The Fog of Justice

If you lived through the Yugoslav wars it is strange to find how events can catch up with you. They sometimes seem to have happened yesterday, even though they took place years ago. In November I was in The Hague watching the trial of the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. I could not see one of the witnesses because his identity was protected, but he testified that he had survived an execution squad following the fall of the Bosniak enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995. When Milosevic started to cross-examine the witness, he kept asking about the village of Kamenica, which is where he came from. I could not place Kamenica and kept trying to remember why the name was so familiar. Milosevic was talking about Serbs who had been killed there by Bosniaks. He said that they had “been cut into pieces” and their heads had been “severed.” Angrily, the witness said this was a “fabrication.”

Then it struck me that I had been there, in Kamenica, on the cold, sunny morning in February 1993 when the Serbs, who had just captured the village, were exhuming a mass grave. The stench was appalling. At least one body had no head. When the frozen bodies were laid out in the sun, they began to steam. Then Serbian soldiers and others wandered about looking for their relatives.

Of course Milosevic was playing to Serbian public opinion. While in jail in The Hague, he is still heading his party’s list in Serbia’s general election to be held on December 28. What happened in Kamenica was not directly relevant to the evidence about the murder of up to eight thousand Bosniaks in Srebrenica. But what Milosevic was saying underlined just how difficult the task of international justice in the former Yugoslavia has become, and how tightly the record of the past is bound up with today’s politics.

Bosnia has changed beyond recognition during the last three years. Almost one million refugees out of an original total of 2.2 million have gone home—far more than seemed possible when the war ended in 1995. Each day Bosnian Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks have to work together a little more closely to make their country function.

More than a decade ago, in 1992, I drove through the Bosniak-inhabited town of Kozarac, which had just been ethnically cleansed by Bosnian Serb forces. Not a single house remained intact. Today Kozarac lies deep inside the Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity inside Bosnia which, under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, coexists with the government of the Bosniak-Croat federation. Visiting it now, I saw that almost every single house in the town has been rebuilt and half the original population of 20,000 has returned.

It is true that the rate of return in Kozarac and some nearby towns has been exceptionally high. But Bosniaks tell you that far fewer people would have returned had it not been for the Hague …

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