Sunday 22 April 2018

Heartland where hatred still rules

Ed Vulliamy reported on the Bosnian bloodbath and helped alert the world to the concentration camp at Omarska. He finds little comfort in the capture of murderous warlord Ratko Mladic while national reconciliation is unimaginable

GRUESOME TASK: International War Crimes Tribunal investigators in September 1996 clear away soil and debris from dozens
of Srebrenica victims buried in a mass grave near the village of Pilica
GRUESOME TASK: International War Crimes Tribunal investigators in September 1996 clear away soil and debris from dozens of Srebrenica victims buried in a mass grave near the village of Pilica

WITHIN 20 years of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by the British army, the Beatles were playing in Hamburg. This was in part the achievement of the Beatles, of course, but it was also Germany's.

The country had undergone the painful and difficult process of reckoning in order to become the heart of democratic Europe; it is not the Jews who have built the monuments to the Holocaust in Germany, it is the Germans.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the closure of the concentration camps in Bosnia and the beginning of the three-year hurricane of violence unleashed across that stillborn country by General Ratko Mladic and his peers, until the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 -- the worst wartime atrocity in Europe since 1945.

There is inevitable relief and even a sense of triumph that Mladic will soon, perhaps as soon as tomorrow -- pending the predictable whingeing about his health -- be on his way to The Hague.

But there is also something sick and hollow in this moment, which comes a decade after Mladic's master, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, undertook the same itinerary.

The Serbian state was ostensibly hunting this man while he enjoyed a military salary and pension. I spent a drunken night in Belgrade not long ago with Mladic's lunatic entourage -- men who had been arrested for sheltering him and who made it very clear they were in communication with their mentor.

There has been no real reckoning among the Bosnian Serbs -- and very little in Serbia proper -- of the kind the Germans underwent. The EU may deem that sufficient movement towards amends has been made to warrant negotiations for Serbian entry into its family of nations, but on the ground nothing has actually occurred.

The northwest of Bosnia and the Drina Valley in which the worst atrocities occurred remain cesspools of the hatred that led to the slaughter; a crazed mixture of justification and denial which suggests that the communities for whom Mladic is a hero would do it all again.

In less well-known towns in eastern Bosnia, such as Visegrad and Foca, where thousands of Muslims were murdered, packed into houses and incinerated alive, raped or forcibly evicted, there are monuments -- but they are erected to the handful of fallen Serbs from those places who died on the front.

On the day that we entered the Omarska concentration camp in 1992, it was described by the president of the Bosnian Serb "crisis staff" which managed it -- Milomir Stakic, currently serving 40 years after his conviction at The Hague -- as "a collection centre, not a camp". Earlier this month, a group of survivors of the camp wanted to go on to the site, now an iron ore mine, to commemorate the dead; the local authority in the presiding town of Prijedor objected, insisting that Omarska had been no more than "a collection centre". The same revolting term, two decades on.

There is no memorial to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of Muslims and Catholic Croats who perished in Omarska -- a site mined and 51 per cent owned by Britain's richest "non-dom" (someone resident but not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes), the steel magnate and part-owner of Queens Park Rangers Lakshmi Mittal -- although their skeletons and remains continue to be excavated all around the mine.

There is, however, a memorial near Srebrenica -- on the insistence of the international community that facilitated the massacre. When the widowed and fatherless women made journeys to it they faced baying Bosnian Serb crowds brandishing the portrait of Ratko Mladic. The same portrait adorns bars, cafes and souvenir stalls all over Serbia and the Bosnian "entity" they call "Republika Srpska".

The Republika Srpska makes no secret of its desire to either accede to Serbia proper, or to make Bosnia such a dysfunctional state that it becomes pointless beyond the heart-stopping beauty and delightful warmth and humour of its people.

Postage stamps sold in the capital, Sarajevo, are not valid in the RS; railway engines have to be swapped as a train from Ploce to Zagreb crosses the country, from Croatian, to Bosnian, to Serbian and back to Croatian again (and these countries want to join the EU?).

Oddly, the only international organisations to sanction Bosnia for the weirdness of this partition are Fifa and Uefa, who dealt football fans the crushing blow of demanding that the game be run by a single national authority before the country or its clubs could compete internationally -- something the RS is determined not to concede.

The various strata of the well-paid international presence in Bosnia preach "reconciliation". The arrest of Mladic will be seen as part of the process, and in some ways rightly.

Recently, for a book, I have begun touring Europe and America to speak to those scattered folk who have survived or been bereaved by Mladic's violence. No Serb they have ever met has admitted, let alone apologised, for what was done -- quite the reverse, in fact. No reckoning.

"Reckoning" is one of the harshest words in the English language: it means coming to terms with what was done in the wake of calamity, staring at oneself in the mirror, and making amends, historical, political and material.

The delivery of Mladic for trial is an important moment, but for justice rather than reckoning. The substance of reckoning is on the ground and among the people who gladly carried out Mladic's heinous orders. There, it is not happening. And without reckoning, there can be no reconciliation, and thereby no real peace.

Sunday Independent

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