E-mail From Belgrade: Srebrenica War Crime Haunts Serbia

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Time's Belgrade stringer Dejan Anastasijevic has spent the last 12 years covering the wars and turbulence of the Balkans at close quarters, suffering harassment from the government of former president Slobodan Milosevic for his efforts to report on the actions of Serb security forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. Anastasijevic later testified for the prosecution during Milosevic's ongoing war-crimes trial at the Hague. On the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, he offers this assessment of his country's reckoning with the crimes committed in its name:

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the massacre as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica — Europe's worst atrocity since World War II. And although the anniversary finds most of Serbia, in whose name it was committed, still avoiding a true accounting of was perpetrated at Srebrenica and by whom, there are encouraging signs that the fašade of denial may have suffered irreparable cracks.

The basic details of the massacre all well-known in the wider world, and have recently been reprised in great detail during the ongoing trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague. On July 11, 1995, Serb forces overran the small eastern Bosnian town, which they had kept under siege for more than three years. Less than a week later, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims taken prisoner, many just teenage boys, were dead, their bodies dumped in deep forests surrounding the enclave. Even today, some two thirds of the victims remain unaccounted for, buried in mass graves yet to be uncovered.

The Srebrenica enclave had been put off limits to Serb forces by declaring it a UN-protected area, which drew refugees from other parts of war-torn Bosnia. But the 450 lightly armed Dutch troops protecting the town could do little to save anyone, and even helped round up the refugees who were later killed by the Serbs.

As politicians from the region and beyond assemble in Srebrenica to mark the anniversary with the usual "never again" vows, one simple fact speaks louder than any of their words: General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader who was the chief architect of the war crime at Srebrenica, remains at large — presumed to be hiding in Serbia, under the protection of elements of the military and police who see him as a war hero. Unfortunately, millions of Serbs share this view, remaining in dogged denial over the deeds of the fugitive general and, even more importantly, over Serbia's own role in the Bosnian war.

The truth that many Serbs continue to avoid is that Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and other Bosnian Serb warlords could have never have accomplished their ethnic cleansing campaigns, the brutal siege of Sarajevo, and the Srebrenica massacre, without troops and equipment from Serbia. Thousands of Serbian police and military officers, thinly disguised as "volunteers", were put on Mladic's disposal by former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and they were more than willing executioners.

The bubble of Serb denial was ruptured last month by the release of a video clip presented as evidence by the prosecution at Milosevic's trial. On that tape, shown on TV in Serbia, viewers saw a group of soldiers from Serbia — all of them identified as members of Serbian special police unit known as Scorpions — executing six starved Muslim prisoners in cold blood.

For a while, it looked as if the shock triggered by the tape would end the denial. Political leaders, including President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, voiced their outrage, and several members of the Scorpions were arrested. Serbia's parliament prepared a declaration condemning the Srebrenica massacre, and for the first time, the government seemed sincere when it declared that Ratko Mladic would be tracked down and arrested before the Srebrenica commemoration.

The backlash came quickly. Nationalists, who still dominate local media and politics, launched a vicious campaign against Natasa Kandic, the Serbian human rights activist who had uncovered the tape and given it to the Hague tribunal. Kandic, named as one of Time's Heroes in 2003 for her work exposing war crimes, has been branded a traitor and the leader of a conspiracy to demonize her own country — a group of legislators even called for a national referendum to stop her from working in Serbia, while others wanted her locked up in a mental hospital. A scheduled TV appearance in Kikinda drew an edict from the mayor barring her from entering the provincial town, and when she ignored that she was kept off the air by a mysterious power failure in the town that lasted until she left.

Kandic is undeterred: "There are people in the parlaiment and other places of power who participated in Milosevic's war effort, and some probably commited war crimes themselves", she says. "They feel threatned, because they fear they will be exposed." She believes that most Serbs are on her side, and she may be right. According to a recent opinion poll, the number of Serbs who support the war crimes Tribunal rose 15 percent after the release of the tape, with almost half of Serbia now supporting an institution long dismissed by many as a kangaroo court to victimize Serbs. And on Monday, for the first time, Serbia's president will take part in Srebrenica commemoration.

Thanks to the brave efforts of Kandic and others brave enough to rub the nation's face into unpleasant facts, the Serbian wall of silence over Srebrenica may be shattered beyond repair. Indeed, the hysteria of the campaign to silence her is a sure sign of the fact that Serbia has finally begun to digest its ugly past. It hurts, and it's bound to make some people angry, but it will eventually end with some sort of closure. Not, of course, for the killers and their acomplices, but for the victims of Srebrenica and other places of horror, who will not find peace until the crimes are recognized as such by those in whose name they were committed.