After his arrest in April 2018, Atif Dudakovic was charged by the Bosnian government on Oct. 11 with committing war crimes against Serbs during the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995.
Twenty-three years after the violent war concluded in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a post-Yugoslav nation, the 65-year-old Dudakovic was charged. Dudakovic commanded the prominent — and, among many Bosnians, revered — Fifth Corps, along with 16 senior members of his unit, according to Reuters.
Assistant Professor of Political Science Jacqueline McAllister has interviewed Bosnian citizens, including veterans of the conflict, as part of her research on international criminal tribunals. According to McAllister, Dudakovic and the Fifth Corps’ prominence makes this a particularly important conviction.
“For the Bosnians in particular, the Fifth Corps holds a special place for many of them,” she said. “So the fact that their top commander is convicted either makes people really happy or really sad.”
Dudakovic and the convicted members of the Fifth Corps killed over 300 Serbs, many of whom were elderly or prisoners of war, according to the Associated Press.
McAllister said that Bosnian attachment to the Fifth Corps comes from its role in defending northwest Bosnia, which was encircled by two Serb-occupied territories: the Republic of Serbian Krajina in the west and Republika Srpska in the east. According to the Associated Press, the Serbian onslaught in northwest Bosnia left around 100,000 dead and millions without homes.
The International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the first to pursue violators of international crime, indicting 161 individuals during its existence between 1993 and 2017. In 1996, the ICTY established the “Rules of the Road” procedure, which according to McAllister set up a system of dialogue between the international, tribunal and domestic courts in countries that were once part of Yugoslavia.
In 2005, talks began on how Bosnia-Herzegovina specifically would take on cases, which led to the creation of the War Crimes Chamber within their national court: a temporary national effort at charging those who had committed crimes during the conflict.
According to McAllister, this chamber was recently extended until 2023, as it still has a backlog of over 500 cases. She remarked that Bosnian citizens were uniquely supportive of the country’s strategy for prosecuting war crimes.
“In my interviews, people would tell me straight up, ‘Oh yeah, our side totally perpetrated war crimes,’ which is pretty unique,” she said. “So I think they are more open, but I think going after such a prominent official is going to be hard for veterans especially, as well.”
McAllister added that the ICTY’s prosecution of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians was proportional to the atrocities committed, with the most atrocities and war crimes carried out by the Serbian side and the least by the Bosnians. There are victims and perpetrators present on all sides.
She also emphasized that the identity markers — Serb, Croat, Bosnian — are sometimes blurred. Bosnian Muslims fighting alongside Serbs were victims of Dudakovic’s crimes, and there were ethnic Serbs on the side of the Bosnian Muslims and the Fifth Corps.
“I think in the Western media we like to pretend they’re neat categories, but they’re not at all,” McAllister said.
Perhaps most significant about this prosecution of a Bosnian war criminal by Bosnian chief prosecutors is what it exemplifies about Bosnia’s efforts to engage with the war as part of their history.
“On my trips to Bosnia, at least within Sarajevo, I think one of the things I admire most about that context, and granted I talk to people that are really thinking about these issues,” McAllister said. “They are still having the conversation about what happened and what does it mean, and I think that that’s pretty important, because a lot of societies just don’t even do that.”