Investigators and researchers of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war say their experience holds valuable lessons for those seeking justice for atrocities committed by Russian forces during the invasion of Ukraine.
And while the first Ukrainian verdicts have already been rendered barely four months into that war, the experts from Bosnia and Herzegovina warn that the Ukrainians still face an arduous job that will take years.
People VOA interviewed said that in the case of Ukraine, investigators have one significant advantage over their Bosnian counterparts in that evidence of war crimes and mass graves is much harder to hide today. The main reason is the availability of modern technologies, from smartphones to satellite images.
"I think that in a coordinated action of different authorities – from Ukrainian prosecutors to the International Criminal Court, to various other sources that can help to get this evidence – there is already enough evidence to draw a very clear line between crimes, victims, perpetrators and principals," said Refik Hodzic, a consultant of the European Institute for Peace who lives in Prijedor, Bosnia, and The Hague, Netherlands.
Prijedor is one of the cities that suffered the most during the Bosnian war. After the Bosnian Serbs took power in late April 1992, non-Serbs were ordered to mark their homes and wear white ribbons around their arms if they moved around the city. Residents were arrested, tortured and imprisoned in camps; more than 3,000 civilians were killed or are still missing, including 102 children.
"Such a small town cannot recover from such crimes," said Hodzic, who has been working for more than 25 years in the field of transitional justice, which deals with the legacy of human rights abuses. He added that the events in Ukraine remind him of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Syria.
He said the similarities include "preparation dominated by dehumanization of target groups in order to decrease as much as possible any empathy among those who are in some way involved in committing crimes, as well as with the public, which might be able to react and, so to speak, call to political responsibility those who order these crimes.”
What seems obvious must be proven in court
According to the United Nations, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion, but it is feared that the number is much higher because the scale of crimes and the number of victims from places like Mariupol are not yet known. More than 6 million people have fled the country, while more than 8 million people have been displaced internally.
In less than four years of war in Bosnia, which ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, more than 100,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were permanently displaced, within the country and abroad. Bosnia today is divided into two entities – the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Croats and Bosniaks are in the majority.
Amor Masovic is a Bosnian legislator who for years headed the Bosnian Institute for Missing Persons. He said that more than 25,000 missing persons were found, identified and buried in Bosnia after the war. Twenty-six years later, he said, more than 7,000 persons are still listed as missing.
"It is very important to establish as soon as possible whether people are alive or not, whether they are in captivity, whether they were killed and buried, individually or in mass graves. It is important to collect and systemize this information, to create a database that will enable an accelerated search for the missing in the post-war period, as well as locating mass gravesites and exhuming victims," Masovic advises Ukrainians.
Ukrainian investigators confirmed to VOA in recent interviews that the knowledge gained from previous wars, including in Bosnia, helps them in their work.
In July 1995, Emir Suljagic worked as a translator for U.N. forces in the Srebrenica area, which saved him from the fate of many of his fellow citizens. Although Srebrenica had the status of a U.N. safe zone, the Republika Srpska Army captured it on July 11. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY) described the crimes committed by Serb forces in Srebrenica as a genocide in which more than 8,000 men were killed.
Suljagic is now director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, an institution whose mission is remembrance for the victims of the genocide. He told VOA that the passage of time is one of the key factors influencing the collection of evidence about war crimes, especially if locations are not immediately available.
"Another obstacle may be the probably planned and deliberate steps the Russians are taking to cover up the crimes they have committed. Another one – witnesses. We don't know if there are any witnesses. Testimonies become more and more unreliable over time; it's easier to dissuade or to discredit people," said Suljagic.
"What seems obvious to all of us must be proven in court," added Suljagic. "Everything else comes later – memorialization, remembrance, culture of remembrance.
Bosnian victims do not feel justice is satisfied
After the withdrawal of Russian troops from the vicinity of Kyiv, mass graves were discovered, people were found dead on the streets, some with their hands tied, some with traces of torture. Ukrainian authorities said they have found more than 400 bodies in Bucha alone.
Since the invasion began on February 24, 2022, Russia has denied targeting civilians. The Associated Press quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that scenes from the Kyiv area were "stage-managed anti-Russian provocation."
Masovic said such rhetoric sounds familiar: "In the end, there will be – and we are already witnessing that – the denial of any crimes. In Bosnia, the individuals who support war criminals have gone a step further, and that probably awaits Ukraine, that at some point Russia will even glorify its criminals and the crimes it has committed."
The ICTY indicted a total of 161 people during its 1993-2017 mandate for genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war, and violations of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. A total of 93 people were convicted, among them Radovan Karadzic, the former president of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Republika Srpska Army, including for crimes in Srebrenica and Prijedor. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
Hodzic, who has spent part of his career working at the ICTY, said a great opportunity was missed by Bosnia to use this institution, whose work was not even blocked by Russia, to make impunity for crimes impossible and to accept the truth about what happened. As problems, he cites the denial of crimes and hatred spread by politicians, including in Prijedor, where authorities recently banned a memory walk for the victims, but also the fact that in neighboring Serbia, war crimes convicts receive decorations and appear as TV analysts.
“If you live in a society that admits a crime has been committed against you, respects what you have gone through and bows its head before your suffering, then punishment for perpetrators makes sense, then you as a member of that society can feel that justice is in some way achievable during your lifetime," said Hodzic.
"In societies where this is not the case, such as our society, or in situations where perpetrators openly deny or celebrate crimes, as it is now the case with Russia in Ukraine, it is difficult to expect victims to feel that justice has been satisfied, regardless of court cases."
Suljagic said Ukraine should not rely too much on international justice. Instead, it should file charges and prosecute the perpetrators itself.
"I am quite convinced that people will be held accountable because they were captured, arrested or indicted by Ukrainians."
Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova, said recently that Ukraine has identified more than 600 Russians suspected of war crimes, while criminal prosecutions have already started for 80 of the suspects.
Veronica Balderas Iglesias and the “Friends of Srebrenica” group contributed to this report.