March 24, 2016

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić  was convicted and sentenced today by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The U.N judges found him guilty of genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and of nine other war crimes charges.

Karadžić is the most senior political figure to be convicted in the tribunal  — but  in some ways this is only another chapter in the larger sage of the Balkans conflicts. There are dozens of accused from the former Yugoslavia, some convicted, others whose cases are winding their way through the tribunal.

“The justice process is not yet finished,” noted a statement from the prosecutor’s office. “Too many victims in the former Yugoslavia are still waiting for justice. And too many families still do not know the fate of their loved ones.”

No one, I wager, can legitimately claim to understand the Balkans; novelist and diplomat Ivo Andrić perhaps came close. The lands — some as rugged as any on earth — have been contested for as long as humans have inhabited them, and the communities are complicated by religion, rivalry and bitter history.

The so-called Balkans Conflicts of the ’90s, as the eastern communist bloc crumbled and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, was horrific. We see the evidence of that in the documents and testimony before the tribunal, but also in the shattered walls,  ravaged earth, and traumatized people.

Everywhere through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska to the north lie tombstones. Buildings are still hollowed out from the war. Almost nothing is free of damage left by weapons.

“It was a village war,” said the owner of the bed and breakfast where I stayed in Mostar in the winter of  2011. He was a 20-something Muslim who called himself “The Turkman.” He spoke of roaming freely through the whole village as a kid, pointing across the river at the new part of town. He survived the conflict because his family sent him to safety in Germany. When I met him, he had just recently returned to help them start a tourist business.

His hostelry was a sign that Mostar, and the region, was showing signs of economic life.

Yet, still, he said, no one of the different religious communities in tiny Mostar dared cross the borders of the other communities. Before the conflict they had been friendly.

Gravestones filled all of the yards along the street in the Muslim area, bombed-out buildings dotted the town.

“A village war is the worst,” he said.

Reconstruction, paid for by international donors, was well underway when I was there. Yellow buses with the flag of Japan, which paid for them, provided public transit in towns. Heavy equipment was at work throughout the countryside building roads. The famous bridge of Mostar, the Starry Most, was a tourist draw after being refurbished by money from the United Kingdom. Even ancient roadside villages, such as Počitelj in Bosnia, right, housed little cafes and signage in multiple languages for the tourists they hoped would eventually come.

Rebuilding the physical structures might be the least challenging remedy to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Fixing  people is harder. Will the justice now being meted out at the Hague, along with time,  repair the extreme social damage?

Copyright Deborah Jones 2016

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