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The Problem With Closure: Thoughts From Washington

Vukovar in 1991
It's tempting to say that the arrest of Goran Hadzic draws a line under the 1991-99 Balkan wars. There were 161 people on the list of war criminals sought by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Hadzic was the 161st .

The 53-year-old Hadzic has been on the run for more than a decade since he was indicted in 2004 on 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His most flagrant offense was committed in the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar, which fell to Serbian forces in the autumn of 1991 following a three-month siege. Forces loyal to the Serbian breakaway government in the region, headed by Hadzic, took more than 260 people from the town's hospital and killed them.

Hadzic was apprehended less than two months after the arrest former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic. The international community had long pressured Serbia to arrest the two war crimes suspects. Many observers seem to think that, with Hadzic finally in the dock, the way is now paved for Serbia's integration into European structures and the wider international community.

So are the Balkan wars now truly over?

The arrest and eventual trial of Hadzic will end a very important chapter in international law. Once Hadzic's trial is over the ICTY will have completed its mission. This would not be possible as long as even one fugitive remained at large, says Serbian journalist Dejan Anastasijevic. "This arrest allows the ICTY in The Hague to say that after the last trial is over we have fulfilled our task," he says. "Now they can honorably dismantle."

Hadzic's arrest confirms that Serbian President Boris Tadic is committed to doing whatever must be done to get Serbia past the war. By pushing forward with the arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008, Mladic earlier in May of this year, and now Hadzic, Tadic has removed the last obstacle on the path toward Serbia's integration into Europe. EU foreign-policy supremo Catherine Ashton said as much today, when she praised Serbia's move.

Yes, the war in the Balkans is over. The warring sides are being rehabilitated, integrated, cajoled, supported, and gently nudged into the European Union. Croatia is poised to accept full EU membership in 2013. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been recognized as a "potential candidate country." And now Serbia's last external obstacle to membership is gone.

All grounds for satisfaction. Yet at the same time, let's not forget one thing. For thousands of people who lost family members in the Balkan wars, the war will never really be over. For all those who have not been able to bury a body, or to mourn at a grave, the war is an open wound that can never be entirely healed.

This latest arrest, along with the trial to come, will provide some justice -- at least some. There will be no eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Today's Europe no longer puts people to death for their crimes. And while The Hague tribunal has held the guilty accountable and punished them for their offenses against humanity, the bloody Balkan wars will still haunt us for decades to come. Wars do not end when the fighting stops, or the guilty get their due.

The former Vukovar hospital, where those 260 patients were killed two decades ago, is now a center of remembrance to the victims. Preparations are under way for the 20th anniversary of the siege, which lasted from August to November 1991.

"Wars are not books and not even chapters in books. You cannot just close them, sit down and put them on a shelf somewhere," says Anastasijevic. Closure, that quintessentially American concept, is a modest, two-syllable word. Yet coping with the past is a process that never really ends. You don't achieve it by getting the last bad guy on the list.

-- Irena Chalupa

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