Waiting for international justice in Serbia

By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Belgrade

  • Published
Dusan Starcevic
Image caption,
Refugee Dusan Starcevic calls the verdict on the generals "inexplicable"

The acquittal of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj of war crimes, coupled with the recent acquittal of two Croatian generals, has revived suspicions in Serbia that the international court in The Hague is biased against them.

On the drive into Novi Sad you can pick up a ghost on the airwaves. Radio Krajina is a taste of their lost home for the Croatian Serbs who now live in Serbia's third-largest city.

There are requests, phone-ins and plenty of turbo-folk, the mash-up of traditional Balkan music and electronic beats that reached its peak popularity during the conflict of the 1990s.

It was the soundtrack to the end for the long-standing Serb community in Croatia's Krajina region. In August 1995, more than 200,000 people fled before, during and after Operation Storm - a massive military push by Croatian forces.

They came over the border in a ragged convoy of cars, lorries and tractors, carrying whatever possessions and livestock they could. Many ended up settling in Novi Sad and the surrounding region of Vojvodina.

'Disappointing verdict'

Almost two decades later the refugees still come through the doors of the Humanitarian Centre for Integration and Toleration in the city centre. Some clutch plans and land titles for their former homes. A few dream of returning - most just hope to sell up so they can improve their lives in Serbia.

Dusan Starcevic is one of them. He says he walked for 11 days with his pregnant wife and infant son after their car broke down as they left Croatia in 1995.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The acquittal of the two Croatian generals sparked an angry reaction in Serbia

Once a judge, he now practises law in Novi Sad - though his jacket and shirt suggest that either he does not care for expensive clothes, or he simply cannot afford them.

"Everything has gone," he says, holding back tears, before insisting that he no longer wants to talk about the past.

But he is keen to discuss recent events at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

In particular, the decision of the appeal court to acquit two Croatian generals previously convicted of conspiring to drive Serbs out of Krajina.

"This verdict is very disappointing and inexplicable," says Mr Starcevic. "As a human being, I'm convinced that relations between people, states and groups are based on ethics and logic. This verdict is a severe attack on both of those."

But he admits the decision was not a complete surprise. Like many Serbs, Mr Starcevic is not convinced of the impartiality of the ICTY. The acquittal of the generals means that no Croatians have been convicted of crimes against Serbs during the conflict.

Faded hopes

The 1995 offensive followed years of conflict between ethnic Serb nationalists and the newly-independent state of Croatia.

In 1990-1991 Serbs in Krajina declared their loyalty to the Serbian government led by Slobodan Milosevic and got help from elements in the Yugoslav federal army.

Croatia is set to join the European Union next year, and the cynical view here is that the Hague verdict ensures a clean slate. But it leaves Croatian Serbs who suffered during the conflict without justice - or much hope of it ever coming.

The founder of the Humanitarian Centre is another Croatian Serb - though Ratko Bubalo left a year before Operation Storm.

He offers smiles and a glass of home-made schnapps, before explaining the plight of the refugees. His organisation has dealt with 130,000 of them since 1995. This does not just have local significance - it might shake Europe in the long term. "This does not just have local significance - it might shake Europe in the long term."

"They are a very vulnerable part of the population. Sixty-five percent of them don't have resolved housing and there are still some people in refugee centres."

Mr Bubalo is still trying to help the refugees recover their former properties - not just in Croatia but Kosovo and Bosnia as well. The proceeds of a sale could make a big difference to the lives of the displaced families.

But he says they are no longer expecting much in the way of satisfaction from the ICTY.

"Today it is difficult to talk about the tribunal. All hope for international justice faded away. This does not just have local significance - it might shake Europe in the long term."

Skourta Redjepi and her daughter Djila admit they no longer follow the tribunal at all. Members of a Roma family, they lived in Jablanica, where the Kosovo Liberation Army established a notorious base.

One day in 1998 a masked man came to the family's door and told them they had five minutes to leave. Djila says she hasn't seen her father since.

"We could never return to Kosovo - how could we?" she asks, rubbing her face. "We are afraid to go back. There is no justice."

New approaches

In its latest decision, the tribunal cleared Kosovo's former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj of any involvement in atrocities at the Jablanica camp.

This prompted celebrations in Pristina - but anger in Belgrade. "Another slap in the face" was the pithy analysis of local media outlet B92.

Image caption,
Natasa Kandic says a new approach is needed to help victims come to terms with what happened

The recent verdicts have left Serbs with little faith in the tribunal's ability to find justice for their suffering in the conflicts of the nineties.

Under the Milosevic administration, Serbian forces committed serious crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo - and many of its former leaders have gone on trial in The Hague. But thousands of Serb civilians were also killed, and the ICTY has been rather less successful in holding to account those responsible.

As founder of Belgrade's Humanitarian Law Centre, Natasa Kandic campaigned to bring the perpetrators of the atrocities of the Balkans conflict to justice. She handed evidence to the ICTY which helped to convict the Serb perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacres in Bosnia.

But now she says the tribunal has failed to help victims come to terms with what happened - and that a new approach is needed for there to be any hope of reconciliation in the region.

"We need new thinking - we have to forget hostility and see all victims as equal. It is true that more Muslims, Croats and Albanians were killed than Serbs. But the Serbs who were killed also deserve justice."

It now seems unlikely that this will come through the ICTY. But Natasa Kandic believes that moving beyond a judicial process is the best answer to preventing future conflicts.

"We need a non-judicial body which will deal with victims, organise public testimony and show respect for all victims. That would change the current culture in our relations to victims. Today all societies in the region only have respect for their own victims."

"Without empathy for others, it is impossible to build a future, rule of law and reconciliation."

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