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Filling the Void: Trying Bosnia’s War Criminals

Will the war crimes trials from the wars of the former Yugoslavia bring the region lasting peace?

January 9, 2006

Will the war crimes trials from the wars of the former Yugoslavia bring the region lasting peace?

The November sky was the color of steel the day Boban Simsic’s trial reconvened. According to the indictment, the Bosnian Serb had a hand during the war in some of the most brutal attacks on Muslims in Visegrad, a village not far from the Serbian border.

I had come to this squat, gray compound in Sarajevo because Simsic’s is the first war crimes trial for Bosnia’s national court.

In reality, he is a minor figure compared to Serbia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic or Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general whose capture recently made headlines.

But Simsic’s handover by Bosnian Serb officials took intense negotiating. He was working as a police officer until just a few years before they finally relented.

Simsic enters the courtroom flanked by guards, his wrists held behind his back with thin plastic handcuffs. He is tall and powerfully built, like an athlete. Simsic’s face resembles a hawk, with his heavy brow narrowing over a sharp, prominent nose and jutting chin. His thin blonde hair is parted to the side, accentuating a receding hairline.

The father of two sits alone at a long pine table. Three judges in their burgundy satin-trimmed robes settle into their seats on a raised platform at the front of the courtroom.

A cloud of commotion rises because Simsic’s lawyer is nowhere to be found. An embarrassing silence falls over the small, crowded room. A judge announces that the lawyer sent a doctor’s note saying he is too ill to appear.

The appointed back-up lawyer has sent word that he refuses to take the case. Simsic suddenly looks vulnerable to me, exposed. I imagine he feels abandoned by his legal counsel, so despised that even they refuse to defend him. I wonder what he is thinking, whether he is embarrassed to be here, accused of rape, torture, beatings, and murder. I wonder if he is guilty.

Then, the same judge says the court is growing impatient with the legal team’s attempts to stall the trial. A law student who’s following the case whispers to me that the lawyers are trying to buy time because Simsic can’t be held in jail for more than a year during the trial. The trial can continue afterwards, but he could intimidate witnesses or flee once he’s out of jail. My sympathy evaporates.

The experience leaves behind an ugly taste in my mouth. Since I arrived in Bosnia two weeks ago, I've been so vigilant about being duped by victims' accounts of atrocities that I insist on finding proof. Yet, it took me a few short minutes to find sympathy for a war crimes suspect because he seemed vulnerable.

I am ashamed that it was so easy to feel sorry for him. My blood freezes when, months later, I read in the indictment that he has been accused of participating in the massacre at my friend’s home in Velji Lug, a village that overlooks Visegrad.

Samir’s mother and several family members were shot and killed before their house was burned to the ground. I have been there. I drank coffee by a campfire and planted a walnut tree there. I am stunned and even more ashamed when I see their names.

The truth is I didn’t want to believe that another human being could commit the crimes Simsic has been indicted for. Deep down I don’t want to believe stories like Samir’s that I hear over and over again of fear, humiliation, betrayal, and torment.

And it is possible to hear the stories and not let them soak in — until defendant and victim are face to face in a courtroom where the record of the crimes comes alive.

Simsic is just one of scores to be indicted for war crimes during the 1991-1995 fighting in the former Yugoslavia.

Their cases are trickling through the war crimes tribunal in The Hague and through national and domestic courts in Bosnia, Croatia and, increasingly, Serbia. Its longstanding denial of wrongdoing was shattered in the spring of 2005, with the release of a videotape from the Srebrenica massacre showing Bosnian Serb paramilitaries executing Muslims.

The Hague court got off to a slow start. The policy in Bosnia for the first 18 months was to arrest war crimes suspects only if NATO troops happened to encounter them. The troops could not pursue suspects indicted by The Hague because of fear the arrests would stir up unrest. “Keep the peace” was the motto, while indictees sipped coffee in local cafes, took government jobs and ran into their former victims.

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the architects of the Bosnian war and The Hague’s two most wanted men, had ample time to escape and hide. Later, French and U.S. forces were so territorial that they sabotaged each other’s secret missions to capture Karadzic. Rumors have been surfacing for almost a decade that the men are negotiating their surrender to The Hague, which Karadzic has called “a political body that has been created to blame the Serbs.” It might be easier to catch Mladic, though, since Serbia cut him off in November 2005 from his army pension funds.

The court never fully caught on in the United States, even though a U.S.-led NATO campaign ended the fighting in Bosnia. And the U.S. Congress has pumped many millions into its budget — although this year spending is down even as case loads increase.

Nor was the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) popular among Bosnian Muslims, who bore the brunt of the violence. That changed once the number of trials increased and the convictions for wartime crimes started stacking up.

The court is supposed to wrap up its work by 2008, so it is increasingly sending cases to national or local courts in the Balkan countries.

That has made the trials more accessible and tangible, although at least at the third installment of Simsic’s trial, besides witnesses there are just monitors for various human rights organizations, law students and one journalist in attendance.

Ten years after the fighting stopped, the courts are among the few institutions that function in Bosnia. They are not perfect. The law student tells me that testimonies are not always credible because they are sometimes based on hearsay, which is permitted.

There are also claims that some indictments are politically driven. That’s what Croatians say about the indictment of Ante Gotovina, who is a war hero to many of them.

Despite their faults, the trials fill a void in this divided country, where Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims don’t even agree on what to call the four years of fighting.

Serbs maintain it was a war against Muslim dominance, disputing or downplaying incidents the international community has called genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Muslims call it genocide or, at least, naked aggression against them. “The hardest thing to understand is that the Serbs deny what happened,” said a young medical student, Aida, whose father was killed by Serb forces during the war.

Evidence helps fill the void. The evidence produced in the courts can force people to face facts. Myths and propaganda can be challenged. Individuals become responsible for crimes, not entire groups — making coexistence between Serbs, Croats and Muslims easier.

And the trials are one of the few avenues of justice provided to victims. They are, for some, the only reckoning victims will ever have.

I think of Samir’s family. His cousins came to Sarajevo to testify against Simsic. If it weren’t for the trials, families like this would go back to being neighbors with the people they hold responsible, while resentment and hurt festered. “Underneath there is a lot of tension,” a former soldier who has been working with the international community for a decade told me.

Bosnia is still grappling with the consequences of war crimes and genocide, said Mirsad Tokaca, director of the Sarajevo Research and Documentation Center, which has been investigating and documenting war crimes since 1992.

Justice is the first step in developing a dialogue that will eventually lead to reconciliation, he said. But without facts Bosnians won’t get there. Tokaca said people need answers about why and what happened and under what conditions for dialogue to begin. “There is no better contribution than facts.”