“I don’t expect you to believe me, because I can’t believe
it myself and I was there.”

These are the words that have haunted me for eighteen years,
and these are the words that came amid the flood of memories when I heard that
Ratko Mladic, the “butcher of Bosnia”, had finally been arrested. Back then, in
1993, the arrest of General Mladic would have been something to celebrate. In
2011, it is a hollow victory, too little too late, a ritual application of law
that cannot deliver true justice but nevertheless must be done.

By 1993, after two years of war in Croatia and Bosnia,
Mladic had already committed all the crimes for which he stands accused by the
International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY): genocide,
persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, inhumane acts, terror,
unlawful attacks, and taking of hostages. The atrocities that followed, such as
the massacre at Srebrenica, were just an extension of a deliberate plan, except
Mladic became ever more flagrant, terrorised on a grander scale, and was
increasingly abetted by the international community. Mladic’s crimes are
incomprehensible, and they demand an incomprehensible punishment, but this does
not mean we should not try to make sense of what happened, this does not mean
we cannot learn from the past.

While we talk of justice and closure for the victims of
Mladic’s heinous crimes, the distinctly Bosnian mentality that Mladic tried so
hard to destroy lurks in the background, suggesting that the dream of a
tolerant and multi-ethnic Bosnia is not beyond resuscitation. Cynics may criticise
the ICTY and its provision of elderly war criminals with a comfortable
retirement, but there is something to be said for the adherence to civilised
processes even when they are less than effective.

During the war, Bosnian refugees reiterated this daily when
trying to enlighten foreign aid workers who, despite being veterans of
countless conflicts, found the Bosnian one particularly baffling. When asked
“Don’t you hate the Serbs for what they have done?”, they almost invariably
lectured us on what they perceived to be the “real war”. Sometimes quoting
Nietzsche, that whoever fights monsters should be careful they do not thereby
become a monster, they explained that the real war wasn’t about how many people
died or who captured what territory – it was about a way of thinking. “If we
start to hate each other, just because one is a Muslim and another is a Serb or
a Croat, then people like Milosevic and Mladic have won this war,” I was told. “When
that happens, that is the day that Bosnia dies.”

Practical examples of this enlightened mentality abounded,
even at the height of the internecine brutality in 1993. Two young men, teenage
soldiers, would often spend their leave at one of the refugee camps where I
worked. They would arrive in a car together fresh from the fighting in Mostar,
a city that had a large majority of mixed marriages, and sit down together with
family and friends to drink coffee. Olja, a Catholic Bosnian Croat, and Djemo,
a secular Bosnian Muslim, were the best of friends, but at the end of their
leave they would return to the frontline, go their separate ways, and shell
each other across the River Neretva. They didn’t believe in the war, and they saw
themselves as victims of propaganda, soldiers in a battle that would be won or
lost in the hearts and minds of the people of Bosnia. Their moments of war
glory occurred every time they reinforced their friendship, every time the two
technical foes sat down together as friends, defying the machinery of hatred
engineered by men like Ratko Mladic.

Men like Olja and Djemo challenged the broad media reportage
of the war and made those of us privy to its realities contort our minds in the
effort of comprehending the incomprehensible. The simplicity of associating the
terms Catholic with Croat, Bosnian with Muslim, and Orthodox with Serb grossly misrepresented
the reality of the situation. It was true that most Croats were Catholic and
that most Serbs were Orthodox in religion, but most Muslims were entirely
secular… and they were all Bosnian.

Behind the Serb lines, I was unequivocally told that their fight
was to rid Europe of “the Turks” and that as a good Christian I must support
them in their fight to defeat Islam in Bosnia. But I never met a single Bosnian
Muslim who didn’t drink alcohol, eat pork, and fervently support women’s
rights. The Muslim refugees deeply resented the Islamic aid workers who
supplied humanitarian relief conditional upon observance of Muslim religious
practices, and they told horror stories of refugees who had taken up asylum
places in Pakistan – it was better to live in a war zone, they assured me. When
prodded as to how the Serbs would free Bosnia of Islam, I was told that all
Muslims would have to be expelled, and when I noted that they might not want to
leave as they’d been there since time immemorial – after all, they were merely
Serbs and Croats who had converted to Islam (often under compulsion) during
centuries of Ottoman rule – I was told “they must be exterminated”.

To confuse matters further, such views had little to do with
education, politics, or religion. One Serb who was adamant that the Bosnian
Muslims had to be exterminated if they fought the encroachment of Greater Serbia
and its associated ethnic cleansing was a public relations advisor to a
high-ranking Serbian politician, with a postgraduate degree in Russian
literature from a university in the United States. The Muslims who sombrely
expressed their forlorn hope that everyone could live together harmoniously
usually had nothing more than a Communist high school education. The Serbs who
advocated extermination of the non-Serb population were often church-goers with
the support of their priests, while the Muslims and Croats who clung to liberal
values of tolerance and compassion were ambivalent about religion and made up
their own minds rather than letting clerics and politicians do their thinking
for them.

Those from Sarajevo boasted of their city’s heritage of
tolerance, literally under siege by Ratko Mladic. There was an intersection,
they reminded me, where a synagogue, a mosque, a Catholic church, and an
Orthodox church stood on each corner. Even though none of them had Jewish
blood, their most prized book was the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated
Sephardic Jewish manuscript of the Passover story. When Sarajevans burned their
books for heat, the book they left until very last was invariably their copy of
this holy book. It was a sad lesson in how, at least in Bosnia, fundamentally
Christian values were often best represented by non-Christians.

The peculiar ghastliness of the conflict in the former
Yugoslavia and the breathtaking horror of the atrocities can partly be
explained by the underlying aims of the war propagated by key leaders like
Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic. The culling of Sarajevan citizens by snipers
under Mladic’s command and the systematic slaughter of approximately 8,000 men
in the UN safe haven of Srebrenica by Mladic’s invading troops are just two prominent
examples of a campaign of terror that abandoned all civilised values and sought
to scourge its victims of human dignity.

This was something the survivors, those who made it to the
safety of Croatia and its refugee camps on the shores of a beautiful “sea of
tears”, the Adriatic, understood. In the midst of grief and depression, they
created microcosms of a civilised life they once knew. They set up cleaning
rosters, discussed philosophy and literature over coffee, played chess on the
beach. When aid workers dressed down in solidarity with them, they reprimanded
us, exhorting us to maintain the trappings of civilisation that were symbolic
of what they had lost. These people who had lost everything and experienced the
unthinkable understood that human dignity itself was at risk. The war could
only be won as long as we too did not become monsters, as long as we retaliated
against men like Mladic with unswerving preservation of civilised behaviour. Justice
would not be done if we, in turn, slaughtered the Serbs for no better reasons
than their ethnicity and our thirst for revenge.

So, as Ratko Mladic makes a mockery of international justice
from a gaol with more amenities than he could ever have as a fugitive, we must
remember that the scales of justice are part of what makes us human. We may
never balance them, but the fact that we use them at all is what differentiates
us from genocidal maniacs like Ratko Mladic. His arrest may be inadequate, but
it is still a victory.

Mishka Gora is a freelance
writer and photographer living in Tasmania. She worked in the former Yugoslavia
as a humanitarian aid worker during the 1991-1995 conflict.

Mishka Gora is a writer and photographer based in Tasmania, Australia. Drawing upon her academic training as a historian and a multifarious career, Mishka has a particular interest in...