Failing to demand justice when conflicts end dooms us to a cycle of violence

Post-war is a particularly delicate time. When the bullets stop, the trauma does not

Srebrenica genocide survivor Ramiz Nukic prays near the graves of his father and two brothers in Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center, near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 6, 2020. Nukic has made himself a promise, he will search for the remains of the people who went missing until the last of them is found. Twenty-five years ago, the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic attacked the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, where about 40,000 Bosnian Muslims had found shelter under the United Nations protection. Picture taken July 6, 2020.  REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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Recently, I was part of a panel of practitioners and experts at Columbia University’s School of Journalism discussing how reporters can best tell their stories after wars end. Reporting post-war is a topic that is rarely covered, but it should be mandatory in newsrooms and universities. Least of all because of the explosion in dangerous conflicts around the world.

Post-war is a particularly delicate time. When the bullets stop, the trauma does not. Often, it can go on for generations, in what is known as trans-generational trauma. The cases of victims of the Holocaust or the Palestinian Nakba are examples of trauma sifting down through decades. Like war reporting – which requires specific skills, reporting on post-war situations, once the treaties are signed and the soldiers are demobilised, is equally important.

I have reported more than 18 wars, sometimes watching them from their beginning to their end, their cycles and their agony. All wars are debilitating and painful, each in their own way. But there are consistent patterns – wars can either end badly or end better. Ending better means that the peace deals don’t reward the perpetrators of violent crimes (as in the case of the Bosnian war, which ended in 1995) and ensures that justice will be delivered. Without justice, vengeance will come back in a few decades’ time in the form of another war.

Because I now run a war crimes unit in Ukraine, my focus is on justice delivered to victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Unless this kind of justice is given, there will never be a cycle of healing. Taking testimonies from witnesses – which is what my team at The Reckoning Project does – is a way to ensure that their voices will be heard and taken to a higher level, either at domestic or international courts of justice. People want to talk because they don’t want what happened to them or to their loved ones to be erased. Memorialisation of their stories is also important because it keeps history in the wider public imagination.

Memorialisation can be achieved through art (plays, literature, visual arts or poetry) or physical structures such as Baba Yar, a ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine, the site of where Nazi atrocities in 1941 killed more than 33,000 Jews.

In Kigali, after the genocide of a million Tutsis in 1994, more than 250,000 victims are laid to rest – a permanent way of educating people about how the genocide took shape. It is a moving remembrance of terrible days, but also a way of never letting people forget. It ensures a kind of healing – a driver towards reconciliation, a journey that has taken Rwanda decades.

In eastern Bosnia, in a rolling green village where unspeakable acts happened decades ago, there is the Srebrenica memorial. In July 1995, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serbs. There are the graves of some of the dead (if their bones were recovered from the mass graves) but also rooms where their personal stories are told. It ensures the story of what happened when the country descended into a brutal war might never happen again.

There is sometimes resistance to transitional justice – which provides recognition to victims and returns trust to state institutions. It is meant to reinforce respect for human rights and rule of law, but sometimes countries and communities are not ready for it. In Ukraine today, it is painful to speak of what the war might look like when it ends because the country is intent on restoring full territorial integrity for the Ukrainian lands that have been occupied by Russia. They want the war to end – they are suffering. But not without their land returned.

Last month, Ukrainian officials laid out their peace plans to allied national security advisors ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos. They had met a few months earlier in Malta. They hoped to win over their international partners to support their “10-part peace plan” to end the hostilities. But most military experts said Kyiv is nowhere near ready for peace talks, and Russia disregarded the plan, saying it was counterproductive.

Weeks later, things look very different with Donald Trump rising in the American polls, and promising if he is elected there will be no help for Ukraine. Congress has been stalled for Ukrainian aid for some time. Naturally, this is worrying for European leaders who might be left to support Kyiv alone. Ukraine is not doing well on the battlefield – the counter-offensives last summer were disappointing and governments never want to go into negotiations without having an upper hand in the conflict.

Even if military aid ends, there will have to be a diplomatic solution eventually. Both Russia and Ukraine say they want the war to end, but both only want the end on their terms. Neither side is likely to abandon its so-called "red lines". The end of the war seems far in the future, protracted and painful.

But still, there are ways to begin to look at how the communities might heal once the war does end. Voices will need to be heard, justice will have to be served, communities that were divided will have to be brought together. In Bosnia, schools with two languages under one roof – Bosnian and Serbian – were built after the war ended. In Rwanda, some Hutu families adopted Tutsi orphans. Perhaps we need to project ahead to what a peaceful future might look like and ways to achieve that.

Since the end of the First World War, there have been about 260 armed conflicts in the world. Aside from Gaza, Ukraine and the wider Middle East War, the International Crisis Group, which issues its yearly “conflicts to watch”, warns of wars in Sudan, Myanmar, the Sahel, Haiti and elsewhere. We would be wise to think of how we respond when these wars end – how to put together the pieces of broken lives and broken countries. Without that kind of healing, the wars will inevitably return.

Published: February 19, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: February 20, 2024, 10:20 AM