My uncle Hasan was the only one of seven Hodzic brothers to graduate from university. He lived in the small industrial town of Prijedor, in a house across the street from mine, with his wife, Zerka, and their three children, my cousins – Amir, Indira, and Emir. Hasan was a quiet handsome man, a successful manager in a local trading company, and, to the perennial fury of my father, our street’s reining chess champion.
On June 2, 1992, a band of soldiers wearing the insignia of the recently self-proclaimed “Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina” stormed their house and took Hasan and Amir to Omarska, a huge iron ore-mining complex some 15 kilometers outside Prijedor. Over the next two and half months over 5,000 civilians—men, boys, and 36 women—were imprisoned in the Omarska camp, enduring daily beatings, torture, rape, hunger, severe overcrowding, and inhumane treatment. More than 500 people were killed in this camp, some in unimaginably cruel ways. This year we buried 284 of them, exhumed from Tomasica, the largest mass grave discovered in Europe since World War II.
The trial of Radovan Karadzic, the first president of the “Serb Republic of BiH” —later renamed Republika Srpska (RS) — ended recently after five years of hearings before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In his closing statement, Karadzic denied that camps like Omarska ever existed, claiming instead that these were places where “thousands of captured Muslim paramilitaries were housed since there wasn’t sufficient space in ordinary prisons.”
Karadzic did not stop there in presenting an alternative narrative of the Bosnian war, in which he was not responsible for directing a widespread campaign of terror against non-Serbs on the territory of his statelet, but was a “man of peace” who went out of his way to ensure the rules of war were respected by his forces. He dismissed evidence that he oversaw systematic “ethnic cleansing”, calling it an invention of the prosecutor, and mockingly declared himself “a true friend of Muslims,” accusing the tribunal of bias against the Serbs.
“It is the Serb people who stand accused,” Karadzic said. “There has never been a situation where so many decent, innocent people, mostly Serbs, are imprisoned outside their country, while the murderers of Serbs go free.” Over the nine hours of his closing remarks, he continued to present a revisionist version of the past, steeped in nationalist myths of Serb victimhood and the ideology of the “separation of peoples.”
Five years of a trial, thousands of documents and evidence exhibits, hundreds of witnesses, and hours and hours of harrowing testimony have not moved Karadzic closer to acknowledgement of the suffering he inflicted on countless lives. Nor did I expect this to happen.
His vitriol is not in itself the source of the overwhelming sense of defeat I felt in listening to him. This was to be expected from a man who never intended to put his arguments to the court, but instead chose to hide for years, ultimately donning the ridiculous mask of a ponytailed holistic healer in a desperate attempt to escape justice.
My sense of resignation comes from living in the reality where Karadzic’s poisonous contribution to Bosnian history lives on, and will continue to live on, whatever the ICTY’s verdict.
The results of the campaign of extermination Karadzic implemented to achieve his strategic goal of “separation of Serbs from other peoples, by force if necessary,” are irreversible. The number of remaining Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats in the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia is now a fraction of the pre-war population, and it will continue to dwindle as time rolls on. Although the right of return was guaranteed to refugees by the Dayton Peace Agreement, the vast majority of people who were expelled now live abroad – from the north of Norway to southern Australia. Some may have reclaimed and rebuilt their houses, but today they are mostly the refuge of elders who have come back to Bosnia to die.
Karadzic’s legacy not only survives in abandoned villages and the homes of the expelled, it permeates the public and political discourse of Republika Srpska. The current RS government of Milorad Dodik openly advocates for secession from Bosnia and systematically denies non-Serbs their constitutional rights to education and language. In September, Dodik referred to Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic, who is also standing trial for genocide and crimes against humanity at the ICTY, as “founders of Republika Srpska” and promised to have squares and streets in the RS named after them.
While Dodik may be the most vocal voice in the effort to rehabilitate Karadzic, he is by no means alone. Media, religious leaders, and academic institutions in Republika Srpska and Serbia are working hard to sanctify Karadzic’s image and his role in the war, while completely ignoring the crimes he committed. This is how Vitomir Popovic, the dean of Banja Luka Law Faculty, commented on the closing of the trial: “I did not see one single argument based on which Karadzic would be convicted, this was a political trial.” Yes, you read correctly: Popovic is indeed the dean of the largest law school in the RS.
This reality is not the ICTY’s doing, but it does reveal the stark limitations of international courts to act as catalysts for genuine social change in societies ravaged by ethnic violence and their vulnerabilities stemming from dependence on big international powers to enforce their mandates.
For the ICTY did conduct a fair, impartial, and reasonably comprehensive trial, but in the interest of “justice economy,” it had to cut Karadzic’s indictment and remove charges of genocide in many Bosnian municipalities, which will result in a judgment that does not fully reflect the dimensions of Karadzic’s crimes. The tribunal did provide a platform for a select group of victims to tell their story, albeit in an abbreviated way, but at the same time allowed Karadzic to abuse the right to self-defense to deliver political speeches. The tribunal did let the trial “speak for itself” through the evidence presented, but this narrative was so removed from the public discourse of Bosnia and Herzegovina that it did little to slow the onslaught of revisionism and denial. The tribunal did everything in accordance with its statute, but the trial’s impact on its constituents has been negligible.
Most importantly, the trial came far too late to catalyze a genuine reckoning with the consequences of crimes committed in the Bosnian war. The ICTY had no police to capture Karadzic, for nearly 12 years Serbian and Serb Republic governments colluded in hiding him and NATO forces refused to arrest him in 1995 and 96, either for political reasons or for fear of retribution from the Serbs. The opportunity to put him on trial at the time when there was at least some readiness on the part of Serb political leaders to acknowledge what had taken place and to pair it with a thorough lustration and an official truth-seeking process where victims, not perpetrators, would be at the center of attention, was lost. While the tribunal’s courtroom waited for him to appear, the momentum for a genuine break with the poisonous fruits of Karadzic’s efforts had dissipated.
This trial had to come as a clear demonstration of the commitment from the recovering Bosnian society, and its international governors, to a new set of social values. It was supposed to signal a rejection of societal norms sowed by Karadzic, according to which it was completely acceptable to break into a neighbor’s home if he was of a different ethnicity, kill him, rape his daughter, and take everything he owned; it was supposed to form a building block of a new society where such conduct is rejected by the majority and strong institutions exist to ensure it cannot happen. Instead, the trial concludes in a reality where Karadzic is once again a hero to many, his values embraced as the foundation of the political program for Republika Srpska’s secession, almost all of his war dreams coming true. It concludes with Bosnia and Herzegovina as a society where citizens’ rights again are seen through an ethnic lens and where victims of Karadzic’s crimes are dying without the satisfaction of justice—marginalized and unacknowledged.
After Omarska, my uncle Hasan and his son Amir were never the same again. They sought refuge in New Zealand, as far as they could get away from Bosnia. Many of the fathers who survived Omarska testified that the worst form of torture was to be forced to watch while their sons were beaten to a pulp. I don’t know if my uncle and cousin were tortured in this way, they never discussed what happened to them in that hellish place.
What I know is that Amir today lives in Australia, having never returned to Bosnia since his release from the camp. My uncle Hasan withdrew into himself completely, a proud man humiliated by the life of a refugee in a country whose language he could not speak. I vividly remember him cursing Karadzic through clenched teeth as he mowed the neighbor’s loan for 20 dollars. He died at age 60 in Auckland, New Zealand, a broken man. As huge a loss as his death was to me, I am thankful he was spared from listening to Karadzic’s closing statement and seeing a street bearing Karadzic’s name in his beloved Prijedor.