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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 December 2005, 12:23 GMT
Bosnia accounts for its past
Allan Little
By Allan Little
BBC News, Sarajevo

Allan Little reported from the Balkans during the wars of the 1990s. It has taken 10 years, he says, but Bosnia is finally facing its past.

Before and after images of the Bosnian war

I am standing in the war cemetery on a hill overlooking Sarajevo and the shining white headstones spread out around us in steady even columns and rows.

I am with a man called Emir Suljagic and we are talking about justice: why it matters, how it can be pursued, how far it should go, and where, in the end, a country like Bosnia must draw a line under its past.

Emir is an interesting man. The English language saved his life.

He was 17 when the war came to his village, near Srebrenica, in April 1992.

Most of his male relatives disappeared into mass graves right at the start.

He made it to Srebrenica where he eventually got a job translating for the UN.

Escaping death

Three years later Serb forces overran the enclave, and, in the space of five days rounded up and murdered between 7,000 and 8,000 men and boys.

I knew that I did not want to be an anonymous body lying in the grass. I wanted to have something that would identify my remains.
Emir Suljagic

Emir survived because he was with the UN.

"A few days before the massacre began," he said, "I found myself face to face with General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander now indicted for mass murder.

"Mladic looked at me and demanded to see my ID card. In those days local employees had yellow UN cards and the internationals had blue.

"Mladic looked at my yellow card and said: 'Have you served in the Bosnian army?' I said: 'No'.

"He smirked and said: 'My ass, of course you were,' and dismissed me."

This, Emir told me, was the point at which he saw that Mladic intended to make no distinctions, every man still trapped in the enclave would be judged guilty.

Emir went on: "Mladic still had my card in his hand and he told me to go back inside the UN compound.

"I had to pluck up all my courage to ask him for the card back.

"I knew that I did not want to be an anonymous body lying in the grass. I wanted to have something that would identify my remains.

"I couldn't think of anything else. Mladic gave me back my card and I expected to be killed at any moment."

Protecting the guilty

The Dayton peace agreement, whose 10th anniversary is marked on 14 December, ended the war.

But it divided the country in a way that protected, for years, the perpetrators of war crimes.

Ratko Mladic
Mladic is wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity

Those who had burned and murdered and ethnically cleansed were safe inside their own ethnic enclaves.

It has taken 10 years but something remarkable has started to happen.

The guilty men are no longer safe.

It is not just The Hague that is indicting now. It is the Bosnian courts.

Bosnians of all three nationalities have begun arresting their own suspected war criminals. Eleven hundred are currently under investigation.

This year a pan-Bosnian state tribunal was set up under the auspices of the International High Representative, Paddy Ashdown.

But it is not internationally administered.

Suspects appear before Bosnian prosecutors and Bosnian judges - Serbs, Croats and Muslims sitting together in pursuit of a justice that, for the first time, is not distorted by ethnic loyalties.


We were taken into the court's prison detention centre. It has 20-something men awaiting trial.

We watched as they were led out, one by one, to make their daily 10-minute phone call to their families.

I saw them in their diminished state, cowed, defeated, facing life in prison, and I remembered the confident, aggressive strut I used to see during the war - the arrogant swagger of men who believed themselves immune, men wrapped in bullet belts and hung with hand grenades, men who had been handed power through the barrel of a gun, men who knew themselves to be beyond the reach of any system of law.

Is it victors' justice? I think it is not, because there were no victors in the Bosnian war.

The prosecutor I met this week is a Bosnian Serb. He spent the war on the Bosnian Serb side.

He has no qualms about prosecuting Bosnian Serb war criminals.

Talk of justice

General Gotovina's arrest in the Canary Islands is making headlines around the world.

But every week in Bosnia now, Bosnian policemen are knocking on Bosnian doors and the ideologues and foot soldiers of ethnic cleansing are being taken out of the communities they terrorised.

It seems to me the first real sign that the country itself is prepared to examine its own past, and deal with its self-justifying myths.

The rule of law is shifting from the internationals to Bosnians themselves.

It is the repatriation of due process, of real accountability.

Bosnia remains a desperately poor and unhappy place, suspended somewhere between war and peace.

But there is, at last, talk of justice, not retribution. It is the beginning of something new and something hopeful.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 December, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Profile: Ante Gotovina
09 Dec 05 |  Europe
Timeline: Bosnia-Hercegovina
23 Nov 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Bosnia-Hercegovina
23 Nov 05 |  Country profiles

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