Interview with a survivor of the Bosnia and Herzegovina conflict

This is an interview with Nidzara Ahmetasevic, Editor of BIRN – Justice Report, Bosnia and Herzegovina – a news agency based in Sarajevo. The agency specialised on reporting on issues related to war crime prosecution in Bosnia and Herzegovina and issues related to transitional justice and the whole process of facing the past. Ahmetasevic was 17 when the war started in 1992. She left the country for a year after she was wounded in the leg and then returned.

When and how were you wounded?
“I was wounded on 28 May 1992 in my house which is in the centre of the city close to the presidency. That was the night when the intelligence agencies caught a conversation between Ratko Mladic and one of his soldiers in which he orders his soldiers to burn part of the city and my house happened to be in this part of the city. I was wounded, taken to the hospital and stayed there for a month. The Bosnian Serbs used a rocket launcher and shot with it through the city. Thirty six rockets were fired and one of these rockets fell in our apartment. The previous day was the first massacre when people queueing for bread were shot at. Many were killed and injured. The night I was injured there were many people like me and I was lying on a bed in the corridor of the hospital as there was no place in the rooms. Later I was transferred to a room with 48 other wounded people.”

Was there enough medicine and medical staff to look after you?
“The night I was admitted to hospital, an elderly woman was admitted too. She was wounded much worse than I. The doctors were discussing in front of me what to do with the scarce resources they had – whether to treat me first or her. They decided to treat me first because I was young and had better chances of survival. Later in the night, the older woman with whom I shared a bed as there were not enough beds, died. I spent the night in a bed drenched in blood next to a dead body. I stayed in the hospital over a month to have my leg treated. All the treatment was without anaesthesia.”

The war years were traumatic for you and for all the people in your country. How do you regard the trial of Karadzic? Do you think that you will be able to learn the whole truth and that a healing process may start?
“I believe in justice and I hope that his trial will allow us to learn something more about the reasons for the war and everything that happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time I am very suspicious that it can really bring us closure. The war lasted so long, nobody really helped the people during this period, we waited so long for the arrest of Karadzic and Mladic is still free but the wounds, not only those that we carry but the wounds are everywhere and this country is so fragile and I am not sure how much bright future we can have in this country as it is now. So I am not sure that it will bring what we hoped for. We were idealistic hoping that when Karadzic and Mladic are arrested that a new life will start for us. This will not happen but we can at least hope that we can watch him in the trial and learn the truth about the many things that happened around us.”

Karadzic is one of the main suspects but he is not the only one. Many are still at large and in Bosnia. Do you think that the justice system in the country can deal with them?
“People in the country realize that all the suspects will never face a trial. Like the man that shot me in the leg. I will never learn who he was and what happened to him even though I would like to know. I am following trials in the War Crimes Chambers on a daily basis. And it is of huge importance. The Hague is very important but having the possibility to have the trials in the country where the crimes were perpetrated is very important for all of us. It is a very important message not only for the people in Bosnia but for the people in the whole world that it can be done. It is still the whole process and the prosecution and the courts are still weak but they are getting stronger. I hope that they will be stronger and able to deal with the most sensitive cases and the most important people who have committed war crimes. This week, 29 July, the war crimes Chamber pronounced the first genocide verdict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a verdict in the trial of 11 people who were accused of genocide, committed after the fall of Srebrenica. Seven of them were found guilty and they were sentenced to 42 years in prison.”

What does the justice system need in order to be more effective?
“At this moment, on state level, the justice system is still not completely state-owned because we still have international judges and prosecutors and the courts still depend on international donations. It has to be a Bosnia thing because it will demonstrate that this state wants to deal with war crimes. On a local level much more is needed. On a local level the system is underdeveloped, the prosecution does not have enough capacity, the courts do not have enough capacity, they still do not have the possibility to offer witness protection. Much more has to be done on a local level than on a State level. Even though the State judiciary have to fight much more for their independence and the messages they are sending about the willingness to face the fathoms of the past.”

Do you think that victims will be able to get retribution and that this will help the wounds to heal and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina could feel like one people, one nation?
“That’s what I hope. I do believe that many people in this country are ready for that, that many people do believe and do hope that we can live in one unified state. Unfortunately, politicians in this country are not willing to do anything to help us to achieve – basically, it’s almost our dream. They are corrupted. They don’t think about the people, they don’t think about the state. They think only about themselves and how to stay in power. So, for now that’s a much bigger threat to the future of Bosnia than anything that is related to the past and is related to the war crimes issue. For politicians in this country, war crimes and everything that has happened during the war is only a means to manipulate the people. They use them for their personal propaganda and to spread fear among the people and in that way to stay in power. But people, if you ask them, people even in Srebrenica, already are living together, in Prijedor people are living together. In Sarajevo, we do not even know the difference between the nationalities of the people who are living in the city. So, I believe people are much more ready than politicians are. Unfortunately, we depend on politicians.”