More than 20 years after the Bosnian war ended, the International Criminal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Radovan Karadžić on 10 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the customs of war. As the former president of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska during the war, he sought to unite Bosnian Serb territory with Serbia and oversaw numerous acts of ethnic cleansing to accomplish this goal. His conviction is a major milestone for the ICTY. It might also serve as an important step for Bosnians to move on from a war that ended more than two decades ago.
Although the ICTY has already convicted and sentenced 80 people in connection with the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Karadžić’s trial held special significance for many Bosnians. In many ways, along with former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević who died before his trial concluded, and former Bosnian Serb military commander Radko Mladić whose trial is still ongoing, Karadžić was the personification of the Bosnian war.
As the political face of the Bosnian Serbs, he was a constant presence in Bosnian and international media throughout the war as he boasted of the atrocities committed by Serb forces and never lost an opportunity to place blame for the war on the internationally recognized Bosnian government.
Yet despite his indictment by the ICTY in July 1995, even before the war ended, Karadžić avoided arrest until 2008. For most of his 12 years as a fugitive, he lived in plain sight working as an alternative medicine guru under a false name in Belgrade. His time as a fugitive increased his stature among ultra-nationalists, but also left open wounds as Bosnia tried to rebuild from the war and Serbia sought to come out from the international isolation created by its ultra-nationalist policies. His capture helped heal some of those wounds, but his four year long trial also reinvigorated the competing narratives that have defined the war.
This dynamic was illustrated early in his trial when a former chief nurse of the Kosevo Hospital in Sarajevo and former family friend of Karadžić testified about the impact the siege of the city had on its residents, especially children. Karadžić, acting as his own attorney, questioned her account and instead accused the hospital of torturing Bosnian Serbs and serving as a staging area for Bosnian government military attacks.
According to Rachel Irwin of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the nurse finally lost her patience with his questioning:
Before Zaimovic concluded her testimony, she looked directly at Karadzic and asked him how he could sleep at night after everything he had done.
“I am looking you in the eye. Look at me!” she exclaimed, as he avoided her gaze. “I’m talking to you as a mother.”
The exchange is one of many that occurred during the long trial, but is illustrative of the responsibility many Bosnians placed on Karadžić as well as his refusal to acknowledge his actions during the war. During the nearly two hour long reading of the verdict summary today, Karadžić face shifted from indifference to bemusement to bewilderment as the Trial Chamber detailed the extensive crimes that occurred under his watch and with his knowledge.
For his supporters, today’s verdict will likely only bolster the long held belief that the ICTY serves the interests of NATO and has no interest in justice. But for those who have waited more than 20 years for this day, it serves as validation for what they have known all along. But the verdict alone will not fix the divisions that still plague Bosnia or heal the scars of those who survived.
In particular, the one count of the indictment the court acquitted Karadžić of – the charge of genocide in several towns across Bosnia – is likely to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who survived. Even though the court found that atrocities were committed in these areas that Karadžić had knowledge of, it did not find that the crimes held the specific intent of extermination needed to raise these acts to the level of genocide existed. Instead, the court found that the murder and forced displacement in these towns that served as part of a systematic plan of ethnic cleansing constituted crimes against humanity and violations of the customs and laws of war.
Even for those whose experiences were validated by today’s verdict – namely by finding Karadžić guilty of crimes against humanity for the siege of Sarajevo and guilty of genocide in the aftermath of the fall of the UN safe area Srebrenica – the Bosnia of 2016 is still far more similar to how it stood when the war ended in 1995 than before the war started. Thousands of families are still unable to return to their pre-war homes, poverty and unemployment remain rife, and politics remains divided mainly on ethnic and religious lines.
No verdict from any court can solve the problems that Bosnia is grappling with today, but there is a chance that it can help a society move on from the tragedy that has come to define it. While it is almost certain that Karadžić will appeal his convictions today, further extending his history before the ICTY, today’s judgment is perhaps one step closer to closing a chapter of Bosnia’s history that just doesn’t seem to want to end.