Fergal Keane diary: The fact is the bad guys win a lot in a struggle of memory against forgetting
Despite the hopes of the international tribunals following the Bosnian war, it has become easier to cloud history in a collective amnesia than remember the truth
Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30
It is common among foreign correspondents to bemoan the wars they didn't cover. Nothing is more annoying than listening to colleagues waxing about adventures you missed. I reported on most of the conflicts of the late 20th Century. But I never got to Bosnia. I was in Africa then, reporting on the transition to democracy in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda.
After the ceasefire I was sent to report on the exhumation of mass graves from the Srebrenica massacre. We were taken to a huge mortuary where human remains were taken out and laid on the ground. Relatives walked around looking at the decomposed corpses. A woman identified her son from a diabetic needle. Some spotted familiar clothing. Others looked in vain for fragments of the lost. The air was filled with cries. My cameraman was Eugene McVeigh. We were old friends from Belfast days. It is to my shame that I was too busy focusing on the scene around me to stop and think what all this might have meant to him. His 19-year-old brother Colomba was abducted and disappeared by the Provos in November 1975. Despite intensive searching of Bragan bog in County Monaghan his body has never been found.
Bodies vanish. They belong to the earth, mulching into bogs, woods, the beds of rivers. The loved ones keep searching. Colomba's mother Vera died without knowing where her boy was buried. The search is being kept up by Eugene and his siblings but to date the IRA has failed to come up with a precise location.
For the rest of us a great forgetfulness takes over. The truth, I fear, is that we are more comfortable with amnesia.
Last week I was back in Bosnia, in the Serb entity known as the Republika Srpska. My room looked out on the famous Ottoman bridge on the River Drina. In the terrible spring and summer of 1992 extreme Serb nationalists murdered around 3000 Bosnian Muslims in and around Visegrad. Hundreds of women were raped. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee. Before the war Muslims were a majority in Visegrad. Now there is a handful left.
You can judge the attitude of the Serb local authorities by their actions. In the centre of town there is a monument to the Serb soldiers killed in the war. But there is no civic monument to the murdered Muslims. There are no words inscribed in stone to describe what happened on the bridge.
Thanks to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, we do have eyewitness testimony. Fahida D gave the following account.
"We saw them by day or by the city lights, whether they were killing men that time, women or children. It took half an hour, sometimes more…sometimes they would throw people off alive…shooting at the same time…sometimes they would make them swim a bit, then shoot."
Witness Hasena C saw her mother and sister killed: "I watched them put my mother and sister astride the parapet, like on a horse. I could hear them both screaming, until they were shot in the stomach. They fell into the water, the men laughing as they watched. The water went red."
I had lunch with a former Bosnian Serb commander. This man was an infantry officer who was a senior figure in the siege of Sarajevo. He sipped a Slivovitz - a plum brandy - and smoked relentlessly. He whined about the state of the town. There were no jobs. The system was so corrupt you had to pay to get anything done. "We have nothing now. What was the war for?" At such moments I really have to delve deep into my capacity for detachment. You are here to listen and find things out. Keep your mouth shut. What you feel doesn't matter. I asked him about war crimes, a vague inquiry, nothing that pointed towards him. "We only fought to defend ourselves. We had to defend ourselves." It was the cracked record of the professional victim.
Visegrad represents the extreme of historical amnesia. The Serb authorities are being allowed to construct a past free of atrocity. They will remember the war as a glorious fight for Serb self-determination. All of this is thanks to the peace agreement overseen by the international community at Dayton. The aggressors were rewarded with the land from which they had 'ethnically cleansed' their neighbours. In some respects at least, the bad guys won.
The fact is they win a lot. Look around and the killers and their apologists are doing pretty well for themselves in many places.
The international tribunals could only deliver justice in a small number of cases. Some of the most notorious killers were put on trial. Others down the line were left to local courts.
But justice for the dead was only part of the project. The hope was that the evidence given in court would form part of a collective memory. There it would be for future generations, set in plain print. Milan Kundera wrote that the "struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting". He did not see power as simply belonging to an overbearing state, but to all who held sway over the lives of others. Now that the aggressors can recast themselves as victims, history is not so much being re-written as obliterated.
Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent