SECTION 7 Imperfect Justice
50. OUTSIDE: War Criminals
In the international community, debate raged over who was responsible for Bosnia’s stability. This was true not only inside the Beltway, at The Hague, and at NATO, but also among military personnel on the ground. Among the latter, the most heated peace and security dispute was over the apprehension of indicted war criminals.
The Dayton Accords required that the warring parties surrender those accused of war crimes, allow refugees to return home, and ensure freedom of movement for all. Within several months of the peace agreement, the national Bosnian government turned over to The Hague two Bosniaks indicted for war crimes against Serbs.1 With less cooperation, the government of Republika Srpska and Croat nationalists in the Federation government protected their accused, which left mass murderers, rapists, and other psychopaths in positions of formal and informal authority. A year after the agreement was signed, the US Department of State noted that indicted war criminals were serving as police in Republika Srpska.2 For good reason, Bosnian refugees did not feel safe reentering some regions, rendering the promises of returning home and moving freely impossible to keep.
Although Serb President Radovan Karadžić had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity (even before the massacre at Srebrenica), during an interview in a Sarajevo suburb, Karadžić’s wife said her husband would never surrender.3
The question remained: What were we going to do about him and scores of other indicted war criminals?
NATO’s mandate was to keep order, and having criminals on the loose was anything but orderly. But the organization’s approach to this problem was significantly influenced by the selection of Admiral “Snuffy” Smith to head NATO’s “implementation force.” He was an unfortunate choice, I thought, judging from our meetings at his Naples headquarters a few weeks before Dayton was signed. There, brandishing dueling laser pointers, the admiral and ten of his generals had briefed me on possible intervention operations, known as “Provide Promise,” “Quick Response Options,” and “Extraction Plan.” “Of course, if the famous people in Washington give me the word, I can send my planes in and tear up the ground and kill a whole slew of Bosnians,” Smith had drawled—a tone I found surprisingly glib for someone charged with stabilizing a postgenocidal society.
My misgivings about the admiral were borne out in the hallway of the US embassy in Sarajevo, when I came upon a sobering conversation between Ambassador Menzies and Smith’s political advisor, Steve Dawkins. I knew the ambassador was intent on removing indicted war criminals from the Bosnian mix. But the staffer conveyed an adamant hands-off policy: “Admiral Smith has made it clear. If he’s in a café and General Mladić comes in the front door, he’s [Smith’s] out the back. It’s not NATO’S job to pick up war criminals.”
Entering the conversation uninvited, I protested that the Dayton Accords promised international forces would ensure security. “No, our mandate is to ‘detain,’ not ‘arrest,’” was Dawkins’s explanation. It seemed we had fallen through Alice’s looking glass, where words could change meaning at a whim.
Using the embassy’s secure phone system, I called Secretary of Defense Bill Perry to tell him he had a problem: two high-level American officials, the ambassador and the troop commander, were interpreting the words of Dayton differently. Perry responded that he was gravely concerned and would take it up with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Shalikashvili and NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Joulwan. To reinforce the message, I then called Bob Hunter, US ambassador to NATO, and Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN. Both expressed dismay. They said they would attempt to mitigate the problem as it unfolded, although neither was in a position to solve it.
There were other verbal twists. The European Action Council for Peace in the Balkans reported that, in the town of Vitez, international soldiers spotted a man they believed was an accused war criminal. After verifying his identity at their base, they refused to return and arrest him. That would have been a “manhunt,” not explicitly required in their mandate.
These two surreal scenes did not flow inexorably from Dayton. They were the result of people interpreting the mandate in the narrowest possible way in order to minimize their own responsibility. As Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post put it, “After the daring US diplomacy and military strikes against the Serbs that led to the peace accord, the administration has switched to a strategy of avoiding failure—and avoiding the responsibility for failure—rather than taking new chances for success.”4
I called officials like Ambassador Madeleine Albright (shown walking out to Air Force One) and Secretary of Defense Bill Perry (shown at the Pentagon) when I realized their determination to end the genocide wasn’t shared by those in charge on the ground.
It seemed the US military would do anything, including nothing, to stay away from trouble. But it was hard to locate with any assurance the source of the decision. When General Joulwan, who had overseen the effort to break the siege of Sarajevo, was our houseguest in Vienna, I pushed him for several hours to finish the job and apprehend Bosnian war criminals. Joulwan insisted he lacked that authority. “I’m just a simple soldier,” he said, repeatedly. “We act when political leaders tell us what to do. I’m waiting for orders, and they haven’t come.” Did he or did he not have the necessary authority to act? High-level international advocates insisted he did.
But perhaps Washington was indeed giving him a red light. That caution would be, in part, politically understandable. A presidential election was coming up, and media coverage of an American casualty in Bosnia could jeopardize the entire US presence there and reflect badly on Clinton. Adding to the complexity, NATO feared a shootout because it wanted Karadžić alive to stand trial, as the only one who could lead the tribunal to Milošević.
But most of the resistance came from the military sector. Some explanations made apparent sense. “Our soldiers aren’t trained to be police,” I was told time and again, with the implication that such miscasting was doomed to fail. Other excuses fell flat. Defense Department officials later verified to me that “force protection” was their mantra.5 When the New York Times reported that the United States had dropped plans to arrest Karadžić and Mladić, the Pentagon explained that it feared retaliation against American troops.6
Military commanders rotating through with short assignments were loath to send home a body bag from a shootout on the other side of the world. The motivations may have been not only humane but also selfserving. The negative scrutiny of the press, cutthroat culture in Washington, and tight competition in the promotion ladder created an aversion to risk.
Retired Officer Magazine complained: “US soldiers here are seen as obsessed about personal safety.” Even the military band at a diplomatic reception played in flak jackets and helmets, with their M-16 rifles next to them on the ground.7 But there were real dangers. A plot was exposed in which women were positioned along a road south of Tuzla to lure soldiers into an ambush. The policies restricting troops to their bases for months on end were, however, disproportionate to the threat. Commanders kept soldiers so protected that the number of deaths in Bosnia was actually smaller than those from road accidents, drunken fighting, and other mishaps in Germany, where the troops otherwise would have been stationed.
When Supreme Allied Commander George Joulwan posed at NA TO headquarters with each of the US ambassadors in Europe, little did he know how hard I’d be pushing him to send troops to stop the atrocities.
It was distressing to see how a few Serb bullies could transform their foes into their protectors. Just as, during the war, the Serbs had managed to paralyze the international community by using UN forces as actual—or potential—hostages, now the presence of a huge number of soldiers armed to the teeth became the reason the war criminals could not be apprehended.
As Smith’s hands-off approach was emulated throughout the military, indicted war criminals felt a new sense of impunity. The International Herald Tribune described Karadžić being driven not only in full view, but with a local police escort, to his hideaway headquarters. The (advisory) international police8 said they called NATO troops, who did nothing. Similarly, while Carl Bildt, the high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was meeting with political leaders in Banja Luka, Karadžić was moving around in the same building. A heavily armed NATO soldier stood outside—but the military show was nothing more than that.9 On Capitol Hill, at the State Department, in the Oval Office, at NATO, no one straightened out the policy gone awry. Human rights watchers were appalled.
For the most part, the US military was led by affable, garrulous, smart men who could find a hundred reasons not to apprehend a war criminal living right under their noses. Eventually, I urged that a bounty be posted for live capture. My colleagues in Washington rejected the idea as unseemly, as if it were not a common tactic with the FBI. It took an act of Congress (literally) to bring the idea to fruition.10
Finally, USA Today reported that, “ending 18 months of looking the other way, NATO… sent troops to arrest two men accused of genocidal war crimes,” an action prompted by the frustration of the leaders of NATO’s member states. The paper noted that this “was a dramatic shift for NATO, until now reluctant to get troops involved in arrests.”11
51. INSIDE: Uncatchable
Balding, baby-faced Blagoje Simić smiled disarmingly. “I’m not uncatchable,” he said. “I think someone important still hasn’t ordered the arrests to be done.” And as far as he was concerned, that someone was “Clinton… absolutely.”12
In November 1996, the Boston Globe journalist Elizabeth Neuffer spoke with the indicted war criminal in his mayoral office in Bosanski Šamac. Thirty-six years old and trained as a doctor, Simić was “every inch the Balkan gallant” when Neuffer and her interpreter appeared at his door, unannounced. He received the journalist smoothly, “ushering [her] in, offering a rickety chair, snapping his fingers for coffee—’for the ladies, please.’” Gray-jacketed and settled in a red velvet seat, Simić went on to explain why none of the sixty thousand NATO forces, including the Americans at their base down the road, had arrested or even questioned him.
Simić had been president of the Serbian Democratic Party of his town before the war. But it wasn’t until April 1992 that he became president of the Serbian Municipal Assembly of Šamac—later renamed the War Presidency of the Serbian Municipality of Bosanski Šamac.
How could that overreaching designation apply to a town (population thirty-three thousand) that comprised seventeen Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks? On 17 April, Serb forces had seized control and renamed the place. By May of that year, the new name nearly fit: only three hundred Croats and Bosniaks remained.
Non-Serb residents who hadn’t simply fled were killed, forcibly driven out, or coerced into slave labor. It was easy for troops to spot whom to target: non-Serbs had been compelled to wear white armbands. Over the next year, municipality leaders, including Simić, carried out a campaign of purges and torture.
This was the man who, though not “uncatchable,” was still living in the open three years after his gross violations of international humanitarian law.13 Stories like his were common at all levels—from neighbors who stole from the displaced to leaders who devised the expulsions. And among the latter, no story was more galling and no leader more perverse than Radovan Karadžić.
A psychiatrist, Karadžić had studied at the University of Sarajevo. To indulge his artistic streak, he spent a year writing and reciting verse in New York. Later, he published some of this poetry, along with books for children. Perhaps because he was a man of the mountains, from a small and rough Montenegrin village, much of his poetry considered themes of nature. But buried in the lines was violence:
- At last I am bereft
- Of all benefactors
- I glow like a cigarette’s ember
- Touching neurotic lips:
- While others search me out
- I wait in dawn’s hiding place
- This glorious opportunity
- To suddenly forsake all
- That this epoch has bestowed upon me
- And I hurl a morning hand-grenade
- Armed with the laughter
- Of a lonely man
- With a dark character. 14
In 1985, Karadžić had been convicted of embezzlement and fraud; he was sentenced to three years in prison. He never served his time—a foretaste, perhaps, of his evasion of capture a decade later and beyond. But many refused to see his “dark character.” On the Bosnian Serb St. Jovan radio station in 1998, the indicted war criminal was lauded as a man of “Christ-like virtues.”15
And no wonder. He deftly explained away even the most barefaced atrocities, easing the collective Serb conscience. After the winter 1994 marketplace bombing that killed sixty-eight Sarajevans, Karadžić was ready with a fanciful account: the Bosniaks had taken bodies from a morgue and placed them in the market in order to cry foul. When a journalist asked him how he knew this, he said: “Many had ice in their ears.” The journalist countered that he had seen the bodies, and the psychiatrist persisted: “Yes, but did you check their ears? You didn’t? So how can you be sure?”16 Even the subsequent siege of Sarajevo was transformed from an atrocity perpetrated against the encircled city to a brave attempt to keep the Bosniaks from attacking Serbs outside of Sarajevo.
Undoubtedly Karadžić played a key role in events that pushed the conflict to new levels. In April 1992, thousands of Sarajevans marched for peace through the streets of the city. As the demonstrators approached the office of Karadžić’s party, his bodyguards fired from the roof into the crowd. Six people were killed.
How had this peasant boy, whose neighborhood was fully integrated (Alija Izetbegović, Bosnia’s wartime president, lived around the corner) and who chose a Bosniak as godfather to his son, evolve into a war criminal eluding capture?17
52. OUTSIDE: Evenhanded
NATO leaders were determined not to incite an uprising. They saw “neutrality” as essential to the safety of their troops. But many in the military also believed that all sides were equally guilty. If five Serbs were sent to The Hague, five Bosniaks and five Croats needed to go as well. One military officer clarified this view for me: the fact that so few Bosniaks were indicted was evidence that the ICTY was biased. This issue of fairness was complicated by the brilliant showmanship of the Serb leader. Milošević was fond of crying foul, as if he were the victim in the conflict. It was a tactic consistent with the stereotype that Serbs saw themselves as targeted and oppressed. On the eve of the handover from UN-to NATO-led troops, melodramatic TV broadcasts from Banja Luka proclaimed that NATO would have to “regain the trust of the Serbs,” who “can forget” but “will never forgive” the air strikes.
The rift between diplomats and military was deep when it came to placating such resentment. Admiral Smith had asserted to me earlier in Naples that the United States was being too hard on the Serbs. True to form, one of his first actions was to go to the Bosnian Serb stronghold, Pale, against Ambassador Menzies’s request. There, Smith told Serb leaders that he would consider extending the deadline for handing over some of the areas they held. Menzies, understanding the psychology of the players, was furious. That effort at appeasement, he said, would be interpreted by the aggressors as a faltering commitment to justice.
Not all the military leaders I encountered were of one mind. At the US European Command in Stuttgart, General Chuck Boyd had warned me that I had fallen prey to Bosniak propaganda and should have had more Serbs over for dinner.18 But his replacement, General Jim Jamerson, had a different tone. When he stayed with us in Vienna, I pressed the case that we needed assertive action by the US military. It was not true that Balkan people had never been able to live together, I told him. Jamer-son said he had often heard the same and realized that outsiders were sometimes unwilling to distinguish among the combatants or to see the difference between a policy of systemic atrocities and individual wrongs committed during wartime. I wished he had been assigned to Sarajevo instead of Stuttgart.
A third US general was pivotal in developing the military’s version of evenhandedness. William Nash was commander of the peacekeeping operation for the northeast sector of Bosnia. (The country was divided into three sectors, under the Americans, British, and French.) I asked him for troops to protect high-level visitors coming to commemorate the Srebrenica massacre and press the international community to address the needs of survivors. In turn, the general requested my assurance that, as we planned the event, I would invite Serb and Croat women still looking for their missing.
Like Ambassador Pickering had at the diplomatic gathering in Brussels, General Nash made it clear that he did not want to upset the Russians. He wanted to know how many Russians we had on our international host committee. And would our handouts also be printed in the Cyrillic alphabet used by Serbs and Russians? We spent more time hashing out those details than we did worrying about the thirty thousand-plus survivors.
Major General William Nash, commander of the northeast peacekeeping operation headquartered at Eagle Base, was confident that, despite the genocide, all sides of the conflict should be treated the same.
As we talked, I realized the commander’s quandary: how to face up to a tragically inequitable past while laying the groundwork for an equitable future. How to recognize the overwhelming complicity of the Serbs, while establishing a new order that would protect their rights.
In broad terms, General Nash described the challenge facing his officers: “We don’t have the intuitive grasp of this situation in our professional souls.” That was a powerful admission, since NATO was providing de facto law to the region. Without a clear moral foundation, it would be easy to collapse into confusion.
Case in point: When a few disoriented Bosniak men who, amazingly, had survived Srebrenica came stumbling out of the woods months after the massacre, they were taken into custody by IFOR troops. Unable to reach their command center, the young soldiers consulted their handbooks’ all-purpose evenhanded guidelines. Per instructions, they turned the long-traumatized men over to local authorities—Serb nationalists—who immediately imprisoned them.The internal State Department report was terse: “Re. Turnover of Bosnian Muslims to Bosnian Serb police. The IFOR troops who did this followed local procedure. The intent of the procedure was to bring all local military forces under the control of local authorities. The procedure did not foresee a situation where military personnel from one of the warring parties remained in another party’s sector after the deadline for the movement into respective zones. [Major General] Nash, US Sector Commander, has put measures in place to prevent situations like this from re-occurring.”
Months later, the escapees were still languishing in a Serb prison. Unable to find anyone willing to force their release, I asked General Nash what he was doing to free the men. “As soon as I realized what happened, I started banging my head against the wall,” was all he said.
53. INSIDE: No Justice in Srebrenica
After the guns stopped firing and the peace was signed, life remained blocked for the refugees from Srebrenica. Several natural leaders emerged to organize the survivors. One was Fatima Huseinović, a petite, energetic woman with an infectious smile. Sitting at her kitchen table, she tried to help me understand:
One day I was walking down the street with four other women. We passed another, dressed real nice, walking her dog. When he started to sniff us, the woman frowned and yanked on his leash. “Stop it! Those are refugees!”—as if we were dirty.
I lost my home, my family, my work. But no loss hurt me more than when I lost my identity. I felt so degraded, being just a “refugee.”
Fatima was organizing collective action among the survivors so that, with a stronger voice, they wouldn’t be ignored. Together, they pushed for accountability, the arrest of war criminals, and assistance to the children among them. As “speaker of the women of Srebrenica,” she signed a resolution stating that “the worst crimes committed in Europe after the fall of the Third Reich must not be rewarded.”19
The women couldn’t go back to their homes in or around Srebrenica, she told me, as long as indicted war criminals were free to swagger through town. It was too risky, physically and mentally. This was, after all, the region where Karadžić was said to be living.
Fatima’s own home was empty. She had two daughters. (For the first time in this patriarchal society, she said, having daughters was considered a blessing. It meant you might have a child still alive.) Yet she hadn’t seen her daughters for four years. The younger one had been in Germany, studying to be a doctor when the war broke out. But even her life had been derailed: she’d dropped out of school and become a nurse so that she could send home money for the other seven members of her family.
As she showed me pictures from the purse she fled with, I asked Fatima Huseinović how many men in her family perished in the massacre at Srebrenica. “I haven’t counted,” she answered. “I don’t have the courage.”
Like her mother, the eldest daughter was a refugee, having fled with her husband and children to nearby Macedonia. As Fatima talked, she began to cry. She longed to see her family, but her son-in-law was a Serb. Because of all that the Serb troops had done, she was afraid he wouldn’t survive if the family came to Tuzla as planned. Besides, she added, so many homes had been destroyed. Where would they all live?
Fatima pulled out her purse to show me pictures. She had left home with only that purse, so the pictures were among the few remnants of her life in Srebrenica. There was her husband, holding their grandchild. He’d been a hospital administrator, while she’d worked in a warehouse. She pointed to their home—a small, middle-class, white-framed structure. “We went for ski vacations in the winter and to the beach in the summer,” she recalled.
Another family photograph showed four men sitting around a table with bottles of wine, two holding guitars and grinning. One had left at the beginning of the war, she said. Then Fatima covered three of the men with her hand. They had stayed behind in Srebrenica. All were missing. She said:
Sometimes, in the long years we were under siege, I kept thinking about how it would be just to brew some coffee, like we always had before the war. It may seem silly, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Then when I arrived as a refugee in Tuzla, I was finally able to go buy a kilogram, brew it, and fix myself a cup. But it meant nothing to me. I had no husband to drink it with. I had no son. Were they still back there, hiding in the woods? Or in forced labor? Wherever they were, were they craving this coffee?
If only they could have the chance to return to civilization, to a normal life… to sit around a table and share some food. To live for even a little while, life as it was before. Then maybe it would be okay if they died.
“If I knew he was dead, I wouldn’t suffer,” agreed Kada Hotic, a plain-spoken, formerly middle-class wife and mother who also led a group determined to find answers about the missing. Kada was aware that the news might be horrible. But speaking of her teenage son, she said: “The kindest thing someone could do is tell me the truth. It would be over. Everything else would be bearable.”
How could survivors move past such paralyzing uncertainty? For Kada, the solution was justice. Though she insisted that the ICTY should not be prosecuting ordinary soldiers, she was equally firm that commanders should be taken to court. Maybe then, she mused, reconciliation would be possible. Kada was careful to insist on justice, not revenge, saying that if she hurt someone who wronged her, “I wouldn’t be me anymore.”
But she went even further than nonretaliation, transforming her victimhood as she took on the perspective of the very soldiers who had killed her son and husband: “They must have flashbacks all the time…. It must be so hard for them.” Moving beyond sympathy, Kada explained: “The commanders were awarding medals to whoever committed the worst crime, to the one who killed the most people in the fiercest way, or raped the most women…. That soldier who killed my son believed he was doing good for his people and for his religion. I’m sure he’s not aware even now that he was committing crimes.”
The simplicity of her vision was humbling: “If nothing else, we can at least try to be sure that all we experienced in Srebrenica isn’t covered up.” To press for the truth, Kada turned to street demonstrations and other activism. She expected no help, and she asked for no compassion. That would make her feel like a beggar, she said: “I feel better when I’m protesting.”
54. OUTSIDE: The Tribunal
Nuanced politics did not always lend themselves to complete honesty. Publicly, I sometimes had to ignore the obvious, most pressing subjects. For example, I had to resort to weak, State Department-crafted statements extolling the humanitarian aid that the United States was sending to the Balkans—even as I was advocating to the Oval Office that we take much stronger political and military action to bring war criminals to justice at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
That being said, the more we learned about the ICTY, the more discouraged I became. At a country team meeting, we discussed how computer records of abuses committed by the Croatian army had been stolen from a UN office in Zagreb. It was unfathomable to me that such important information would not have been backed up for safekeeping.
Someone then asked about the Bosniak prisoners now leaving the concentration camps that Jean Christiansen had visited. Had they been interviewed for the ICTY? Surely they must have been, I declared, dismissing the question. My team members, long-term career officers, shook their heads: “Assume nothing.”
The idea of a war crimes tribunal was, of course, not new. The model grew out of the aftermath of World War II, when the victorious powers established military courts to try leaders of the Nazi and Japanese regimes. The UN Security Council’s authority to convene such tribunals was even written into the UN Charter. International courts, sponsored by the UN or by a national government, were to be established when there was no local capacity for trying war criminals.
From 1945 to 1949, a series of trials in Nuremberg, Germany, prosecuted high-level Nazi officials for crimes against the peace, conventional war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Whereas most conflicts end with conditional surrender, Germany’s was unconditional, and victors were free to choose how they would mete out justice. Five decades later, the ICTY and a contemporaneous tribunal for Rwanda were the first instances of such justice mechanisms since World War II. As in Germany, the tribunal set up for Bosnia was ad hoc. Despite the considerable expense, there were many important benefits of this approach.
From the victim’s perspective, the process could return power stolen during the violence, as someone who suffered could stand up in court and relate his or her experience. A string of testimonials meant that fewer crimes would be forgotten and that a full picture of the war could be assembled. On the national level, the tribunal could provide a valuable experience of the rule of law in a place striving for democracy. Seeing the law upheld even against the leaders behind the atrocities would encourage people at every level.
But transitional justice measures are inevitably flawed. In terms of deterrence, frenzied hatred for another group is not lessened by the specter of a future trial. After the fact, many top criminals never face trial or are acquitted due to legal niceties that may outrage victims—for example, inadmissible testimony or unclear chains of command.
But foremost among the concerns is “victor’s justice.” Who decides whom to indict and prosecute? How will the victors acknowledge the suffering of the defeated? Postgenocide tribunals can so inflame the populace that they cause a return to conflict.
President Clinton was mindful of history’s weight: “We have an obligation to carry forward the lessons of Nuremberg. Those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide must be brought to justice. They must be tried, and if found guilty, they must be held accountable…. There must be peace for justice to prevail, but there must be justice when peace prevails.” 20
In the context of the Mladić and Karadžić indictments, Judge Fouad Riad described the carnage as “scenes of unimaginable savagery, thousands of men executed… hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat of the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from Hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”21 Still, leaders of the international military forces refused to apprehend the accused and bring them to trial.
55. INSIDE: Waiting for the Truth
Trying to capture the personal dimension behind the court proceedings, I interviewed a woman whose husband had been indicted. Back at home, Zlata was a politician active in the Bosnian Croat nationalist party.
Ten days before my interview, she’d gone to The Hague for the start of her husband’s trial. We spoke after her return to northern Bosnia. I tried not to lead her, to be dispassionate both in my questions and in my responses to her. But I was fully aware that the scene in Ahmići that she described was very different from that of Ambassador Drago Štambuk, who had felt such shame as a Croatian diplomat in London.
Z: Unfortunately, a great tragedy befell the Muslims of our town. That’s why my husband is at the International Court at The Hague today.
I was born in 1954, one of six children. I married twenty-five years ago, right after secondary school. I was a fighter, and my husband liked that. I built a house and, to tell the truth, I really bore the burden of our family. We lived a good life.
I started working in the municipal government, even while I was studying management and organization. Then I started a business that now employs ten people.
SH: What happened to you during the war?
Z: Throughout the war, my family and I didn’t move away, even though our neighborhood had more Muslims than Croats. Let me tell you about my relationship with my neighbors. My children were closer to their children than anyone else. Nothing could separate us. Every day, I drove to work and back with two of them—both Muslim. One night, we sat in my home until 11:30, talking about everything. None of us knew what would happen in the morning—that our community would be terrorized. When it happened, my husband and I spent two days with Muslim neighbors. That’s why I live where I live, and that’s why I haven’t left.
But in 1995, a lot of Croats in our town were charged with crimes. My husband was on the list. For the next year and a half, he hid from the international troops and police, but I still stayed in my home. When we—not just him but also our children and me—couldn’t bear his hiding any longer, we decided he should surrender. If he went to the court, the truth would come out. If he didn’t go, he wouldn’t have a chance to prove he wasn’t guilty.
We’re all relieved that at least the process has started. As a woman, as a mother, and as a wife I’m glad—obviously not because my husband is in prison, but rather because he went of his own accord. He’s been there a year. After a lot of testimony from witnesses, he’s accused of fifteen murders, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes. But we need to be strong and carry on. Many people haven’t testified yet, and they’ll tell the truth. Truth will prevail.
SH: What caused the tragedy of the war?
Z: The election of 1990 proved that Serbs, Croats, and Muslims wanted a change in the political system. No one was happy with just one party as we’d had before, and I was thrilled when I saw the first elections with multiple parties. Where I live, we all accepted the results. Nothing changed. We were the same people—neighbors, friends, and colleagues. We just organized the government to reflect the elections, so that we all had our rights.
We’d entered a new era, and I felt the Croatian people needed my help. So I got involved with a political party—the Croatian Democratic Community (HDz)—and I’ve been a member ever since. As a Bosnian Croat, I was overjoyed when the referendum for an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a couple of years later.
Before the war, our town was 45 percent Muslims, 52 percent Croats, and a few Serbs and others. It hasn’t completely changed, but about five thousand Croats from places under the control of the Muslim army fled to this area, and vice versa with Muslims who were forced out of our town. A lot of people died on both sides. Things happened that we didn’t know about—not only the citizens, but also those of us in government.
As complex and difficult as this time is, at least people aren’t being killed. My neighbors are returning. Muslims are coming back to Ahmići. And I’m still there. It doesn’t matter that many of them left, or that my husband is accused of this or that. We’ll all live together again.
SH: What’s it like to be a wife in your situation? What do you think about in the middle of the night?
Z: I was the only one of the wives who stayed in our village. Some left out of fear for their children’s safety, but I have no fear. Except for criminals, people are just people, no matter their ethnicity.
Still, there were terrible times. We were surrounded by hostile troops for eight months. Three of my sisters are refugees, driven from their homes. My thirty-five-year-old brother was killed. My sister’s twenty-five-year-old son. My other sister’s twenty-two-year-old son. In my extended family, more than twenty people died, and lots of others were wounded.
Sure, we have scars. Horrible things happened on both sides. You know, when someone kills your child or brother, it takes a lot of time and strength to recover. But we have to keep going, hoping that one day… You know, for years, I simply haven’t had time to cry. I’m afraid if I start, something could awaken in me and knock me off track. I have to be strong. My greatest support is belief in myself and in God, even though I’m not a great believer.
My family’s very important to me, but we all make mistakes. I think I did as much as I could, but I still wonder where I went wrong. Then I ask my husband, in prison, how he bears all this. He says, “Thank God I have a wife who takes care of everything, and I don’t have to worry about problems at home.” I tell him he should just tend to his health and nerves and leave everything else to me. God knows how long all this will take.
The most important thing for me is that when he leaves prison—when he’s found innocent—I want him to be healthy and have the rest of his life with our children, enjoying their successes, and enjoying the town and country we live in.
SH: How are you raising your boys to learn tolerance and reconciliation?
Z: You asked a lovely question. God wants it to be that way. Many people tell me my children set an example. It’s not easy for me to take them to The Hague every month. We go to the cell to see their father for eight hours. There’s no window and no fresh air. How do they stand it? They hold onto the truth. They’re a hundred percent convinced that their father is innocent, and that gives them strength.
I have them studying foreign languages. They surf the Internet and take computer courses. They play sports. My oldest son drives, and he goes out with his friends. I hope one day you’ll meet my children. But their souls are full of sadness. Can you imagine when they hear, “Your father’s a war criminal”? It hurts. That’s why I hope you’ll write about this conversation—and that they’ll be proud of their father and their mother.
SH: I’m struck by your calm and your intelligence.
Z: I’ll tell you now, woman to woman. Since my brother and other members of my family died, I’ve had to be there for everyone else. My mother, my children, my brother’s children—everybody saw in me someone who could help.
As a mother and a wife, I wanted to go into politics. There aren’t many women, but I hope I’ll motivate others to become politicians, whatever their parties. Politics isn’t incidental. Instead of killing, we should talk. Especially mothers—we love our children more than anything in the world. I’m stronger than my male colleagues, because they aren’t grounded as I am, as a mother is. It’s important for women to be in Parliament, where decisions are made.
If women had been the leaders, we might not have had this war. Men think they’re so smart, but really they’re just stubborn. A woman can be intelligent, a businessperson, and a mother and wife. A man could never do what I do. Men think women should be at home, have babies, and wait on their husbands. I cut that out a long time ago.
Now I’m running for Parliament, and when I win, we women will fight for people who are vulnerable, especially mothers and children. I’ll defend not only the rights of my own people but also the rights of all others.
SH: Some politicians want to see Bosnia divided.
Z: There’s only one Bosnia. All three ethnic groups should live here. Dayton mandates that everyone can return home. Minorities need the same rights as the majority. But people also need money to rebuild their houses so they can return to where they can speak their own dialect, express their own culture, and practice their own religion.
Before, when we were mixed, we didn’t even need police. Now, we have tanks. I know they’re here to protect us, but they remind us of the war. I can’t wait for them to go—that’s when we’ll really have peace.
I also don’t like the world being here through humanitarian agencies; I’d like you to come as our guests, as tourists visiting our beautiful mountains and rivers. We’re hard-working and creative. We shouldn’t need charity.
Instead, what we need is for the world to stand behind all three peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There have always been differences, and there always will be. But about one thing there’s no difference: we all want a good life.
56. OUTSIDE: Intelligence and Political Will
Since becoming ambassador, I had come to know a lively shadow world I had seen only in movies. Given the size and scope of our Vienna intelligence operation, when in Washington I frequently dropped by the organization we called “Langley,” “Across the River,” or “The Agency.” Often on these visits to CIA headquarters, I was impressed with how well practiced people there were in secrecy.
A month after the Srebrenica massacre, a visibly shaken agent handed me satellite images of a football field—one showing men lined up in rows, another with the men gone, but with new mounds of freshly dug earth. Nine months later, I was asked by a reporter if I knew of the existence of such photographs, which had never been acknowledged.
At another Langley meeting, I found myself caught up in a loop of illogic, as six specialists and I debated the importance of picking up war criminals. “Why does the timing matter?” one asked. “Let’s work on getting the government infrastructure in place and then pick them up.”
“But the war criminals are doing everything they can to stall the building of those institutions,” I countered.
“If we pick them up now,” another added, “the Serbs will say we’re not impartial.” I recognized the argument.
“Wouldn’t it be more impartial to say that everyone must turn in their criminals, and then actually enforce it?” I asked.
“But if we go after the Serbs, they won’t cooperate with the Dayton Accords.”
“You think they’re cooperating now? What about freedom of movement, and handing over the war criminals?” “Well, except for those things…”
“This was ‘intelligence’?” I thought angrily. I had enormous respect for CIA operatives who risked their lives to uncover drug rings, trace nuclear smuggling, and locate terrorist cells. But not all CIA personnel were upright. I was well acquainted with the first CIA station chief assigned to Bosnia; he had come directly from Vienna, where I had threatened to fire him for obfuscation. (The ambassador, by executive order, has the right and responsibility to know everything the CIA uncovers in-country, except “sources and methods.”) That conflict earned him not a demotion, but the Bosnia portfolio, where he continued withholding information from the ambassador. I wondered what headquarters was thinking. Was his placement the result of inattention—or intention?
Aside from the station chief’s insubordination, his new war-region assignment was challenging. And given the global spread of terrorism, he was charged not so much with understanding the dynamics among the parties to the war, as with assessing extremist Islamic activity taking root in Bosnia. But it also appeared to me that the CIA’s scrutiny was directed not only at radicals from outside, but more broadly at Muslims within Bosnia.
Intelligence officers rotated through assignments worldwide, and they were accustomed to interacting with violent Middle Eastern groups like Afghan Mujahideen or Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This seemed to create among the spies an anti-Muslim inclination that extended to Bosniaks. A significant bias was exposed when an analyst handed me a six-page report on the purported perils of picking up indicted war criminals—overwhelmingly Serbs who had perpetrated genocide against Bosniaks. It was hard to know if the analysts were more blindly pro-Serb or antiMuslim.
I tried to rationalize their attitude, recognizing that at the same time that we were taking a tough stand against “rogue states” like Libya, Syria, and Iraq, we could not be soft on “Mujahideen” who had infiltrated Bosnia. But the intelligence needed to be independent and not tied to a political agenda. I was therefore distressed when, yet again, more intelligence officers passed on to me what I had heard in military briefings earlier about “Muslim extremists”—whom I well knew, and had reported, were nothing of the sort.
That anti-Muslim bias was interfering with the meting out of justice: the enemy of their enemy was their friend. I told the analysts about accounts from human rights workers and reporters documenting sightings of indicted war criminals, and I described how Karadžić had been seen in his jeep, his wavy silver hair blowing in the breeze. Then I recounted the description of a journalist friend who had looked up several men on the list from The Hague and simply gone to their homes. One answered the door but gave a false name; another made no pretense.
My interlocutors made no response. I could not assess whether their stone-faced stares were signs of caution, apathy, or lack of understanding. I hoped it was not more nefarious. A high level State Department official told me that when Secretary of State Christopher asked to see the latest intelligence on the former Yugoslavia, it was eleven days old. That official spoke of “collusion” between the US intelligence and military to weaken the State Department’s insistence that the United States apprehend war criminals.
With a tone that seemed to me to be coming from the top, the CIA maintained this line during yet another meeting with me. At breakfast on an upper floor of CIA headquarters, Deputy Director George Tenet insisted that the agency had tried indefatigably but could not locate Karadžić and Mladić. I said that notion was ludicrous. I knew the methods we had available. If we did not know where they were, it was because we did not want to know where they were.
Not so, Tenet assured me: “We’re doing everything we can. We have a hundred people trying to find them.” Surely he would not lie, I thought. Then I remembered where I was. I felt both frustrated and vindicated when, later, the CIA’S lead Balkan specialist admitted to me: “We basically know where Karadžić is. Picking him up is just a matter of political will.”
57. INSIDE: Professor, Perpetrator, President
Biljana Plavšić didn’t have much to work with when, as heir to the regime of Radovan Karadžić, she became president of Republika Srpska. That and a few dinars might buy her a shot of slibovic.
Karadžić, Mladić, and Plavšić had been the evil trio running the war. A member of the Supreme Command of the armed forces of Republika Srpska, Plavšić was an unabashed Serb nationalist. Yet even toward her own people, she was pitiless: “There are 12 million Serbs and even if six million perish on the field of battle, there will still be six million to reap the fruits of the struggle.”22 A former biology professor at the University of Sarajevo, Plavšić was reviled for statements asserting Bosniak inferiority. To her, Bosniaks were genetically abnormal Serbs. Speaking of Ejup Ganić, she said: “I have never met a more deformed person than him in political circles, which abound with such deformed people.”23
Plavšić particularly deplored intermarriage. “We are disturbed by the fact that the number of marriages between Serbs and Muslims has increased,” she complained, “because mixed marriages lead to an exchange of genes between ethnic groups, and thus to a degeneration of Serb nationhood.”24
Her solution? “I would prefer completely to cleanse eastern Bosnia of Muslims. When I say cleanse, I don’t want anyone to take me literally and think I mean ethnic cleansing. But they’ve attached this label ‘ethnic cleansing’ to a perfectly natural phenomenon and characterized it as some kind of war crime.”25
In fact, one of the war’s first acts of ethnic cleansing was led by one of the president’s heroes. Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, headed a paramilitary group called the Serbian Volunteer Guard, 26 later dubbed Arkan’s Tigers. Plavšić raved about the soldier’s April 1992 attack on a mixed Bosniak-Serb town: “When I saw what he’d done in Bijeljina, I at once imagined all his actions being like that. I said: here we have a Serb hero. He’s a real Serb, that’s the kind of men we need.”27
The best-known woman in the war, Plavšić was despised by most of the Bosnians I respected. She elicited, at best, ambivalence in the international community. When Karadžić was indicted by the ICTY and barred from public office, he clearly expected his former co-conspirator to become his puppet. But when she unexpectedly moved the Parliament to Banja Luka, far from his presumed hideout on the eastern side of Republika Srpska, he was furious. This defiant gesture of independence signaled a split from the Serb hard-liners in Pale (near Sarajevo), who had orchestrated much of the war. Unlike Karadžić, Plavšić was turning to the West.
My initial meeting with the president of Republika Srpska was the brainchild of Brigadier General John Abizaid, which he shouted to me through helicopter headphones as we flew over the US-controlled northeast sector of Bosnia. Even though Plavšić had been part of the inner circle with Karadžić and Mladić, the general pointed out, she had not been indicted and was now in the top position of authority. Better to have a woman, like me, develop a relationship with her.
I agreed and decided to visit her office in Banja Luka—a lengthy drive through Serb-controlled territory. I told the president I’d seen her on TV and in international papers at least once a week: “You’ve assumed semistar status. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
“Too much,” she replied. “Don’t expect so much of me. You in America don’t know how expensive democracy is, because you were born into it. The problem in this region is that there has been no continuity.” She commented that her ninety-five-year-old mother remembered five conflicts: two Balkan wars at the beginning of the century, two world wars, and now this one: “We must have one generation that doesn’t know fighting.”
The next time I met President Plavšić was at negotiations in Vienna. The question of authority over the strategically placed town of Brčko was so contentious that it had been excluded from the Dayton Accords. The evening of the first day of the negotiations, Plavšić came to our embassy residence with the rest of the negotiating teams. As a diplomat, I put aside our differences and greeted the president as she entered our home.
“How are you?” she responded, then, taking me aside, plunged in with a personal question: “How do you and your husband manage a marriage where you’re both professionals with large responsibilities?” I couldn’t imagine two men starting a conversation that way.
To ease the tension of the negotiations, I’d invited a jazz piano player officials. to join us. Choosing the repertoire for a few group songs was complicated. We could divide the room, I said to the pianist facetiously, and sing antiphonally, “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land.” Not good. We tried “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” until we got to the end of “comin’ for to carry me….” When I turned to the group for ideas, Plavšić offered enthusiastically, “It’s Good to Touch the Green, Green Grass of Home.” So much for singalongs, I thought. There’s a reason diplomats stick to démarches.
President of Republika Srpska Biljana Plavšić (second from left)—later an indicted war criminal—at the table in her Banja Luka office. She was a terrible mix: hateful professor spouting poison; betrayed partner of Radovan Karadžić; and the best hope of the West. At this meeting, Bosnian Serb women leaders asked for a more prominent role so they could soften the tone of hard-line
On another occasion, Ambassador Robert Frowick, head of the OSCE mission to Bosnia, gave me a ride to Banja Luka on his plane. We both had business with Plavšić. Frowick wanted to discuss election timing and arrangements with her. My goal was to introduce the president to other women in her area who might play a strong role in a moderate government.
President Plavšić was polite but not warm toward the other women as we held our discussion, her aides (all burly men) looking on. But as we walked from her office into the hallway, she whispered to me, “You changed the whole ambience! You can’t imagine what it’s like for me. We women always have to prove ourselves. I’m completely surrounded by men, all the time. They have a strange way of seeing things. The men in Pale can’t believe they have to deal with a woman.”
On a subsequent visit, the president and I wrote notes to each other as we sat at her table, since her office most certainly was bugged by Karadžić’s goons. She then suggested I ride in her car to the cemetery where her mother had recently been buried. There we could speak openly, she said, as we walked through the gates.
It was a cold but sunny day, and we were bundled up. She pulled out candles, which we lit and put on the grave, “so someone watching thinks we’re talking about my mother,” she explained under her breath. In answer to my question, Plavšić replied that she could not go after war criminals, even minor ones, without putting herself in physical danger. She described Pale as an enclave of criminals: “I have no power there, but we can isolate them. And I can be everywhere else.”
As we sat on a nearby bench, two women strolling along the street in heavy winter coats called out to her: “You’re our only hope!” With an 80 percent unemployment rate, Banja Luka was desperate. For many, Plavšić was a tough leader for tough times.
Given the constant surveillance the president was under, Secretary of State Albright suggested that the president call her on any trips out of the country. I understood Albright’s interest, and perhaps pity. Even after I received reports from our embassy personnel that thugs had been sent by Karadžić to eliminate Plavšić, she would not cooperate with having her former partner picked up by us and sent to The Hague. But she was tormented by his turning on her. “I’m so disappointed. If I’d known how difficult my life would be, I wouldn’t have taken on this job,” she told me, in a wistful voice.
Only at the end of her tenure as president did she give me a go-ahead signal, over the phone from Banja Luka: “You Americans know how to deal with terrorists in Iraq. It’s a problem money can solve.” At first I was puzzled; the United States was not engaged in Iraq at the time. Her comment made no sense—until I realized she was not talking about Iraq. She was asking us to pay someone to pull the trigger (literally) on her erstwhile accomplice.
I asked Plavšić once if she would be indicted as a war criminal. She insisted disingenuously that her work had been only humanitarian, overseeing Serb refugees. She maintained that she knew nothing about what had happened in Srebrenica but assumed there must be some sort of evidence or the international community wouldn’t be making such a claim. When I gave her a summary, she asserted that she had been preoccupied with the Croat offensive outside Banja Luka and, in fact, had wondered why Mladić was not there. She finished by saying that she did remember seeing him on television from Srebrenica.
It was a less than convincing argument. So I was not totally surprised when Mike O’Connor, from the New York Times, came by my Vienna office to raise a question. He’d heard that we invited President Plavšić to our “Vital Voices: Women in Democracy” conference of 320 women leaders across Western and Eastern Europe and North America. “Do you think that’s smart?” he asked. “You’re going to have a war criminal on the same stage with the American first lady.” I explained the basis of our inviting her, as the highest duly elected woman in Bosnia. “And she hasn’t been indicted,” I added. O’Connor maintained a journalistic skepticism.
Was I making nice to a war criminal? The question gnawed at me.28