Joan McAlpine: Trying Mladic won't cure Bosnia's ills

Bosnia's economy is ruined, many of its people unemployed and more violence waits in the wings

IT WAS a stinking hot summer. Not the weather for flak jackets, which we wore during the perilous journey to Tuzla, that miserable, overcrowded town into which Srebrenica's survivors escaped.

I was a reporter accompanying an Edinburgh charity that sent aid convoys to Bosnia. These volunteers, many of them ex-British army, were accustomed to danger, having relieved the besieged citizens of Sarajevo. But Tuzla was deep inland, and required a hazardous journey through unfamiliar, mountainous terrain.

We did not know at the time exactly what had happened in the "safe haven" of Srebrenica that July in 1995, only that it was dreadful. Like the rest of the world we were shocked when a United Nations peacekeeping force was over-run by an aggressive Bosnian Serb army lead by General Ratko Mladic.

Television footage of Srebrenica's women and children being herded on to buses bound for "muslim" areas, resembled scenes of Jews being loaded on trains during the Holocaust. Civilians who tried to escape through the forests were shelled. Women were systematically raped.

Journalists spoke to countless eyewitnesses who described men and boys separated from the women and taken away.

When our group eventually arrived at the refugee camp outside Tuzla, we encountered a vast sea of females. Their men had vanished. We now know around 8,000 were clinically executed in the space of a few days.

Ratko Mladic's capture last week, and his inevitable trial, will bring belated justice. But whether it will heal wounds is another question. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s remain a stain on Europe. There are too many unanswered questions, too many secrets.

My memories of that trip were of contrasts and contradictions, the messiness of war. History has decreed that all the evil doings came from the Serbian side. However, this may well be "western" governments trying to compensate for their indifference towards Serbian brutality at the time.

Certainly Milosevic, Karadzic, Mladic and their followers were the aggressors in the post-Yugoslavian wars and the architects of the genocide which characterised them. But they did not have a monopoly of wickedness.

Our trip across the alpine mountains of Bosnia took us through once pretty villages of burnt out cottages - it resembled a picture postcard of Switzerland inexplicably plunged into hell. But the absent villagers were of all ethnicities.

Before setting off on the trip, we stayed in the Croatian coastal town of Spilt, a beautiful, Adriatic resort.The aid workers in the cafes would joke with the waiters, then wonder how many of these charming men had participated in atrocities "up country", such as the 1991 Gospic massacre when up to 150 Serbian villagers were shot at point blank range by members of a Croatian military unit.

Last month two Croatian generals responsible for war crimes during Operation Storm - a 1995 drive against Serbs - received long sentences at The Hague. There were protests in Zagreb for these "heroes" just as there are in Belgrade to support Mladic. Both Croatia and Serbia now aspire to full membership of the European Union, and one wonders to what extent their newfound commitment to human rights is a flag of convenience.

But it is not just the killers who are culpable. The lesson of Srebrenica in particular is the inaction of the international community. There are many who believe that the French general in command of the UN troops in Bosnia at the time of the massacre, Bernard Janvier, also deserved to be indicted.

Srebrenica, which translates as Silver City, had been under UN protection since 1993. It was crowded with Bosnian Muslims, now called Bosniaks, who had been driven out of their villages. But between May and July 1995 Srebrenica was effectively over-run by the Serbs. The Dutch requests to General Janvier for air support were repeatedly refused - on one occasion because they used "the wrong form". When Mladic finally swaggered into the town, a Serbian TV crew filmed him drinking brandy with the Dutch UN commander, who later handed over the 5,000 civilians who had sought safety inside his base. Many were never seen alive again.

It is said this cataclysmic failure to protect the innocent shaped subsequent international thinking on conflict. After Srebrenica, it was no longer acceptable to stand back and watch. This has resulted in some disastrous military interventions. If the international community had acted earlier in Bosnia, as they did say recently in Libya, would events have been different? Or would the war have rumbled on indefinitely?

There are two theories about Srebrenica's strategic impact on the war's outcome. One suggests that the atrocities, when discovered, propelled the international community to take action and bomb Serb positions, hastening a ceasefire. But there is also a view that the UN engineered the fall of Srebrenica and other safe havens inside the Bosnian Serb territories. It meant the process of ethnic division was complete and so the war could be ended. But the price of peace meant the aggressors kept all the spoils.Sir Geoffrey Nice, the chief prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, has said the degree to which "The west" was complicit has still to be revealed: "They may have been aware in advance that there was going to be a takeover because the enclaves were no longer capable of being kept."

This was also the view of the then Dutch defence secretary who said members of the UN Security Council knew the Serbs planned to attack, yet still refused to act.

Fifteen years after the Dayton-Paris deal that ended hostilities, Bosnia is broken still. There are symbols of recovery. The bombed bridge in the divided city of Mostar is rebuilt. But the economy remains ruined - unemployment sits at 43 per cent.

A report by the respected International Crisis Group this year warned that virtually all international institutions in Bosnia have lost authority, and renewed violence cannot be discounted. There is no effective government.

Paddy Ashdown, the man who ran the country between 2002 and 2006 as "high representative" has claimed the EU is pandering to Bosnian Serb extremists. Reconciliation is a long way off.

While we try the war criminals of the past, we continue to fail the future.

• Joan McAlpine is the SNP MSP for South of Scotland

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