Justice in the Balkans Promises Relief, Imposes Burden

Remembrance of Things Not-Quite-Past

I recently had a nightmare. I dreamed that I was arrested as a war criminal by officials of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Not for a particular crime, but for war crimes in general. While an official was reading me my rights, I was completely calm, because I knew I had done nothing wrong. In the dream I was not worried about the charges, only about the bother of all the time it would take to clear my name. Part of my job as a journalist in the Balkans throughout the past 10 years was to report on wars and therefore crimes committed. I did not wake up in a sweat. I have no need to. But I am wondering what kind of dreams millions of Serbs must be having, those who only now are beginning to face the terrible truth. And what are the nightmares of the hundreds and thousands who have committed crimes?

When thousands of people from all over Serbia took to the streets last October to oust Slobodan Milosevic, few of them realized that it was not the final ugly and unpleasant obstacle to a better life. Getting rid of Milosevic, it seems, was just the beginning of a long and extremely painful path toward the future. Facing the past is probably the most difficult part of the road that Serbs have started on. Now, only months since the peaceful change of the regime, the people of Serbia find themselves quite confused at the first evidence they have seen of war crimes committed in four wars. All these conflicts, they believed, were waged in “defense of Serbs and Serbia proper.”

Milosevic’s peaceful extradition to the tribunal at The Hague, which indicted him for war crimes committed in Kosovo, would have been impossible if viewers of RTS (Serbian state television) had not seen footage of mass graves in their neighborhood containing hundreds of bodies of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The discovery caused a dramatic change of opinion among the public and reformist leaders, who only three months earlier were not yet ready to own up to the ugly past. Ordinary people remained silent, in shock after seeing for the first time the “results of a monstrous policy,” as one 40-year-old woman in Belgrade said. This may explain why only some 15,000 Milosevic supporters turned out in the streets to protest his extradition.

The extradition itself has not passed smoothly on the political level. The federal prime minister, Zoran Zizic, a Montenegrin from the Socialist People’s Party, which was once allied with Milosevic’s regime but switched to the reformists’ side after the October events, resigned in protest, bringing down the entire cabinet with him. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a moderate nationalist and critic of The Hague tribunal, attacked his main rival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, accusing him of violating the constitution by extraditing Milosevic. Djindjic’s move nevertheless was seen by many as a brave one, without which Serbia would face continuing international isolation.

Yet the political turmoil over Milosevic’s extradition has not subsided; Serbs have faced another shocking experience related to the recent past. On the sixth anniversary of the massacre in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, RTS broadcast a BBC-produced documentary clearly showing that Bosnian Serb forces, led by Ratko Mladic, had committed horrible crimes against thousands of Muslim civilians. This was the first time that RTS, once part of Milosevic’s propaganda machine, broadcast such a film. It sparked a storm of protests, both among the public and in the Serbian parliament, which saw the film as an attack against the Serbian people as a whole. An RTS deputy manager received hundreds of phone calls by outraged Serbs. “That was war; it was either us Serbs or them [Muslims]; it was impossible for both [nations] to survive,” he quoted a viewer as saying. Opposition in the Serbian parliament, Milosevic’s socialists, and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj’s radicals, once allied in supporting the former leader’s policy of wars and crimes, strongly protested the broadcast, demanding an inquiry into who was behind it. Deputies from Kostunica’s party joined the demand. In a heated daylong discussion, socialists and radicals argued that the broadcast was aimed at “presenting Serbian heroes as criminals.” The few positive reactions are a hopeful sign that the new editorial policy at RTS will help Serbs come to terms with their past.

After the broadcast, I tried talking to a close relative, once a Milosevic supporter, but he could hardly speak. “I watched a little bit and then switched channels. It was very painful. I do not like to watch such horrible things,” he told me. When asked who had committed those “horrible things,” he replied in a low voice: “I do not want to talk about that.”

Serbs were not the only ones upset by the knowledge of an ugly past. The Croatian government had to cope with similar reactions after extraditing two army generals indicted for war crimes committed against Serbs in the 1991-95 war in Croatia. Using language strikingly similar to that of their Serbian neighbors, Croats denied their own responsibility. The government was forced to demand a no-confidence vote after four ministers resigned.

Milosevic has left a burdensome legacy, the evidence of which can be seen these days in Macedonia, the southernmost former Yugoslav republic, which is now on the brink of civil war. The sad legacy is also visible in Bosnia, which has barely emerged from war, and in Kosovo, which still seethes with ethnic hatred. Yet, 10 years after the bitter breakup, there is hope that the countries of the former Yugoslavia may leave the dark past behind. Serbia and Croatia, which are making their first fragile steps toward democracy, could set examples for the entire region. The people of the Balkans deserve finally to join a modern world in which wars, hatred, and ethnic division are a shameful part of the past.