Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

VIEWPOINT: An Audience with Milosevic

Milosevic may mock his victims from The Hague tribunal, but it's their best hope of getting justice.
By Mirna Jancic

Sitting on a train to The Hague, I reflected that I was on my way to see a man who had greatly influenced the course of my life. Slobodan Milosevic was the reason I had found myself in London as a refugee.


My trip was related to my work as an IWPR editor covering war crimes issues in former Yugoslavia. The thought of the court building where Hague indictees are being judged - and where an attempt is being made to make sense of the region's violent past - gave me a great feeling of inner joy.


In my eyes, the court represented victory over nihilism. Here was something that would not allow things to be forgotten or crimes to go unpunished.


The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, may be the best thing that could have happened to the peoples of the region. All other attempts to establish the truth have stumbled, including Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which are getting nowhere, and local war crimes trials, which are a sham, not to mention the fact that local politics remains in the hands of the same characters who brought the war on us.


We need to look at what the children throughout the region are learning. They are taught opposing histories. In effect, they are being poisoned to prepare them for the next war. In the ICTY, I see hope that at least more will be known about what really happened in the wars of the Nineties. The verdicts on the defendants will provide something solid for future generations to learn from.


Walking towards the court early one morning, I could not help dwelling on the fact that I was about to stand metres from someone I consider a war criminal. Would I finally comprehend how he could have thought up the horrors that he is accused of? Surely, I thought, I would recognise the tell-take signs on his face.


After passing the X-ray and entering the tribunal courtyard, I was struck by a familiar sight. It was a group of ex-Yugoslavs smoking on the steps, enjoying the morning sunshine. Having reached Courtroom One, I sat in the silent press gallery, separated from the trial chamber by a glass wall. I sat in one of 100 available chairs, put on a headset and chose a language in which to follow the trial.


Watching a trial of such consequence through glass, observing the large oval dent in the ceiling above the judges' heads, I was struck by the almost naive simplicity of the courtroom. I was instantly reminded of the command room of the Starship Enterprise on the American TV series, Star Trek. It was as if the judges, Milosevic and everyone else behind the glass wall, had been beamed down from another place.


Milosevic just sat there. I looked hard at his face but it told me nothing. It was just a face I had seen so many times on TV. Occasionally, he scanned the press through the glass, very slowly, as if trying to remember our faces. All the while I tried to comprehend him as a fellow human, before realising just how glad I was that it is not for me to judge him.


I could not judge someone I already consider guilty. I lived through his lies and his wars, and like most people from the Balkans would be bound to react emotionally to the question of his responsibility. This is why those judging him are the best choice. It is because they were spared his daily doses of poison during the 1990s that they can be trusted to weigh the evidence against him.


Listening to the talk behind the glass wall, I tried to forget what I knew about this man and focus on his complaints. I tried to detect a hint of bias in the judges' remarks. I could not. All I noted was the judge's annoyance when Milosevic yet again insisted he did not recognise the court.


Yet there was something wrong, almost perverse, about the proceedings unfolding before my eyes. Each time Milosevic spoke I felt the audience was waiting for something scandalous to emerge from his mouth. There was an element of cheap soap opera.


There was laughter in the press gallery when Milosevic directed a jovial Serbian proverb at the Kosovo Albanian witness he was cross-examining. "He who lies a lot has to remember a lot!" he said. Judge May warned him against making such comments when asking questions. But when Milosevic subjected the witness to another absurd comment, only to face another warning, some of the press continued to giggle.


It was a sad scene. When did the trial of a man suspected of responsibility for the deaths of thousands become so comical and self-indulgent? In Serbia, they already call it "The Milosevic show". The TV viewers there are often shown only snippets of Milosevic's words of wisdom, taken out of context and supposedly symbolising his superiority in the court. One has to feel sceptical about the chances of such a trial altering the public mood there.


The Hague tribunal cannot be expected to inspire such long-awaited changes in the Balkans on its own. Milosevic and the other Balkan nationalists laid foundations - on which countries in the region continue to build - that were too solid for that.


But The Hague must continue its work. There is no alternative. If it were not for the tribunal, the world would be hailing Milosevic as a fighter against terrorism; Croatia would be basking in the reflected glory of its innocent war of independence; Bosnia would not even question the possibility of its own guilt and Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic would be taking turns as presidents of Republika Srpska. How torturous it would be then even to try opening up a debate on war crimes.


Of course, I feel disappointed that a man such as Milosevic remains in a position to humiliate those who experienced his rule. As one journalist remarked, "Imagine if Osama Bin Laden was allowed to cross-examine the survivors of the World Trade Centre". Yet I left for London convinced that the Balkans' only hope of establishing some accountability and at least some of the truth about the region's recent wars lies right there, in The Hague.


Mirna Jancic is IWPR's assistant editor


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