Learning About International Justice on the Ground—The Balkans & War Crimes (Part III)

By Belinda Cooper and Jennifer Trahan


The one part of our trip (see Parts I and II for prior travels) that participants are unlikely to forget is a day spent in and around the massacre site of Srebrenica, where 8,300 men and boys were executed in the days starting on July 11, 2005. As we drive to Srebrenica and admire the beautiful mountain scenery and picturesque small farms, it is hard to fathom how ethnic tensions reached that horrible nadir of inhumanity.

Memorial to Serb Victims

Our first visit brings home with great force the stark contrast between Muslim and Serb versions of historical truth—a central concern of transitional justice that most of our students have likely encountered only in the abstract until now. It involves a brief stop at the location of a mass atrocity: the Kravica warehouse, where an estimated 1,000–1,500 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. Because, at that point, we are deep in the territory of Republica Srpska, not a sign marks the spot. Indeed, last summer, the 20th anniversary of the massacre, this site of horror was covered with posters of Vladimir Putin, meant as an anti-EU protest and a call for Russia to veto an upcoming UN resolution on the Srebrenica genocide. By contrast to the lack of commemoration at this site, nearly across the street a large cross looms over a memorial to Serb victims of past wars. Our Bosnian guides always advise caution when we seek to photograph these sites, but last year, due to the tensions unleashed by the 20th anniversary commemorations, we were told not to even leave our bus.


Kravica Warehouse



Vladimir Putin posters in Republica Srpska



Memorial to Serb Victims


In Bratunac, we pass Hotel Fontana—the command headquarters of General Mladic, currently on trial in The Hague, who led the assault on Srebrenica. We have also been able to visit another memorial in Bratunac, this one to Serbs, mainly soldiers, killed around Srebrenica—a further disconcerting example of contrasting “truths” as well as denial on the part of perpetrator societies. The actual town of Srebrenica, where we stop for lunch, is so small that it is hard to imagine it swollen with 40,000 desperate Bosnian Muslim families seeking sanctuary in the so-called UN “safe haven,” which turned out to be neither “safe” nor a “haven.”


At the Potočari memorial (whose creation was mandated by the international community, since we are still in Republika Srpska, which would have created no such memorial), we lay a wreath to the victims and walk silently among the graves. In the battery factory where men and boys were separated from the women, we tour the memorial room, including the last effects of some of the victims, and read VRS (Army of Republika Srpska) wire intercepts regarding the disposal of “packages” (cynical code for bodies). The use of the word “genocide” throughout the memorial site brings home one powerful legacy of the ICTY: its determination that the massacre at Srebrenica met the legal definition of genocide. The preserved UN (“DUTCHBAT”) barracks, complete with the peacekeepers’ sometimes racist graffiti, provides a graphic reminder of the UN’s powerlessness to prevent that genocide.

As if our visit isn’t devastating enough, we listen spell-bound to a survivor of the column of men who tried to escape the Srebrenica executions by walking through miles of hostile territory. He was one of the few who made it to the Free Territory of Tuzla. We have also had the chance to meet with one of the “Mothers of Srebrenica” who lost all the male members of her family, including her two sons. She returned to Srebrenica, she says, unlike many other Muslims, in order to be reminded of her children by two trees planted in her front yard when they were small. At this point, there is hardly a dry eye in the room–and students begin to understand on a much more fundamental level what, exactly, we are seeking justice for.


From Srebrenica we continue on to Belgrade. At this point, student sentiment is understandably somewhat hostile to Serbia. But we have met wonderful colleagues there who are striving to commemorate history and deal with its legacy honestly. We hope that our students will comprehend what we’ve tried to teach them in the abstract: that criminal responsibility is an individual matter; no nation’s people deserve all the blame, especially in this war, where atrocities were committed by all sides, and not all Serbs sided with Milosevic’s policies or took part in them. Still, some of the opinions, and even denial, we encounter do reveal persistent gaps in Serbia’s reckoning with history.

We are soon off to meetings with NGOs in Belgrade (including Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Helsinki Watch, Humanitarian Law Center, OSCE and others). These meetings fill us with appreciation for their efforts at truth-seeking, justice and reconciliation, yet dismay that these efforts are still deeply unpopular with large portions of the Serb public—so unpopular that some of their members have received death threats.


Belgrade War Crimes Chamber


We end with meetings with officials of the War Crimes Chamber in Belgrade, at both the trial and appellate levels. While it is quite an achievement that war crimes prosecutions are taking place at all in Belgrade—especially of Serb perpetrators, given the persistent climate of denial—these trials continue to be incomplete, as they have yet to prosecute higher-level commanders and tend to focus more on crimes by paramilitary, rather than military or police, units. (The Chamber’s indictment of eight Bosnian-Serb special police for the Kravica massacre, which came after our 2015 trip ended, is a welcome new development.) Unfortunately, however, witness protection continues to be run by the police, which has never itself been purged of possible perpetrators, and thus “insider” witnesses—those from the perpetrator side—face risks if they decide to testify. Our students have read about these problems, to be sure, but hearing such facts directly from court personnel and NGOs that have worked to ensure justice gives them a new level of meaning.


Former Ministry of Defense Belgrade, Serbia


The very concept of “denial” – the not-uncommon response of perpetrator communities to the atrocities of which they are accused – takes on greater significance through direct encounters. On our way to the Appeals Chamber, we walk by the former Ministry of Defense in Belgrade, destroyed by NATO’s 1999 bombing. It is left as a reminder of the bombing—interpreted as Serbia’s perceived victimization by outside forces—and is pointed out to us, the visiting Americans, in sometimes accusatory fashion. Each year, one or two of our interviewees refer to this bombing (a response to Serb crimes in Kosovo that is generally believed to have prevented much worse atrocities) as if it were an unprovoked act of anti-Serb aggression. Hearing this sort of nationalist rhetoric from people who otherwise seem to share our worldview is unexpected and revealing.

Once again, after these difficult and intense encounters, we encourage participants on the trip to enjoy some of the beauty of Belgrade, such as the Fortress, surrounded by the lovely Kalemegdan Park, overlooking the Danube and Sava rivers, and the historic Skadarlija area.


Fortress in Kalmegdan Park


Throughout the world, international justice institutions are being established, and they have been greatly influenced by the experience of the former Yugoslavia. But the ICTY’s legacy also includes the lessons learned from both its successes and missteps. By exposing our students to a wide variety of institutions, actors, and points of view, our trip attempts to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the international justice institutions in The Hague, the variety of responses to them in the regions for which they were created, and the ways in which they contribute (or fail to contribute) to the post-conflict search for justice, truth and reconciliation. We believe that our students return with a greater appreciation for the complexities and gray areas inherent in that search. Indeed, after one trip, two students decided—as their Master’s thesis—to return to the region, interview an even broader variety of actors, and ultimately complete a documentary film entitled “Seeking Truth in the Balkans,” exploring the legacy of the ICTY and asking interviewees the very questions we had raised on the trip. The film has been shown to staff of The Hague tribunal as well as people from the region and has received praise for its evenhanded portrayal of the questions it explores. We could not wish for a better representation of the educational mission behind our trip.

Belinda Cooper is an adjunct assistant professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Jennifer Trahan is Associate Clinical Professor, Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS; Chair, American Branch of the International Law Association, International Criminal Court Committee

To learn more about the film “Seeking Truth in the Balkans,” see http://www.seekingtruthinthebalkans.com/

[photo credits: Alejandro Hoyos and Jennifer Trahan]

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