Dragomir Milosevic, a Bosnian Serb general, commanded troops who laid siege to the city of Sarajevo and conducted a campaign of shelling and sniping attacks that killed or injured more than a thousand civilians. It took more than ten years, but Milosevic was tried and convicted of terror and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, Netherlands. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
As part of the ongoing series of Medtronic Business and Law Roundtables, two prosecutors from the Milosevic trial and a professional photographer who remained in Sarajevo during the siege talked about the challenges of prosecuting Milosevic at the University of St. Thomas Tuesday afternoon. It was part of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions.
The Siege of Sarajevo taught the world several lessons: about the uneasy intersection of international law and international politics; about the important role the media can play in illuminating atrocity and igniting worldwide indignation; and about the concept of applying the law to the natural chaos of war and war crimes.
Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law professor and former Senior Trial Attorney for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), described international law as “a pale shadow” of what is commonly known in the U.S. criminal justice system. The tribunal, which consisted of a three-judge panel, was the first to be formed since the Nuremberg trials.
John Docherty, an assistant U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, a former trial Attorney, and a tribunal prosecutor, outlined some of the complexities of prosecuting the case, including faded witness accounts and language barriers, and conflicting accounts and conflicting agendas from international authorities on the scene.
Some of the strongest sentiment came from Zoran Lesic, a Sarajevo native and professional photographer and videographer who remained in Sarajevo for more than a year during the siege. His documentation of the impact of sniper and shelling attacks would later be used to assist in the prosecution.
His was a world where the sounds of bullets and shelling was a constant as the background noise of his life. Lesic, who had a background in the theater before the war, talked passionately about the effort a little troupe made to put on the musical “Hair” during the siege, scrounging diesel from the police, a generator from the United Nations and enough water so that the actress starring in the show could wash her hair.
“It gave us a very strong feeling of being normal,” he recalled.
In 2003, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and First Lady Mary Pawlenty visited Minnesota National Guard troops stationed in Bosnia. One of the most moving moments of the trip came when the governor and his entourage visited Srebrenica, where, in July of 1995, one of the most notorious acts of genocide took place. Serb forces separated civilian men from women and killed thousands or hunted them down in the nearby forests.
Here is what I wrote at the time:
The weather turned suddenly ominous on Monday as Gov. Tim Pawlenty and First Lady Mary Pawlenty were finishing their visit to the memorial site of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II, walking somberly past gravesite after gravesite of newly buried victims.
Gray clouds enveloped the small valley where 7,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up to be executed later by Serb forces in July 1995. Thunder rumbled in the distance as the Pawlentys, finishing the second day of a two-day tour of Bosnia, looked at photographs in a small basement museum.
It is a place that Pawlenty described as "a very, very powerful image of tragedy."
The Minnesota National Guard, stationed on a six-month deployment, makes up the largest contingent of a multinational peacekeeping force in the northern region of the country, where Srebrenica is located. The 1992-1995 civil war in Bosnia pitted neighbor against neighbor in ethnic battles among Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats.
The governor's tour of Bosnia was designed to spotlight the work the Guard is doing, particularly as attention is focused elsewhere on military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After viewing the site and receiving a briefing on the massacre, Pawlenty said he believes a continued military presence is needed to bring stability to the area.
"It underscores the importance of our military being here," Pawlenty said, standing in the memorial, dedicated only a couple of months ago. "My impressions are it's a horrendous tragedy, and it's sad to see these grave markers and what it represents: people being incredibly cruel and evil toward one another."
The men and boys were rounded up at an abandoned battery factory across the road from where the memorial is now located. They were bused away and later shot over a period of days. Others were hunted down as they fled in the woods. Srebrenica's status as a "U.N.protected zone" provided no safety. After the atrocities of Srebrenica became known, a NATO-led alliance bombed the Serbs. Four months later, the war was over.
But ethnic tensions clearly remain, even as the peacekeeping forces plan reductions that would result in them leaving Bosnia, possibly as early as the end of next year. International organizations continue to exhume the bodies of victims of the Serbian "ethnic cleansing." Identification of the victims is expected to take years. Minefields dot the countryside. In the meantime, the country struggles to unify itself with an economy that is weak, an infrastructure that remains problematic and a social structure that remains vulnerable .
Mary Pawlenty, who had pushed for the tour of Srebrenica (pronounced Srebreneetsa), was clearly moved by what she saw, at one point falling back into her husband's arms in tears after reading a prayer marker in the memorial that reads, in part:
“May grievance become hope
May revenge become justice
And mother's tears may become prayers that Srebrenica never
"It's ghastly. It's just ghastly," she said.