Serbs still ignore role in atrocity

The most important trial in Europe since Nuremberg is opening Tuesday in The Hague.

In July 1995, 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb troops outside the town of Srebrenica. Few facts about the worst war crime in Europe since World War II are in doubt.

Tomorrow, The Hague begins its trial of the person the prosecution believes most responsible for the atrocity - former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Yet according to a recent poll, fewer than half of Serbia's people believe the massacre took place. Ordinary Serbs are only now - as it opens a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (story, page 7) - taking the first tentative steps toward acknowledging their share of responsibility for the recent Balkan wars and for the horrors committed in their name.

"We are at the beginning of the first stage of facing up to the truth, but it hasn't happened yet," says Sreta Ugricic, director of Serbia's national library. "We are so far from catharsis that it seems like an impossible ideal."

Nor are there many signs of much readiness for the difficult and painful task of dealing with the country's recent past. Politicians and the media shy away from the unpopular subject. The Orthodox church has shown little appetite for examining the way in which nationalist passions fed on religious feeling.

"When I say that Sarajevo was shelled by Serb troops, I am regarded as a crazy guy," says Dusan Janjic, head of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, which encourages reconciliation between the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. "It's a really hard job, and I am seen as an anti-Serb campaigner."

Most Serbs, say local and foreign observers, prefer to seek refuge in a sense of national victimhood, blaming the outside world for the collapse of Yugoslavia and dwelling on memories of war crimes committed by their Bosnian, Croat, or ethnic Albanian enemies.

Many human rights activists here accuse the new reformist government, and the largest political parties, of cowardice when it comes to acknowledging past Serb misdeeds. "It should be mainstream state policy to tell people what happened, but government people say they can't because they would lose the next elections if they did," says Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights here.

"Reconciliation should be the task of Yugoslav politicians, but now they are all fighting among themselves, and no one wins by promoting Serb war crimes," adds Srdjan Bogosavlevic, a political analyst who heads Serbia's largest polling organization.

Some government officials acknowledge their shortcomings. "We set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but so far it has done nothing" in the 10 months since it was named, says Predrag Simic, an adviser to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. "I blame ourselves too."

The result is a widespread lack of awareness among ordinary people of what really happened in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Misinformed by the official media under Milosevic's thumb, they have learned little since he was overthrown in October 2000.

Mr. Bogosavlevic's poll last year, for example, found that 52.5 percent of respondents could not name a single war crime committed by Serb forces in Bosnia, Croatia, or Kosovo. Nearly half, however, could name at least three crimes committed against Serb civilians by other forces.

At the same time, the public image of some of the most important suspected Serb war criminals remains highly positive. Former Bosnian Serb President Ratko Mladic and Gen. Radovan Karadzic - the two leaders most wanted by the war crimes tribunal - are still considered the two "greatest defenders of the Serb nation," according to the poll.

The media has done little to enlighten its audience. State-controlled broadcast stations are in the hands of politicians who - while fierce opponents of Milosevic - are reluctant to revisit the past. Two of the biggest private TV stations are owned by former Milosevic cronies who are banned from the US for their past activities.

Since Milosevic's fall, a number of daily newspapers and weekly magazines have reported on events that had previously remained hidden. But in an economically ravaged country where people spend an average of only one dollar a month on newspapers, their impact is limited.

Some observers hope that the upcoming Milosevic trial might bring to light evidence that will make people think twice. "There could be a psychological breakthrough when they come up with evidence," says Biserko. "People will maybe understand that they have to distance themselves from what happened."

Others are more skeptical, pointing to the deep mistrust most Serbs harbor of The Hague tribunal, which is seen as a politically biased and anti-Serb court.

But there are some indications that perceptions of the recent past may be beginning to change. The independent B92 television station, for example, regularly broadcasts foreign documentaries about events during the war, even if "people don't want to watch ... they still stick to Milosevic-era stereotypes," says B92 editor in chief Veran Matic.

The Helsinki committee has organized discussion panels around the country, where "people did want to hear, even if they did not necessarily believe what they heard, and that was very encouraging," says Biserko.

The Orthodox Serbian Patriarch Pavle recently referred to crimes committed in the name of the Serbian people. And the discovery last year of mass graves containing corpses from Kosovo, brought to Serbia by freezer trucks, opened many peoples' eyes.

"It is slowly seeping into the public consciousness that bad things happened," says one Western diplomat.

Serbs begin to deal with their past

An official Serbian Commission for Truth and Reconciliation opened its doors here last week. Its mission is to "eliminate many causes and forms of misunderstandings and establish trust between social groups and peoples by establishing the truth" about the country's recent past.

The loftiness of those ambitions, however, is matched by the depth of skepticism with which the commission has been greeted in many quarters.

The depth of skepticism

"It will be a whitewash," says Sonja Biserko, a prominent human rights activist here.

"The commission was set up as a sop to the international community," adds a Western diplomat. "It is not being done by serious people for serious reasons."

Lyubodrag Dimic, the historian who currently chairs the commission, says he expected such criticism. "People on the left and the right say that we know the truth, all we have to do is admit it. But that just reveals their dogmatism."

The commission's performance so far, however, has not been encouraging. Formed in March last year by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, the commission received its paltry $20,000 annual budget from the authorities only last month. Its new office is staffed by one secretary, with two computers and an internet connection.

The 15-member panel, made up of historians, academics, jurists, and journalists, is modeled after the South African commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But it intends to dig deeper into the past, seeking out the historical reasons for Yugoslavia's collapse as much as who did what to whom during the wars of secession that followed.

The South Africa model

Mr. Dimic says his commission will hear witnesses, though it will have no authority to compel them to appear, and do research using official archives, press reports, and academic studies. His first task, however, will be to find money from foreign donors, since he says he will need about $140,000 a year for the three years the panel is due to exist, and the government has promised only $40,000 for this year.

"Facing the truth of the last decade means questioning yourself and your moral values," says Dimic. "This will enable the Serb nation to find a new identity in the 21st century. Because people who do not know the truth about their past have no future."

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