
I spoke with Grujičić a day before the annual Srebrenica commemoration on 11th July 2017. He hadn’t been invited. He was quoted in the local press saying he wasn’t sure that the remains buried in Potocari really belonged to massacre victims. After that, the president of the commemoration committee, Ćamil Duraković, a former Bosniak mayor of Srebrenica whom Grujičić had defeated at the ballot box, had made it clear his successor was not welcome.
“A terrible crime has been committed here,” conceded Grujičić. “But we don’t consider it an act of genocide. Nobody on the Serbian side does. In the whole of Bosnia we don’t have a mutual agreement on the term ‘genocide’.” For him, the bigger issue is how Serbian victims of the war have been neglected. “People were killed on both sides but the Serb victims were not recognised at all,” he said, adding that he has no trust in the ICTY because it has only convicted Serbs. He had no remorse about being declared persona non grata at the commemoration. “I don’t see a point in going somewhere I’m not welcome,” he said firmly. Besides, he had another event to prepare for: a commemoration event in Bratunac to pay his respects to the Serbian victims of the war, which included his own father. “I will appeal to everyone that both commemorations will go in a peaceful way,” he concluded.
Drago Sekić, a Bosnian Serb war veteran who served under Ratko Mladić, not only doesn’t believe a genocide took place, he believes that the entire story of what happened in Srebrenica is a lie. We met at his house in a tiny hamlet a few kilometres away from the Potocari cemetery. He was preparing for a family gathering on a Serbian Orthodox holiday and three pigs turned on a spit in his yard. He opened a bottle of homemade plum rakija, a potent brandy, and poured it into shot glasses for us. He pointed to a small framed photo of Mladić on the wall of his living room. On the opposite wall was a picture of Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb wartime president of Republika Srpska, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the ICTY in 2016.
I asked Sekić where he was stationed during the war. “Here in Srebrenica,” he replied. An awkward silence followed. He did not want to elaborate further. But he said that he knew two things for certain about what happened in this area. “Everything has been fabricated,” he claimed. “And if it wasn’t for Mladić, there would not be any Serbs left here”.
After almost three hours of deliberation, Judge Alphons Orie finds Mladić guilty of 10 of the 11 charges brought against him and sentences him to life in prison. He calls the crimes committed by Mladić’s forces in Srebrenica “among the most heinous known to humankind.” The Mothers of Srebrenica scream and cheer. Tears of relief flow. “Ljubim te Boze!” one of the women shouts. “I kiss you, God!” She throws her arms in the air and the cameras turn their lenses towards her. “We salute the court in The Hague. The Mothers of Srebrenica thank you,” she shouts.
When the ICTY was established in 1995, its aim was to prosecute war criminals in order to create a climate in which reconciliation could take place. It was hoped that through acknowledging their own roles in the conflicts, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs would eventually make peace with one another. But the Mladić verdict was not received positively in Serbia. President Aleksander Vučić called it “unjustified” and justice minister Nela Kuburović accused the ICTY of an anti-Serb bias.
“Praljak, Mladić and their kind may have given the orders, but what about those who pulled the trigger?”
The Serbs are not the only ones who have distrusted the UN court. A week after the international frenzy surrounding the Mladić verdict, an appeal hearing in the case against six convicted Bosnian Croat war criminals almost went unnoticed. It was catapulted into the headlines when one of the convicted men, army commander Slobodan Praljak (pictured above) – whose troops had fought in the Croat-Bosniak war, which intersected and overlapped with the fighting between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs – was told his appeal had failed and his sentence had been upheld. He stood up, said “I am not a war criminal”, and drank from a tiny bottle containing potassium cyanide, which had somehow been smuggled past security.
Praljak’s suicide was broadcast live on TV. Croatian political leaders expressed their grief. But, more importantly, they used the dramatic death to attack the ICTY for convicting war heroes and besmirching what is known in Croatia as the ‘Homeland War’. Prime minister Andrej Plenković said that Praljak’s suicide “speaks about a deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people. We voice dissatisfaction and regret about the verdict.”
The closure of the ICTY doesn’t mean the end of war crimes cases from Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. It was set up to try commanders and generals like Praljak and Mladić. But many hundreds, maybe thousands, of lower ranked soldiers, paramilitary members and civilians suspected of committing war crimes are still free. Praljak, Mladić and their kind may have given the orders, but what about those who pulled the trigger?
The responsibility for prosecutions of lower-level defendants sits with special courts in Sarajevo, Belgrade and the Croatian capital, Zagreb. But the wheels of justice move slowly in the Balkans. Nataša Kandić of Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre is Serbia’s most prominent human rights advocate and has been raising awareness about war crimes since the 1990s. She has been threatened by Serbian nationalists for pursuing cases of human rights abuses perpetrated by “her own people”. Part of the reason for the glacial speed of the prosecutions, she says, is that it can be difficult to find perpetrators, many of whom have left the region and changed their names.
Kandić estimates that at least 10,000 people took part in war crimes across the former Yugoslavia. In Serbia, only 124 judgements have been delivered since the country’s War Crimes Prosecution Office opened in 2003, leading to 82 convictions and 42 acquittals.
Finding the alleged perpetrators is only half the problem, says Kandić. “There is no political will to catch and prosecute them,” she explains. In Serbia, she adds, wartime military commanders are widely perceived as heroes, and the government is not doing anything to change that narrative.
On the contrary, in October 2017 former general and convicted war criminal Vladimir Lazarević was invited to speak at the Serbian military academy by minister of defence Aleksandar Vulin. Lazarević had been sentenced to 14 years in prison by the ICTY but was released after serving two thirds of his sentence. His lecture, titled ‘The heroism of Serbian soldiers in their defence against NATO aggression’, caused international uproar, but many Serbs reacted with admiration. “He’s a war criminal!” Kandić says in disbelief. “He was sentenced for crimes against humanity!”
The hard work of reconciliation is meant to happen in a special court of the Serbian War Crimes Prosecution Office on the outskirts of Belgrade. It’s an institution the EU pressured Serbia to open if it wanted to become a member – a Serbian court, with Serbian judges, to try suspected Serbian war criminals. This is where lower-ranked defendants come to face justice. On 13th December 2017, eight former police officers sit behind glass, their backs to the public. The gallery is empty but for three journalists, a Humanitarian Law Centre observer and two Mothers
The eight men are being tried for executing the orders of Ratko Mladić and killing 1,300 Bosniak civilians. They were arrested in March 2015 yet the trial did not begin for almost two more years and the suspects were not held in custody despite the gravity of the charges. Even after the trial began in February 2017, it was almost immediately postponed because a war crimes prosecutor had not been appointed. When a prosecutor was assigned five months later, the case was delayed again as the charges had not been filed by an authorised prosecutor. After a few more failed hearings, the case is finally due to continue today. But it doesn’t happen. Barely ten minutes in, a new reason for a postponement is given. Documents from the appeals court are missing. When the judge sets a new date, one of the accused men interrupts. That’s his birthday. The judge chooses another date and is interrupted again. It’s one of the accused’s slava, an Orthodox Christian tradition in which every family celebrates its own saint’s day. It will be at least another two months before the trial can commence.
I join the two Mothers of Srebrenica on the top floor of a cafe near the court. “He recognised me,” says one of them, Šuhra Sinanović, whose husband was among the 1,300 men killed. One of the suspects spoke to her as they left the court. “He looked me in the eye and said ‘Zivela Srbija’ (‘Long live Serbia’).” When we go downstairs to pay the bill, we see three of the suspects at the bar. The paths of the victims and the accused have overlapped, as they so often do in the Balkans.
If the trial does eventually take place, the women will make the long journey back to Belgrade from their homes in Bosnia. Despite the long-awaited conviction of Ratko Mladić – for many a martyr, for others a butcher – justice for Sinanović and thousands of other victims of the Yugoslav Wars has proven elusive. Despite the ICTY’s best efforts, reconciliation in the region seems likely to remain an unattainable dream.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.