Will Killers Go Free? War Criminals Shouldn’t Walk

The Washington Post
February 25, 1996

At the start of the interview, my host politely offered me a Dutch cigarillo before lighting one for himself. While a waiter served orange juice and coffee, he made small talk about Los Angeles, my hometown. And when I decided to raise the issue of war crimes trials, he seemed surprisingly receptive.

“I think that it is the duty of any civilized country in our international community to punish war criminals,” he said, his face creasing with concern. “Everything will be clear after a while. Nobody can hide facts for a long time in this world. It is impossible.”

Unremarkable statements, had they been spoken by a political leader in Washington, London or Paris. But I was in Belgrade, and my host was Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia and the man who is widely viewed as the mastermind of the worst explosion of atrocities in Europe since Nazi Germany. Of all people, why would he endorse war crimes trials? Milosevic explained that “all sides” were responsible for the atrocities, and that of course the perpetrators should be brought to justice. But what, I asked him, about the suggestions that you are to blame? He scowled and called such talk “dirty accusations without any evidence.” He was indignant, like a gentleman whose honor has been unfairly impugned. It was a performance that made me re call the warning of Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, who described Milosevic as “the slickest con man in the Balkans.”

My conversation with Milosevic occurred nearly three years ago, but it seems quite relevant now as the issue of war crimes trials nudges its way to the forefront of the debate about America’s role in Bosnia. Like all good con men, Milosevic was confident that he wouldn’t be caught. He was cocky enough to think that the International War Crimes Tribunal wouldn’t get off the ground. Now, the tribunal has gotten off the ground, largely due to the persistence of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright and Chief Prosecutor Richard Goldstone, and 52 men have been indicted, including Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic. But only one of the indictees, arrested in Germany, is in the hands of the tribunal. So I imagine that Milosevic remains unworried; his government has refused to cooperate with the tribunal and faces little in the way of coercion to do so.

Before there is a solution to the problems of the Balkans, that must change. Milosevic and the others must face the inevitability of international justice or there will be no peace in the region. The immediate question is how far the tribunal will go–or be allowed to go. Will Karadzic and Mladic be rounded up by the NATO troops that are in Bosnia? Will there be indictments against Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, whose forces also are blamed for committing atrocities, though on a lesser scale than the Serbs? Is there a risk to the U.S. and NATO forces and is it one worth taking? My answer to these questions comes from my experience in Bosnia. I covered the war in 1992 and 1993 and shared many cups of coffee and, on occasion, glasses of brandy with the victimizers. I also interviewed their victims; I have lost count of the number. I listened for hundreds of hours as victims told me of what happens when the dark side of human nature sees the light of day: torture, castration, rape, mutilation, starvation, thievery.

I talked to a young farmer named Adem, whose brothers were slaughtered; I talked to a teenager who was raped and whose younger sister, just 15 years old, was raped and murdered; I talked to a man named Ibrahim, who was tortured at the Omarska prison camp and watched as one prisoner was forced to castrate another; and I talked for an hour with a middle-aged woman who, after discussing her ordeal at Omarska, looked at me with the saddest of eyes and said, “I could keep talking for days.” There were so many others.

If justice is to be done, the people responsible for these crimes and the thousands of other crimes committed during the war must be brought before the tribunal. The Bush and Clinton administrations failed to stop the war crimes from being committed, and now, under the Dayton peace plan, the Serbs and Croats have been given effective control over much of Bosnia. The nationalists have won, and ethnic cleansing has been rewarded. It is too late to correct the mistakes we have made, but we can prevent more mistakes from being made, such as letting the war criminals go unpunished.

It is not justice alone that must be sought, but the truth. Once you know what was done and what was covered up, it is difficult to remain unmoved as you read in the newspapers that the 20,000 American troops in Bosnia are, for the moment, making no efforts to arrest indicted war criminals. The U.S. troops were not even given pictures of the indicted men nor a list of their names until a few days ago, after the press pointed out this glaring lapse. It is difficult to remain unmoved when you hear that Radovan Karadzic apparently drove through several American checkpoints earlier this month. So far, the only men arrested in Bosnia as war crimes suspects were, in fact, taken into custody by the Bosnian Army.

I was among the relatively few journalists to visit the Serbian death camps. There, in the summer of 1992, I met a man named Simo Drljaca who was doing his best to cover up the truth. He was introduced to me as the “police chief” of Prijedor, a city in northern Bosnia that, in the previous months, had been swept clean of non-Serbs. (The United Nations Commission of Experts, established to investigate atrocities in Bosnia, carried out a detailed report on the events in Prijedor, and Drljaca’s name is mentioned 50 times. So far, he has not been indicted by the tribunal.) The death camps–this is the phrase used by the U.N. Commission–were being cleaned up or closed down in the wake of press disclosures, and I, along with several colleagues, was getting a Potemkinized tour.

With Drljaca in the lead car, we drove to the Keraterm ceramics factory on the outskirts of town. It was the place where, until a few days before our visit, a large number of non-Serbs had been held in the most appalling conditions and tortured in the most appalling ways. Men died from thirst, from starvation, from asphyxiation, from a bullet in the back of the head or a knife in the gut. Drljaca steered us into a building that, judging from the undisturbed layer of dust on the floor, had been unused since the war began. “See, no blood,” he smiled. When we asked to visit an adjacent warehouse–the place where, in fact, the prisoners had been held–Drljaca refused.

We then drove to a former school that had a cheery English-language sign draped over the entrance, “Trnopolje Open Reception Center.” Trnopolje was a human holding pen for, among others, men who had just been transferred from Keraterm and Omarska. I had no problem spotting these men; they were the walking skeletons. It was a vision from the final days of World War II, and I was given an explicit reminder of this when one of the walking skeletons, too scared to talk to me, whispered one word before disappearing into the crowd: “Dachau.”

Another skeleton was brave enough or foolish enough to speak at greater length: “It was horrible. Just look at me. For beatings, the guards used hands, bars, whips, belts, chains, anything. A normal person cannot imagine the methods they used. I am sorry to say that it was good when new prisoners came. The guards beat them instead of us.”

The horrors of Keraterm, Omarska and Trnopolje are known. The more-recent horrors of Srebrenica, the U.N. “safe area” that was conquered last year by the Serbs, who promptly massacred thousands of people, are becoming known. The survivors of four years of atrocities are telling and retelling their stories to journalists, human-rights investigators and diplomats. The Commission of Experts’ report on Prijedor is 70,000 words long–just on Prijedor. All of this is without meaning if there are no trials, for it is only in trials that the evidence can be judged in an impartial way and the verdict handed down in an emphatic way that will silence the purveyors of falsehoods. But the trials will not be held unless the suspects are arrested and transported to the Hague, where the tribunal is located.

The bloodshed in the Balkans has shown that falsehoods can be more dangerous than weapons. Milosevic and Tudjman stirred their followers into nationalist frenzies by spreading lies. Milosevic portrayed Bosnia’s Muslims as religious zealots who would kill or enslave Serbs unless they rose up and defended themselves in 1992. Tudjman borrowed the same line when forces under his control launched their own attack on Bosnia’s Muslims in 1993. And now they are trying to minimize or blot out their crimes.

If Serbs and Croats are not forced to confront their deeds, and if they are not shown that what they did was wrong, horribly wrong, they will feel free to commit the same acts again. Or the victims will seek blood justice. Either way, another round of warfare is the result.

Just as it is vital to determine who is responsible, we must say who is not. If no one is proven guilty, then all are potentially guilty, and the denial of history continues. Ordinary Serbs must know that the fact they witnessed atrocities or turned a blind eye or carried a gun in the Bosnian Serb army does not make them war criminals. I am thinking, as an example, of a youth named Boris, whom I met in Banja Luka on a hot summer day. Boris wore round, John Lennon-style glasses, and I asked if he spoke English. Yes. He had just graduated from high school. I asked a sensitive question in a lazy, how’s-the-weather tone of voice: “What do you think of the war?”

He shrugged his shoulders. I had asked a stupid question. “The Serb people are being seduced. They don’t know what is happening. They see what they want to see, or what others want them to see. I think it’s pretty sick.”

He was 18 years old, which meant he would be drafted soon.

“What will you do when the army calls?” I asked.

He shrugged again. Another stupid question. “I will go to the army. It’s better than jail.”

Simple as that. The killing is wrong, but I’d rather do it than go to jail.

Boris was not a monster. What was he supposed to do? Conscientious objection was not an option. There was no Canada to flee to–almost every country in Europe was shutting its doors to Serbs. Just getting to the border was difficult enough; the military checkpoints were designed, in part, to keep fighting-age men from sneaking away. And so Boris, like many of his peers, would do what he was told: kill. Kill Muslims. Kill Croats. In his spare time, he would watch MTV.

Boris was guilty only of being human and of being caught in a broken society. But only when he knows for sure who is responsible can he begin the process of reconciliation. Only then can he live among the men and women whom he was forced to take up arms against. And they, in turn, can feel comfortable living with him, knowing that those who were responsible are in jail. The process of reconciliation will take many, many years, but it won’t even begin without war crimes trials.

The argument is made that the pursuit of war criminals could lead to a breakdown of the Dayton peace process. We need the cooperation of Serb and Croat authorities–notably, we don’t want their soldiers shooting at our soldiers–and this cannot be accomplished if we are arresting them. The problem, though, is that the Dayton peace process is bound to fail if the war criminals remain in place. Refugees will never be allowed to return home, nor would they want to.

The risks for our soldiers would, of course, increase if they try to round up war criminals. But I think those risks are exaggerated. Throughout the war, the Serbs have portrayed themselves, and have been portrayed by many journalists, as brave fighters. It is a distorted picture. When resolute force is used or even threatened, the Serbs are surprisingly compliant. Look at what happened when NATO launched its two-week bombing campaign late last year. The Serbs backed down. Just last weekend a U.S. colonel, Andy Batiste, demanded access to a weapons depot that the Serbs had, on two previous occasions, prohibited NATO troops from entering. As anti-tank planes and attack helicopters cruised nearby, Batiste told the Serb officer who blocked his path, “I want you to know that I am going in with or without your permission.” The Serbs backed down. Events of that sort bring me back to a conversation I had with an American diplomat who could not believe that America and its allies were standing aside as genocide was being committed against the Muslims of Bosnia.

“The Serbs are not 10-foot-tall headhunters who would fight to the last drop of blood,” he said. “My God, what are we paying $200 billion a year for–what is our military for? If you define our Army as a force that won’t risk taking casualties, then we don’t have an Army. We have Boy Scouts.” I imagine that Col. Batiste and many other soldiers would agree. They aren’t Boy Scouts.

It is not important that the arrests be made today or tomorrow. For strategic reasons, it might be best to delay them until the NATO forces have a stronger grip on things. Unlike the failed attempt to detain Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed in Mogadishu in 1993, the arrests must be well-planned. But the arrests must be made, or at least attempted, before U.S. troops leave Bosnia in a year. The Clinton administration can never redeem itself for the horrible mistakes it has made, but arresting the war criminals would be a step in the right direction. For the first time in the miserable years since the war began, we would have something to be proud of. And for the first time, Slobodan Milosevic would have something to worry about.

Peter Maass is a staff writer for The Washington Post. His memoir about the conflict in Bosnia, “Love Thy Neighbor; A Story of War,” will be published this week by Alfred A. Knopf.

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.