07/17/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Srebrenica Genocide: 19 Years After

"The Scorpions: The Design of Crime" -- preface to the book

I never had a homeland, I never had a mother language, I never believed in God. I grew up as a pumpkin on the garbage, as my mother used to say...

I grew up between countries, languages, customs. In my various schools I spoke English, Italian, Serbian... I borrowed other people's troubles to write about.

I wrote, emoted, wept, with all the empathy of a mockingbird.

In fifth grade, in a Yugoslav school under Tito, I received a homework assignment to write about the glorious battles of the Yugoslav communist army. I knew about English Tudors and Stuarts, the French revolution, the American Civil War... but none of those grand narratives had mentioned any communist glory. So I asked my father, a native from Herzegovina, for a schoolgirl digest version of the good guys beating the bad guys in World War II.

And my father told me a terrible story, cruel and heroic with him as an actor. That was the first time that I heard the term "mass graves." Serbian people in Herzegovina were seized by Nazi occupiers and lashed together with knotted ropes, three in a bunch. Then one victim was shot and other two tumbled together into a common trench. Hundreds were killed in rows in this fashion before the death squads left.

Once the killers disappeared, my father and other teenagers from the town dug for the whole day trying to save survivors. Some few unearthed victims did survive, enough to tell the tale. So I wrote that, exact place and date, and I won a literary prize in the Yugoslav school. A couple of weeks later I was publicly deprived of my prize: my dates didn't match the official history of the Resistance. The struggle I described had occurred a month or more before the official communist uprising, led in that part of the country by a Comrade So-and-so. This apparatchik, still alive and in power at that time, was making it his business to control the local history for both the dead and the living.

I never asked my parents what nationality we were: We were Yugoslavs, I knew that. We had the best passport in the world: I heard that. My mother was small and dark and my father was tall and blond. They named me "Jasmina" because of a folk song. So things stood until the early '90s: Then something happened in the air, on the ground, in people's minds. Especially in Serbia, where I happened to live at the time.

My mother started speaking about Kosovo as if it were her homeland. My father talked in much the same way about Bosnia. As a couple, they had both lived in Belgrade since 1941. We had never bothered to visit their native lands. Then dark stories emerged of war crimes from Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. I told those stories to my parents. They didn't want to believe me. My mother died with Kosovo on her lips and my father, still alive, does not speak to me of such things anymore. In June 1995, I was writing a book on refugees from former Yugoslavia, The Suitcase, (University Press of California), and interviewing local women and men of various ethnicities who'd been displaced all over the world.

One of my contacts was a young man from Srebrenica: displaced in Vienna. He was a Muslim, very polite and kind to me, as a Serb writing for American publishers. He invited me to his flat, offered me dinner and told me how he fled the troubled country through the Red Cross in Belgrade. He considered himself a Yugoslav and loathed the wars, according to him made by remote politicians, not the people like himself.

And at the end, he said something I will never forget, a sentence that at the time sounded creepy and muddy: If something happens to my family back there in Srebrenica, which is a Muslim enclave protected by UN troops, I swear to God that I will kill with my own hands the first Serb I come across here, and I don't care that he is not guilty, I don't care if I go to prison forever...

He meant, presumably, his Serbian co-worker, a fellow refugee in Vienna whom he saw most every day. A few weeks later, the massacre happened in Srebrenica; more than 8,000 people were executed in by the army of Bosnian Serbs led by General Mladic. UN troops looked the other way. Bodies were buried all over the region, some in Serbia proper, with an unprecedented efficiency.

Today, 19 years after, some people, in Serbia and all over the world still look away from Srebrenica. In Serbia, the claim of the silent majority is that crimes were equal on all sides and should therefore be systematically obscured and forgotten. In the larger global world, itself increasingly terrorized, militarized, and extra-legalized, the justification for such an attitude is: let the violent local tribes fight it out in the Balkans.

This is the splendid isolation of those who imagine that they can afford isolation. I don't know if that man's family was killed in the Srebrenica massacre, and I don't know if he killed his neighbor the Serb. I have never heard from him since. After the Srebrenica massacre of July 11-14, the Croats bombed Krajina in the beginning of August. Two hundred fifty thousand Serbs fled Croatia.

A few months later, in Dayton, a peace treaty was signed between the three warring sides, (Serbs, Muslims and Croats). I remember waiting awake all night in order to see if they reached an agreement. I remember my 11-year-old daughter coming every few hours out of her bed to ask me: DID THEY? When finally I said yes, she went to sleep and I started crying. Those were not tears of relief but of despair.

The Dayton treaty was signed by Milosevic and Karadzic. They shook hands with Bill Clinton, they publicly performed as peace makers, and I immediately knew that the eight thousand bodies from Srebrenica's mass graves would return someday, as sure as Hamlet's father, because there would be no reconciliation and peace without truth and justice.

In December 2005, I first went to the Srebrenica trial of the Scorpion paramilitaries. I went to support our women friends from Bosnia, who came to testify at the war crimes tribunal, to identify their murdered loved ones. I went as a member of the Non-Governmental Organization, Women in Black.

When I first heard the Scorpions speak publicly, these men who had secretly participated in Srebrenica as well as other, lesser massacres, I decided to stay until the trial's very end. Not merely for the sake of the victims, but because of the criminals.

These people spoke in my own language, they had the body-language of my own neighbors, and the reasoning of my own family. They were part of my family story and history, the part which went bad, went astray, committed crimes, killed and obscured the killing. My duty and my privilege was to hear them at first hand, to take notes and try to convey the historical truth.

What kind of obscurantism and denial could make eight thousand victims vanish? In three mere days? All "operated," all killed? What design could execute such a crime? Looking at and listening to the Scorpions, these heroes in their own minds, whose turbulent war years passed as common looters, killers of their neighbors, who then sank into frustrated years of peace as an aging brotherhood-in-blood, a small-scale, patriarchal mafia... I wrote these pages struggling to make sense of that, to respect the words and thoughts of the actors in the court, and to convey a bigger picture to the world.

In Jerusalem after World War II, Hannah Arendt followed the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Some of her fellow Jews were offended and appalled that Eichmann was given the right to speak in his own defense after 6 million Jews were denied any due process and executed. And yet it was her presence in his court that allowed Hannah Arendt to understand and describe the banality of evil. Historical crimes are designed. The dead are silent but their legal ghosts are loud. Their best port-parole is sometimes the voices of their executors.