Ten Years after Srebrenica: Conversation with Haris Hromic

Jun 27, 2005

On June 27, 2005, almost exactly ten years after the Srebrenica massacres, CarnegieCouncil.org spoke to Haris Hromic about his pioneering work for the Academy of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL (Lili Cole): You are a project director at the Academy of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is spearheading a new initiative to promote reconciliation in Bosnia. Could you start by telling me a little about the academy's work and how you got involved in it?

HARIS HROMIC: The Academy of Bosnia and Herzegovina is fairly new. It was incorporated in 2004, and I was one of the founding members. The idea for the academy was born at a forum I attended on the role of the Bosnian diaspora in Bosnia's future, at which then Bosnian Ambassador to the UN Mirza Kušljugic was present. The ambassador was impressed by the level of achievement and integrity of the Bosnians in the United States; but at that point there was no institution through which they could be organized as a group.

The academy is a loose network of young Bosnian professionals based all over the world who develop different projects on issues of concern for the welfare of the Bosnian community, whether in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in the diaspora. One of our successes was a project by a group within the Academy which focuses on the arts: we held a film festival in 2003 and 2005 in New York featuring films by Bosnia directors. Another focus is on urban development and commemoration. Our most important commemorative project to date is the one being held on the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre on July 13th, in which the Council has been involved.

CC: You approached the Carnegie Council in spring of 2005, together with UN Ambassador Mirza Kušljugic, for advisory support of the reconciliation project. What brought you to us?

HH: My initial contact with the Council was through my studies in international affairs at New York University, where I approached Professor Joel Rosenthal to discuss the work I was doing on constitutional reform in Bosnia as a Dayton Fellow at Tufts University. I then took Professor Rosenthal's class on normative issues in international affairs, and Dr. Rosenthal became my thesis advisor. This spring Ambassador Kušljugic and I began to look for partners for a commemorative program on Srebrenica and a workshop of experts to brainstorm about how to go beyond commemoration of one event to work for the reconstruction of Bosnia's social fabric. We decided to approach the Carnegie Council for support and advice.

CC: Please tell me more about the reconciliation project. The project is fairly new, but I notice you already have several components in place--a panel presentation on the Srebrenica massacre at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on July 13, a planning workshop the next day at the Carnegie Council to form an advisory committee and create a blueprint for a plan of action, and a major international conference in Sarajevo in August. Why the launch of a reconciliation project now, in 2005? Have there been any other attempts to launch formal reconciliation programs, and if so how did they differ from what your academy hopes to do?

HH: The search for reconciliation in the region needs continuous involvement and shouldn't be approached with a set agenda. It's a process more than a project or set of projects. The conference in Sarajevo, from August 16-19, is a first attempt to find ways to integrate all the major stakeholders and open up all the issues to public discourse, in the setting where the issues matter most. Among other things, we plan to present the report based on the recommendations of the distinguished group that is meeting at the Carnegie Council on July 14 and open it up for discussion. The conference will bring in all the relevant processes--economic, political, judicial--that would need to be part of reconciliation. The lack of these processes, and especially the reliance on a set agenda, is what we think was the major impediment to the implementation of a national truth commission as proposed in the late 1990s.

That earlier truth commission also took place in a different context. Since then, we've had the Krstic decision [sentencing General Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb, to 35 years imprisonment for aiding and abetting genocide in the Srebrenica massacre--see UN fact sheet on the case] and other key decisions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia [ICTY].

CC: How does the academy conceive of inter-ethnic reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina at this stage of the project: what would progress in reconciliation mean in concrete terms?

HH: The academy's focus so far has been mostly on commemoration. The idea of fostering an active reconciliation process is something Ambassador Kušljugic and I started developing separately from the academy, as a way of going beyond commemoration, which is just one part of reconciliation. As to the meaning of reconciliation: Well, in Bosnian there is a word pomerenie, meaning something like "It's water under the bridge." Right now we are at the stage of focusing on facts: we need acknowledgement from leaders on all sides about what happened, and also about the significance of these events for their communities. That means the creation of a common narrative buttressed by the findings of the ICTY. A more advanced vision of reconciliation belongs to the future. What we need now is agreement on facts and on the meaning of what took place in the context of international rules and norms. Acknowledgement exists only on the level of some individuals, not on the group level.

Justice is also an important part of reconciliation: we want to be able to say that due process has taken place to some degree and, more importantly, that a neutral institution for justice exists. Justice has been relatively weak in the eyes of the Bosnian community, especially given the absence of the death penalty for those indicted for genocide, and the failure to arrest the two biggest war criminals, [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadžic. Justice requires some level of moral satisfaction for the victims, and that can't be achieved as long as the two biggest war criminals are still at large.

CC: That's why reconciliation can't proceed according to a blueprint: the process is so fluid. In the Bosnian case, there will be one scenario if these two men are never delivered to the Hague, and quite another if they're arrested.

HH: Even if they are arrested, there will still be a long trial. You know, impartial justice that closes the book on war crimes has never existed before in the Balkans. For all its faults, the ICTY has been revolutionary for this region. Also, the the creation of domestic war crimes trials in Bosnia and Herzegovina to bring lesser criminals to justice--it's been absolutely revolutionary and will resonate for decades. Many who were being held in the Hague have already been transferred to Bosnia to be tried there. It's so important to keep the process transparent and unbiased, with the involvement of the international community. For example, the domestic court will continue to have international members to provide the links between local groups who don't trust each other.

CC: That leads me to the question: how can the international community--states, regional or transnational organizations, NGOs, distinguished international actors, religious institutions, funders--contribute to the promotion of interethnic reconciliation and political development in Bosnia and Herzegovina? I'm also interested in whether you have a personal definition of what reconciliation would feel like as a lived reality.

HH: I think the most important role for the international community is to promote long-term democratic development in the region. An international tribunal like the ICTY can contribute to truth-telling in the region; but the truth it reveals is one kind among many--what has been called in South Africa "forensic truth," or the facts of a case as revealed in a court. The other kind, it seems to me, is what allows people to feel comfortable with where they live, with going about their daily lives. This is something distinct from moral satisfaction, which could be achieved by arrests and sentences. This second kind of truth has to be the result of a local process.

CC: Who are some of the main local actors in this project, both Bosnian and from neighboring countries?

HH: First of all, local NGOs and institutions of civil society. We are preparing to engage these groups from various regions of the country and representing a range of interests. We are starting to reach out to actors in the Republika Srpska, including government officials and parliamentarians, also members of the media. Of the most relevant neighboring states, Croatia is less involved than Serbia, because there is a feeling there in the post-Tudjman period that they have a clean slate, and the issues are not as overwhelming for everyday life as they are in Bosnia and in Serbia.

Constitutional reform is still pending in Bosnia and is currently being fiercely debated. When it comes to Serbia, temporary headway made in developing democracy has been stagnating since [reformer Zoran] Djindjic's assassination.

We must understand that dealing with past atrocities is an ethical, legal, but most importantly, a policy challenge. The process of accepting responsibility for the atrocities of the past has been emerging within Serbian and Bosnian Serb civil society, but it has been effectively repressed by official positions of denial by the State, in anticipation of the commencement of the law suit by Bosnia and Herzegovina against Serbia and Montenegro for aggression and genocide. The reason is simple. Any outright admission of responsibility would weaken its legal position and contribute to the process of de-legitimizing the political arrangement that resulted from the Dayton Peace Accords.

CC: What role would you ideally like to play in Bosnia's long-term transition and development?

HH: There are three crucial fronts to work on: the political front of constitutional reform and institutional and democracy building; the mending of the social fabric; and, eventually, economic development. People need incentives to stay and build their futures in the country. I think democracy-building and economic development need to happen concurrently, but the underlying conditions for these are security and rule of law.

CC: Your training in political science and in finance makes you well-placed to contribute to all three areas.

HH: My character was chiseled back home, but my education and training were chiseled here in the United States. I have taken the long-term view of things in seeking qualifications that would enable me to work on all three fronts. Plus I hope I have the ability to reach out and the willingness to listen to what other people have to say. That piece is crucial to the whole process.

CC: What do you think are the best pieces of writing in English on the war in Bosnia and its aftermath--can you recommend some readings?

HH: I would recommend Noel Malcolm's Bosnia: A Short History for background reading. It's an independen approach to Bosnian history over the centuries. Srebrenica, published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, is a set of essays by important individuals on the massacre. It provides a good summary of the issues surrounding the massacre. And finally, I would like to recommend child psychologist Lynne Jones' collection of interviews with teenagers in eastern Bosnia, Then They Started Shooting: Growing Up in Wartime Bosnia. This book provides a very interesting picture of the experiences, memories, needs, and fears of one age group that experienced the war years.

--Conducted by Lili Cole, Senior Program Officer, History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program

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