Annedore Wilmes: Ratko Mladić and Peacemaking

CTPI’s Religion and Ethics in the Making of War and Peace Project (Relwar) is an active participant in the former Yugoslavia’s Truth and Reconciliation Process. The Women, Religion and Peacemaking in Post-Conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina research project fills an important gap in existing efforts by examining gendered and religious components in the peacemaking process.

On 26 May Ratko Mladić, a former Bosnian Serb general, was arrested and five days later extradited to the Hague where he will face trial for genocide. We asked Relwar intern Annedore Wilmes, based in Sarejevo, to reflect on the meaning of the impending trial for peacemaking efforts there:

Sarajevo newsstand

Sarajevo newsstand

The piles of newspapers laying out at the kiosks the morning after Ratko Mladić’s arrest revealed that something happened that was out of the ordinary. Many Sarajevans received with disbelief the news of the arrest of the man who is accused of having operated the siege of their city. More than fifteen years of waiting for his arrest—whilst being convinced that his whereabouts were known to the governments of Republika Srpska and Serbia—demanded that Sarajevans deal with the fact that he was not arrested and might never be.

The news meets Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in a time of political and economic stagnation and crises. The last general elections were held in the beginning of October 2010 and a government and parliament have yet to form. A serious crisis was prevented just two weeks ago when Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska, one of two administrative entities of BiH, pulled back a referendum on the state judiciary and the authority of the Office of the High Representative, who oversees the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995. More than 15 years after the end of the war, the task of navigating the intricate construct of the Federation, as designed by the peace agreement, still proves extremely challenging. ‘Peace politics’ is not enchanting. Many young and educated people turn their back to politics altogether, put off by nationalists in power. However, high unemployment rates and continuous propaganda are two of several factors that keep making nationalist belonging an attractive choice to others.

The protests against the arrest of the former leader of the Bosnian-Serb Army in cities in the Republika Srpska and Serbia attested to this. It is not only war veterans who have expressed their loyalty to their former general. Twenty year old Amra (not her real name) from a place near Srebrenica said that “I saw that some of my friends supported Ratko Mladić on Facebook. I did not want to believe it when I saw it. One of my relatives has been killed by Mladi’s troops… I have to talk to my friends.”

Amra gains courage from Forum Žena. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) is located in Bratunac, near the Serbian border a few kilometers away from Srebrenica. Stanojka Tešić remembers the beginning of the Forum in 1999, when twelve women organized themselves in the face of threats and damage to their meeting place. Today, Forum Žena has 162 members who work towards overcoming stereotypes and establishing relationships across divides. According to Stanojka, a great deal of transitional justice has yet to be realized. In her view, processes of ‘lustration’–meaning in this context the disqualification of persons in office, especially in civil service, who have been responsible for crimes committed during the violent conflict in the 90s–and vetting are much too slow and not rigorously implemented, if at all: “There are still people working in courts and students being taught by teachers who are commonly renowned as war criminals without having faced a trial yet. Many people do not address the crimes of the past and present conflicts across the societal divides. They feel things are too intractable to talk about it. And yet we cannot move on without acknowledging that also those who I feel I belong to, have committed crimes. There is no way around it.”

The arrest and commencing trial of Ratko Mladić by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is important for a number of reasons, all of which are currently being discussed: to examine his responsibility in the war meticulously (the responsibility for war crimes committed is still being denied by parts of the population); to speak a verdict and impose a sentence; to fill gaps of knowledge, especially concerning the reconstruction of the events surrounding the genocide of Srebrenica and concerning the United Nations’ failure to protect refugees and citizens in Srebrenica, even though they declared the city a ‘Safe Area’ in May 1993.

Sarajevo City Centre

Sarajevo city centre on the day of the arrest

However, the transformative power of the ICTY is limited. This is partly due to its focus on establishing facts and hearing victims’ testimonials in order to investigate the responsibility of the accused for atrocities committed. Another instrument that focuses on hearing the survivor rather than the perpetrator and that has the potential to complement the work of the ICTY is the ‘Women’s Court’ system. Women’s Courts—a very misleading title since Women’s Courts are neither exclusively for women nor are they actual courts—were organized for the first time by networks of women’s groups in Pakistan in 1992. They offer a public space where people who suffered violence can give a testimony about their respective stories in a court-like and yet ‘life-welcoming’ setting. The survivor is free to choose how to communicate her experiences, including verbal depictions, poetry, visual art, music, dance. He is not confined to the victim’s role, but can express his experiences in all facets relevant to him, including stories of survival. Listeners are the public and a jury, consisting of expert witnesses and eminent individuals of the community. The jury speaks a verdict at the end of the hearing, which is not legally binding, but of the character of a public recommendation. Women’s Courts are inclusive in that they welcome the entire community to be part of the process. It is a concept—one which is perhaps becoming a practice in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia—which calls for theological exploration. Daša Duhaček, professor at the University of Belgrade, presented the concept at the ‘Accepting Diversities’ conference of the Centre for Interdisciplinary and Postgraduate Study of the University of Sarajevo in April this year. She reported that there is an initiative by a network of women’s groups to organize a Women’s Court in the region.

Whilst the local public celebrated Ratko Mladić a hero, six Bosnian-Serbs reached out to Forum Žena hours after the news was released. They visited those who were once more confronted with the terror of the past atrocities and again facing their pain and grief about murdered sons, fathers, brothers and husbands. They did not spread the word of their visit in their hometown. The risk of being harassed is still too high.

Image Credits: Annedore Wilmes

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