Righteous Wrath

The New York Times
July 14, 1997

The last time I saw Simo Drljaca, he gave me a friendly pat on the back as I said goodbye. We had spent the better part of a day together, ending it with a beer and a toast to peace. Mr. Drljaca was a warlord in Prijedor, and he gave me a tour of his prison camps: Trnopolje. Keraterm. Omarska.

The tour of Mr. Drljaca’s gulag occurred five years ago, just a few months into the Bosnian war, when the ugliness of the conflict was shielded from view. I traveled to Prijedor with a few other journalists, and we were met by Milan Kovacevic, the town’s other warlord. Anyone who visited the town and wanted anything done had to deal with them. They had accomplished much during their reign of terror, “cleansing” Prijedor and the surrounding region of almost every non-Serb.

Mr. Kovacevic was a bear of a man who wore a T-shirt that said “U.S. Marines” and a pistol at his waist. He cursed us for coming to Prijedor on a Sunday, and he said we couldn’t visit the camps, but he soon got tired of shouting at us (and at the military officer who escorted us into town) and agreed to let Mr. Drljaca show us around.

The camps were the most frightening of places. The day was a long horror show in which prisoners, some on the edge of starvation, showed the signs of utter fear and mortal peril: averted eyes, untreated wounds, sticklike limbs. Mr. Drljaca began the tour by showing a tidy building where he claimed prisoners had been held. (This was false.) “See,” he said, “no blood.”

We won’t be hearing any more tales from my guide, Simo Drljaca, who was shot and killed on Thursday when he resisted arrest by NATO troops. Mr. Kovacevic was arrested without incident and flown to The Hague, where he awaits trial for war crimes.

The operation to arrest Prijedor’s wartime leaders is the best news to come from Bosnia in some time. President Clinton has finally realized that the only way out of the Bosnian morass is to march through it, and that means arresting alleged war criminals. The short-term consequences could be harmful, for retaliation is possible, but the wrath of Bosnia’s Serbs has always been greatest when the targets were powerless, and the NATO troops are not powerless.

Mr. Drljaca and Mr. Kovacevic’s lack of international notoriety might give the impression that they are small fish, and that the only important thing is to capture Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Ratko Mladic, his top military commander. But that’s wrong. Of course Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic must be removed from the scene, one way or another. But the atrocities in Bosnia were not carried out by just two men; scores of men and women organized the slaughter.

Arrests would serve not only justice. The foundation for long-term stability in Bosnia depends on the return of refugees to their homes. It is hard to imagine refugees wanting to return to towns run by warlords, and harder to imagine that the warlords would let them return at all.

The Western response to Bosnia has been one of half-measures. When the war started, there were economic sanctions but no military action. When military action was taken, its scope was limited. When the Dayton peace accords were negotiated, more than half of Bosnia was handed to Serb and Croat nationalists. One can only hope that the moves against Mr. Drljaca and Mr. Kovacevic are not half-measures. As always, the question is whether politicians, especially President Clinton, have the nerve to follow through on a risky but necessary path.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.