“Our Political Frankenstein Constitution” – The Dayton Agreements Twenty Years Later

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords.


President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords. 14 December 1995

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords – 14 December 1995 – Picture taken by: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Schlumbohm


By Marieke Zoodsma


This week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, which ended the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. It was November 1995 when the peace conference took place in Dayton, Ohio, and where the representatives of the parties to the conflict (see the image above) were coerced by mediators to participate. Coerced, because none of the parties really wanted to participate nor really got what they wanted. The Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, fought for a unified state, while the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats both fought to annex those parts of the Bosnian territory that respectively were believed to belong to Serbia or Croatia. The compromise that was made decided that 49 % of the Bosnian territory remained Serbian (the Republika Srpska) and 51% would belong to the Bosniak-Croat federation – thereby cementing the country’s divisions among ethnic lines, as this infographic shows.


Although Dayton did put an end to the fighting in Bosnia, an ‘uneasy cease-fire’ is perhaps a more apt description of the circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. It is ‘a truce’, enforced at a crucial moment by the international community – and the military power of NATO. Or, as Ɖermana Šeta – one of my research respondents in Bosnia – firmly stated, “our main problem is our political Frankenstein constitution”. When I was doing fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, many of my respondents would refer to this problematic political constitution as being a serious obstacle to the rebuilding of Bosnian society and the reconciliation process. Dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation was often voiced by my respondents. This discontent was exemplified during last year’s protests in many of Bosnia’s greater cities. The official unemployment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is around forty percent, with over 57% youth unemployment. Shady privatization schemes have left thousands of workers jobless and pensions have dropped while the wages of Bosnia’s many bureaucrats have grown.


One of the most obvious explanations for this general dismay with the current state of affairs in Bosnia is the overly bureaucratic political system that is implemented through Dayton. To begin with, Bosnia has a tripartite presidency with each of the three members being from the constituent nations. They are in charge of foreign affairs, diplomatic and military affairs and the budget of state-level institutions. However,  many important subjects such as the educational system, healthcare or police affairs are being decided on at the entity level. Since competing memories of the war and a profound lack of trust still run strong between the three ethnic groups, an elaborate system of political control ensures that each ethnic group has a veto. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ten cantonal governments were created under which 142 municipalities were established. The 3,8 million citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are thereby governed by 168 ministries consisting of 70,000 employees on four governing-levels. Time has shown that this system is not only highly expensive but also completely ineffective for governing.


The ineffectiveness of this system for governing is exemplified country’s educational system. In the Republika Srpska, school curricula is decided on at the entity-level and in the Federation, the courses and content offered differ per canton. Which classes are offered, what the content of these classes is, or how it is being taught can therefore vary on one’s geographical location within the country. One of the most devastating effects of this policy, as this article fittingly describes, is the “two schools under one roof” system in the Bosnian-Croat Federation, whereby students of different ethnicity are kept completely separate during their education. Bosniaks enter the school through a different door than the Bosnian Croats, they are taught in different classrooms and receive different curricula – particularly with regards to the wars of the 1990s.


For my research into the reconciliation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I interviewed a high-school teacher at his school in Sanski Most, northeast Bosnia. During this meeting with him, I asked if he ever talks about the war during his classes. He firmly responded: “No, I do not talk about the war in class. That topic is too sensitive. … You never know how people are going to react”. Since he had just told me that ‘dialogue is the future’ and that it is the only way to ‘give up weapons and avoid violence’, I was confused with his answer. Recognizing his contradictory answers and thus having trouble to find words, the teacher tells me that he does not feel comfortable speaking about the war since he is afraid the students will misunderstand him:


Unfortunately the problem is, maybe even in the West, school is not the same as life. So within the walls of the school, some things are losing because you cannot express them as you wish. Maybe outside the school in some sessions, when you do not have to think about some things because there are some laws or some rules. … I had a situation that when you speak about something, that children misinterpreted it. It is too early I think. You speak about something, but every child accepts that a little differently.


Commentators praise Dayton for its effectiveness of creating peace in the violent political stalemate that the countries of the former Yugoslavia ended up in. According to British politician Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative of Bosnia; “Dayton was regarded as an outstanding international agreement … and many now look at Syria, and think Dayton might be a model for that war-torn country.” Dayton, in the end, has left Bosnia and Herzegovina in a political, economic and socially divisive malaise. And now, twenty years later, Bosnians want more. After the first steps towards rebuilding their livelihood have been taken, the Bosnians want a functioning country. And yes, European Union membership.



Film Review: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens – “The Disclosure of a Disturbed Past”

Copyright: Beeldbank WO2- NIOD


Main defendant Wilhelm Boger, on the photo left, awaits the beginning of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in April 1964. In the background a map of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Copyright: Image Bank WW2- NIOD


By Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma – 


It was not the handsome leading actor on the promotion poster of the film Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Labyrinth of Lies) that stirred our young historians’ blood. This was rather caused by the endless number of high-up filling cabinets with documents and dossiers surrounding him, perhaps sloppily archived, but a dream for any historian to dig into. These dossiers are the thousands and thousands of personnel files of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the major paramilitary organization that was, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, primarily responsible for many of the crimes perpetrated during the Nazi-regime. The poster depicts the Berlin Document Center, the central collection point of the American administration for documentation from the time of Nazism. Here, our leading actor, the Frankfurter prosecutor Johann Radmann, initiates his major investigation into the crimes committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film starts at the end of the 1950s in West Germany. Radmann is startled by the fact that no one ever seems to have heard of Auschwitz concentration camp – let alone of the atrocities committed there.


This idea of (willful) ignorance of the atrocities committed during the Second World War by the Nazis in the post-war period has been thoroughly investigated by Dan Stone in his recent work Goodbye to all That (2014). He underlines that a consensus on the memory of the Second World War was formulated in Germany. In the communist East-Germany, the capitalist system was blamed for this dark period in German history. In the West, there was a tendency to remain entirely silent on the period. Instead of finding a way to deal with the difficult past in which particular groups had suffered tremendously, the idea that this history had already been sufficiently dealt with prevailed, particularly in the West. Those that were deemed guilty had received their punishments through the Nuremberg trials and, from this perspective, the country had been completely denazified.  Stone has argued that this was a constructed consensus that was necessary in order to restore the country, allowing the German citizens to go on with their lives rather easily without having to think of the disturbing past. This can be seen as the central starting point of Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, with an ambitious young prosecutor who, as the story continues, slowly and painfully opens up this disturbing past.


In his publication Legacies of Dachau (2008), Harold Marcuse has also illustrated this deliberate silencing of the past by describing the way the Dachau concentration camp was viewed by German society in the post-war period. The municipality of Dachau refused both to construct signs indicating where the camp was located as well as the construction of a metro stop when a new metro line was built. All efforts were directed to make people remember the ‘good’ things of Dachau, for example that it used to be a place with a significant community of painters before the war. The war period was, in short, entirely ignored. This unwillingness of authorities to investigate the past, or even to pay attention to it in the first place, is a reoccurring theme in Im Labyrinth des Schweigens. Johann Radmann and his prosecuting team become visibly frustrated with the fact that the authorities they have to work with, refuse to actively help find the alleged Nazi perpetrators.         


The film neatly portrays how politically charged this search for, and the eventual arrest of, alleged Nazi war criminals has been. Even though 50 years have passed since the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) and international law has quickly developed afterwards, with international tribunals sprouting up like sunflowers in the sun, the politicization of the arrest of alleged war criminals is still as relevant today as it was then. As Radmann digs further in the evidence on crimes committed at Auschwitz, he learns about Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi-doctor of Auschwitz who performed medical experiments on the camp prisoners – at that time Mengele is at large and living in Argentina. Radmann decides he wants to bring Mengele to justice, that he ought to be the ‘big fish’ of these trials; “Mengele is Auschwitz”, he claims. The unwillingness of the West-German authorities to arrest Mengele, even when he visits his family in Germany, is reminiscence of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) 2009 arrest warrant of Omar Al-Bashir – the still presiding Sudanese president who is indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity (see Iona’s recent interview with professor Samuel Totten on the Sudan-conflict). When the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) captures Adolph Eichmann in May 1960, Mengele flees to Paraguay and eventually dies a free man in 1979.


As the film is largely based on events that have actually taken place, it is a decent and thorough portrayal of the difficulties faced by anyone who wanted to call attention to the troubled past in a period (1950s and early 1960s) when the large majority remained silent. The historical accuracy is praiseworthy, despite the dramatization of some events – with arrests of suspected Nazi criminals taking place even while they are in the dentist’s chair. The film ends with the actual start of the trials which could leave the viewer feeling somewhat unsatisfied. However, the director’s choice not to focus on the perpetrators and the trial itself but mostly on the pre-trial period, where the silence and lies present in German society are most visible, is a favorable decision. This story is not about the war criminals and the actual trial, it is about the difficult disclosure of a disturbed past.


Only last week, the 93-year old “Accountant of Auschwitz” Oskar Gröning, who was assigned with the confiscation of luggage of prisoners at Auschwitz, has gone on trial in Germany. Of the approximately 7,000 SS-officers who served at Auschwitz and its sub-camps, no more than a hundred of them have faced trial and even less went to prison. On January 27th of this year, the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz was held. Next week on the 5th of May, the Netherlands will celebrate their 70-year liberation of Nazi-occupation. Let these trials, how belated and perhaps incomplete as they might be, be a remembrance of the stories untold by the thousands of victims of dictatorial and genocidal regimes. Perhaps not justice but the opening up of silence, of the labyrinth of lies as the film cleverly portrays, is thus primarily served.

“No one before me, history is written after me” – The destruction of cultural heritage as a tactic of war

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010


Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia-Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

By Marieke Zoodsma -


The destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq by the Islamic State has generated great international uproar these past weeks. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, released a public statement condemning these acts by framing that they constitute a war crime. The BBC called the buildings and artworks ‘irreplaceable’ and the destruction a huge loss for the world. For Joanna Farshakh, a Lebanese archeologist, these actions should be considered a “cultural genocide”. Sadly and despite the consternation, these acts of cultural violence by IS were not their first and will most probably not be their last (there is even a Wikipedia-page dedicated to it). The following YouTube video, for example, shows the tragic destruction of statutes in the Niniveh-museum in Mosul, Iraq.


The destruction of heritage as a tactic of war is not new to mankind. It can be traced back to the first Christians in Egypt and their destruction of pharaonic monuments, and is an almost inseparable part of violent conflict. Take the destruction of multiple Tibetan monasteries during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the bombing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) by the Taliban in 2001, or the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo during the current protracted Syrian civil war. The annihilation of ancient sites by Islamic State are reminiscent of the deliberate attacks on cultural and religious heritage during the Bosnian war, a tactic widely used by the Bosniak (Muslim), Croat and Serb side in the conflict. For example, on the 25th of august 1992, the National Library of Sarajevo was bombed with phosphorus shells by Orthodox Serb nationalists during the siege of Sarajevo. Over a million volumes and a hundred thousand rare books were destroyed in the largest book burning in modern history. Or the destruction of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, in the city of Mostar in Herzegovina. This graceful, stone arch bridge (Mostar’s defining landmark) was constructed by the Ottomans in 1566. In 1993, it was destroyed by Croat Catholic nationalists. The Stari Most has been reconstructed in 2004 and listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.


Heritage is a peoples connection to the past, it distils this past into icons of identity. Heritage is that with which we all individually or collectively identify. The difference between heritage and history lies in the fact that heritage has to be widely accepted by insiders but inaccessible to outsiders; only then can it serve as a collective symbol for its possessors. It is this intangible feature of heritage, the mystique, fantasy and invention of it, that makes it distinct to each people. The uniqueness and exclusiveness of heritage is what makes it important for national identity, since, like our past, the heritage we possess differentiates us from other people.


Exactly the above characteristics of heritage make them justifiable to destroy by foreign invaders. Heritage is often used by previous political leaders to build up a national identity that will cross over boundaries of cultural, ethnic, national or religious groups. Such a national, heterogenic identity is exactly what the perpetrators of cultural destruction, such as IS or the nationalists during the Bosnian war, are fighting against. By eliminating every trace of material evidence, future generations cannot be reminded that people of different ethnic and religious traditions used to share a common heritage and space in that area. It is the denial of a community’s historical roots that is done by the destruction of its religious or cultural shrines. Conveniently, the perpetrators are thereby also ensured against the possibility that the expelled and dispossessed people would one day return and reclaim their homes and property.


Yale-professor in Assyriology Eckart Frahm states: “What is however quite unique in the case of ISIS, is that the destruction is directed against images that are thousands of years old, often damaged, and no longer worshipped by anyone, and that there is a concerted effort to use these acts of vandalism as propaganda by broadcasting them through videos.” However, as argued above, I would not frame the case of IS as unique. It is an attitude labelled as “no one before me, history is written after me” that is propagated by these perpetrators, even if these predecessors have been gone for over thousands of years. Islamic State is vigorously rewriting the past by destructing these cultural and religious sites. Similar tactics were used during the Bosnian war. In Zvornik, a town in the current Republika Srpska, there were once a dozen mosques. In the Yugoslav census of 1991, 60 percent of the residents called themselves Muslims. By the end of the war, the town was 100 percent Serb and Branko Grujić, the Serb-appointed mayor, was telling foreign visitors: “There never were any mosques in Zvornik.”


The use of internet and social media as propaganda for these terror tactics, as also previously discussed by Koen, is however indeed quite unique for Islamic State. Dr. Neville Bolt, teaching fellow at King’s College London, referred to this strategy as the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD). To use Bolt’s phrasing, POTD is a well-planned ‘act of political violence’ which aims to create a shocking media event ‘capable of energizing populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation’. As we have seen in the case of destruction of Nimrud, global outrage leads to international condemnation. The opposite effect is that it also instigates the group’s enemies to overreact forcefully, which then helps legitimize IS’s revolutionary agenda. To use the destruction of cultural and religious heritage not only as a tactic of ethnic cleansing or even genocide, but also to utilize it for the justification of the conflict is indeed a new phenomenon in the context of warfare.


Where does this leave us? Will the past then be rewritten and those ancient treasures forever be lost? Which vision will eventually prevail out of the ashes may depend in part upon the world community – in this case human rights workers, international development officials, historians, policy makers – to see through these provoking acts of violence and propaganda. Unfortunately, it does leave these riches of the world to the violent vagaries of Islamic State.



Further reading:
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity – John R. Gillis (ed.), 1994. Princeton: Princeton University Press

The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries – Neville Bolt, 2012. Hurst and Columbia University Press

Whose Genocide? An Analysis of the Definition of Genocide

Sarah McGowen/Flickr


Sarah McGowen/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

By Marieke Zoodsma -


Almost 25 years ago, the countries that once formed Yugoslavia were disrupted by heavy violence. The consequences of this bloody war, as I also wrote in my previous article on missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are still alive and present today. The judgment ruled in the Croatia vs. Serbia case by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague this week was one of these echoes of the Balkan wars, except this might be seen as the final closure of one bitter chapter. The crucial and leading question that led this chapter to endure for a quarter of a decade; did either one of the parties commit acts of genocide?


For Croatia, who filed the suit at the ICJ in 1999, genocide had been committed during the three months bombing by Yugoslav forces of the town of Vukovar in 1991. Serbia, considered to be the legal successor of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, filed a counter-claim of genocide in 2006 for the crimes that were committed during ‘Operation Storm’ in 1995 – an operation led by the Croatian army to re-take the territory that had been lost to the Serb forces in 1991. The fifteen judges of the ICJ this week rejected both claims of genocide, thereby ending one of the most bitterly contested disputes left by the Balkan wars. Not only does this judgment open up the way to more peaceful relations between the two countries (as Serbian president Nikolić repeated in the media), it also eliminates the question of the compensation of damages, and spares the European Union the humiliation of having one member state (Croatia) and an applicant member (Serbia) state being found guilty of genocide.


The main argument for genocide to be rejected was that “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” was missing in both claims. This leads us to the definition of genocide, which has been controversial ever since its inception through the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. According to Article 2 of the Genocide Convention:


“… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”


There are several striking aspects to be found in this definition of genocide that can be seen as problematic. What exactly is meant by ‘in whole or in part’, at what point is such a proportion of a group destroyed that it can be seen as ‘in part’? Also, the distinction between victim categories are rather limited by leaving out other historically targeted groups such as political or economic groups. And who is the genocidal perpetrator, the agent of destruction? Can this be one person, a group or should it be a regime? But what has often been called one of the core issues with the UN definition of genocide is its inclusion of the word ‘intent’. How does one prove ‘intent’? How does one connect a ‘genocidal intent’ to the actual events that happened on the ground? As seen in the ICJ-ruling of this week, or in others before that at the ICC (International Criminal Court) and ICTY ( International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ), proving intent turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of this definition, for scientists as well as jurists in a court of law.


There is no doubt that terrible crimes have happened during the Yugoslav wars, and the ICJ judgment emphasizes that crimes against humanity did occur. However, the assumption of explicit prior intentionality as the criteria for genocide is often difficult to reconstruct or to connect to specific behaviour. Although a campaign of annihilation might be evident, intent might not be publicly declared and therefore difficult to demonstrate where no proof of thoughts exist. The only expression of a guilty state of mind would be a confession, public statements or speeches. Such expressions are rare to almost non-existent, not even for acknowledged genocides such as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. The court ruling in the Croatia vs. Serbia case was therefore not very surprising, especially since no Serb or Croat has ever been charged with genocide in each other’s territory. In its decision, the court wrote, “What is generally called ‘ethnic cleansing‘ does not in itself constitute a form of genocide. Genocide presupposes the intent physically to destroy, in whole or in part, a human group as such, and not merely a desire to expel it from a specific territory.”


So where does this leave us? The obvious conclusion is that the generally used definition of genocide creates more ambiguity than it resolves. Social scientists have been trying to escape the ‘conceptual muddle’ created by the inclusion of genocidal intent in the definition of genocide by using different definitions, by excluding the word altogether or by substituting it for a different term. In the world of international criminal law, however, ‘intent’ is included in the definition of genocide that is incorporated in the statutes of the international courts, thus making it impossible to avoid the problems created by it. As Natasha Kurt, lecturer at King’s College London, rightly states; “Ultimately this case shows the politically motivated nature of the claims and counterclaims by both Serbia and Croatia, which cannot be upheld legally”.


The ambiguity of genocide has made it an attractive and thereby misused and misunderstood concept. It is considered the crime of all crimes, the denotation of absolute evil, and has therefore been applied to – justifiable or not – very different situations of mass violence. But genocide does not only consist of the killing sites where the murders were carried out. Genocide is not just an event, it is a long and enduring process – a continuum of destruction – involving many agencies, actors, and institutions. The intentionality of such actors and institutions to commit genocidal acts is, as is seen in cases before the ICJ and ICTY, highly unlikely to be proven in court. Perhaps it is thus time to depart from the narrow definition drawn in the Genocide Convention and start exploring, as social scientists have done, a broader, less political or morally challenged, definition to define the crime of genocide.


Searching the Lost

Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)


Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

Photo: Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

By Marieke Zoodsma -

On our way to Prijedor, one of the major cities in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, my host points out over the green, mountainous, and sunlit landscape and tells me: “Right over there behind those houses, they just found a new mass grave”. A couple of minutes later he explains that the men found in the grave are probably the men missing from the village up on the hill in front of us, since there are still so many unsolved cases. It is October 2013 and the  International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) has just discovered one of the largest mass graves of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) nearby the small town of Tomašica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The mass grave had the size of a football field, measured some 10 meters deep, and would, according to officials, hold the remains of around 1,000 Bosniak and Croat men, women, and children – as several media outlets reported. Until now, 435 bodies have been recovered from the grave of which 284 have been identified and buried in July 2014. According to the numbers of the ICMP, from the 30,000 persons that were registered as missing person at the end of the Bosnian war, so far 22,000 persons have been accounted for. A large number of the remaining missing persons are from the region where this mass grave was found, the Krajina. The big and looming question that remains: how could it take 18 years for such a mass grave, a couple of hundred meters from local houses, to be found?

“The issue of missing persons can only be solved if the local community changes their attitude regarding the war crime that was committed” (Karčić 2013). The grave at Tomašica is located close to the border between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two entities in which Bosnia and Herzegovina is split up after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements in 1995. During the war, Prijedor (which was to be included in the Republika Srpska) and its surroundings saw ethnic cleansing taking place on a massive scale – with as many as 52,000 non-Serbs being forcibly expelled from Prijedor’s total 120,000 pre-war residents. Three of the largest and most notorious concentration camps during the Bosnian war (Trnopolje, Omarska, and Keraterm) were located in the city’s vicinity. Professor Pettigrew (professor of Philosophy, Southern Connecticut State University) writes: “The mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location”. Perhaps this must be seen as the most poignant explanation for the fact that not one individual living in the surroundings of Tomašica (and, for that matter, other mass graves) found it appropriate to notify local and international investigators about the existence of it. The three mutually exclusive narratives (that of the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims) about what happened during the war, who started it, and who is to blame, keep on being perpetuated in Bosnian society today. One of the key ingredients of the Bosnian Serb narrative is the denial of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina – hence the denial of the existence of mass graves since that would counter fact their story.

With the finding of mass graves and the uncovering of new facts, the search for truth is continued – often even revitalized. On December 13, 2014, local as well as international media reported that 15 Bosnian Serbs have been indicted for crimes against humanity over an attack on a village near Prijedor in 1992. During this attack, 150 Bosniak men, women, and children were killed and their bodies dumped in the Tomašica mass grave. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have desperately tried to reopen their case after the Tomašica-site was found, especially the cases of the so-called ‘big fish’. For the trial against the former Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić it was too late. However in the case of Ratko Mladić, former Bosnian Serb military leader, new forensic evidence stemming from the mass grave has recently been tendered.

The challenges with the search for missing persons is not unique for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Forced disappearances are rife in conflicts and are often used as an explicit tactic of war. They wreak havoc on families and certain villages in Bosnia were left after the war without any male inhabitants. Besides the grief these families have to live through, such circumstances have high economic consequences for rural, patriarchal societies where the male is the main breadwinner. In the Bosnian film Snijeg (unfortunately only available online without subtitles) the ramifications of such a situation are vividly put to life on the big screen.

This year, 2015, the 20th commemoration of the ending of the Bosnian war will be held – the silence of those missing looming over the ceremonies. For the people in the small village up on that hill in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is what is happening now.


Further reading: An Appeal for Truth: The Human Rights Chamber and the Search for Missing Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hikmet Karčić (2013)