The ground is frozen but they are told to dig. Emaciated, starving, my father alternates between a shovel and his hands, too weak to penetrate frozen ground. My father was a prisoner of war in the Manjača concentration camp during the Bosnian War in which, after the fall of Yugoslavia, heightened ethnic tensions led to conflict and the systematic effort of Serbian nationalists to remove and exterminate Bosnian Muslims from land they deemed theirs. He and the thousands of men that came through this concentration camp were tasked with digging the mass graves that would be used to bury Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men. And that day, they were tasked with redigging these graves, mixing, disturbing and obscuring the bodies so that 22 years later, dead bodies remain unidentified, perpetuating the trauma of the genocide.
My father has told me this story before. He can’t get it out of his head: He uses his fingers and digs up what looks to be a finger, but as he keeps digging, he realizes it is the frozen nose of a half-decomposed man, shot and deposited in this mass grave with dozens, possibly hundreds of other men. He tells this story a lot. He also tells the one where his house is bombed and the men in his village, including himself and his brother, are captured. Another one is the story of having to outwit wild dogs to steal their food.
I don’t know what to do with these stories, but I know, hearing the news that Ratko Mladić had been sentenced to life in prison on Nov. 22 in the Hague by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, that I wasn’t going to sacrifice these stories like Western news outlets have been doing.
Justice has been served, says CNN reporter Nic Robertson. Former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Jeremy Ashdowne says that anyone who “looked down into those mass graves knows that a retribution has been delivered, and who cannot be glad about that?” The United Nations Human Rights Chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, calls it “a momentous victory for justice.”
Ratko Mladić was the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces and ordered the systematic rapes of Bosniak women and the systematic murder of Bosniak men and boys in pursuit of an ethnically cleansed greater Serbia after the fall of Yugoslavia. Mladić headed the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were apprehended at Srebrenica, a U.N.-designated safe zone, and murdered. Mladić also led a four-year siege on Sarajevo, leading to the deaths of over 11,000 people. He was convicted of 10 out of 11 counts, including genocide in Srebrenica and other war crimes.
Waking up to this news that Wednesday, I felt angry. I felt strangely alone. The courtroom footage of Mladić yelling expletives as the verdicts are served is eerily intimate, like I am watching someone I know look straight through me. It is difficult to explain what I am feeling and what my parents are feeling, and I can’t imagine someone outside of our positions truly understanding what this means for us. It is not justice. It is cruder and more cruel than that. But I am not surprised. I don’t expect Western news outlets to accurately or faithfully represent what this conviction truly means for victims of the genocide and war, Bosnian and non-Bosnian. Western journalists and the U.N. were distanced and divorced omniscient third persons during the war, operating under noble ideals of justice and objectivity while my people were murdered.
But what I do expect and think should happen is a greater engagement with the current state of political and ethnic tensions in the Balkans and their parallels to the United States today. We are witnessing the emboldening of white supremacy, fascist ideology, Islamophobia in America and across Europe — and it’s dizzying to attempt to understand. My mother always warns me not to get political, to be careful what I write, that we are Muslim. But I am not in Bosnia in 1994 — I am white in America today, and I know that affords me considerable safety.
My mother tells me to be careful who I get into arguments with — people are violent, especially the far right. But I invariably, once again, found myself in an argument last week with someone that views Muslims as “primitive savages.” They told me that my family is “Americanized” and thus doesn’t count as “real” Muslims, who presumably behead nonbelievers. Despite the obvious flaws in ideology — “the only viable Muslims are terrorists” — the most telling thing this person told me was that “not everything is complex. Not everyone is good.” To hear this the same day of Mladić’s conviction silenced me.
It is not only that justice for genocide is never achievable. It is not only that there is no way to atone for the grief and trauma that my people still live with today. Mladić’s ideology is alive and well in the Balkans and exists in another form in the United States, in the white supremacy that refuses to engage with the complexity of the world. Although we cannot perfectly parallel the political and ethnic tensions in the Balkans to the racial tensions in the United States, journalists have a duty to represent the complexity of how far-right ideology manifests in different times and places and how those different manifestations interact.
Milorad Dodić, the Serbian Republic leader in Bosnia, led the push for a 2018 referendum, now stalled indefinitely, for the Serbian Republic’s independence from Bosnia and called for Serbians to create a “greater Serbia.” Aleksandar Vucić, president of Serbia, calls Mladić’s conviction “unjustified”, calling on people to “start looking to the future and not to drown in the tears of the past.” Serbia has never formally accepted responsibility for the war, let alone the genocide. In the United States and across Europe, white supremacists hail war criminals like Mladić and Slobodan Milošević as heroes on far-right listservs and forums. Mladić did what they want to do — eradicate people they deem worthless.
The war is not a dead-and-over piece of history, but, like all of history, it is alive through how it is represented, understood and used today. The far-right brutishly shears through the moral and political complexity of the world, cutting history along lines and logics that haven’t been cut before. Its followers take the complexity of history and crack its spine. Out of their mouths comes genocide denial and revisionist history. Journalists and politicians have the responsibility of engaging with and reporting that complexity, of not oversimplifying by calling upon a weak, Platonic ideal of justice, as in Mladić’s case. Labeling this conviction as justice challenges the support in the Balkans for Mladić’s ideology. But, more than that, calling upon “justice” is a refusal to engage with the complexity of reactions in the Balkans, where dangerous, unresolved ethnic tensions lay half-dormant, and with the complexities of how far-right ideology in the United States uses and abuses this history.
Contact Medina Husakovic at medinah ‘at’ stanford.edu.