I prosecuted Srebrenica war criminals, but I know others are still walking free | Serge Brammertz

Until we bring all the genocide’s perpetrators to justice, we are again failing the boys and men massacred in Bosnia in July 1995

  • Serge Brammertz was the chief prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 2008 until its closure in 2017

This Saturday, like every 11 July on the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, the remains of newly identified victims will be buried alongside the thousands already interred at the cemetery and memorial site in the Bosnian town. The bodies of Almir Halilović, Sakib Kiverić, Emin Mustafić and Fuad Ðozić, who died in the 1995 slaughter, will not, however, be among them.

Twenty-five years ago, senior Bosnian Serb leaders committed genocide against Srebrenica’s Bosnian Muslims. The town had been designated a UN safe area. But Bosnian Serb forces besieged and captured it and systematically executed more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, burying them in mass graves. They terrorised 35,000 more Bosnian Muslims – women, children and the elderly – before expelling them from the area.

Fifteen-year-old Almir, together with Sakib, Emin, and Fuad, were among the 1,200 men and boys taken to one of the killing fields, Branjevo military farm. Miraculously they emerged alive from the heaps of bodies massacred by automatic gunfire.

Later, a Bosnian Serb soldier feeding his cattle discovered the four covered in blood and sheltering under an apple tree. Instead of reporting them to his military unit, he fed and clothed them. His son, also a member of the Bosnian Serb army, directed them to Bosnian Muslim-held territory.

But they never made it to safety. Bosnian Serb forces captured them and, under interrogation, they revealed the assistance provided by the father and son, who were then imprisoned for their gesture of humanity.

Almir, Sakib, Emin and Fuad survived Branjevo Farm, but they didn’t survive their second capture. They are among nearly 1,000 men and boys from Srebrenica who remain missing today. In a macabre attempt to conceal their crimes, Bosnian Serb leaders ordered the original mass graves to be dug up, and the remains hidden again.

Yet the world has come to know the truth, thanks to the testimonies of brave survivors and the efforts of the victims’ families.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), created by the United Nations security council – and where I served 10 years as chief prosecutor – played its part. The judgments of the tribunal are clear: genocide was committed in Srebrenica. It was planned at the highest political and military leadership level and implemented through coordinated action to eliminate the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica. Those convicted of the crimes in Srebrenica include the former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadžić, and the former commander of the main staff of the Bosnian Serb army, Ratko Mladić, whose case is currently on appeal.

Yet much more remains to be done to achieve justice and reconciliation in the region.

Radovan Karadžić, right, and Ratko Mladić in 1993.
Radovan Karadžić, right, and Ratko Mladić in 1993. Photograph: EPA

The baton has now passed to national courts in the region following the closure of the ICTY in 2017. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, authorities have made important progress, although 3,000 more cases are yet to be processed, including in relation to Srebrenica. More troublingly, a number of alleged genocidaires have fled to Serbia and found safe haven there, including political leaders and military commanders. It is deeply distressing that so many alleged perpetrators of genocide have still not faced justice. I have witnessed the pain of the survivors who must face the reality that some of those alleged to have murdered their loved ones can still walk the streets freely.

To add to this burden, genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals inflict tremendous suffering on the survivors and their families. Leaders in the region have publicly denied the genocide, even calling Srebrenica a hoax and a lie. War criminals convicted by the ICTY are often hailed as heroes by prominent figures, while victims’ suffering is ignored, denied and disparaged.

As an international criminal prosecutor, my message is simple: by continuing to tolerate genocide denial, in any form, we are failing Srebrenica’s victims again, just as we did 25 years ago. For too long the international community has hoped that this problem will simply go away. It will not. We must listen to the victims and survivors. Their stories vividly remind us of how polarisation, discrimination and hate can divide, or even destroy, societies for generations to come. That is why we must speak out with one voice when genocide is denied and those responsible are glorified.

After working for more than a decade with the victims and survivors of genocide, I firmly believe the international community has a moral responsibility to bring war criminals and genocidaires to justice – not only the victims of the Srebrenica genocide but for all victims of mass atrocities. And we must all do our part to safeguard the truth and preserve the memories of the victims. We owe this to all of them, including Almir, Sakib, Emin and Fuad, whose families, up to this day, are still waiting for the peace of a final resting place.

• Serge Brammertz was the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from January 2008 until its closure in December 2017. He is the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT)


Serge Brammertz

The GuardianTramp

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