Unpalatable stories and burdensome truths
by Vera Rankovic
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the proceedings at The Hague is that one of the aims of the founders of the Court - to contribute to awareness of the truth about the crimes committed in the former Yugoslav area - remains unfulfilled. Not one of the Serbian media has used what has been stated in the Court to conduct further investigation on the ground. Not a single charge has been laid against those identified as executors of the serious crimes for which Milošević is being tried as supreme commander. Many of these people continue in their offices as part of the government. Over the past weeks the weekly Vreme has been the site of a polemic [between] those who argue that one must face up to the crimes, if one is to go forward, and those who argue that it is better to leave this painful subject to a future, more peaceful time. Thus some of the prejudices implanted by Milošević’s propaganda still remain in force.
This crucial and fateful issue illustrates sharp divisions within society, in which those who would like the whole story of the crime to be filed away predominate, as is shown by the fact that the presidential candidates must have agreed not to raise the burning issue of (non-) cooperation with The Hague during the electoral campaign. This climate in Serbia supports those who argue that Milošević’s departure has not marked a discontinuity, and who endlessly repeat ‘everything is the same, only he has gone’. This is further supported by the fact that few Serbs have testified at The Hague, and those who have did so under pressure. The witnesses can be divided into two groups: those whose names were already known to the press, and who insisted that they were not there of their own free will (with the exception of Rade Marković, who brazenly lied); and those who had volunteered and whose identity was protected. Only three belong to this group: Ratomir Tanić [whose name was soon revealed] and two soldiers identified as K-32 and K-41. The soldiers spoke of their bad conscience, caused by what they saw and did in Kosovo: a conscience which prevented them from sleeping, since each night the same terrible events kept appearing before their closed eyes. Their testimony gravely weakened Milošević’s defence, but had no effect on the formed and ossified positions of the Serbian public.
Conspiracy of silence
Why this fear of appearing as witnesses, and of disclosure of identity? What does it mean? It means that Milošević is still sufficiently present in Serbia, and that anyone who should - or wishes to - testify against him is in real danger. It may also mean that Serbia is in the grip of a conspiracy of silence, because the number of those who could be indicted is very large. One could quote the testimony of witnesses K-32 and K-41 in support of this thesis. As army recruits they took part in actions during which they were ordered to burn, to loot and to kill civilians. Both quote the order ‘no one in this village must remain alive’. Both state that the soldiers - ordinary soldiers, not criminals, psychopaths, legionaries, paramilitaries, but kids from the neighbourhood - killed civilians, old people, complete invalids, women, children, babies. Both executed direct orders of their immediate superiors. K-41 said that a soldier who refused to kill and later protested was punished. Like their colleagues, they both knew that it was a crime banned under all laws of peace and war. Yet neither they nor the others had the strength, will or courage to refuse to follow the atrocious orders. Not all soldiers have the kind of conscience which prevents these two from sleeping at night. The rest, most likely, have forgotten the war and the terrible things that happened, suppressed and relativised them, thought up a logic and justification, put it all aside - yet continue to live in fear that, if it should become known and trials begin, they too will be held responsible. The times have changed. Then - at that time and in that place - everything was possible. Now - at home, in peacetime - crime appears quite different. This is why all those who have taken part in the war in Kosovo are willing and conscious participants in the conspiracy of silence. And also severe critics of the legitimacy and work of the Tribunal.
Chain of command
War crimes committed by an army are multi-dimensional, since many in the chain of command are responsible for an act. This is why the conspiracy of silence becomes natural; there is indeed no particular need for special consultation. Everyone who wishes to look into these secret and sensitive places, who speaks about the victims, becomes the personal enemy of a great number of people. People who have committed disgusting deeds will do much in order to hide them.
Take the refrigerator trucks, for example. How many people took part in that operation? If we take the line of command that begins with Milošević, there are the executors, the operatives, the people on the ground. Radošević said that in order to remove 86 bodies from the sunk truck, one needed a lot of people and time; that it was all very difficult and complicated; and that he became ill as a result of the effort. My view is that the witness, being a normal human being, became ill as a result not of exhaustion but of the stress and horror, that his conscience awoke, given his minute recollection of what was contained in the small bag of the murdered little girl. Maybe he remembered his granddaughter. How many similar trucks cruised along the Serbian roads? Some estimates suggest that around 1,000 murdered Kosovars are buried in mass graves in Serbia. This is an assumption, since not all the graveyards have been investigated or found, so the number could be smaller but also much higher. One thousand people (women, children, the elderly)! Someone killed them, buried them, dug them up, organised the trucks and a supply of petrol, found the drivers, issued transport documents, loaded them on, unloaded them and re-buried them, cleaned and returned the trucks, paid the wages... How many people were involved in this crime and the cover-up, how to find them and how to punish them?
In the light of this, the question of responsibility, both criminal and moral, becomes a most urgent issue.
Translated from a longer article in Republika (Belgrade), no. 294-5, 1-31 October 2002.