Serbs divided over grim video

A new opinion survey suggests that one-third of Serbs believe that the atrocity footage is fake.

The images are gripping and seem irrefutable. Yet the footage of Serbian paramilitaries executing Bosnian Muslims in 1995 has not yet busted the myth that Serb officers did not commit Europe's worst massacre since the Holocaust.

In fact, a new poll released Tuesday shows that at least one-third of the Serbian public say the video is fake. That sentiment, observers say, reflects cognitive dissonance - the human capacity to hold contradictory beliefs simultaneously.

But it also illustrates why investigators have struggled for years to round up war-crimes suspects, many of whom are still lionized - and protected - by locals here.

To be sure, the video initially meant a softening of hard-line rhetoric about the Bosnian war.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, usually careful always to place blame on all the parties, said the video showed a "brutal, heartless and shameful crime." A leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radicals, the country's strongest political party, announced that parliament would pass a resolution on war crimes.

But it failed to pass parliament Tuesday. And despite hope after the video was broadcast earlier this month, Bos nian Serb General Ratko Mladic, wanted by the Hague war-crimes tribunal, has not yet been arrested.

"When we ask who is personally most responsible for [the Srebrenica massacre], only 23 percent are saying there is somebody who is responsible," says Srdjan Bogosavljevic, the head of Belgrade's Strategic Marketing agency, which conducted the poll last week. "They're saying it's normal in a war that crimes were committed, and we have the media every day saying that worse crimes were committed against Serbs," he adds. "It's really become awful."

The 12 minutes of footage shows the Serbian police-funded Scorpions unit herding six Srebrenica Muslims - two of whom were under 18 - off a truck and shooting them in the backs. Some 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed after Serb forces overran the town in July 1995. The UN war-crimes tribunal in The Hague indicted Ratko Mladic, then a Bosnian Serb General, later that year for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Public opinion in Serbia has long held that the Srebrenica massacre never happened, or that the Muslims were equally guilty if it did.

Mr. Mladic lived relatively openly in Serbia until 2001, when a new government replaced former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - who is now on trial for genocide in Bosnia.

This year, however, Serbia has turned over about a dozen other Hague suspects. Authorities there also arrested four former Scorpions after the video aired. Croatian authorities arrested another on Sunday night.

The tape also prompted more than one mea culpa from Serbian leaders. But those words have been overshadowed by their actions. Neither the president nor the prime minister attended a Srebrenica conference in Belgrade last weekend, organized by nongovernmental organizations.

Alexandra Milenov, a Hague tribunal registry representative in Serbia, calls the snub "really regrettable," and says that the video, compounded with the tribunal finding a Serb general guilty of genocide over the massacre, and a report from the Bosnian Serb government, hadn't made much of a dent.

"Despite the overwhelming quantity of evidence, despite the fact that Gen. Radislav Krstic [a commanding officer at Srebrenica convicted of genocide] himself didn't deny that any crimes had occurred [during his trial], despite the Republika Srpska report that confirmed what the tribunal had already ruled on, you still have voices of denial," she says.

The traditional voices of denial - Milosevic-era leftovers like the military, the police, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the nationalists controlling parliament - haven't changed their tunes.

Parliament failed to pass a war-crimes resolution on Tuesday because the nationalist majority wanted to blame all sides, and to say that crimes were committed individually, rather than blaming the Serbian institutions that made those crimes possible.

"Nobody, including the Scorpions, could go to Bosnia without permission - they were supported by the state, with uniforms, with weapons, with vehicles," says Natasa Kandic, the human-rights activist who obtained the videotape from former Scorpions members.

She says it was only at the end of May, after her Scorpions contacts left the country, that she was able to give the videotape to Serbian authorities and The Hague tribunal. "I wanted to be sure that nobody would be attacked," she says.

Although some former Scorpions have been arrested, the man who's suspected of having the ultimate authority over Serbian forces at Srebrenica - Mladic - hasn't turned up.

Speculation is rife here that Mladic will soon be arrested. One concrete signal that his arrest could be expected was the US government's releasing of $10 million in aid last week, aid that had been suspended for two years over Serbia's reluctance to make arrests.

Why hasn't the video had more effect?

"Public opinion [has been] cemented by now - it's been 10 years," says Dejan Anastasijevic, a journalist with the weekly Vreme in Belgrade. "All I can say is that the capability of the human mind of refusing to face unpleasant facts keeps on amazing me."

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