Ed Vulliamy writes: A white screen rose like a window blind across the reinforced glass, and there he was, not four feet away: Radovan Karadžic, larger than life and last week sentenced to spend, probably, the rest of his own life in jail. The circumstance of our meeting through the glass, in the nether regions beneath the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, was an “interview” to which Karadžic was entitled before I gave evidence against him next day, in 2011. We were both, I think, curious to get a glimpse of one another at close range before the formal proceedings. Karadžic wore a suit, even in this holding cell, and a tie bearing the Serbian nationalist symbol of four crossed Ss, to indicate the invocation “Only Unity Can Save the Serbs”.
Karadžic managed to be both intense and distant at the same time; he wanted to know what I thought I was looking for when we had first met, back in 1992, on my way – working for the Guardian and with a crew from ITN ‑ to what were reported to be concentration camps across the northwest of Bosnia. I reminded him of the first reports of camps where his Bosnian Serb authorities had interned thousands of Muslim and Croat civilians; Karadžic had been in London by coincidence, had denied their existence and challenged us to “come and see for yourselves”. He had not expected us to arrive so soon at his mountain headquarters, a few days later, above the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
On that occasion, he had shaken our hands and stared into our eyes with a moment of sharp focus, before his gaze drifted off, over our shoulders, to the city below which for three years he was driving – as his military counterpart General Ratko Mladić put it, in instructions to the gunners ‑ “to the edge of madness”. We had lunch, but discussed neither camps nor siege: rather Serbia’s epic poetry and the centuries of her people’s suffering at the hands of the Turks. It would have been comic, or pathetic, were it not so terrifying.
In the end Karadžic did guarantee access to the camps. Omarska: where men, some skeletal, were drilled across a tarmac yard into a canteen where they gulped watery soup like famished dogs, and from which we were bundled out at gunpoint when we asked to enter the dark door from whence they had come – which turned out to be a factory of murder, torture and mutilation. Above the canteen, women were kept for systematic violation. We went to another camp, Trnopolje, to which some people, like Fikret Alic, famously pictured behind a barbed wire fence, had been brought that day from yet another, Kereterm, where Muslim and Croat civilians had been corralled for enforced deportation, many meanwhile beaten, murdered or raped.
What a long journey it has been since then. There was celebration and affirmation last week when Karadžic was sentenced: forty years ‑ which makes it unlikely he will see a day of freedom, even if the sentence is reduced – including a conviction for genocide for his ordering of the massacre of eight thousand men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.
The headlines, the human rights industry, those who advance the cause of “international justice” and the liberal world generally were delighted. The international justice counsel for Human Rights Watch, Param-Preet Singh, summed up the mood: “Victims and their families have waited for over two decades to see Karadžic’s day of reckoning,” he said “The Karadžic verdict sends a powerful signal that those who order atrocities cannot simply wait out justice.”
There was one major problem with all this: since the verdict on the Thursday before Easter, I have spoken to scores of people who have survived or been bereaved by (usually both) the violence of which Karadžic was convicted, and not one of them shares this satisfaction. Not back in Bosnia, or in the scattered, shattered diaspora of those thrown around the world by – in the phrase Karadžic himself invented ‑ “ethnic cleansing”. Therefore, nor can I.
For a start, Mr Singh’s claim about today’s mass-murderers does not seem to be borne out in Syria, where neither President Assad or Isis seem especially intimidated. Anyone powerful enough to have been responsible for the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the genesis of the Syrian nightmare, is apparently too big to go to jail, and therefore immune, to the annoyance of people like South African bishop Desmond Tutu who – in the pages of the London Observer ‑ urged a prosecution of former prime minister Tony Blair for starters. Other “atrocities” ordered by the new war criminals of the coming century, corporations in the “extraction industries” wreaking murderous havoc across Africa, Asia and Latin America, are not even on the radar screen of “international justice” or – for that matter –of Human Rights Watch. The International Criminal Court, down the road from the ex-Yugoslav tribunal in The Hague, has never indicted anyone white, preferring to stick with easy-target African warlords.
But these are the wider reservations; the painful stuff in last week’s sentence – the “minority ruling” by the survivors ‑ is more specific. There are two words that matter in this discourse: one is “genocide”, of which Karadžic was convicted for Srebrenica, and the other is “reckoning”, which Mr Singh of HRW (and many others) deem now to have occurred.
Genocide is a kind of gold standard in “international justice”; if this were a sport (and you sometimes wonder) this is the trophy or medal you have to win. Karadžic’s conviction for genocide at Srebrenica told us something we knew already about the massacre – others have been similarly convicted – adding, of course, that he ordered it. This is fine. But what about the three long, bloody years in Bosnia that followed the first hurricane of violence in 1992, and led to – culminated in – the Srebrenica massacre of 1995? Srebrenica should have become a way of talking about all the other places – other, smaller massacres but massacres nonetheless ‑ during those three years, but it has not. Srebrenica has become an iconic place where politicians – Bill Clinton last year – can go, shed a quick tear and move on. One hoped, with deepest respect to the rightful struggle of those who survived and were bereaved by Srebrenica, that “justice” would buck this trend and take into account the genocide that led to those eight thousand murders. It didn’t.
Three years before Srebrenica, in spring and summer 1992, Karadžic’s people – on his orders, this is not contested by the sentence ‑ cut a swathe across eastern Bosnia, killing or expelling anyone non-Serb (mainly Bosnian Muslims) from their towns and villages. In a place called Višegrad a man called Milan Lukić organised death squads which butchered people on a famous bridge and crammed them in locked houses where they were burned alive. He also arranged for the establishment of a rape camp at a spa called Vilna Vlas, where women and girls were kept for violation all night every night. Lukić, convicted, was so close to Karadžic that he organised the so-called Preventiva network, which protected the fugitive leader for twelve years until they fell out over the spoils of organised crime. No Muslim remained in Višegrad when the war was ended in 1995. Yet what happened in Višegrad is not genocide.
Downriver in a town called Foča, every Muslim was either killed or expelled, and every trace of the community eradicated ‑ apart from more women and girls kidnapped into another rape camp in a sports hall. Yet what happened in Foča was not genocide. The same was done to a town called Vlasenica, towards Sarajevo – not a single Muslim left alive when war finally ended – all dead or fled, for the most part to the United Nations-declared “Safe Area” of … Srebrenica, to seek protection from that same UN which expelled the men from a compound for massacre – and established the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, the ICTY, which sentenced Karadžic last week.
The same was done in a place called Rogatica, and a place called Bjelinja, towards the northeastern border with Serbia, and a place called Brčko towards that with Croatia. I could go on. And on … and that is without beginning to count the thousands of villages that were “ethnically cleansed” between 1992 and 1995. In all of them, mosques, libraries, any trace of Muslim or Catholic culture were destroyed: a cultural branch of law on genocide about which its authors were very specific makes it clear that to eradicate the history and culture of a people is genocide. Karadžic’s position atop the chain of command of the organisms carrying out these atrocities was affirmed by last week’s judgement, yet according to it, none of this was genocide.
Over in the west of the country, over those three long years that we tried to report the Bosnian war, the same horrors were meted out under Karadžic’s authority and on his command ‑ this is affirmed by the judgement. The area around the town of Prijedor contains more mass graves than any part of the country except Srebenica – most of those in them slaughtered in or around the camps we found that day, August 5th, 1992. Just last year, yet another, containing 596 bodies, was found at a place called Tomasiča, giving up its skulls, bones, and fleshy tissue preserved by mud.
Whole towns and villages were razed: Kozarac, Kamenica, Kevljani – and others (Sanski Most, Kljuć etc.), cleared entirely of Muslims and Croats, either lucky enough to be herded into the camps prior to enforced deportation at gunpoint on a massive scale (I joined one of the terrifying convoys on which this was done) or else taken to the camps as a final destination, en route for the mass graves. In what is now the Bosnian Serb capital city of Banja Luka, barely a Muslim or Croat remained alive in 1995, apart from those who had hidden or taken a Serbian name. As in the north and east, not a Muslim mosque, nor a Croat Catholic church, library or historical record survived.
But none of this, as in the north and east beyond Srebrenica at the very end, was genocide, the tribunal decrees.
It is trivial to contest the judgements of the ICTY. That is what those who endorse and support the war criminals, while denying their crimes, do. That is what Karadžic’s supporters will do as he appeals; that is what people like the playwright Harold Pinter did with his bizarre “Free Slobodan Milošević” campaign on behalf of the president of Serbia during all this; that is what the people from an outfit called “Living Marxism” (now the oh-so-respectable Institute of Ideas), supported by famous professor Noam Chomsky, do after accusing ITN and I of “fabricating” – Chomsky’s word ‑ the camps (a question they’ve never answered is “who is in the mass graves then?”).
No genocide until Srebrenica: if that’s the sentence, let it go. What concerns me is the impact of this denial of genocide by the ICTY (as well as these revisionists) on those who survived and are bereaved by those three years of hyper-violence. The truth is that most of them gave up on “international justice” long ago. All this has taken too long; the tribunal lawyers and UN bureaucrats have made too much money out of their suffering to be taken seriously. The refugees, when they come to testify and gather in the witness rooms in The Hague, tend to be poor – and most of them, like most refugees, will remain so. These people are not stupid, far from it, and it is interesting that when they do talk about the ICTY, they speak not so much about the cases, but the fortunes amassed by others in their name. Those people have lost interest in the industry of “international justice” and like my friend Edin Kararič, who survived Omarska, barely noticed the Karadžic verdict.
But others still care, and feel wounded. “I don’t think anyone’s feeling anything other than depressed by it all,” said my friend Victoria Amina Dautović, the first baby born to Bosnian refugees in Britain, in December 1992, with whom I spoke four times on the day of the Karadžic sentence. Her parents survived the camps – she was in utero in Trnopolje. And this is where Mr Singh’s word “reckoning” comes in (it is unfair to pick on just him and HRW – thousands more say the same thing – but they epitomise the general satisfaction). “Reckoning” is a big word. It goes beyond “justice”. It is a deeper, more painful thing that “reconciliation”, a term which gets thrown around by politicians and human rights advocates like an advertising slogan.
Reckoning means confronting what happened, cheek-by-jowl. Reckoning means coming to terms with atrocity, and understanding not only who did it, but why and at what cost. Reckoning is a precondition not only to truth, but to a true history of events. There can be no “reconciliation” until there is reckoning, and not really any peace that deserves the name. Reckoning means the perpetrators looking in the mirror, and admitting what they did – not for punishment’s sake, but for the historical liberation of the survivors and bereaved. Above all, reckoning means giving those who have survived and been bereaved by atrocity back the history of what happened. When I was talking about this with Claude Lanzmann, creator of the epic ten-hour film Shoah, he added: “and the dead. My film is about the dead. They are part of this.”
This is what happened, broadly speaking, to those who survived, were bereaved by and killed in the Shoah: it is not the Jews who build the monuments and museums in Germany, it is the Germans. Apart from a few lunatic and derided revisionists, Jewry has been given back the history of what happened. Of course, there is no parity between Bosnia and the Holocaust. Almost all the survivors of Omarksa, for instance, understand that and many have made pilgrimages to Dachau and Auschwitz. When I was wondering about invoking the Shoah in a discourse on the Bosnian camps, I asked Thomas Buerghental, then chairman of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, to help me – perhaps the word “echoes” would do? “Echoes, loud and clear.” he said.
There has been no comparable reckoning for the survivors and bereaved of Bosnia, nor can last week’s verdict do anything towards one. And to pretend otherwise only serves to emphasise the abyss between the human rights and “international justic”’ industries and the people they claim to serve.
To add insult to injury with regard to those three lost years in the chronicle of genocide, the same tribunal that acquitted Karadžic on that crucial tenth count proceeded to acquit the Serbian extreme nationalist leader Vojslav Šešilj – a passionate supporter of all that was done by his kinsmen in Bosnia, and allegedly deeply involved in its execution ‑ on all charges. The ICTY ruled that the numerous atrocities carried out by militias affiliated to the Serbian Radical Party of which Šešilj is leader – that is not contested ‑ had nothing to do with him. Again, there is no point in arguing – the acquittal is the point.
It also lets Serbia itself almost entirely off the hook. Šešilj’s acquittal follows President Milošević’s death while on trial, and the overturning on appeal of the of the conviction of Serbian general Momčilo Perišić, for involvement in Srebrenica and other atrocities. The UN’s tribunal has been extremely keen to keep Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs apart. When Bosnia was suing Serbia for genocide at the International Court of Justice down the road, the ICTY was careful to hear in camera, and legally seal, documents that clearly proved Serbia’s involvement in the Srebrenica massacre, and deny them to the ICJ.
The then spokeswoman for, and adviser to, the office of the prosecutor, Florence Hartmann – who had covered the war for Le Monde – later wrote a book, in 2007, which described this shabby situation (taking care not to disclose the actual content of the material), believing that the survivors and bereaved had the right to know of it. For this, Ms Hartmann was convicted of contempt of court by her own former employer – a farce to which the French government responded, in disbelief, by refusing to extradite her.
But when Ms Hartmann went to join Bosnian survivors and bereaved for the Karadžic verdict last week, she was seized with a measure of violence by UN and Dutch police and locked up for six days in cells which the taxpayer is led to believe were built for war criminals not journalists writing the truth – in the harshest conditions available to the discretion of the tribunal: isolation, 24-hour lighting, “suicide watch”, etc. When I tried to engage the ICTY’s spokesman Nenad Golcevski in a conversation about this, he said: “Ed, I’d love to talk about this over coffee. But I’m not able to discuss the decisions of the tribunal liberally. Institutions are not like that.”
Institutions, huh; especially UN institutions. Is that all it is, at the end of the day? And quite a money-go-round too. I’ve seen the lawyers come and go since the tribunal was lean and mean in the mid-1990s after its foundation. The best of them will go on to universities back home and – with some justification – impress future law students with their tales of crusade. The worst of them too seem to go from strength to strength.
I will allow myself the indulgence of a personal thought, though it is based entirely on my friendships with Bosnians whom I have now known, to my honour and pleasure, for more than twenty years, and on their views. I have been told many times, whether it is true or not, that it was because of our exposure of the camps that the ICTY was established in the first place (if it’s true, I wouldn’t mind a minuscule slice of one per cent of the interest on their pay-cheques – likewise the survivors!). The creation of the ICTY did follow the discovery of the camps, and was supposed to be an act of both contrition and ambition: contrition by a UN which had failed so miserably on the ground in Bosnia, and ambition in the liberal zeitgeist of “human rights” and “international law”.
I was first approached in 1994 by a US Marine lawyer called Michael Keegan, prosecuting the tribunal’s first ever case, that of a parish-pump murderer, rapist and sadist who toured the camps, called Duško Tadić. I was enthusiastic, and agreed to testify in what was trumpeted as the first war crimes trial since Nuremberg, though Tadić was a minnow in the scheme of things. I’ve since testified in nine more trials, including those of Karadžic and Mladić. I’ve been accused of betraying the “neutrality” of my profession. I’ve been accused by Chomsky, the revisionists and politically-motivated defence lawyers of lying on oath. I’ve defended the tribunal against its critics and gave it a decent write-up in a book published as late as 2012.
I’m glad I met Karadžic that first time in Pale in 1992, because that meeting was en route to the camps – the discovery of which was an accursed honour, and I’d do that again; it may have saved a few lives, it made me precious, lifelong friends and taught me a lot about the world. But knowing what I know now about the ICTY, I wish I had said to Mr Keegan that day in 1994 that I had not the time nor confidence in his project to oblige him, wished him well, left it at that, and never had to meet Karadžic that second time through the glass ‑ been somewhere else, doing something else, that morning, and all the other mornings.
Ed Vulliamy is author of The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: The Reckoning, published by Bodley Head, 2012 and Vintage paperback, 2014.