Possibly the only way to explain who you are is to remember who you were, to take a mental journey into your very intimate past, to the place you left many years ago but you know you will always belong to – though you may never actually return, knowing as you do that the place and the people who made the place won’t be there.
The reflexive sentence above came into existence in 2007, at a ‘writing boot camp’ run by historian Ron Adams, who asked me to describe in one sentence how I saw the relationship between place, memory and identity, a topic of my long-term research and personal interests. Since then I have often returned to this sentence, and have made attempts to return to the actual ‘place I left many years ago’, which has proven to be a much more difficult task than re-reading my written thoughts. In other circumstances, and in some other pasts, I might have long ‘forgotten’ and given up on the place where I happen to have been born as, over the years – since the age of fourteen, when I left my hometown for the first time – I’ve been on the move, literally crossing the planet and developing fond attachments to many different places along the way. None of the new places, however, has been able to outgrow the importance of ‘Silvertown’, as the word Srebrenica would translate into English, or ‘Argentaria’ as this ancient settlement was called during Roman times. Spread across the first page of my Australian passport, S-R-E-B-R-E-N-I-C-A almost reads like my name and, like my name, it travels with me wherever I go.
Since July 1995, my place of birth has become an even more important identity mark – more a scar than a mark – with which I strongly identify and am identified with. Upon learning about where I come from, I know what kind of questions to expect from people: How did you survive, How many family members did you lose? Although I was not there during the 1992-95 war, the events that took place in Srebrenica at the time have had a profound and irreparable impact on my life, and even more so on the lives of my relatives and friends who remained in the ‘UN safe area’. More than one hundred of them remain there forever, massacred in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, their bones mixed in mass graves spread across the green valley along the River Drina. The place of my birth has become a synonym for death and the first act of genocide on European soil since WWII, in which more than 8000 mostly men and boys – each of whom could have been me – were rounded up and then systematically gunned down at the killing fields and warehouses prepared for the purpose in advance. Everything was prepared in advance: all the human and material resources needed for such a large slaughter to be accomplished. The meticulous plan included 8000 blindfolds, the same number of pieces of wire to tie the victims’ hands, hundreds of thousands of bullets, some hundred buses, dozens of bulldozers, several empty stadiums, and some 2000 fit and willing executioners. It took five days to kill 8372 people; the executioners worked overtime to get ‘the job’ done. It was a physically exhausting exercise for those ending the lives of so many people, their fingers ached from pressing the triggers of their Kalashnikovs. Dražen Erdemović one of those who ‘worked’ double shifts on these five hot July days, participating in the killings of 20 busloads of people from Srebrenica, testified later at the Hague Tribunal, “I couldn’t shoot anymore, my index finger started to go numb from so much killing. I was killing them for hours.”
The victims shot were Bosniak men and boys, civilians from Srebrenica and the surrounding towns and villages in eastern Bosnia along the border with Serbia. Among them were often members of three generations from the same family; hundreds of fathers, sons, brothers and cousins holding each other’s hands as the only comfort, the only thing they could do for each other in these last moments. To make the killings of so many defenceless people more mentally ‘acceptable’, the executioners referred to their victims as ‘Turks’. But those lined up in front of the execution squads spoke the same language and shared a similar way of life to those aiming their guns at them. Among those counting their last seconds underneath the blue skies were also many who came from ‘mixed families’, including a significant number of those ‘mixed’ with Serb. Some of the ‘mixed ones’ were my relatives. The killers were soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska and special police units of the Republic of Serbia. In charge of all the forces and directly overseeing the massacres was General Ratko Mladic.
Almost sixteen years later, in the evening hours of 26 May 2011, on the other side of the planet, in Australia, I received the news that the Serb General Ratko Mladić was apprehended in Serbia, where he had been successfully ‘hiding’ all these years. Turning the TV on, in the breaking news the name of my hometown was mentioned, followed by a 1995 footage of the arrogant and aggressive red-faced General, at the deserted town square, issuing orders to his troops to advance ‘on to Potočari’, the UN base, then briefly stopping to say to the camera how he was ‘presenting Srebrenica as a gift to the Serb people’, and what was to follow was ‘a revenge upon the Turks’, meaning the Ottomans who once controlled the whole Balkan peninsula.
What did I feel seeing these same pictures for the thousandth time and hearing that the main culprit of the crimes at Srebrenica was finally behind bars? It is hard to say or describe how or what I felt, but I know that I didn’t jump for joy or triumph in any way. The name, and the face, and the pictures, and the infamous Mladic words uttered 16 years ago, have for too long been associated with the tragedy of my family and could never mix with anything joyful – not even in the context of the arrest of the mastermind of this ‘bad man made’ catastrophe. But I did feel anger and sadness – as I do now attempting to convey these feelings into written words – knowing that nothing could possibly repair the damage that Serbia’s henchman inflicted on so many families in Bosnia.
Since his arrest, the news about Mladic seems to be reduced to a spectacle, and to focus more on the person arrested than on his deeds – or, no less important, on the context in which individuals like Mladic operated. The breaking news that morning in Belgrade was delivered by the Serbian President Boris Tadić himself, who, in a detached manner, confirmed the arrest of the Hague fugitive Mladic, stating in all his seriousness that “… with this, Serbia has concluded a difficult chapter in its history and removed the stain from the citizens of Serbia and the Serb people”. Nothing in President Tadić’s statement acknowledged that Mladic was Serbia’s general – and not some foreign infiltrator unexpectedly discovered in the country which had nothing to do with his crimes. Notwithstanding Tadić’s distancing statement, as much as this saga is about the alleged war criminal General Ratko Mladic, no less is it about Serbia’s role in the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
As in the case of Radovan Karadzic, another prominent Hague prisoner arrested in Belgrade in July 2008, Ratko Mladić’s sixteen years ‘on the run’ were only possible with the active assistance of Serbia’s state apparatus. At various times, he was ‘sighted’ at public events such as soccer matches in the heart of Belgrade, visiting restaurants, or, as released videos have shown, celebrating festive occasions with family and friends. Serbian authorities must have known every detail about Mladic’s movements before, during and after July 1995 as Serbia not only ‘created’, decorated and protected Mladic, but also contracted him to do the job on its behalf. Thus, it was completely logical that, after his arrest, one of the first demands Ratko Mladic put to the Serbian government was to ask for his unpaid military pension, frozen a few years earlier. As a military officer who was on Serbia’s payroll – like all other Serb military personnel in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia – Mladic had every right to ask for his well-earned money. He fulfilled his part of the contract and accomplished the task he was entrusted with; through ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide, he created ‘Republika Srpska’, the exclusive ‘Lebensraum’ for Serbs in Bosnia, Serbia’s protégé west of the river Drina. Thus, while he zealously implemented Serbia’s plan for the destruction of Bosnia, it should not be forgotten that General Ratko Mladic never waged a private war, or ordered killings only because he enjoyed the physical and psychosocial effects of his weapons on those he targeted. True, he can rightfully claim copyright for the psychological warfare strategy ‘razvlačenje pameti (stretching sanity to breaking point) he ‘invented’ and tested in Bosnia. He regularly – and personally – insisted on this aspect of warfare being observed when targeting civilians in the cities and villages across Bosnia. But all the time during the Bosnian war, General Mladic was the official commander of forces called the Army of Republika Srpska – fully armed, paid, trained and controlled by the state of Serbia. As he was appointed to this position by the Serbian government in 1992, so he might have been made redundant by his employers at any time they wanted it. However, as is well documented, Mladić was doing ‘a good job’ for his Serbian masters ready to pay any price to fulfil the dream of a Greater Serbia, encompassing all the imaginary ‘Serb lands’ wherever they might have fantasised them to be. But Serbia did not only pay for Mladić’s war effort out of a pure nationalistic altruism, brotherly solidarity with the Bosnian Serbs or the anticipated long-term benefits for all Serbs ‘from Tokyo to Toronto’. Throughout 1992-95, Serbia directly offset costs with material goods, motor vehicles, dismantled factories, mineral resources, livestock, building material and anything of value that was systematically plundered and expropriated in the Bosnian towns and villages and then directed across the river Drina. The war in Bosnia was a very profitable business for many in Serbia with access to politics, military and police, turning many of them into Serbia’s new rich (post-)war elite.
It is also important to remember that Serbia did not wage a war of aggression against Bosnia only by its proxies like Mladic, Karadzic, Arkan, Seselj and other military and paramilitary commanders and their notorious units. In addition to all the logistical, political and military support, much of the aggression against Bosnia was conducted directly from the territory of Serbia. Throughout the war, the howitzers, rocket launchers and other types of killing machinery positioned in Serbia along the River Drina were scorching the earth and flesh on the Bosnian side. On the Bosnian side, on the left bank of the River Drina, a few hundred yards from Serbia, stood my parents’ home and the homes of most of my extended family. In the summer of 1992, the artillery positioned on Mt Tara in neighbouring Serbia erased the whole village from the ground. More than three decades of my parents’ hard work and tenderness invested in building, extending and maintaining their home went up in smoke in a single day. The price my nine year old cousin Alma paid was much higher. The same shell that destroyed my uncle’s house heavily wounded Alma and her younger brother. Luckily, her life was saved, but not one of her legs. Another relative, twelve year old Sabera, was cut to pieces and died in the basement of our house. These, and other crimes against defenceless civilians, were committed as acts of Serbia’s aggression against Bosnia, three years before the genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995. Thus Srebrenica was not an exception to the war in Bosnia, but part of a pattern and systematic plan that Mladic diligently implemented in order to create Republika Srpska. As the ICTY indictment against Karadzic outlines, genocide was committed in at least eight other municipalities in the country, in addition to Srebrenica.
While the voice of many brave individuals and groups in Serbia – some of the world’s finest intellectuals, human rights activists and journalists who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize – was brutally silenced and marginalised by the Serbian war-time government, anyone keen to participate in shooting a few rounds at the civilians in besieged Sarajevo, Bihac, Gorazde or Srebrenica was provided with free passage and enough ammunition for these macabre, state-sanctioned war games. Of course, Serbia’s war effort in Bosnia enjoyed a wide popular support in Serbia and Montenegro (and beyond, e.g. in Russia and Greece) and was officially – and regularly – blessed by the clergy of the Serb Orthodox Church. Much of this sentiment within the Serb Orthodox Church has not changed up to this day. The Church (in Serbia, Republika Srpska and Montenegro) is the last Serb institution that remains faithful to its war-time course, still inspiring those on the right of the Serbian politics and providing moral justifications for war crimes committed in its name and with its blessing.
Despite the heavy involvement of the Serb Orthodox Church in providing ‘spiritual guidance’ and moral justification for the crimes Mladic was in charge of, the 1992-95 war in Bosnia cannot be reduced simply to a religious, civil or ethnic conflict, or some ‘clash of cultures’, as it often is. It was rather a clash of the two diametrically opposed worldviews and two sets of values: exclusive Serb clero-fascism vs. inclusive Bosnian multiculturalism. The troops General Mladic was in command of not only killed Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Bosnian Croats – the main target groups of the Serb ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns. They also killed many Bosnian Serbs, ‘Yugoslavs’, ‘Bosnians’ and all others who did not fit the profile of a ‘pure’ Serb as defined by Dobrica Cosic at al, or who refused to join in what from the beginning was clearly to be a campaign of genocide. At least for most of 1992, when most war crimes were committed, the brutal violence against the Bosnian population could hardly be called a war at all. Heavily armed Serb soldiers and militiamen slaughtering, raping, torturing and illegally detaining civilians in Bijeljina, Zvornik, Visegrad, Bratunac, Foca, Brcko, Vlasenica, Prijedor, Kljuc, Kotor, Sanski Most and other Bosnian towns and villages was ‘one-sided’ violence, rather than a conventional war with two armies confronting each other. During 1992, Mladic’s forces suffered hardly any casualities, but succeeded in expelling close to two million people from their ancestral homes and killed close to one half of the overall war tally. This is not surprising given that Bosnia, at the time the youngest UN member, did not have its own defence forces to protect its territory and population from the overarmed and overaggressive Serbia.
I remember how the war started for me in April 1992, and how it forever shattered and changed the course of my life. As a 22 year old university student in Sarajevo, I joined thousands of Bosnians of all ‘ethnic’ and other backgrounds, at a peace rally against the war in Croatia and for preserving peace in Bosnia. And this is when I was shot at for the first time in my life. In a classic terrorist attack scenario, bullets were sprayed at us from the surrounding hills and from the tops of buildings where our attackers took their positions and waited for orders by Mladic and Karadzic ‘to start the war’. Thousands of the peace protesters dispersed in panic. In front of two of my friends and me, an older man was hit by a bullet. We carried him into the Philosophy Faculty Building from where he was then taken to hospital. Another two protesters, both women, fellow student Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic – neither of whom fit into the ethnic or gender categories used to interpret the war in Bosnia – were not so lucky. They both died on the spot and became the first victims of the siege of Sarajevo. The fact that at the time none of us was armed – and a similar situation was seen across Bosnia – only helped Mladic to put into action the plan of ‘ethnic unmixing’ of a multiethnic society – a society sharing a unique tradition of a pluralist culture and way of life. Mladic knew that he had been given a difficult task which could only be achieved through the most brutal violence in which he was willing to sacrifice as many of his fellow Serbs as needed. In one of the first series of artillery attacks on Sarajevo, Mladic disclosed his strategy on the radio: he issued orders to his gunners to aim at the suburbs of Velesici and Pofalici as ‘there weren’t many Serb residents’ in them. As a non-resident of Sarajevo, this was Mladic’s random guess, as in fact there was not a single part of the city that was not ethnically mixed. But he knew well that the thousands of shells he was pouring daily down on Sarajevo would not be able to distinguish Serb heads and limbs from the heads and limbs of others. By defying the longest siege of a city in modern history, Sarajevans of all ethnic, cultural, religious and social backgrounds – as well those who would reject all these ‘backgrounds’– fought not only for their bare physical survival but for the survival of the idea(l) that, at the end of the XX century, diversity, pluralism, secularism and multiculturalism were values worth fighting and dying for. They paid a heavy price, with more than 10,000 Sarajevans killed by Mladic’s forces, but they saved much of the pre-war values of their multicultural city. Hence, it’s worth repeating once again that much of the war in Bosnia was a war of two incompatible ideologies: XIX-century-type clero-fascist nationalism vs. organic Bosnian multiculturalism.
With a few notable exceptions, much of this ‘wider context’ and the ‘nature’ of the war in which Mladic played a key role, was not mentioned in the numerous reports published after Ratko Mladic’s arrest. Following the breaking news about his arrest, the media abruptly turned this story into sensationalism in the fashion of contemporary ‘reality shows’, reporting on banal details such as how Mladic demanded strawberries, how he made ‘jokes’ about the physical looks of one of the judges who interviewed him, or how he expressed his admiration for one of the Serbian turbo folk singer… Mladic was also portrayed as a tragic father and grandfather. Media commentators then turned to speculate about his physical and psychological health and if he was fit to stand trial: among other health conditions, his sanity was questioned and it was reported that he suffered from incontinence. True, his performance at his first hearing at the Hague Tribunal was indeed pathetic and showed a spent man who might have chosen insanity over accepting responsibility for the most gruesome crimes humans can do to other fellow humans. However, while the spotlight is on Mladic whose crimes are well known, our attention should not be diverted from those celebrating and continuing his legacy ‘by other means’, ranging from violent demonstrations to hate speech to openly denying genocide and other crimes he committed. As seen many times before, Milorad Dodik, the president of the fiefdom built on mass graves, has again resurfaced at the forefront of the latest wave of the nationalistic slur. Sadly, his ‘big brother’, the Serbian president Tadic, keeps trying to balance his support for the Hague and the promised European future, and his support for Dodik, the guardian of Mladic’s, Karadzic’s and Milosevic’s past.
Returning to the sentence at the beginning of the text, I am not under any illusion that Mladic’s arrest and his trial at The Hague Tribunal might somehow reverse history and bring back all those lost people who made the places Mladic destroyed. I know that my place of birth will forever be tainted with Mladic’s name and the genocide he committed there, rather than known for its natural beauty, rich cultural history and the people who live(d) there. Like thousands of other survivors, I’ll have to live with this reality and hold onto, as best I can, memories of Srebrenica before Mladic. Nonetheless, I’m hoping that Mladic’s trial will give back dignity to those brutally murdered, and restore the minimum of belief that justice does prevail in the end – that war crimes, like any other crimes, never pay. It is also critical that this possibly last trial at The Hague sparks a public debate on the broader context emphasised in this article: that the 8,372 victims at Srebrenica, 10,000 in Sarajevo and tens of thousands across Bosnia did not die in a natural disaster. They were all victims of politics still very much alive in Serbia and even more so in Republika Srpska.
In light of this, I’d like to see the relevant bodies within the international community as well as those in the region re-address unfinished business in Bosnia and re-examine the legality, morality and sustainability of the Dayton Peace Accords, which left the country divided along artificial ethnic lines. Drawing upon Martin Luther King’s visionary antiracist dream, I have a ‘non-ethnic’ dream that one day in Bosnia war criminals won’t be celebrated as national heroes and that people won’t be judged by their names, their holidays, the script they read and write, the names they call the same God (or don’t call Him at all)… I have a dream that the sons and daughters of the former perpetrators and the sons and daughters of the victims will be able to sit down together at the table of reconciliation and build a better future for their children in united Bosnia-Herzegovina. In spite of all the collective nightmares of the last twenty years, it’s a dream I hold onto.
Dr Hariz Halilovic is a senior lecturer at Monash University, Melbourne.
The article was published at Open Democracy.