On December 5, 2014, “Serbia and Bosnia carried out a pre-dawn sweep of arrests” of those responsible for a massacre which took place 21 years ago, Star and Stripes reports, quoting an AP text. The same open sources report that “investigative documents show how the two countries – bitter wartime enemies – worked together to crack the case of the Strpci massacre of Feb. 27, 1993, which has come to symbolize a culture of impunity that still shields death squads and their masters today”. Open sources report that “the raids captured 15 suspects – five in Serbia and 10 in Bosnia – including the brother of a jailed warlord, ex-militia members and a former Bosnian Serb general who commanded the military in the area”[1].

19 train passengers killed

Media reports we have used say that on February 27, 1993, a train was travelling “to Prijepolje from the [Serbian] capital, Belgrade”. The train “made an unscheduled stop at the station of Strpci, a remote outpost in eastern Bosnia on the border with Serbia. A group of Bosnian Serb militiamen stormed in to check passenger IDs. They identified 18 Bosnian Muslims and one Croat through their names and carted them off. The train went on in silence”. Later on, the 19 men, “clutching their luggage, were herded into a military truck, which took off down a cobblestone road. Shouting and firing guns in the air, the troops took their captives to a village school. Inside the gym, they stripped the men. Then they beat them so hard with rifle butts that blood pooled on the wooden floor and splattered the walls”. Then, “naked and drenched in blood, their hands tied with wire, the men were taken by truck to an empty, half-burnt red brick house near the Drina river. There, they were shot in the back of the head. Two prisoners who tried to escape were hunted down and their throats slashed with bayonets”. Media reports also say that “the killers shared the loot – cash, gold chains, bracelets, wedding rings, [a] gilded Seiko watch. Clothes and luggage were burned down to the last button in a bonfire that lit up the evening sky”, and “the bodies were left scattered in and around an abandoned house. The next morning, they were dragged by tractors to the river and dumped in”[2].

21 years later, justice is done. Partially

Immediately after the arrests, Serbian war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric declared : “We are now on the path to solve the murder that has been hidden for more than 20 years. We have to do it for the innocent victims”. And Bosnian State Prosecutor Goran Salihovic praised the cooperation between the two countries, saying “this message is very important: criminals have nowhere to hide and they cannot evade justice”. The daughter of one of the victims of the massacre said: “I’m really happy that those monsters are finally behind bars. Nothing will bring back my father, but let’s now see whether they will get the punishment they deserve”[3]. In spite of the arrests, which are clearly proving a significant amount of common political will, some opinions indicate that major obstacles might harm the normal course of justice. Bosnian State Prosecutor Goran Salihovic, for example, declared that “many war criminals are still influential in business, politics, police and the army”; he also said that probing war crimes in the Balkans is like “reaching into a snake’s nest”[4].

Some brief conclusions

We do not know, at this very moment, which the final outcome of these arrests is going to be. Anyhow, we know that in spite of many “threats to investigators, witness intimidation, attempts to plant false evidence and police foot-dragging – all prominent factors in the Strpci case” which “have continued to plague efforts to bring war criminals to justice”[5], as prosecutors are openly declaring, some massacre perpetrators are going to pay for their deeds.

And this episode might be a very potent political tool. It is not at all a shock for anyone to find out that fully operational states, like Germany or Israel are resolutely ‘hunting down’ and bringing to court war criminals of all sorts. But the region of Western Balkans is belonging to a completely different world. We are speaking about a realm in which high political responsibilities do not usually generate all the correlated legal consequences; and also about a world where massacre perpetrators can simply stay unpunished for decades. But this basic rule of (almost) complete and (almost) eternal impunity is strongly fissured now. More than this, the way in which Serbian and Bosnian authorities worked together in order to arrest the 15 massacre perpetrators seems to indicate that, at least in the long run, a stronger and stronger reconciliation of former completely irreconcilable foes is possible even in the Balkans – exactly like in the case of German-French relations, after World War Two, and more recently in the case of bilateral relations of Romania and Hungary.

I also feel the need to strongly emphasize the fact that no discrepancy exists between my strong Realist beliefs and my strong desire to see justice being done. In the end, the ability to resolutely punish criminals of all sorts – including war criminals – is a clear sign that the state institutions are ‘healthy’ and effective. For the obvious benefit of the national power of the states we are speaking about, I might add. So that effective justice (meaning effectively punishing war criminals, in the case we are speaking about) is not at all something connected to principles only, but also to national power.


[1] Jovana GEC and Dusan STOJANOVIC (Associated Press), “Arrests made in Balkan war massacre”, Star and Stripes, December 5, 2014, at the Internet address

[2] Ibidem

[3] For all the statement fragments quoted here see Ibidem

[4] Ibidem

[5] Ibidem

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