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The conviction of Radovan Karadzic has lessons for Syria's war

The fractious state of Bosnia and Herzegovina since the war portends badly for post-ethnic conflict Syria

Thursday saw the closure of a long and drawn out story for the victims of Bosnia’s bloody civil war as the guilty verdict was finally delivered in the trial of Radovan Karadzic. The former leader of the Bosnian Serbs presided over some of the worst atrocities committed during the four years of violence that tore apart the multi-ethnic Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

"His judgement is symbolically powerful – above all for the victims of the crimes committed during the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and across the former Yugoslavia, but also for victims across the world," UN Human Rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in a statement, following the conviction and announcement of a 40-year jail sentence for Karadzic for genocide and war crimes.

"No matter how powerful they are, no matter how untouchable they imagine themselves to be, no matter what continent they inhabit, the perpetrators of such crimes...will not escape justice."

Many in Syria were no doubt eyeing the court process in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with a mind to putting their own war criminals through a similar process, whether Bashar al-Assad or IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Memory and justice are two themes which are repeatedly brought up when discussing conflicts - the way in which the conflicts are commemorated and the questions of retribution and reconciliation are crucial to re-establishing a cohesive society.

So much of the strife afflicting Europe and the Middle East today has its roots in the Bosnian conflict, yet scant attention has been paid to the country in the years following the war.

Up to 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnia conflict between 1992 and 1995 when, following a referendum to secede from Yugoslavia, the country was plunged into an inter-ethnic war between Serbs, Croats and Muslims (or Bosniaks).

Karadzic and his Serb forces have long been considered the worst perpetrators of the violence - which nevertheless saw atrocities on all sides - and culminated in the brutal Srebrenica massacre in which over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in 1995 in full view of the UN peacekeeping forces. 

The horrors of the Bosnian war had huge resonance internationally and was perhaps more crucial than any other event - with the possible exception of the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s - in forging notions of global Muslim solidarity and identity which has played such a major role in the conflicts of the Middle East.

Organisations like the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation (now providing aid in Syria) were established to provide assistance to Bosnian Muslims, while millions of dollars were poured in from donors and countries like Saudi Arabia.

Much as in Syria today, hundreds - potentially thousands - of foreigners travelled to Bosnia to join the mujahideen and protect Bosnian Muslims from the Bosnian Serb forces. In the midst of the violence, radical Salafist jihadists began to formulate and adopt their theories of a global clash of civilisations.

"There is a war between the West and Islam," said one Saudi volunteer Aimen Dean, speaking to the BBC last year.

"Bosnia gave the modern jihadist movement that narrative. It is the cradle."

Bosnian Muslims are among the most secular in the world and the cosmopolitan locale of Sarajevo - which is 77 percent Muslim - can be a counter-intuitive culture shock for anyone whose image of Islam is crowds of bearded men shouting “Allahu Akhbar”.

Nevertheless, Karadzic and his followers arguably laid the groundwork for European Islamophobia with radio broadcasts scaremongering about the threat to Christian values from Muslims determined to create an Iran-style Islamic Republic.

Alex Alvarez, in his book Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach cites a typical example of Bosnian Serb fears about the demographic threat posed by Bosnia’s Muslims:

“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. Their women are bitches and whores. They breed children like animals, more than ten per woman...down there, they are fighting for a single land that will stretch from here to Tehran, where our women will wear shawls, where there is bigamy."

It's hard not to draw parallels between such language and the language of anti-Muslim demagogues in Europe, India, Myanmar and America today.

In 2013, I travelled to Prijedor in northern Bosnia where another mass grave had been uncovered of the primarily Muslim and Croat victims of Bosnian Serb atrocities during the war.

In a nearby warehouse, excavated bodies lined the floor and investigators from the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) took samples to try and verify the identities of those killed. Information gathered from the excavation played a part in the on-going cases in the ICTY.

More shocking than any of the gory details of the case, however, was the air of silence that surrounded the discovery of the Tomasica grave site.

Prijedor is located within the Republika Srpska, the entity carved out by the Bosnian Serbs during the war - as such, there are little or no memorials to Muslims who died during the fighting, let alone any commemorating the ethnic cleansing that took place. Conversely, there are numerous memorials to fallen Serb soldiers.

Just outside the Tomasica grave site there were a number of houses belonging to Bosnian Serbs. The bodies at Tomasica were only discovered in 2013 - yet clearly these people had been living there at a time when bodies must have been transported by Serb soldiers to the site.

"These were the first houses built here, they are owned by Serbs," said one Bosnian Muslim activist to me at the site.

"How could they not have known?"

Conflicts over the control of the narrative of history persists in Bosnia, as they will no doubt do in Syria as well, but they have also distracted from social problems.

The system established for ethnic power-sharing by the Dayton accords, while preventing a return to violence, has paralysed the country’s government. It has failed to bring about a sense of national unity or regeneration and left the country unable to move forward. 

Bosnia currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, at 43 percent. Political parties are dominated by ethnic identity and continue to be obsessed by the fallout from the war which continues to dominate debate at the expense of wider economic and social reforms.

Corruption and nepotism are also rife, with Transparency International describing the system of governance as “structurally corrupt”.

In addition, threats by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik to push for the statelet's independence have raised uncertainly about the peaceful future of a united Bosnia.

In 2014, anger boiled over and protesters took to the streets to condemn the broken system and demand a new anti-nationalist politics. Though the protests eventually ran out of steam, the continuing unrest in the country highlights the problem with post-war reconstruction and quick fix solutions to underlying ethnic tensions that ignore economic and social factors beyond identity politics.

When the dust settles in Syria, and should the war criminals survive long enough to be put on trial, the long-term work of reconstruction and reconciliation will begin. Just because one man has been brought to justice in the Hague today the divided, economically fraught Bosnia and Herzegovina should not necessarily be the model of choice.

Alex MacDonald is a journalist with Middle East Eye. You can follow him on Twitter @alexjaymac

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic sits in the courtroom for the reading of his verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)(AFP)