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Srebrenica survivors embarked on a three-day remembrance march SundayImage: AP

Bosnia's Struggle

DW staff (win)
July 8, 2007

As a new UN special envoy for Bosnia took over this week, the country's citizens still struggle to come to terms with their war-torn past. Experts believe the healing won't begin until the crimes have been dealt with.


Germany's Christian Schwarz Schilling was in good spirits when he handed over his office to his successor, Slovak diplomat Miroslave Lajcak, this week.

Bosnien Sarajevo Christian Schwarz-Schilling und Miroslav Lajcak
Schwarz-Schilling (right) with Lajcak in Sarajevo on MondayImage: AP

"I think that this will be a very important time for Bosnia and Hercegovina and I am confident that (Lajcak) will be able, together with the Bosnian leaders, to take this county forward," he said.

During the 1990s, the people of Bosnia Hercegovina witnessed the worst war crimes committed since the end of World War II. These crimes are far from having been solved.

Adnan Hasanbegovic was a soldier in Bosnia during the occupation of Sarajevo. It was the worst time of his life.

"On the other hand, it led me to think about peace building," said Hasanbegovic, who now works at the Center for Non-Violent Action in Sarajevo. "I started thinking about justice, life and death and the meaning of life -- about why there's so much violence. It made me become a peace activist after the war."

Hasanbegovic said he hopes that his work now plays a role in securing a peaceful and stable future for Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Early intervention

The chances are that he and his allies will reach their goal are better than in many other conflict regions. Bosnia may have seen the worst war crimes since World War II during the 1990s, with 8,000 Bosnians murdered during the Srebrenica massacre alone.

But human rights activists, lawyers and the international community began to deal with the war crimes early on. While the war was still ongoing in 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established in The Hague. Nobody thought about staging trials back then, but the court was meant as a signal that the international community wasn't going to tolerate massacres and mass rape. Since then, many cases have been tried before the court.

Friedensmissionen Bosnien
Bosnian children play in front of a banner reading "Peace, no more wars" in Tuzla, BosniaImage: AP

Märtha Elisabeth Rehn, a former UN special envoy for Bosnia, said that she's sometimes asked why it's so important that war criminals such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic or Bosnian Serb army general Ratko Mladic are brought to The Hague. But when she talks to the women of Srebrenica, she realizes how unhappy they are that nobody worries about their suffering.

"Justice is important for them in order to continue living and being ready for reconciliation," Rehn said.

Court symbolism

Experts agree that lasting peace is impossible without uncovering conflicts and violence that took place. Luis Moreno-Ocamp, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said that the tribunal in The Hague is an important instrument -- and not just for Bosnia.

Biljana Plavsic
Former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic was sentenced to 11 years in prison for crimes against humanityImage: AP

"The worst criminals, the dictators are brought to justice there," he said, adding that this contributes to a lasting peace.

While justice is administered, this doesn't necessarily mean that justice is served as far as the victims are concerned.

"When the first mass rape trials took place, I went to Sarajevo and met representatives of the organization of raped women," Rehn said. "I asked them naively whether they weren't pleased that the perpetrators got such high penalties. They looked at me as if I'd come from a different planet and said: 'What are you talking about? We'll suffer for the rest of our lives because of these rapes and they barely got 12 or 20 years.'"

A nightmare for criminals?

Most Bosnians also continue to avoid the issue. The Dayton Agreement ended the fighting 12 years ago, but many people remain traumatized. The war isn't over for them. Bosnian Muslims and Croats also consider Dayton to be unfair -- a peace agreement, but not a just one, they say.

The division in two separate republic effectively split the country and politicians are not ready to overcome this and agree on one system. But there's another reason for the lack of interest in dealing with the war: Karadzic and Mladic are still at large.

Ein Mann blickt am 20.1.2001 auf neue Fahndungsplakate der als Kriegsverbrecher angeklagten bosnischen Serben Radovan Karadzic und General Ratko Mladic in Sarajevo
Mladic and Karadzic remain at largeImage: dpa

Hasanbegovic said he doesn't think that tribunals can solve all crimes. After all, there are thousands that participated, but only a few hundred have been punished so far.

"I still believe that the work of the courts is important, because they punish criminals," he said. "They make sure that all war criminals cannot sleep well any longer. They can only seek out a hole in the forest to hide, like Karadzic and Mladic have done."

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