How the mighty have fallen

For human-rights workers, the mere presence of Milosevic in the dock is a triumph that was unimaginable when Serbian forces were slaughtering thousands.

Published February 20, 2002 4:54PM (EST)

Slobodan Milosevic blustered through a third and final day of opening remarks at his historic war crimes trial Monday, blasting NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia as the real war crime and saying he had always worked for peace. The former Yugoslav president, who is charged with 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, has used his first extended opportunity to speak at his trial to deny any knowledge of or responsibility for atrocities, to show videos suggesting Western powers concocted evidence of massacres as an excuse to bomb Yugoslavia, and to aggressively brandish photos of the charred remains of innocent bystanders killed by NATO bombs.

But even as Milosevic berates the war crimes tribunal, the dozens of people who have struggled for years to bring a measure of justice and peace to the victims of the Balkans wars feel a profound satisfaction -- tinged with disbelief -- that they have lived to finally see the former Serb strongman sitting in the dock. And they hope that the trial, although painful, will allow Milosevic's fellow Serbs to come to terms with what was done in their name.

When the U.N. Security Council mandated the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993, it required a huge leap of faith to believe that a mere legal institution -- operating out of a bland former insurance-company building in this seaside Dutch city -- would ever be able to exert any power over the perpetrators of the worst atrocities Europe had seen since the Holocaust. Justice itself seemed a remote and abstract possibility in a world where one saw nightly news reports of emaciated men held in concentration camps; people shelled and sniped at while standing in bread and water lines in the former Olympic city of Sarajevo; smugly confident Bosnian Serb troops bullying U.N. humanitarian convoys and holding U.N. peacekeepers chained to poles; Red Cross buses full of inconsolable women and girls from a previously unknown town called Srebrenica saying that Bosnian Serb troops had rounded up all of their male relatives. Those anguished reports were the first news of one of the great atrocities of the 20th century: the slaughter by Bosnian Serb forces of some 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys in a three-day orgy of killing in July 1995.

But those who were appalled by the horrors unfolding in the Balkans never gave up. They dedicated years of their lives to reconstructing what had happened in the former Yugoslavia and bringing justice to the guilty -- interviewing survivors of atrocities and family members of those who didn't, lobbying governments to detain and extradite war crimes suspects.

One such person is Stefanie Frease. Currently a program director at the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington nonprofit, Frease formerly worked at the tribunal in The Hague as a researcher in the office of the prosecutor, investigating the killings at Srebrenica, among other atrocities.

Long before the world heard of Slobodan Milosevic, Frease had an experience that gave her a chilling premonition of the ethnic tensions that simmered below the surface in Communist-era Yugoslavia. It was back in 1980, just months after Marshall Tito, the country's longtime communist ruler, died. Frease was an American high school exchange student living in the western seaside town of Split, in Croatia -- at the time one of Yugoslavia's six republics.

"Someone made a remark, using some derogatory word for one of Yugoslavia's ethnic minorities I can't remember now," Frease recalls. "And it just made me think, if there's ever a war here, I have to come to help."

Twelve years later, Frease -- the child of an American Fulbright scholar located in Yugoslavia -- became a humanitarian aid worker for the International Rescue Committee in Croatia. After working in the field for the IRC, Frease headed to The Hague to work as a researcher gathering testimony, interviewing witnesses, and documenting exactly what happened in the weeks and months before, during and after 8,000 people were massacred at Srebrenica. She also researched other crimes. That evidence is part of Milosevic's 29-count Bosnia indictment, which accuses him, among other crimes, of responsibility for genocide.

Tribunal prosecutors say Milosevic paid, equipped and was ultimately responsible for the actions of the troops that overran Srebrenica, besieged Sarajevo and Gorazde, and operated concentration camps where torture, rape and murder were rampant at Omarska and Trnopolje. But Milosevic denies he knew anything about any atrocities committed by Serb troops. He claimed he "heard of Srebrenica" for the first time from Carl Bildt, a Swedish peace envoy. And on Thursday, Milosevic said he asked Bosnian Serb leaders about reports of concentration camps in northwest Bosnia but that they "deceived" him, insisting that they were merely prisoner of war camps where non-Serbs were kept for a short while before being exchanged.

The question of collective guilt -- whether Milosevic and a few other accused leaders are being blamed for the sins, or non-sins, of an entire nation -- is central to the trial. Prosecutors have been at pains to argue that Milosevic is on trial, not Serbia as a whole. For his part, Milosevic has sought to portray both himself and the vast majority of his fellow Serbs as honorable and innocent. "I want to say something that everybody in Serbia knows," Milosevic told the chamber in his opening remarks on Thursday. "In the Serb tradition, and the tradition of the Serb military, a prisoner of war and an unarmed person is held sacred. Whoever violated this sacred principle has to be held accountable. However, this was not done by the military and the police. I am not trying to say that this wasn't committed by some individuals and some groups. But this was not done by the army and police, who defended their own country with honor and chivalry. Such dirty crimes cannot be ascribed to an army, a police, a people, a nation, a country, their government," Milosevic insisted.

In his 10 hours of opening remarks, Milosevic has tried to dip into wells of resentment many Serbs feel not just at the NATO bombing, but for incidents going back to World War II. In his testimony, as during his 10-year reign over Serbia, Milosevic has repeatedly compared NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia to the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia during World War II, in which 2 million Yugoslavs were killed, most at the hands of other Yugoslavs. A detailed accounting by Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, estimates that stray NATO bombs accidentally killed some 500 Serbs and ethnic Albanian civilians during its 1999 air war.

How well are Milosevic's remarks playing in Serbia? Bogdan Ivanisevic, a Serbian Balkans researcher for Human Rights Watch, is watching the trial from Belgrade, the capital of the country Milosevic ruled for more than a decade, and which saw massive protests a year and a half ago demanding he step down. Ivanisevic says it's hard to gauge what ordinary people in Serbia make of Milosevic's statements at his trial. But he says that at some level, Serbs know about some of the crimes committed during the wars, and that Milosevic is not being truthful in his account.

"Milosevic has been saying [at his trial] that NATO deliberately tried to kill as many Serb civilians as possible," Ivanisevic -- who risked his safety to count the bodies of those killed by NATO bombs -- cites as an example. "Nobody could believe that crap. People [in Serbia] know that if that were true, thousands of people would be dead, instead of just a few hundred.

"Any person with any intelligence and decency is not really going to put full faith in Milosevic's words," Ivanisevic says. "But now of course, when Milosevic shows those photos [of people killed by NATO bombs], some people are going to be angry. People here don't like NATO.

"But the way Milosevic goes on for hours and hours, this is counterproductive," Ivanisevic continued. "A few words, a few photos would suffice. Now it continues, it goes on and on, and first of all, it's boring. Second of all, a person here can ask himself, 'is this guy normal, showing all these corpses?'"

Ivanisevic says there's a third element that weakens Milosevic's attempt to make Serbs feel like they are on trial with him for war crimes: Despite Milosevic's years of propaganda and control of the media, Serbs know that some of what he says is not true. In particular, Ivanisevic says, they know that Serbian forces and police deliberately evicted Kosovo Albanians from the province in 1999 -- although Milosevic insisted at the trial that they fled NATO bombs. (This is also the position held by the American leftist Noam Chomsky.)

"They know Albanians didn't just leave because of NATO bombs," Ivanisevic says. "My [relative] who hates NATO, who is a Serbian nationalist, will only watch the parts of the trial where Milosevic speaks. But when I asked him about the forced deportation of Albanians, does he think that's a crime, he says, 'Well, they were not killed, just deported.' But when I ask him about the deportation of Serbs from Croatia, he thinks it's a crime, and that's a whole different context. But the significant thing is that my relative didn't deny the Albanians were deported. He knows."

Ivanisevic says the analysts and journalists commenting on the Milosevic trial for Serbian television are surprisingly balanced -- a stark contrast from the days when Milosevic held the country's media in an iron grip, permitting almost no coverage of the Serbian opposition or the wartime suffering of non-Serbs.

For her part, Frease hopes that the trial, by allowing Serbs to come face to face with what actually happened, will have a cathartic effect. "I think a lot about the impact this trial will have on Serbia and on Serbs in the Republika Srpska. I really have a deep hope that the truth is going to be revealed, and that it is going to have a positive impact," Frease told Salon. "That it is going to be able to penetrate people's thinking in a way that the nationalism, and being so wrapped up in the war, didn't allow them to do before. And that people won't need to feel as if this is an indictment against their ethnicity."

The lack of such a truth-establishing mechanism after World War II -- which saw some of the fiercest fighting in the former Yugoslavia -- actually contributed to the myths, resentments and nationalism that fueled the savagery of the past decades' wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, Frease believes.

"I have always wondered what impact this kind of tribunal would have had on Serbs if it had existed 50 years ago," Frease said. "Because it gets at the truth. And when there isn't any sort of justice process in place, it's just impossible to get over things. You need an acknowledgment; there needs to be a recognition of the facts, of what happened. It doesn't work to bury the past, to just say, 'Oh well, that's the past.' It doesn't go away."

Sonja Biserko, the president of the Serbian chapter of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, says while there is still an audience for Milosevic's denials that some forces under his command committed atrocities, this trial could be a turning point.

"This trial is an opportunity for people to disassociate from the Milosevic policy," Biserko -- who has faced serious threats from extremists in her own country -- said by telephone from Belgrade Friday. "I am afraid they still somehow identify with it. Most of the media is defending him, because he took the opportunity to accuse NATO in front of the whole world. But the wider reaction here is not pro-Milosevic. Most people here feel uneasy about this trial, which is normal. Anyone decent enough feels uneasy, for what happened."

International justice activists say the Yugoslavia tribunal, the first of its kind, has been an experiment that will help them in the future, as well as in war crimes tribunals currently underway in Sierra Leone and East Timor.

The tribunal's biggest problem, according to several observers, was its insufficient initial attention to outreach programs -- efforts to explain, in the local languages and in the local context, what the tribunal is about. Such programs are installed in capitals throughout the former Yugoslavia. But Frease says they should have started outreach programs earlier. In the case of Serbia, such programs could have defused considerable hostility: People in Belgrade have tended to look at the tribunal as a totally anti-Serb institution, when in fact the tribunal has also indicted and arrested several non-Serbs accused of committing crimes against Serbs. (Almost all of them have already been handed over by Zagreb, capital of Croatia, and Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.)

Echoing that criticism is Nina Bang-Jensen, the executive director of the Coalition for International Justice. "I think the tribunal initially did not devote enough attention to explaining themselves to people in the region. It took them years to translate the court documents into the local languages. The outreach programs were very slow in coming. It's most improved now."

Indeed, the Milosevic trial is a logistical wonder, with the prosecutors and judges speaking in English, Milosevic testifying in Serbian, and the first prosecutorial witness today testifying in Albanian. The trial is simultaneously translated into Albanian, French, and the triad of almost identical languages that emerged with the breakup of Yugoslavia known as "Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS)." Some 1,200 people work for the tribunal -- judges, lawyers, translators, researchers, investigators, registrars, secretaries and pathologists. Although Milosevic is the biggest name the tribunal has tried to date, it has indicted over 80 people -- Bosnian Muslims, Croatians and Serbs -- some 49 of whom are in its custody, and another 31 of whom remain at large.

Prosecutors and international justice activists hope that Milosevic will not be the last powerful figure to be brought to justice. They are encouraged by growing signs from Belgrade that it may at last hand over the Bosnian Serb general accused of orchestrating the Srebrenica massacre, Ratko Mladic. And on Friday, chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte skipped Milosevic's testimony to go to the Bosnian Serb capital, Banja Luka, to press yet again for the arrest and extradition of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. Both Karadzic and Mladic are indicted for genocide at Srebrenica, and for crimes against humanity.

Some of the more utopian of those who backed the idea of the tribunal back in 1993 believed that its very existence would serve as a deterrent to further atrocities. Those hopes have been dashed. But Milosevic's presence in the dock these past two weeks has offered a lesson for leaders the world over who believe that power itself guarantees that they can act with impunity.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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