What unites many countries in the world, both the ones that don’t give a fig about human rights and the ones that profess they do, is their unwillingness to punish their war criminals. When it comes to accountability, instances of confronting their own guilt are exceedingly rare among nations, especially when the victims are members of some other race, religion, or country. Even international leaders concerned with situations such as the one in Yugoslavia, despite their protests to the contrary, are often reluctant to see the guilty punished since political interests usually take precedence over justice.
In addition, there’s an unwritten understanding that crimes committed by the United States and a few other Western powers go unpunished. When the International Criminal Court was launched in 2003, the Bush administration refused to join, fearing that its military and its leaders could be arbitrarily indicted by some grandstanding foreign prosecutor. But that was just dissembling. The real reason is that the United States regards itself as a country whose exceptional moral standing exempts it from accountability for the war crimes it commits. The trouble with that is that everybody else feels the same way. The belief that one ought to be able to kill one’s enemies and live happily ever after is nearly universal.
Not many people care to know what their governments do to others in their name. No society can bear the thought that it is committing some injustice against innocents, so elaborate excuses have to be made. Justifying war crimes to their fellow citizens is what nationalist intellectuals are expected to do. The editorial and opinion pages of our newspapers and magazines have recently published articles pleading with President Bush to pardon the lawyers in the Department of Justice who devised the regime of torture and detention and the officials who put them into practice, and not allow them to be criminally prosecuted, since, allegedly, they broke the law out of a sincere wish to keep us safe. What nationalist ideologues everywhere tell their own people is that they occupy a unique moral universe to which the laws of the outside world do not apply. Unlike everyone else in the world, they, and only they, are good even when they are slaughtering women and children. Anyone who objects to that view either suffers from self-hatred or is some sort of traitor in the employ of a foreign power.
The three excellent books under review mercilessly search for historical truth about the former Yugoslavia, and are bound to infuriate apologists on all sides. Typically, Serbs, Croats, and Kosovars do not wish to be blamed for anything and will tell you that the blame lies elsewhere. Most of the time, of course, they prefer to remain silent. Reading Tim Judah’s short history of Kosovo, I was horrified to learn just how bloody were the Balkan wars of the last century in which my grandfather fought. That’s not what I remember being taught in school or being told at home. Grandfather was a hero, everybody said, and had medals to prove it. God knows what he saw and what he did in all those campaigns against Turks and Albanians he never talked about. Knowing him for the fine man he was, I used to take it for granted that the Serbian officer corps and the armies of those days were nobler than those of more recent times, but after reading Judah, I’m not so sure.
Like Eating a Stone is Wojciech Tochman’s story of Muslim women in Bosnia who in 2003, eight years after the signing of the Dayton Accords, were still haunting the mass graves being exhumed in Bosnia in the hope that among the bones being identified they might find their long-missing husbands and sons. Translated ably from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the book is made up of a series of short and excruciating chapters in which the nameless narrator introduces these women, gives a brief background about what took place during the war in towns and villages where they once lived, and then lets them do the talking.
Like so many other Muslims in Bosnia, they found themselves in the spring of 1992 bewildered at what was happening. Their Serbian friends from primary school, from technical college, from cafés, went from house to house, dragged people out, and killed some on the spot in their backyards or led them away never to return. They took their money, jewelry, television sets, tractors, tools, and even their cooking pots. They set up camps where they held wealthy people and those who had taken part in action against Serbian troops. The prisoners were beaten, first by the guards and then by local Serbs, who had a free invitation to come into the camp, choose themselves a Muslim prisoner, and do with him what they felt like. They came at night and took away women to rape them. They burned down mosques and villages and became even angrier and more violent when Muslims took up arms and sought to kill them in return. They did it all with impunity and confidence that justice would never catch up with them.
What is astonishing is how quickly all this happened, during a mere two to three months in which a society became a living hell. We now know that the violence was instigated directly by Serbian nationalists in Bosnia and in Belgrade as part of their demented project to separate the two intermixed ethnic communities once and for all, but I still have trouble understanding why the Serbs in these towns and villages went along with this evil. The attraction for abusing the powerless islike a drug, it seems. People get high on it, and later wonder why they should be held responsible. The Serbs Tochman meets have little to say. The women do the complaining and the men stay in the background, afraid that a survivor may recognize them and report them to the International Tribunal in The Hague. They still stick to the lies they were told by their leaders and continue to believe against all evidence that they were the biggest victims.
The grim reality of exhumation is something they don’t have to deal with. One of the forensic scientists, a Polish woman by the name of Ewa Klonowski, who is usually the first to go down into a mass grave, speaks of what she found in the newly opened one near Prijedor. “I was digging with the knowledge that I’d found some children,” she says.
It’s all the same to me whether I dig up a child or an old person. Bones are bones. With the one difference that children have more small bones; they are less durable. And I came upon some small bones of the kind I was expecting to find. And a toy next to them—a Superman doll. I had to put it in a plastic bag. I couldn’t do it. I was holding it in my hand, and the child’s father was there above me. I felt as if I could no longer cope. I was about to start crying. I rationalized it to myself by thinking, “Ewa, someone has to work here. Bones are bones. This is a toy found next to some bones. You must put it in the plastic bag and get on with the next body.”
Carla Del Ponte’s recollection and defense of her controversial tenure as the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (1999–2007) and the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Court for Rwanda (1999–2003) is the story of investigations, indictments, arrests, and prosecutions of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians accused of war crimes, including most famously Slobodan Milosevic. Determined and stubborn, disliked by both her enemies and some of her colleagues, Del Ponte was a former Swiss attorney-general before her appointment, well known for her investigations into Mafia money laundering, banking fraud, and drug trafficking. Her work for the tribunal in The Hague was obstructed not only in places like Serbia and Croatia, but also in Washington. After she insisted that the CIA director, George Tenet, should do more to secure the arrest of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, Tenet replied, “Look, Madame, I don’t give a shit what you think.”
Wherever she went she sensed pressure not to issue indictments against certain of the accused in the former Yugoslavia, or not to investigate the killings of an archbishop, two bishops, and other Catholic clergymen in Rwanda. Her mission to remove the impunity that allows the powerful to extinguish the lives of tens of thousands andruin the lives of millions of others was met with little enthusiasm by countries that, in public, continued to be loud champions of the tribunal.
In Del Ponte’s view, Yugoslavia was destroyed during the 1990s by a relatively small number of men and women, many of them ex-Communists, who were willing to use nationalist bigotries, stereotypes, and lies to incite their own people to commit acts of violence. Of course, political leaders in the Balkans are not the only ones who have exploited nationalism in order to rouse voters to blind hatred. However, what Milosevic did was particularly vile. He sent police agents and armies of irregulars, often made up of ex-convicts, into ethnically mixed areas to set neighbor against neighbor. Enormous fortunes were made by the leaders of these murderous gangs, who were free to kill and rape anyone and plunder their homes. “Drunk on patriotism and freedom” is how a nationalist Serbian writer admiringly described them recently; they spread death and destruction, oblivious of the consequences.
The difficulty the tribunal has in investigating these crimes is that its subpoenas requiring persons and institutions to hand over documents and other evidence, and its arrest warrants, can be executed only by the very same states that have every interest in concealing critical evidence and preventing the tribunal from questioning important witnesses and apprehending accused individuals. The office of the prosecutor, headed by Del Ponte, had no judicial police to carry out searches and arrests, and lacked the authority to impose penalties on the states that failed to cooperate. That meant she had to plead for help in Serbia and Croatia where the press indulged in tribunal bashing, misrepresenting its work and painting the accused as innocents suffering persecution by an institution that was a tool of the United States. Lying, buying time, and making empty promises are what she heard everywhere she went.
The Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, the father of their independent state, speaking from his deathbed, declared that Croatian men, who were liberating their country from evil, could not be held accountable and never ought to be apprehended and transferred to The Hague even if they had been indicted for war crimes. If Croatia was to become independent and enlarge its territory, it required men willing to do the dirty work of war and kill a few civilians.