It's Time for Justice to Take New Forms in the Balkans

08/02/2011 06:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

This is what international justice looked like Friday, July 29: Jovan Divjak, the 74-year-old Bosnian army general, reunited with his wife after five months apart. Held since March in Vienna, Mr. Divjak flew home to Sarajevo after an Austrian court ruled that it would be impossible for him to receive a fair trial in Belgrade.

The ruling demonstrates that the international rule of law can trump the nasty politics of revenge and marks another important milestone in the long recovery and reconciliation of the Balkans. Years of war and decades of mistrust do not pass easily into history, but they must if once-great and diverse cities like my hometown of Sarajevo are once again to flourish. There is no reconciliation if it is not based on justice, truth and facts.

Mr. Divjak represents the ideals and beliefs that once defined Sarajevo -- and Bosnia and Herzegovina -- as a tolerant and cosmopolitan place. An ethnic Serb, Mr. Divjak stood against Serbian forces during the brutal siege that turned me into a refugee and cost too many friends and relatives their lives. Mr. Divjak fought to protect and improve lives during those awful years -- regardless of whether they were Serbs or Bosniaks or Croats.

But it is what he has done in the 16 years since the shooting stopped that gives me and countless other Sarajevans hope. The general's new battle is against the lingering poverty and lack of opportunity that thwarted Sarajevo's rebirth. Mr. Divjak's arrest was a blow because it was yet another reminder that so many of the Balkans' so-called leaders remain mired in the past and married to ancient grudges.

His release Friday, though, signals the potential for a fresh start, if there is good will in Serbia. The international community closed ranks and was unified in its opposition to extraditing Mr. Divjak based on Serbia's allegations of war crimes. (In fact, television footage from the war shows Mr. Divjak desperately trying to stop the very bloodshed he was accused of ordering.)

I regard Mr. Divjak's case as one more try by nationalist Serbian politicians to change the character of the war in Bosnia. The entire free world knows that Serbia engaged in brutal aggression against the independent and sovereign Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. By issuing flimsy arrest warrants for Bosnian citizens around the world, hard-line Serbian politicians are trying to equalize victims and aggressors. Fortunately, so far they have not succeeded.

As I accompanied Mr. Divjak on his trip home, I felt again that my homeland may finally be ready to move forward because of the good people and heroes like Mr. Divjak.

For too long in the Balkans, international justice meant finding aging war criminals after years on the run and holding them to answer for their atrocities. That was how we marked progress -- another one in the dock, but so many more to go.

Now, justice can start to take new forms. On Friday, justice looked like a sweet reunion between Mr. Divjak and his wife, friends and fellow citizens. Tomorrow, it is my hope that justice looks like a child in school or a factory full of workers or a city street bustling with shoppers.

This is how I remember the Sarajevo of my youth. If there is a past I want to hold on to -- and regain -- it is that one. It is the one Mr. Divjak believed in and continues to fight for with the same energy and resolve that he protected Sarajevo during its bleakest time.

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