Accounting for the past

Under headlines like "Srebrenica video sobers Serbia, brings arrests," "Serbia shocked by video showing Srebrenica shootings," "Srebrenica video sobers Serbia, brings arrests," or "Serbs stunned by pictures of massacre at Srebrenica" (though pride of place no doubt belongs to "Bosnia: Sick video killers arrested," for several reasons), the media this morning reported the fallout from a video tape obtained by courageous human-rights lawyer Nataša Kandić and shown at the trial of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević Wednesday.

The tape, excerpts of which can be seen here, shows the cold-blooded execution of six men by a special police unit from Serbia. The executions took place near Pale and, the Hague prosecution says, involved victims bused there from Srebrenica in the summer of 1995.

Kandić had handed over the tape to the Serbian authorities on 23 May, according to the New York Times. The footage was broadcast on Serbian public TV (RTS) and B-92 Wednesday night, the day it was shown at The Hague; within less than 24 hours, eight members of the unit, whose faces are clearly visible in the video, had been arrested.

A good analysis of the tape's contents and its significance for the Milošević trial can be found on the website of the Coalition for International Justice.

The Times story has some rather interesting vox pop from Belgrade that suggest that we've moved from the denial stage (this didn't happen) through refusal (we didn't know this happened) and relativism (also known as wavering: bad things happened but it was a war and bad things do happen in wars, and the others did it too) all the way to jaded weariness, as evidenced by two statements in the report:

"What was shown on that tape was just a tiny bit of the crimes committed throughout the war," said Neohjsa Mrdjenovic, a 29-year-old musician. "The footage will not change anything because people knew what had been happening. Everyone knew about the siege of Sarajevo all along. Unfortunately people don't care about it. They only care how to feed their family."

Rodoljub Cosic, 25, said: "The footage might change some people's opinion about Srebrenica, but the majority knew what had happened there. People knew what had happened in Srebrenica more than any other place as it has been often raised in public."

So now we're right at the stage where it's all just old news and we all knew about this anyway and what's all the fuss about. (I'm not necessarily imputing these feelings to these two fellows -- I'm always open to the suggestion that someone may have been misquoted or their statements taken out of context, or badly translated. But they seem indicative of a broader mood now that outright denial has become more difficult.)

And what these statement play down is the power of pictures over mere "information." People may have known what had happened at Srebrenica, though a good many Serbs still doubt the facts, but they never saw what kind of brutality is involved in the simple execution of just six men, a trivial occurrence by the standards of that war.

What the whole story also suggests, of course, is that the government -- and this may come back to haunt it -- is perfectly capable of arresting war crime suspects if it feels it's in its interest to do so.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the speed of the arrests of the perpetrators seen on this execution video may indeed come back to haunt the Serbian government. It strongly suggests that the MUP in Belgrade must have had files on these guys (pay records, pension records, personnel files, documents recording who was assigned to which unit and where particular units were operating at the time the video was shot), which enabled them to identify and round up the suspects in record time.

And this, in turn, would suggest that -- despite General Obrad Stevanovic's attempts to deny it on the stand in The Hague -- the Scorpions unit were acting as part of the Serbian state apparatus at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, and not just as "enthusiastic amateurs."

That could have some serious implications, not only for Milosevic's defense in his war crimes trial at the ICTY. It could also affect Serbia-Montenegro's case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) - the "other" Hague court - where Serbia is defending itself against a suit brought by Bosnia. That suit, filed more than a decade ago, charges the Belgrade government with responsibility for genocide in Bosnia. After years of legal wrangling, the ICJ has scheduled oral arguments in the case for early next year.


Anonymous said...

The "Scorpions" video shown at the Milosevic trial last week is by no means the only, or even the first video shown in court - or publicly shown in Serbia - that documents the events in Srebrenica.

Most famously, there was the footage taken in July 1995 by Zoran Petrovic, a stringer for Belgrade Studio B. An edited version of Petrovic's tapes was aired only once in Belgrade before the tapes mysteriously vanished; but a copy of the full version eventually turned up abroad. The video was shown in the genocide trial of General Krstic at the ICTY.

The Petrovic video, and other footage of the events in Srebrenica, can be found online on the Srebrenica pages of Domovina Net.


T K Vogel said...

Thanks for the pointer to the Domovina Net page, where the Scorpions footage can also be found. I meant to comment on this but thought I didn't have enough materials: why is it that this specific video -- as shocking as it may be -- has this massive impact? Of course it makes a difference whether something is shown on Studio B or on RTS, but isn't there also something about the time being ripe, or riper? I really don't know the answer, this is simply a hunch.