Bosnians struggle with moving on as Mladic’s case drags on
Citizens of Sarajevo watch a live broadcast of the court appearance of Ratko Mladic, charged among other things with the 43-month siege of the city in which 10,000 people were killed, on July 4, 2011. (PHOTO epa, FEHiM DEMiR)
As the month of Ramadan continues, the Bosnian community is still saying goodbye to the victims who were claimed by the Srebrenica massacre over 17 years ago.
Thousands of children, mothers and fathers will be without their loved ones for another year, at a time when spending time with family is so significant. “To see, to know, to remember” covers posters accompanied by the number 8,327 -- the number of victims from Srebrenica buried so far. This phrase signifies the Bosniak reluctance and inability to forgive and forget. Whether one is for or against the process of forgiving and moving on, it is no secret that the way the postwar period unfolded and the way the international community has dealt with the crimes committed on the Bosniaks have not worked to aid the moving on process.
On July 11, throughout Turkey and the world, people paid their respects to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide with memorials and ceremonies. In Ankara, there was a display of 8,327 pairs of shoes for each victim that has been buried so far along with a video montage and speeches. In İstanbul’s Taksim Square, a Bosnian cup of coffee was set out for each victim who is not with us today. This was very symbolic, as Bosnian coffee is something that is shared with family and friends during each visit and social event. These are commemorations that are both saddening but also honorable for the Bosniak community. Some believe that these commemorations honor the dead and help heal the wounds, and for some it encourages nationalistic discourse and hinders the process of peace and moving on.
Between July 6 and 11, 1995, thousands of civilians from Srebrenica had taken refuge in a so-called “safe haven” offered by the United Nations. Only a few days later, a Bosnian Serb commander named Ratko Mladic entered the area with Serbian news cameras and delivered a chilling performance patting the heads of Bosniak children and promising safety. After a few days of “negotiations” with the United Nations peacekeepers, which involved drinking alcohol and performing Serb folklore dances, the United Nations determined that these civilians were safe in Serb hands. Once the United Nations was out of the way, Mladic was free to orchestrate a grisly extermination of the Muslim boys and men, who were as young as 12 and as old as 80. Civilians were burned alive, shot, stabbed and beheaded. Entire families were murdered.
Mladic had been on the run since the end of the war and after a long 15 years of being sheltered and hidden in a Serbian village, he was arrested. Mladic is currently being held in a Hague jail undergoing trial, during which he sits calmly observing his victims, whose agonizing attempts to relive their memories of Srebrenica would affect some of the most coldhearted.
The Hague is sure to play an enormous role in aiding the process of moving on for the Bosniak community. However, what has come into question is The Hague’s ability to deliver timely peace and justice to the Bosniaks by way of punishment of Mladic, among others. Many Bosniaks feel that not enough effort was put into capturing Mladic at a time when it was most important for the process of moving on. The fear is that if he dies before he is punished by law, there will be no hope of closure and justice for the victims and also the survivors of the Srebrenica genocide. The prolongation of prosecution of Serbian war criminals has played a huge role in drawing out the moving-on process.
Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia who was also accused of war crimes in the Bosnian genocide, died in his cell before the court could reach a decision and bring the slightest hope of closure to the Bosniak community. A Bosniak refugee of war currently residing in the United States commented: “We all feel that The Hague takes too long to reach decisions. The people of Bosnia who have lost so many family members will never receive justice because Ratko Mladic will not live to see the court’s ruling.”
Since his arrest, Mladic’s defense team has made several attempts to prolong his court proceedings. All the while, victims and families who do not consider his trial a lost cause are anxiously awaiting his trial and its results in the hope of obtaining some sort of closure. Even considering his old age, Bosniaks generally feel that it is not too late to punish him and that it is going to be absolutely necessary in the process of moving on. Nevresa Grbovic, a resident of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose hometown was shelled by Mladic’s troops for years, states, “Though this process is long and Mladic may pass before he is punished, its conclusion will confirm his actions and confirm for the world the horror that unfolded within Bosnia during the four years.”
On this year’s anniversary as we buried 520 more, many wondered how the Bosniaks would ever move on and if they could move on, considering that it is expected that Bosnia will continue to discover and bury hundreds more. Azra Khan, who was only a middle school student hiding in her basement while the Serb troops shelled Sarajevo, believes the wound is too deep to heal any time soon. In a phone interview she said: “We can never forget the victims of the genocide, and considering that we are still burying entire families, it is too soon to move on. Even if we move on, I am not confident in the hope for forgiveness. In the Bosniak community, there is widespread belief that if we move on we will forget and that if we forget, the gruesome history will repeat itself.”
The Srebrenica massacre, though it may have happened 17 years ago, is still fresh in the minds of the Bosniak community. The nationalistic thought process is reinforced by constant burials of the dead, commemorations and only recent arrests and prosecutions of people who are directly responsible for the atrocities committed during the war. The war is still fresh in the mind of a daughter who is getting married this year without anyone to walk her down the aisle, and a man who will never witness his children playing with their grandfather. It is also fresh in the minds of many who are yet to relive their horrifying experiences as witnesses at The Hague tribunal. A young woman who watched her friend cry about her father’s disappearance during a Srebrenica memorial said, “This is not old news, this is today, and she is only one of the victims who will live with what they did for the rest of her life.”