War Crimes and The Hague

Murder, Money, and Salvation in Serbia

A copy of the book Radovan Karadzic: The Most Wanted Serbian Head, by veteran journalist Marko Lopusina, on sale at a newsstand in Banja Luka, Jan. 17, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Soon after Slobodan Milosevic was wrestled from power on Oct. 5, 2000, the new Yugoslav government promised full cooperation with international organizations, including the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. A year and a half later, this cooperation appeared to have been easier to promise than to deliver. Serbia seems to be shaken by the issue more than ever.

Translated from the diplomatese, cooperation with the ICTY means, above all, arresting and extraditing those indicted by The Hague for war crimes committed during the decade-long wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. When Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic last year risked arresting and extraditing the man at the top of The Hague’s most-wanted list, Milosevic himself, he earned Serbia a respite from the West’s demands, but did not succeed in taking the pressure off his country completely. Twenty-three more men, many of whom are believed to be hiding in Serbia, are still wanted by the tribunal.

Among the fugitives are Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, both indicted for genocide and war crimes, notably the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, and the three-year-long siege of Sarajevo. Also high on the list is Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, who is listed in the tribunal’s indictment just after Milosevic.

A group of former officers of the ex-Yugoslav army, known as the "Vukovar three," charged with the murder of more than 200 civilians in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991, is still at large, reportedly enjoying the hospitality of Milosevic loyalists within Serbia.

This leaves Serbia in an uncomfortable position. An April 18 editorial in Belgrade’s independent weekly newsmagazine Vreme summarized the situation thus: "So far, the sum total of our traumatic cooperation with The Hague has been a gun battle in front of Milosevic's house [at the time of his arrest], the fall of one federal government [following Milosevic's extradition], the mutiny of Serbia's elite special police unit [after the arrest of two indicted men last November], and the suicide of former interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic at the entrance of the Yugoslav Parliament." Stojiljkovic, co-accused with Milosevic and the others for war crimes in Kosovo, shot himself in the head on April 11 outside the Parliament building only hours after deputies passed a long-disputed law that would have paved the way for his extradition. The suicide forced the Serbian government, already reluctant to risk losing popular support by extraditing former leaders, to slow down the procedure established by the newly adopted law, and led the government to call on the 23 fugitives to surrender voluntarily or face arrest.

As it happened, six men, but not Karadzic and Mladic, voluntarily came forward to stand trial at The Hague. The Yugoslav Justice Ministry has begun extradition procedures against the remaining 17, authorizing local courts to arrest and extradite the fugitives on sight.

But it is still unclear who will be arrested and when, since most of the fugitives, particularly Karadzic and Mladic, have been in hiding for years, and are reported to be well guarded. Compounding the problem, many Serbs view the fugitives, and particularly Karadzic and Mladic, as heroes. It was no coincidence that Karadzic’s new book was released at the moment when international calls for his arrest reached a fever pitch. At same time, posters claiming "Every Serb Is Radovan," were plastered across Serbia's largest cities. TV Polls indicate that, even in Belgrade, it would be rather difficult to find an ordinary man who would report Mladic's whereabouts. For years, press reports have placed Mladic in a suburb of Belgrade, dining at fashionable restaurants. Yet he has eluded police.

Meanwhile, the first of the six indicted for war crimes to surrender, former Yugoslav army Chief of Staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, turned himself in on April 25. His decision "appeared to be a crucial consideration in convincing the other five to join him," Belgrade’s pro-government Politika reported on April 28. On May 2, Milosevic's deputy prime minister, Nikola Sainovic, and Momcilo Gruban, former commander of the Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia, followed Ojdanic on a commercial flight to The Netherlands.  The remaining three are expected to leave for The Hague in coming weeks. "It proved to have been much to our advantage not to rush, but to have showed patience," the daily quoted anonymous government officials as saying.

There were many circumstances urging haste: The United States had already frozen some US$40 million of desperately needed aid to Yugoslavia. U.S. support in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank was also at stake. And so widely-circulated Belgrade independent weekly NIN was able to conclude, "By Ojdanic's voluntary departure to The Hague, the authorities in Belgrade have managed to cross the Rubicon in their relations with the world, but have stopped short of solving the traumatic issue of Serbia’s attitude toward its past" (April 25).

The next day, Politika went further: "The authorities in Belgrade have been conspicuously silent about the horrifying freezer trucks full of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo pulled out of the Danube river. There has been no information about whose bodies have been dug up from mass graves. It’s as if somebody banned, by a secret decree, any further talk about the matter, so that we find ourselves in the pages of a murder mystery. As in a novel, if the mystery is not solved, we cannot be saved."