• U.S.

No Rush to Judgment

13 minute read
James O. Jackson/The Hague

Elma Ahmic, 17, is haunted by memories of the brutal destruction of her village near Vitez, 37 miles north of Sarajevo, on April 16, 1993. A unit of the Bosnian Croat militia called the Jokers first shelled the mostly Muslim town, then moved in to finish off the men. Relations with local Croats had been good, she said, but after the arrival of the militiamen, “about 20 people surrounded our house, shouting, ‘Get out of here! This is Croatia, not Turkey!’ My father came out and asked them what they wanted. They took my father and killed him. They shot my brother when he was coming down the stairs. Then they shot my grandfather and two uncles in the front yard.”

At least 107 Muslims died that day in the village of Ahmici. “Many of the people who killed my family are still there,” says Ahmic. “I know who killed them.” So does Sefkja Dzedzic, a local Bosnian Muslim commander. “After the war,” he says, “the dogs will eat these men.”

As outside powers press the Bosnian factions to settle their civil war and accept the permanent dismemberment of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is other unfinished business. The war has been as ugly as any in history. At least 85% of the 200,000 killed in three years of fighting have been civilians. An additional 4 million have become refugees, most of them driven from their homes in pogroms of “ethnic cleansing.” Survivors tell of concentration camps, brutal guards, starvation rations, killing grounds, mass graves. They remember a sadist called the Butcher, the killer gang known as the Jokers. They have witnessed summary executions, decapitations, human beings being thrown on bonfires. Some still hear the moans of raped women, the shrieks of terrified children, the howls of men under torture.

Fifty years after Hitler’s fall, war crimes are being committed in the Balkans on a level reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Governments and private organizations have compiled detailed documentary and eyewitness evidence of at least 5,000 specific cases, along with lists of 3,500 named individuals allegedly responsible for committing the crimes.

The atrocities, carried out mainly by Serbs but also by Croats and Muslims, cry out for punishment. So far, the U.N. and other international organizations have deliberately been dilatory in tackling them. Although a U.N. war-crimes tribunal has been appointed, it lacks the political support and the funding to begin its work. No international charges have been brought before it. No trials have begun.

The Bush Administration named several top Serbs as potential war criminals, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, the leader of Bosnia’s Serbs and General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army. The Clinton Administration has compiled evidence of high-level involvement. “We can piece together a heck of a lot,” says a U.S. official. A recent State Department report cites evidence that Mladic had “overall responsibility for the camp system.” One witness, a Croat who had been an officer in the regular Yugoslav army and later spent 14 months in various Serb-run detention centers, testified that Mladic in some cases decided the fate of individual prisoners. “The Serb detention camps and prison system in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in occupied Croat territory was an integrated entity organized under the corps structure of the army of the ((Bosnian)) Serb republic and operated with full knowledge and support of the Yugoslav army,” the report says.

Only a smattering of cases have been brought. In Bosnia two men have been tried for murder and rape, and authorities in Belgrade have sentenced a Serb to death for killing 16 Muslim civilians. Alleged war criminals have been arrested in Germany and Denmark, and France is investigating charges brought by five Muslims against Bosnian Serbs. The German case against a Serb named Dusan Tadic, 38, arrested in February, will go to trial in Germany or before the Hague tribunal.

Enes Hadzic, a 36-year-old Muslim truck driver, was held for two months at the Omarska detention camp in the summer of 1992. He says Tadic, who came from his home village of Kozarac, six miles east of Prijedor, was a guard nicknamed the Butcher for the beatings and torture sessions he conducted. “One night six men were called out and killed within an hour,” says Hadzic, held in a room nearby. “I could hear the voices saying, ‘Please, Dule, don’t kill me.’ ” One of Tadic’s victims was Jasmin Hrnic, also from Kozarac. “I personally saw Dule Tadic call Jasmin out of the group,” says Hadzic. “A few hours later, he was dead. Jasmin had money and a motorcycle. Dule always hated him.”

The war-crimes trials held in Germany and Japan after World War II set the standard for such proceedings, establishing the principle that leaders may be held responsible for starting wars and for atrocities committed during the conflict. A series of Geneva conventions have defined violations under three general headings:

War Crimes, such as mistreatment of prisoners and targeting of civilians;

Crimes Against Humanity, such as enslavement, deportation and murder of civilian populations, and racial, ethnic and political persecution;

Genocide, defined as “deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Crimes in all three categories have been documented in Bosnia. “The credibility of international humanitarian law demands a tribunal to hold accountable those responsible,” says Theodor Meron, professor of international law at New York University Law School. He suggests that such trials “should deter those who envisage ‘final solutions’ to their conflicts with ethnic and religious minorities.” Says Tilman Zulch, director of Germany’s Society for Threatened Peoples in Gottingen: “I think we have to show that we’ve learned something. We have to show where genocide leads.”

Tesma Elezovic, 45, was on her way home in Braunschweig, Germany, in January 1993, when she came face to face with a man who had forced her and fellow Muslims to flee the town of Kozarac in May 1992. “I was in shock,” she says. “This man had his gun on my son’s neck the whole way through the journey.”

The encounter brought back terrifying memories of the ethnic cleansing of Kozarac, where Muslims and Croats were rounded up and sent to a soccer stadium in Prijedor. “The next morning we were marched to a highway intersection for selection,” recalls Elezovic. “The men, women and children, and old people were separated. A man pushing a stroller with his one-year-old son in it was pulled to the side. They put a vicious dog up to his throat. We could see his insides spilling out. Then he was taken to a garage and shot.”

Elezovic and other women eventually landed in the Omarska camp. “I don’t like to speak about it,” she says. “I was raped. I was beaten. The worst was that we had to watch everything. One night they built an enormous bonfire outside and pushed men into it. I was forced to watch from the terrace of the building. I had a gun in my back and was told, ‘Look how they’re all singing and dancing’ as the men hopped around, burning alive.”

The Society for Threatened Peoples has evidence that 150 Yugoslav suspects may be living in Germany. Most are Serbs, but the society’s list also includes Croats and at least two Muslims. Authorities have launched investigations into 10 occurrences involving 30 individuals suspected of “conspiracy to commit genocide.”

But most of the war criminals remain in their homelands, safe from prosecution. Nothing has been done to confront the likes of Milosevic and Karadzic or others on the U.S. list. Leaders at that level will be the most difficult to prosecute even though they bear primary responsibility for crimes committed by underlings. “Dusan Tadic is only a small part in the machinery of evil,” says Ragib Hadzic, director of the Bosnia and Herzegovina War Crimes Commission office in Zenica, near Sarajevo. “Who created Dule Tadic? Who created the framework in which Tadic could exist? It is the creators of the system who must be prosecuted.” Unfortunately investigators do not have access to military logs or other material that might prove the chain of command.

Cherif Bassiouni, who chairs the U.N. Commission of Experts appointed to study Bosnia war crimes, has passed 65,000 documents to the Hague tribunal. Ten three-woman teams, each consisting of a prosecutor, a mental-health specialist and an interpreter, have interviewed 200 rape victims and gathered data on 800 more cases.

The most persistent investigator is Fadila Memisevic. She has compiled a list of 1,350 suspects along with evidence she believes to be strong enough to satisfy international legal standards. Memisevic, a Muslim refugee from Zenica, has received advice from Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in developing the cases and has applied his rule that each episode must be supported by the testimony of five witnesses. “In many cases we have 100 witnesses,” she says.

Nazif Beganovic, 59, a Muslim tinsmith from the ethnically mixed Banja Luka neighborhood of Budzjak, had lived for years in friendship with the Serb next door: “Before the war we’d drink brandy and slivovitz every night. After fighting started, he saw that we were lost, and he thought of himself as a | force with power over us. I said the war was not my fault. I had no sons fighting against the Serbs. But he screamed ‘Be silent, Balija ((a pejorative term for Muslims))! I won’t waste bullets shooting you. I’ll burn you and blow up your house. I tell you straight to your eyes, I’ll kill you.’ “

For almost two years, said Beganovic, his family lived barricaded in their small home, slipping out a back window to fetch food, harassed nightly by neighbors. The end came on Feb. 16, when two men wearing women’s stockings over their heads charged into the house demanding money. The Beganovics had none to give them. “They hit my nine-year-old,” says Rasema, Nazif’s 33- year-old daughter. “I saw that her nose and ears were bleeding, and I screamed at them to let her go. Then they turned on me and raped me, one after the other. My whole family had to watch.” Her sister Nada, 27, was also raped. The family fled to a refugee center in Gasinci in Croatia, 90 miles away. They will not return.

There is little doubt that such brutality is organized and authorized at a high level, even if the available evidence does not satisfy the exacting standards of a courtroom. U.N. officials cite the example of the predominantly Serb Banja Luka region, which was home to 356,000 Muslims and 180,000 Croats before 1991. Today only 50,000 Muslims and 27,000 Croats remain. Their homes and neighborhoods have been taken over by an estimated 250,000 Serbs brought in from Muslim-controlled areas.

The newcomers are instructed by local Serb officials to “integrate” into the villages. “That means they can look for a nice Muslim house and then go get it,” says Joran Bjallerstedt, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ chief protection officer for the former Yugoslavia. “They back up a truck to the house, load up anything that’s salable, beat up the men, rape the women. The authorities say they can’t control it. The truth is, they don’t try.”

Ljubomir S., 21, is a Serb from the village of Brdjani. He was one of several hundred men imprisoned by Muslim militiamen in a military barracks at Celebici in June 1992. “We were beaten regularly,” he told interviewers from Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. “A young soldier nicknamed Zenga beat us. They killed a man named Corba. They brought in a chair, on which he had to sit. They then shot him in front of his brother and me. This guy Zenga pulled the trigger.”

The Western powers have not used what meager authority they have to force the factions into more humane behavior. The U.N. Security Council two years ago asked the five-member Commission of Experts to investigate reports of atrocities. A year ago, after the panel concluded that “grave breaches” of international law had been committed, the Security Council created an 11-judge international court to deal with them. Little has happened since. The judges “are like firemen polishing their engines, waiting for a fire,” says an international lawyer. They have prepared rules of procedure and evidence, but the court’s offices in a former insurance-company headquarters in the Hague are mostly empty. A small budget — $11.5 million through the end of this year — will cover rent, judges’ salaries and overhead. Only a handful of prosecutors are on duty, a chief prosecutor still has not been appointed, and the budget for investigators is tiny.

Only two countries have put up hard cash beyond the U.N.’s small budget. Pakistan has contributed $1 million, and the U.S. is about to purchase $3 million in computers for the prosecutor’s office. It is also spending $6 million on a task force made up of FBI agents, State Department experts, intelligence analysts and others sifting evidence to build cases.

The U.N. tribunal — if it ever gets started — will be breaking new ground in the history of war-crime prosecutions. Some Nuremberg precedents have been rejected: no defendants will be tried in absentia; nobody will be hanged. All the tribunal can do, says Theo Van Boven, the court’s registrar, “is rule that a case exists and issue an international arrest warrant. That would severely limit the movement of such people. They would become pariahs.”

In Nuremberg and Tokyo, the defeated were tried by the victors. “In Bosnia there is no victory,” says Dominique Wouters, a tribunal legal officer. The chief judge, Italian legal scholar Antonio Cassese, says that makes the creation of the tribunal “a turning point in international relations. For the first time,” he says, “the community of states is rendering a justice that is not that of the victors, imposed at the very time when the air is still being rent by the clash of arms and cries of pain.”

War-crimes trials are intended as acts of punishment and instruments of deterrence — not only against atrocities elsewhere but also against vengeance. One reason to prosecute in formal, legal surroundings those guilty of war crimes is to let their victims see that justice is being done. What is , happening today in Bosnia is the result, in large part, of ethnic violence during World War II and earlier that was never satisfactorily resolved. The international community will have to take responsibility for meting out justice in this Balkan war if it hopes to prevent the next one.

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