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“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.

I originally published this article on MercatorNet.com on May 30, 2011, under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit MercatorNet.com for more.