Within 20 years of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp by the British army, the Beatles were playing in Hamburg. This was in part the achievement of the Beatles, of course, but it was also Germany's. The country had undergone the painful and difficult process of reckoning in order to become the heart of democratic Europe.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the closure of the concentration camps in Bosnia and the beginning of the three-year hurricane of violence unleashed across that stillborn country by General Ratko Mladic and his peers, until the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 – the worst wartime atrocity on European soil since 1945.Of course there is no analogy between the two events, but the former director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, Walter Reich, helped me with the terminology at the time when he said that the ravages in Bosnia were "echoes, loud and clear" of the catastrophe his institution was charged to commemorate.
There is inevitable relief and even a sense of triumph that Mladic will soon – pending the predictable whingeing about his health – be on his way to The Hague. But there is also something sick and hollow in this moment, which comes a decade after Mladic's master, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, undertook the same itinerary.Hollow, partly because it took so long: the Serbian state was ostensibly hunting this man while he enjoyed a military salary and pension. I spent a drunken night in Belgrade not long ago with Mladic's lunatic entourage – men who had been arrested for sheltering him and who made it very clear they were in communication with their mentor.
And hollow also because the international failure to capture Mladic all that time echoed at worst the collaboration and at best the appeasement of the diplomatic community with his murderous mission. We who endeavoured to report the carnage in Bosnia did so for three long, bloody years while the international community deemed the carnage acceptable, in a way. Three years during which the same diplomatic apparatus now eager to brand Mladic and Radovan Karadzic war criminals clasped their hands in yet another grotesque "peace initiative".
One of the telling episodes in the history of the massacre of 8,000 men and boys from the UN-protected "safe area" of Srebrenica was a lunch of suckling lamb two days before the killing began at which Mladic entertained the commander of the UN Protection Force, General Bernard Janvier. It was a moment that encapsulated the three years of appeasement by all those diplomats and military men, many of them British, who regarded and treated Mladic as an equal. If their hubris abates for a moment, they know who they are.
But the main reason for the nerve-grating comfortlessness in Mladic's capture is that there has been no real reckoning among the Bosnian Serbs – and very little in Serbia proper – of the kind the Germans underwent. The EU may deem that sufficient movement towards amends has been made to warrant negotiations for Serbian entry into its family of nations, but on the ground nothing has actually occurred.The north-west of Bosnia and the Drina Valley in which the worst atrocities occurred remain cesspools of the hatred that led to the slaughter; a crazed, nonsensical mixture of justification and denial which suggests that, given a fair wind, the communities for whom Mladic is a hero would do it all again.
In less well-known towns in eastern Bosnia, such as Visegrad and Foca, where thousands of Muslims were murdered, packed into houses and incinerated alive, raped or forcibly evicted, there are monuments – but they are erected to the handful of fallen Serbs from those places who died on the front. A woman who returned to place a plaque to commemorate the rape and murder of women in Foca was attacked and her little monument smashed.
On the day that we entered the Omarska concentration camp in 1992, it was described by the president of the Bosnian Serb "crisis staff" that managed it – Milomir Stakic, currently serving 40 years after his conviction at The Hague – as "a collection centre, not a camp". Earlier this month, a group of survivors of the camp wanted to go on to the site, now an iron ore mine, to commemorate the dead; the local authority in the presiding town of Prijedor objected, insisting that Omarska had been no more than "a collection centre". The same revolting term, two decades on.
There is no memorial to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of Muslims and Catholic Croats who perished in Omarska – a site mined and 51% owned by Britain's richest "non-dom", the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal – although their scattered skeletons and remains continue to be excavated all around the mine. There is a memorial at the entrance to the other concentration camp we penetrated that day in 1992, Trnopolje. It is erected to the memory not of those who died there, but of the few fallen Serbs of the village.
Prijedor is covered with similar monuments to the perpetrators' cult of victimhood, while in the surrounding towns and villages executioners, mass killers, camp guards and torturers go about their business as police officers, postmen, whatever – as they do in Srebrenica and neighbouring Bratunac, where the massacre was planned.
There is, however, a memorial near Srebrenica – on the insistence of the international community that facilitated the massacre. When the widowed and fatherless women made initial journeys to it, and the graves of their dead, they faced baying Bosnian Serb crowds brandishing the portrait of Ratko Mladic. The same portrait adorns bars, cafes and souvenir stalls all over Serbia and the Bosnian "entity" they call "Republika Srpska".
The international community, led by the late Richard Holbrooke, rewarded the Serbs for their three years of carnage by establishing this entity, the "RS", cravenly agreed to by Bosnia's Muslim president and that of Croatia, in order to partition the country and enforce "peace" a few months after Srebrenica. Holbrooke had personally stopped the Bosnian troops from liberating their ravaged territory just as the war was finally turning in their favour – these are facts little-spoken in the aftermath, the institutionalisation of the west's failure.The Republika Srpska makes no secret of its desire to accede to Serbia proper, or to make Bosnia such a dysfunctional state that it becomes pointless beyond the heart-stopping beauty and delightful warmth and humour of its people. Postage stamps sold in the capital, Sarajevo, are not valid in the RS; railway engines have to be swapped as a train from Ploce to Zagreb crosses the country, from Croatian, to Bosnian, to Serbian and back to Croatian again (and these countries want to join the EU?). After two decades, a planned motorway linking the country's two main cities – Sarajevo and the Bosnian Serb capital of Banja Luka – is still unbuilt.
Oddly, the only international organisations to sanction Bosnia for the weirdness of this partition are Fifa and Uefa, which dealt football fans the crushing blow of demanding that the game be run by a single national authority before the country or its clubs could compete internationally – something the RS is determined not to concede.
The various strata of the well-paid international presence in Bosnia preach "reconciliation". The arrest of Mladic will be seen as part of the process, and in some ways rightly. Better he be tried than not. "Move on," victims are always told, sometimes even to "forgive and forget". Bosnia, they hear, is now at peace. The war criminals are delivered for trial.
Recently, for a book, I have begun touring Europe and America to speak to those scattered folk who have survived or been bereaved by Mladic's violence, dealing not only with their ghosts and demons, losses and memories, but with the fact that no Serb they have ever met has admitted, let alone apologised, for what was done – quite the reverse, in fact. No reckoning. No equivalent of the Beatles in Hamburg, let alone the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
"Reckoning" is one of the harshest words in the English language. It means coming to terms with what was done in the wake of calamity, staring at oneself in the mirror, and making amends, historical, political and material. The delivery of Mladic for trial is an important moment, but for justice rather than reckoning. The substance of reckoning is on the ground and among the people who gladly carried out Mladic's heinous orders. There, it is not happening. And without reckoning, there can be no reconciliation, and thereby no real peace.
The War is Dead, Long Live The War by Ed Vulliamy will be published by the Bodley Head in spring 2012
• The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 5 June 2011. We said Dachau concentration camp was liberated by the British army. The American army liberated Dachau; the British were not operating in that part of Germany. They were in the north, where they liberated Bergen-Belsen among other camps.