"Welcome to Greater Serbia!"
A drunk Serb soldier was addressing a bus full of frightened women and children, his hand grenades dangling menacingly from his vest and his Kalashnikov slung carelessly over his shoulder.
"Thank you," the women answered in shaky, trembling voices.
It was a hot April day in 1992. I was in that bus, fleeing Sarajevo with my mother and two brothers. Ours was the last civilian bus to leave Bosnia’s capital before the city was besieged by Bosnian Serb rebels and their backers in Belgrade, a siege which was to last nearly four years – longer than the siege of Stalingrad.
We made our way through Serb rebel-held territory, the self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Srpska,’ which at one point encompassed 70 percent of the country and almost brought the internationally recognized government of Alija Izetbegovic to the brink of collapse.
Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander General Ratko Mladic imagined a Serbs only statelet in parts of eastern and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, adjoining neighboring Serbia. The then-President of rump Yugoslavia, Slobodan Miloševic, shared their expansionist vision. They called it "Greater Serbia."
The soldier’s breath stank of booze while his protruding eyes scanned the bus. Only women and children were allowed to leave Sarajevo, as men of military age dared not to. The standard policy of Bosnian Serb rebels was to throw men and teenage boys off the buses and summarily execute them before tossing their corpses into nearby rivers or burying them in mass graves.
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My father stayed behind in Sarajevo. As a prominent Muslim intellectual, he would have been a prime target for execution if he'd tried to leave – as were all other prominent Muslims. The Bosnian Serb leadership understood the necessity of destroying their perceived enemy’s intelligentsia – for, once you eliminate the lawyers, writers, artists, journalists, professors, and engineers, it’s a much easier task carrying out atrocities.
Years later, when I watched Hollywood blockbuster "Defiance" that depicted armed Jewish resistance in WWII the Belarussian forest, I came to realize the importance of two crucial pillars that are instrumental for minorities intent on surviving the onslaught of fascist hordes: armed resistance and an intelligentsia capable and willing to advocate and lead.
Our bus full of Bosniak Muslim refugees made its way across Serb territory to the town of Tetovo, in North Macedonia, where we were welcomed by Albanian Muslims and spent the next 12 months living there as refugees, before moving on to Turkey and eventually Malaysia.
I vividly remember a boy sitting in the bus across the aisle who happened to be very tall for his age. His mother, sweating profusely and desperately trying to calm her son, feared he would be taken off the bus and executed. She forced him to slouch on his bus seat so as to appear shorter and younger.
The trick miraculously worked.
That flashback from April 1992 crossed my mind as I watched former General Ratko Mladic receive his final verdict for genocide and other crimes at the UN’s court in The Hague this week.
The UN war crimes judges upheld a genocide conviction and life sentence against Mladic, rejecting all grounds of his appeal against a lower tribunal's verdict.
He was convicted in 2017 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes including terrorizing the civilian population of Sarajevo during the siege, and the killing of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.
Bosniak Muslim reactions to the verdict were mixed – some were content, finally, that justice had been served; others complained that the verdict was long overdue; others, that nothing short of a Nuremberg-style hanging would suffice for the Bosnian Serb leadership.
After Karadzic was sentenced to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity against Bosniak Muslims, Mladic is the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb military leader to be sentenced for genocide.
To Bosniak Muslims like myself, they represent the epitome of evil – a reincarnation of fascism that Europe thought it had buried in the aftermath of World War II.
However, the verdict brings me no satisfaction.
Here is why.
First of all, Bosnian Serbs and their backers in Belgrade more or less achieved their desired war-time goals. In their initial 1991 plan, Karadzic and Ratko Mladic had envisioned to the establishment of parallel political institutions known as "Serb Autonomous Regions" which would eventually merge to form a territorially continuous Bosnian Serb statelet.
And such a statelet exists today – the Republic of Srpska – and comprises 49 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has its own police force, parliament, education system and healthcare. Most important of all, elected officials from the Republic of Srpska enjoy veto power and can block state institutions and decision making at will. Meanwhile, Bosnian Croats are still bent on carving out their own mini-state, while Bosniak Muslims still hold firm to the dream of a multi-ethnic and centralized state.
Over the past years, Bosniaks have utilized all available political and legal means keep the country intact, while Serbs and Croats resisted with equal force and vigor. In other words, of the three constituent ethnic groups that make up the country, two are working hard on tearing it apart. It is a downhill struggle and the current balance of power seemingly favors those who want to break the state rather than make it. Political impasse has become the norm.
Second, the Bosnian Serb leadership continues to rub salt into the wounds of Muslim victims by publicly and blatantly denying crimes committed during the war.
There are still hundreds of Bosniak Muslim families searching for the remains of their loved ones, whose corpses were tossed in unmarked mass graves. That genocide denial should be insulting to all morally sentient people, but it is particularly insulting to victims' families, for whom finding their loved ones' remains of and giving them a proper burial is far more important than any court verdict.
Hand with hand with denying crimes, Bosnian Serbs leaders openly call for secession, and refer to Bosnia Hezegovina as a failed state that the international community should partition into three parts.
The public face of genocide denial and secession is Milorad Dodik, a democratically elected Bosnian Serb leader who currently serves as the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency. His views on secession, genocide denial and dreams of joining neighboring Serbia seem to be shared by his electoral base. So radical is his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party, that Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party, which actually orchestrated the 1990s genocide, is considered today as a more moderate opposition party.
Third, Serbs in Bosnia and in neighboring Serbia publicly celebrate war criminals.
In order to torment Bosniak Muslims, Milorad Dodik recently handed out awards to Karadzic’s and Mladic's most notorious henchmen for their contribution in establishing the Republic of Srpska.
Despite the detailed, well-documented evidence presented before the UN tribunal in The Hague, Mladic himself is still celebrated as the Serb nation’s hero defender.
When foreign journalists ask me whether the younger Serb generation has moved away from the extreme nationalism of their parents, I usually offer the example of the Radovan Karadzic dormitory.
A newly built student dormitory was inaugurated in 2016 in Pale, a Serb-held town near Sarajevo, as "Dr Radovan Karadzic student’s dormitory."Milorad Dodik unveiled the plaque bearing Karadzic’s name alongside Karadzic’s wife and daughter.
"We dedicated this dormitory to a man who is without doubt one of the founders of the Republika Srpska, to Mr Radovan Karadzic," he said, days before the eponymous former commander-in-chief of Serb forces in Bosnia was convicted of orchestrating Serb atrocities throughout the 1992-95 war including genocide.
When the international community pressured him to remove the plaque, Bosnian Serb students’ associations issued a joint statement: "Radovan Karadzic is the first president of the Republic of Srpska, a country that is our homeland, which we love with all our hearts, and no one gets to insult and attack it without a backlash." Eventually, the plaque was removed.
For Serbs living in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, Mladic and Karadzic are role models and national heroes: more than 76 percent consider Mladic a hero, according to a poll commissioned by Al Jazeera Balkans in 2018, while 73.6 percent consider Karadzic a hero.
This is a ghastly reminder of the reality we live in. The situation in neighboring Serbia is no better – a recent report by Radio Free Europe graphically illustrated rising new trend for Belgrade’s youth: Getting Mladic tattoos and spray-painting their residential buildings with "Ratko Mladic, Serbian hero" graffiti. A recent poll found that 74 percent of Serbian citizens did not even know that the four-year long Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo had ever happened.
Finally, determined to brush off their image as genocidaires, Serbs in Bosnia and neighboring Serbia have begun switching the victim-villain narrative.
Serb journalists, academics and politicians bandwagoned with the West to retroactively link their part in the 1992-1995 war with post 9/11 "war on terror." They employed counter-terrorism vocabulary, sugarcoating their irredentist aspirations towards Bosnia’s territory and their genocide of Muslim Bosniaks under the cloak of fighting an insidious Muslim enemy, a white Al-Qaeda.
The increasingly Islamophobic and populist European politicians didn't need much convincing. France’s President Emmanuel Macron was hooked on the narrative, claiming that Europe’s biggest concern in the Balkans were the "jihadists" and that Bosnia was "a ticking time-bomb."
Miloševic is dead. Karadzic and Mladic will – according to the laws of nature – die sometime soon, but their ideas live on and their legacy, born in blood, the Republic of Srpska, lives on.
As for Bosniak Muslims, they will continue to be perceived as the other. Europeans will continue perceiving them as being too Muslim to be fully European, while the Arab and Muslim world will continue perceiving them as being too European to be Muslim.
The sad fact is that the same forces of dehumanization, revisionist ethno-nationalism, anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and, largely, international appeasement if not apathy that enabled the Bosnian genocide have, rather than being extirpated and delegitimized by mass murder, only emerged emboldened and holding greater institutional power.
Harun Karcic is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern influence in the region. Twitter: @HarunKarcic