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Balkans Without Borders

Friday 15 December 2017

Former Croatian General Slobodan Praljak was convicted in 2013 for the destruction of Mostar's Old Bridge. (file photo)

"Dear God, please spare me Serb heroism and Croatian culture," ("Sacuvaj me boze srpskog junastva i hrvatske kulture") was a famous quip of Miroslav Krleza (1893-1981), the greatest Yugoslav and Croatian writer of the 20th century.

Krleza did not live long enough to witness the destruction of Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990s, but he unerringly identified -- and mocked in his typically acerbic style -- the nationalist conceits that played no small part in the breakup of the country. A major element in Serb national identity has long been their supposed martial spirit, while the Croats have sought to distinguish themselves from their Balkan neighbors by claiming to possess a superior, more authentically Western culture. Both of these national myths were given the lie in the war.

The Serbs showed little of their military prowess in the 1990s wars, contriving to lose ground in all the conflicts -- in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- despite enjoying overwhelming superiority in weapons and personnel. On the other hand, some of the most notorious acts of destruction of cultural heritage -- aimed at removing all traces of the Muslim population from areas of Bosnia that the Croats considered to be "theirs" -- were masterminded or carried out by men who before the war had built a reputation as "promoters of culture." The case of Slobodan Praljak is typical, and one of the crimes for which he has been convicted in the first instance at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar.

'Prlic Five'

Slobodan Praljak (72) is one of "the Prlic Five," a group of Croat political and military leaders tried along with Jadranko Prlic, the former president of the wartime statelet of "Herceg-Bosna." The six men were convicted in 2013 and given prison sentences of 16 to 25 years. They are awaiting judgments on appeal on November 29.

While the Bosnian Serb Army was busy carving out the borders of what became Republika Srpska, in the southwest, Bosnian Croat forces -- with significant support from Croatia proper -- turned on the Bosnian Army and set out to establish their own ethnically homogenous space, using some of the same methods of ethnic cleansing employed by the Serbs.

Before the war, Praljak had been a writer and film director. He had also been the director of various theaters, including in Mostar. With the outbreak of the war, the man of culture became a general and an adviser to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. He was eventually accused of command responsibility for the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar, one of the most striking Ottoman monuments in the Balkans, and a jewel of Bosnia's Islamic heritage.

The Old Bridge in Mostar following its reconstruction in 2004. (file photo)
The Old Bridge in Mostar following its reconstruction in 2004. (file photo)

The 16th-century bridge over the Neretva River was commissioned by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and built by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin. Its construction is wrapped in myth and legend, but it became the symbol of the city of Mostar, which got its name from it. According to the 17th-century Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi, the name "Mostar" means "bridge-keeper."

Celebi wrote that the bridge was "like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other.... I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky."

The graceful arch stood for more than four centuries, surviving not only the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but two world wars -- including the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. But like so much of Bosnia's Ottoman heritage, it was not spared by the merciless onslaught of Serb and -- in this case -- Croat nationalists intent on erasing the country's Islamic past.

Overwhelmed By Sorrow

During the trial in The Hague, Praljak denied all charges, and his defense lawyers spun conspiracy theories backed by "experts" who asserted that the Old Bridge in Mostar was "most likely destroyed by explosives rigged on the bridge [by the Bosnian Army], not when it was hit by a shell fired from HVO [Bosnian Croat forces] tank."

However it was not merely a stray shell, but over 60 projectiles that were fired at the bridge between November 8 and 9, 1993, from HVO positions before the Old Bridge collapsed. In a recent tweet, a resident of Mostar described the sorrow that overwhelmed him the moment the bridge collapsed.

There was a belief among Bosnians that only someone without education or culture -- a barbarian -- could destroy an ancient monument that preserves the footprints of past centuries. But that was far from the case. The Croatian group of six held responsible for the act was extremely well-educated, and it's likely that Praljak has more academic diplomas than any other member of the Prlic Five. He initially studied engineering and graduated with distinction from Zagreb University, but this was followed by degrees in Philosophy and Sociology. A year after that, he graduated from the Film Academy.

The day the Old Bridge was destroyed, the Sarajevo-based newspaper "Oslobodjenje" published an editorial with the headline: "They Have Killed The Oldest Resident Of Mostar."

The Old Bridge was rebuilt after the war, in 2004, thanks to foreign funds as well as expertise and backing by UNESCO.

'Extended Cease-Fire'

One of the traditions that became inextricably associated with the Old Bridge was the annual diving competition, organized every summer by the "Mostari" club. This year, they marked the anniversary of the destruction of the bridge on November 9 in a special manner. There was a gathering of students from Mostar schools, as well as residents and local politicians, but they were predominantly from one side of the Neretva, with Croat officials conspicuous by their absence.

Air-raid sirens were sounded, flowers were cast into the river below, and a single diver jumped off the bridge followed by silence, without the usual applause.

Mostar resident Zeljko Laketic was in the Bosnian military in 1993, and stood only a few dozen meters away from the Old Bridge when it was destroyed.

"I saw that everyone was in tears, as if a member of their family had been killed. I saw hardened men, veterans of two years of war who had seen everything, crying like little children," Laketic told RFE/RL.

Meanwhile, the Croat politicians only show up on the anniversary of the reopening of the bridge, preferring to ignore the circumstances of its destruction.

Apart from its beauty, the Old Bridge in Mostar had over the centuries become a symbol of this multiethnic Bosnian city, uniting the two banks of the Neretva River. Its destruction was thus not only about erasing the Islamic past, but symbolically breaking the bonds between the city's various peoples. The bridge may have been rebuilt, but the fabric of Bosnia's -- and Mostar's -- multiethnic society has not been stitched back together.

As a local RFE/RL correspondent recently lamented to me: "Here [in Mostar] we do not have peace, only an extended cease-fire."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up by the UN in 1993 to deal with war crimes committed during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, is nearing its end. Whether it can claim "mission accomplished" when it formally closes its doors on December 31 remains a question, however.

For many in the region, The Hague tribunal has been a great insult; for others a disappointment.

In Serbia and Republika Srpska the state media and nationalist politicians have successfully promoted a narrative of the ICTY as essentially "anti-Serb" and part of a conspiracy to hold only Serbs responsible for crimes while minimizing the guilt of others.

Meanwhile, most Croats indicted by the tribunal are still celebrated as heroes of the Homeland War, and their prosecution is seen as a travesty.

The dominant feeling in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, is one of disappointment. There had been, perhaps, an unrealistic expectation that the tribunal would somehow be able to bring back prewar Bosnia; that it would rescind the new reality of an ethnically divided country created by the war.

In the end, the tribunal had established beyond doubt that the Bosnian Muslims were by far the war's biggest victims, but no court could return Bosnia to its prewar state.

Yet with all its ups and downs, the ICTY has been a cornerstone in the fight against impunity for the crimes committed in the series of wars in the former Yugoslavia (1991-99). Those most responsible did eventually end up in the detention unit of The Hague tribunal -- in some cases after years spent in hiding -- and were by most accounts given fair trials.

The credibility of the ICTY rests, above all, on the trials of two individuals in its courtrooms -- Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the supreme political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs in the war (1992-95). They have been accused -- and convicted -- of the gravest crimes that have come under the purview of the court, and which had by far the largest number of victims. The successful prosecutions of Karadzic and Mladic are undoubtedly a triumph for international justice.

Sarajevo Siege

Apart from the genocide in Srebrenica -- the massacre of more than 8,000 unarmed men and boys -- Mladic was held primarily responsible for the bombardment of Sarajevo. The city was under siege for 1,425 days; its citizens deprived of the necessities of life, such as water and electricity, and allowed only meager rations of humanitarian aid. More than 10,000 civilians were killed, including at least 1,000 children. Shells fired from the surrounding hills landed on playgrounds and marketplaces, murdering indiscriminately.

In one infamous video, Mladic was recorded issuing an order to his artillery to "hit Velesici, not many Serbs there!" Velesici was a Sarajevo suburb, ethnically mixed like the rest of the city. Mladic's chilling order revealed the real purpose of the violence, which was to divide people along ethnic lines, and to "cleanse" territory of non-Serbs.

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic (right) and his general, Ratko Mladic, in April 1995. Both men received lengthy sentences for the gravest crimes that came under the purview of the Hague tribunal.
Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic (right) and his general, Ratko Mladic, in April 1995. Both men received lengthy sentences for the gravest crimes that came under the purview of the Hague tribunal.

Interestingly, in the course of their parallel trials Mladic refused to be a witness for the defense of Radovan Karadzic. He did not want to hurt his own case. Karadzic was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison, although both the defense and the prosecution have appealed the sentence -- in the latter case demanding life imprisonment. The final decision will be made by the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), which will take over remaining ICTY cases and serve as the repository of its judicial records.

The first president of the tribunal, Antonio Cassese, believed that its great achievement was the individualization of guilt. He was convinced that holding specific individuals responsible would prevent the assigning of collective blame -- to entire nations -- for the crimes committed.

That expectation has been largely disappointed. Two decades later, during a visit to Sarajevo in June 2017 to announce the successful conclusion of the court's work, ICTY President Carmel Agius acknowledged that reconciliation was not part of The Hague tribunal's brief.

"We are not offering reconciliation, because it has not been the mandate of this court to do it. We have not dealt with it at all. All the citizens in the countries in the region have the responsibility for reconciliation," he said.

"We are closing the door, but we are giving you a large collection of determined facts. We are giving you the truth about what happened," Agius said.

That, however, is no small achievement, and there have been many firsts in international humanitarian justice along the way.

Epistemological Earthquake

The ICTY was the first international criminal tribunal since the post-World War II Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, and the first tribunal established under Chapter VII of the UN charter. It has issued more indictments than any other international criminal court, and has brought 161 individuals to justice. Its most important achievement is the sheer volume of documents its trials have generated, which together constitute nearly all the pieces of the puzzle that is the destruction of Yugoslavia.

While few in either Belgrade or Zagreb will publicly lament the tribunal's closure, it presents them with a dilemma. The Hague -- and its perceived biases and injustices -- has served nationalists in both Serbia and Croatia as a means of keeping the wounds of the war open, and putting off reconciliation. Yet it will no longer be possible to invoke the tribunal and its alleged shortcomings as an obstacle to a lasting rapprochement, writes Refik Hodzic in a piece published on the respected Serbian portal Pescanik titled The Years The War Criminals Devoured (a play on the title of the prison memoirs of the Serbian writer Borislav Pekic, The Years The Locusts Devoured).

"The Hague archives are a treasure trove, they contain the truth about us, the truth about the tragic collapse of a community that experienced an epistemological earthquake and swapped the truth for myth, institutions for false prophets," writes Hodzic.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

Follow @gordanaknezevic

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