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The Half-Truths Of History That Still Hang Over The Balkans

A Bosnian Serb who fled the Balkans as a teenager reflects on how hard it is to face the past in the Balkans, as much for history's winners as losers.

Srebrenica is seared into memories of Bosnian Muslims
Srebrenica is seared into memories of Bosnian Muslims
Draginja Nadażdin*

Convicted war criminal General Radislav Krstić will do his time in a Polish prison. A Polish court agreed to this after the former Bosnian Serb leader was attacked by Muslim inmates in the British prison where he'd been serving his time. Krstić barely survived.

The jailhouse attack was revenge for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Europe's worst massacre since World War II that left more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims dead.

Krstić was both one of the most highly placed Serbian military leaders, but at the same time not widely known. In Serbia, few remember his name. Still, Srebrenica and the war crimes perpetrated there hold more weight in the folk memory of Serbia than amongst Bosnian Serbs.

Serbians in Serbia might not know exactly all of the names of those responsible for massacres, but they obviously know about them -- and decry them. Bosnian Serbs also know the basic details of what happened in Srebrenica, even if they are more focused on their own suffering at the hands of Croats and Bosnians -- and some attempt to justify Serbian war crimes.

Even within the Republic of Serbia, Serbian war victims don’t feel properly acknowledged by their countrymen. Organizations that support families of missing people and former prisoners of war denounce the scant concern for their plight.

The politicians who rule the Balkans lack both courage and a sense of responsibility. Political accountability means helping war victims from all sides to overcome their trauma. In Bosnia, all of the victims -- Muslim, Croat, and Serbian -- may feel they have been treated like an object. When there’s a political need is when there are reminders about their suffering. Amnesty International research done several years ago shows Bosnia's lack of care for women victims of rape and abuse from all three backgrounds.

Different memories

In all former Yugoslavian countries the recent wars are remembered in different ways. Every nation has its own memory and does not actually bother with the points of view of their neighbors.

Recently, the ambassador of the Serbian minority in Croatia refused to take part in anniversary ceremony of the unjust taking of Serbian enclaves in Krajina in 1995 when more than 200,000 Serbs were forced from their homes. Croatia has not done enough to acknowledge their own war criminals: military officers, policemen, members of paramilitary formations. Meanwhile, some Croats think that the Krajina operation was necessary. The military leaders of that time are still widely respected.

Throughout the Balkans, too many perceive their war criminals as noble warriors. Serbia, Croatia, Bosna and Kosovo have written their own stories describing the Balkan wars. They all differ widely. In the Croatian version for example there is a story of people like General Ante Gotovina, sentenced in 2011 by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to 24 years of prison for war crimes. He is often presented as a hero, and his acquittal in November was celebrated.

In Serbia, things are a little bit different. There’s a wide discrepancy between those who have never and the ones who still do identify with both Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić and other such accused war criminals. The second group, though, has thankfully diminished in recent years. When Karadžić, and then Mladić were arrested and brought to trial in the Hague, a clamor was expected, but there were only a few people demonstrating in their favor.

The Bosnian story is also dfferent. The best-known Muslim war criminals are dead. They are often considered to be martyrs for the faith. Their believers don’t seem to remember that most of them began as petty criminals, and some died in gangster showdowns.

Then there are the Albanian criminals, who still go unpunished. The attempts at determining what Albanians were doing in Kosovo are still very rare. The first judgement for war crimes committed by Kosovan Albanians was pronounced just in 2009, ten years after the end of the war.

Forced to face the past

Too many in the Balkans -- from all its nations -- still prefer to live a lie. Some like to say that the Serbian people have done the most to process what happend in the war. But it's rather that they saw the necessity of making sure that known war criminals disappear, since international opinion allowed for nothing less. Without it, Serbia would be a pariah. Still, Serbs are in no hurry to judge less-known, ordinary criminals. They behave like the best thing to do is to forget the war- their own war crimes, but also their own suffering.

On the other hand, there had been a very strong anti-war movement in Serbia from the very beginning of the war with Croatia, and later in Bosnia. When in 1992, I ran away from Croats and Muslims from Bosnian Mostar to Belgrade, I went to a huge anti-war rock concert. People were collecting money and medicines not for Serbian refugees like I was, but for Sarajevo, beset by the Serbs. But then, nobody said anything about this kind of Serbia.

A great part of Serbian society thinks that the results of war in Croatia and Bosnia are irremediable, both in territory and among the populace. Refugees from Croatia or Bosnia will not stay in Serbia forever, and Serbian minorities abroad will shrink. Serbia has that disconcerting feeling of having lost a war, not only due to the fact that they lost things and loved ones -- but also because of Serbian war crimes.

Winners, losers

The Croatians though consider themselves as winners and the whole world helped them think so. International public opinion look at the Balkans in a simplified way. People have long been talking -- rightfully so -- about Serbian nationalism and Serbian crimes, without seeing the same from Croatians or Muslims.

In 2011, as the former Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor paid tribute to Ante Gotovina, the country was finalizing the process of entering the European Union. Does any European politician recall that Vladimir Šeks (a deputy chairman of Croatian Parliament until June 2012) at the time he ruled the town of Osijek failed to react when he saw dead and tortured people in front of his office?

Serbia had to serve Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Szeszelj up to the Hague. The orders for Serbia were tough, and that is why self-reflection about the war was deeper, and Serbian authorities after Milošević favored a more full accounting for the war.

Some Serbs think that the Hague Tribunal is part of a Western, anti-Serbian conspiracy. Others do not really care about the charges against their fellow Serbs at the Hague, but nevertheless are waiting for Croatian and Bosnian criminals to also stand trial because those crimes touched their families.

The Tribunal soon will be done with their work, so the national courts and politicians will play a key role here. It is up to them to properly ajudicate “their” war criminals.

If Croatia would judge Croatian war criminals -- as called for in the reports of Amnesty International - they would probably need some 30 years just to cover the cases they have already started.

And in every country, you can come across crumbling remains of houses. From time to time, someone dies when a buried anti-tank mine is triggered. Many Serbs are surprised at how easy it is to go to Croatia. Many Croatian people visit Serbia for work or pleasure. New relationships spring up, unlikely bonds are forged.

But for thousands of ordinary Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian people, the war will probably never end. They are still not sure what happened to their relatives and loved ones. The list of missing people is still very long, stretching back from the beginning of the 1990s to after the end of the conflict in Kosovo. It is for these people, after all, that the Balkan war criminals must be judged. And ultimately, this is the only way to begin to eradicate the enourmous hypocrisy that still lives on in the Balkans.

* Draginja Nadażdin was born in 1975 in a Serbian family in Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina). In 1992 she fled the Croatian and Bosnian army from Mostar to Belgrade. She graduated from University of Warsaw, Poland with a degree in Enthnology, and is the director of Amnesty International Poland.

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The Pope's Bronchitis Can't Hide What Truly Ails The Church — Or Whispers Of Succession

It is not only the health of the Pope that worries the Holy See. From the collapse of vocations to the conservative wind in the USA, there are many ills to face.

 Pope Francis reaches over to tough the hands of devotees during his  General Audience at the Vatican.​

November 29, 2023: Pope Francis during his wednesday General Audience at the Vatican.

Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
Gianluigi Nuzzi

ROME — "How am I? I'm fine... I'm still alive, you know? See, I'm not dead!"

With a dose of irony and sarcasm, Pope Francis addressed those who'd paid him a visit this past week as he battled a new lung inflammation, and the antibiotic cycles and extra rest he still must stick with on strict doctors' orders.

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The Pope is dealing with a sensitive respiratory system; the distressed tracheo-bronchial tree can cause asthmatic reactions, with the breathlessness in his speech being the most obvious symptom. Tired eyes and dark circles mark his swollen face. A sense of unease and bewilderment pervades and only diminishes when the doctors restate their optimism about his general state of wellness.

"The pope's ailments? Nothing compared to the health of the Church," quips a priest very close to the Holy Father. "The Church is much worse off, marked by chronic ailments and seasonal illnesses."

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