Reading the Yugoslav Tribunal Prosecutor’s Memoir While in Serbia and Croatia

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and surveying its transformations since 1989.

CCarla Del Pontearla del Ponte’s memoir of her time as the chief prosecutor of the two major international tribunals – on Yugoslavia and Rwanda – is basically a tedious book. It can be summed up in a single sentence: she fought tooth and nail against stubborn national leaders, indifferent UN bureaucrats, and elusive war criminals, and although they all put up their “rubber wall” (muro di gomma), she managed in the end to achieve some measure of justice. During her tenure, the Yugoslav tribunal indicted 161 individuals and, through August 2007, took 91 accused into custody.

The book made headlines back in 2009 with its allegations of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members establishing a network to harvest organs from Serbs and sell them on the global market. An investigation into these allegations is still ongoing, with a KLA witness recently coming forward with some new and horrifying details.

But perhaps the most telling part of the book comes at the very beginning when del Ponte confronts George Tenet, the head of the CIA under George W. Bush, and tries to enlist the U.S. intelligence service in her fight to apprehend the two top suspects, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

Tenet is not particularly forthcoming with promises of assistance.

“If you won’t do anything, I think you should at least support our efforts,” she pressed.

“Look, Madame,” Tenet replied. “I don’t give a shit what you think.

Tenet was only giving voice to what many people were thinking in those days, and continue to think today, when confronted with appeals for justice from victims, lawyers, or even top international officials like Carla del Ponte. Tenet was also summing up U.S. foreign policy at its unilateral worst: we’re the United States, and we don’t give a shit what you think.

Still, del Ponte’s book is a powerful – though repetitious – reminder of what it takes to achieve justice in today’s world: relentless, single-minded pressure. Del Ponte simply showed up, day in and day out, to make the same demands of the same people in power.

At the same time, reading the book while traveling through ex-Yugoslavia has meant that every time I encounter a group of men of a certain age, I can’t help but think of where they were, and what they were doing, 20 years before. I say “groups of men” rather than individuals because it’s the group behavior that prompts me to reflect on the relationship between hooliganism and war crimes. A single individual can be loud or drunk or obnoxious, but his impact is generally limited. Groups, on the other hand, make my palms sweat.

I was on the train between Belgrade and Zagreb, for instance, when I had my first del Ponte moment. From the Serbian capital to the Croatian border, I had the compartment to myself, and it was glorious. I relaxed and read her memoir, feet up on the chair cushion across from me.

In the city of Slavonski Brod, however, a crowd of people got on the train, and my compartment was suddenly full. One guy sat down and quietly read a magazine. Another guy installed himself across from me and started to talk loudly on his cell phone. But it was the two last arrivals that worried me – two 40-something guys with a bag full of beer. They popped the tops off the first two, interrupted the conversation of the guy on the cell phone (possibly they knew each other), and generally created what I’m sure they considered to be a festive atmosphere in our compartment. I was sitting next to the window, and I shrank into my seat. It was only a couple more hours to Zagreb. I was sure I could endure the party.

Then one of them lit a cigarette.

I’d chosen the compartment precisely because it was non-smoking (later I learned that smoking is forbidden throughout Croatian trains). I pointed to the No Smoking icon on the door and said, more or less, “not allowed.” The magazine-reading passenger translated my garbled phrase into proper Croatian. The guy laughed, but eventually stood up and took his cigarette out to the corridor and the open window there. That didn’t last long. For his second cigarette, he sat back down in the compartment, tapping the ash and exhaling the smoke into the corridor. For the third cigarette, he didn’t even bother to do this.

I glared at him.

He and his friend laughed again. But not in a friendly manner. They’d already finished their first beers. They looked at me in that challenging, alpha-male way. It didn’t look like the magazine reader and the cell phone user were going to link arms with me in solidarity. I’m not one to fight.

So, with a curse, I got up and gathered my belongings. I was convinced at this point that they were not just football hooligans but actual war criminals. I could see them in uniforms with closely cropped haircuts. I cursed them some more, which was really not the smartest thing to do. Eventually, after I’d already made it several steps down the corridor, they managed to dig up some half-remembered English curses to hurl in my direction.

I’m sure they were just jerks, and there are jerks everywhere, particularly among the tourist class. But I was more upset about the failure of the other two passengers to come to my defense and the conductor’s lack of interest in enforcing the non-smoking rules. First they come for the non-smokers, I thought, still under the influence of del Ponte. After I cooled off in another compartment, I reflected on my over-reaction. Surely the conductor and my fellow passengers would have intervened in the case of actual violence.

In countries where the rule of law holds, such altercations remain minor annoyances. But in countries where a culture of impunity reigns, these trifles somehow become unspeakable horrors. In her book Madness Visible, journalist Janine di Giovanni tells the story from the war period of a Bosniak judge who recognizes his ethnic Serbian torturer. In this case familiarity bred much worse than mere contempt. “So now you’ll never give me a parking ticket again!” the torturer thundered at his victim.

Croatia has moved far beyond the impunity of the Tudjman era. It eventually complied fully with del Ponte’s investigations, and now it is poised to join the European Union next year. The conservative party, the Croatian Democratic Union, is out of power, its leadership on trial for corruption, and its politics considerably more centrist than in the past. The Party of Rights, further to the right, has only one representative in parliament (coming up soon: my interview with that representative).

So, when I encountered other vaguely aggressive groups of men in Croatia, it’s the del Ponte in me that keeps me fixated on the past. But Croatia has moved on.

Just like the craft-store owner that I met later in Zagreb. He too was a man of a certain age. We were alone in the store, and we were speaking in English. Unbidden, he told me that he was in the Croatian army in the 1990s. They sent him to the border with Slovenia.

“It was terrible,” he said quietly. “I’m a pacifist. I hope I didn’t kill anyone.”

As with so much that happens in the past, uncertainty is what we are left with, and this uncertainty holds its own terrors.