Close-Up Bosnia after the sentencing of Ratko Mladić – When men finally cry

Scene from Men Don’t Cry by Alen Drljević
Foto: Manderley Films

Bosnia is still wrestling with a past that simply won’t go away. This is a journey through a country that is divided in many ways after the sentencing of Ratko Mladić. 

Under the massive roof of Markale Market in the centre of Sarajevo, colourful mounds of tangerines, apples, nuts and vegetables glow, carefully stacked by the grocers awaiting customers at their stands. The burgundy-coloured wall at the edge glows even brighter than the fruit this afternoon. The sun is already so low that it falls right on the glass behind which a long line of names is inscribed. They are the names of the 67 people who were killed here in February 1994 by a Serbian grenade.

Bera Bešlagić’s stall is located in the middle of the market. Her name could also have stood on that wall. By pure coincidence, she is still here. “I sold little cakes to earn some money for the family,” she recalls. “For some reason, I kept my backpack on that day.” It saved her from the flying screws and splinters of the wooden tables. The memory of that horrific day is very present, merely due to the monument she says looking over her right shoulder at the memorial stone.

Reversal of the victim narrative

At that time, Bera Bešlagić was 30 years old. More than two decades after the massacre, former General Ratko Mladić has now been sentenced to life imprisonment as one of the persons mainly responsible for the genocidal, nearly four-year siege of the Bosnian capital. Bešlagić looked at the verdict, but she does not want to comment much on the sentence. “He got what he deserved,” she says. Many of her compatriots in the Croatian-Bosniak part of Bosnia and Herzegovina have similar feelings. After the judge’s verdict came from The Hague, there were no shouts of joy, the applause from the survivor group Mothers of Srebrenica at the Potocari memorial site was probably the most emotional reaction in the country. Otherwise, there was a mood of quiet satisfaction over a bit of late justice.

The reactions in the Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, were the complete opposite. President Milorad Dodik spoke of a “slap in the face for the Serbian victims” and called Mladić a hero who had prevented a “new genocide of Serbs.” Many Mladić fans in the country see it the same way. In their opinion, the International Court of Justice, which has now completed its work, was a political court aimed against the Serbs. This defiance and the reversal of the victim narrative are typical of radical Serb nationalism in Bosnia.

This is also expressed in a new memorial put up in November, dedicated to former Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Two years ago, the politician, who died in February, vetoed a British Srebrenica Resolution seeking to denounce the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 as genocide. Now, with a black marble monument, a Serbian citizens’ initiative says “thank you” – in Russian – for not allowing it to happen. Actually they would have preferred to erect the monument in Srebrenica, but that failed, so it is in East Sarajevo, the part of the city located in Republika Srpska.

The entire country of 3.5 million people is just as torn as the capital. The division is not only between the Serbian and Croatian-Bosniak parts of the country, but also within the latter. For example, Mostar is a divided city, although the World Heritage Bridge over the Neretva, destroyed in the war, was rebuilt. On the eastern bank lies the Bosnian, on the western the Croatian side. The principle of “two schools under one roof” – there are over 30 of them nationwide – can be found here as well. School buildings are used in shifts: half of the day, Croatian children are taught, the other half Bosniaks – using different curricula. This fragmentation and sometimes-absurd proportional policy is at every level. It is a consequence of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in 1995, but also laid down the schism. The division of the country makes the overall government weak, with a UN representative still overseeing government affairs conducted by a three-member presidential team. It consists of a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb, each of whom can only be chosen by their group. The same applies to the Parliament. Minority members cannot stand for election, therefore in 2009 a Jew and a Roma complained to the European Court of Human Rights. They won their case; Bosnia and Herzegovina was asked to change its voting laws. It hasn’t been done. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next October.

Corruption and nepotism are other big problems of the government on which more and more people are turning their backs. Bosnia has the highest emigration rate of the Western Balkans. Young people, in particular, go abroad, with Germany being very popular, for example with healthcare professionals.

When men finally cry

Because there are no prospects for the future, the people keep turning back to a past that simply won’t go away. This is also reflected in books and films from the region. Alen Drljević’s debut feature Muškarci ne plaču – Men Don’t Cry, about a group of veterans, is currently playing in Bosnian cinemas. They fought on different sides during the Balkan wars and are severely traumatized. They take part in group therapy in a hotel in the Bosnian mountains. Reluctantly, they begin to tell each other about their experiences. Again and again the men erupt in rage and aggression, cursing each other as Chetniks and Ustasha, to later peaceably talk shop about their diagnoses or to fraternise while drunk.

Cast with top-class actors such as Leon Lučev and Emir Hadžihafizbegović, the chamber drama is very moving, especially in the role-playing scenes. The ex-fighters say sentences that they could not say at the time – with the help of men who were once considered their enemies. Today they are all on the same losing side. But Drljević does not relativise the question of guilt. Hence although it is clear that the Serbian veteran was involved in the worst atrocities, the film does not denounce him.

Men Don’t Cry is entering the Oscar race for Bosnia and one can only hope that many people in the successor states of Yugoslavia go to see it. Perhaps it will be a bit like group therapy. Bera Bešlagić, however, doesn’t need therapy. With a glance at the monument, the 54-year-old, whose brother was killed in the war, says, “Here everyone died: Croats, Serbs and Muslims.” Every day she is reminded of it. And yet she says, “I can’t hate all Serbs or Croats. For me there are only good and bad people.” Then she fills a paper bag with nuts and dried fruit. The bag says Bera – Kvalitet – Markale. She refuses payment.