bosnia report
New Series No: 45-46 May - August 2005
The victims are interested not in forgiveness, but in punishment
by Emir Suljagic

‘Our memory is being abused: the truth about this country is once again being established by political commissions. Everyone knows the bad experience we had with the Srebrenica commission, yet horse-trading over one for Sarajevo is already under way.’


Our memory of the war is in danger. The memory of the moment when Š ešelj’s men entered my town, when our lives fell apart in an unexpected and unforgivably brutal way, when we went to bed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and woke up in something called ‘the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina’...Our surprise will not go down in history, but what followed was one of the things that marked the second half of the twentieth century: mass deportations, accompanied by systematic extermination of the economic, cultural and intellectual elite, the internment of tens of thousands of people, mass rape, executions... Every last story is part of this context, and however cold such descriptions may seem, they do not really diminish the weight of the individual victim.

Commission on Pinochet

However, a trend that made its appearance a few months ago, above all in political life but with strong support from a section of public opinion, threatens to blur this picture entirely. I am referring to what can most succinctly be described as ‘establishing the truth by commission’. The Srebrenica commission was central to this trend, of course, but its creation and supposed success seemed to breath life into another trend that had hitherto appeared just a weary attempt to set up one more pretentious body - a commission for truth and reconciliation, or a commission for truth, or whatever.

Leave aside the fact that the findings of the Srebrenica commission did not lead to any of the supposed aims for which it was established being realized. Today’s public, apart from real specialists, does not know much more about Srebrenica than was known beforehand; The number of dead has not been determined or verified with a certainty that would put an end to discussion; almost nine hundred identified participants in the massacre are still employed in the police and the army; last and most important, the commission’s final report did not in the least bring home the seriousness of the crime to the Bosnian Serb public. Meanwhile, the report represented the opening of another much-needed front for the nationalist parties.

It may be that this trend also has to do with the relatively lively culture of ‘public service’, in which most people imagine that best of all is a state job, from seven to three or nine to five in the afternoon. Perhaps, but it has far more to do with a different culture, wherein bones have become chips in the hands of ‘national representatives’. A commission is the only forum where an agreement of the following kind is possible: ‘Give me two thousand Serbs in Sarajevo, here are three and a half thousand Bosniaks for you in Prijedor, but only if we reduce the number of Croats.’ Numbers and geographical locations play the role of variables in this equation The motives of another current - which derives from part of the domestic and international NGO scene, but strangely enough is far from negligible - are doubtless of a different kind.

There are two categories of reasons why B-H needs neither a commission for truth and reconciliation, nor the establishment of truth by commission. The formert category is smaller, and in the long run less dangerous.

The setting up of any kind of commission for truth and reconciliation is based on empty phrases about the possibility of forgiveness. ‘Forgive, but do not forget’ is an empty phrase. Forgiveness is impossible. I shall never forgive what they did to me. I know hundreds of others who would never dream of doing so either. I do not know anyone who has said that they have forgiven. And the sooner we eliminate this fallacy from our public discourse, the better. For some reason, forgiveness is usually conceived of as a cathartic act in which the victim and the killer fall into each other’s arms, and the victim in a surge of magnanimity absolves the evildoer of his sin. And that is that.

Well, it is not. I do not know any victim - and I have seen hundreds of them in the courtroom - who has felt anything towards the killers other than, to put it mildly, contempt. I have watched dozens of them saying so openly or demonstrating it by turning their back on a defendant. I have not seen one of them, not a single one, showing any need to forgive. What is more, every encounter of this kind merely causes the victim an additional trauma. The victim is interested not in forgiveness, but in punishment.

In the second place, nowhere has a commission for truth and reconciliation succeeded. The history of such commissions in Latin America, as Aryeh Neier pointed out in these pages just two weeks ago (Dani, Sarajevo, 15 April 2005), represents decades of flirting with the legacy of authoritarian regimes. In the past few years, precisely since the grip of junta members - already on the decline - has loosened, justice has begun to take its first serious steps towards prosecuting the crimes committed under the dictatorships. The arrest of Chilean dictator Pinochet in London, on the basis of very serious charges, is the best indicator of how little success the truth commission had enjoyed in Chile - a commission, it should be remembered, that had been founded and had functioned while Pinochet still had influence within the army hierarchy. And the South African commission was a rare failure in the history of what is termed in English ‘transitional justice’.

Over-arching or specific?

Leaving aside the fact that the concept itself has little meaning, ‘transitional justice’ is a new game for idle and rich inhabitants of the Western hemisphere, rich enough to be able not to begrudge the expenditure of money in ‘crisis regions’. This movement has quickly gained an infrastructure, in the form of a network of NGOs focused on ‘transitional justice’ and a whole new job market. And money is not a negligible factor in all this, of course.

Lastly, a commission cannot succeed for a further reason: there is no Turkish story about the genocide of the Armenians, for instance, no Hutu story about Rwanda. Or, if one does exist, it is irrelevant to the way the whole business must proceed.

Far more dangerous is what has been happening in our political life here over the past few months. After it had become clear that the Srebrenica commission had achieved exactly the results it was intended to, i.e. none, people began at first quietly then more and more openly to talk about a similar commission to establish the truth about what took place within encircled wartime Sarajevo. Precisely at the present moment a struggle is being waged in which the Serb segment of the state authorities is seeking the setting up of such a commission, while the policy of the sole Bosniak party is the formation of a single, over-arching commission for the whole country - in exchange for which they would refrain from setting up commissions for places in RS other than Srebrenica.

The setting up of any kind of commission demonstrates first and foremost a very open preference for extra-institutional action. In this country, people must finally begin to believe in institutions. The investigation into the number of Serbs killed in Sarajevo during the war must be carried out by the police (MUP), state security (SIPA) and intelligence service (OSA), at the level of the canton and the federation. Leave aside the fact that none of these organizations currently has a single unit or department seriously concerned with the investigation of war crimes; that, it must be recalled, is a craft that died in this country when the war-crimes bureau of AID [former state security service] was literally decimated during the forcible reform of the intelligence community. The investigation into Srebrenica should have been carried out by the RS police, but concentrating not on what had happened there - for that, for heaven’s sake, has been known for years already - but on their own employees involved in that operation, identified in the investigations that for almost ten years already have been carried out by the prosecutor’s office of the international tribunal at The Hague.

Setting up a commission before the work of the Hague tribunal is completed - and likewise the lawsuit against Serbia and Montenegro before the International Court of Justice - would be a vote of no confidence in international institutions, norms and standards. That already occurred with the Srebrenica commission report, in which something that an international institution had classified with absolute credibility as ‘genocide’ was redefined as ‘a method representing a serious infraction of international humanitarian law’. In this way, truth established by commission was essentially given priority over judicial truth.


What is going on with the prosecution service of the B-H state court represents an equally large problem: the view of one very powerful current within that body that the state prosecution service, in its investigations of war crimes, should not accept the findings and results of the investigations and judgements of the Hague tribunal. Only this can lie behind the notion that the state prosecution service, instead of concentrating on indictments confirmed within the framework of the [ICTY’s] ‘Rules of the Road’, should check afresh all criminal charges introduced in B-H since the beginning of the war. Above all, this is not practical, since it is a physically far more arduous task, whose end result could be that in the process some of the facts established at The Hague will be ‘lost’. For even after all the reforms, some of the key posts in our domestic justice system are held by thinly veiled chauvinists.

In other words, our memory is being abused. Because, you see, what you and I both know - for instance, that in the attack on the village of Glogova near Bratunac, massacred to the last inhabitant on 9 May 1992, JNA units took part along with a Serb paramilitary force, and that an official of the Serbian state security service from nearby Ljubovija participated in the planning of the operation (and the name of the place, the number of those killed, and the list of participants, are variables here) - well, this is what is known as ‘the international nature of the conflict’. There are people who have not see Š ešelj’s men entering a town, laying it waste, killing, looting... My generation did. We know what it looks like. That is why it would be terrible if anyone, in our name, sold even that little bit of truth that is known.

We do not need a commission, we crave justice.

This comment has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 6 May 2005


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits