Truth at The Hague
by Emir Suljagic
I am a Bosnian Muslim from Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995. I survived because at the time of the massacre I was in Potočari, some 15 miles away from most of the execution sites, working as an interpreter for the United Nations. My uncle, my 70-year-old grandfather, my best friend and almost all of my schoolmates were killed.
Two officers in the Bosnian Serb army, Momir Nikolić and Dragan Obrenović, last month pleaded guilty before the war crimes tribunal at The Hague for crimes against humanity, admitting they helped plan the Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity committed in Europe since World War II. Both Mr. Nikolić and Mr. Obrenović have agreed to testify against the other officers indicted for the massacre, which took place in a designated "safe area" under the protection of Dutch United Nations peacekeepers.
The International Commission for Missing Persons for the Former Yugoslavia has collected many of the remains of those killed in Srebrenica. Some 7,500 bags of body parts - many of which may contain pieces of my friends and relatives - are sitting in a warehouse waiting for identification. Yet until the moment Mr. Nikolić confessed, I had never heard a Bosnian Serb admit that the massacre even happened.
In the Serb half of Bosnia, most people claim that the killings in 1995 never took place. When pressed, they sometimes say that the Muslims killed one another in a fight over whether or not to surrender to the Serbs, or that all of those killed were soldiers. Last year, the Bosnian Serb government issued a report claiming that only 2,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in Srebrenica. And of those, the report said, 1,800 were soldiers.
Mr. Nikolić's confession - in which he described in chilling detail how he helped organize the mass execution and burial and an extensive cover-up, all of which he says army superiors ordered him to carry out - punches a big hole in the Bosnian Serb wall of denial. Serbs should have no reason to doubt his admission. Mr. Nikolić has nothing to gain by exaggerating.
I don't expect the confessions by Mr. Nikolić and Mr. Obrenović to transform Bosnian Serb views. Many of the men he named as co-conspirators are still at large. Some of them still hold senior positions in the Bosnian Serb army; one of them is a member of the Parliament.
But the confessions have brought me a sense of relief I have not known since the fall of Srebrenica in 1995. They have given me the acknowledgment I have been looking for these past eight years. While far from an apology, these admissions are a start. We Bosnian Muslims no longer have to prove we were victims. Our friends and cousins, fathers and brothers were killed - and we no longer have to prove they were innocent.
Emir Suljagić is a reporter for Dani, a magazine based in Sarajevo, and for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. This article appeared as an op-ed in The New York Times, 1 June 2003