In July 1995, during a period of about seven days, the Bosnian Serb forces systematically massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys after taking over Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia which had been designated a UN “safe area”.
At that time, Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist by education, had risen in the ranks to become the first president of Republika Srpska and supreme commander of its armed forces. The slaughter was a part of his genocidal plan developed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war to annihilate the country’s non-Serb population in order to create a utopian state of ethnically homogenous Greater Serbia.
By the end of July 1995, the first survivors of the mass killings, men and boys, started arriving in the nearby town of Tuzla. They gave terrifying accounts of large numbers of boys and men taken blindfolded to the fields, football pitches, farms, warehouses, roadsides or to the river banks around Srebrenica, lined up with their hands tied and shot.
“We started hearing the stories and they seemed plausible,” recalled Emma Daly, Communication Director at Human Rights Watch and a former journalist who covered the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia.
“Then you just kept thinking: No, God please no. You didn’t want it to be true. How could several thousand people just be massacred, almost in front of your eyes?”
According to Daly, reporters were able to verify those accounts in the beginning of 1996 when the NATO forces arrived in the area, clearing access into Serb-controlled territories.
“I remember driving a truck up to a hillside where there were bodies everywhere. They lay as if all those people were trying to escape, but they’d been gunned down and left there. Then, we [journalists] went to the mass grave sides and found bones, blindfolds, piles of clothing,” Daly told Al Jazeera.
Guilty of genocide
The prosecutors of the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted Karadzic for genocide and crimes against humanity in July 1995.
Since that time and until his arrest in Belgrade in 2008, he had successfully evaded capture for 13 years, hiding under various false identities, one of which was that of Dragan Dabic, an alternative medicine healer.
On March 24, 2016, Karadzic became the highest-ranking political leader from that war to be found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity since the Nurnberg trials of the Nazi war criminals.
While sentencing the 70-year-old Karadzic to 40 years in prison, the ICTY established, without reasonable doubt, his responsibility for detaining thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in prison facilities, orchestrating the mass killings in Srebrenica and murder of civilians during the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and accompanying bombardment and sniper fire aimed at the city’s residents.
The ex-Serbian leader was acquitted, however, of one count of genocide in relation to crimes committed in various municipalities in eastern Bosnia, in Sarajevo region and the Autonomous Region of Krajina.
Disappointed with judgement
For the victims of the Bosnian war who were not granted rights to participate in the hearings of the ICTY, and thus were not formally represented during the proceedings and cannot claim any reparations, the conviction of Karadzic is the only form of compensation for their suffering.
“I think the judgment is miserable. He should have got a life sentence and been convicted of genocide on the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said 60-year-old Dzenna Sahovic. During the war, she’d decided to stay in the Bosnian town of Travnik and continue working as a doctor at the main hospital.
Munica Subasic, president and spokesperson of the association Mothers of Srebrenica, also criticised the judgment as insufficient, because Karadzic was not held accountable on all charges.
In her opinion, for the victims, the verdict holds much greater value than it does for the brief momentum of glory in international justice.
She believes that righteous judgments and acknowledgement from the perpetrators of committed crimes are fundamental steps towards reconciliation and have the potential to influence the lives of future generations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It is necessary for people to know what happened and who bears the responsibility.” The victims aren’t just numbers, they have names. The trial and a fair judgement should give them back their identity, said Subasic, who lost 22 relatives during the Srebrenica genocide.
Dion van den Berg, however, senior policy adviser at PAX, a Dutch non-governmental peace organisation, argues that the ICTY has fulfilled its mandate. The court only establishes the facts that can then help to create the atmosphere in which people rebuild trust and start to live together again, he said.
“For reconciliation you need leaders who know what it means to reconcile. They have to step forward and accept the war crimes committed from within their own community and this is still lacking,” he added.
According to van den Berg the political parties in the countries of former Yugoslavia are still ethically organised.
“People are held hostage by their own leadership. All they hear on the television, all they read in the newspapers is the same nationalist narrative that has not changed since the end of the war two decades ago,” van den Berg told Al Jazeera.
Iva Vukusic, an analyst and researcher at the History Department of Utrecht University, who is Croatian, shares this perspective. “The governments in the region consider themselves primarily as serving ethnic communities, not their citizens, and that remains a problem,” explained Vukusic.
In her opinion, judgments issued by the Hague tribunal are used to reinforce the nationalist rhetoric. So, for instance, the Croatian government expresses satisfaction over the prosecution of Bosnian Serb perpetrators, but denies responsibility for crimes committed by Croats during the Balkan war, she said.
As recently as March 2016, the Croatian government has made such efforts with the ICTY regarding the 2013 war crimes convictions of ex-Croat president Franjo Tudjman.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is home to three ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, there was no unified reaction to the Karadzic verdict.
“The general opinion among Bosnian Serbs is that the ICTY passed a judgment on the basis of political connotations. As a result they refuse to accept the judgment and they hope that Karadzic would be set free during the appellate procedure,” explained Mirza Buljubašic, criminologist and researcher in the field of international crimes at the University of Sarajevo.
“On the other side, Bosniaks feel disappointed that Karadzic was not held accountable for genocide committed in municipalities,” he added.
Buljubašic also emphasised that although Karadzic was the supreme political and military leader of Bosnian Serbs, he was not the one who physically executed or raped innocent civilians.
“The ordinary people did that and today they are walking freely next to the neighbours whose entire families they have killed. Justice is partially reached and probably it will never be fulfilled,” Buljubašic told Al Jazeera.
From war criminal to war hero
The prevailing ethno-centric approach and lack of self-criticism is particularly visible when perpetrators convicted by the Hague tribunal are released from prisons and welcomed as war heroes by the politicians from the Republika Srpska, Croatia or Serbia.
One of them is Blijana Plavsic, former vice president of the Republika Srpska, who cooperated closely with Radovan Karadzic. Plavsic showed remorse during the trial at the Hague tribunal, but retracted her statements when giving interviews from prison.
Nonetheless, she was granted an early release as the UN judges were convinced that she accepted responsibility for her crimes. On the day of her release, Plavsic was picked up by governmental plane and offered an office in the senate of Republika Srpska.
A study conducted by Barbora Hola and Joris van Wijk, professors at the VU University in Amsterdam, revealed that war criminals are not subjected to any rehabilitation programmes in prisons designed to challenge their ideology, as they simply do not exist.
The countries where the guilty are imprisoned bear the costs for the imprisonment and often have very little interest in investing in rehabilitation programmes for prisoners who will return to their homelands after having served the sentence.
“It is up to those countries to offer any rehabilitation programme. Basically, once an accused is transferred to a particular prison, he should follow the rules of that prison,” explained the press office of the ICTY.
But van Wijk is insists investment in the rehabilitation of convicts serving their sentences should be prioritised.
“In international criminal justice we would want individuals to leave prison and not express radical rhetoric,” said van Wijk.
Instead, perpetrators who committed genocide are categorised as regular criminals who can help bake cakes in the prison kitchen, take up Nordic walking for exercise or help in the prison library.
Participation in such activities, along with demonstrated remorse, is enough to grant them an early release, said van Wijk, after having served only two-thirds of their sentence.
So far, the ICTY has granted an early release to 58 percent of the those convicted for war crimes.
“This is so painful and frustrating for the victims. You know who is responsible for the death of your brother, your son or husband. After they were away for some time, they are again celebrated in the pubs and squares and they play their public role in daily life,” commented van den Berg.
According to Subasic, the presence of former war criminals in politics significantly contributes to instability in the region, as the nationalistic rhetoric “poisons the young generation”.
“I am very disappointed with the length of the sentence. Karadzic should never get out of prison for what he has done,” said one 56-year-old Sarajevo resident who would like to remain anonymous. “What is even worse, he has supporters strongly believing in his innocence and there is the possibility this group could grow bigger if he was released early from prison.”
Subasic is convinced that only adequate punishment can break the vicious circle and prevent war criminals from being elevated to a status of national heroes.
“We expected at each point of the prosecution that justice would be done. We hope that the appeal will be just and the Karadzic verdict fair,” concluded Subasic.
The representatives of the Republika Srpska did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Karadzic’s verdict and their relations with former convicts.