Suddenly They Are Killers

The Washington Post
May 12, 1996

His name was Ibrahim. I was interviewing him at a refugee center in Croatia, in a cold room that smelled of stale cigarettes. It was late 1992. Ibrahim had just been released from Omarska, a Serb prison camp where he witnessed the worst of atrocities, including an episode in which, he said, one prisoner was forced to bite off the testicles of another prisoner. I did not believe it, and I told him so.

“I know,” Ibrahim replied. “I wouldn’t believe it unless I had seen it.”

I continued to have a hard time believing Ibrahim until the International War Crimes Tribunal issued an indictment in 1995 against Dusan Tadic, a Serb who was charged with, among other things, forcing one prisoner to bite off the testicles of another prisoner at Omarska. This is the episode Ibrahim told me about. I no longer doubt his story, nor do I doubt the unfortunate capacity that men and women have, in circumstances of chaos or fear or terror, to murder their neighbors in the most unspeakable ways.

The questions of genocide–why? how?–are closer to us than usual now, partly because Dusan Tadic is being judged before the tribunal in the Hague. You can watch it on television. The last time such war crimes trials were held, a half century ago, the defendants were Germans, the location was Nuremberg, and there was no Court TV. The genocide committed by the Germans also is back before our eyes, thanks to a new book that has hit the bestseller lists–“Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a Harvard professor.

It is a book that portrays ordinary Germans as being enthusiastic killers of the Jews, and it traces their eagerness to a unique strain of antisemitism that Goldhagen describes as “exterminationist” in nature. The impression one gets from Goldhagen’s book is that the Germans were a unique breed of genocidal killers, that no one else could do what they did. I have my doubts. I hope the lesson drawn from the new focus on Germany and from the trial of Dusan Tadic is this: In the right circumstances, many of us can become willing executioners. Not just Germans, not just Serbs. It is much easier than you would imagine.

Before the war, Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived together in Bosnia for hundreds of years, generally in peace, though of course tensions existed and occasionally degenerated into violence. That makes the residents of Bosnia no different from their fellow Europeans; with the exception of the last 50 years, the French and the British have been at each other’s necks for centuries. In the realm of tribal rivalries, the tensions in Bosnia are unremarkable.

During 1992 and 1993, when I covered the war in Bosnia, I met many Serbs who were participating in the attempted genocide against the Muslims. These were ordinary people, and they had been turned into killers, or accomplices to killers, in a very quick, unforseeable way. It didn’t take that much; just an immersion in hateful propaganda, which instilled fear into some hearts, hatred into others, confusion into still more. And then the genocide happened.

I remember an afternoon I spent in the hills above Sarajevo with a team of Serb snipers. They offered me the opportunity to fire a few rounds off at the city, but I declined. One of the snipers, Zelja, was in his twenties, and he had grown up in Sarajevo. He left the city when the fighting began and was soon drafted into the Bosnian Serb army, which sent him to the hills above his hometown, from where he shot down upon it with a heavy machine gun that fired bullets the size of carrots.

I was with two British reporters, and Zelja asked us to deliver a message to a Serb friend of his in London. Zelja wrote it out and handed it to us; it contained two lines that I cannot forget. “I am shooting from the front line,” Zelja wrote. “I have become as stupid as an empty bottle of cognac.” He knew that he was involved in madness, yet he continued to participate in it. What made his situation most remarkable was the fact that his parents had remained in Sarajevo; they could be killed by the next bullets he fired, or perhaps they already had been killed by his bullets.

He was an executioner, and I suppose the adjective “willing” could be used, too. How could it have happened?

I unearthed part of the answer when I talked on another day with two other Serbs, a mother and daughter. I asked the mother, Vera, what happened in her village when the war started, and she told me that everything was peaceful because the Muslims had been rounded up immediately. I asked why. Vera said the Muslims were planning to arrest all the Serb men and put all the Serb women into “harems.” This was ludicrous, and I asked her why she believed it. “It was on the radio,” Vera said. I pressed on. And you believed it? She responded with a line that was half-question, half-statement: “Why would the radio lie?” There was more to come. I asked how her relations had been with Muslims before the war. Vera replied eagerly. “My relations with Muslims in the village were always very good,” she said. “They were very nice people.”

The stories of Zelja and Vera are not isolated; I often heard or saw such things in Bosnia. How can genocide happen among neighbors? Here is my answer: There is a dark side in all of us, a story as old as the Bible, and it can be called out quite easily, or lured out, by primal appeals to our fear or our prejudices. This is why I am glad the trial of Dusan Tadic is on television. The more we know about him, the more we know about ourselves.

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.