The Hague Tribunal’s recent acquittals of KLA wartime commander Ramush Haradinaj and Croatian generals Mladen Mrkač and Ante Gotovina have put the issue of responsibility towards the victims of the Yugoslav wars back on the agenda. Also being tested is the ability of the relevant states to provide adequate proof in support of the charges, rather than to express indignation after the fact.
“During 1998, a total of 1,660 ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo, 770 of them civilians, along with 129 ethnic Serb civilians and 64 members of the Serbian MUP. 41 ethnic Serb civilians were killed in the Dukagjini zone alone, which was under Mr. Haradinaj’s command at the time. While the number is certainly not low, it is important to speak of each victim in specific and individual terms”, says the HLC’s founder, NatašaKandić, in her interview for the New Magazine, wondering, at the same time, how it was that the Hague Tribunal – despite the fact that the Serbian authorities filed 120 charges against Mr. Haradinaj, accompanied by relevant documentation –could claim to have found no proof of his involvement, and, in the end,did no more than reach a general conclusion that there had been some war crimes perpetrated by the KLA.
“Several witnesses in the trial”, she adds, “were discredited policeman, while some of the evidence introduced had been obtained through coercion. Zoran Stijović, a member of the Serbian State Security Service, claimed that statements had been obtained through blackmail and beatings.”
After these verdicts, war crimes are, once again, the subject of political haggling over numbers- whileas for the victims themselves, they seem to have been forgotten entirely.
“In all of the post-Yugoslav states, victims are given attention primarily during commemorations and in times of political turmoil. In Serbia, very little is being said about the victims and those who took part in the war, but there is quite a lot of talk about the Hague trials and those unjustly accused in them.”
Why doesn’t Serbia create a register of the human losses it has suffered?
“For Serbian society, ethnic Serb victims receive the most importance. However, it is high time Serbia and its political elite stopped throwing around empty phrases on the subject, because it is the victims themselves who, in great measure, paid the price of Serbia’s policyduring the nineties. Someone has to speak out and point to where the responsibility lies – the responsibility for what happened to the victims, and to others as well, those exiled or killed in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Someone has to say that it wasn’t just Milošević, or the U.S., but the entire senior state, army and police apparatus.”
B&H had the most victims. The Bosnian Book of the Dead, set to be presented on December 21 in Sarajevo, indicates that there were fewer victims than previously believed.
“The Research and Documentation Center has registered all of the 96,000 victims individually, by name. Although high, the number is significantly lower than the previously estimated 200,000–300,000 killed or disappeared. The Bosnian Book of the Dead calls on everyone to think about whether to continue such a battle of numbers, or simply to acknowledge allthe victims,and abandon their own denial rooted in political interpretations.”
“Adocumented victim registry has the potential to make reconciliation permanent, because it deals with facts about real people – facts which leave no gaps allowing for ‘’elasticity’’ of numbers, as was the case with Jasenovac, where the figure tended to be “stretched” from 70,000to 700,000. However, the key issue is whether the politicians will accept a registry of human losses as an obligation for the publicly acknowledgement ofall thevictims.”
How do victims’ testimonies in court contribute to their public acknowledgement?
“War crimes trials have given the victims an opportunity to speak out. The Hague Tribunal treats them with respect, and allows them to speak about everything they went through. On the other hand, domestic courts – in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb in equal measure – use victims solely for the purpose of proving a specific indictment or crime. For that reason, victims are often frustrated by the proceedings and generally dissatisfied with the role they have been given.”
What irritates them specifically?
“On the one hand, it’s the kind of treatment just mentioned, on the other, it’s the outcome itself. A typical example is a trial that was held before a court in Belgrade for terrible crimes committed in Zvornik on June 1, 1992. 700 people were killed on that day. The trial lasted for three and a half years and, on the basis of the available evidence, the court indisputably determined that a crime had been committed against 350 individuals. The court did not know their names, didnot have their personal documents, and, in some instances, had to determine the victims’ identities through exhumation. To the families of those victims whose deaths or disappearances could not be irrefutably established, the ruling seemed unjust- as if the court was discriminating between victims.”
“Victims often feel betrayed by court rulings. That was certainly the case with the acquittals of Gotovina andMrkač, and Haradinaj, and no argument put forward by the court could change that. The victims know that in the end, even though Haradinaj was at the top of the hierarchy and had command control over western Kosovo, where murders took place, he was found not guilty. The verdict against Mrkač and Gotovina contains no mention of victims, because the Prosecution, as it stated itself, had chosen to focus on proving the exodus, rather than to deal with specific victims of the shelling of Knin that took place in August 1995. The victims simply cannot understand that, nor can ordinary citizens who are willing to show compassion and solidarity with them.”
It seems that the biggest problem is the fact that victims are being discriminated between in death, just as they were in life?
“Ethnic Albanian, Bosniak and, for the most part, Croatian victims have received international recognition and acknowledgement. Most of the surviving ethnic Serb victims still side only with Serbia and those who took part in the war on her side. In addition, each ethnic group inflates the number of their victims, while minimizing, or even denying the existence of victims of other ethnicities. Ethnic Albanians will often say that there were no ethnic Serb victims, or that there were very few of them; ethnic Serbs will, in turn, often claim that all Albanians were terrorists and insurgents bent on killing Serbian policemen, soldiers and civilians. The same goes for victims in Croatia and B&H.”
The question remains – why hasn’t all this changed after 20 years, and is there a way out?
“The way out lies in facing the facts, and that can only be done by restoring the victims’ identities. If all of the victims were to be named, the politicians would have to acknowledge them publically. NGOs can create a registry, they can verify and fact-check, but the responsibility for public acknowledgement lies with the state and its authorities. We can restore the victims’ human image, but the creation of public memory is a duty of the state. If the politicians are unable to grasp that, then the registry will accomplish nothing, and extremism and mutual accusation will only grow stronger, especially after verdicts such as these.”
For years, the NGO sector has been trying to impose that duty on the region’s statesthrough the RECOM Initiative, but has had little success, despite civic support.
“More than 550,000 citizens from all post-Yugoslav countries have signed the petition for the establishment of RECOM. However, the initiative lacks political support precisely because reconciliation requires all of the victims to be named. Restoring victims’ identities has nothing to do with their ethnicity, nationality or religion. It is a form of public acknowledgement.”
Books of Memory
“We have documented 10,500 victims who died or disappeared before the end of 2000 during or in connection with the war in Kosovo. Because there are so many, the remaining two volumes of the Kosovo Memory Book will be published in 2013 and 2014, respectively. By February next year, we will have made public the total number of Serbia and Montenegro nationals who lost their lives during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, both civilian and non-civilian.”