Bosnia war victims on why Mladic's verdict means little

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Ratko Mladic, known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, is accused of heading one of the worst massacres in recent history.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed in the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, and as many as 50,000 women were raped.

On Wednesday, a UN judge will hand down Mladic’s verdict for genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in the Netherlands.

The former Serb general is now 74 years old.

The Hague-based court was set up in 1993 to try people suspected of committing war crimes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. 

It has filed indictments against 161 people, most of them Serb Chetnik high-ranking officials. More than two decades later, after hearing almost 5,000 witnesses and holding around 11,000 trial days, it is set to close this December.

The Bosnian War ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which divided the country into two administrative entities: the Bosnian-Croat “Federation” entity and the “Republika Srpska” (Serbian Republic) for Bosnian Serbs.

Al Jazeera spoke with Bosnians who survived the war:

Ramiz Nukic, 52, Srebrenica – The bone hunter

Ramiz Nukic spends his days searching for the remains of war victims in the fields [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]

It is very, very difficult to find skulls,” Ramiz Nukic says, brushing a pile of leaves aside with a wooden stick. “I might find a skull on a hill and a body way below near the stream and they might be a match.”

Nukic is the bone hunter of Srebrenica. For the past 15 years, he has been working voluntarily, walking for 30 kilometres every day around Srebrenica searching for human bones.

Srebrenica’s bone hunter

He has helped the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) identify more than 250 bodies.

Carefully scanning the ground, he spots a toe half buried under the dirt. To the untrained eye, it looks like it could be a piece of wood.

Moments later, he picks up several vertebrae and another toe.

Shuffling through the leaves in the forest above Srebrenica, he comes across a bone leg and much to his surprise – a jaw with pearly white teeth still attached.

More than 20 years have passed since the Srebrenica genocide, yet the ground is still covered in bones from dead bodies, once human beings who failed to make their escape through the forest.

On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces took control of Srebrenica, a UN-declared safe haven, and systematically killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys to make way for a “Greater Serbia”.

‘I know what it’s like for families who haven’t found their loved ones,” says Nukic [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]

Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers to transfer the corpses to many different mass graves, making it difficult to find the bodies.

After returning to Srebrenica and coming across fields and forests scattered with bones, Nukic decided to search for the remains to find his father, two brothers and uncle who were killed.

“I know what it’s like for families who haven’t found their loved ones. So I try to find them so that every mother can give her son a proper funeral. I found my father, but not his whole body; just half, but it’s still easier for me now that I’ve found him.”

More than two decades later, tension in Srebrenica remains. The town’s first Serb mayor, Mladen Grujicic, denies that a genocide took place in Srebrenica – a sentiment echoed by other, higher-profile politicians such as Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska.

For us war victims, there can never be justice at all. We lost our loved ones and we can’t ever get them back … Us small people can’t do anything

Since Mladic’s ideology is still alive on the ground, the ICTY’s verdict doesn’t mean much for Nukic.

In recent years, reports emerged of the Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group gathering and marching in nearby Visegrad and in other cities across Republika Srpska, where Srebrenica is also located. Their leaders openly speak of reclaiming territory and threaten another war in Bosnia.

Years ago, Nukic found some of the remains of his father’s body [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]

“The way I see it, [the situation] isn’t good. People themselves are still good, but what these politicians are doing doesn’t look good at all; I don’t like it.

“For us war victims, there can never be justice at all. We lost our loved ones and we can’t ever get them back … Us small people can’t do anything.”

Denis Vrhovcic, 38, Sarajevo – A childhood cut short

Denis Vrhovcic spent much of his childhood cooped up in a basement, fearing being killed in the war [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

Denis Vrhovcic was 13 years old when his childhood was cut short with the start of the war on April 6, 1992. He suddenly found himself anxious about how to find food, water and wood.

“Our life was reduced to worrying about how to survive the day or night,” Vrhovcic says, pointing to a nearby hill from where Bosnian Serb forces shot at them with snipers. “My parents were in the army; they weren’t home. My brother and I were both juvenile and had to take care of ourselves, make food for ourselves.”

He spent much of his time cooped up in the basement with 60 other residents. Stepping outside was always a huge risk – you could be hit by a sniper or shell any moment.

“You were never safe in the besieged city … It was a risk just to cross from one entrance to another of the same building, let alone to cross from one building to the next.”

July 22, 1993, was a particularly dreadful day. A record number of 3,777 shells pounded Bosnia’s capital within 12 hours.

Vrhovcic recalls a brief ceasefire that summer; the kids, eager for some fresh air, had gone out to play.

They were killing civilians systematically. It wasn’t ‘We’ll throw a shell and whoever gets hit, gets hit’. No, they were specifically shooting at civilian buildings, at kids, at civilians.

But it didn’t last long. The sirens went off, warning residents to head for shelter.

Vrhovcic’s older brother was missing and their mother stood by the building’s entrance looking for him.

That’s when a shell hit the same spot and Vrhovcic witnessed a horrible display of bloodshed and his mother’s ripped clothes; she had been injured in the chest. Fortunately, she survived.

“They were killing civilians systematically. It wasn’t ‘We’ll throw a shell and whoever gets hit, gets hit’. No, they were specifically shooting at civilian buildings, at kids, at civilians. A group of girls and boys were killed when a shell fell on them while they were playing outside.”

A mural of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic is seen on a building in Gacko, Bosnia and Herzegovina on November 8, 2017 [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

While Germany was able to move on following the Nuremberg trials, Bosnia’s judicial landscape is lacking, Vrhovcic says.

“We’ve seen war criminals who have served sentences of five, seven or 10 years. One war criminal served seven years in prison for besieging Sarajevo for four years, shooting at us.

“Today in Bosnia, war criminals hold official positions. They walk freely from Biljana Plavsic to Momcilo Krajisnjik. They’re returning to politics, and sit in high positions in this country and take our money.

“They named a student residence in Pale [town next to Sarajevo in Republika Srpska] after Radovan Karadzic. These students, academic residents are sleeping in a residence which is named after a convicted war criminal; isn’t that strange to you?

“I don’t like how convicted war criminals like Ante Pavelic, Draza Mihajlovic are being praised today. Is that really the future of this country?”

Bekir Menzilovic, 53, Visegrad – A prisoner of war

Bekir Menzilovic says ‘justice isn’t even close to being served’ [Mersiha Gadzo/Al Jazeera]

For Bekir Menzilovic, Mladic’s verdict at The Hague is a mere afterthought compared to what is happening on the ground in Bosnia today.

Industry is dead, he complains, while an exodus of young people towards the West continues to grow.

“As I grow older, I worry more,” Menzilovic says, sitting at a cafe, chain-smoking cigarettes. “You start to think differently.

“It’s been 22 years since the war ended – believe me, we lived better in 1996, 1997, 1998 and all the way until 2005.”

He was 28 years old when war broke out, and was transferred from his hometown of Visegrad and forced to work in five different concentration camps held by Bosnian Serb forces.

With the Dayton peace agreement, the international community intentionally created a Palestine out of Bosnia … How can my fatherland be Serbian – how?

Bosnian Muslim detainees were given pieces of leftover bread to survive on, so little that Menzilovic didn’t use the toilet for two months.

Assault was common, often leading to death. Menzilovic recalls one young man, Senad Uzunovic, who was brutally beaten due to a case of mistaken identity.

“In my life, I had never seen anyone who was as beaten up as he was. They threw him among us like he was a roll of yarn. His fingers were twice their normal size; his head was twice as big; he was bruised and beaten all over. For three days he only drank water and vomited. He actually recovered. I guess it’s because he was young and none of his vital organs were damaged.”

The prisoners had to bury dead bodies and dig trenches for the Bosnian Serb army. On the outskirts of Sarajevo, they were ordered to dig the line of defence around their barracks and came under direct fire from the Bosnian government forces. 

“The first and second trenches were a bit sheltered … By the seventh trench, if you held the shovel up, you would feel the bullets go past. That’s where Senad Uzunovic was. He would wave his white t-shirt in the air a few times and then dig.”

Today, few Bosnian Muslim families have been able to return to their hometowns in what is now Republika Srpska.

In Visegrad, before the war, there were more than 13,000 Bosnian Muslim residents. Now only 1,000 remain. Located in Republika Srpska, it remains predominantly ethnically Serb.

“With the Dayton peace agreement, the international community intentionally created a Palestine out of Bosnia. They created Republika Srpska – how can my fatherland be Serbian – how?”

On the coming verdict, he says: “It’s strange that with our huge minds we weren’t successful in proving that Serbia committed aggression against Bosnia. It’s politics. It’s a fact that [UN chief prosecutor] Carla Del Ponte concealed all the documents.

“This is just throwing dust into the eyes of small people. Believe me, justice isn’t even close to being served. And again, it’s the small people who suffer.”