The news of the arrest of Ratko Mladic’s arrest in Serbia is excellent for truth and reconciliation between the Bosinan Serbs and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks).
Mladic was responsible for attacks on civilians in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the conflict in the early ’90s. These attacks on non-combatants constituted crimes against humanity, civilians were not part of the Balkan wars at the time and should have been immune from attack. Srebrenica went a step further and instead of random attacks on Bosnian Muslims it was a calculated invasion of a UN guarded safe-area for Bosniaks in which the Bosnian Serb army commanded by Mladic (note the difference between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, the conflict consisting of ethnic wars between the former and the latter) murdered 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in an ethnic cleansing incident. This constituted an act of genocide, the intention being to eradicate another ethnic group.
Mladic is responsible for these two incidents which left an indelible mark on the Bosnian cultural consciousness and shredded the carefully woven patchwork of co-exsiting and interconnected social, political, ethnic and religious groups in Bosnian society.
It is not easy to wash out these marks or mend the tears in the social fabric. Retribution by the Bosniaks on the Bosnian Serb army members for the crimes against humanity might result in temporary pain relief but in the long term it would only further embitter the Serbs to their historical enemy. Putting the Bosnian Serb army in prison would do the same. Instead of redress it would be revenge. An excellent example of where revenge was used instead of redress was the Treaty of Versailles which allowed facist and racist sentiment to brew in post-Great War Germany and explode into the Second World War.
For clarity we need to separate out the ideas of conflict and violence in our heads. Conflict is an umbrella term that is used to describe lots of different types of violence. Conflict isn’t always as clear cut as two countries going to war. For example the aforementioned marks and tears are known as structural violence. States and societies in the throes of structural violence are considered in a state of negative peace. They are not at war but they cannot be considered to be living peaceful existences. Whilst not overt structural violence is characterised by different traits for example prejudice between social groups, hatred being passed down to children and taught in schools, division in living or working rights and areas and poverty. It can be detected in any society on earth, inner cities in the United States, the British National Party being elected in the North of England, the riots in the Paris banlieue. In my personal opinion there is no society in existence that is free from social inequality, hatred and poverty. No society has ever achieved positive peace, some are relatively very close for example the Netherlands (now to a lesser extent) and Scandinavian countries.
For the Bosnian society to move close to positive peace what is needed is a degree of amnesty, absolute truth and the expectation of reconciliation on both sides. People like Mladic however are not included in this. He is directly responsible for the actions and they would not have taken place without his assent and planning, he cannot be granted amnesty or the fragile process of healing would have no chance of success. Part of reconciliation is justice, without truth there is no justice, it cannot be done in secret. Mladic needs to stand trial in the International Criminal Court and be proved guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and he must serve his sentence.
What is needed now is a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). You may wonder why this was not attempted before. Rightly so, but the wounds were still open, to try and attempt healing with people like Mladic still ‘at large’ would be unrealistic. For those of you unfamiliar with the nature of these commissions I will explain briefly. I have peppered this post already with the terminology, processes and outcomes expected of TRCs. A TRC is an agency which is tasked with uncovering past wrongdoing by the government (but this is frequently broadened out to non-state actors) usually with regard to genocide and human rights abuses. They provide proof against historical revisionism and the glorifying of the past. However they do not seek out war criminals to punish them, they merely aim to reveal the truth of the situation usually by providing amnesty to perpetrators who admit to their crimes and express remorse. By doing this all sides of a conflict can come to terms with human tragedy but more importantly acknowledge the humanity of the attackers and attacked. It is so easy to portray the genocidaires as inhuman monsters but they are not, they are people too. It is so easy for the war criminals to pretend that the people they are murdering are subhuman, but they are not, they are people too.
The process of healing and reconciliation for both the Bosniaks and Bosnians Serbs has a much greater chance of success now he has been arrested. Without him there is no standard bearer for the Bosnian Serb community to fetishise their role in the ethnic cleansing or glorify Mladic as a local hero. If Mladic were still on the run the psychological wounds he inflicted on the friends and family of those murdered would still be open and raw.
The Bosniaks need to learn to forgive the Serbs for the crimes against them, obsessing about the past will prevent the two ethnic groups progressing into a productive future of mutual respect. The Bosnian Serbs need to understand that what they did was wrong, that it can be forgiven but that it will never be forgotten. It must continue to exist as a sad but unalterable memory that serves to fuel their desire for closer friendship to prevent it ever happening again. The two groups have lived together for centuries before and for decades after their tragedy, they live in a state of negative peace and their existence is characterised by structural violence but without truth for the victims about what went on nearly 20 years ago and justice and protection for the perpetrators what can we expect?