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Reflections on a Bosnian Massacre

Joe Rubin

Joe Rubin filming for FRONTLINE/World in the Bosnian city of Mostar.

It's never a simple path in the Balkans. How could it be after such a devastating civil war that pitted neighbor against neighbor? Especially in Serbia these days, it seems like two steps forward and one step backward. And that's on a good day.

Take yesterday. Serbia's president Boris Tadic showed up to lay a wreath at Srebrenica in Bosnia where 10 years to the day some eight thousand Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb troops. Having the president of Serbia take responsibility for such unspeakable acts was an important symbolic gesture. It was also unfortunately something of a charade.

Serbia still lacks the political will to arrest the man who ordered the killings, the former General Ratko Mladic, who has been given protection by a shadowy group of former cronies of deposed Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Mladic has roamed his country free for years. Tadic's gesture of attending the Srebrenica memorial was genuine and brave, but his position of president in Serbia is largely a symbolic one; the real power rests with Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica. And Kostunica stayed home.

In late May, a videotape emerged that was Serbia's version of the Abu Ghraib photos. It showed clearly identified Serb paramilitary forces first being blessed by a Serbian Orthodox priest, and then proceeding to kill in cold blood a half dozen bound Bosnian civilian men. After the tape was broadcast on Serbian TV, Kostunica did respond, rounding up some of the men on the tape. But he failed to rise to the occasion of the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, qualifying his condolences with reminders about crimes against the Serbs.

Nicolie Seselj

Nicolie Seselj, son of Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, at the party offices in Belgrade.

Complicating matters has been the rise of the ultra-nationalist party, the ominous and aptly named Radicals. The Radical's guru and official leader, Vojislav Seselj, sits in a Hague jail cell awaiting trial for war crimes in Bosnia. Over the last three years, the Radicals have risen from obscurity to being the biggest party in Serbia's parliament and the most popular. Though they lack a majority in parliament, they are a very noisy opposition.

"Ordinary people live in a state of confusion," Saska Rankovic an analyst for the independent Beta news agency in Belgrade, told me yesterday. I've known Rankovic and her journalist husband Rade now for six years, and always look forward to her sharp analysis.

"What the Serbian people need is someone to tell them the truth. And this can't be external truth coming from the West or from human rights groups. It has to be at home. Kostunica has some kind of mental block when it comes to leveling with people. He is afraid of losing support. In this way, Kostunica's party is being blended into the campaign led by the nationalists."

Saska Rankovic with daughter Martha

Saska Rankovic with her daughter Martha.

I asked Rankovic if things would have been different had former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, a reformer, not been assassinated in 2003. "Djindjic was an extraordinary figure," she said. "He wasn't afraid of speaking the truth and facing things; he had the respect of Serbs."

I have to admit to being something of a recovering romantic when it comes to Serbia. I spent several months with the students who built the protest movement that toppled Milosevic. Those students were unflinching in their condemnation of war crimes, and they were very much Serbian patriots at the same time.

But after I heard what just happened at the annual Exit Music festival in Serbia's second largest city of Novi Sad, I realized that those days are gone. The organizers had planned to turn down the techno for a few minutes and have a moment of silence for the victims of Srebrenica. The Radical party, as part of an organized backlash following the release of the Srebrenica videotape, threatened to take away the festival's funding the following year.

Incredibly, the organizers backed down. They canceled the moment of silence. At first they came up with the compromise of playing the Annie Lennox song "I Saved the World Today," and dedicating it to the victims of Srebrenica. But they dropped even that tame tribute after a bomb threat was called in, threatening violence if there was any kind of moment dedicated to Bosnian victims at Srebrenica.

So that is what it has come to in Serbia these days, all an ultra-nationalist needs to keep the country mired in the past is a cell phone.

"That was total craziness," Saska Rankovic told me. "If they say they are going to have a moment of silence, they should follow through with it and not be intimidated by the radicals. Srebrenica's massacre was more than a war crime; it is genocide beyond reasonable doubt. There is no excuse or reasonable explanation for that crime, no matter how many Serbs were killed before Srebrenica. As far as I'm concerned, the most important thing is that everyone who contributed in that crime must face the justice, first of all Ratko Mladic. As a Serb, I want to put a clear demarcation line between Milosevic's death machinery and me."

"I believe apologies are meaningless if we first do not bring all responsible in court to face the justice," Saska added. "If we do that, if all war and other criminals go to jail, maybe we could reach harmony and understanding with our neighbors Muslims in Bosnia and Croats.

"I have a 20-month-old daughter, Martha, and I believe she has a chance to live her life relaxed and peaceful, so I would like to see some progress on this."

Saska concluded with a comparison to World War II.

"A popular question in Germany some 20 years after the Second World War was: 'Hey Dad, what were you doing during the war?' I think that was the most unpleasant question a kid could ask. And I often wonder if I have a problem with that possible question if Martha asks me one day. No, I always fought against the deadly Milosevic regime and along with many people here, paid a good price for that. But, yes I belong to the generation that was unable to prevent disaster for more than 10 years and therefore I may not have paid as much as I should."

Bakir Hadziomerovic

Bakir Hadziomerovic, investigative reporter for the Bosnian TV show 60 Minutes.

I also spoke yesterday with Ivan Vevoda, a former top Djindjic aide and now head of the fund for Balkan Trust for Democracy. He argued that there is at last a process of dealing with the war that is emerging from the dark shadows of the Milosevic era.

"This has overall been a year of progress," Vevoda said. "Twelve people have been turned over to The Hague. And the emergence of the Srebrenica tape set off some healthy soul searching in Serbian society."

Vevoda passed along the latest prognosis about when when the fugitive General Mladic might be apprehended and turned over to The Hague: September. There had been a flurry of rumors that the arrest of Mladic would coincide with the anniversary of Srebrenica this week. But that deadline, like so many others before it, has come and gone. The reason for thinking that Mladic's arrest might come by September is that there will be key talks in October about bringing Serbia into the European Union, and on exploring making Serbia part of NATO. Neither will happen unless Mladic is turned in.

The Bush administration had a low-key presence at the Srebrenica memorial. World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense, put in an appearance. And before he was cornered on the future of Karl Rove, White House spokesman Scott McClellan led off the daily press briefing with a statement from President Bush remembering the victims of Srebrenica and calling for the capture of Mladic and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the other big fish still at large.

"I don't believe that George Bush even knows who the hell Radovan Karadzic is," investigative TV reporter Bakir Hadziomerovic had told me when I interviewed him during my last trip to Bosnia. There is an understandable cynicism in Bosnia that the West really wants Karadzic behind bars. Somehow Karadzic, wanted for genocide by The Hague tribunal, has felt comfortable enough "on the run" to write a novel filled with nationalist rhetoric, which has become a best seller in Serbia this year.

The capture of Karadzic and Mladic would be a huge boon for the younger generation in Serbia and Bosnia who yearn to move into the future and become a part of Europe. But for that to happen it will take more than a day of posturing on the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. It will take guts and political will to stand up to the powerful ultra-nationalists who are still stuck in the hatreds of the past.

Watch Rubin's FRONTLINE/World report "Dark Shadows" filmed in Bosnia and Serbia.

Joe Rubin is a video journalist, who has reported for FRONTLINE/World from Sri Lanka, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and now Serbia and Bosnia.


Daniel Tebar - Hollywood, FL
The entire world needs to be cured of the sickness of Karadzic, and the malady of Mladic.