The Case Against the Serb War Criminals

By David Rieff
Sunday, September 8, 1996; Page C01
The Washington Post

hat the Bosnian elections will take place this Saturday is now a foregone conclusion. That they will almost surely occur in an atmosphere that is the opposite of one that might, just might, have led to a measure of democracy in Bosnia is almost as certain. So is the prospect of overwhelming victories for the nationalist parties. This is not surprising. Almost none of the conditions that, under the Dayton agreements, were supposed to have been met before the elections have been achieved -- from freedom of expression and freedom of association to securing the right of political parties in areas under the control of one ethnic community to campaign in parts of Bosnia controlled by another ethnic community. From any point of view (except that, for now, the guns are silent), the international community has failed as dismally in post-war Bosnia as it did when the fighting was going on.

But the refusal of the Clinton administration and its Western European allies to order troops of the NATO-led implementation force, known as IFOR, to arrest those indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague is the gravest failure of all. In particular, allowing Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, to go free has not only has doomed the chances of free and fair elections in Bosnia now but will be seen by historians of the first Bosnian war (1992-95) as the event that made the second Bosnian war (1997-?) a virtual certainty.

Once it became clear that the international community was going to do everything that it could to avoid arresting Karadzic, the ethnic nationalists (Serb, Muslim and Croat alike) who had engineered the destruction of Bosnia in the first place could be sure that they had the world's imprimatur for their plans to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina -- plans for which the upcoming elections, carried out in the current atmosphere of intimidation, are actually not an impediment but a necessary first step.

In all likelihood, long before IFOR soldiers in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia were sheepishly telling journalists -- who had themselves encountered Karadzic -- that, as one soldier put it, "we don't want to run into anyone important," the decision had already been made to leave Karadzic and Mladic alone. I've been to Bosnia a number of times since the Dayton agreements and it has been more and more obvious that there is no will to go after either man. Even while the accords were being thrashed out last winter, the chief American negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, believed that there could be no peace without the cooperation of the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, and that Milosevic could not afford to have either Mladic or Karadzic appear in the dock in The Hague, since they alone could directly link him to the war crimes and crimes against humanity that they stood accused of in the indictments against them.

In July Holbrooke and Milosevic reached an understanding about the the indicted men that allowed the elections to go forward and spared the Clinton administration the need to undertake a risky military operation to seize Karadzic during the U.S. election campaign. Karadzic agreed to step down from his nominal position but retain behind-the-scenes power; there wasn't even a face-saving gesture with regard to Mladic. The elections process, Secretary of State Warren Christopher insisted during a recent visit to Sarajevo, was a necessary "first step." To which, the Bosnian opposition leader and former Bosnian prime minister, Haris Silajdzic, replied, "a step toward what?"

The answer, of course, is that holding the elections while Karadzic and Mladic remain free and effectively in control is not only a step toward repeating the mistakes of the past, it is a step toward forgetting. For the crimes with which these men stand accused were not incidental to what took place in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, they are central to it: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. And that is why so much more is at stake in bringing Mladic and Karadzic to account than punishing two individuals.

The indictments brought against Karadzic and Mladic by the then-chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal, Justice Richard Goldstone, on July 25, 1995, are long and intricate and include a broad array of offenses under international law. The two men stand accused of violations of the laws and customs of war and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, of crimes against humanity and, finally, of genocide. Others may have carried out the offenses enumerated in Goldstone's indictment, but Mladic and Karadzic were, respectively, in charge of the military and civilian administrations of the secessionist Serbs in Bosnia throughout the war. Final responsibility for these acts rests with them.

Goldstone's indictment is carefully crafted. Indeed, it leaves out some of the acts perpetrated by Gen. Mladic's forces that those of us who experienced the war in Bosnia felt and continue to feel were criminal, notably the siege of Sarajevo itself. But while sieges are not necessarily violations of the laws of war, systematic sniping campaigns are. Karadzic and Mladic are accused of having "individually or in concert with others, planned, instigated, ordered or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation [and] execution" of what Goldstone calls "a systematic campaign of deliberate targetting of civilians by snipers of the Bosnian Serb military."

Anyone who was in Sarajevo during the siege -- particularly those, like myself, who traveled to the Serb side of the line -- knows this to be the case. Sarajevo during the siege was like a fishbowl, with the Serbs firing from above on the population of the city below. The snipers did not choose their targets at random, or in the haze and confusion of battle. The snipers' semi-automatic Dragunov rifles usually had telescopic sights mounted on them. Once, in a Serb position above the Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, I squinted through such a scope. You could see the gold chains on the women's necks, the color of people's eyes, the mottled hands of old people, the pimples on an adolescent's chin.

When Goldstone states in the indictment that "the killing and wounding by sniper fire on these civilians [was] a crime against humanity," his words, though accurate, don't begin to convey what it was like in Sarajevo during the siege. There were streets along which the snipers in the hills had a clear line of sight. When you crossed them, you took a deep breath, and ran like hell. Sometimes they fired; sometimes, they didn't. The girl in the blue anorak might cross safely, but the unseen Serb riflemen, playing God, might not spare the man in the threadbare Chesterfield coat. The indictment names 19 people killed this way, and there were many more. These acts were meant to sow terror. And they did.

What is clear, and what the prosecutors at the International War Crimes Tribunal would prove, if Karadzic or Mladic are ever been brought to trial, is that this sniping was deliberate. The Bosnian Serb army that Mladic controlled was in fact highly disciplined. In periods when the Serbs wanted to comply with a cease-fire, not a single round was fired.

There is so much loose talk in the U.S. and in Western Europe about "ancient ethnic hatreds," and about the innate savagery of the Balkans, that people sometimes forget that the Bosnian Serb army was composed almost entirely of soldiers and officers who had been in the Yugoslav Federal Army, known as the JNA, when hostilities commenced. The JNA was a highly disciplined force, and Mladic and his staff were very competent officers. When Bosnian Serb troops killed 8,000 men and boys near Srebrenica in July 1995, the greatest single slaughter of civilians on the European continent since the reign of Nazi Germany, it was not because they had run amok. Rather, it was because they were carrying out the orders that came from the height of the military chain of command -- that is, from Mladic himself.

Mladic was charged with responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre in a supplemental indictment brought by the Tribunal's prosecutors on Nov. 16, 1995. And, recently, in a hearing on the charges brought against Karadzic and Mladic, the Trial Chamber at The Hague found that Mladic "had full control of his generals and... was often personally involved in the operational decisions of the various corps." It was not only, the judges concluded, that Karadzic and Mladic were "informed of the crimes allegedly committed under their authority but also, and in particular, that they exercised their power in order to plan, instigate, order and otherwise aid and abet" the preparation and execution of these crimes.

About Mladic's direct involvement in the Srebrenica slaughter there is little doubt. Bosnian Serb television actually featured him presiding over the capture of the eastern Bosnian enclave. As the women and small children (boys over 14 were separated and sent off along with their fathers and elder brothers to be murdered) are being herded onto buses, the video shows Mladic, pink and excited, announcing to them, "I am General Mladic. No one can save you. Not God. Not the U.N. Only I can save you." He was probably right, but by the same token, as the statement of the war crimes judges implies, the massacre could also only have taken place with his authorization. And the prosecutors in The Hague have witnesses -- Bosnian men who somehow unaccountably survived the mass execution -- who have given sworn statements that Mladic was present as Serb soldiers gunned down their Muslim captives.

The heart of the indictment against Karadzic and Mladic, however, is neither the sniping campaign in Sarajevo nor the massacre in Srebrenica, but genocide. This accusation has elicited some skepticism in America and Western Europe because the Bosnian Serbs did not wage a war of extermination against the Bosnian Muslims, as, say, the Germans did against the Jews and Gypsies (Roma) during World War II. This "Auschwitz standard" has even caused some people to insist that what took place in Bosnia was not a genocide at all.

However, neither Goldstone nor reporters like Newsday correspondent Roy Gutman (who, in 1992, first revealed the existence of death camps in northern Bosnia) claims that what was visited upon the Bosnian was the same as what was done to the Jews and the Roma. Their point is that, in legal terms, there can be a genocide even when the complete extermination of a people does not take place. The author of the 1940 Genocide Convention, a Polish-Jewish jurist named Raphael Letkin, defined genocide as the attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group "in whole or in part." Under international law, not all Bosnian Muslims had to be massacred, raped, interned or displaced for the Bosnian Muslim people to have been the victims of genocide.

The rape of Bosnian women, the slaughter of Bosnian men and what Goldstone's indictment describes as "the targeting of Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat communities, and in particular their political leaders, intellectuals and professionals" is well documented. Were Karadzic and Mladic ever to be tried, their own defense might be to claim that they had never ordered these acts. But as the indictment points out, the military and police personnel who operated the camps, the soldiers who committed the rapes and mass executions and who carried out the systematic campaign of what came to be known as ethnic cleansing were under their direct control.

None of us who have spent time among the Bosnian Serbs are in any doubt about this. In fact, what was remarkable about Karadzic's mini-state known as Republika Srpska throughout the war was the degree to which central authority was maintained. People shot when they were told to shoot; when they were told not to, they held their fire. In the same way, Serb soldiers and policemen raped or didn't rape, killed prisoners or took prisoners, forced people to flee their homes or let them stay where they were according to the orders they received from their superiors. This meant Karadzic in his "capital" of Pale and Mladic in the field.

To imagine otherwise is to misunderstand what the Bosnian war was about. The issues were who would exercise power and who would control the land. The Bosnian Serbs were not only a minority in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they were obsessed with the fecundity of the Muslims. "If we had allowed things to take their course," one of Karadzic's aides once told me in Pale, "the Muslims would have outbred us." From the start, Karadzic's plan was clear. Either the Muslims would surrender and agree to live as a politically impotent minority in a Serb-nationalist Yugoslavia, or a Serb state would be carved out of the carcass of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was no good defeating the Bosnians militarily if the areas you captured remained majority Muslim. The people themselves had to be forced to leave. Otherwise, as the old Serb nationalist adage had it, Serbs would lose in peace what they had gained in war.

This was why, from the start, ethnic cleansing of people and the destruction of mosques and the Catholic churches attended by Croats was the principal Serb war aim. And Karadzic was the architect of this policy, just as Mladic was its executor. As the Trial Chamber judges wrote, "the systematic rape of women... is in some cases intended to transmit a new ethnic identity to the child... The destruction of mosques and Catholic churches is designed to annihilate the centuries' long presence of the group or groups [in Bosnia]."

That is why Karadzic and Mladic are not just accused of war crimes, but of genocide, the gravest crime that exists in international law.

Once upon a time, last winter, there was a lot of tough talk from Holbrooke and Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum about how sooner or later Karadzic would be bound over for trial. (As for Mladic, American officials stopped talking about getting him in the dock soon after the Dayton accords; it was clear the Yugoslav army would never put up with such a step.) But the actions of the United States, its allies and IFOR exposed these statements for what they were -- empty rhetoric.

It was really only because Karadzic overplayed his hand, publicly thumbing his nose at the international community, ostentatiously showing himself at official events and campaign rallies of his Serbian Democratic Party, rather than running things in Serb-controlled areas from behind the scenes, that the possibility existed until July that he was either going to be seized or even that he might give himself up. In Sarajevo, there were persistent rumors of back-channel negotiations over the terms by which Karadzic might turn himself in. Karadzic had reportedly grown afraid that Milosevic would assassinate him. Suddenly even a cell in Holland seemed safer. Whatever the truth of this, Holbrooke's mission to Belgrade in mid-July eliminated once and for all any chance that Karadzic would give himself up.

The deal Holbrooke cut with Karadzic was good for everyone, save Bosnian democrats. Holbrooke had originally demanded that Karadzic not only step down as "president" of the Republika Srpska but leave Bosnia, presumably for Montenegro. He settled for allowing Karadzic to resign his functions but remain in Bosnia. Karadzic not only maintained a measure of power but this made any attempt to assassinate him less likely. There was no longer any reason for him to fear what awaited him if he stayed in Bosnia more than what awaited him in The Hague.

In effect, the United States capitulated to the aggressors, declared victory and shelved the whole matter.

The reality is that Bosnia did not self-destruct, or fall victim to ancient ethnic hatreds. It was murdered in a campaign whose every detail was first imagined and then implemented by the Bosnian Serb civilian and military leadership; that is, by Karadzic and Mladic. That is why focusing on their guilt, as the prosecutors at the War Crimes Tribunal have done, is not a sideshow nor some hare-brained, idealistic effort to hold politicians and military leaders to an impractically lofty moral standard. For if the charges are sustained then, in law, these two men bear the individual responsibility for the Bosnian slaughter. For the international community not to have made seizing them a priority, a condition of the elections, has sent forth the message that genocidal wars and crimes against humanity can be undertaken with impunity, and that, far from being brought to account, their architects will be allowed, quite literally, to get away with murder.

And it is under the sign of this impunity for those charged with individual criminal responsibility for genocide that the Sept. 14 elections will go forward. Under circumstances in which the results of ethnic cleansing are going to be institutionalized by internationally-supervised balloting, it almost seems hypocritical that Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are not allowed to stand for office. After all, the Bosnia that will go to the polls is very largely their bloody creation.

David Rieff is the author of the book "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West."


"RADOVAN KARADZIC and RATKO MLADIC individually and in concert with others planned, ordered, instigated or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation or execution of unlawful attacks against the civilian population and individual civilians with area fire weapons such as mortars, rockets and artillery or knew or had reason to know that the Bosnian Serb military forces were about to unlawfully attack the civilian population and individual civilians, or had already done so, and failed to take the necessary and reasonable steps to prevent such shelling or to punish the perpetrators thereof."

"RADOVAN KARADZIC and RATKO MLADIC individually and in concert with others planned, ordered, instigated or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation or execution of the sniping civilians or knew or had reason to know that subordinates were sniping civilians and failed to take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or to punish the perpetrators thereof . . ."

"RADOVAN KARADZIC and RATKO MLADIC knew or had reason to know that subordinates in detention facilities were about to kill or cause serious physical or mental harm to Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats with the intent to destroy them, in whole or in part, as national, ethnic or religious groups or had done so and failed to take the necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or to punish the perpetrators thereof."

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