Mladic verdict brings closure, but reconciliation a distant prospect
Watching former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity this week, I thought of the women of the Ademovic family in Dublin.
They are among the women of Srebrenica who lost fathers, husbands, brothers and sons when Mladic's forces overran the besieged Muslim town in July 1995 despite the fact the United Nations had declared the enclave a "safe area".
The Ademovic women remember seeing Mladic pat the heads of children whose fathers his forces later rounded up and took away to be killed. Among the stories recounted at a later war crimes tribunal was that of an elderly man pinned to a tree and forced to eat his grandson's entrails. "Truly scenes from hell," said the judge, "written on the darkest pages of human history".
More than 60 men from the extended Ademovic family were among the 8,000 who perished in Srebrenica's massacre. The Ademovic women moved to Dublin in the late 1990s, joining a brother who survived only because he was one of the first Bosnian refugees to arrive in Ireland in 1992.
They have returned to Srebrenica several times since the dark days of 1995 to bury male relatives whose bodies had been identified through an extensive DNA testing project. Each year Srebrenica's cemetery - a vast place of white gravestones - hosts mass burials for those whose remains have been identified over the previous year. More than two decades later, that painstaking work to allow families to bury their loved ones continues. And each year the burials bring memories flooding back.
As Sanela Ademovic often says: "The war never really goes away."
When Judge Alphons Orie at the United Nations-backed international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague began delivering the verdict against Mladic this week, the man nicknamed the 'butcher of Bosnia' stood up shouting "this is all lies" before he was forcibly removed from the courtroom. He was found guilty of 10 offences related to "ethnic cleansing" operations in Bosnia when he was chief of staff of Bosnian Serb forces between 1992 and 1996.
The court found Mladic - now in his mid-70s and a shrunken version of the burly, boorish commander whose unapologetic TV interviews were a mainstay of the Bosnian war - was the chief military overseer of a campaign to force out or eradicate Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs in a bid to carve out a 'Greater Serbia'.
The bloodiest year was 1992, during which 45,000 were killed. In Sarajevo, the storied Bosnian capital, civilians were terrorised by snipers and shelling during a siege that lasted years. Months after the horror of Srebrenica in 1995, the Dayton accord was signed to bring an end to a conflict that had by then cost some 100,000 lives.
Concluding Mladic's trial this week, Judge Orie said his crimes "rank among the most heinous known to humankind". Some 600 people, including survivors of the war, gave evidence during a trial that lasted 530 days over a period of five years. Several survivors were present in The Hague for Mladic's sentencing, including Fikret Alic, the Bosnian whose emaciated frame as he stood behind the wire of a Serb prison camp in 1992 shocked the world. "Justice has won and the war criminal has been convicted," Mr Alic said after the verdict.
Human rights organisations hailed the judgment as historic and a reminder to others who have committed or continue to commit war crimes elsewhere that justice can be served decades later.
The United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, called it "a momentous victory for justice" and described Mladic as "the epitome of evil".
The verdict - which followed the trials of Mladic's political leader Radovan Karadzic, jailed for 40 years on similar charges last year, and others - will help bring some closure for those whose lives were devastated by Mladic's campaign.
But Bosnia remains a troubled place and the history of the war is still contested today. Srebrenica, two-thirds Muslim before the conflict erupted, now lies within Republika Srpska, an entity within Bosnia ceded to the Serbs by the Dayton agreement, and its population is mostly Serb. Many Serbs bitterly dispute the official version of events and deny the mass killings were an act of genocide. The remarks by Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, following the Mladic sentencing this week showed how deeply the disconnect runs. "Regardless of the verdict that we all feel as part of the campaign against Serbs, Ratko Mladic remains a legend of the Serb nation," Mr Dodik said. An uneasy peace may prevail where Europe's worst conflict since World War II once raged but reconciliation remains a distant prospect.