what I learned at the ICTY – and what it means to me.

I’ve been searching for a way to somehow encapsulate the meaning of my experience this summer at the ICTY. Tonight, my general post-Europe melancholy led me to rent, finally, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” – the film about the Bosnian war written and directed by Angelina Jolie.

I’ve heard mixed reviews of the film and am not here to claim that it’s a phenomenal piece of cinema. But here’s why everyone should see it: every single horrible thing that happens in the movie happened in real life.

  • Muslims were forced from their homes, by the thousands.
  • Those who could stay had little or no electricity, running water, food, or medicine.
  • Muslims were taken to detention facilities not unlike Nazi concentration camps except for smaller in size and without the gas chambers. Women in these camps were often beaten and raped. Men, the primary prisoners, wasted away in horrible conditions on starvation rations while receiving regular beatings. Prisoners were forced into various types of labor, sometimes including standing in front of Serbs as human shields during armed conflict with Muslim soldiers.
  • Random firing squad executions occurred all over the Muslim municipalities of Bosnia.
  • Sniping became a fact of daily life in Sarajevo and other towns. The Serbs occupied territory overlooking Sarajevo and shot people standing in line for water, on their way to school or work, coming home from the market, or running for cover just trying to get from one side of the street to another.

It’s easy, hearing about things like this, as I did all summer, to forget that each of the three groups – Croats, Muslims, and Serbs – did horrible things. And there’s plenty of remaining physical evidence of that today. Driving through the Balkan countryside is beautiful yet quietly tragic; I’ve seen the shells of hundreds of buildings and homes still waiting to be rebuilt by families who haven’t returned.

I read many accounts this summer of seemingly idyllic Bosnian life prior to 1992. Children of all three groups attended the same school, sat in the same classrooms, and even celebrated each other’s religious holidays. Aside from religion, the only differentiating factor among the three ethnicities seems to have been their names – some were clearly Muslim, Serbian, or Croatian. Like the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda, you can’t tell these people apart just by looking at them. And today, if you travel across Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Serbia, you’ll find common staple foods and drinks – aside from religious structures and the remaining amount of destruction (Croatia and Serbia look a lot better than Bosnia), you can’t tell the countries apart as you travel through them.

Which just goes to show how mindlessly, needlessly bloody the breakup of Yugoslavia was in the 1990’s. In Bosnia over a matter of months, neighbors turned on each other – local elementary school teachers became guards at detention facilities where they watched men they’d known all their lives suffer from crippling beatings and starvation. Entire villages, containing only defenseless civilians, fell in a day after shelling and shooting as part of a campaign to eliminate Muslim-majority municipalities along the Serbian border. Women, children, and the elderly became refugees; men became prisoners or the victims of cold-blooded murder.

It’s hard to tell where things stand now. I’ve seen promising evidence both in the region and in the Hague of progress, reconciliation, and a desire to keep moving forward without reference to the past. But I’ve also seen lingering resentment and delusions about ethnic superiority or inferiority, and I’ve heard that many Bosnian children go to school now only with others from their own ethnic group, each with its own history textbook and version of events. Here, once again, is evidence that education plays a crucial role in the future.

The Tribunal may be closing in 2014, and it may be years before I next travel to the Balkans, but this is not the end of my involvement. In addition to following the Mladić trial closely, I plan to dedicate a significant portion of my free time to learning BCS (finally), reading as many studies of the war and the history of the region as I can, and familiarizing myself with other ICTY cases so that I know more about what happened, and because of whom, in each country. For me, the people of the Balkans are real – whether they’re friends from the Tribunal or the endlessly special children with whom I worked through World at Play last summer. I owe it to them – as a Croatian, an American, a future lawyer, and a human being – to learn as much as I can about this conflict and its lingering repercussions so that I can do what I can not only to continue healing those visible and invisible wounds but also to ensure that epic tragedies like this remain in the past, not the future.

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