The first time I reported from the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague, I was reminded of the title of a play written about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was called The Man in the Glass Booth. Eichmann was confined in a specially constructed glass box for his own protection.
At The Hague tribunal, press and public are separated by a bullet-proof glass screen from defendants, such as Ratko Mladić, convicted this week, after a five-year trial, of genocide. The Holocaust was a uniquely evil crime but the manner in which the Bosnian Serbs, led by Karadžić and Mladić, prepared the ground for genocide at Srebrenica, bears distinct echoes of the Nazi master plan.
For example, Muslim and Croat residents of the town of Prijedor were forced to attach white flags to their homes and wear white ribbons so they could be easily identified before being driven out to the infamous concentration camps of Trnopolje and Omarska, where rape, torture and murder were everyday occurrences. Listening to a Muslim judge, Nusreta Sivac, recount what happened on arrival at Omarska took me straight back to a bleak November day on the railhead at Auschwitz-Birkenau when Kitty Hart pointed out where Josef Mengele decided who would live and who would die.
Like those fortunate few who survived execution at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, Nedžad Avdić, aged just 17, was supposed to die along with over 8,000 brother Muslims in a forest outside Srebrenica. But the Serb bullets merely wounded him and he climbed from the death pit to tell his tale and, ultimately, return to the town which became a byword for genocide half a century after the Holocaust. (In 2016, Nedžad was awarded an honorary doctorate by my university).
But Srebrenica is in Republika Srpska and, unlike the Jewish experience, Muslim survivors and relatives of the dead are still fighting official denial from Serb authorities that a genocide took place. Memorials to the killings have been defaced and ceremonies to honour the victims often disrupted. In the UK, Holocaust deniers such as David Irving are shamed and discredited. In Republika Srpska, genocide deniers are elected mayor or appointed police chief.
Perhaps the most powerful antidote to the kind of poisonous hatred which leads to ethnic cleansing and genocide is education. Here in the UK, the efforts of charities like the Holocaust Educational Trust and the commitment of governments of all sides, have ensured that no schoolchild grows to maturity without some awareness, however cursory, of the Holocaust. Bosnian Serb schoolchildren get a sanitised version of history in which their own ethnic group is portrayed as victims of the ‘Turks’, the derogatory term for Muslims, which you still hear used, especially in rural areas and amongst the older generation. Without a shared understanding of what happened only one generation ago, the chances of a lasting reconciliation between the communities is slim. Indeed, I returned from Bosnia after a brief visit with the charity, Remembering Srebrenica, this autumn, more pessimistic about the immediate future than when I last visited 14 years ago.
Will the conviction and imprisonment of Ratko Mladić change anything? It won’t bring back Nedžad Avdić’s father and uncle, murdered by Mladić’s paramilitaries.It won’t heal the scars, both physical and psychological, inflicted on Bakira Hasečić as a result of repeated rape by Serb forces who rampaged through her home town of Višegrad in eastern Bosnia. And it won’t compensate for the three years Resad Trbonja spent under daily shelling in Sarajevo at an age when his contemporaries elsewhere in Europe were starting university.
But just as the capture and conviction of Eichmann re-focused the world’s attention on the horrors of the Holocaust, so the judges’ verdict on Mladić reminds us of the awful consequences for this continent of ours of unchecked nationalism and blind prejudice.