Reflections on the GFI to the Hague, Bosnia, and Serbia

By Connor Richardson

After returning from a Global Field Intensive (GFI) program to The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia, led by Professors Trahan and Cooper, I found myself reflecting on my experiences.  Since the purpose of the class was to study war crimes committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, I had studied the details of the conflict.  I had read about the minutiae of the crimes committed so many times that, while shocked at first, I felt I had become inured to their emotional impact. Going on the program, however, showed me an entirely new perspective.  

The Hague

The trip began in The Hague, Netherlands, home of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and a new hybrid tribunal being established for Kosovo, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.  While there, we sat in on ICC and ICTY trials, and attended meetings with ICC, ICTY and Kosovo chambers personnel.  Through these meetings and trial observations, we were able to witness first-hand how justice is dispensed on the international stage, and garner insight from individuals who contribute to the process on a daily basis.  The amount of effort given to adhering to the rules established by the tribunals, especially regarding the treatment of defendants’ rights and protecting witness anonymity, was impressive.

Photo by Lisa Ibrahim

This is not to say, however, that the practiced methods of the courts made our interactions with court officials boring.  In fact, hearing the enthusiasm in tribunal officials’ voices was inspiring.  It was  clear that each individual had a deep, personal conviction to aid in dispensing justice.  Indeed, hearing their words conveyed a sense of enthusiasm, their discourse replete with descriptions of high-profile cases and how their work acts as a means to build confidence of those in the region with the international justice system.  Every individual we spoke with in The Hague seemed to have a comparable vibe, almost off-putting in optimism.  Those we spoke with at the ICTY expressed no overt discomfort when discussing the atrocities committed, saying instead that they looked to the future, bringing justice to the victims, and doing what they could to make sure the crimes never happened again.  This attitude appeared to reflect the atmosphere of the surrounding city, for while it was fully modern and sometimes bustling, it held no sense of rushed urgency that accompanies many other major cities, as if everyone there knew they were far-removed from trouble and so had no reason to rush anything.


Sarajevo, Bosnia

Traveling to the historic city of Sarajevo, however, presented us with a very different — and very tangible — perspective on what happened during that conflict.  Sitting in a river valley surrounded by tall, beautiful mountains in Eastern Bosnia, this metropolis was a centerpiece to the fighting in Bosnia, enduring one of the longest sieges in modern history.  Even more than twenty years after the shelling had stopped, physical signs of the years-long siege were commonplace: some hulks of high-rise buildings stood overgrown in vacant lots, while others, which were clearly occupied, sported numerous bullet holes and impact craters on their outer walls.  Monuments were a common sight on the main streets, each bearing plaques to those killed during the conflict. Most telling were spots that were called “Sarajevo Roses.”  These locations identified places where an artillery shell had landed, causing at least 3 civilian casualties, with the impact crater filled in with red rosin.  Walking through the main portion of the city, we noticed a significant number of these “Roses,” and what could easily have been mistaken for a pothole anywhere else took on a far grimmer significance.

Photo by Lisa Ibrahim

More than two decades after the siege had lifted, it was a remarkable experience to walk through portions of the city and see grim reminders of the conflict that defined life for the locals for many years. Yet, the attitude of those we met had a different outlook from what I might have expected.  The siege — and, by extension, the rest of the war — was indeed prominent in public discourse, but not with the pessimistic edge that one would assume.  Even when speaking to a person who had lived through the siege, there was a sense that one needed to move on and continue with life.  Indeed, one man we spoke with, who was a child when the Yugoslavian breakup had begun, described how many locals have developed a somewhat morbid sense of humor, perhaps as a coping mechanism.  Another woman, who was herself affected directly by this tumultuous period, was not grim-faced or cynical—which is what her experiences would have led me to expect.  Instead, she smiled more freely than most cheerful people I have known, and while she became sad when she relived with us her suffering during the war, her demeanor became much more cheerful when talk shifted towards her contemporary life and the work she did.   

Of particular note was a visit we paid to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), where we were given first-hand insight into using DNA testing to identify the remains of victims from the conflict.  Although that work is certainly of great comfort to the families, it is of course aimed at ascertaining the fates of those designated “missing” and to allow proper burial of the remains identified.

Although one academic pessimistically claimed that the younger generations have become toxic in their outlook, hating the other ethnic groups for the wrongs done to them during the Yugoslav breakup, our observations could not confirm this.  Signs of the conflict were everywhere, but locals of all ages still smiled, laughed, and would walk about the streets with no signs of animosity.  It appeared that they were determined to reconcile themselves with their collective past, but not let it define their outlook on life.

Srebrenica, Bosnia

Photo by Atitya Chhor

The next leg of our journey brought us to the infamous town of Srebrenica.  During July 1995, Republika Srpska armed forces eliminated a massive enclave of Bosnian Muslim refugees who had fled to Srebrenica as a UN safe haven.  Being assured that nothing would happen to them, the men and boys were separated from the women and small children.  The latter were bussed to safety, while the men and boys were either lined up and executed, or gunned down while they formed a column trying to flee, with only a few managing to survive and tell their stories.  Having read about the atrocities committed at Srebrenica and seen them depicted on film and television numerous times, I had thought I would be inured to the horrors.  But after passing through the small town where so many would spend their final days, hearing the story from one survivor who had himself escaped, watching the footage of executions by jubilant Serbs, and finally walking in the summer rain through the cemetery dedicated to the victims, it was as if I understood something that I had not before.  Seeing a veritable sea of short, white marble grave posts and remembering that most of them had been civilians who were executed purely out of ethnic hatred, made me feel a tremendous sense of sorrow.  Even though our GFI group generally chatted constantly, no one spoke very much on this day.  Visiting the town and seeing what we saw had made the conflict more real to us than it had ever been before.

Belgrade, Serbia

Our final stop was Belgrade, Serbia, and we were immediately exposed to a completely differentenvironment.  Passing by the Serbian parliament, a number of large banners were hanging in front, proclaiming in English that the United States and NATO are protecting Albanian war criminals, and admonishing one to remember crimes against Serbs at Srebrenica.   Accompanying these harsh words were exceptionally graphic images of burn victims and bodies mutilated by shrapnel, implying that these were Serbs who had been victimized either by NATO airstrikes in 1999 or at Srebrenica.  This came as a genuine shock.  Whereas the people in Sarajevo seemed content with the reminders of war while keeping their eyes to the future, banners such as these could be found at multiple locations throughout Belgrade, each condemning the US and NATO, and declaring that the Serbs had been unfairly treated.  It sometimes felt as if the war had ended five years ago, not more than twenty.  While the city itself was marvelous, with wide thoroughfares, grand statues and busy markets, there always seemed an undertone of resentment regarding the conflict, as well as a fair degree of defiance towards the international community.  Bookstores displayed biographies in English, praising various well-known Serbs who had been tried by the ICTY for war crimes, crimes against humanity or even genocide.  Street vendors sold t-shirts and magnets displaying their faces, with the Serbian flag in the background.  It seemed as if this was done to spite the international community.  The apparent latent hostility we observed was a near-reversal of every attitude encountered before.

Photo by Valentina Duhanaj

Meetings at government institutions, as well as with NGOs, presented more concrete affirmations of this impression.  Visiting one of the war crimes courts revealed that they lacked the resources to adequately prosecute every case. Furthermore, the volume of cases they had worked on appeared significantly smaller than the number of war crimes cases brought in Bosnia.  The hypothesis of insufficient resources would certainly be preferable to an accusation that these Serbian courts willfully work at a slow pace.  Such a lethargic tempo, however, may hold grave portents for what is to come:  since the ICTY is shutting down at the end of 2017, all remaining war crimes cases (thousands of them) will be left to such local courts in the region.  These courts have had limited success while the ICTY existed, so it is concerning whether justice will be accomplished when it is gone, and the international community’s focus on the region has moved on. 

Final impressions

With several weeks to process what I and my fellow students experienced, my final impressions are these.  The Hague represented an almost idealistic mindset, focusing on its procedures and tribunal officials claiming that their efforts would help ease tensions in the region.  Going to Sarajevo, and seeing the physical reminders of the fighting and bloodshed, genuinely put a twist on the optimism found in The Hague.  Bosnians appeared to want to resolve their pasts and look to their futures, with courts playing only an ancillary role.  A similar, yet considerably more extreme attitude, was found in Serbia.  There, attention was similarly fixated on reconciling the past, but the majority view of Serbians had cast themselves almost exclusively as victims, and they expressed this belief by openly mocking international efforts to try Serbs for war crimes. This progression, to say the least, came off as exceptionally disheartening.  Starting from the optimistic — yet also furthest-removed — perspective first, we were exposed to increasingly grim points of view, to the point where many of us wondered if any lasting impact could be possible from war crimes trials.

That is not to say, however, that this GFI was a bad one.  Unlike other such programs that I have joined, this trip confronted me with numerous experiences that forced me out of my comfort zone and made me think about issues from multiple perspectives.  Perhaps because of this, I would say that this GFI made me feel more emotions than any other program I have been on.  Those experiences will stay with me indefinitely, and I am sure I will think back on them frequently, perhaps even influencing decisions I make as to my future.

Connor Richardson is an MSGA student with a concentration in Transnational Security.




One reply to Reflections on the GFI to the Hague, Bosnia, and Serbia

  1. Great job nephew.

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