Genocide in Bosnia

Bosnian Genocide, 1992-1995

A very young child, Bosnian Genocide survivor, emerged from mass grave

“And then, suddenly, the shooting stopped. A very young boy emerged from the heap of bodies, covered in blood and mangled flesh. He began walking toward the gunmen, crying for his “Babo” (father). The soldiers lowered their weapons. The commanding officer ordered them to shoot the boy…”

A relentless quest for justice, on international scale

By Adam LeBor — Cynics argue that because the United Nations was unable to stop the carnage in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, it set up war crimes tribunals instead, as a kind of humanitarian consolation prize.

What the diplomats did not expect was Carla Del Ponte’s determination to bring the perpetrators to justice and to end the culture of impunity. As the attorney general of Switzerland, she had fought against the muro di gomma, the wall of rubber, that deflected her attempts to stop Mafia money-laundering. “Madame Prosecutor” is her account of battling the muro di gomma across the Balkans, Rwanda and Western capitals. It is a relentless, sometimes understandably) angry book, and an important insider’s account of the quest for international justice. Each of its 13 chapter titles begins with the word “Confronting,” including “Confronting the Tribunal Bureaucracy,” in which she accuses some of her own officials of obstruction and incompetence.

Ms. Del Ponte’s determination to make the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals functioning instruments of international criminal justice caused consternation. She was a wild card, disrupting diplomacy’s finely calibrated responses. Yet she succeeded, at least in part. Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, was arrested on charges of genocide and died in his cell in The Hague in 2006.

Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, is detained there now and is preparing his defense against charges of genocide.

Ms. Del Ponte wrote “Madame Prosecutor” with Chuck Sudetic, who covered the Yugoslav wars for The New York Times from 1990 to 1995. Sudetic is the author of “Blood and Vengeance,” one of the best books on the former Yugoslavia. “Madame Prosecutor” is less evocative but is clearly written and generally well paced, although occasionally the depth of detail slows down the narrative.

The book’s microfocus on her political battles also means it lacks sufficient geopolitical context. Ms. Del Ponte had a ringside seat at one of the most momentous shifts in international diplomacy in recent history: the setting up of new legal instruments to bring dictators and war criminals to justice. There are occasional insider snippets, as when, in March 2001, Kofi Annan, then the secretary general of the United Nations, wrote to Ms. Del Ponte admonishing her for calling for economic aid to Yugoslavia to be made conditional on better cooperation with the tribunal. However, the reader is left wishing that Ms. Del Ponte were as indiscreet about her dealings with the superpowers as she is, for example, about her relations with her own officials.

Only a tiny fraction of Yugoslav war criminals have been indicted.

By the time Del Ponte left her post, at the end of 2007, the tribunal had issued 161 indictments. Some of the horrors chronicled make for grim reading, and one incident in particular haunts long after the book has been closed.

In February 2007, a protected prosecution witness gave evidence at the trial of seven senior Bosnian Serb army officers, charged with the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. The witness had been a driver, delivering food and drink to the executioners as they lined up their victims and sprayed them with gunfire.

And then, suddenly, the shooting stopped. A very young boy emerged from the heap of bodies, covered in blood and mangled flesh. He began walking toward the gunmen, crying for his “Babo” (father). The soldiers lowered their weapons. The commanding officer ordered them to shoot the boy, but they refused, telling him to do it himself. The witness intervened on behalf of the boy: “All of a sudden he took me by the hand. … I don’t want any one of you to experience that, … the grip, the grip of him on my hand, and I was amazed at his strength.” He took the boy to his van and put some music on, while the gunmen returned to their work.

Later in February 2007, another witness testified at the Srebrenica trial. It was the boy (now a young man) who had crawled out from the pile of corpses.

The Yugoslav tribunal is scheduled to close down by the end of 2011. Meanwhile, in January, the International Criminal Court in The Hague began its first trial, that of Thomas Lubanga, a former Congolese warlord. Survivors of Congo’s horrors have already taken the witness stand. For this, too, Carla Del Ponte deserves considerable credit.

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