They Would Never Hurt a Fly
War Criminals on Trial in The Hague
A novelist and journalist confronts the International Criminal Tribunal for the forner Yugoslavia
Who were they? Ordinary people like you or me—or monsters?” asks internationally acclaimed author Slavenka Drakulic´ as she sets out to understand the people behind the horrific crimes committed during the war that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Drawing on firsthand observations of the trials, as well as on other sources, Drakulic´ portrays some of the individuals accused of murder, rape, torture, ordering executions, and more during one of the most brutal conflicts in Europe in the twentieth century, including former Serbian president Slobodan MilosŠevic´; Radislav Krstic´, the first to be sentenced for genocide; Biljana PlavsŠic´, the only woman accused of war crimes; and Ratko Mladic´, now in hiding. With clarity and emotion, Drakulic´ paints a wrenching portrait of a country needlessly torn apart.
Introduction: Not a Fairy Tale
But because it is not a fairy tale, the story of this beautiful country has no happy ending. Yugoslavia fell apart in a terrible and bloody war, a war that claimed some two hundred thousand lives?mostly in Bosnia?displaced two million people, and produced several new states: Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. Albanians and Montenegrins are still struggling for their independence.
This all happened in the middle of Europe not so long ago, between 1991 and 1995. The whole world was surprised by this war. We, the citizens of Yugoslavia, were even more surprised. When I think about it, I am still angry with myself. Is it possible that the war crept into our lives slowly, stealthily, like a thief? Why didn?t we see it coming? Why didn?t we do something to prevent it? Why were we so arrogant that we thought it could not happen to us? Were we really prisoners of a fairy tale?
My generation in Europe grew up believing that after World War II, war of that kind could not happen again. Nuclear war between two superpowers was a possibility, not a local one fought with conventional arms. Another argument against the likelihood of a new war was that in World War II in Yugoslavia, hundreds of thousands of people perished on all sides. The witnesses were still alive, the wounds were still open. And finally, we knew that Yugoslavia had no enemies. We lived peacefully with our neighbors: with Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Albanians.
But one day we discovered that it is not necessary to have an outside enemy to start a war. The enemy could be inside?and indeed it was. It was bad enough digging up the past?the past that we tend to forget, that during the war Yugoslavia was occupied or controlled by Nazi Germany?but there was also a civil war between Serbs and Croats going on. In other words, there was a recorded history of bloodshed in our country, and it was easy to manipulate it in order to antagonize one another: Serbs became the enemies of Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians, and the Croats at one point were also at war not only with Serbs but with Muslims as well, while the Macedonians? enemies were Albanians.
Even if it appeared that way to us, the war did not descend upon us overnight. In the late eighties communism collapsed everywhere in Eastern Europe and in what was then still the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia was unprepared for the political changes that followed that collapse. We did not develop any democratic alternatives as Poland and Czechoslovakia had done, and the political vacuum was suddenly filled with nationalist parties. They all had the same program: independence and nation-states of their own.
Simmering nationalism was soon spreading like a fire. The nationalist parties were voted into power in Croatia and Bosnia. In Serbia something strange happened: the Communist Party turned nationalist, led by Slobodan Milos?evic', who believed this was the way to keep his grip on power. Soon there were referendums all over, and people were voting for their independence from Yugoslavia. Slovenia took the first step, and by June 1991 it was out of the federation. The breakup had begun. The JNA (Yugoslav National Army) tried to stop Slovenia from leaving, but because Slovenia had no minorities to speak of, the army let it go.
At this point, war did not look like a possibility. The names of the few soldiers and policemen killed in that spring of 1991 in Slovenia and Croatia were still noticed: their deaths were still exceptional, and their photos and names were printed on the front pages of newspapers.
But Croatia had a large Serbian minority, thus Slobodan Milos?evic', as president of Serbia, had the perfect excuse to send his army to ?protect? the Serbs there. That meant real war. In the autumn of 1991, the Croatian town of Vukovar was almost erased from the face of the earth, and some ten thousand people lost their lives. In the years that followed, death became an ordinary thing, and nobody bothered anymore to list the victims? names. It was too late for that.
In Bosnia, where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims lived together, the war started in April 1992. Because of the mixed population, it also took on the characteristics of a civil war. The Serbian minority there, ?protected? by Milos?evic', proclaimed the independent state of Republika Srpska. Not being able to prevent either Croatia or Bosnia from leaving Yugoslavia, Milos?evic'?together with Serbs from Republika Srpska?now embarked on a war for a ?Great Serbia.? The two-year siege of Sarajevo followed, and a couple of years later, the UN-protected Muslim enclave of Srebrenica fell to the army of Republika Srpska. Some seven thousand unarmed Muslim men were executed?the biggest massacre in Europe since 1945.
As these newly created states at war?Bosnia, Croatia, Republika Srpska, Serbia?were led by hard-core nationalist leaders, it was soon clear that they were fighting not only for independence but also for ?ethnically cleansed? nation-states. Entire regions in Croatia and Bosnia?and, later on, in Kosovo as well?were ethnically cleansed (a euphemism that in practice often meant genocide) in order to achieve a homogeneous population, not unlike Hitler?s Germany of ?Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fuhrer.? Both Serbs and Croats wanted to carve up Bosnia between themselves, leaving only small enclaves to the Muslims.
The war in Bosnia ended with the Dayton Agreement of November 1995, but it was not yet finished in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia populated mainly by Albanians. They too wanted independence and began to fight for it. Milos?evic'?s retaliation was such that at one point hundreds of thousands of Albanians left their homes in panic in order not to be killed and tried to cross the border into Albania or Macedonia. With at least seven hundred thousand refugees leaving Kosovo, it was a humanitarian disaster. At that point, in the spring of 1999, NATO decided to bomb Milos?evic' into submission.
This was the beginning of the end of Slobodan Milos?evic'. In October 2000 the unimaginable happened: Milos?evic' lost the elections?and his power. He was soon arrested and delivered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. This tribunal had been formed in 1993 in the Netherlands, after the international community realized that the new states that had come out of the war were unable or unwilling to prosecute their war criminals themselves. As was stated at the tribunal, all sides committed war crimes, but Serbia committed most of them. Arresting and extraditing war criminals became the biggest political issue in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia, where persons now listed in The Hague as war criminals were hailed as national heroes at home.
Today there are some eighty people being prosecuted at the tribunal, from all of the sides in the war. My choice of characters in this book is a personal, not a representative, one. My interest is centered not only on the most important alleged war criminals, like Slobodan Milos?evic', but also on those whose cases or personalities I found relevant to the purpose of this book, regardless of nationality. That there are no Muslim war criminals described at any length in this book is therefore just a coincidence; it certainly doesn?t mean that they did not commit crimes of that type; you can see their names on the ICTY list of wanted men. I also describe two persons who have not been on trial at the tribunal but who are nevertheless important for understanding the issues at hand. One is a witness, Milan Levar; the other is Slobodan Milos?evic'?s wife, Mirjana Mira Markovic'.
My interest in writing this book was a simple one: as it cannot be denied that war crimes were committed, I wanted to find out about the people who committed them. Who were they? Ordinary people like you or me?or monsters?
And to answer the question I originally raised: why didn?t we see the war coming? Certainly we could see the writing on the wall. There were many signs of the coming disaster, yet we were not capable of reading them properly until it was too late. But it is easy to be wise in hindsight. Could the war have been prevented? Perhaps. But too few people tried to do so.
Now he has a family and a baby girl, and I am sure he will never tell her about his friends. But if she does grow up hearing his stories about the war in Bosnia, she will be confused. In school she will probably learn that, officially, Croatia was never at war with Bosnia, was never an aggressor. Officially, her father was not fighting against Muslims in Bosnia, and his friends were not killed there either. If the history textbooks of today are any indication, the girl may be taught that the war for the homeland?as it is called?was a defensive war and nothing more. Moreover, because it was a defensive war, Croatian soldiers could not have committed war crimes. At least this has been the official doctrine in Croatia for the past ten years, and it did not change with the death of the first Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, in 1999.
A girl in Serbia will probably also grow up amid denial about the war. If she should ask her father about the war in Croatia or in Bosnia, he might reply: War? What war? The only wars Serbs recognize are the NATO war against them and their own war against ?terrorism? in Kosovo. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia do not count for them. This is how I imagine my father must have felt after the war in 1945: exactly like my daughter?s friend. I don?t know if he kept the light in his room on, but my father was twenty-three years old and wanted to forget all the terrible experiences he had had during the five years of war. The bad times were behind him. Soon he met my mother, and they started a family. I was born in 1949. The future looked bright.
My father never spoke about the four years he fought as a Partisan under the command of Josip Broz Tito in World War II. He wanted to forget it, and for a long time I saw this as a sign of sanity and self-preservation. ?A human being survives by his ability to forget,? Varlam Shalamov writes in Kolyma Tales. But I knew that even though he did not speak about it, my father must have remembered the war. It was the single most important period in his life, and he must have been marked by it much more than I have been marked by the recent war in the former Yugoslavia. He fought; I did not. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the combination of his silence and the official version of the historical events of 1939?45 made this latest war possible.
Although my father did not talk about what he saw or experienced, there are three images that I, as a child, used to connect with that war?with his war. The first comes from my grandmother. She also spent the war with the Partisan army, cooking and washing for them, and she often recounted an episode from that time that was fixed in her memory. The Partisans had recaptured a Croatian village that had been held earlier by Serbian Chetniks. The village was empty now, the people had fled. As my grandmother entered a deserted house she planned to stay in overnight, she noticed a strange smell. It was the smell of burned meat. The Chetniks had left in haste, and she was convinced that there was some food burning on the stove. But there was no food there. She opened the oven. Inside it she found a newborn child roasted like a piglet.
When I was small, I used to imagine my grandma entering that house. I could sense that strange smell, even though I had never smelled it. In my mind I could see a black iron stove fed by logs in front of me and her hand opening it. I could imagine her horror, too. With time, her horror became mine.
The second image stuck in my mind is one I saw in a movie entitled Kozara, but to me it was real. I was thirteen. I remember well the fear I felt while I watched it, my perspiration, sweaty palms, tears. It was one of those obligatory movies about Tito?s Partisan battles with the German army that our history teacher took us to see. There is a scene in which the hero?a Partisan, of course?is hiding in a hole in the ground. German soldiers are looking for him. They are coming closer and closer. He can hear them shouting. In his arms he holds a small child; as the enemy soldiers approach, the child starts crying. The hero closes the baby?s mouth with one hand. With the other hand he holds up the makeshift roof of the hole. In the most breathtaking moment of the film, a German soldier stabs at the earth with his bayonet, trying to find the hero?s hiding place, and cuts through the palm of the hero?s hand.
My third image of the war comes from a book that my father tried to keep away from us children, but I managed to get hold of it anyway. It would have been better if I had not, because I could not ask father about what I saw in it, and it took me a long time to understand what the frightening images in the book were about. I remember the book quite distinctly. It was a slim volume of yellowish paper with a green cloth cover. Inside there were a few black-and-white photos. They were of poor quality, not very clear. But they were clear enough that I could see emaciated people sitting or lying on bunk beds, naked skeletons, and heaps of corpses on the ground. The title of the book was Jasenovac. Years later, when I visited the museum of the concentration camp near Jasenovac, I saw the same pictures. I also saw a collection of knives and hammers that the Ustashe, Croatian fascists, used to kill some seventy thousand people. Twenty thousand of them were Jews; the others were Serbs, Gypsies, and Croatian Communists.
We grew up with many such images, gathered from movies, literature, and family stories. On the one hand we had memory, but on the other hand we had our history textbooks, which shaped history to suit the Communist Party ideology. It was not that we were sheltered from the past; on the contrary, we may have had too much of it. But our history books were filled not with facts but with legends: with Tito?s army offensives, his great battles, and his even greater victories. Decades later, when I learned about the big massacre that had taken place in the spring of 1945 near Bleiburg in Austria, where tens of thousands of soldiers of the fascist Independent State of Croatia, in retreat and considering surrendering to the Allies, were killed mercilessly by Tito?s antifascist army, it was too late to recondition me. I already had a very clear idea that Partisans were antifascist heroes, unlike the Chetniks, Germans, and Ustashe. At that point, no historic facts that I learned about with astonishment later on could erase the pictures embedded in my early childhood memory about who were the good guys and who were the bad ones. It must have been the same for people whose uncle or father was killed there by Partisans. They too grew up with memories of these relatives while knowing that their slaughter was not even mentioned in the history books. My generation grew up never learning history?history as we knew it was a lie, a deceit.
Only now can I understand how easy it is to start a war in the absence of facts. War does not come from nowhere; I saw in Yugoslavia that it must be prepared. It is easy for political leaders to use images like the ones that I remember, to use people?s emotional memory and build hatred upon it. Because in totalitarian societies, where there is no true history, each person has in his own memory a collection of such images, and it becomes dangerous if he has nothing more than that. Political leaders can appeal to these images, mix them with popular mythology, and stir emotions by repeating propaganda endlessly on television. One can hardly defend oneself against such propaganda if there is no common history that everybody can believe in. Under the pressure of emotions, a thin layer of rationality easily falls away. The history that we learned?which was not in fact history?made it easier for us to abandon reason in favor of pure emotions.
So when I experienced the same silence, the same absence of a desire for truth, and the same kind of manipulation of facts after the end of the war in 1995, I became afraid. This was the third time I was confronted with the ?ground zero? of history. First it happened with my father?s generation after World War II, that is, after the Communist revolution. All the history that went before was rewritten. The second time it happened was after the collapse of communism, when we had to forget about communism and start counting time (and writing history) from the year 1990. And the third time is now, after the end of the last war. In Croatia it is easy to perceive the general unwillingness to talk about the war at all, almost as if it had never happened. It is even easier to conclude that people are tired of it and want to leave the past behind and think of the future. After all, thinking of the past got them into the war in the first place. Politicians are all too happy to join the majority of the people and preach the message of ?turning a new page of history??blank, if possible?because many of them are still in power and don?t want to accept the responsibility for a past war.
Yet if the truth is not established about the war for the homeland, the next generation will one day find itself in exactly the same situation as my post?Second World War generation. All they will have to rely upon will be dusty images and bloody stories. These will vary, depending on which side their parents were on, but they will be left with only memory, not history.
And the war is still with us. One need only mention The Hague to see that. I guess that every Dutchman would be astonished by the strong emotions provoked in Croatia, Serbia, and even Bosnia (because Bosnia is more cooperative with the tribunal) by the mention of this pretty Dutch city. Ever since 1993, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established there, The Hague has been a source of controversy in the Balkans. The ICTY was established because the former Yugoslav states were either unable or unwilling to prosecute their own war criminals. Far from being independent, their judicial systems were deeply corrupt, and there would have been enormous political pressure if alleged war criminals were tried in local courts. Back home in Croatia, this argument immediately became fiercely disputed. Opponents of the International Tribunal on the right argued that the ICTY court was a political instrument established to punish and humiliate their country. The more sophisticated critics argued that it would be better to hold the trials for war criminals at home, because it would give the nation a way to face the truth about the war and experience a catharsis.
I was naive enough to believe that one of the priorities of the new post-Tudjman government would be to try to face the truth about the war: why did it happen? What was it about? Did the Croatian army commit war crimes or not? It is, of course, a hard truth: the war was about forming a nation-state with ethnic cleansing; 200,000 Serbs were forced to leave Krajina; their homes were burned and plundered; some 400 civilians were killed; Serb civilians in Gospic', Pakrac, and Sisak were executed en masse; 24,000 Muslims were detained by Bosnian Croatian soldiers in forty-four concentration camps in Herzegovina; Croats killed 116 civilians in the village of Ahmici and blew up the old bridge in Mostar; in 1991, in Zagreb, a twelve-year-old girl named Aleksandra Zec was killed, along with her Serbian parents. Her murderer, who confessed, is nevertheless still at large.
However, nobody wants to say this truth out loud. Nor, for that matter, does anybody want to hear it. This is because the truth in Croatia is dangerous. For ten years Tudjman?s propaganda convinced Croats that people on the tribunal?s list of war criminals?like Mladen Naletilic' Tuta, Tihomir Blas?kic', Dario Kordic', Mirko Norac, and Ante Gotovina?should be seen as heroes. If Tudjman?s government extradited them, it was only because of serious international pressure, not because Croats believed they should be tried. But how is it possible for the views from the inside and those from the outside to be so conflicting? It is possible because Croats were never told that these men were ?willing executioners,? even if they were war heroes. So when these men are suspected by The Hague of either killing or ordering the killing of civilians, Croats are offended. Their heroes are war criminals? Never! To stand up against the tribunal became a sign of patriotism. The opponents of the tribunal claim that it is trying not individuals but the whole of Croatia for war crimes. When in the spring of 2001 Mirko Norac was ordered to appear in a local court in Rijeka on suspicion of committing war crimes in Gospic', where more than one hundred Serbs disappeared in the autumn of 1991, war veterans organized a protest meeting in Split. Some seventy-five thousand people attended that meeting. The government was in crisis and the country paralyzed for at least a week.
Establishing the truth about the war is at the heart of the controversies surrounding The Hague tribunal. Until the truth about the war is established, trials of the war criminals, whether in the International Tribunal or in the local courts, will be experienced as an injustice to the ?war heroes.? There is no justice without truth, and Croatia is still far from such truth. Recently there were two trials of war criminals: one of the ?Gospic' group? in Rijeka and the other of a group of prison guards in Split. The trial in Split in particular has degenerated into a shameful performance, with the public applauding their ?heroes? and threatening the witnesses. The judge let the defendants out of prison, but a superior court reversed the decision, only to realize that two defendants had escaped in the meantime. Witnesses in both trials are prone to sudden losses of memory. Or, in the case of Sisak, a small town near Zagreb from which a large number of Serbian civilians disappeared in 1991 and 1992, a local judge did not order an investigation until ten years later and then only under pressure from the media, especially the magazine Hrvatska ljevica, which published a list of some hundred killed and ?disappeared? persons.
In this Croatia is not alone. Serbs also have problems with the truth. In their eyes, they, the Serbs, are the biggest victims of both Milos?evic' and NATO. Indeed, the Serbian society has suffered severe consequences?from embargoes to NATO bombing?as a result of the wars it waged against its neighbors, but the whole truth about what happened has not yet surfaced or become part of the public debate. Serbia and Croatia in this respect share a consensus on lies of the past ten years. The reason is a simple one, one that goes beyond the Tudjman-Milos?evic' ideology. Too many people were in some way involved in the war, and too many profited from it. It is easier, and much more comfortable, to live with lies than to confront the truth and with that truth the possibility of individual guilt?and collective responsibility.
However, the conflict between truth and justice has serious political consequences: the governments in both Serbia and Croatia have problems with the truth and justifying to their citizens the extradition of those indicted for war crimes to the tribunal in The Hague. Because people find it easier to live with lies than with the truth, attempts to administer justice through the tribunal or even through the local courts are experienced as an injustice. And as long as there is so little desire in these societies to uncover the truth, justice for war criminals will continue to be perceived as a threat to the entire community. Justice simply has to come from The Hague or it will not come at all?and all because we ourselves are not capable of washing our own dirty, bloody laundry. We do not even realize yet the need to do it.
Introduction: Not a Fairy Tale
AcknowledgmentsWith the craft of a major journalist, Drakulic´ distills the proceedings into economical, evocative narratives (Elle)
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: