ANALYSIS - Appeals judgment against Mladic will be a verdict on an era
Ratko Mladic spent the most important part of his life taking away from other people. Taking away the people they loved. When he is gone forever, his life’s work will still be with us. It will continue to poison the future until it is reckoned with.
The author is the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center. A part-time lecturer at the International Relations Department of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS), Dr. Suljagic is also the author of two books: “Ethnic Cleansing: Politics, Policy, Violence - Serb Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in former Yugoslavia” and “Postcards from the Grave”
SREBRENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina
I still remember exactly where I was when Ratko Mladic was appointed the commander of the rebel Bosnian Serb Army in May 1992. It is as if I can still see us huddling around a hand-held radio, listening to the newscast from Banja Luka, where the Bosnian Serb Assembly session would seal the fate of many men around me. I still remember the sense of foreboding as the older men deliberated on our next steps, hiding in the orchards and woods on the small hill above the village. I do not remember most of the men any longer, for they did not survive. I am likely the sole surviving witness to an event that will not even qualify among the footnotes of history.
Three years later I met Ratko Mladic in person. It happened just outside the UN base in Potocari, which housed the Dutch contingent (Dutchbat) to the UNPROFOR, the UN mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was accompanied by two UN military observers, one from the Netherlands, the other from Ghana. Both of them clearly saw what was going on, unlike the higher echelons of Dutchbat that sought to pacify the tens of thousands who had arrived in Potocari seeking protection, thereby facilitating the job the Serbs set out to do: “select” and separate out men and boys, deport women and children, committing opportunistic murders of men, and raping women. Unlike thousands, I walked away alive from that meeting. I survived mostly because I wore a “Yellow Card” -- the mission-wide designation for local interpreters -- and because the two men I accompanied did not walk away and leave me alone with Mladic’s men who encircled him.
One day earlier, on July 11, when the town fell into Mladic’s hands, I spent the day reporting to my employers from the nearby Srebrenica and managed to return to the UN base barely in time to avoid the troops. What I did that day -- the day that my entire life revolves around -- indeed became a historical footnote. In its 2002 multi-million-dollar report “Srebrenica - Reconstruction, background, consequences and analyses of the fall of a ‘Safe’ area”, the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies describes my insignificant encounter with history as follows:
“Suljagic suggested returning to Srebrenica city, as the UNMOs in Potocari had no access to information about developments in the city. He claimed that the UNMOs did not dare return. He then asked for a map and a walkie-talkie and said that he would go alone. The UNMOs thought he had gone mad, but they were happy that he had volunteered as he could thereby keep them updated. The Dutch Major, De Haan (the leader of the three UNMOs), offered him a map, a radio, and charged batteries, and told him that he would be operating entirely on his own, and that De Haan would accept no responsibility for him. Emir Suljagic thus dodged the shelling and returned to Srebrenica city via the river valley. He continued to report from the PTT building, UNHCR, MSF, and the hospital until about 19.00 hours that evening.”
I did almost nothing. Yet, I will never do anything more important.
As much as the Dutch soldiers looked away in Srebrenica, the entire world had looked away from Bosnia for more than three full years by that time. In fact, the proverbial international community -- in the form of the UN Security Council -- provided a crucial advantage for the mass murderers in Bosnia and Herzegovina by adopting Resolution 713 in September 1991 and imposing an arms embargo, ensuring an overwhelming imbalance of weapons in favor of the Serb nationalist project in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. By first recognizing Bosnia and Herzegovina and then taking away from it the right to self-defense provided for in Article 51 of the UN Charter, the international community -- specifically the UN Security Council -- prolonged the violence and produced more and more bitter enmities. It actively facilitated the monstrosities that Ratko Mladic left in his wake, from Knin and Sibenik in Croatia to Sarajevo and Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In a face-saving gesture, less than two years later, the same body established a UN tribunal to deal with serious violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated in former Yugoslavia by the very people the UN provided with the arms preponderance, thus effecting essential defenselessness required for wholesale murder. Still, it refused to lift the embargo even after the fall of Srebrenica.
The appeals judgment against Ratko Mladic in that regard is also a judgment on an era.
Ratko Mladic spent the most important part of his life taking away from other people. Taking away the people they loved. When he is gone forever, his life’s work will still be with us. It will continue to poison the future until it is reckoned with. Injustice cannot remain unaddressed if we -- as a country, and a region -- is to avoid occasional and almost regular conflicts that set us all back for generations.
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