The memory and the future. The difficult path to reconciliation

di Daniela Lai,

In July 1995, Hasan Nuhanović survived the genocide of Srebrenica thanks to his position as an interpreter for the UN Dutch troops stationing in that area. But his family, as many other Bosniaks, did not. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb troops under the leadership of Ratko Mladić massacred nearly 8.000 Muslim males of military age. The mass killing was aimed at ethnically cleansing the area of Srebrenica, in order to turn it into a permanent conquest of Bosnian Serbs. Sixteen years later, a real process of reconciliation between the two groups is still lacking. Nuhanović contributed to the opening of the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. He is the author of Under the UN Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide (DES Sarajevo, 2007).

Can you explain the importance of the Srebrenica-Potočari memorial?

We experienced genocide and it was the worst thing that happened in our lives. We lost families, friends, neighbours. So the minimum we could do was to mark the location. This is just one of the locations, as there are many locations where the killings took place. We marked the location and we filled it with content so that it will not be forgotten. And it’s not only to remember the past: we still have denial of genocide. We still have an open and official denial of genocide by the Republika Srpska politicians, including Dodik[1].

He officially denied genocide on TV. That is one of the reasons why it is important to have the memorial: because if you make the genocide visible, then there is more chance that people will recognise what happened. We need this location, where you have physical presence of collective memory. We need collective memory. Of course we remember individually what happened but since this was a collective tragedy, then we need a collective memory. It concerns the entire society, it concerns the entire region, it concerns the world. It concerns the UN, because it was a UN safe area, because the UN participated in the events in a negative context. And it concerns the European Union because it happened in Europe, 60 years after the world said «never again».

What is the meaning of the term «reconciliation», here in the Balkans? Can reconciliation be defined as forgiveness of the crimes or reconciling the society with the past and what happened? And do you think that a process of reconciliation can take place here?

Reconcile with the past, that’s the key sentence. Number one, reconcile with the past and number two reconcile with each other, do you understand? I mean, you use the word reconciliation for both cases. Reconciliation with the past means recognition of the past, that’s number one and then reconciliation between the ethnic groups is something else, which has to come spontaneously. It’s a spontaneous process.

Does the government have to lead this process?

Of course, it has to lead this process. But, which government? Do you know how many governments we have here in Bosnia?[2] We have, as I said, one government, which is represented by one very strong politician, his name is Dodik. If that politician comes to television, and that happened several times during the last couple of months, and he says that what happened in Srebrenica was not genocide, what does that mean? Does it mean that the government is leading the process of reconciliation or what? Or it is doing the opposite? So in this case, we have the government of Republika Srpska which is doing the opposite.

What about the state government?

The state government, let’s say almost half of the state government, was controlled by the political party of Dodik (SNSD, Alliance of Independent Social Democrats). Many politicians who seat in the parliament are controlled by SNSD. And you have SDS and other Bosnian Serb parties. So, together with Bosnian Croat parties…I don’t know how much do you know about Bosnian politics, but…there is no state government yet, at this point. So, whatever it is supposed to happen has been blocked, at the moment.[3]

The idea that ICTY trials and war crimes trials could contribute to a reconciliation process in the Balkans is based on the supposition that these trials can help to shift the blame for war crimes from the national groups (i.e., the Serbs) to the individuals who are responsible for those crimes. Do you think that this has happened in Bosnia?

That’s the official approach, it’s the official policy, and that’s exactly what every politician and every diplomat and every official would say: that’s what is happening.

But is that true? Or do people still blame the national groups for what happened during the war?

The answer is yes and no. For example, I don’t know how much you know about the media in this country but if you read the newspapers, if you watch TV programmes, you will hear the cliché. And the cliché is the same on all sides: yes, all those who are responsible, no matter where they come from and no matter what ethnicity they belong to, should be punished in accordance with the law. This is the cliché and everybody says that. This sentence means that there is no collective guilt. And there is an official consensus about it. But off the record people talk about collective guilt. For example, we survived Srebrenica and we think that besides individual guilt there must be something else. According to the judgments of the International Court of Justice, the police of Republika Srpska was one of the institutions responsible for the genocide in and around Srebrenica. And we think that when genocide is perpetrated it cannot possibly be planned and organised by individuals only. It has to be systematic. My conclusion is that the guilt, the blame has to be placed both on individuals and countries. Well, it cannot be put on a nation, and nobody claims that. It has never been done in the past. The blame for Holocaust was never put on the German nation; it was put on Nazis. There is no collective guilt in the history of modern world. So that cannot be done in Srebrenica either.

Some authors claim that in post-conflict situations it would be more appropriate, in order to avoid destabilising effects, to try only the most symbolic, high-level, cases. On the opposite side, others say that it is necessary to do justice for all the crimes committed.

It is absolutely necessary to do justice for all and that depends on two things: on the political atmosphere created in the country, which it means on political will, and yet more important on the resources provided. As long as the resources are provided, there is more chance that Bosnia, through national courts, and the world, through international courts, will deal with this problem. In my opinion, political obstruction is less important, is less of an obstacle than the resources. So we have been asking for years now the domestic rulers and the representatives of the European Union, the United States and the United Nations to try and provide more resources for the prosecution of war criminals. It means more money and more, for example, international prosecutors and judges to be hired or seconded or sent by their countries to Sarajevo, to the State Court. It will not be easy for this country to provide resources because it has so many other problems. If the international community helps in providing the resources this process may be more successful. We don’t have a proper prison, we don’t have enough judges, and we don’t have enough prosecutors or investigators…

The ICTY has been much criticised in the Balkans. So, which are, according to your opinion, its main failures? For example, the Outreach Offices: is their work sufficient to spread information about ICTY trials in the region?

Probably not. Their efforts should have been more intensive, much more intensive. And, again, that’s all about money. If you provide more resources you can employ more people locally, in the region, and they can do more outreach programmes than what has been done in the past. Again, it’s the matter of how you distribute resources available to the ICTY. And we know that millions and millions have been spent. So it’s a matter of distribution of resources.[4]

What is your general opinion of the ICTY contribution with regard to the accountability of war criminals?

It’s huge. Their contribution is huge. The ICTY has a positive impact on the potential of the reconciliation process.

Do victims of war crimes seek justice only in a criminal sense? Can other forms of justice be accepted?

First of all, we need criminal justice, we want the criminal prosecution of those responsible for war crimes. But one thing does not exclude the other, there are other elements that can coexist. Economic compensation, as well as acknowledgment and lustration, are as important as criminal justice.

So, considering what happened during the the responsibility they had in the Srebrenica events, are the United Nations doing enough to support Bosnia at the moment?

They are doing nothing. According to my understanding, the UN has been doing nothing for the last ten years. Well, except for financing the ICTY, which is of course a very big contribution, but in any other way they are doing nothing. There is no UN presence in this country. They could have done a number of things. As you know the EU took over from the SFOR (NATO Stabilisation Force, ed.). Then the UN International Police Task Force (UN IPTF) closed down and handed over their responsibilities to the European Union Police Mission (EUPM). The UN simply left Bosnia and handed over the responsibilities to the European Union. That’s how I see it.

Should they have been considered accountable for what happened in Srebrenica?

They are accountable. At least some individuals should have been held responsible in front of the court. You can read more about this in my book.

Bosnia and the Balkans are going to be part of the European Union: do you think that EU policies are effectively helping Bosnia in the integration process?

There is a wishful thinking on our part. Our wishful thinking is that we should enter the EU as soon as possible. I mean, we understand that there is a very complicate procedure in the accession process. There are conditions. But if Brussels concludes that Bosnia is unstable, then they should also conclude that our membership is required within the shortest possible time, in order to stabilise the country. The procedure should be shortened for us, the EU should make an exception. If there is no other reason to do that, it should be for the mere fact that we were the victims of genocide and that they did nothing to prevent it.


[1] Milorad Dodik is the President of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[2] Bosnia and Herzegovina has a central government at the state level, but substantial powers are devolved to the governments of the entities (Republika Srpska and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina).

[3] General elections were held in October 2010. Since then, every effort to form a new government has failed, due to strong disagreements on the distribution of ministerial posts among Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties.

[4] The lack of resources suffered by the ICTY Outreach unit is mainly due to the fact that this programme is not funded through the core budget of the Tribunal.

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