Published by: Bloomsbury Academic
The monograph Mass Atrocities and the Police: A New History of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina by Danish historian Christian Axboe Nielsen of Aarhus University is a valuable contribution to the scholarship of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Nielsen is, in many ways, the ideal person to write this book. As a historian, a former analyst at the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, and an expert witness on the topic in multiple jurisdictions, he is undoubtedly knowledgeable. He wrote this book based on longtime research and investigation into thousands of documents held in ICTY archives, and the conclusions he reached through the close reading of mostly, but not exclusively, police sources. Often, these documents fell into the hands of investigators and analysts after searches and seizures conducted in the aftermath of the war.
The analysis this book provides concerns the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995), when over 100,000 people were killed or forcibly disappeared. While hundreds of perpetrators have been tried in The Hague and the domestic courts around the former Yugoslavia in the past three decades, it is possible, if not probable, that as many as a few thousand remain free. Nielsen is right when he notes the lack of in-depth studies on particular actors, such as the Bosnian Serb Police and perpetrators from their ranks and fills this gap in the scholarship. He reminds us that this institution, and people serving in it, were “prime movers” (p. 6) of events as the war was starting.
this book is important as a window enabling us to observe local dynamics and dealings between the police and Ratko Mladić’s army as well as numerous local authorities.
What is particularly enlightening in this book is the account of the numerous changes the Bosnian Serb Police went through, and what they were driven by. Nielsen goes into significant detail in presenting the genesis of the police, the legal framework surrounding and defining it, and the police’s dynamic and diverse relationships with the Bosnian Serb leadership, primarily Radovan Karadžić and his Serbian Democratic Party. Karadžić is now serving a life sentence for a litany of crimes during the Bosnian War, and Nielsen helped secure that conviction by testifying during the trial. Furthermore, this book is important as a window enabling us to observe local dynamics and dealings between the police and Ratko Mladić’s army as well as numerous local authorities. In many ways, this is also a story about the violent making of the wannabe state Republika Srpska, an entity that still exists today as part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The richness of the primary sources and the author’s analysis help the reader understand a previously obscured reality of the police as perpetrators of crimes against non-Serb civilians. The topic would be relevant even if we did not know that, after the war, the police did not go through extensive reform and largely remains a tool in the hands of the nationalist leadership.
Another reason this book is essential reading for researchers working on the breakup of Yugoslavia is methodological. It can both inspire and instruct others on how to work with ICTY sources, which are largely available online. After all, the ICTY (and its daughter institution, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, IRMCT) allows access to thousands of exhibits from its numerous trials, as well as courtroom transcripts and, as such, they present the richest collection of relevant material on the violence during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Around five thousand witnesses, and among them both survivors and perpetrators, testified in these proceedings, and their testimony is largely available for research.
Complementary works to Nielsen’s, and books he cites himself, are the recently-published Torture, Humiliate, Kill Inside the Bosnian Serb Camp System by Hikmet Karčić and Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia State Connections and Patterns of Violence by the author of this review. Another relevant albeit less recent title is Architectures of Violence The Command Structures of Modern Mass Atrocities by Kate Ferguson. These three books, in different ways and to a different extent, successfully mine war crimes trials archives in The Hague, to analyze perpetrators and the complex dynamics of harming civilians during the war.
If I had to, I would present two critiques of Nielsen’s detailed contribution. One is more substantive, and the other technical, but not unimportant. Nielsen tells a much-needed granular, nuanced story about the institutions and the people who made up the Bosnian Serb Police, as well as those whom they fought alongside or had power struggles with. He makes sure we know who they were, how they operated, with what purpose, and what the civilians they attacked endured (if they were lucky enough to survive). What the author does not do is try to engage on a more conceptual level with perpetration as a social phenomenon and perpetrators as both individuals and social beings. What does this analysis tell us about institutions and what drives them to perpetrate mass violence against civilians? Is there something we can learn from this case, about what unleashes or constrains violence in wartime and the buildup to it, that could be applicable in other contexts?
The richness of this record can, and does, reveal so much about the violence victims were subjected to. Therefore, all institutions conducting such proceedings, from the International Criminal Court to Ukraine’s domestic courts, should follow the ICTY / IRMCT’s example and allow broad access to exhibits and transcripts.
The second critique concerns the citation method the author chose. On page nine, he explains that instead of exhibit numbers from particular trials, he will provide Electronic Record Numbers (ERN) in the endnotes for the documents he refers to. Both are numerical references attached to documents and are the result of technical procedures concerning the management of evidence. More often than not, this evidence consists of reports or orders from the police itself, or intelligence analyses from the armies the police interacted with, or the local authorities. This citation method is detrimental to the interest of the readers, who should be given an easy way to find sources that are cited in the book (for those that are available publicly). ERNs are not searchable in the database, and while Nielsen kindly offers to assist interested readers to find documents on page 10, readers should not be expected to have to reach out to the author to find relevant references. Therefore, I remain convinced that exhibit numbers are the way to cite archives from trials in The Hague.
Finally, this extremely valuable contribution on the role of the Bosnian Serb Police in the violence aiming to change the demographic composition of the once-diverse country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is an excellent example of why war crimes trials archives, no matter where they are held, should be made public to the extent possible. The richness of this record can, and does, reveal so much about the violence victims were subjected to. Therefore, all institutions conducting such proceedings, from the International Criminal Court to Ukraine’s domestic courts, should follow the ICTY / IRMCT’s example and allow broad access to exhibits and transcripts. It is only through the study of these important sources that we can glance at the intentions and practices of perpetrators and record, for history, what they have done. By writing this essential book, Christian Axboe Nielsen has taken us one step further in this pursuit.
Dr. Iva Vukušić is an Assistant Professor in International History at Utrecht University, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She is a historian and a genocide scholar, and her work is on irregular armed groups, genocide, mass violence and transitional justice, especially criminal accountability. Before coming to The Hague in 2009, she spent three years in Sarajevo, where she worked as a researcher and analyst at the Special Department for War Crimes at the Office of the Prosecutor. Her first book Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: State Connections and Patterns of Violence was published in September 2022.
Mass Atrocities and the Police: A New History of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Published by: Bloomsbury Academic