The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has had a bumpy journey since its foundation in 1993. It has long been condemned by Serb and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, as well as by left-wing and right-wing hardliners in the West, as a political court set up to serve the interests of the Great Powers. But until recently, it has been supported by liberals in the former Yugoslavia and in the West and beyond, as a positive and necessary exercise in international justice – albeit one that has not produced very satisfactory results. In recent months, however, a realignment has taken place: former supporters of the ICTY have begun to condemn it in the same ‘anti-imperialist’ terms used by the nationalists, and to present its judgements as the work of Great Power intrigue. Their anger has focused above all on the figure of Judge Theodor Meron, President of the ICTY. Meron is a Polish Jew by birth and a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel, was educated at the University of Jerusalem, and served as legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada and to the UN, before emigrating to the US. Meron is no Zionist hawk; in 1967, he wrote a memo for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol advising against the building of settlements in the newly occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Yet with a sad inevitability, his Jewish and Israeli background have taken on a sinister prominence in the current campaign against him.
Continue reading at Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has acquitted on appeal Momcilo Perisic, former Chief of Staff of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), who had previously been sentenced to 27 years in prison for war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. He was one of only six officials from Serbia-Montenegro ever indicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. He was the only member of the high command of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) or VJ ever indicted for war-crimes in Croatia or Bosnia, and the only former JNA officer from Serbia or Montenegro of any rank ever indicted over Bosnia. His acquittal means that, to date, no official or army officer of Serbia-Montenegro and no member of the JNA or VJ high command has been convicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. By any standards, this represents a monumental failure on the part of the Tribunal. Precisely what kind of failure, and whether it is a failure of the Prosecution or the judges or both, is open to debate.
Perisic’s acquittal follows the ICTY’s recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, and of Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj. Those previous acquittals had provoked a veritable paroxysm of fury from Serbia’s politicians such as President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and UN General Assembly president Vuk Jeremic, who condemned them as proving that the ICTY was an anti-Serb and/or a political court. Commentators in the West widely agreed; an ill-informed rant by David Harland, former head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, upholding all the old Serb-nationalist stereotypes of the ICTY’s and West’s supposed anti-Serb bias, was published in the New York Times and received wide publicity even from reputable sources. People who had apparently been fairly satisfied with the ICTY’s not entirely glorious performance over the past two decades now emerged from the woodwork to denounce it in bitter terms.
The acquittal of such a high-ranking Serbian official, following the acquittal of two high-ranking Croats and one high-ranking Kosovo Albanian, provides further proof – if any were needed – that the ICTY is not ‘anti-Serb’. Perisic is, in fact, neither the first nor the most high-ranking senior Serbian official to be acquitted by the Tribunal; former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic was acquitted back in 2009 of war crimes against Kosovo Albanians.
Consequently, the Serbian government has now made a rapid U-turn in its view of the Tribunal. Prime Minister Dacic (also leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia founded by Slobodan Milosevic) had responded to the Gotovina and Markac acquittals by stating ‘This confirms the claims of those who say that the Hague Tribunal is not a court and that it completes political tasks that were set in advance’. Yet his reaction to the Perisic acquittal is that it ‘negates accusations about the alleged aggression of the Army of Yugoslavia against Bosnia and Croatia’. The latter conclusion is echoed by the Sense News Agency, which provides detailed overage of the activities of the ICTY and which claims that ‘Momcilo Perisic was the only senior official from Serbia and FR Yugoslavia convicted by the Tribunal and sentenced for crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Slobodan Milosevic was charged with the same crimes, and the judgment can be considered as Milosevic’s posthumous acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.’
In these circumstances, there is naturally a temptation for those on the other side of the front-lines from the Serb nationalists – those who wanted to see the Serbian perpetrators of war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia punished, and the victims receive justice – to cry foul, and to carry out a Dacic-style U-turn of their own. A temptation, that is, to say that the supporters of Milosevic, Seselj and Tudjman were right after all, and the ICTY is really just a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political. But this temptation should be resisted, both for pragmatic reasons and, more importantly, for reasons of principle.
Pragmatically, conceding that the ICTY is a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political means handing an enormous victory to those extremists – Serb and Croat, right-wing and left-wing – who supported the elements that carried out the war-crimes and that have always resisted the efforts of the ICTY to punish them. It is not for nothing that – both in the former Yugoslavia and in the West – ethnic cleansers, fascists and extremists have consistently opposed the Tribunal, whereas liberals, democrats and progressives have supported it. To reject the legitimacy of the ICTY and its verdicts means negating not only those verdicts we don’t like, but all the good that has been achieved by precisely this Tribunal, despite its undeniable numerous failures. The ICTY was the first international court to establish that the Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide, paving the way for the confirmation of this fact by the International Court of Justice.
Immediately following the acquittals of Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, the ICTY in December of last year convicted Zdravko Tolimir, Assistant Commander of Intelligence and Security of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), for genocide, and in the process established that the group targeted for genocide by the VRS was the Muslim population of East Bosnia as a whole – not just of Srebrenica – and that the genocidal act extended to Zepa as well as Srebrenica. It is a tremendous breakthrough for the legal recognition of the Bosnian genocide beyond Srebrenica. If the Perisic acquittal is to be dismissed as a political verdict, it undermines the Tolimir verdict as well. You cannot have it both ways, and cheer the verdicts with which you agree while denouncing those you don’t like. Either the ICTY is a legitimate court or it is not.
Which brings us to the matter of principle: a genuine, legitimate court must have the right and ability to acquit, as well as to convict. If the ICTY were really a kangaroo court, all those accused would be convicted. Instead of which, we have proof of genuine pluralism, with panels of judges dividing 2-1 and 3-2 over major cases, and the Appeals Chamber reversing the decision of the Trial Chambers. Whatever his political views or personal inclinations, Judge Theodor Meron, presiding judge at both the Appeals Chamber that acquitted Gotovina and Markac and the one that acquitted Perisic, and currently under attack from critics for the acquittals, was in each case only one judge in a panel of five who came from different countries. He was the only judge who acquitted both Gotovina and Markac on the one hand and Perisic on the other, and was not even a member of the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. The only other judge who was a member of the Appeals Chamber both for Gotovina-Markac and for Perisic was Carmel Agius, and he strongly opposed the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac but supported that of Perisic. Judge Bakone Justice Moloto was presiding judge both in the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic and in the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. In the first case, he dissented from the majority opinion but was outvoted – something that took place in September 2011, a mere year and a half ago. Hence, I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Eric Gordy, who argues that the acquittals all form part of a consistent policy on the part of the judges in this period.
The conspiracy theorists (among whom I do not include Eric) would either have us believe that the initial indictments of Gotovina/Perisic and their initial convictions were simply elaborate deceptions paving the way for the final, pre-determined acquittals. Or they would have us believe that whenever the ICTY convicts it is acting legitimately and whenever it acquits it is acting politically. But a court that only convicts and never acquits is not a genuine court. Even at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried the leaders of Nazi Germany after World War II, three of the twenty-four defendants – i.e. one in eight of the high-ranking officials of Nazi Germany who were prosecuted – were acquitted. The whole point of a fair trial is that guilt is not assumed and defendants are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
The present author has, in the past, condemned the ICTY for retreating in the face of Serbian obstruction of its activities, citing such instances as the failure to indict most of the leading members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise from Serbia and Montenegro; the acquittal of Radovan Karadzic on one count of genocide; and the censoring of the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council. However, the acquittal of Perisic is not part of this pattern; he had already been arrested and convicted, so any Serbian resistance in his case had already been overcome.
It is one thing to accuse the Tribunal of shabby or unprincipled compromises and retreats, but quite another to accuse it of actually falsifying the guilt or innocence of suspects. Karadzic’s acquittal aside, the present author has never accused the Tribunal either of acquitting anyone guilty or of convicting anyone innocent. I did not, for example, condemn its initial conviction of Gotovina and Markac. Nor did I condemn its acquittal of Milutinovic or of Miroslav Radic (one of the three JNA officers indicted over the Vukovar hospital massacre). I am somewhat amazed that so many people, of all national backgrounds and political persuasions, have so little respect for the principle that it is ultimately for the court to decide who is innocent and who is guilty. Of course, it is entirely possible for a court to get things wrong and for a miscarriage of justice to occur. But a miscarriage of justice needs careful explaining as to how it was arrived at, not mere petulant denunciation.
In the case of Perisic, the essence of the disagreement between the Trial Chamber majority and the Appeals Chamber majority was that the first considered that ‘under the VRS’s strategy there was no clear distinction between military warfare against BiH forces and crimes against civilians/and or persons not taking active part in hostilities’, while the latter argued that ‘the VRS was not an organisation whose actions were criminal per se; instead, it was an army fighting a war’, albeit one that also engaged in criminal activities. Thus, the Trial Chamber considered that there was no clear distinction between the VRS’s lawful and its criminal actions, while the Appeals Chamber considered that there was.
Furthermore, the Trial Chamber ruled that though it could not be proven that the military assistance provided by Perisic to the VRS was specifically intended by him to support its criminal as opposed to its legal activities, nevertheless, since he clearly knew that his assistance would be used for criminal activities at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, as well as for legal military purposes, he was therefore guilty of aiding and abetting its criminal activities. The Appeals Chamber, by contrast, ruled that since it could not be proven that that he intended his military assistance to be used for criminal as opposed to legal military purposes, he could not be held to have criminal intent and therefore be held culpable for aiding and abetting the VRS’s crimes.
In other words, there is little disagreement between the two Chambers regarding facts of the case (so far as the Bosnian part of it is concerned) but principally over what conclusion should be drawn from them. The disagreement is not equivalent to that between the Trial Chamber and Appeals Chamber in the case of Gotovina and Markac, when the two chambers fundamentally disagreed over what the facts were; i.e. over whether the Croatian Army had deliberately shelled civilian targets with the intent of bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina region. In the case of Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was not throwing out an unsafe conviction based upon a highly spurious interpretation of events, as was the case with the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. Rather, it was expressing a different judgement on the nature of culpability to that of the Trial Chamber.
In this disagreement, my own sympathies are entirely with the Trial Chamber, and I applaud the dissent from the Appeals Chamber majority opinion of Judge Liu Daqun, who argued that by acquitting Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was setting the bar too high for convictions on grounds of aiding and abetting. However, personal sympathies aside and on the understanding that judges are supposed to be wholly impartial, the conclusions of either Chamber could legitimately be drawn from the facts. Unfortunately, the more conservative type of conclusion of the Appeals Chamber is the one I would have predicted judges at the ICTY usually to reach. My colleague Florian Bieber has made the reasonable point that ‘arguing that not all [the VRS's] activities were criminal is about as convincing as stating that the Mafia is not only involved in criminal activities and thus supporting it does not mean that one is “aiding and abetting” criminal activities.’ Following that analogy, Perisic could be compared to a powerful businessman who donates money, vehicles and properties to a charity known to be acting as a front for Mafia activities. Even if he clearly knew the charity’s true purpose, convicting him might not be so easy for the courts. Al Capone was, after all, only convicted for tax evasion.
This brings us to the ultimate reason for Perisic’s acquittal: the Prosecution’s case against him, resting as it did on a model of culpability that was judicially controversial, was not a strong one. The Prosecution was unable to prove his intent to commit crime, or that the assistance he provided to the VRS was intended to further its crimes. It was unable to link him directly to any specific crime. It could merely prove that he aided and abetted an army – the VRS – that he knew was engaging in criminal activities, but which was also engaging in lawful military activities.
The second reason why the Prosecution’s case was weak concerns the question of command responsibility. The Trial Chamber ruled that Perisic had no command responsibility over VRS forces, but that he did have such authority over the ‘Serb Army of Krajina’ (SVK – so-called ‘Croatian Serbs’), and in addition to aiding and abetting the VRS forces engaged in criminal acts as Sarajevo and Srebrenica, it convicted him for failing to punish the SVK perpetrators who shelled Zagreb in May 1995, killing and injuring civilians. But the Trial Chamber recognised that Perisic had ordered the SVK not to shell Zagreb and that it had disregarded his orders, choosing instead to obey the orders of Milan Martic, ‘President of the Republic of Serb Krajina’, to shell the city. This implicit recognition of Perisic’s lack of effective command responsibility over the SVK forces formed the basis for the Appeal Chamber’s overturning of his conviction for the war-crime at Zagreb – and even Judge Liu, who dissented from the majority over Perisic’s acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica, agreed with the majority on this count. In other words, the Prosecution chose to indict someone who had no command responsibility over the Bosnian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Bosnia (Sarajevo and Srebrenica) and only ambiguous command responsibility over the Croatian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Croatia (Zagreb).
Having myself worked as a war-crimes investigator at the ICTY, I am not at all surprised that four out of the five judges (and one out of three in the original Trial Chamber) were not convinced by the Prosecution’s case. Generally speaking, cases involving high-ranking perpetrators far removed from the crime base are complicated to build unless their command responsibility is clear and unambiguous. Thus, it was relatively straightforward to build a case against Milosevic for war-crimes in Kosovo, where his command responsibility (as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was clear. But more complicated to do so over Bosnia, where (as President of Serbia) it was not. In such cases where evidence of de jure responsibility is lacking, prosecutors need strong evidence of de facto responsibility.
But Perisic was not a Milosevic, Karadzic or Mladic. He was not a member of the top Serbian-Montenegrin-JNA leadership that planned and instigated the wars against Croatia and Bosnia, and his name is not listed among the principal members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise as laid down in the Milosevic indictments. He was commander of the Artillery School Centre in Zadar in Croatia, and in January 1992 became commander of the JNA’s 13th Corps, based in Bileca in Hercegovina. In these roles of less than primary importance, he participated directly in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Had the Prosecution chosen to indict him for war-crimes committed by his forces in this period, he would in all likelihood have been convicted. However, it did not.
The three principal phases of mass killing by Serb forces in the Bosnian war were the initial Serbian blitzkrieg of spring, summer and autumn 1992, resulting in the Serbian conquest of about 70% of Bosnian territory; the siege of Sarajevo, lasting from spring 1992 until autumn 1995; and the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The first of these claimed by far the largest number of victims; according to the figures provided by Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre, more Bosniaks were killed in the Podrinje region (East Bosnia) in 1992 than in 1995, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. Moreover, the regular Serb army forces that undertook the initial blitzkrieg, until 19 May 1992, were formally part of the JNA and not only de facto but also de jure under the command and control of Serbia-Montenegro, in the form of the rump Yugoslav Federal presidency made up of members from Serbia and Montenegro, and of the high command of the JNA/VJ.
Had the ICTY Prosecution indicted the top JNA commanders and Yugoslav Presidency members (from Serbia and Montenegro) who commanded these Serb forces during the blitzkrieg, and prior to that the earlier assault on Croatia, they would no doubt have been successful and Serbia’s direct responsibility for the war in Bosnia would have been judicially established. A successful outcome would have been particularly likely, given that a couple of these war-criminals have been obliging enough to publish their memoirs or diaries in which they admit their planning of the war.
On 19 May 1992, however, the newly proclaimed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), comprising Serbia and Montenegro, formally withdrew its forces from Bosnia, and a Bosnia Serb army – the VRS – formally came into being. Serbia’s political and military leadership thereby ceased to have de jure command and control over the Bosnian Serb forces. Furthermore, the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic ruled that, in fact, the Serbian leadership in this period did not have even de facto control over the Bosnian Serb forces either – as did the International Court of Justice, in its own 2007 verdict in the case of Bosnia vs Serbia. The arrangement whereby the Bosnian Serb war-effort would be formally independent of Belgrade was put in place with the deliberate intention by Serbia’s leadership of avoiding accusations of aggression and involvement in the Bosnian war. Of course, Serbia continued to provide extensive financial and military support to the Bosnian Serb forces. But it should have been clear to any war-crimes investigator worth their salt that convicting FRY military commanders of war-crimes in Bosnia after 19 May 1992 would be a much more difficult task.
Momcilo Perisic became Chief of Staff of FRY’s army, the VJ, only in August 1993, and his indictment by the ICTY only covers his activities from this period. The policy of supporting the VRS had been put in place under his predecessors, and though he was a strong supporter of the policy and apparently institutionalised it, he was scarcely its architect. Even as regards the siege of Sarajevo – one of the two crimes in Bosnia for which Perisic was indicted – the Serb killings of civilians peaked in the spring and summer of 1992 and dropped considerably thereafter, dropping particularly from around the time that Perisic took over (according to Tokaca’s figures). Chief of Staff Perisic was therefore a singularly bad choice of individual to indict for war-crimes in the period from August 1993: though he was not a simple figurehead equivalent to President Milutinovic, and enjoyed real authority in a post of considerable importance, he was ultimately just one of Milosevic’s interchangeable officers; little more than a cog, albeit a large one, in the military machine, and moreover in a part of the machine whose culpability for actual war-crimes was secondary at the time, since the Milosevic regime had devolved most of the killing to a different part – the VRS.
Had the ICTY prosecutors ever really understood the chronology and organisation of the Serb aggression against Bosnia, they could have avoided such a poor decision. But it is clear from reading Carla del Ponte’s memoirs that she, at least, never had more than a muddled understanding of it. She nebulously attributes primary and equal responsibility to the war as a whole to two individuals, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, but is unable to explain how that responsibility translated into the form that the war took. Although she deserves credit for eschewing a narrowly legalistic and lawyerly approach to war-crimes prosecutions and for attempting to view the big picture of the war – and therefore for insisting on genocide indictments in the face of conservative resistance from some of her colleagues – the big picture that she viewed was an erroneous one. Her starting point was not a global systemic analysis of the aggression, but apparently the big crimes with which she herself, as a non-expert on the war, was familiar – the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.
In her own memoirs, del Ponte’s former spokeswoman Florence Hartmann recalls that del Ponte insisted, among other things, that Milosevic himself be indicted for Srebrenica and Sarajevo, in the face of resistance from Geoffrey Nice and others, who feared that they would not be able to convince the judges of the validity of the charge. Del Ponte was thus motivated by the commendable desire to ensure that Serbia’s leadership would not escape responsibility for the killing in Bosnia, but her analytical confusion ensured her plan would not go well. In light of Perisic’s acquittal, Nice’s caution, as recalled by Hartmann, appears entirely vindicated. That said, it is worth restating that Perisic’s indictment covered only the period from August 1993, when he was Chief of Staff, not the period when the Serbian aggression was actually launched and the largest part of the killings occurred. Thus, the claims made by Dacic and by the Sense News Agency, that the verdict exonerates Milosevic and Serbia of aggression against Bosnia and Croatia and of culpability in the siege of Sarajevo, are unfounded. Furthermore, as noted above, the Appeals Chamber has not actually changed the facts as established by the Trial Chamber: that the VRS was engaged in criminal activity, at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and that Serbia’s army was aiding and abetting it while it was doing so.
On Twitter, Luka Misetic, the lawyer who successfully represented Gotovina, has succinctly referred to ‘Carla Del Ponte’s dark legacy: Perisic, Haradinaj, Oric, Gotovina, Cermak, Markac, Boskoski, Halilovic all indicted by CDP, all acquitted.’ The failure at the ICTY is that of a Prosecution that has repeatedly failed to secure the convictions of those it has indicted, not of the judges who were unconvinced by its cases.
‘The largest single ethnic-cleansing operation of the Yugoslav wars’ – such was the soundbite that was linked to Operation Storm (Operacija Oluja), from soon after the successful Croatian military operation was waged back in August 1995. That atrocities were carried out by Croatian soldiers and civilians during and after the operation has never credibly been disputed. But the attempt to paint Oluja as an ethnic-cleansing operation – indeed as an ethnic-cleansing operation larger in scale than the Serbian assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 – has always been rightly contested. Yesterday’s acquittal by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of Croatian commanders Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac for crimes against Serb civilians between July and September 1995, above all during ‘Operation Storm’, leaves the victims without justice, but represents a defeat for long-running attempts in the West to redistribute guilt from the aggressors to the victims.
Had the ICTY’s prosecution simply sought to indict, prosecute and punish Croats guilty of atrocities against Serbs in the period July-September 1995, it would no doubt have been successful, and the victims would have received at least some justice. Unfortunately, the prosecution attempted something more: to write the historical record of the wars of Yugoslav succession, in a manner that reflected the predominant perception of Western policy-makers. This perception was that, whereas the Serb side was responsible for the largest proportion of the crimes and killing, there was ultimately no fundamental difference in the guilt and actions of each of the sides during the war; it was merely a quantitative difference. In her published memoirs, Carla del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY at the time when the original indictment against Gotovina was issued, explicitly equalised the blame of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman as the two individuals primarily responsible for the war (Carla del Ponte and Chuck Sudetic, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst War Criminals and the Culture of Impunity, Other Press, New York, 2008, pp. 37, 87, 125). Del Ponte was less of an equaliser than some others, and did at least insist on indicting some Serb perpetrators for genocide, in the face of resistance from other senior prosecution staff. But she also became inveigled in diplomatic and propaganda games with Serbian government ministers, who put her under pressure to prove that the Tribunal was not ‘anti-Serb’.
Consequently, the ICTY prosecutors pursued a policy of indictments that would result in judgements that would support their politics. As I have written before, these indictments thus disproportionately targeted Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians; the forces of the Serb side were responsible for well over 80% of the killing of civilians during the whole of the wars of Yugoslav succession, but their officials made up only 68% of indictees. Only six officials of Serbia or the rump Yugoslavia, as opposed to Bosnian Serbs, were ever indicted for war-crimes in Bosnia. The top Yugoslav military commanders and presidency members who led the assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 (Borisav Jovic, Branko Kostic, Veljko Kadijevic, Blagoje Adzic, Zivota Panic and others) were never indicted. Conversely, the ICTY prosecutors indicted such high-ranking and prominent Croatian and Bosnian officials as former Croatian Army chief of staff Janko Bobetko, Bosnia’s two most important military commanders Sefer Halilovic and Rasim Delic, and Bosnian commander in Srebrenica Naser Oric. When Alija Izetbegovic died in 2003, del Ponte indicated that he might have faced charges had he lived. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, however, the courts stubbornly refused to uphold the picture the prosecution sought to paint: Halilovic and Oric were acquitted, and Delic was sentenced to a mere three years in prison, after the prosecution had sought fifteen. Bobetko was already near death when he was indicted, and died before being extradited.
The sorry story of the Operation Storm indictments and trials should be seen against this background. In Operation Storm, the Croatians were not trying to conquer anyone else’s territory; they were engaged in a defensive operation to free their own territory from occupation by troops controlled by a foreign state (Serbia); troops that were engaged at the time in armed aggression against a neighbouring state (Bosnia) and threatening to carry out a further genocidal act against its population, following the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica a month before. As I have written, Operation Storm was a successful case of genocide prevention that saved the Muslim population in the Bihac enclave of north-west Bosnia from experiencing the fate of the people of Srebrenica. Yet for those seeking to equalise, as much as possible, the guilt of the sides in the former-Yugoslav war, Operation Storm had to be presented as a gratuitous act of ethnic-cleansing by Croat perpetrators against Serb victims – equivalent to the Serb crimes of 1991-1992.
The indictees, Gotovina, Markac and Ivan Cermak were accused of being part of a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ (JCE) whose ‘common purpose’ was ‘the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, forced displacement, transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property or other means.’ This accusation therefore paralleled the prosecution’s accusations of a JCE levelled against the top Serbian leadership, whose goals were ‘the permanent removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from a large part of the territory of the Republic of Croatia’ and ‘the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, from large areas of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’. But Operation Storm had not involved the acts previously associated with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia: the rounding up of civilians; their being made to sign away their property to the authorities; their imprisonment, torture and killing in concentration camps; their being bussed out of the area. Instead, at the time of Operation Storm, the Serb authorities themselves organised and ordered the evacuation of the Serb civilians in the face of the Croatian offensive; whatever their intentions, the Croatians never had the chance to organise their removal.
To attribute the exodus of Serb civilians to Croatian actions therefore required the prosecution to develop a new model of how ethnic cleansing occurs. The ICTY prosecutors therefore argued that the Croatians aimed and succeeded in bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina by artillery bombardment. This was already a dubious proposition – towns in Bosnia had been shelled for years by Serb and Croat forces without their entire population fleeing overnight. The prosecution nevertheless argued – and the original ICTY Trial Chamber accepted – that the exodus of Serb civilians was caused by the bombardment, not by the orders given by the Krajina Serb authorities to evacuate. However, attributing the cause of the exodus to the bombardment was not enough to establish the existence of the JCE, in the absence of evidence that this had been the intent behind the bombardment. Since only the most ambiguous support could be found for the thesis in the statements of the Croatian leadership – above all, the minutes of the Brioni meeting of 31 July 1995 – the intent had to be deduced from the character of the Croatian artillery fire, and whether it appeared accurately to be directed at civilian targets. So the prosecution argued that the existence of a JCE could be deduced from the fact that the Croatian artillery had targeted civilian areas in the so-called Krajina, and that this bombardment succeeded in bringing about the exodus of the Serb population. But since the Croatian forces were engaged in a lawful military operation against enemy armed forces in control of those same civilian centres, the prosecution had to show that Croatian artillery fire was not simply a part of those operations. The existence of the JCE therefore stood or fell on an analysis of the accuracy of Croatian artillery fire. At The Hague on Friday, it fell like the house of cards it essentially was. Most of the judgement of the Appeals Chamber consists, somewhat surreally, of a lengthy analysis of Croatian artillery fire.
ICTY prosecutors have long demonstrated a confused understanding of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Their indictments have tended to target ‘famous names’ and acts people in the West had heard of; hence the notorious Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan and Vojislav Seselj were indicted, instead of Serbian leaders less well known in the West, but whose responsibility for crimes was much greater. The accusation that the Croatian bombardment of Knin, the capital of the ‘Republic of Serb Krajina’, was a ‘war crime’ originated with the arch-appeaser Carl Bildt, who was the EU’s special envoy for the former Yugoslavia at the time of Operation Storm. It was made in the context of an EU strategy that opposed any military action against Serb forces – either on the part of the international community, or on the part of the Croatians and Bosnians – and that sought instead to achieve peace in the former Yugoslavia through collaboration with the regimes in Belgrade and Pale. Bildt’s loud condemnation, at the time, of the Croatian bombardment of Knin, and his suggestion that it was a war-crime for which Tudjman himself should be held responsible, may have stuck in the minds of ICTY investigators as they considered how to pick Croatians to indict. Yet Knin had suffered minimal damage and civilian casualties as a result of the bombardment, made in the course of a legitimate military operation to recapture the town. This was in stark contrast to Vukovar, which was wholly destroyed by Serbian forces in 1991, and for whose destruction nobody was indicted by the ICTY (though some were indicted for atrocities carried out against the patients at Vukovar Hospital after the town fell).
Seventeen years later, Bildt’s red herring regarding the bombardment of Knin has met its ignominious demise. Since the Appeals Chamber ruled that the existence of a JCE could not be deduced from the pattern of Croatian artillery fire, the central premise of the prosecution’s case was thrown out. And since Gotovina and Markac had been selected for indictment on the basis of this premise, the rest of the case against them collapsed with it: the Appeals Chamber ruled that they had either attempted to prevent crimes against Serb civilians and property, or had not had effective control of those Croatian forces that had committed them. Had the prosecutors not focused on a supposed JCE, but instead sought to indict Croatian perpetrators who could actually be definitely linked to actual killings, they would no doubt have succeeded.
The Appeals Chamber’s verdict has not exonerated the Croatian side of crimes carried out during and after Operation Storm; on the contrary, it explicitly refers to crimes against Serb civilians in its acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. These victims have not now received justice, and critics are right to point out that the ICTY has failed them. The failure should be attributed, however, to the prosecution’s flawed indictment, not to the decision of the Appeals Chamber.
Not all these critics have been ready to point out the converse: that long before this verdict, the ICTY had already failed the victims of Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing against Croatia. Almost no official from Serbia, Montenegro or the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) has been prosecuted and seriously punished for crimes against Croatian citizens in 1991-1992. Of the three relatively minor JNA officers tried over the Vukovar Hospital massacre, one was acquitted (Miroslav Radic) and one freed after serving six and a half years in prison (Veselin Sljivancanin), while only the third received a lengthy punishment of 20 years (Mile Mrksic). Of those JNA officers or admirals indicted over the shelling of Dubrovnik, Miodrag Jokic received a seven-year sentence and was granted early release after three years; Pavle Strugar received seven and a half years and was released on compassionate grounds less than a year later; the indictment against Milan Zec was withdrawn; and Vladimir Kovacevic had his trial transferred to the Serbian courts. Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Momcilo Perisic was sentenced to 27 years – not for his actions in Croatia in 1991-92, but in part for the rocket attack by the Krajina Serbs on Zagreb in May 1995. Otherwise, the ICTY’s punishment to date has spared Serbia and fallen on Croatia’s own ethnic-Serb citizens who collaborated in the aggression (Milan Babic and Milan Martic). No official of Serbia or the JNA has so far been convicted over the Serbian conquest and ethnic cleansing of the so-called Krajina in the first place – the crime that made Operation Storm necessary.
With the quashing of the Operation Storm sentences, the ICTY can be accurately said to have failed seriously to punish the officers on either side in the war between Serbia (including Montenegro and the JNA) and Croatia of 1990-1995. Whether, having failed to punish the Serbian officers who occupied Croatian territory, justice would have been better served had the ICTY at least succeeded in punishing some of the Croatian officers who defeated the occupation, is a moot point.
I get older, they stay the same age – as someone once said in another context. It’s one thing I like about Bosnia genocide-deniers. When I first started taking them on at the age of nineteen, their arguments were already easy to refute, and I was hampered only by the limits of my own knowledge. Now, nearly two decades on, I know a lot more, but I still periodically find myself repeating the same old refutations of the same old canards – canards that sound increasingly silly as time goes by. Evidence that Germany ‘encouraged’ Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia, or that the Western media was ‘biased’ against the Serb side in the war, or that Bosnian forces shelled their own civilians to provoke Western military intervention against the Serb rebels, has proven as elusive as the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The steady gathering of forensic evidence has made the Srebrenica massacre the most well-documented genocidal crime in history. Yet like lambs to the slaughter, new waves of deniers step forward to sacrifice any reputations they might have in the service of a long-discredited cause.
I say ‘like’ because it makes the job of the historian wishing to refute their propaganda very easy. But it’s also extremely boring. A couple of years ago I sacrificed a couple of days of my life to writing a review that catalogued the numerous falsehoods and distortions contained in the sensationalist anti-Muslim propaganda tracts about the Bosnian war written by Christopher Deliso and John Schindler. Since then, I have never seen either of those books cited by any reputable author. If my review contributed to this happy state of affairs, then writing it was a worthwhile use of my time. But it’s a chore rather than a pleasure; I’d rather devote this time to historical research or writing.
Consequently, it has been with a certain inner groaning that I’ve become aware of the latest regurgitations of the old denialist narrative. One such regurgitation is David N. Gibbs, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2009). To give a foretaste of what you can expect of this book, Gibbs has this to say about the Srebrenica massacre: ‘Certainly, the murder of eight thousand people is a grave crime, but to call it “genocide” needlessly exaggerates the scale of the crime.’ (p. 281).
Needless to say, Gibbs has no academic expertise on the former Yugoslavia or the Balkans and does not read Serbo-Croat. He hasn’t bothered to engage with the existing literature, but simply ignored all the existing works that undermine his thesis. He has not tackled the evidence presented by Daniele Conversi, myself and others, that the Milosevic regime and the Yugoslav People’s Army deliberately engineered the break-up of Yugoslavia; or the work of Michael Libal and Richard Caplan, exploding the myth that Germany encouraged Croatia to secede from Yugoslavia; or the work of Brendan Simms, demonstrating that Britain’s intervention in Bosnia actually shielded Karadzic’s Serb forces from hostile international intervention. Instead, Gibbs has cherry-picked a few odds and ends in order to present the same old revisionist story, only with a larger number of endnotes than the previous versions written by Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti et al. Yet he must know very well that his book will not survive a critical review by a genuine specialist in the field, that it will be ignored by all serious scholars and that it will serve only to confirm the views of the small, dwindling minority already committed to the revisionist narrative.
Dear readers, I promise I will get round eventually to doing a demolition job on Gibbs’s sorry little propaganda pamphlet. For the time being, I mention him because he practices the old denialist trick in relation to the Srebrenica massacre, of describing the military actions of the Bosnian military commander in the Srebrenica region, Naser Oric – involving attacks on Serb villages around Srebrenica and atrocities against Serb civilians – while neglecting to mention the incomparably larger-scale Serbian offensives that preceded Oric’s actions, and to which the latter were a response. Gibbs writes:
‘The Srebrenica safe area had an especially brutal history, and it was besieged by Serb forces throughout the war. It is important to note, however, that Muslim troops also behaved brutally. Especially problematic was the Muslim commander Brigadier Oric, who based his forces inside Srebrenica and conducted forays against Serb villages in the surrounding region. One UNPROFOR commander later described Oric’s activities as follows: “Oric engaged in attacks during Orthodox holidays and destroyed [Serb] villages, massacring all the inhabitants. This created a degree of hatred that was quite extraordinary in the [Srebrenica] region… [etc.]“‘ (pp. 153-154).
Anyone reading this who didn’t know better would be left unaware that, prior to Oric’s offensives, Serb forces had massacred and expelled Muslims across the whole of East Bosnia – at Bijeljina, Zvornik, Visegrad, Foca, Bratunac, Srebrenica itself and elsewhere; that 94.83% of the civilians from the Podrinje (East Bosnia) region killed during the war were Muslims and only 4.87% were Serbs (according to the figures of the Research and Documentation Centre); or that more Muslims from Podrinje were killed in 1992 than in the year of the Srebrenica massacre. The military actions of Oric’s forces against neighbouring Serb villages were those of defenders of a beleaguered enclave whose inhabitants were threatened with massacre, rape, torture and expulsion already inflicted on other towns all over East Bosnia. That Gibbs lays such stress on Oric’s atrocities while wholly neglecting to mention the incomparably greater-in-scale Serb atrocities in the same region that preceded them is distortion of the most blatant kind; equivalent to writing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising without bothering to mention the Holocaust. No doubt the sort of bone-headed ultra-left activist who would turn to Gibbs’s book for information on the Bosnian war, instead of to a serious work, is easily and happily deceived.
Those wishing to read the history of the genocidal massacres of Muslims in East Bosnia in 1992 that don’t find a place in books like First do no Harm are recommended Edina Becirevic’s splendid Na Drini genocid, soon to appear in English translation, which demonstrates that the Srebrenica massacre was not an aberration but the culmination of a genocidal policy that began in East Bosnia in 1992. In addition, an excellent case study of the background to the Srebrenica genocide by Daniel Toljaga has recently been published on the website of the Bosnian Institute, entitled Prelude to the Srebrenica Genocide. Toljaga’s knowledge of the history of the Srebrenica genocide is unrivalled, and he traces the grim story: the summoning of local Serb-nationalist leaders to meet with Milosevic’s agent Mihalj Kertes in Belgrade in early May 1991; the killing of the first Muslim civilians in the Bratunac municipality on 3 September 1991; the killing of the first Muslim civilians in the Srebrenica municipality on 15 April 1992; and the deployment of the Yugoslav People’s Army around Srebrenica by April. As Toljaga recounts:
‘Following the takeover of Bratunac, the Serb forces began the attack on Srebrenica on 18 April 1992, firing around 5000 mortar shells on the town and the surrounding Bosniak villages. There was no resistance. The same day, Serbs entered the town, looting Bosniak property, setting houses on fire and killing Bosniak residents who were unable to flee into nearby woods. The Serb occupation of the town of Srebrenica lasted until 8 May, the day when Serbs burned to death 23 Bosniak civilians in the downtown Srebrenica. The victims died in excruciating pain. From April 17 to May 8, a total of 74 Bosniak civilians were killed in the occupied Srebrenica. The youngest victim was the 12-month-old boy Nezir Suljic whose charred body was still lying in his cradle. His father Huso, his mother Muška, and his brother Nisvet were burned to death in the same room. Nezir’s nine-year-old sister Sanela survived by jumping through a window and hiding in nearby woods.‘
Anyone reading Becirevic and Toljaga cannot pretend, as Gibbs does, that the ‘extraordinary hatred’ in the Srebrenica region began with Oric’s counteroffensives, which occurred subsequent to the Serbian attack on the region. Or can they ? The evidence suggests that revisionist authors of the kind under discussion here simply disregard all inconvenient evidence and go on repeating old falsehoods in their books and articles, which consequently have no scholarly credibility but which are nevertheless eagerly seized upon by their ideological fellow travellers. In his book, Gibbs touches on the question of Rwanda in 1994, which he avoids describing as a genocide. Complaining of the ‘asymmetrical focus on specific conflicts, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, or more recently, Darfur, and the ‘emotionalism’ that this involves, he advances the bizarre thesis that the massacres in Rwanda were caused by a fall in the price of coffee (pp. 219-220) ! Needless to say, this thesis is not borrowed from a genuine scholar of the Rwandan genocide; it is taken from an article by Michel Chossudovsky, a conspiracy theorist who has likewise argued that break-up of Yugoslavia was engineered by German imperialism as part of a ‘long Western efforts to undo Yugoslavia’s experiment in market socialism and workers’ self-management and to impose the dictate of the free market.’
Gerald Caplan, in tackling Edward Herman and David Peterson, two Srebrenica genocide deniers who have mutated into Rwanda genocide deniers, has written of ‘a tiny number of long-time American and Canadian genocide deniers’, who disregard the copious work of genuine scholars that undermines their denialist thesis, but ‘who gleefully drink each other’s putrid bath water. Each solemnly cites the others’ works to document his fabrications’. Indeed, as I recently wrote, the Srebrenica deniers simply will not stop digging, and are applying their same methods – already discredited over Srebrenica – to the if anything even more monumental task of trying to deny the Rwandan genocide.
In his latest response to Herman and Peterson, Adam Jones has noted:
‘Like Herman & Peterson, the deniers cherry-pick a few useful factoids and declamations from serious scholarship on Rwanda (or halfway serious, like Davenport & Stam), while dismissing the vast bulk of the scholarly and human-rights literature as hopelessly corrupted by nefarious (western/imperialist) interests. This has the additional advantage of cutting down on what would otherwise be an onerous reading list, since the literature on Rwanda is now so extensive, detailed, and utterly contrary to Herman & Peterson’s formulations. I confess I wondered, when preparing my first response to Herman & Peterson, whether their depiction of events in Rwanda in 1994 resulted from ignorance and incompetence, rather than actual malice. Their latest post rules this out, I’m afraid.’
Readers are strongly recommended to read Jones’s article, to confirm again – if any further confirmation is needed – what happens when genocide-deniers come up against a genuine genocide scholar.
This brings us back to the question of why genocide-deniers will devote so much time to writing texts that cannot withstand scholarly scrutiny, and that merely succeed in covering the deniers with infamy in the eyes of everyone outside their tiny denialist circle. These are the activities of a sect that needs its own myths to feed its followers so as to perpetuate itself. Bosnia and Rwanda are not treated as subjects for genuine scholarly enquiry, but merely episodes to be incorporated into the mythical narrative. So long as the sect’s followers continue to imbibe the myths, it does not matter if the rest of the world despises the sect and its myths.
In this context, the task of genuine genocide scholars is not to struggle to de-programme the sect’s followers – a generally impossible task – but merely to ensure that their poison is kept out of mainstream discourse on genocide.
Update: I have written three instalments of a demolition job of Gibbs:
One of the myths most frequently used in attempts at justifying the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 is the myth that the fighting in the Srebrenica region was started by the Bosnian side, and that the massacre was therefore an act of ‘retaliation’ or ‘revenge’. In this interview Nihada Hodzic, a survivor of the Zaklopaca massacre of 16 May 1992, tells Daniel Toljaga of the Institute for the Research of Genocide, Canada how Bosniaks in the Srebrenica region were persecuted and killed from the first weeks of the Bosnian war in the spring of 1992 – months before Naser Oric’s oft-cited raids against the local Serb villages.
This is a guest post by Daniel Toljaga of the Institute for the Research of Genocide, Canada
From April to June 1992, Serb forces plundered and torched hundreds of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) villages and hamlets in the municipality (district) of Srebrenica and the neighboring municipalities of Bratunac, Vlasenica, Rogatica, and Visegrad. According to the UN war crimes tribunal’s judgment in the Naser Oric case, ‘Srebrenica town and the villages in the area held by Bosnian Muslims were constantly subjected to Serb military assaults, including artillery attacks, sniper fire, as well as occasional bombing from aircrafts. Each onslaught followed a similar pattern. Serb soldiers and paramilitaries surrounded a Bosnian Muslim village or hamlet, called upon the population to surrender their weapons, and then began with indiscriminate shelling and shooting. In most cases, they then entered the village or hamlet, expelled or killed the population, who offered no significant resistance, and destroyed their homes.’ One of these villages was Zaklopača, a small place formerly in the Vlasenica municipality near the border with Srebrenica. On 16 May 1992, Serb forces approached the village and demanded Bosniak residents to hand over their weapons. Except few hunting rifles, Bosniak residents did not have any combat weapons to defend themselves. When the Serbs learned that the residents were effectively unarmed, they blocked all exists of the village and massacred at least 63 Bosniak men, women and children.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: Nihada, thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview. I am truly honored to have this opportunity. When you think of Zaklopača, do bad memories overshadow good ones?
NIHADA HODZIC: First of all, I would like to sincerely thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences and broader knowledge about the events of May 16, 1992, that would befall Zaklopača and much of eastern Bosnia as the Serb aggression progressed into the heartland of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I feel extremely fortunate to be in the position of talking to you about what exactly happened on that dreadful day, instead of being among the forgotten statistics that will never be able to demand justice for what has been done to them, and to us who were lucky enough to survive. I feel fortunate to have lived; however, I feel that much of the life my family and I knew died together with our loved ones. So to answer your question, yes, I believe that the bad events will inevitably overshadow the good memories until proper justice has been served. Though we survived, we live with the legacy and pain of this gruesome event and its memories will haunt us as long as we are alive. We would like to think of our relatives in more ‘happy’ terms, but whenever we remember how unjustly and brutally their lives were cut short, it brings us back to this sad reality we have to deal with — as we have still not seen those who committed the heinous murders brought to proper justice.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: A similar crime also took place in Zaklopača in the fall of 1941, when Serb Chetniks under the command of Nazi collaborator Jezdimir Dangić barricaded 81 Bosniak men, women and children in the local mekteb (Muslim religious school) and then burned them alive. Did you ever imagine that Serbs would repeat the Zaklopača massacre in 1992 – some three years before the Srebrenica Genocide and 50 years after World War II?
NIHADA HODZIC: Generally people were assured that nothing would ever happen to us – when we heard automatic weapons being fired in the distance, we were told that it was only routine ‘training’ by the armed forces. My grandfather was not as gullible however. He knew the picture looked very bleak and that something terrible was surely coming our way. You see, my grandfather Ibro Hodžić, was a survivor. He survived a line up shooting at the hands of his Serb neighbor where upon around a dozen other Muslims form the village were killed, my great grandfather included – he was killed by another Serb neighbor. My grandfather was only fifteen years old then in 1941 and you could say his quick thinking saved his life. As the intoxicated Četnik was loading another bullet to shoot, my grandfather fell to the ground just before he had pulled the trigger on his very old model shot gun. He lay there motionless for quite some time, during which more Serbs came and drilled a few more bullets into the heads of those still moaning with signs of life. My fifteen year old grandfather survived this ordeal in the 1940s just to be killed by the same people in 1992 on the steps of his own home, along with the rest of his five sons and grandson who was only sixteen at the time. But, no one could really understand my grandfather’s fears as we had a well trusted Serb neighbor Milenko Đurić (Gorčin) reassuring our safety time and time again, telling us “not even a hair will be missing from your bodies.” Unfortunately, we had trusted our Serb neighbors; we believed their deceitful lies to keep us grounded in the village. Prior to the massacre we had attempted to flee to a safe haven in Zivinice, however we were sent back with the same type of reasoning by the Serb neighbor. There is apt reasons to believe that he was directly or indirectly involved in the entire plot of the incident in Zaklopača. Gorčin played as a middleman who manipulated our fears and our trust in him as a long term neighbor and whom some even considered a great ‘friend’ in order to set the stage for a more effective premeditated “military” operation by the Serbs. We were certainly sensing the changing atmosphere and the deepening angst which was growing within our community – but we could have never imagined being betrayed in such a cruel way.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: What were the first signs that the massacre was about to happen?
NIHADA HODZIC: One week prior to the massacre two of my uncles and my father were arrested and brought for questioning to the Police Station in Milići. At the time my father was working in Boksit Transport, in Milići, where upon one day he along with his relative, on their way home, were taken by the reserve police and brought to the Milići police station. First however, they had asked for their identification cards, and made sure they were Muslim. Who ever had a Muslim name, they told them to form a line and to follow them to the station. When they finally reached their destination, for hours they interrogated them with petty questions. Question regarding personal family backgrounds to some other questions to which no one could give any answers to. For example they would point to a machine gun and ask whose it was – obviously no one could have known – when my father answered “I don’t know” the interrogator said “you will know” and shoved him off. At the police station my father along with hundreds of other Muslim men were shoved into a small room where he witnessed some very gruesome acts being performed on these defenseless civilian men. They were beaten beyond recognition, some defecated out of fear and it was simply a gruesome and frightening atmosphere. Shortly there after, though it seemed much longer to my father, our long time neighbor Gorčin, whom I have mentioned before, came to his ‘rescue’. Gorčin was responsible for my father’s release from the police station, and he was brought back home that same day, however my father, witnessing what he had, anticipated something far worse was brewing then we might have thought. Gorčin, again, reassured us that this would never happen again, that my father should continue to go to work, though my father had refused to go after this incident. Of course, other men where not so lucky, they were left behind at the station, and we are not sure what happened to them.
There are however other smaller indicators of the massacre coming our way. About the same number of days prior, Serbs were adamantly cruising through our village in search for weapons, and demanded that everyone who had any type of weapon even “hunting guns” – that they should hand them over. In other words, they were demilitarizing our village days before the actual massacre, making sure we had no way of defending ourselves, even though no one had claims to any type of lethal weapons anyway.
Also, just about when the massacre was to occur, my mother (Najla Hodžić) was in her vegetable garden just outside of our home, when Police jeeps and cars came flooding into our small town. It was noon, on a very beautiful and sunny Spring day on May 16, 1992. There were a few cars (she could not recall the exact number as they were driving back and forth through the village), in front of them a police car and following them a white jeep with the slogan “pokolj” (slaughter) written in Cyrillic across the vehicle. Our house was located right next to the main road, so my mother saw everything in clear view as they were rolling into the village, coming from the main road leading from the town Milići. She recalls that the vehicles had been packed with Četniks, with long beards, some with nylon socks covering their heads, and loaded Kalashnikovs across their broad chests. Upon seeing this, my mother hurriedly motioned my oldest uncle Bećir Hodžić (who was helping my mother around the garden) to run, yet his last words to my mother were “don’t worry Sister-in-law everything is going to be alright – don’t be afraid” when he was spotted by the Četniks and taken away, not to be seen alive again.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: At this point, you and your mother were also in immediate danger of being killed. Can you tell us what happened next?
NIHADA HODZIC: Once the vehicles moved further into town, my mother ran into the house and franticly began to pack the bare essentials (some clean clothes, food and a few family pictures) and get my sisters and I ready for the worse possible situation. I was only a small child then, but I remember, in the midst of this frightful situation I was so obnoxious as to whine about which clothes I was going to wear – obviously I was not fully aware of the seriousness of what was about to happen. At this time, we had no idea where my father was, and thus we would remain clueless of his whereabouts until almost one year later, when we finally found out that he was alive. But back to the massacre. My mother, my two older sisters and I ran across the yard to one of my other uncle’s homes (Haso Hodžić), at which time almost all my other aunts and their kids were gathered. Just as we, along with my other five aunts and their children and few other neighbors gathered inside, the lightning bolts began to fly, and the sound of thundering bullets began to ring on all sides. My mother was with me all the time – cuddling me inside her lap and shielding me from all the harm. The bullets whizzed through the house, creating big cratered holes as they made a full impact with the concrete walls. At one point, a bullet pierced through my mothers light denim jacket, as I was still cuddling in her lap. The bullet missed us both by a hair. For another fifteen to twenty minutes, the showers of deadly bullets filled the suffocating air, killing anything that was moving – anything that was alive would have met its final death. As it calmed down, we heard my second uncle (whose house we were all in) calling upon my aunt to come out. We all did, and form the porch we saw my uncle standing at gunpoint. A Serb, was aiming at him, ready to pull the trigger any time. My dear uncle looked pale, and afraid. He asked for a cigarette, and as he reached for the lighter in his pocket, the ringing sound of Kalashnikovs went off once more, and as we were all standing on the porch, we all saw my beloved uncle murdered in front of our very own eyes. His body was thrown up into the air at least a few feet from detonation and came back crashing onto the hot asphalt, motionless and lifeless. My grandmother saw her son mercilessly killed in front of her sorrowful, teary eyes. As she frantically yelled out “My son is Dead,” the Serb (Četnik) opened fire again, chasing us back into the house, shocked, dismayed and still in disbelief of what we had seen. But my grandmother ran out, bewildered, lost and deeply hurt into the streets – suffering a mental breakdown.
Through out this time, we were quite unaware of the whereabouts of my father (Ekrem Hodžić). From his perspective of the story, things followed in a different fashion from ours. While we were still inside the house, my father observed everything from the woods just above my grandfather’s house. As he saw the cars rolling into town, driving in the direction of the village ‘Gornji Zalkovik’ full of Četniks and returning empty. Curiously, my father went north into the woods to observe where they had gone while two of my uncles went down to see what was happening in town. Just as he reached into the woods the shorts began to fly. He remained in a state of shock as he began running deeper into the woods, however, unaware of where he was going he returned to the outskirts of the woods in dismay – unable to comprehend what was going on.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: When the shooting stopped, I can only imagine the shock and horror you and your family had to endure. Would you mind telling us what happened immediately after the massacre?
NIHADA HODZIC: As the thunder of bullets finally stopped, our small town was gasping for air – it was gasping for life. The Serbs left, the same way they came in, completing their heinous job with blood on their hands. The blood of innocence – the blood of Zaklopača. We dared to step out again, to witness that inferno, the death and destruction of this inevitable storm which plundered our town and raped it of its virtues and good life. We saw dead bodies everywhere. The smell of death permeated the entire town. Dead children, women, men. Bodies everywhere. We were in shock. The tears seemed to have almost dried up, nothing was coming out. It was like a nightmare! A terrible nightmare you desperately wished to wake up from, but never did. We covered my uncle with a blanket, and proceeded to go further into town – hoping to find survivors. We saw my eldest uncle (Bećir Hodžić) again – in a kneeling position with a cigarette still burning in between his index and middle fingers, his head bowed to the ground, and a puddle of blood next to him – he was dead too. We saw small children with their mothers lying side by side on the ground, motionless, very still – in an eternal sleep. We were told that my father was among the dead too. We couldn’t go on. My family and I decided to give our selves in (to “surrender” to the Serbs) – we thought we had no one left alive, in this highly emotional moment we were ready to die too.
My father, on the other hand, was met by other men who survived and fled into the woods. Among them was my uncle Bećir’s son Amir (seventeen at the time), who told my father, that everyone in town was dead — that they were the only survivors. My father also witnessed during this time, after the massacre, Serbs came back to the village to burry their crimes into yet another mass grave. My father saw everything. From this point onward, my father’s path diverged from my mother’s, sisters’ and my own. It is a long story… We later learned that my father was indeed alive, in March of 1993 we were re-united in Zagreb, Croatia.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: It is my understanding that remains of eight members of your family were located in the Zaklopača mass grave. Can you tell us more about them?
NIHADA HODZIC: I have actually lost many more relatives, as our small village was very closely knit and most of us were related in some way or another. It was a relatively small village, where over 200 people were ethnic Muslim Bosniaks. Around sixty percent of the entire population of Zaklopača – somewhere around forty percent were killed and the remaining Muslim population was ethnically cleansed from the area. My grandfather was Ibro Hodžić. He was killed along with my five uncles; Becir Hodžić, Huso Hodžić with his sixteen year old son Mersudin Hodžić, also, Haso Hodžić, Hamdija Hodžić, and Safet Hodžić. The entire ten member family of Ibis Hodžić which included my cousin Naida Hodžić who was only four years old at the time she was killed. Also, members from the family Hamidović who were our extended relatives. My father, and my two first cousins, Amir and Samir Hodžić were the only male survivors from my immediate family. But it is hard to separate the pain we feel for our close relatives from the pain we feel for our neighbors and good friends. We hurt for them all!
DANIEL TOLJAGA: Forensic reports indicate that the bodies of the Zaklopača massacre victims were first buried in the village, but were later dug up and relocated in order to cover up the crime – just as your father saw it happen. This looks like a well-planned operation, yet none of the people involved in this ghastly crime have ever been prosecuted. In your opinion, what should be done to put pressure on the authorities of Bosnia-Herzegovina to finally prosecute suspects for this massacre?
NIHADA HODZIC: Well, I am certainly no expert in this matter. All I can say is that my family has tried various means to identify those responsible and push for some sort of justice. My family, as well as other survivors form the village, have given numerous testimonies to different sources in an attempt to find any persons responsible, who were directly involved in the massacre. Our big obstacle is that most of the people who could have or might have known these Serbs were killed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my father was not close enough to identify any potential suspects, but we do know for certain that the Milići police force was directly involved in the Zaklopača massacre. Of course there were some attempts at questioning certain individuals, however nothing was ever established. The process has been extremely slow and exhausting, and thus far no one has been convicted nor held responsible for the crimes committed in Zaklopača in May of 1992.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: The ICTY court transcripts suggest Milenko Đurić was directly involved in the events leading to the Zaklopača massacre, including demands that Bosniak villagers hand over their weapons. I find it interesting that in the chain of command, he was directly under Milomir Stanić – former mayor in charge of all civil and military authorities. Stanić’s authority also stretched to Sušica camp where Serb forces subjected 2,500 Bosniak civilians to horrific conditions, torture, rapes, and murders. Do you think that Đurić and Stanić will ever be brought to justice to face justice?
NIHADA HODZIC: Unfortunately I am very pessimistic in this regard. I do not see any proper justice being served. As we have clearly seen from previous trials of Serb war criminals and their subsequent verdicts, that their given sentences are simply a superficial number, and are not completely enforced, for the most part. We do not wish to speculate on the levels of involvement ‘Gorčin’ had in the Zaklopača massacre, but we believe that he will walk free either way. We do have grounds to doubt that he may have indirectly been involved, as he did advise my uncle Haso in particular (because of their pre-war dislikes of each other) that he should give up his “weapon” insisting that my uncle had a gun and that he should hand it over to the Serbs. He also, as I said before, kept reassuring us safety and that we should all stay firm in our village as he said there was no need for us to go anywhere. No one, to this date, has been convicted of the war crimes in Zaklopača, and the current pattern in convictions do not indicate that there ever will be justice for the victims of the massacre.
DANIEL TOLJAGA: Thank you for taking part in this interview. Do you have any final words?
NIHADA HODZIC: Although I was very young, at the time of the Zaklopača massacre, I do live with its legacy to this day. My father still wakes up in nightmares from the haunting memories of that day, and my mother is still suffering from the side effects of shock and traumatic stress. Today, I am fighting to raise awareness in any way I can about what happened in Zaklopača on May 16, 1992, because I feel it is important to note that genocide was not limited to Srebrenica – it extended far and beyond – across all of eastern Bosnia. These were premeditated and cold blooded, calculated massacres, which targeted one particular group of people for extermination – the Muslim population – and we have to keep voicing these tragic events so that they may not be absorbed and forgotten in the pretext of larger massacres such as that of Srebrenica in 1995. I am currently in my last year of University studies, majoring in International Studies, and I wish to continue my fight on a larger political playing field, where I can demand proper justice for each and every death – each and every forgotten statistic. I wish to put a face to the number and have people remember what happened from 1992-1995 across Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that we do not repeat the same mistakes in the future. Peace still remains very elusive in Bosnia, and some of the rhetoric coming from politicians does not indicate a very optimistic future.
For more on the Zaklopaca massacre, see the Srebrenica Genocide Blog.
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left