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Expert Opinion

Will the victims of Bosnia’s war finally get justice?

Over 7,500 Muslim men and boys were killed and around 30,000 women, children and older people were forcibly displaced as a result of the massacre that took place over several days in July 1995 in Srebrenica. On 11 July, the 18th anniversary of the first day, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) reversed former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić’s acquittal for genocide in seven municipalities of Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. Karadžić now faces eleven charges for his alleged actions during the war, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war.

Eighteen years after the massacre, and more than two decades since the beginning of the war, over103,000 people remain displaced within Bosnia. While most of the world’s attention has shifted to other conflict hot spots, the remaining IDPs continue to be affected by these tragic events. Until they have reached long-term solutions to their displacement and are able to move on with their lives, they will continue to live in the shadows of the horrific past.

During a commemorative event last week, another 400 victims were buried and some of those who were forced to flee shared their harrowing stories of displacement. They explained how they had to flee by foot, sometimes walking for days despite the continuing violence. “There was a moment I was separated from my brother and father, and from that moment, I never saw them again,” recounted one of the victims. “They were close. I was terribly scared, lost all my strength and threw off the backpack, even the jacket I was wearing. I could not move.”

Some described having to sleep while walking. Many suffered multiple armed attacks and were separated from their families. In the weeks and months that followed the massacre many lived through extreme hunger and some even lost use of their extremities.

Will there be justice?

Significant barriers remain to return, reconciliation and justice in the country. Thousands of victims of human rights violations still require rehabilitation and assistance and many perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. Many victims remain displaced out of fear of returning and potentially confronting perpetrators of the crimes against them in the course of their daily lives. Despite international awareness of the depths of the crimes, many victims of sexual violence remain silent on their abuse, as the issue continues to be a taboo subject in the country.

Despite these barriers, there has been some progress towards justice. The ICTY and the Bosnian state court have handed down prison sentences totalling more than 500 years for war crimes in Srebrenica and numerous trials are on-going. In addition, the draft National Strategy on Transitional Justice offers a real opportunity to deal with and address violations committed during the war in the 1990′s.

Allocation of political, financial and technical support should be prioritized at all levels to ensure adoption and full implementation of the strategy. Only with sufficient political will can crimes of the past be addressed and impunity challenged.

Hope for the future

“I plead that you use your influence and work to make Srebrenica a place of peace and tolerance, for this to be a firm message so this will never happen again,” the president of the Srebrenica commemorative board, Camil Durakovic, implored at the commemoration last week.

The Srebrenica massacre will always be a dark stain on the history of the Balkans and on the international community in general. But will the National Strategy and the judgments of the ICTY light the path to a more positive future for the region?

Learn more about displacement in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Read more about the anniversary from Balkan Insight  and the BBC