Face to face with the victims of his horror
by Ed Vulliamy
The historic war crimes trial in The Hague is a haunting experience for Ed Vulliamy, who was one of the first to expose to the world the horror of the Serb warlords' torture camps
Slobodan Milosevic is unaccustomed to having his rhetoric and ranting clipped to deadline. He said on Thursday [14 February] that it would take him 10 days to narrate the West's crimes against his Serbian people, but that he would get tired - which seems unlikely. After two days of monologue, the man accused of perpetrating the worst carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich has until lunchtime tomorrow to wrap up the summary of his case. After months in his de luxe prison playing board games and cards, listening to Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' and reading Hemingway, Milosevic has what he really needs: an audience.
Milosevic's spouting-forth spanned every timbre in his repertoire. He wallowed in martyrdom, 'crucified', he said, by his prosecutors. There were flashes of humour and outbursts of anger, his reptilian squint tightening as the words became more vituperative, his forefingers and spectacles brandished as weapons of emphasis. This is now deeply personal: on Thursday, Milosevic's dark stare was fixed almost entirely on his nemesis, prosecutor Carla del Ponte, in whom he has met his match (and vice versa, apparently). After her departure for Bosnia on Friday, it was the turn of Justice Richard May, presiding.
If Milosevic's speeches were long, torturous symphonies, this one opened moderato to insist that the court 'has accused Serbia... the people, the nation', not just himself. The long and lurid largo had him enthralled by his own exhibits: progressively bloodier pictures of mutilated corpses - victims, he said, of Nato bombs. Then a brief scherzo of sardonic wit: 'The prosecutor is probably bored; I can see him yawning.' Finally the crashing, vitriolic coda: a wild and wayward vision of the Serbs as victim of a new Ostplan revived by a Germany 'which has to be master of Serbia in order to advance its ambitions to the east', now backed by American hunger for global domination - a conspiracy demanding 'genocide against the Serbs'.
Milosevic keeps a pile of notes but rarely consults them, introducing his exhibits with drops of melodramatic commentary. His expression shifts from insulted innocence - what me? - onto the offensive, pinching his own face and narrowing those fathomless eyes. He talks to no one, only once waving to one of his supporters who lurk behind sun glasses in the public gallery. The Hague is a city of old, stubborn stone and civic wisdom which - almost by way of a tax on that civility - was selected as the location for churning the excreta of human behaviour.
At the front of Milosevic's courtroom is the witness box, its blue chair empty last week, awaiting some 200 people who will come and tell their stories to his face - stories he has never heard before. One will be a child of 12 from Kosovo - the youngest in the tribunal's history - who lost most of his family in the savagery unleashed across his homeland. Another is expected to be one of Milosevic's former confidants, General Vlastimir Djordjevic, who fled, reportedly to Moscow, as soon as the Milosevic regime collapsed. And from that blue chair, since the tribunal began its proceedings six years ago, a story has unravelled which the walls of the chamber have heard, but which Milosevic has not. It is the harrowing narrative - told sometimes in simple but unheeded language - of the war he stands accused of masterminding, in pursuit of his mono-racial Greater Serbian state. Wherever there are Serbs, said Milosevic, they had a right to 'defend themselves' - and he repeated that maxim from the dock on Thursday.
The slaughter began with the first death in Slovenia in June 1991; it became bloodily entrenched in embryonic Croatia, where the lovely Danube city of Vukovar was levelled by the Serbs into the dust of its own stone. It moved into newly independent Bosnia when, during summer 1992, a hurricane of violence raged across villages, towns, a gulag of concentration camps and the capital, Sarajevo, as Serbs set about the 'ethnic cleansing' mainly of Bosnia's Muslims. Three bloody years and some 200,000 deaths later, the Bosnian chapter culminated in the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in one day at Srebrenica in July 1995. Next came Kosovo, another sweep of violence and, finally, intervention by Nato. I had the accursed honour of witnessing much of this at close range and agreed to testify from that blue chair (it was strange to see it again from the press side of a glass partition) against, among others, Milan Kovacevic, the man on whose authority I penetrated Omarska and Trnopolje concentration camps in August 1992 with an ITN team.
In 1996 Kovacevic blurted out his haunted, drunken 'confession' of professed regret; the call to The Hague duly came and Kovacevic, charged with genocide, died in custody soon after my three days of testimony - unconnected, of course. Night after night, since the tribunal tried its first case in 1996 - convicting a parish-pump sadist, Dusko Tadic, the 'butcher of Omarska' - scattered victims of Milosevic's war have met again in The Hague, in the witnesses' room of a hotel near the tribunal with sweeping views over the city, to smoke endless cigarettes, remembering. And day after day, from that blue chair, they have told their stories to the court and the world, if it cared to listen - which usually it did not.
Stories like that of old Meho Alic, captive in Omarska. One of Alic's sons had been killed during the Serbian round-ups - news he had to break to his other boy through a partition that divided them in the camp. Soon afterwards, time came for his captors - engaged in daily and nightly murders of prisoners - to force a decision on Alic. Either he sent his son for execution or the guards would select 10 others. Alic elected to spare nine lives, greeted his son, bade him farewell and dispatched him to his death. It was an end Alic junior shared alongside another man who died from the pain of castration, the guards forcing a live pigeon down his throat to stifle his screams. A witness to the scene described the Serbs as 'like a crowd at a sporting match'.
There was testimony from that blue chair like that of a woman who survived Europe's worst single massacre since the Holocaust - Srebrenica - but lost her sons, so moving that even the seasoned prosecutor Mark Harman could not read it aloud during his summation. He instead played the tape of her own hesitant, poignant account: 'As a mother, I still have hope... How is it possible that a human being could do something like this, could destroy everything, could kill so many people? Just imagine this youngest boy I had, those little hands of his, how could they be dead? I imagine those hands picking strawberries, reading books, going to school, going on excursions. Every morning I wake up, I cover my eyes not to look at other children going to school, and husbands going to work, holding hands.'
Now comes Milosevic. 'It will be interesting,' says tribunal spokesman James Landale, 'to see how he reacts when confronted face-to-face with what these people have to say.' In past cases some defendants, like Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic, countered their accusers with a gaze set in stone. Others, like Tadic, hid behind lowered eyelids, but occasionally looked up to greet the evidence with a demonic, defiant smile.
In many of these cases those accused knew their victims well, such was the macabre intimacy of Bosnia's war at least. But the very essence of the Milosevic trial is that he did not; he was closeted away in the dark corridors of his palace and of his inner mind - a mind the prosecution must penetrate if it is to pin on him the ultimate charge of genocide, which must demonstrate intent. Somewhere within the ranting is a rough sketch of what Milosevic's defence will be. In Friday's session he flatly denied the existence of a 'plan for a so-called Greater Serbia'. He also drove a wedge between 'the Yugoslav army and police', which 'defended their country honourably and chivalrously', and 'paramilitaries' who 'go and loot and burn and kill' - the implication being that the latter, whom he will no doubt blame for what he calls 'tragedies', were not under his command.
Milosevic also seized on two central episodes in the prosecution case, claiming them to be fabrications. The first is an infamous case, that of Trnopolje concentration camp, uncovered by ITN and myself, whose emaciated inmates behind barbed wire became one of the indelible images of the war. For many years, ITN and I were subjected to a malicious slander that these accounts were in some way faked. Milosevic said on Thursday he had been 'deceived' by the Bosnian Serbs over the camps, but then dragged out the Trnopolje argument on Friday, saying 'these are false television images in order to bear out this anti-Serb policy. It was a collection centre for refugees who were free to move around the village... and had come here for protection'. This nonsense was brushed aside by the High Court in London in 2000, upholding a libel action taken by ITN against a British pro-Serb revisionist group trying to propagate it. The bench at The Hague also singled out Trnopolje during the Tadic judgment as a particularly brutal camp, specialising in rape, torture and mutilation.
Milosevic's second cornerstone was a massacre of Kosovo Albanians at the village of Raçak in 1999, which steeled the West's resolve to intervene. Raçak was also contested, Trnopolje-style, as a fake by French newspapers after briefings by their country's secret services. There were variations on the theme, again adopted by Milosevic: that the victims were Albanian militiamen, or else the bodies were gathered from elsewhere. Again, it had been ITN which revealed the bloodletting at Raçak, and post mortem investigations were so thorough they even matched entry wounds to the victims' clothing. A subsequent independent investigation found the massacre to be every bit as horrific as was originally feared.
Milosevic all but ignored five years of indictment for the bloodletting in Croatia and Bosnia, focusing instead on Kosovo in 1989, which offers him the advantages of tardy Western military action and the behaviour of the Albanian KLA - a more vindictive resistance militia than their counterpart in Bosnia, which was multi-ethnic at first and caught unawares. 'The cynicism is thick,' says Richard Dicker, monitoring the trial for Human Rights Watch, 'we have barely reached one word on Vukovar or camps and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, all laid out in the indictments.'
Men like Milosevic do not come along often, and watching him at a range of a few feet for two days is an unsettling experience. The question inevitably occurs: does he believe himself? Hitler famously did; Goebbels famously did not. Does Milosevic really believe that he defended communities which 'never had any kind of nationalistic disputes... and that is why they had to be destroyed' by 'pyromaniac' Germany and an America which 'put out the fire with fuel'. Often, when the likes of Milosevic look into a mirror, they see their enemy. He describes himself and his people in the same language as that used to accuse him. Perpetrator becomes victim and vice versa.
Shortly before he committed suicide in 1996, Nikola Koljevic, one of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's deputies, recommended to me a book by the American writer Daniel Boorstin. 'It is all about how we lie to and deceive ourselves,' he laughed. And, just before Milosevic launched into his final tirade on a global conspiracy to commit genocide against the Serbs, he spat: 'The whole thing we have here is an inversion of the arguments... It is an inverted thesis and you cannot see the wood for the trees.' No one could have better described Milosevic's two memorable days of listening to himself.
This article was published in The Observer (London), 17 February 2002