NEW OPTICS: THE PRISM SERIES
#2: WAR CRIMES TRIALS AND HOLDING PEOPLE TO ACCOUNT:
GATHERING AND PRESERVING EVIDENCE –
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE PAST?
It may seem a strange choice to focus on war crimes, especially when we are experiencing such worldwide seismic events. Yet war crimes, gathering evidence and future trials seem to be rarely out of the news. While you may believe this is just an issue in Ukraine, even now, thirty years after the war in Bosnia, indictments, arrest warrants and even the discovering of remains are being reported from there. Only last week, an exhumation for crimes committed in the enclave at the heart of my feature documentary film in development, UNCONQUERED: Goražde – City of Heroes were found.
So stick with me, because this second post in the NEW OPTICS PRISM SERIES is going to take you into what might seem a subject devoid of light – exhumations of remains, gathering of evidence of war crimes and indictments.
Pretty grim subjects? Yes. Yet at the heart of these processes, each one an extraordinary event, is a step nearer the light - towards the resolution of a war crime. This is such a deeply complex issue, I would just like to throw a few facts, observations and reflections forward which may provoke further enquiry, and of course if you have any thoughts, reactions or questions please post and let’s start the conversation!
As I write, a remarkable revolution is happening. In eastern Ukraine, civil society organisations and journalists-turned-evidence gatherers are collecting material for war crimes almost as soon as the crimes are perpetrated, in tandem or alongside the national prosecutors and the International Criminal Court. It is rare that frontlines move so rapidly that this kind of evidence can be gathered so soon after the crimes were committed. The courage and resolve of these people is impressive yet it also raises important questions about who and how these vital materials are gathered, maintaining the integrity of evidence and impartiality, plus preserving the veracity of witnesses. What’s clear is that no time is being wasted and already at least 26,000 cases have been identified. In contrast, access to areas where war crimes were committed in Bosnia was only possible years after the event, and in some places, thirty years later are only just coming to light.
Chelsea football club was sold for
more than has been spent on
international justice since Nuremberg.
Just last week, the remains of at least one person were exhumed by the Special Department for War Crimes in eastern Bosnia. In a wooded area amongst early autumn leaves human remains, pieces of clothing and shoes were found. Discovered in the municipality of Foca - where many war crimes took place, some of which were prosecuted at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) - the remains have been taken to a specialist centre in Goražde for further examination. The reason it has taken so long for this exhumation to take place? They have been found in an area that until recently was impossible to access and has only just been demined.
I can still vividly remember the first time I witnessed the exhumation of a wartime mass grave and autopsy. It’s a moment in your life you don’t easily forget. What still vividly stands out for me, is not so much the gruesome work of the pathologist, but the agony of the relatives waiting close by. They were desperate to find out whether the bodies found were their people, their loved ones. They had been waiting months to discover the fate of their missing relatives and were desperate to find out the truth in order to have closure and be able to start their grieving process. Yet they dreaded the possibility of confirmation almost as much, if not more, as they clung to the hope that perhaps their relative wasn’t amongst the corpses at all and was just somewhere else, unable to get a message to their family. They were teetering on the precipice of wanting, but not wanting to know the truth and hear the dreaded confirmation.
Yet as Nerma Jelacic, the spokesperson for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) told me, “the work of prosecuting war crimes is never really done.” Nerma knows more about this than most people, at the age of 15 she was ethnically cleansed from her hometown of Višegrad, a mixed, majority Bosnian Muslim town with a culturally precious heritage. It was one of the many eastern towns in Bosnia that was viciously ethnically cleansed by Bosnian Serbs at the start of the war, leaving just Žepa, Srebrenica and to the south, close to the border of Montenegro, Goražde fighting for their lives. After the war she returned to Bosnia, to gather evidence for war crimes trials and then went to work for the ad hoc Tribunal in the Hague, the ICTY. She lives and breathes international war crimes.
Ukraine: war crimes cases opened (at least) 26,000
Bosnia: war crimes cases currently open 13,000
ICTY – 161 indictments
BOSNIA’S WAR CRIMES COURT
Bosnia has its own War Crimes department which was established in 2005, two years after the State Court. It has identified 13,000 cases, continuing the work started by the ICTY, which closed in 2017 after pursing 161 indictments against the most senior political and military commanders. These national prosecutions started very late, ten years after the end of the war and Jelacic identifies the lack of any clear prosecutorial strategy at the heart of the issue. For the people of Gorazde, they’ve been waiting a long time for justice and she sees the town “as the perfect example of how the lack of such a strategy in the early years resulted in a grave injustice, because it was one of the UN safe havens where a variety of crimes took place over the years and a lot of civilian deaths.”
Yet in the past two years there have been a number of indictments filed for war crimes committed against civilians in villages near the town. Just this July, an arrest warrant was issued for a Bosnian Serb commander Brane Petkovic for failing to prevent his men from committing or for about to commit war crimes including the murder of at least 16 Bosniak women and children. Why does this matter? Brane Petkovic was in charge of the plan to take Goražde and ‘clean it’, as we heard first hand in March, when we filmed Abdusalem Siercic known as Pelam or the ‘black pirate’, a restaurateur turned commander.
THE PLAN TO ‘CLEAN’ GORAŹDE
Pelam showed us the orders he and his men captured when they led an assault on the Bosnian Serb headquarters, a hotel in the middle of the town in May 1992. It’s a very detailed, specific plan, day by day, virtually hour by hour with lists of places to be attacked and shelled, even naming some people’s – civilians’ - houses.
It also includes reference to air support from (then) Yugoslavia, or Serbia as it is now.
Pelam recounted how, on 12th May, two planes from Yugoslav Air Force flew over Goražde but – possibly because they feared Pelam and his men had anti-aircraft guns – they flew at high altitude and their bombardment wasn’t very accurate . He remembers counting 12 large shells, which they called Krmache - ‘large pigs’ – but no one was wounded that day.
In our forthcoming feature documentary, UNCONQUERED, we will be the first to reveal this material and the story of the successful attack on the hotel the headquarters pushing the Bosnian Serbs out of the town in our film. This material is hugely significant showing, from the very beginning of the war, both the direct involvement of Serbia – aggression from an exterior country - and the intentions of these aggressors to create ethnically pure areas just for the Bosnian Serbs either by pushing all others out of the area or by mass murder. Something the international community refused or failed to recognise, especially the UK, from the beginning of the war.
But will Brane Petkovic ever be brought to trial? The reality is that it’s unlikely, given that he lives in Serbia and with the current political climate, the likelihood that he will be handed over to Bosnian authorities is remote. Lack of perpetrators may also be the issue in Ukraine, if all those responsible especially the senior officers have withdrawn to Russia. I was talking to the young filmmakers we worked with earlier this year who have already been to some of the liberated areas. Rumours are rife as to whether any Russian soldiers have been captured and even possibly a senior officer. But the situation is still very chaotic and nothing yet has been official confirmed. Can trials without the accused have any real meaning?
The challenges facing the prosecution of international justice are so complex, Jelacic calls for innovative ways to bring about justice. For her, one of the most significant purposes of a trial is “it allows that symbolic presentation of evidence. It's also about showing people and in their own words that this is planned from the highest-ranking officers.”
In Bosnia the wartime political leaders such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who planned and executed the policy of ethnic cleansing (responsible for tens of thousands of deaths) were indicted during the war. Yet when I was in there in the early days of the peace I heard anecdotally that NATO troops would be tipped off to move their checkpoints if either Mladic or Karadzic were heading their way. It was judged too politically sensitive to arrest them and might destabilise the peace and restart the war. I never thought that to be the case, quite the reverse and the result was that it took many years for either of these two key perpetrators to be brought to justice. That, I believe was a much more powerful barrier to peace and stability in the region.
While it’s clearly not possible to try every person who committed an atrocity in a conflict such as Bosnia, I do feel it is vital for local senior commanders to be brought to account. As Jelacic so rightly says, a trial creates a pubic, irrefutable record and a recognition of what happened. It means that survivors feel heard too.
Over 120 children were estimated to be killed
and 428 injured in Goražde during the war.
Yet no one has been convicted to date.
THE WORST EXISTENTIAL THREAT SINCE THE WAR
Christian Schmidt, the German diplomat appointed as Bosnia’s new High Representative (the office established at the Dayton Peace Accords to implement them and oversee Bosnia’s transition to peace and stability) declared in a recent report to the UN that Bosnia is currently facing its “worst existential crisis since the war.” While there are many reasons for this, the lack of coherent and efficient justice, to hold perpetrators to account must be a major contributing factor.
Like the families I saw waiting for the news they dreaded, so many people in Bosnia cannot move on until the past is reconciled. We must be hopeful that the Bosnian War Crimes court can move forward, even if slowly, rather than for another conflict to start where people may find an alternative and equally brutal way to resolve their past. And to see whether justice can be served for the people of Ukraine swiftly and justly.