No matter how the Russian war in Ukraine ends it will be difficult for anyone who survived to bring justice for the human rights violations they saw.
This is the message of Bosnian survivors from the 1992-1995 internecine conflict. They have dedicated the years since then to the retelling and reliving their trauma in the hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice and correcting the historical record.
“It is personal to me. I still search for the remains my brother. I can’t move on. “I cannot concentrate on another thing and leave it behind,” Edin Ramulic, a Bosnian northwesterner from Prijedor said.
Ramulic, a 22-year-old university grad, was arrested by Bosnian Serbs in April 1992. He and thousands of civilians from Prijedor, including his father and older brother, were being deported from the region, tortured and killed.
More than 3,000 nonserbs, including 102 children, were executed in Prijedor. Some were executed at their homes, while others were taken to three prison camps, where they were subject to beatings, rape and other torture. Ramulic’s uncle, brother and four cousins were all killed in the camps.
Similar to the graphic evidence of torture and killings in Bucha (outside Kyiv) that was revealed earlier this month, the August 1992 discovery of camps in Prijedor by international journalists triggered outrage worldwide and calls for accountability from world leaders.
The United Nations Security Council initiated a process to create a U.N. special war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. It was established in The Hague in 1993 and was the first international court to investigate, prosecute and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide allegations since the tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo in the aftermath of World War II.
It was not clear at first that it would work. Investigators were denied access to crime scenes in Prijedor, Bosnia, for many years. Political leaders from neighboring Serbia and Bosnian Serbs continued to deny human rights abuses and conceal documents and indictments.
It took a while for justice to be found. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader and Ratko Mladic, his military commander, were fugitives until the 2000s when international justice was established. They were finally captured in Serbia.
The tribunal had already convicted 83 wartime military and political officials. Most of them were from Bosnia. It also transferred evidence and cases against lower-ranking suspects back to the Balkans.
Ramulic, a survivor of the Holocaust, was determined to learn the fate of their loved ones, and to make the world understand their pain. He set up support groups to help potential witnesses and collected information about missing people.
Ramulic stated that he spent many months in courtrooms as a witness, listening to defense counsels try to deny the evidence.
He said, “It can sometimes happen that people you know are guilty are released because there isn’t enough evidence,” he continued.
Ramulic doesn’t know where his brother is buried or who killed him. But the court sentences that he helped to bring about “are the most precious thing we have because the evidence-based truth contained within them cannot be ignored forever and denied.”
Munira Subasic was a shopkeeper and wife in her former life before the war. She also had two children. She was not prepared for the role she would play after losing her husband, and her son in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that resulted in the deaths of 8,000 boys and men. This was the only instance of Bosnian war that could be legally called genocide.
Subasic, along with a group of women, formed Mothers of Srebrenica to continue their search for missing loved ones. They also engaged in direct action in street protests to keep the public’s attention and demand that mass graves are found, remains identified, and those responsible for the massacre be brought to justice. Nearly 90 percent of the people reported missing in the fall of Srebrenica are now found.
“We knew the names and locations of the murderers, so we obtained them from the prosecutors. We visited all mass grave sites, looking for clues about other possible victims. Subasic stated that they have been demanding justice and breathing down the necks of everyone.
She added that “Mothers in Ukraine will need to do the same.”
Subasic and dozens of other witnesses testified before U.N. war crime tribunal for former Yugoslavia. This helped to put behind bars nearly 50 Bosnian Serb wartime officers, who were collectively sentenced at more than 700 years imprisonment.
Subasic and the other women from Srebrenica had, however, to endure the pain of continually confronting people who “tried to hide that our kids ever existed, or basically claimed that they were never mothers, nor that they gave birth to anyone.”
Subasic stated that Russia’s denials about the massacres it soldiers committed in Ukraine “sound to me exactly like Srebrenica genocide denience.” “But, if survivors persist, the truth will prevail.”
Absolute justice is still elusive in Bosnia. Bosnian war resulted in 100,000 deaths, mostly civilians. More than 2 million people were forced from their homes, which is more than half of the country’s population. Some 7,000 people are still missing from the conflict, and there is a backlog of more than 500 cases of war crimes involving 4,500 suspects. Many of the remaining cases will not be tried because witnesses and suspects become ill over time.
Jasminka Dzumhur (Bosnian’s human rights coordinator) was last month appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council as a member its three-person commission to examine possible violations of human rights during the Russian invasion.
Dzumhur stated, “It’s very important that our experience shows us what information is necessary to establish evidence of human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations and what facts can be used later to help relevant judicial authorities to prove individual criminal liability for such violations.”
She explained that the commission does not establish criminal responsibility for human rights violations or war crimes in Ukraine, but that it can gather facts that could help to establish individual criminal liability.
Dzumhur cautioned that survivors of human rights violations and possible war crimes in Ukraine must understand that the path to justice is long and uncertain. He also warned that they will need to make many sacrifices along the way and that they will not find many “allies” who are as dedicated to truth pursuit.