TCS Daily

Bosnia's Big Picture

By T.K. Vogel - September 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Reuters is reporting that Richard Gere will start shooting his new movie in Sarajevo later this month. Flak Jacket, based on a true story, follows an American war correspondent's quest to uncover the hideout of Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who is of course still at large.

Needless to say, the reporter didn't find Karadzic. Nobody has.

This doesn't mean the issue of war crimes is off the table, though -- quite the opposite. Increasing pressure on Serbia to yield up Karadzic's military sidekick Ratko Mladic will keep it in the headlines throughout the fall, while the capture and subsequent trial in The Hague of either man would be bound to pique the interest of even the most cynical Balkan-watchers, and a great many other people as well.

In the meantime, it is another movie, first aired by Belgrade TV station B92 in early August, that is keeping the debate going.

The video showed the typical Balkan warfare: brutalized civilians, burning villages, columns of refugees inching their way through an indifferent landscape. As is typical for this type of footage, neither the identities of the people on the tape nor the circumstances in which they did what they did seemed to matter much, though in this particular case the victims were Serb and the perpetrators Muslim. (In one segment, foreign jihadists are harassing a POW; in the next frame, we see his body lying on the ground, his throat slit.)

Of all the shocking images on the new tape, the most shocking wasn't this brutal murder by Islamist fighters or the execution-style killing of another POW but the sight of General Atif Dudakovic of the Bosnian army's Fifth Corps, a revered wartime commander, apparently ordering the torching of Serb villages. "Burn it, burn it all," he shouts into his radio as he walks towards the village.

This one picture shattered the myth that everything undertaken in defense of the Bosnian state was just, and just defense -- though it didn't deter the Bosniak presidency member from reaffirming precisely that, without as much as a nod in the direction of this new evidence.

In light of the generic, if awful, nature of the pictures, it was perhaps to be expected that they did not prompt a reassessment of well-rehearsed claims and counter-claims. Pundits and politicians on all sides took the footage as proof that they had been right all along in their interpretation of the war and the crimes it had brought.

The 1992-1995 war in Bosnia was really two conflicts rolled into one: an external aggression against this newly-independent state by two neighbors, Serbia and Croatia, and a civil war among Bosnia's three main peoples, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), fueled by the regimes in Belgrade and Zagreb. Both of these conflicts were being played out, often simultaneously, on the battlefield and in various campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" that displaced over half of Bosnia's population. They hardened into mutually exclusive, comprehensive explanations for cause and conduct of the war, ethno-national narratives held by one or the other community to justify its actions during the war.

The reactions to the tape were fully in line with these narratives: Dudakovic had merely defended Bosnia against Serb aggression, the Bosniak side said; the pictures proved that all sides had committed atrocities in a war for which no side held particular responsibility, it sounded back from the Serbs. But these are not simply arguments about the past; they are also about the way in which war crimes should be judged today, both before local and international courts.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY) is the primary venue for post-conflict justice in the Balkans, though local courts have also by now established special war-crimes chambers that have begun working quite well in some cases. Since the ICTY is no longer accepting new cases (which didn't stop Serbia's justice minister from flying to The Hague with the Dudakovic videotape in his cabin luggage, more to score points at home than to advance justice), these domestic courts will become increasingly important.

For the moment, though, war-crimes justice is above all justice from The Hague, and the ICTY will not deliver in one key respect: the Tribunal is about individual responsibility, not about the nature of the conflict that made these atrocities possible. It is about what's on the tape, not about what one can't see there. It is not, and cannot be, about which of the prevailing narratives is true, or a more accurate interpretation of reality, or a better explanation of the motivation behind an individual's actions.

Of course such individual accountability needs to be established; as long as new mass graves are discovered all the time -- the largest one dug up this summer contained the remains of more than 1,100 people -- individual criminal responsibility looks like a rather good idea. But in the long run, if Bosnia's communities ever want to live together again, they will need to start debating their wartime narratives. Such a mediation cannot take place through judicial procedure: it is an intensely political act, though one that is still far beyond the grasp of most Balkan politicians and their constituents. It would be misplaced to criticize the Tribunal for not doing this job for them.

But perhaps the two dominant narratives will in any case soon be eclipsed by a third, the most powerful of them all: the truth according to Hollywood.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (, a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung.


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