I reprint here the Introduction (21 pages) and, next, Chapter 13 (“The Legacy”, 29 pages) of Julian Borges’ book entitled The Butcher’s Trail : how the search for Balkan war criminals became the world’s most successful manhunt. New York : Other Press, 2016. xxx, 400 pages : illustrations, maps.
That said, I encourage BlogGuinée’s visitors to get and read this work. It is a well-written account of a key episode in the permanent and worldwide struggle against dictatorship, human rights violations, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Readers beware! This book is neither casual nor trivial. It stands out asrather substantial and substantive. And it reads as a well-researched, organized and written contribution. It is, in sum, the fruitful labor of an inquisitive mind and an investigative journalist who (a) has great mastery of his native tongue, and (b) built up a detailed knowledge of his topic. Julian Borge’s admirable talent serves here a noble cause: the defense of truth through the quest for justice.
The author of The Butcher’s Trail remains focused and stays on topic. True, he makes cursory connections to related facts and events. However, he sticks to the former Yugoslavia, from 1995 to today. I thus selected the above mentioned section because they include references to Africa. These are just tidbits. However, the entries convey potent and relevant connotations; one points to Nelson Mandela, the other to the International Criminal Court.
Contrary to Robert Mugabe, —his junior comrade— the late Madiba decided to leave active politics after just one term as the first elected president of post-Apartheid South Africa. Yet, in retirement he cast a shining light on his beloved country, his continent and on the entire planet. He still does so posthumously. For death has not dimmed his star. To the contrary, his name is enshrined in the pantheon of the greatest men and women in History. And his symbol as patriot and statesman lives on.
Julian Borger joins the battle by shedding light on the history of this institution. He writes: “Slobodan Milošević, the Yugoslav president who became the first head of state to stand before an international tribunal for crimes perpetrated in a time of war. ”
This sentence debunks the claim that Western powers single out African dictators for investigation, indictment, prosecution and trial. It shatters the myth that the ICC targets only African presidents, or that the international community is engaged in a political and judicial witch hunt against African politicians. So, they seek to elude scrutiny and evade justice by plotting an Africa withdrawal from the ICC. In vain!
Read Rev. Desmond Tutu’s In Africa, Seeking a License to Kill.
The fact is that autocrats, presidents-for-life, tyrants, warlords, and potentates have plagued the continent since the independence series of the 1960s. The list of countries and culprits is tedious: Rwanda (Juvénal Habiyarimana), Zaire/RDC (Mobutu), Kenya (Uhuru Kenyatta), Uganda (Idi Amin), Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe), Somalia (Syad Bare), Sudan (Omar al-Bashir), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak), Tunisia (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), Algeria (Bouteflika), Mali (Moussa Konaté), Burkina Faso (Blaise Compaoré), Chad (Hissène Habré), Togo (Gnassingbé Eyadema), Ethiopia (Mengistu Haile Mariam), Eritrea (Isaias Afwerki), Gabon (Omar Bongo), Nigeria (Sani Abacha), Denis Sassou-Nguesso (Congo), CAR (Bokassa), Cameroon (Paul Biya), Equatorial Guinea (Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo), Liberia (Charles Taylor), Sierra Leone (Fode Sankon and the RUF), Gambia (Yahya Jammeh), Côte d’Ivoire (Laurent Gbagbo), etc.
Reconciliation: a code word for impunity
Guinea’s current president, Alpha Condé, wants to sweep under the carpet the September 28, 2009 massacre of hundreds of civilians, followed by mass rapes. He refuses to let the judicial branch handle the trial of the members of the military junta headed by former Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. Holding up the investigation, he plan to delay the court as long as he is president. To cover up his maneuvers he has propped up a puppet and sycophantic national commission of truth and reconciliation. Such extra-judicial efforts are cynical, misguided, wrong, vicious, and malevolent. They disregard totally the grievances and calls for justice by plaintiffs collectives that group survivors and family members of Guinea’s death camps and killing fields: Camp Boiro, Camp Keme Bourema, Mont Kakoulima, Mont Gangan, etc. M. Condé’s reconciliation slogan is simply a code word for impunity.
But The Butcher’s Trail tells us that the commitment for justice is tireless and permanent. It must go on everywhere, in Guinea and elsewhere around the globe.
Note. I have embedded the audio file of Julian Borger’s interview by Scott Simon on National National Public Radio (Washington, DC), Weekend Edition, dated Saturday March 26, 2016. The conversation focuses on the trial of Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karodzic which ended that week in The Hague. The transcript is appended to the mp3 document.
Tierno S. Bah
« The gripping, untold story of The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and how the perpetrators of Balkan war crimes were captured by the most successful manhunt in history. Written with a thrilling narrative pull, The Butcher’s Trail chronicles the pursuit and capture of the Balkan war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Borger recounts how Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić—both now on trial in The Hague—were finally tracked down, and describes the intrigue behind the arrest of Slobodan Milošević, the Yugoslav president who became the first head of state to stand before an international tribunal for crimes perpetrated in a time of war. Based on interviews with former special forces soldiers, intelligence officials, and investigators from a dozen countries–most speaking about their involvement for the first time–this book reconstructs a fourteen-year manhunt carried out almost entirely in secret. Indicting the worst war criminals that Europe had known since the Nazi era, the ICTY ultimately accounted for all 161 suspects on its wanted list, a feat never before achieved in political and military history. »
The Echo of Nuremberg
“The Security Council thought we would never become operational. We had no budget. We had nothing. Zero.”
—Antonio Cassese, first president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
The trail came to a halt in a forest clearing. A man emerged from the trees at the agreed time, but the friend he had come to meet was nowhere to be seen. The man waited, feeling increasingly out of place. It was a burning hot day in late July, and he was flabby and pale from years spent in colder climes.
He regretted having come home, but he had no real choice. By the summer of 2011, the man had spent seven years as a fugitive, most recently in Russia, and was out of money. The only people on earth prepared to help him were here, in Serbia, where he could surely still count on a handful of true believers from the old days of national struggle. But where were they now?
As the appointed hour came and went, the only sounds in the forest were birdsong and the wind in the leaves. But the man was not alone. All along the path as it wound through the trees, he had been watched intently. As he emerged into the clearing, the illusion of solitude lasted just a few more moments before exploding with shouts and a blur of movement. In an instant, there were men all around him in white T-shirts and black knitted masks, pointing guns, gripping him by the wrists and shoulders.
One of the men, a police officer, began a recitation: “Goran Hadžić, we are arresting you …”
It was a name that had scarcely been heard for years. Even its owner had stopped using it, in favor of a string of aliases. But two decades earlier, Goran Hadžić had been a name to reckon with in this corner of the Balkans. He had been a president, albeit of a trumped-up little statelet with jagged edges—a bite taken out of one reborn country, Croatia, to be chewed and swallowed by another, Serbia, its covetous neighbor.
When the exhausted federal experiment that was Yugoslavia collapsed, its constituent republics were left to fight over its corpse. Serbia was the biggest and most predatory, spurred on by the most ruthless leader. Slobodan Milošević truly was a man for all seasons—a Socialist turned banker turned nationalist despot and unflinching war criminal. His preference was for a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, but if he could not have that, he would carve out a Greater Serbia at the expense of his neighbors.
Hadžić was Milošević’s puppet, but the sort of puppet that belongs in a horror film, a bloodied ventriloquist’s dummy. He helped preside over the first large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Europe since the Nazi era. From August to November 1991, the early days of Yugoslavia’s dismemberment, the baroque Croatian town of Vukovar, which had sat comfortably by the Danube for centuries, was razed to the ground by Serb artillery.
Once the town had fallen, some three hundred Croat men and teenage boys, many of them wounded, were taken from a hospital to a nearby farm where they were beaten and tortured by Serb soldiers and paramilitary volunteers serving with the Yugoslav army. They were driven away at night in trucks, ten to twenty at a time, taken to a wooded ravine, and executed. Only a handful escaped. In all, 263 men and boys were killed, the youngest aged sixteen. There was also one woman among the victims. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave and covered by a bulldozer.
In Western capitals, it seemed beyond comprehension that wholesale slaughter was being committed once more in the heart of Europe. In the early nineties, it was a continent preoccupied with harmonizing food safety standards and the many other intricate chores of building a closer union. The dark past, two generations earlier, was buried under layer upon layer of democracy, diplomacy, and bureaucracy, or so it seemed from Brussels. The return of mass murder was deeply shocking. An entire town was pulverized, and its surviving Croats and minorities driven out with the goal of creating a swath of territory that would be home only to Serbs.
The process was called “ethnic cleansing,” a turn of phrase beyond George Orwell’s darkest satire. Like all the most effective propaganda, it worked by inversion. It took an act that was inherently dirty and gore-spattered and made it sound like a salutary rite of purification. It was a “cleansing” that left a permanent stain on everyone and everything it touched.
The “purified” mini-state was named the Republic of Serbian Krajina (Republika Srpska Krajina, or RSK), and Hadžić became its despot. He was thirty-three years old, a former warehouseman for an agro-industrial company in Vukovar who had been a leading light in the local League of Communists in his youth. He was picked for the role of the RSK’s warlord because he had made the same ideological swerve to nationalism as Milošević. He had plenty of ambition and no evident scruples. He was perfect.
Twenty years on, Hadžić was isolated and abandoned. His realm, the RSK, had been swept away, and Milošević had been dead for more than five years. In an effort to help him make ends meet, one of Hadžić’s childhood friends tried to sell a plundered artwork, but the intended favor only helped corner him. It was a painting attributed to the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, taken as booty during the Croatian war. The art market was awash with such looted treasure, real and fake, but it was also thick with informers and spies. The French external intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, or DGSE), had a particularly strong presence. One of its officers was even given a special award for extended service undercover in the Balkan art world 1. The French alerted Serbian intelligence, who monitored Hadžić’s friend and set a trap. In the wooded hills of Fruška Gora National Park near the Serbian-Croatian border, he was cornered and captured like the last grizzled specimen of a once ferocious breed.
The masked policemen turned him toward a camera to capture the moment. Surprise had given way to realization and resentment on Hadžić’s hangdog face. By now he was fifty-two years old. The warrior’s beard was gone, leaving a graying mustache and sagging jowls. The only familiar features left from his glory days were the angry eyes and the sneer, which once looked at home with his camouflage fatigues but now jarred with the baby-blue T-shirt he had chosen for his meeting.
The pathetic scene at the end of the forest trail marked the culmination of a long and extraordinary history. Hadžić was the last fugitive to be caught in a fifteen-year manhunt, involving the pursuit, arrest, or surrender of all those indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by a special court created by the United Nations in The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The ICTY, or the Hague Tribunal as it came to be popularly known, was established in 1993 as an experiment in international justice. It was the first time in the history of conflict that a truly global court had been created to pursue war criminals. It embodied the conviction that a universal sense of humanity could and should be upheld in the face of mass atrocities, transcending national jurisdiction.
The dramatic landmark trials at The Hague have been the subject of several books and countless articles. But those trials would never have taken place if the defendants had not been tracked down, arrested, and brought to court. That pursuit itself was a historic achievement. It took a very long time, but by 2011 all 161 people on the ICTY list of indictees faced justice one way or another. Former prison camp guards and ex-presidents all stood before the same tribunal. More than half the suspects were tracked down and captured. Others gave themselves up rather than lie awake every night wondering whether masked, armed men were about to storm into their bedroom. Two committed suicide. Others decided they would rather die in a blaze of gunfire and explosives than be taken alive. Two of them got their wish.
The individuals and agencies who pursued the suspects were many and various, but most did their work in the shadows, their successes never acknowledged. This account is based on interviews with more than two hundred of these people—former soldiers, intelligence officials, investigators, data analysts, diplomats, and officials from a dozen nations who were directly involved in the manhunt, most of them speaking about their actions for the first time. A majority agreed to talk only on the promise of anonymity, as the arrest operations are still classified in their home countries. Part of the narrative is also based on a trove of previously secret British government documents, declassified by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Special forces from six countries took part in the hunt, the biggest special operations deployment anywhere in the world before 9/11. Polish commandos made history by becoming the first soldiers to carry out an arrest on behalf of the tribunal—to the surprise of many, including their own government. Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS), who carried out NATO’s first manhunting missions in Bosnia, brought techniques learned in Northern Ireland. The participation of a newly formed German special forces unit in an arrest operation, at the cost of some serious injuries, marked the first time that country’s soldiers had gone into action since 1945. And the skills acquired in the Balkan manhunt by America’s elite soldiers in Delta Force and SEAL Team Six would soon be applied to the looming war on terror and to another manhunt—for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s leaders.
An alphabet soup of Western spy agencies, including the CIA, NSA, Britain’s MI6 and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and France’s DGSE, conducted a parallel manhunt in the shadows with varying degrees of success. Despite the millions spent, none proved as effective as a small, secretive tracking unit inside the Hague Tribunal, which hugely enhanced the clout of the once-derided court.
From time to time, this multinational array of soldiers, spies, and sleuths acted in concert, following a trail that led from the Balkans west to the Canary Islands and Buenos Aires, and east as far as St. Petersburg and the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Just as often, they tripped over one another in their pursuit of conflicting national and institutional interests. That helps explain why the manhunt took so long 2. The story of the manhunt’s success contains within it many stories of failure. To survivors and families of victims waiting for justice, it did not feel like a triumph at the time. It is only now, when it is all over, that it stands out. There has been nothing quite like it in history.
The ICTY did not just complete its mission, rare enough for a UN operation and all the more striking in view of the patchy and ambivalent support it received from the major powers. The relentless pursuit of the indictees also made legal history. It led to the arrest and trial of Milošević, the first sitting head of state ever to be charged with war crimes by an international court. At the time of writing, the two men who presided over the worst of the atrocities in Bosnia—Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serbs’ political leader, and his military commander, Ratko Mladić—are on trial for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The trail of blood was followed, not just to the immediate perpetrators of the mass atrocities but all the way to the orchestrators, the master butchers themselves.
Along the way, the ICTY defined mass rape for the first time as a crime against humanity in international law, as a result of atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces in the town of Foča. It was a legal breakthrough that would have meant little without the actions of German and French special forces, who tracked down the rapists and brought them to The Hague.
Before the ICTY’s creation, there was no institutional framework for judging war crimes and crimes against humanity. There was an attempt to put Napoleon Bonaparte’s commanders on trial for treason in 1815, but the effort collapsed. More than a century later, the British government sought to prosecute Kaiser Wilhelm for war crimes but failed to persuade Holland, where the Kaiser had taken refuge, to hand him over 3.
After the Second World War, the question loomed once more of what to do with leaders, officials, and soldiers responsible for mass atrocities, and it was by no means inevitable they would be put on trial. Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt initially approved a plan for summary executions of top Nazis, lest their survival help rally their followers 4. The trials in the ruined city of Nuremberg were something of a lastminute decision.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo a parallel tribunal was established for Japanese war crimes suspects, but Emperor Hirohito and members of the imperial family were exempted. Neither Tokyo nor Nuremberg succeeded in drawing a line in human history, despite the hopeful mantra of “never again.” More than forty-five years later, mass murder returned to the modern, industrialized world.
Genocide and other mass atrocities challenge our idea of what it is to be human. The acts perpetrated against innocent victims are so grotesque and disturbing, we recoil from their contemplation. We prefer them to be either far away or long ago. When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, the rest of Europe started to distance itself, like neighbors of a dying household. Shutting their doors, they convinced themselves that if they looked the other way, they would never catch the disease. Western politicians diagnosed “ancient ethnic hatreds” let loose by the fall of Communism as the cause of the bloodshed 5. It was one of a litany of excuses for not getting involved, but it explained nothing.
The history of the ethnic communities that made up Yugoslavia had indeed been marked by sporadic bouts of violence but those eruptions had been interspersed by long periods of peaceful coexistence. The same could be said of most regions in Europe’s diverse and turbulent continent.
Yugoslavia marched into hell because its leaders took it there. When Communist dogma lost its already tenuous hold on people’s minds with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the more ideologically flexible and unscrupulous of the fading Communist elite, led by Milošević, switched to nationalism. The leaders packaged it as a new emotional certainty in the face of the chaos and fear left by the collapse of the old order. The challenges of converting a totalitarian state into a democracy, or turning a command economy into a free market, were waved away with colorful flags, hazy nostalgia, and folk music. Political power at the breakup of Yugoslavia depended on the ability to weave myths, wield arms, and manipulate reality.
No one was better at this than Milošević, but he was not alone. His Croatian counterpart was another rebranded Communist, the former Partisan officer turned nationalist Franjo Tudjman. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (a), Alija Izetbegović, a paler and frailer version of the national strongman, unfurled his party’s green flag and offered his people a sense of Muslim identity. It was a defensive nationalism, however. Bosnia’s Muslims generally did not nurse irredentist ambitions, but they were afraid that the revival of backward-looking nationalism among their neighbors would once more mark them as prey. Izetbegović was playing a dangerous game, waving a green banner with little to defend it.
His neighbors Milošević and Tudjman did not make the same mistake. As Yugoslavia collapsed, they armed their foot soldiers. Milošević had access to a near-bottomless arsenal thanks to Serb domination of the Yugoslav National Army (Jugoslavenska Narodna Armija, or JNA), once one of the largest militaries in Europe. The Croats took a smaller share of the JNA arms stockpile and as war approached they smuggled in weaponry to narrow the gap.
Milošević and Tudjman drew up maps expressing their dreams for a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia, aspirations that left little if any room for Bosnia. Neither of these despots regarded the Muslims—known as Bosniaks (b)—as a distinct ethnic group, viewing them respectively as renegade Serbs or Croats who had converted to Islam.
The new nationalist maps were clear and simple, filled with solid blocks of color. The reality of Yugoslavia on the other hand was uncommonly messy. It was pockmarked and spattered by more than a thousand years of human interaction, mingling Croats and Serbs with Illyrians, Romans, Goths, Asiatic Huns, Iranian Alans, and Avars.
The mix was stirred repeatedly by outside powers and rival empires—Roman, Frankish, Byzantine, Habsburg, and Ottoman—who scattered its constituent parts, occasionally adding new ingredients. Religion and ethnicity were intertwined throughout, creating both harmony and discord. The people of the western Balkans largely converted to Catholicism under the sway of the Franks and Habsburgs. Those in the east followed the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium. Caught in between, many of the mountain people of central Bosnia converted to Islam after the Ottomans arrived from the east in the fifteenth century.
Mixing, migration, and intermarriage intensified during the two incarnations of Yugoslavia, as a monarchy in between the interwar period and as a Socialist federal republic after the Second World War. The mingling was made all the easier by the fact that the three biggest communities—Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims—shared a common language (c).
The result was a complicated country that looked nothing like the simple ethnic maps being circulated in the death throes of Yugoslavia. Making allowances for ethnic nuance would have robbed the nationalist message of its simplicity and power. Rather than change their maps, the nationalist leaders sought to force change on the flesh and blood of the region, creating ethnically pure territories, by terror when necessary. Whether they were nationalists or not, one community after another was confronted by the brutal violence unleashed by a deceptively simple question: Why should I be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in mine? 6
Yugoslavia unraveled in a succession of increasingly ferocious wars. The first in Slovenia was little more than a prelude. After ten days of skirmishes with Slovene separatists in the early summer of 1991, the JNA withdrew. There were hardly any Serbs in the renegade republic, and Milošević let it go. He was conserving his strength for the next battle.
Croatia, which had a sizable Serb population (d), had declared independence on the same day as Slovenia. Milošević and Tudjman may have seen eye to eye on the division of Bosnia but they had very different maps of Croatia. Milošević wanted the Serb-inhabited area, the Krajina, for a Greater Serbia, while Tudjman’s map of Croatia was all one color. His independence constitution downgraded the new nation’s Serbs, about one in nine of the population, from a constituent people to one of many minorities. His rhetoric played into Milošević’s hands. Belgrade television had been stoking local Serb fears with reminders of what happened the last time Croatia had been officially independent. It had been a Nazi puppet state, run by the fascist Ustasha movement that committed genocide against Jews, Serbs, and Roma in Croatia and Bosnia. Memories of the death camps may have faded in Western Europe, but they were kept fresh in the Balkans by the propaganda of resurgent nationalism.
As soon as he was confident he had secured the Serb enclaves in Croatia, Milošević turned his attention to Bosnia. The techniques were the same. Proxies were armed, under the direction of Karadžić, a psychiatrist and poet from Sarajevo. In Bosnia, regular Yugoslav units simply swapped insignia and declared themselves to be the Bosnian Serb army, commanded by Mladić, a veteran JNA officer.
With Milošević’s support, Karadžić and Mladić would go on to oversee the ethnic cleansing of Serb territory, the siege of Sarajevo, and ultimately the massacre of Srebrenica. The embryonic Muslim-led army organized by Izetbegović was no match for Serb forces, and in 1993 it was forced to fight on two fronts when the Bosnian Croats, egged on by Tudjman, turned on their Bosniak neighbors.
An estimated twenty thousand people died in the Croatian war. About a hundred thousand were killed in Bosnia. The much higher death toll in Bosnia reflects its greater ethnic diversity—more territory to be cleansed—and the relative defenselessness of the Bosniak population. More than 80 percent of the civilians killed were Bosniak 7. Overall across the region, two civilians were killed for every three soldiers who died in battle. The whole conflict was characterized by random brutality. Psychopaths were made masters of the life and death of their former neighbors. Their barbarity was invariably sanctified by the nationalist leaders as self-defense against an enemy depicted in grotesque terms, as either Nazi Ustasha, wild-eyed Islamic fundamentalists, or Serb Chetnik marauders (e).
The genocide of the Nazi era had set a precedent for mass killing that was never erased, only half buried under Tito’s slogan “Brotherhood and Unity.” Half a century later, the ghosts of Yugoslavia’s past arose and nationalism once more cut like a hacksaw through the human bonds that had held diverse communities together, unleashing murder. In the name of the nation, everything would be allowed.
The Serbs were by no means alone in committing mass atrocities. Croatia was also responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from its territory, as well as Muslims from the parts of Bosnia that Croatian nationalists coveted. The Muslim-led Bosnian army carried out serious crimes, running a small but appalling prison camp just southwest of Sarajevo, for example. The Kosovo Liberation Army carried out brutal reprisals against Serb civilians. Members of all these groups were brought before the ICTY for judgment. But Serbs were responsible for most of the mass atrocities and accordingly Serb names made up the majority of The Hague’s wanted list.
Faced with such an enormous moral challenge at a time of volcanic upheaval across the whole of Europe, Western leaders dithered. Neither they nor their armies were equipped doctrinally or intellectually to halt the Balkan atrocities in 1992. A newly united Europe failed its first great test. Its troops had rehearsed fighting as junior members of an alliance against a massed Warsaw Pact offensive on the German plains. They had not been trained to parachute into an ethnic conflict.
Meanwhile, the American military was still recovering from the trauma of Vietnam. Colin Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Yugoslavia collapsed, had gone to fight in Indochina as a young officer and then spent much of his military career trying to ensure his country did not repeat the mistake. His eponymous doctrine stipulated that the United States should only go to war if it could deploy overwhelming force for clearly defined national interests with broad public support. Bosnia ticked between one and zero of those boxes.
On the campaign trail in 1992, Bill Clinton had promised to use American military might to stop the mass killing in Bosnia 8, but once he was in office that promise was quickly forgotten. The young president, who had avoided serving in Vietnam, did not have the confidence to take on the military.
Unwilling to intervene to stop the slaughter, the UN Security Council took two initiatives to try to mitigate it. It sent in peacekeepers to safeguard deliveries of humanitarian aid, and it established the ICTY to prosecute war crimes in the hope of deterring further atrocities.
Blue-helmeted UN troops were sent into the thick of the war, but they arrived shackled with restrictive rules of engagement that allowed them to open fire only to defend themselves, not to protect the civilian victims falling like mown grass around them. By escorting aid convoys, the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) could stop Bosnians from starving, but not from being shot or blown apart. They became passive witnesses to genocide. At times their compliance with Serb intimidation went to the very edges of complicity.
So when the UN Security Council gathered in February 1993 to vote the Hague Tribunal into life,a the global powers already owed a huge debt to the victims of Yugoslavia, and the rhetoric of the occasion made weighty promises of what the new court would achieve.
“There is an echo in this Chamber today,” declared Madeleine Albright, the American envoy to the UN and a former refugee from genocide herself. “The Nuremberg Principles have been reaffirmed … this will be no victors’ tribunal. The only victor that will prevail in this endeavor is the truth.”9
In reality, the court came into being as an exercise in penance and distraction, the unstable product of high ideals and low politics. For the world powers at the UN Security Council it was a gesture toward justice in lieu of military intervention. The mass atrocities would not be prevented, but they would be judged after the victims were dead. This is how the ICTY was born: as a substitute. It represented the promise of justice tomorrow in place of salvation today for the people of Yugoslavia.
Most of the nations who brought this new judicial creature into being had no expectation that it would ever function properly. It was initially so short of money it could not afford to lease a court building, and it took eighteen months to find a chief prosecutor. No one of the right caliber wanted to do the job. The judges found themselves presiding over an empty theater of justice, without prosecutors or anyone to prosecute. Antonio Cassese, an Italian professor of international law appointed as the tribunal’s first president, complained: “The Security Council thought we would never become operational. We had no budget. We had nothing. Zero.”10
Cassese’s judges were paid on an ad hoc basis. The UN granted them just enough money for a handful of computers and two weeks’ rent on a suite of offices in The Hague’s Peace Palace. Looking for more space, Cassese heard that the insurance company Aegon was only using part of its faded Art Deco building on Churchillplein. He decided to rent it, but squeezing money out of the UN was so hard that the tribunal was unable to put down a deposit on a long-term lease before the summer of 1994. Prosecutors and investigators shared a cafeteria with Aegon’s actuaries and account managers, which meant they could never discuss cases at lunch, for security reasons. And they only had enough room for a single court, a converted conference room. But what good was a court anyway, without defendants?
Just at the point when the judges were considering mutiny or resignation, Nelson Mandela kept the tribunal alive by helping to persuade Richard Goldstone, a South African lawyer and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, to take the chief prosecutor’s job in July 1994 11. In the eighteen months it had taken to find someone suitable, thousands of people had died in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And the tribunal was still far from functional. There was no one willing to carry out arrests. Goldstone’s staff scrambled to piece together a string of indictments wherever there was evidence to do so, but the overwhelming majority of the seventy-four indictments issued in the Goldstone era concerned small fry—camp guards who had tortured their former neighbors and who could be readily identified by survivors. The urgency to demonstrate the tribunal was operational left no time to build more sophisticated cases against the master butchers.
The court’s first defendant was a perfect example of this “low-hanging fruit” syndrome. Duško Tadić had been a particularly sadistic guard at two notorious Bosnian Serb prison camps, Omarska and Keraterm. He fled to Germany after the war but was spotted in a benefits office in Munich by camp survivors, who called the local police. In November 1994, Tadić arrived in The Hague to become the world’s first war crimes defendant for two generations. Yet for all the tribunal’s attempts to play up the echoes of Nuremberg, it was clear this brutal turnkey was no Hermann Göring or Joseph Goebbels. Most of the other names on Goldstone’s indictment list were similarly inconsequential. Their pictures were printed on posters distributed among UNPROFOR battalions, who tacked them up on their barracks notice boards and ignored them.
The international community was finally shocked out of its indecision and half measures by the worst single massacre of the Bosnian war, the murder of more than eight thousand men and boys by Serb forces after the fall of the Muslim enclave at Srebrenica in July 1995. A handful survived the mass executions, acting dead and climbing out of mass graves over the bodies of their friends and relatives. It was impossible for the world to ignore their testimony, but the most chilling account of all was to come from one of the killers.
Dražen Erdemović was a Bosnian Croat locksmith married to a Serb. In a country that was falling apart, with its people forced to choose sides according to ethnicity, Erdemović belonged nowhere. At different points in the swirling conflict he had served in the Croat, Bosnian, and Serb armies, trying to survive in noncombat jobs. But in July 1995, when he was twenty-three, he was dragooned into a Serb execution squad at Srebrenica, where he witnessed things he would never be able to forget. The awful scenes were lodged deep in his brain.
Eight months later, Erdemović started looking for someone to confess to. He called the US embassy in Belgrade but was turned away, so he went to the press 12. The police, who tapped journalists’ phones as a matter of course, picked him up but it was too late. His story was all over the world, and the Milošević regime had little choice but to hand him over to The Hague 13.
Erdemović became the first person since Nuremberg to be sentenced by an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. But he will be remembered mostly for the excruciating testimony he gave on the events of July 16, 1995, when 1,200 men and boys were killed at a single site.
They would bring out groups of ten people out of the bus and, of course, they were looking into the ground. Their heads were bent downwards and their hands were tied and they were blindfolded … They took them to the meadow. So we started shooting at those people. I do not know exactly. To be honest,… I simply felt sick 14.
NATO intervention and a Croatian ground offensive forced a peace treaty, signed in November 1995 by Milošević, Tudjman, and Izetbegović at an air force base in Dayton, Ohio. But Milošević was not quite done with war. In a brutish epilogue to his decade of misrule, he sent troops into Kosovo in 1998 to crush a fledgling insurgency by the province’s Albanians. Like his earlier adventures, it left a mountain of corpses—more than ten thousand dead—and backfired totally. NATO intervened again in March 1999 with a bombing campaign that forced Milošević to withdraw his troops three months later. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Once more, Western intervention only came after the dead were already in their graves 15. Justice arrived even later. The Dayton Accords did indeed stop the killing in Bosnia, but the divisions created by ethnic cleansing were frozen in place. The persistent influence of Karadžić, Mladić, and Milošević meanwhile threatened to render Dayton meaningless and make the Hague Tribunal a colossal farce.
Yet by 2011, the ICTY manhunters had crossed off all the names on their indicted list. As this book goes to press, the last trials are under way. Karadžić and Mladić are in the dock facing the very people they tried to obliterate. Witness testimony is streamed live online. Millions of documents have been analyzed and saved. Transcripts are posted online. The buried crimes of the past are dug up and laid in the open for all those who can bring themselves to look.
It was a more substantial endeavor than the hunt for Nazis after World War II. The US-led investigators at Nuremberg had the advantage that most of their suspects had already been captured or had surrendered. The prosecutors mostly chose defendants according to the prisoners of war they already had in their cells, rather than according to the scale of their crimes. Only one prominent Nazi was tried in absentia because he could not be found—Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, whose remains were identified in 1998 16. The real precursor to the ICTY manhunt was the US Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, established in 1979. Over the next quarter century, OSI “Nazi hunters” tracked down and prosecuted more than a hundred war criminals who had tried to hide in the United States 17.
Whereas the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals never escaped the taint of “victors’ justice,” the ICTY represented the first genuine attempt at an international reckoning for war crimes on all sides in a conflict. The judges and prosecutors were drawn from around the world, and the defendants came from four fledgling nations—Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.18 The effort to bring them to justice was long, uneven, and mired with mistakes, but it ultimately emerged as the most successful manhunt in history and an extraordinary testament to the tenacity of a remarkably small group of people. This book tells their story.
a. This is the full name of the Socialist Republic and then the independent nation, which will mostly be referred to simply as Bosnia for the rest of the book, for the sake of brevity.
b. Bosnian Muslims formally adopted the term “Bosniaks” to describe themselves in 1993.
c. Known in Yugoslav days as Serbo-Croat, it now known as Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS). Apart from a handful of differences in vocabulary, the only major distinction is that the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet.
d. About 11 percent of Croatia identified as Serb.
e. Chetniks were Serb bands who harried the Turks during the Ottoman era and during the Second World War were revived as a royalist resistance movement that fought first against then for the Nazi-backed regimes in Zagreb and Belgrade.
1. Former DGSE agent Pierre Martinet said that one of his colleagues earned an award for undercover service in the Balkan art world. The possession of high-quality art in the hands of thugs like Hadžić and his circle is not as far-fetched as it might appear on the surface. Art theft was a lucrative sideline of ethnic cleansing. A senior Serbian official told me that in some cases, when looted artifacts fell into the hands of Yugoslav intelligence officials who realized what they were worth, they set out to track down the owners, not to return their property but to kill them, eliminating a potential obstacle to selling the work on the global art market. See Pierre Martinet, DGSE Service action: Un Agent sort de l’ombre (Paris: Editions Privé, 2005).
2. It was literally a manhunt. There was just one woman on the list of indictees, Biljana Plavšić, and she turned herself in.
3. For a comprehensive history of the long quest for international justice, see Gary Jonathan Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
4. Ibid., 12.
5. Britain’s prime minister at the time, John Major, bizarrely blamed the Bosnian war on “the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the discipline that that exerted over the ancient hatreds in the old Yugoslavia.” As Noel Malcolm pointed out in his book Bosnia: A Short History (London: Macmillan, 1994): “The ‘discipline’ exerted by the Soviet Union on Yugoslavia came to an abrupt and well-publicized end in 1948, when Stalin expelled Tito from the Soviet-run Cominform organization.”
6. A question attributed to Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president after independence.
7. The figures given in this paragraph are according to Mirsad Tokaca, The Bosnian Book of the Dead (Sarajevo: Research and Documentation Centre and Humanitarian Law Center of Serbia, 2013).
8. David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 27.
9. Julia Preston, “UN Security Council establishes Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal,” Washington Post (February 23, 1993).
10. Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance, 215.
11. Ibid., 220.
12. Louise Branson, “Serbian Killer Turned Away by US Embassy,” The Sunday Times (March 17, 1996).
13. In return for his testimony Erdemović wanted to move his family to the West and be given immunity from prosecution. The tribunal was unwilling to guarantee the latter. On March 2, 1996, perhaps in the hope of forcing events, he and another soldier arranged to meet a correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro. They sat down to talk in a small country hotel near the Hungarian border. Erdemović was just twenty-five with a face still pockmarked by acne. He had been drafted into the black-uniformed Tenth Sabotage Detachment, which performed some of the gory labor in executing the eight thousand Muslim men and boys captured at Srebrenica. The Serbian security services stopped the journalist at the airport and confiscated the tapes of her interview with Erdemović. He was arrested half an hour later but prosecutors intervened quickly to ensure he was given up to the Hague Tribunal. Erdemović was flown to The Hague but was not granted immunity.
14. Ultimately, the judges reduced his sentence to five years because they accepted his argument that he had taken part in the executions on threat of death. His commander told him, “If you do not wish to do it, stand in the line with the rest of them and give others your rifle so that they can shoot you.” ICTY transcript, Erdemović trial, November 19, 1996.
15. On July 15, 2014, a civil court in The Hague held the Netherlands accountable for the deaths of the men and boys the Dutch UN battalion handed over to the Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica. “Dutch State Liable for 300 Srebrenica Massacre Deaths,” Associated Press (July 16, 2014).
16. Skeptics still doubt the official story that Bormann committed suicide after a failed attempt to flee Berlin in 1945. The Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal always believed that Bormann and his entourage managed to escape to South America.
17. A 2008 internal Department of Justice history of the OSI, “Striving for Accountability in the Aftermath of the Holocaust,” was obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
18. The ICTY also looked into possible violations by NATO in its 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, which was aimed at forcing Belgrade to withdraw its troops from Kosovo, but prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence that civilian casualties were intentional.
Next, The Legacy