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Mass grave find shows Serbia slowly facing up to past

By Tim Judah
Balkans analyst

The discovery of a mass grave in Serbia, thought to contain the bodies of about 250 Kosovo Albanians, is a brutal reminder of the wars of the 1990s.

But Serbia's readiness to publicise the find is a sign that some things have begun to change.

Batajnica, 2005
Some 744 bodies from Kosovo were found at a Serbian airbase in 2001

"This is more proof that Serbia does not shy away from its dark past and is ready to bring to justice all those who have committed crimes," said Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, announcing the discovery of the site at Raska, close to the Kosovo border.

On the face of it, 15 years after the end of the Bosnian and Croatian wars and 11 years after the end of the Kosovo war this would indeed seem to be the case. But in reality, progress towards reconciliation, and facing up to the past across the Balkans, has been a patchy affair.

Homage to victims

A major step forward was made in Serbia in March, when parliament passed a resolution condemning the massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of some 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys when they captured the town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

Srebrenica was the worst single crime in Europe since the end of World War II, and while the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that Serbia was not guilty of genocide in this case, it also found that its responsibility lay in failing to prevent the killings.

The resolution came five years after Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, went to Srebrenica to pay homage to the victims. However, it was a struggle for him to get the resolution through parliament, and most Serbs were lukewarm about it, if not downright hostile.

President Tadic was only able to get the resolution passed by promising that there would be another one, condemning the deaths of Serbs during the wars.

In the wake of the Srebrenica resolution, the next big story was the speech of Croatian president Ivo Josipovic to the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo in April. There he expressed regret for Croatian policies during the Bosnian war, which he said had "led to human sufferings and to divisions that still plague us today".

This statement proved just as divisive in Croatia as the Srebrenica declaration had been in Serbia. Many regarded it as a political jibe against the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party, which was also the party in power during the war years. Mr Josipovic is a Social Democrat.

Vigorous debate

Indeed, every time a war crimes suspect is arrested or a move to express regret or acknowledge responsibility is made, there will always be some who consider that in a negative light. Some critics argued that the only reason Serbia passed the Srebrenica resolution was to look good in the eyes of the European Union, which it aspires to join.

Likewise, just after Serbia passed its resolution on Srebrenica the government of Republika Srpska, the Serb part of Bosnia, issued a statement calling into question its previous recognition of the facts and claiming that the numbers of those killed had been inflated.

Ratko Mladic
Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic remains at large

In Kosovo, too, there has been little open discussion about crimes committed on the Albanian side during the conflict. Allegations that hundreds of Serbs and Albanians were murdered in Albania during and after the war by the Kosovo Liberation Army have met with blanket denials.

Among the most gruesome allegations are that some of those prisoners had their organs removed, in order to sell them, before being killed.

Albania has dismissed the claims as fiction, but the UN and non-governmental organisations are still pressing for a full investigation.

Kosovo and Serbia are far from establishing an official dialogue on war crimes.

However, Serbian and Croatian leaders have not only begun to talk about the past but to act too. Their two presidents have recently agreed to work on setting aside their cases at the ICJ in which each has accused the other of genocide during the wars.

Another hopeful sign is the vigorous debate which is now taking place between non-governmental organisations across the former Yugoslavia over the creation of what is called the RECOM initiative.

This aims to establish the facts about war crimes in order, in part, to establish a basis for reconciliation but also to prevent facts being distorted for political ends in future.

Tim Judah covers the Balkans for the Economist. He is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, a new edition of which has recently been published.



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