Hidajet Delic/AP Images

Carla Del Ponte (right), chief prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, with Munira Šubašic´ (left), chairwoman of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, Sarajevo, June 3, 2005

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.


Alexandra Boulat/VII

Albanian Kosovars celebrating the liberation of Kosovo by NATO troops, on the road between Mitrovica and Priština, June 10, 1999. Behind them is a Serb family’s house, looted and burned by Albanians.

The Serbs felt the same way. According to Vojislav Koštunica, who was president of Yugoslavia when Del Ponte first took office, there had been no ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, no massacre at Srebrenica, and no mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians into Albania and Macedonia in 1999. The Croat and Muslim leaders, in his view, were just as responsible for the war as the Serbs. The precise casualtyfigures are hard to arrive at, but the most likely estimates by the court’s demographic experts don’t bear him out.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 people died during the Croatian war with Serbia in 1991, and many thousands more were wounded. The Bosnian toll for all sides is 103,000 dead, 55,261 of them civilians. Twice as many Muslims died as Serbs.1 In the Kosovo conflict of 1998 and 1999, the number of Albanian dead ranged between 9,000 and 12,100, while some 3,000 Serb soldiers and civilians perished. The NATO bombing campaign claimed the lives of 495 civilians, most of them Serbs. Koštunica would not even provide documents to help the tribunal investigate the crimes against his own people because that would have implied that it was also acceptable for the court to investigate the crimes Serbs committed.

The one politician who cooperated with Del Ponte was Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić, who arrested Milosevic and had him extradited to The Hague and who paid for that brave act with his life. Putting Milosevic on trial was Del Ponte’s greatest accomplishment, but she could not have done it without Djindjić. He double-crossed both Milosevic and Koštunica, who as the Yugoslavian president had concluded an agreement with Milosevic that he would not be handed over to The Hague.

Del Ponte’s pressure on Serbia got her reprimanded by the secretary- general of the United Nations, who asked her to stop urging various states and international organizations to withhold economic assistance to Yugoslavia if it didn’t cooperate with the tribunal. This was not her business, Kofi Annan told her. However, there’s no question that without consistent pressure from the United States, the European Union, and the tribunal, Serbian as well as Croatian leaders, who like politicians everywhere drag their feet when it comes to issues far less controversial than this one, would have done nothing. Instead, 147 accused have so far appeared before the court since its founding, including ninety-five Serbs, thirty-one Croats, fourteen Bosnian Muslims, and seven Kosovars, with only two Serbs still remaining at large.

Del Ponte recounts in her book her attempts and her failure to have General Mladić arrested. Despite countless promises by various leaders in Belgrade over the years, the man responsible for massacring eight thousand captive men and boys in Srebrenica remains free. Protected first by military counterintelligence and then by the civilian intelligence services, he was still being provided with housing, transportation, and even a pension only a few years ago. In a country where there’s little desire to confront the truth about the past, he’s too dangerous to touch. Del Ponte stresses repeatedly that it would be impossible for the tribunal to accomplish anything if it allowed itself to work only within the bounds of domestic politics.

One tends to agree with her in general, except in practice it’s not always clear how even the most forthright Serbian politician should act when confronted with a request that goes against national interests. For example, the prosecution went into the Milosevic trial lacking crucial evidence they could get only from the government in Belgrade. They asked the Serbs to deliver the records of the Supreme Defense Council, including the minutes and transcripts of its meetings, records they knew would establish beyond a reasonable doubt the links between Milosevic—along with the rest of the political leadership in Belgrade—and the war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Serbian Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, a pro-European politician, refused, saying that the documents should not be seen by judges of the International Court of Justice who would decide the lawsuits that Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina had filed against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which then consisted of Serbia and Montenegro.

In the end, the Serb politicians agreed to provide the documents only if the tribunal imposed “protective measures” so that they would be cited solely in closed sessions of the court and not be available to the general public. If the International Court of Justice had decided against the Federal Republic—in 2007 it cleared Serbia of complicity in the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina—this would have been a judgment of collective guilt and would have cost Serbia and its people immense amounts of money in punitive damages that would impoverish the country for generations. The prosecutor had little choice but to agree to the Serbian demand, since she needed evidence to prove that Milošević had had a dominant part in the Serbian atrocities.

The trial of Milošević, as the first head of state ever to answer charges for his crimes before a tribunal, lasted four years and was a grotesque spectacle that alternated between the antics of the accused and the presentation of grim evidence consisting of thousands of documents, transcripts, photographs, and appearances of live witnesses, most of them victims of his policies and others who were the high officials and diplomats who negotiated with him when he was in power. He was not charged with ordering specific atrocities, but rather for setting up a broad strategic plan that led to crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, and genocide in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Del Ponte emphasizes in her prefatory remarks that he was being accused strictly on the basis of his personal criminal responsibility and not because he represented the Serbian people. Milošević defended himself by refusing to hire a lawyer and thus give legitimacy to the tribunal. Most likely he knew that no lawyer could defend him successfully and that his only option was to present a political defense and to use the trial to address his nationalist followers in Serbia.

This tactic consumed an inordinate amount of courtroom time since it prevented the prosecution from facing a defense lawyer who could agree on undisputed facts and resolve technical questions. In addition, Milošević was in poor health. His high blood pressure and cardiac condition forced the court to limit his testimony every week. He kept disregarding the advice of doctors and tampering with his medicine in order to drive his blood pressure up. In the end he outsmarted himself. He was found in his cell dead of a heart attack, and the trial ended without a verdict.

In her epilogue Del Ponte writes:

In every conflict area, political leaders, diplomats, military commanders, intelligence chiefs, and pundits will come up with compelling reasons to sidetrack the work of institutions of internationaljustice.

What she doesn’t mention is how often she herself had to compromise. As tough and independent as she shows herself to be, she was incapable of investigating NATO for the needless bloodshed during its bombing in Yugoslavia, because NATO and its member states would not cooperate with her and provide access to the files and documents.

She also ran into difficulties prosecuting members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. “I think some judges at the Yugoslavia tribunal feared the Albanians’ reach,” she writes. Swiss compatriots warned her to be careful about retaliation and some Swiss officials even cautioned her against discussing certain issues involving Albanian violence in her book; she tells us she’s discussing them here only with extreme care. During her visit to Washington in March 2002, she reminded American officials that her office had submitted a number of requests for assistance of critical importance for KLA investigation and had, despite several reminders, received nothing in response. It seems that for both the United States and Europe, peace in Kosovo took priority over crimes committed by their new ally.

One of the most sensational accusations in Del Ponte’s book deals with the summer of 1999, after NATO bombing ended. Between one hundred and three hundred abducted Serbs were trucked across the border of Kosovo and into northern Albania, where some of the younger, fitter captives were kept well fed, examined by doctors, and never beaten. They were eventually taken to a makeshift surgical clinic where, according to Del Ponte, doctors extracted their internal organs to be sold to paying customers abroad in need of transplants. The investigation was never pursued, Del Ponte says, since Albania was beyond the tribunal’s jurisdiction. The problem with this claim is that the same accusations have been previously made by all sides in the Croatian and Bosnian wars and remain unsubstantiated. What is true is that some three hundred Kosovo Serbs are still missing.

“Flaws were unavoidable in these justice institutions that had no precedent,” Del Ponte writes in conclusion about the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It’s hard to disagree with that. She herself admits that she was hard to get along with, that her abilities as a lawyer were modest, and that she may have compromised here and there.

One of her greatest failures, which she doesn’t mention, is that she did not adequately protect her witnesses, so that several important ones were killed and many more intimidated into silence. Nevertheless, what drove her with a kind of manic fury was a desire to see justice done. In one of the most horrifying pages in the book, she quotes from testimony of a supply truck driver for the Serb army in Bosnia who delivered food and drink to soldiers at the time of the Srebrenica massacre.

The man, who remains nameless, describes a killing field already littered with the dead. Then something astonishing happened. From the pile of dead bodies that did not resemble people any longer, a human being emerged, a boy some five or six years old. The child walked and started moving on the path where men with automatic weapons stood doing their job. All of a sudden they all lowered their rifles. The lieutenant colonel in charge said, “What are you waiting for? Just finish him off.” When they refused to do it, the officer told the driver to take the boy for a ride in the truck and have him brought back with the next batch. And that’s what he did, recalling for the tribunal how hard the boy gripped him by the hand as he led him away.

Tim Judah’s Kosovo is a concise and updated version of his longer and more detailed history published in 2000 and revised in 2002.2 That earlier volume’s subtitle, “War and Revenge,” is a fitting description of the relationship between Serbs and Albanians, who have been neighbors for over a thousand years. Strangely, the two have little in common. They are ethnically different, do not speak the same language, and have widely different versions of the history of the region. What they share, however, is an uncertainty about their national borders. Over the centuries, they have moved, fled, and migrated in and out of the region. Even the question of what nation they belong to, Serbia or Albania, is unresolved. There are large Serbian populations to be found in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, and beyond the Balkans, in Europe and the United States. Albanians, though not as numerous as Serbs, are no less dispersed and in some of the very same countries. The result is a lot of displaced people with strong nationalist feelings and little desire to compromise with their enemies.

Unless the reader is a diehard nationalist, Judah’s short history of Kosovo is a fair and sympathetic account of an impossible situation. The Albanian version says that they were there first, as Illyrians and Dardanians, and that Slavs invaded their land in the sixth century. The Serbs say that there might have been some Albanians in Kosovo during the Middle Ages, but that the vast majority of the population was Serb since Kosovo used to be the center of their kingdom, a claim supported by numerous churches and monasteries that still exist there today. Once the Ottomans occupied the eastern Balkans in the fourteenth century and the Albanians converted to Islam, the demographics began to change as Serbs migrated north.

In a history where there are so many victims and villains on both sides, it is pointless to pretend that one can lay all the blame on one or the other. The only exception to that was the Milošević years, when Serbs went out of their way to repress the Kosovars and in doing so raised the level of mutual hatred and foreclosed any possibility of some mutually agreed-on solution. In the ensuing conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian forces, the world’s sympathy went to the Kosovars, seeing what Serbs had done in Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia and Croatia, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who took refuge in tents in Macedonia. As Judah points out, the success of the KLA had nothing to do with military prowess. It was able to have NATO fight its war since by 1998 everyone was thoroughly fed up with the Serbs.

“In the general euphoria that followed,” Judah writes, “many did not see, or overlooked, the dreadful reprisals that took place against Serbs in particular but also against Roma and other non-Albanians.” Tens of thousands of Serbs had to flee for their lives, others were killed or kidnapped, their houses were burned, and many Orthodox churches and monasteries were set on fire. The Kosovars who were expelled by Serbs into Macedonia and Albania during the NATO bombardment found upon their return some 120,000 houses either damaged or destroyed. Unsurprisingly, as Judah writes, Serbia and Kosovar Albanians could not agree on the status of the territory. For the United States and most of Europe, independence was the only solution. By contrast, Serbs thought that their only chance lay with the UN Security Council, where if the issue of independence ever came up, they could rely on Russia to cast a veto. In short, neither side had sufficient incentives to seek a historic compromise.

Since its declaration of independence last February, Kosovo continues to be a state under international supervision, where a two thousand–strong European Union–led force, EULEX, has begun to replace the United Nations in overseeing police, law courts, and customs services throughout the province. Some seven hundred European and US police, prosecutors, and judges are already on the ground to take part in the switch from NATO and UN police units. Obviously, hardly any of the nations involved trust the Kosovars to create a multiethnic society capable of dealing with crime and criminals with powerful political connections. The Kosovars are unhappy because they trust Europe far less than they do the United States and the UN, and see foreign presence as preventing their full independence, freezing in place a de facto partition of the country between its Albanian majority and minority Serb areas in the north. “Why should I be a minority in your state if you can be a minority in mine?” they both demand to know. The Serb nationalists, and even pro-European democrats in Belgrade, continue to insist that “Kosovo is Serbia.” They are lying to themselves and to their own people, many of whom, I suspect, know in their hearts that Kosovo, where they have been in the minority for at least a century, will never again be a part of Serbia.

This Issue

March 12, 2009