VIEWPOINT: The Consensus of Lies

People in the Balkans will continue to reject the war crimes tribunal for as long as they refuse to search for the truth.

VIEWPOINT: The Consensus of Lies

People in the Balkans will continue to reject the war crimes tribunal for as long as they refuse to search for the truth.

As I approach the tribunal on Churchill Square, I see two ducks resting on the lawn by a large fountain. The ducks, obviously a married couple, walk towards visitors, hoping to get a bite or two. They live here and greet people every day, even on bitter winter mornings. I heard that they are Egyptian ducks, but they survive somehow in this miserable, unpleasant Dutch weather where it rains or it blows most of the time. I really wonder how.

Beyond them, I must submit to the police checkpoint at the entrance, where two police officers, just as friendly as the ducks, stand by a metal detector. Once in the building, formerly occupied by an insurance company, the checks continue. If I want to go to a courtroom or visit anyone's office, I have to pass through yet another metal detector. It is immediately clear that this court is engaged in serious business, and that whoever thinks otherwise is terribly mistaken.

The Hague - this is how we call it. Simply say "The Hague" and everything is understood, if you come from the Balkans. This city, more than the building itself, has become identified with an institution - the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY. As such, it is seen as the centre of anti-Croatian and anti-Serbian conspiracy, one of the most hated places in my part of the world.

Mention this city in Zagreb and you will get a very emotional reaction, even from unexpected quarters - people of liberal, progressive, European orientation. Even they are offended that "our boys" can be tried by foreigners. Even they experience the court as a degradation of the "Homeland War", the common term in Croatia for the conflict with Serbia.

Trials of alleged war criminals in The Hague are certainly a key political issue, but they are also an emotional issue and therefore ripe for manipulation. The arguments of opponents of the ICTY are well known: this court is a political instrument established to punish and humiliate their country. The arguments of the ICTY are also well known: both Croatia and Serbia (and Bosnia, too, although it is cooperating) are not democratic enough yet to be able to try their alleged war criminals; far from independent, their judicial systems are deeply corrupt and there would be enormous political pressure if alleged war criminals were tried in local courts.

Until recently, this was exactly the situation in one trial. A key witness in the "Gospic case", Milan Levar, was blown to pieces. An official investigation by Croatia into the killing was obstructed at a high level.

Some more sober voices do say that trials at home would be indeed a proof of democracy. But the case of General Mirko Norac shows why this approach is unrealistic.

In February, some 100,000 people demonstrated in the Croatian coastal city of Split under the slogan "We are all Mirko Norac". Norac, a suspected war criminal, was summoned by a court in Rijeka investigating the "Gospic group" for atrocities against Serbs.

Even though The Hague had not summoned Norac, the mass protests were actually aimed at it - a hated symbol of international pressure for justice.

When Norac was to be arrested by Croatian authorities, he first disappeared. In hiding, he set out conditions to the government for his surrender. Even President Stipe Mesic got involved in the negotiations. Finally, Prime Minister Ivica Racan persuaded Norac to turn himself in.

Norac had clearly put himself above the law. By engaging in negotiations and thereby belittling the independence of the judicial system, so had the president and the prime minister. Is this only to be expected in countries where the judicial system has for decades been accustomed to serving political masters? A change of government doesn't imply a change of mentality.

With generous help from the Croatian media, the Norac case came to be seen as another attack on the "Homeland War". The leaders of the demonstrations claimed that in trying Norac the whole idea of the war had been put on trial - along with the whole Croatian nation, too.

Such reasoning is the consequence of a decade of propaganda from former president Franjo Tudjman. According to this reasoning, Croatia was involved in a defensive war only, which means that, as stated during the Tudjman era by the president of the Supreme Court, Milan Vukovic, Croatian soldiers could not have committed war crimes.

In other words, it was OK that 200,000 Serbs left Krajina; that their homes were burned and plundered; that old people were killed. Mass executions of Serbs in Gospic and Pakrac were OK, too. It was OK to detain 24,000 Muslims in 44 concentration camps in Herzegovina, kill 116 civilians in Ahmici, blow up the bridge in Mostar . . .

It was OK, as far back as 1991, to kill a 12-year-old girl Aleksandra Zec, along with her Serbian parents, in Zagreb. It must have been OK, because her confessed murderer, Igor Mikula, shortly after received medals from Tudjman himself and was promoted to serve in his Praetorian guard. He is still at large.

So the proposition is a hard one, for Croats in general, and not only war veterans: that all of that was wrong and that Croatian soldiers committed war crimes. Yesterday's heroes are today's alleged war criminals and they should be put on trial, but how to tell this to people who believed for so long in something else? They are confused. What is the truth about the war?

This question of the truth is the heart of the controversy over The Hague. In this, Croatia is not alone. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica arrogantly refuses to extradite Slobodan Milosevic, or anyone else from Serbia for that matter. Milosevic will be tried in Serbia not for war crimes committed but for corruption and abuse of power. In their eyes, Serbs are his biggest victims, more so than any victims of the war in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo. War? What war?

Although Serbian society suffered consequences - from embargoes to NATO bombing - precisely because of wars waged against its neighbours, the truth about what happened has not yet become part of public debate. Serbia and Croatia share a consensus about the "truth" of the past ten years - that is, a consensus about lies. The reason is simple, and goes beyond the Tudjman-Milosevic ideology. The fact is that it is easier to live with lies - and much more comfortable than confronting both individual guilt and collective responsibility .

When Vesna Pusic, MP, refused to back a declaration in the Croatian parliament that Croatia was not an aggressor but only defending itself in the war, she was not only warned by the president of the parliament to apologise, she also received death threats.

Truth is not what people in the Balkans want to hear. Because both Serbia and Croatia prefer to live with lies rather than the truth, attempts to administer justice by the ICTY (or anyone else) are seen as injustice. This conflict between justice and the perceived "truth" has serious political consequences: the governments in both Belgrade and Zagreb are not ready to confront citizens with the real truth and therefore have problems justifying extraditing those indicted for war crimes to The Hague.

Yet as long as there is so little desire for the truth in these societies, justice for alleged war criminals will continue to appear as a threat. This is logical and corresponds to the current consensus about "truth". Until then, justice simply has to come from The Hague or it will not come at all. It has to come from the tribunal on Churchill square, with the friendly ducks in front and the cordial but firm officers inside. From judges and prosecutors, investigators and defence counsel who deal with war crimes day by day, month by month, year by year. All because we ourselves do not see a need to wash our dirty, bloody laundry.

A journalist and writer, Slavenka Drakulic's recent novel about mass rape in Bosnia, "As If I Am Not There", is published by Abacus. With this column, she joins IWPR as special corespondent, focusing on justice and war crimes.

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