Marcus Tanner: A victory for justice, but not for reconciliation in the Balkans

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The Independent Online

A victory for justice, for sure, and a red-letter day in the annals of the Hague war crimes tribunal, now nearing the end of its life and preparing for closure. The soldiers of Ratko Mladic's once all-conquering Bosnian Serb army never expected to face a trial. As they swept through eastern Bosnia on their murderous rampage in 1992, cutting a swathe through one unarmed Muslim town after another, they used to boast to foreign reporters about how convinced they were that no one could even touch them.

The international war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia, a virtual afterthought when it was first established, has proved some of those cocksure men wrong. Popovic, Beara and the others will have years now to reflect on their actions in July 1995, after they overran the last remaining Muslim redoubt in eastern Bosnia. They probably wish they'd merely imprisoned their thousands of captives, instead of which they killed every man and boy over the age of 10 they got hold of, about 8,000.

The only men from Srebrenica alive today are those that got out before the war or those that in July 1995 fled into the dark pine forests and avoided the Serbian search parties sent to hunt them down, somehow making it along hidden trails to government-held Tuzla.

The sheer, almost inexplicable, barbarism of the massacre and the fact that Europe, Nato, the US and the UN pusillanimously stood aside and let it unfold, over several days – explain why these court verdicts won't on their own do much to assuage Bosnian Muslim bitterness. Don't expect "closure" or even some form of reconciliation to flow from The Hague. The very word Srebrenica has become etched into Bosnian Muslims' collective consciousness as an emblem of Serbian wickedness and Western perfidy, its memory kept warm by powerful lobby groups, like the Women of Srebrenica.

The Women's idea of justice goes well beyond the imprisonment of Serbian second-in-commands and gofers. They want the Bosnian Serb army's then-chief, Ratko Mladic, still hiding out somewhere, and who for years enjoyed the almost open protection of the military establishment in neighbouring Serbia. Only the capture and trial of Mladic will even begin to ease the anger of the relatives of the dead of Srebrenica – along with a full admission by Serbia that the events in Srebrenica constituted genocide. At the moment, they seem unlikely to obtain either.