BELGRADE, Serbia — As the U.N. war crimes court prepares to wrap up its work with a verdict in the landmark genocide trial of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, deep divisions persist in the Balkans over the tribunal’s role in delivering justice and paving the way for reconciliation in the war-torn region of Europe.
Mladic’s trial is the last major case for the Netherlands-based tribunal for former Yugoslavia, which was set up in 1993 to prosecute those most responsible for the worst carnage in Europe since World War II. The tribunal declared its aim is to “deter future crimes and render justice to thousands of victims and their families, thus contributing to a lasting peace in the former Yugoslavia.”
More than 20 years on, however, the nations in the region are still led by nationalist politicians and remain divided deeply along ethnic lines.
Known as the “Butcher of Bosnia,” Mladic was charged with 11 counts of genocide and war crimes for the war’s worst atrocities, including the 1995 slaughter by his troops of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, or the three-year siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
While widely seen as a symbol of Bosnian war horrors, Mladic is still revered as a hero by many Serbs. In his native Bosnian village of Bozinovici, the main street is named after Mladic and almost every house cherishes at least one photo of him. T-shirts with his wartime portrait and inscription “Serbian Hero” are sold on the streets of Serbian towns.
The 75-year-old former general, who insists he is innocent, faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
Unlike Serbs, most Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia believe Mladic deserves to spend the rest of his days in prison. Among them is Ramiza Burzic, who lost her two sons in the Srebrenica massacre and so far has found just partial remains of one of them.
“I expect that he will be sentenced to life in prison, so that all his progeny will know what kind of a man he was and what he did,” said Burzic.
This ethnic divide is also reflected in how various ethnic groups judge the tribunal’s legacy — Serbs, who account for the bulk of the tribunal indictments, view the court as highly biased, while the other ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia generally harbor a more positive stance.
“I don’t think the tribunal has helped reconciliation, but rather has contributed to further worsening of the situation,” Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said recently. “No one can say that the Hague tribunal has been objective toward all sides in the conflict of the 1990s.”
Chief U.N. War Crimes Prosecutor Serge Brammertz said in an interview with The Associated Press in The Netherlands that “every time a judgment is coming out in The Hague, one group will be very pleased and the other one very unhappy.”
“Those reactions show much more that the underlying reasons of the conflict are still very much there,” Brammertz said. “So I don’t think that accountability — that a judicial process in itself — can lead to reconciliation. Reconciliation has to come from within society, has to come from the victims and perpetrators’ community.”
“You need a very active civil society looking for the truth and you need politicians who are willing to accept the wrongdoings of the past in order to have a joint future,” he said. “This is unfortunately not really happening in the region.”
The long-awaited Mladic verdict is seen as a milestone in the efforts to bring the main actors to justice. The tribunal failed to reach a final ruling in the case of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president widely regarded as the driving force behind the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, who died in his prison cell in 2006 before the end of his trial.
However, the court has so far indicted 161 people of different Balkan nationalities and sent dozens of war criminals to jail — ranging from top leaders to low-ranking soldiers. It has established evidence of large-scale atrocities against civilians such as murder, enslavement, expulsion, torture or rape.
“The tribunal has done tremendously important work on our behalf to dent the notion of impunity for mass atrocities in our social and political discourse,” said transitional justice expert Refik Hodzic from Bosnia. “We were lucky to see this institution come to life when it did.”
Experts also argue that the tribunal is primarily a legal institution that was never expected to reconcile the feuding Balkan nations, but to establish the facts based on evidence which could help future reconciliation.
Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia’s former chief war crimes prosecutor who helped arrest Mladic in 2011 after he went into hiding more than 10 years earlier, says that “the tribunal’s greatest achievement was that it brought a lot of people in top positions to justice.”
But, Vukcevic, said: “We are still at the level where each nation is sticking to its own truth. As long as this is so, there is no reconciliation.”
The conflict in the former Yugoslavia erupted after the breakup of the former multi-ethnic federation in the early 1990s, with the worst crimes taking place in Bosnia. More than 100,000 people died and millions lost their homes before a peace agreement was signed in 1995.
Prominent Serbian human rights expert Natasa Kandic agrees that “people had unrealistic expectations” the tribunal would do the job of building trust among the countries and societies of the region.
“Decades will need to pass for trust to be established between the different (Balkan) nations,” Kandic said. “No court can do that.”
Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this story.