Jessica Stern’s “My War Criminal”: Attempt to restore humanity to Bosnian genocide’s perpetrators

Stern's book reveals an individual grossly oblivious to full horror that Radovan Karadžić unleashed on Muslim population of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Dr. Emir Suljagiç   | 29.01.2020
Jessica Stern’s “My War Criminal”: Attempt to restore humanity to Bosnian genocide’s perpetrators

- The writer 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. Suljagić is also the author of two books: Ethnic Cleansing: Politics, Policy, Violence - Serb Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in former Yugoslavia and Postcards from the Grave.


At a high school in Srebrenica, in the twilight of Yugoslavia, I had a friend. He was more than a friend, actually—I admired him. He was my classmate, and although I was as hard to impress as a teenager as I am in adulthood, I was impressed by him. Winning a game of chess against Ramo Mehmedović was impossible. Mathematics far beyond the level mandated for high school students by our ambidextrous teacher Jugoslava, came naturally to him. While the rest of us struggled to survive each class period, Ramo breezed through the school day with an ease indicative of genius.

Then the war came, and the one subject in which I excelled became vital to my survival: languages. In times of war, it seemed, there was no need of math prodigies. I saw Ramo only once during the three years that Srebrenica was under siege. Then I never saw him again.

No one will ever know Ramo outside of the world in which he and I grew up—a world so long gone now that it’s hard to believe it ever existed. No one will ever have the chance to describe him using pretentious words and long-winded analogies. No one will be able to compare him to, let’s say, Tarry Tao—the pioneering Australian mathematician—although this was undoubtedly the direction in which Ramo would have been headed. No one will ever admire the elegance of the computer code I am sure he would have created. The world will never know about Ramo. They won’t remember his thick head of hair, or the childish timidity behind his awkward gaze.

My friend Ramo Mehmedović has been reduced to only a name, one of many, inscribed on the semi-circular wall in the center of Srebrenica’s Genocide Memorial Cemetery. He will forever remain just another victim of the Serbs’ attempt to settle the “Eastern Question” once and for all.

His murderers, however, had their day in court. Every single fact about the July 1995 genocide, wherein the Bosniak majority was exterminated and expelled from an area encompassing seven different municipalities, has been examined and re-examined to determine the exact degree of their responsibility. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) went to lengths unprecedented by any other court in the world to ensure the credibility of the evidence, the witnesses, and the judicial procedure itself.

An incidental consequence of this meticulous investigation was an excessive focus on the perpetrators of genocide. It is for this reason that while the world knows so little about Ramo Mehmedović’s life, we know everything there is to know about the circumstances of his death and those who were responsible for it. The men responsible for Ramo’s death and the deaths of thousands of other men and boys in Srebrenica enjoy a level of publicity befitting pop-stars. They receive inordinate media attention and are the subject of a superfluity of academic research.

When he was on trial for war crimes at the Hague, Ratko Mladić called in by phone from his prison cell to a morning show in Serbia with national frequency. He concluded his segment on that private TV channel with “Kisses from Grandpa Ratko.” The families of convicted war criminals are treated with reverence in Serbia and Serb-majority parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina; the children of war criminals capitalize on the mass murders committed by their fathers. Radovan Karadžić’s daughter, for instance, is a high-ranking member of the Serb Democratic Party—a party that he founded to facilitate his genocidal political ambitions in Bosnia in the spring of 1992.

Karadžić himself has recently become the subject of an enthusiastic attempt to humanize the perpetrators of the Bosnian genocide. On Jan. 16, The New York Times – “the paper of record” – published an article with a bizarre and obscenely offensive title: “Why did I Let A Convicted War Criminal Practice Energy Healing on Me?” This article is in fact an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Jessica Stern which boasts yet another nauseating title: “My War Criminal.” Putting aside the dubious ethics of her research methodology – which includes allowing the architect of the Bosnian Serb policy of mass rape to give her a massage – the loftiness of the work’s purported claim to academic merit stands in galling contrast to her presentation of Karadžić as a healer, poet, and mythical hero.

Indeed, the article and the book reveal far more about Stern herself than the alleged subject of her research. They reveal an individual grossly oblivious to the full horror that Radovan Karadžić unleashed on the Muslim population of Bosnia and Herzegovina; they reveal an individual who inhabits a moral universe in which 12-year-old children can conceivably be raped and not raped at the same time, a moral universe wherein the fact that Karadžić did not personally commit any of these acts somehow exonerates him from the responsibility for genocide.

I grew up fatherless. My cousin survived mass execution at the age of seventeen. In my community sisters lost brothers, wives lost husbands, and mothers lost sons—all because of Radovan Karadžić. Yet, by means of some grotesque literary perversion, Jessica Stern’s sensation of cypress trees growing out of her palms at Karadžić’s touch somehow takes precedence over and negates our experiences. Stern’s book is also based on a historically false narrative, whereby the Serb genocide against Bosniaks was a rightful revenge killing justified by the Ustashe genocide in World War II. She presents Bosniaks in his words: not perhaps a cobra, but certainly a snake! Throughout the book she refers to him affectionately as Radovan, revealing an unseemly degree of intimacy with the man remembered by the rest of the world for saying that “Muslim people will disappear” in the war. Stern also brings to life all the basest talking points of the Serb extremist propaganda, such as that the Government of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina "shot its own citizens in order to provoke international intervention". All in all, the book is a revisionist hatchet job on an entire nation, motivated by Islamophobia.

We live in a world of consequences. Twenty-five years after the Srebrenica Genocide, we are still searching for the mortal remains of its victims. That is the only contribution that Karadžić has made to humanity: the invention of the tertiary mass grave. It is the only thing about him that matters. For that reason, I choose instead to remember Ramo—a shy boy from rural Bosnia, who never had an opportunity to make an impact, to make his contribution. It is Ramo’s humanity that we should cherish, rather than making futile attempts to restore humanity to those who never had any in the first place.

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