I will never forget the horror in the eyes of Srebrenica refugees. Sixteen years on, my faith in international justice has waned
Sixteen years after the bloody Bosnian war, Ratko Mladić has been arrested. As a Bosnian who lived through the war, I should be feeling ecstatic. But with every passing year my trust in international justice has waned and my scepticism grown stronger. Friends have occasionally asked whether I thought Mladić would ever be arrested. “Maybe, if there is political will or if he becomes too much of a weight around the neck of the Serbian government,” I would answer.
Ratko Mladić and his actions have altered my life – though luckily not as dramatically or as horrifically as the lives of others. As early as June 1992 I was exposed – through my job as an interpreter for the foreign press – to terrible stories of people who were kicked out of their homes in Krajina (western Bosnia). Their stories were different, but whether they were coming from Ključ, Banja Luka, Prijedor, Kozarac, Drvar or any other village and hamlet captured by the Bosnian Serbs, all those accounts had a common theme.
Overnight the Bosnian Serb population turned from neighbours, friends and colleagues into murderers, torturers and rapists. In the early days of the conflict, Muslim men were expelled together with their families and there were many cases of executions, the settling of old scores or pure evildoing.
The more I listened the more I remembered my history lessons and the stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors of the second world war.
In July 1995 I was sent from the UNHCR’s Zenica office in central Bosnia to its Tuzla office in north-western Bosnia. This was the nearest regional office to a “UN safe haven” called Srebrenica. My job was to help the local staff there who were overstretched and totally unprepared by the sheer numbers of civilians who were being “ethnically cleansed” from Srebrenica. As we waited by UNHCR tents at the frontline, groups of women and children in appalling conditions would trickle through no man’s land to us.
They all had one thing in common, a look in their eyes that I will never forget: sheer horror, combined with disbelief that they had reached safety. Bedraggled, thirsty, tired, frightened, and some barely alive, they were covered in bruises with hardly any possessions. Small children would cling to their mothers in silence while most of women would avoid eye contact. All we could give them were some blankets, water and high protein biscuits, courtesy of the Norwegian government.
Groups of women and children would slowly walk over but not a single male crossed the line in those 48 hours that I was there. No news was coming from Srebrenica at that time except that it was overrun by the Bosnian Serb army. It was only many weeks later that the world would find out the horrific truth that thousands of Bosniak males had been executed and buried in mass graves.
Several years ago, a videotape surfaced in the ICC trial in which a Bosniak father is forced to call his son out of a forest and surrender to the Serbs. Both were shot dead at point-blank range. That scene will forever stay in my mind.
Sceptics would remark that 16 years is an awful long time for a small country like Serbia to hide someone so recognisable who had a $5m bounty on his head. In a parallel with Osama bin Laden’s case, I am convinced that elements of the Serbian army were in full knowledge of his whereabouts all these years.
Whatever the case I am happy that Mladić will finally face trial in a court of law, although my joy is overshadowed by the length of time it took to arrest him.
One thing is for certain: there will be many people in Bosnia and around the world whose loved ones perished through maniacal, fascistic behaviour not seen since the end of the second world war. Mladić has been arrested but his legacy lives on to remind us of genocide and to threaten the stability of the western Balkans to this day.