This summer I had the honor of working for Enis Omerović a local human rights attorney working on a book about the genocide in Bosnia. More specifically he is writing about the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the implications of the court decisions on genocide case law moving forward. There are a few other international courts who have issued judgements on the genocide, but the ICTY holds the most power. While I would have loved to spend more time with Enis and learn the lens through which he approaches his work, the research itself has been fascinating and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
To summarize the research, the only official genocide in the war in Bosnia in the 1990s was in Srebrenica. The Peace March many of my colleagues participated in commemorates the events that took place there. Briefly, Srebrenica is located near the Drina River which forms the border between BiH and Serbia. As the Republika Srpska (RS) forces took land in Eastern Bosnia, the UN declared Srebrenica a “safe zone.” The town of approximately 6,000 people grew to 40,000 people in early 1995. The UN was able to transfer some people to Muslim-controlled areas, but tens of thousands of people remained in Srebrenica in July of 1995. For strategic reasons, the RS wanted to take Srebrenica. Even though it was a UN “safe zone,” RS troops under direct orders from RS President Radovan Karadzić and under command of Ratko Mladić (the #2 in command behind the president) and Radislav Kristić (commander of the Drina Corp) began shelling and attacking Srebrenica. On July 10th, 1995 Srebrenica fell and the tens of thousands of refugees fled to the Dutch UN base in Potočari or chose to run on foot over the mountains to Tuzla which was under BiH control.
Approximately 10,000-15,000 men, boys and a few women chose to flee to Tuzla. The rest who went to the Dutch base were ultimately denied protection and the women and children were deported to Muslim-held territory while men and teenage boys were detained. Mladić and the RS forces realized that most of the men had fled over the mountains and began ambushing the group of men. Some were captured, others were killed on sight and some survived. The RS soldiers were able to severe the column of men and boys fleeing to Tuzla by blocking a road. Only about a third of those in the column made it across and the others were captured. Over the next week the captured men and boys as well as those separated from the women and children in Potočari were transported to detention centers that were schools, warehouses, and other buildings before being transported to mass execution sites where they were systematically murdered by RS troops. In total over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were murdered. Most of them were civilians.
The ICTY found that genocide had been committed in Srebrenica, and drew charges against several members involved in the events of Srebrenica. The 3 most note worthy cases are those of Karadzić, Mladić and Kristić. Kristić was the first to be convicted under the 1948 Genocide Convention that codified genocide in international law. As a crime genocide differs from most other crimes as the actus rea of the crime, that is the actions that took place, could vary. Genocide could be forced deportation, murder, mass rape all of which are crimes in their own right. For a genocide conviction, it must be established that a person not only willfully and knowingly did an action, but that they did so with the intent to “destroy in part or in whole” a protected demographic. This means that it is not as important what a perpetrator of genocide did, but the spirit in which he or she did it. Since mental status during war and even specifically the perpetrating of the crime is difficult to determine, the ICTY was tasked with deciphering whether and how this could be proven.
The prosecutors submitted hundreds of witnesses and thousands of pieces of evidence to establish not only the timeline of events, but the mentality of those involved in carrying out the crimes. Since Rwanda and Bosnia were the first two major cases to be tried in a tribunal since the genocide convention was signed into effect, they created the first case law in trying and convicting genocide. Much of the evidence were photos and videos taken by journalists, and the troops themselves as well as leaked written orders and the testimonies of RS officers who bled guilty and agreed to testify against commanders. Survivors of the execution sites were also instrumental in establishing a historical record of what happened. Each case has its particulars and contributed to the legal understanding of genocide in their own ways, but I will need a longer blog post for all that.
And so at the end of the summer preparing my personal statements for law school and thinking really intently about my future I have to wonder if this is the best course of seeking justice. At a dinner with 3 survivors of the genocide, Nedžad Avdić, Hasan Hasanović and Saliha Osmanović I asked a question about the ICTY and justice. Basically I asked, “how do the court decision make you feel?” Some of them had testified in various trials, but none of them reported feeling anything close to justice. Nedžad said that no earthly punishment could balance the tide for what was done to his family. He had lost so many people. His loss and his unlikely survival from an execution site near a dam were to the degree that President Bill Clinton met him. That is to say his loss was profound and his existence amazing in its own right. And if justice is beyond our realm, to what end does the time and money of the ICTY serve? While none of the survivors thought the court decisions could ever be justice, they said it brought light to what happened and created a reliable unimpeachable narrative of what happened in Srebrenica. And for me, who started in journalism to shine light on the corners of our reality, I found it comforting to know the work I did this summer and the career I am pursuing can still accomplish that goal.