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Video Alters Serbs' View of Bosnian War

A newly disclosed 1995 tape showing a Serbian unit executing Muslim prisoners has forced many to acknowledge atrocities for first time.

June 13, 2005|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As the 10th anniversary of the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica approaches, human rights groups are pressing the Serbian government to confront the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war. Until very recently, they have had little hope of success.

But the surprise disclosure of a nearly decade-old video that shows Serb forces executing six unarmed, emaciated Bosnian Muslims has altered the public debate in ways nothing else probably could have. Nearly two weeks later, the graphic images continue to shake the two communities.

For Serbs -- who heard their former president, Slobodan Milosevic, deny for years that troops from Serbia had even participated in the war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, let alone committed war crimes -- the images came as a shock. They showed men in what appeared to be the black uniforms worn by Milosevic's special police units being blessed by an Orthodox priest in a Serbian town before setting out on their cold-blooded mission.

The tape's emergence could affect the trial of Milosevic and some of his associates, since it appears to link wartime atrocities to paramilitary units believed to have been controlled by the upper reaches of the Serbian government. Milosevic, who has challenged the authenticity of the tape, is on trial in The Hague before the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting war crimes suspected to have been committed in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of the Yugoslav federation.

But the effect in Serbia, once the dominant constituent republic of Yugoslavia, seems likely to outstrip its potential influence in The Hague. The video has prompted at least the beginning of a reappraisal of Serb responsibility for war crimes in Bosnia.

Ljiljana Smajlovic, a Serbian political analyst, likened the video's effect to the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib. "These pictures were shocking to Serbs because the images of the killers -- completely cold, no emotion -- clashed profoundly with the way Serbs see themselves.

"We saw these young men" -- the Bosnian Muslim victims -- "thin, frail, beaten up, horrible," Smajlovic said. "The video has changed the public mood."

Since the tape's broadcast this month, government officials in the ethnically Serb portion of Bosnia have admitted that forces from Serbia were active on Bosnian territory during the war.

And in Serbia, citizens horrified at the images even seemed ready to accept the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who has remained a venerated figure for years, despite his indictment for war crimes by the international tribunal. A day after the video was shown at The Hague, 10 of the men believed responsible for wartime atrocities were taken into custody, some of them alleged to be members of the unit shown on the tape.

It remains unclear the extent to which recent developments will further the reconciliation process in Serbia and Bosnia, once also part of the former Yugoslav federation. But the story of how the tape finally came into the hands of a human rights activist and an international prosecutor demonstrates that the walls of silence and denial are starting to erode.

The video, shown at the Milosevic trial June 1, appeared on national TV news in Bosnia and Serbia later that day with an introduction by an announcer saying, "Now a mother will recognize a son; a sister will recognize a brother."

One of the mothers who did was Nura Alispahic, a Bosnian Muslim from the town of Srebrenica with intense blue-gray eyes and dark hair.

She and her daughter Magboula, 39, had turned on the 10 o'clock evening news. "I immediately recognized Azmir" -- her son -- Alispahic recalled, tears coming to her eyes as she sat in the cramped living room of her small house on the edge of Tuzla, the northeastern Bosnian town where she now lives.

"There were six prisoners. First they [the Serbian forces] killed four of them, then they said, 'Take them away,' and my son and another had to carry the bodies to a small ravine. Then they killed the fifth one, and after that my son turned toward the camera and he was looking around as if he was looking for someone, for some help."

Azmir was 16, the youngest of her four children, the one who wanted to become a doctor. On July 11, 1995, Alispahic had urged him to leave Srebrenica. Serbian forces were at the gates of the city, which the United Nations had designated as a safe haven for Muslims who had been forced from their homes elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, and there was widespread fear that all the men and older boys would be killed.

Azmir went off with a small group, but then suddenly was back on his mother's doorstep. " 'I didn't kiss you goodbye; I want to kiss you goodbye,' " she remembered him saying. She kissed him and then hurried him off. Somewhere in the forest outside the city, he was captured.

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