Mladic arrest only one step in healing Balkan wounds

The arrest of Ratko Mladic is a major step towards reconciliation in the Balkans, analysts said, but the region is still a long way from healing the wounds of its tragic history.

“It is a very, very important step. But it is like putting a Band-Aid on a huge wound. Much more needs to be done to heal the wound,” said Refik Hodzic of the New York-based International Centre for Transitional Justice.

Less than 20 years ago, the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Slovenia and Kosovo that came with the disintegration of Yugoslavia left tens of thousands dead and many more scarred by memories of massacres and atrocities.

The path to reconciliation has been slow and is far from over, though the process of bringing to justice those allegedly responsible for the worst atrocities — like Mladic — is a key step, analysts said.

“For many victims, Ratko Mladic was the face of the crimes that were committed partly because of the images showing him rejoicing at the fall of Srebrenica,” said Hodzic, a former outreach coordinator for the United Nations war crimes tribunal in Bosnia.

The 1995 Srebrenica massacre — the worst single atrocity in Europe since the end of World War II — saw 8 000 Muslim men and boys rounded up by Bosnian Serb forces and systematically executed.

Mladic, accused of masterminding Srebrenica and other atrocities during the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian war, was arrested on Thursday and is set to be transferred next week to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

A closed chapter?
But while Serbia President Boris Tadic said Mladic’s arrest has “closed a chapter” in the region’s history, analysts said it will take much more to turn the page on the bloody legacy of the Balkan wars.

“What I am afraid of is that our politicians think that the arrest of Mladic is the good thing to close the issue of the past,” said Natasa Kandic, the director of the Humanitarian legal centre in Belgrade.

But what the region really needs, she said, “is to have a big debate in all the former Yugoslav countries about what happened” and to establish the facts of the conflicts.

“Without facts being established, it is difficult to think of compromise, lasting peace and reconciliation,” she said.

Separating fact from fiction will be a titanic task as each country presents its own version of the conflicts.

In schools, history textbooks offer interpretations that are widely different from Croatia to Serbia, or in different parts of Bosnia, which is divided between the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

“If we want a sustainable peace, if we want to avoid potential conflicts emerging in 50 years, it is crucial that young people across the region learn what really happened,” Hodzic said.

A crucial opening
Some efforts are being made to find a common history, with Kandic’s centre and other groups calling for the governments of former Yugoslav countries to set up a regional commission to establish the facts of the conflict.

About 300 000 people have signed a petition calling for the commission, Kandic said, and organisers are hoping to gather one million signatures by the end of June.

Reconciliation efforts will also only move forward if politicians stop playing the nationalist card and “stop manipulating victims to hide their incompetence to deal with the real problems of these countries”. Hodzic said.

“[Mladic’s] arrest provides the crucial opening for the governments of Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and other countries of the region to genuinely and seriously commit to dealing with legacy of that tragic decade,” said David Tolbert, the head of the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the former deputy prosecutor at the Hague tribunal.

“The arrest is a strong sign against impunity. It shows that even protected senior officials can end up paying the price,” said Joel Hubrecht of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in Paris.

“[But] it does not close a chapter. On the contrary it opens another one: his trial should be a chance to confront the past.” — AFP

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