• U.S.

Milosevic Confronts His Angry Accusers

4 minute read
Lauren Comiteau

After denouncing “this false court,” Milosevic, who is defending himself, is now fully engaged in his trial It’s a long way–a lot further than can be measured in mere miles–from Kosovo’s valleys to the imposing courtroom of the first International War Crimes Tribunal since the aftermath of World War II. Fehim Elshani, 67, a Kosovo Albanian, made the journey. Looking dignified in a three-piece suit, the accountant turned farmer took his place in the witness chair, shifting his body so that his back was turned to the defendant–who was also doing the questioning. In a show of disrespect, Elshani refused to face the man he holds responsible for the seven dead bodies he found in his yard and for the man in police camouflage who put a knife to Elshani’s throat and swore, in Serbian, he would cut it like a sheep’s. Pointing his finger but still not looking at the accused, Elshani was not intimidated. “How can you say nothing happened?” he asked the man who had been his President. “It is unimaginable the things that you have done.”

And so it goes in Courtroom 1 of the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, facing war-crimes charges, personally interrogates ordinary citizens of the country he once led, the country he is accused of violently tearing apart. Three victims of Milosevic’s alleged crimes appeared in the first week of testimony–all men, all farmers, all Kosovo Albanian Muslims from small villages. One of them, Agim Zeqiri, 49, described losing his entire family–his wife, a son and four daughters–when Serb forces attacked his village. Milosevic questioned him, sometimes belligerently, for about 30 minutes; the next day Zeqiri pleaded he was too sick to continue and was excused.

Though Milosevic has insisted loudly and repeatedly that he does not recognize the legitimacy of the trial, he is now fully engaged in it, serving as his own defense attorney. Every morning he comes to court in a suit and tie, carefully takes the pages of handwritten notes from his black leather briefcase and settles into his seat. He listens closely, takes notes, sometimes smiles or scowls, other times just sits impassively with his arms crossed. He interrupts from time to time to mock the whole procedure, and then he grills witnesses with what some say is the technique of a pro. He’s a lawyer who has never been in court before, a man who rarely spoke publicly when in office but whom judges have a hard time shutting up. Yet he has made it clear that his primary audience is not inside the courtroom. “My response is to the public,” he says. More specifically, it is to his public back home and for his place in the history books.

His version of recent Balkan history is sharply at odds with that of his accusers. Prosecutors say Milosevic ruthlessly deported 800,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo; Milosevic says they left because of NATO’s bombs and Kosovo Albanian terrorists. Prosecutors say the former President was attempting to form a “Greater Serbia,” or at least a Serb-dominated state; Milosevic says the West broke up Yugoslavia to create a “Greater Albania.” Prosecutors say Milosevic’s troops committed unspeakable massacres; Milosevic says his troops did not massacre anyone and he was just defending his country from domestic terrorists.

However vehemently Milosevic insists that the whole Serb nation stands accused, this is his trial alone. He is taking a road that has been traveled before in Serb history: he is the victim, the little guy against the world, who will be victorious even–or especially–in defeat. He may be in prison, but he says he is free. “My name is Slobodan with a capital S,” he said; slobodan means free in his native language. He declares he was a peacemaker whose only crime was to oppose “the might” of the West.

Prosecutors are not having an easy time. Milosevic does not play by all the rules: he refuses to read court papers, will not meet with prosecutors and does not accept standard documents as evidence. This has slowed down the proceedings. The prosecutors have been left to bear the brunt of Judge Richard May’s insistence on “judicial economy”–with repeated instructions to cut their witness list–in a case expected to last up to two years. At least the defiant defendant can have no complaints about the quality of his defense.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com