The shock suicide of a convicted war criminal in The Hague shows just how far the Balkans’ wounds are from healing.
T he final weeks of the war crimes tribunal set up in response to the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars were not meant to hold many surprises. Nearly a quarter of a century in the making, the process has meticulously turned over every detail of the conflict which ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s, and many of the verdicts came to be expected.
Last week’s conviction of Ratko Mladić for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity came after a five-year trial in which some 600 individuals, many of whom were his victims, gave evidence.
Many hoped that the sentencing of the 74-year-old former general, dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” for his commanding role in the massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica and the Siege of Sarajevo, whose death toll breached 10,000, might provide some sort of closure for the surviving victims.
This week’s sensational suicide of a Bosnian Croat war criminal in The Hague, however, highlights just how far the wounds are from healing. Slobodan Praljak was one of the last few cases to be heard before the the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), appealing the 20-year jail term he was sentenced to in 2013.
The 72-year-old drank a small glass of poison he is said to have smuggled into the tribunal, in full view of cameras recording the hearing. “I am not a war criminal,” he told the stunned court. “I oppose this conviction.”
The theatre director-turned-warlord knew just what a show he would be putting on for the world. In his mind, it was presumably a last act of defiance against a biased trial bent on handing down judgment against the struggle of his people for ethnic self-determination.
His detractors have labelled it a would-be martyr’s cowardly deflection from the victims of the Yugoslav Wars.
As the tribunal winds down towards its dissolution at the end of this year, some are choosing to play down the drama and celebrate the convictions as a milestone of international justice. Men like Mr. Mladić were some of the first people to be indicted by an international criminal tribunal since Nuremberg.
Yet the Balkan region is still divided as ever. Indeed, views of the tribunal similar to Mr. Praljak’s are shared not just by most of the other 161 individuals indicted by the ICTY but by a great many inhabitants of former Yugoslavia.
This has dogged the tribunal since its inception, and partly explains why it has taken more than two decades to deliver results.
Mr. Mladić’s 2011 capture came after 16 years on the run in Serbia, where many laud convicted war criminals as war heroes. His arrest was widely seen as a precondition for Serbia being considered for European Union membership. Serbia’s then-President Boris Tadic had to fend off criticism that his authorities had been reluctant to bring him in until the country’s accession bid was under consideration.
The scars of the conflict, however, go beyond sympathy and nostalgia for the war criminals.
Indeed, many argue, Mr. Mladić’s vision lives on in the form of the “Republika Srprska”, one of the two semi-autonomous bodies making up Bosnia and Herzegovina set up under the 1995 peace accords.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1992, the northwestern region of Bosnia mostly under modern-day Republika Srpska’s remit was home to around 550,000 Muslims and Croats. Barely a few thousand of them remained after the fighting and forced relocations took their toll.
The once-diverse city of Banja Luka, Republika Srpska’s capital, encapsulates the country’s ethnic rebalancing. In 1991, 50% of its inhabitants were Bosnian Serbs, and Muslims and Croats each made up another 15% of the population; today, ethnic Serbs make up around 90% of the population.
Gatherings and rallies of the Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group and its sympathisers have been spotted across the region.
On the day of Ratko Mladić’s verdict, posters of his face were put up on the streets of Srebrenica, captioned: “You are our hero!”
Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president who openly denies that a genocide took place in Srebrenica, said at a press conference on that day that "a spot as a hero was reserved for Mladic long ago and this verdict can't change that".
Meanwhile, authorities are letting a plaque honouring the former warlord in East Sarajevo stay up, Balkan Insight reported.
The region is not unanimous in its reverence for the war criminal, but it is difficult to speak out against the ongoing reinterpretation of Yugoslav history. Earlier this year, for example, a journalist who criticised a planned pro-Mladić rally in Banja Luka, went into hiding after receiving death threats.
Laying out the evidence
The convictions have not entirely satisfied the wars’ surviving victims either. While the court found that Mr. Mladic “significantly contributed” to the genocide in Srebenica in 1995, for example, it was “not convinced” of genocidal intent in six other municipalities of Bosnia & Herzegovina where death was profuse.
In one village in the municipality of Ključ, more than 260 civilians were killed in one day. The 50 or so survivors were those who happened to be working in nearby orchards or temporarily abroad.
Nonetheless, some argue the tribunal’s true impact will prove to come from beyond mere criminal sentencing. More than two decades of painstaking examination of the conflict’s history has laid out the evidence for all to see, even if many are reluctant to face up to it.
Last month’s opening of the Transitional Justice Centre in Pula, Croatia, housing exhibitions to showcase the facts established by the tribunal, is one example of a project pushing that angle.
“The essence of this centre is to show the crimes which were investigated, prosecuted and adjudicated by the Tribunal, and also which are the facts that were established beyond reasonable doubt,” Mirko Klarin, the founder of the centre, told Balkan Insight.
“It’s less important if someone in particular is found guilty or not of something, because even in all the acquittal verdicts you have confirmation that certain things, stated in the indictments, happened in a certain way,” he said.
The international community hoped the tribunal would not only deliver justice but sow the seeds of reconciliation too. Some of those seeds, however, may be a long way from sprouting.