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As a Child Who Grew Up in Wartime Sarajevo, I Won't Atone for Karadzic's Sins

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 25/03/2016 Jana Jevtic
RADOVAN KARADZIC © ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN via Getty Images RADOVAN KARADZIC

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- A little over 24 hours ago, the former leader of the breakaway Serb Republic in Bosnia Radovan Karadzic -- notoriously dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia" -- was sentenced to 40 years in prison following a five-year trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Karadzic faced charges on two counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of violations against the laws and customs of war specified by the Geneva Conventions. In his delivery of the ruling, presiding judge O-Gon Kwon cleared Karadzic of one count of the indictment -- while found guilty of the 1995 systematic elimination of more than 8,000 Bosniaks, Bosnian Muslim men and boys, in the Srebrenica enclave, he was acquitted of genocide in seven other Bosnian towns and villages.
Throughout the trial Karadzic, who acted as his own defense lawyer, "portray[ed] himself as a man of peace who was driven solely by his desire to protect Serbs." As a child born of mixed marriage between a Serb father and a Bosniak mother -- a child who grew up in wartime Sarajevo -- I resent the idea that Karadzic acted as a guardian of Serbs who endured a horrifying campaign of sniping and shelling that terrorized the Bosnian capital for 1,395 days. Or were those Serbs who opted to stay in Sarajevo during the longest siege in modern history not "Serb" enough?

I resent the idea that Karadzic acted as a guardian of Serbs who endured a horrifying campaign of sniping and shelling. Or were those Serbs who opted to stay in Sarajevo during the longest siege in modern history not 'Serb' enough?

Against the backdrop of war, I often struggled to figure out where I fit in. I was 10 or 11 at the time and I certainly did not feel represented by the likes of Karadzic, but I was also made aware of my apparent "otherness" in newspapers and television, political discourse and everyday conversations. Not much has changed more than 20 years later. At work yesterday -- as I was rushing home to hear the sentencing live -- a student jokingly asked, "who are you rooting for?" There was nothing funny about her question. In fact, it was deeply insulting. What it shows, at the very least, is that the memory of war -- as well as its retelling -- is not simply about insiders and outsiders. It is also about who the most "authentic" insiders are -- whose voices amongst many who suffered are heard and whose voices are silenced. The war, it seems, is not mine to grieve, rage or talk about.
As I was drafting this article, Bosnian state television aired a two-hour special on the importance of reconciliation in the wake of the Karadzic sentencing. The general premise is pretty straightforward -- Serbs have to collectively acknowledge and accept responsibility for own in-group crimes before the country can move on and make the most of a wide-ranging set of social and economic reforms meant to steer it towards European Union membership. By the virtue of my identity or some fraction of it, I thus not only have little to no representation in an array of war accounts that saturate libraries, bookstores, television discussions and radio broadcasts, but I am also meant to atone for crimes that were seemingly committed in my name.
It is absolutely true that my experience of war does not compare easily to experiences of those -- predominantly Bosniaks -- who witnessed face-to-face violence or had their entire families slaughtered. But my experience is still a very real one. It is an experience of living in daily fear and being hungry for nearly four years. An experience of watching classmates sniped in front of me. So, the notion of reconciliation as proposed by those who think in terms of homogenous, neatly divided -- and ostensibly opposing -- ethnic groups is offensive. And very trite.
By the virtue of my identity or some fraction of it, I not only have little to no representation in an array of war accounts, but I am also meant to atone for crimes that were seemingly committed in my name.

The notion is reminiscent of the "ancient ethnic hatred" discourse that, as author Tom Gallagher notes, speaks of "bouts of tribal warfare ... seen as culturally determined and historically recurring and therefore beyond capable solution." The idea proposed by author Michael Sells that we were "fated, by history or genetics, to kill one another" was, as Gallagher explains, promoted not only by Karadzic, but also by the likes of David Owen, the key international mediator in the 1992-1995 war, who in his introduction to "Balkan Odyssey" argued, "History points to a tradition ... of a readiness to solve disputes by taking up arms ... it points to a culture of violence." Gallagher shows that a similar rhetoric was evident in 1994 when the former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke of a conflict that had been present "for hundreds of years": "The truth is," Clinton noted, "people there keep killing each other."
This narrative of ancient hatred not only justified the severely delayed intervention in Bosnia -- it took foreign leaders four years and around 110,000 dead to finally react -- it also paved the way for an array of experts who today call for reconciliation but fail to consider a multiplicity, diversity and complexity of experience that shapes people's personal narratives of war. These narratives problematize the insider versus outsider dilemma, and while I cannot speak for my compatriots nor do I claim to understand how those with a different lived experience feel, I know that the idea of atoning for crimes that Karadzic was found guilty of sends shivers down my spine and makes me feel as alienated as I had felt some 20 years ago -- as a child born of mixed marriage growing up in wartime Sarajevo.
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