Can Europe Make It?

The Srebrenica genocide’s lasting legacy: war criminals in our midst

A painful legacy of the Srebrenica slaughter can be felt in the United States, where soldiers of the perpetrator’s army - the Army of Republika Srpska - have sought refuge since the war ended.

Lara J. Nettelfield
14 July 2014

Survivors and mourners at the 19th year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Flickr/Taylor Mc. Some rights reserved.

Last week at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center and Cemetery, 175 Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) will be laid to rest. This year marks the 19th anniversary since the UN “safe area” fell to Serbian and Bosnian Serb forces who killed more than 8,000 men and boys, the largest single crime of the three and a half year Bosnian war and genocide in the determination of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

A painful legacy of the Srebenica slaughter can be felt in the United States, where soldiers of the perpetrator’s army - the Army of Republika Srpska - have sought refuge since the war ended.

As we discovered in our recent book, Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide, by omitting their wartime military service from immigration forms, former combatants were resettled all over the country - in Illinois, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, often in the same communities as survivors of the genocide. Many traumatized refugees have been taunted by the presence of those who wished them dead back home.

The issue first came to the attention of a U.S. immigration official reading former Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer’s book, The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda. The name Marko Boškić in the text sounded familiar. Boškić immigrated from Eastern Bosnia (via Germany) despite having participated in the massacres on the Branjevo Miliary Farm where some 1,200 captives perished. He had numerous run-ins with the law in his new home in Peabody, MA. As a result of the official’s inquiry, Boškić faced a criminal trial in the U.S. for immigration violations and was extradited to Bosnia to answer to war crimes charges.

Boškić kicked off a chain of events. The government asked the ICTY for a list of soldiers in the Eastern Bosnian military units responsible for the genocide, then matched the list to immigration rolls. They discovered more than 150 individuals who may have been directly responsible for the carnage in Srebrenica. 

The Department of Homeland Security’s Human Rights Violator and War Crimes Unit (HRVWCU) within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted extensive research on the wartime activities of suspected perpetrators from the former Yugoslavia. It even hired a former top ICTY military expert. These investigations have lead to both federal criminal trials and civil immigration proceedings.

The unit faces an uphill battle. It sometimes struggles to find prosecutors willing to take on these cases which carry low sentences, bring little professional glory, and come with complicated jurisdictional issues. Witnesses are difficult to come by and often fear retribution back home. They must win the trust of survivor communities as well. The issue of immigration violations is also a weak substitute for a real war crimes trial. The unit’s work is not limited to Southeastern Europe, either: the office has cases involving more than 90 countries, some of which deal with places where U.S. foreign policy, and sometimes direct aid, was initially on the side of the perpetrators.

The presence of war criminals on our shores is, by no means, a new problem in the United States. The government has tried to ferret out perpetrators of war crimes at least since the creation of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the division in the Department of Justice that investigated the presence of former Nazis at the end of World War II.

The American public became aware of the looming issue in the 1960s when the New York Times reported that a former Nazi camp prison guard was living quietly as a housewife in Queens. More than 300 former Nazis were deported, stripped of citizenship or kept from entering the US between OSI’s formation in 1979 and 2006.

Since then human rights legislation has expanded in American law and the government has dedicated more resources both to DHS and the Department of Justice to making sure the country is not a haven for perpetrators.

This work deserves a closer look.  Legal historian Judy Feigin’s sweeping 600-page history of the OSI’s effort, Striving for Accountability in the Aftermath of the Holocaust, poses some of the questions we should be considering: “What kind of behavior constitutes assistance in persecution? How do people become involved in genocidal activity? How should society handle them 30, 40, 50 years after the fact? And what is society’s goal in bringing these cases?” Feigin asked.

In addition, deportation, a common outcome of these proceedings, is sometimes literally a ticket to impunity: criminal trials do not always await genocidiares back home. Accountability is not achieved by returning perpetrators to countries with weak judicial systems and no resources.

This month, as hundreds of families travel from around the world to Eastern Bosnia to lay their loved ones to rest, and other members of the Bosnian diaspora mark this solemn occasion in the U.S., they, and the survivors of mass atrocities across the globe, deserve some answers.

This article was previously published at BIRN

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