War criminals run free

Why the West won't touch the butchers of Bosnia


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Andrew Ross
July 12, 1996 3:26PM (UTC)

The International War Crimes Tribunal yesterday issued "international arrest warrants" for Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic on charges of genocide and other war crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The move came one day after the first anniversary of the fall of the so-called U.N. "safe haven" of Srebenica, the scene of mass slaughter of Bosnian Muslims. On Friday, investigators in the Srebenica area continued to dig for evidence of the massacre, unearthing skulls and decaying bodies of Muslim men and boys. In Washington and in Western European capitals, diplomats continued to fret over the fact that Karadzic and Mladic still hold power in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia, despite provisions of the Dayton Peace Accord calling for their arrest.

Are Karadzic and Mladic likely to be brought to justice -- ever? We spoke with Peter Maass, a staff writer for The Washington Post who has reported from Bosnia since 1992. Maass is the author of the recently published book on Bosnian war atrocities, "Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War" (Knopf).

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Apart from a further tightening of the screws on Karadzic and Mladic -- theoretically they can now be arrested wherever members of the United Nations hold sway -- what real effect do these international arrest warrants have?

They have no effect whatsoever, because these guys aren't traveling outside of the Bosnian areas they control, except to Serbia, where they travel openly. And (Serbian president Slobodan) Milosevic has made it very clear that he's not going to cooperate in any way to extradite these people.

Why not?

Because Milosevic knows that if he hands Karadzic and Mladic over to the Hague they will start singing about Milosevic's own role in the war.

The tribunal for the first time also called for an investigation into Milosevic's complicity in war crimes. Does that change the calculations?

In one respect the tribunal is merely stating the obvious, because everyone knows the whole process started in Belgrade. It won't change Milosevic's thinking, but it is a clever move because it puts pressure on (President) Clinton, (British Prime Minister John) Major and (French President) Jacques Chirac. So far, we've heard nothing in Western capitals about Milosevic's responsibility for war crimes. Now you'll see op-ed pieces and television stories about Milosevic's role. That's going to make Clinton and the others uncomfortable because Milosevic is the guy they're dealing with every day. Right now, he's our man in the Balkans. We don't want to see him indicted because then we won't be able to deal with him, Serbia will be isolated, and we go through this dark period of instability again. That's the point of view of Western policymakers.

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Is Milosevic a war criminal?

Milosevic always kept himself at a distance from direct control and command of operations on the ground in Bosnia. He was too smart to say to Mladic and Karadzic, "Okay, it's time to ethnically cleanse this region," or, "it's time to attack Srebenica." I don't think you'll find evidence that he gave direct orders, and I doubt whether investigators will find much of a paper trail. That is one aspect of Milosevic's genius: he kept his hands relatively clean. Though, as I said, no one doubts where the real responsibility for the war lies.

Leaving Milosevic out of it then, why don't NATO troops just drive up to the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale and arrest Mladic and Karadzic?

NATO troops just won't touch them. They can't, even though they'd have a good chance of succeeding. As we now know the Bosnian Serb forces are not quite the 10-foot tall headhunters that we thought they were. But there would be casualties, and a lot of tension in the aftermath, and the West isn't prepared to risk that.

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But I still don't get it. I don't understand why more people aren't shocked, horrified, and ashamed at the fact that here we have the worst alleged war criminals in Europe since World War II, but we don't do it. How we can justify that to ourselves -- it's really beyond me.

That sounds like a rhetorical statement.

Yes, in the political sense, it's really very simple. The most important thing to Bill Clinton is to get re-elected. And because he doesn't like playing with fire, particularly in the Balkans, he doesn't want to take any chances of anything reverberating negatively. Therefore he'll just sit on his hands, at least until the election. But Clinton can be forced to do things when he realizes there is a political drawback if he does not act. That's why there was the bombing campaign against the Serbs last summer after the fall of the "safe havens." And the Europeans won't act without being forced to by the Americans.

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What would force Clinton to act?

I keep on hoping that these guys -- Clinton and the others -- know that they're going to have to get rid of Karadzic and Mladic, one way or the other, if Milosevic doesn't do it. Failing that, I suppose public pressure, public ridicule about letting war criminals go free, that could hurt him electorally.

The American public knows in general about the atrocities in Bosnia. But do they link them with specific names, like Karadzic and Mladic? Do they even know who they are?

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They know in a vague way. But there is still some confusion in their minds about who was responsible for what -- when in fact it is very clear who was responsible. For all the information and all the graphic images, there was a lot of muddying of the issues, especially by Washington, where officials said, well, it's a gray area, it's a civil war, and so on.

There have been graphic reports recently of what went on after the fall of Srebrenica, where up to 4,000 Muslims were shot or hacked to death. How responsible were Karadzic and Mladic for that bloodbath?

They were entirely responsible on the political and military command level. These were the people who controlled the strategy and ordered the troops to go forward. We have compelling testimony that Mladic was at Srebenica, at the sites where Bosnian Muslims were captured. That makes for a very strong circumstantial case that he knew of the massacres and probably ordered them -- because, as commander, he was in a position to stop them if he had chosen to.

What was the motivation? Why would he have ordered such dreadful massacres?

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Because a Muslim man or Muslim boy who remains alive is a potential soldier, and you want to eliminate the people who can carry a weapon against you now, or in the near future.

But the manner in which they were killed -- there was this uncontrolled blood lust.

That should not be regarded as something uniquely Serbian or Balkan. These kind of things have happened elsewhere -- in Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, My Lai. What happened in Bosnia is not a freak show. It's another demonstration of what happens when you have wars and soldiers whose minds have been poisoned on propaganda. It's also a reminder that societies are less stable than we might like to think. That leaders have a dark side, no matter how many university degrees they have.

Which brings up these two. Mladic sort of looks the part and we've read stories about his ideological rage. But Karadzic speaks English, he's been on American television, he's a psychiatrist, he writes poetry. He was almost a cuddly Western media figure.

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Yes, and in a way his is the perfect face of evil. Basic evil doesn't always look like Adolf Hitler. Karadzic is an extremely charming fellow. He laughs, drinks, tells jokes. He's very macho, but also very courteous. These are integral parts of his character. The same can be said for Milosevic -- well educated, well read, a lawyer, he worked for a Belgrade bank in New York, and he has a family. He is charming when you sit and talk with him.

I interviewed him for an hour and a half, face to face, with nobody else in the room, and just as people told me, he looked me straight in the eye and told me amazing lies with absolute, absolute sincerity. Fortunately, I had been to all the places in Bosnia where horrible things had happened, and when he told me, no, we're not responsible for those things, and besides they're exaggerated, I knew these were lies. But if you hadn't been to these places, and most of the diplomats and politicians who dealt with Milosevic had not, I can imagine how they would sit on their hands, and in the meantime more horrible things were happening.

Does this "charm" explain why people like Carl Bildt (the current U.N. representative in Bosnia), (former U.S. commander) Lt. Gen. Michael Rose and other high profile Western officials seem to get seduced and fooled and think they have struck deals with the Serbs that are totally laughable?

Some were definitely seduced. But there's another element which is very important: the vast majority of people responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia are Christian. The victims are Muslim. If the situation was reversed we would have reacted quite differently. I believe with Rose and the others, particularly British and French military figures and politicians, there was an ingrained anti-Muslim bias. I'm not saying that Gen. Rose leaned over to me one day and said, "You know, these Muslims are all terrorists," but you really got that sense from them -- that somehow the Muslims could be the West's enemies, they were not to be trusted, even though Bosnia's Muslims have always looked to the West.

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Bildt, in almost Neville Chamberlain fashion, waved around an agreement that Karadzic was to step down from power. After all the broken promises and agreements, how do experienced diplomats like Bildt get fooled again and again?

Bildt, and the succession of Western representatives, are not necessarily looking for the right solution. If they can do their tour of duty in Bosnia and declare some level of success -- that at least a new war wasn't breaking out when they left -- then that's fine by them. If Bildt can pull these Bosnia elections (scheduled for September) off -- even though everyone knows they are a farce -- and if he can get out of there without war breaking out, then, in career terms, he's done all right.

So these two accused war criminals will strut around Pale or Belgrade for the forseeable future?

Maybe they will just disappear into Serbia for a while.

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And we're likely to see a parade of grim stories, finger-pointing and hand-wringing, none of which will make much difference.

Look, I'm 36 years old. I wouldn't be surprised if when I'm 56 years old I'll still be talking about Bosnia.


Quote of the day

Unidentified Flying American

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"I jumped on him! He was bigger and taller and fatter than me, and I shouted, 'Comrades, come and help.'"


--Nguyen Danh Xinh, now 69, recalling the night of Sept. 10, 1966, when he helped capture U.S. Air Force pilot Capt. Douglas Peterson, whose F-4 was shot down over the hamlet of An Doai, near Hanoi. Peterson has been nominated as the first U.S. ambassador to a reunified Vietnam. (From "The Day the Big American Fell From the Sky," in Friday's New York Times)


Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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