On the Hunt for the Balkans' Most Wanted

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Survivors of the Serbian attack on Srebrenica learn of the fall of a United Nations safe haven in Tuzla, Bosnia, on July 15, 1995. More than 8,000 Bosnian men were killed in the attack on Srebrenica. Ron Haviv/VII

The Bosnian Muslim women camping out in the cornfield were shattered. Some sobbed, while others sat silently, staring into space. It was a baking hot summer in July 1995, and the town of Srebrenica had just fallen to the Bosnian Serbs. “They were completely traumatized,” recalls the British journalist Julian Borger, who was covering the war in Bosnia for The Guardian and the BBC. He is now the diplomatic editor of The Guardian. “They had just had their husbands, fathers and sons torn away from them and executed in a series of mass killings. I remember one woman remonstrating with another: ‘How could you have let him out of your sight?’”

Borger had been covering the war for two years, but he had never seen anything like the scenes in this cornfield or heard stories like those told by the women there. He saw the body of one woman, Ferida Osmanovic, whose husband had been executed; she hanged herself from a tree.

Srebrenica, a city in eastern Bosnia, was a U.N.-declared safe area. A civil war that began in 1992 had largely divided the former Yugoslav republic by ethnic group. That part of the country was home to Muslims. Serbs, whom most Western nations consider the aggressors in the war, held the territory on all sides of it. A unit of Dutch peacekeepers was posted in the town, where the people relied on U.N. aid convoys for food. But the outnumbered, frightened peacekeepers had stood by when the Bosnian Serbs moved to gain control of Srebrenica in July 1995. And they stood by as the Serbs then took away more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

The scenes that followed were reminiscent of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi extermination squads that massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II. Day after day, the prisoners were bussed to execution sites, where they were shot and then buried in mass graves. Western spy satellites monitored some of the burial grounds, and a morning’s worth of airstrikes could have saved thousands of lives. But the airstrikes never came.

NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces finally began in August 1995, a month after the Srebrenica massacre. Soon after, the warring sides struck a complex peace deal in Dayton, Ohio, that divided Bosnia into three parts and intended to give equal representation to the three ethnic groups: Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats. The agreement put an end to a three-year war that claimed around 100,000 lives.

Shamed by its policies during the war and its failure to stop what happened at Srebrenica—the worst atrocity in a war that was not short on them—the West resolved to address its failures. In May 1993, the U.N. Security Council had established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It couldn’t stop the violence in the Balkans, but it ruled that Srebrenica was genocide and set about trying to bring those responsible to trial. Borger’ s new book, The Butcher’s Trail, is an account of what became the most extensive hunt for war criminals since the end of World War II. “We failed, pathetically, to stop that crime we could so easily have prevented, but at least, belatedly, we went after the killers,” Borger says. “It was an important thing to do.”

03_04_ICTY_03 "The Butcher's Trail," by Julian Borger. Other Press

The book had its genesis in an article about the hunt Borger wrote for The Guardian in August 2011. He quickly realized that there was much more to tell. “I felt like I was coming across a scene of untold history. The ICTY was also partial redemption for the world’s failures in Bosnia.”

Borger, who was part of The Guardian reporting team that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism for the paper’s coverage of the surveillance files revealed by former American intelligence operative Edward Snowden, handles the complicated story with flair and confidence. Vividly written, packed with lively character sketches of spymasters, lawyers and diplomats, The Butcher’s Trail is a deeply researched account of the hunt for some of the worst war criminals of the late 20th century.

In some places, it reads like a spy thriller, as the narrative takes us to isolated mountain villages, the offices of high-level government officials and inside intelligence agencies. Along the way, Borger reveals new details of the operations to arrest the ICTY’s most wanted. He tells the story of how Slavko Dokmanovic, the first indicted war criminal arrested by U.N. troops, was captured by a small group of Polish special forces soldiers, hooded and put on an airplane to the Hague. He also describes for the first time how Goran Hadzic, a former leader of the Croatian Serbs and the last indicted suspect arrested, was tracked down after French spies infiltrated the Balkans’ black market in stolen art.

Borger is especially strong on the international intrigue, as rival intelligence services intervened in investigations, governments backtracked on their financial commitments and ICTY officials faced obstruction and resistance from some Western officials opposed to a new U.N. court over which they had no control.

Some of the most fascinating material in The Butcher’s Trail concerns Borger’s revelations about the ICTY’s ultra-secretive tracking unit. In the period immediately after the 1995 Dayton Accords, the international community showed little interest in arresting high-level perpetrators. Western powers were more concerned with keeping Bosnia’s fragile peace than arresting war criminals. NATO soldiers deployed in Bosnia would pretend not to see those wanted by the ICTY as they traveled freely in the country.

Although Western intelligence services were not interested in arresting perpetrators, the ICTY’s tracking unit, staffed by former spies and investigators, was. And it had a powerful mandate—U.N. member states were obliged to cooperate, but the CIA and MI6 were not tasked with finding suspects until 1997.

“This was a small group of people that was instrumental in finding suspects,” says Borger. “They were very dedicated, light on their feet and much more efficient than the CIA or MI6. People talked to the ICTY who would not talk to the CIA or MI6.” Some of the techniques used by the tracking unit to locate suspects were later used, and honed, in the pursuit of terrorism suspects after 9/11.

There is occasional humor in a book filled with the depraved stories of men who clearly took pleasure in dehumanizing their victims. Borger describes how U.S. special operations forces shipped a full-size gorilla suit to Bosnia in their hunt for Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. The plan was to dress a soldier in the costume, which would distract Karadzic’s convoy enough for the psychiatrist-turned-demagogue to be snatched without bloodshed. (Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in 2008, where he had been living under a false name and working as a faith healer.)

03_04_ICTY_02 In this 2002 photo, a Bosnian couple walks by a poster of Bosnia’s two most wanted war crimes suspects, Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and his commander Ratko Mladic, in Sarajevo. Sava Radovanovic/AP

Over 20 years, the ICTY indicted and arrested 161 individuals for war crimes and genocide—only a tiny fraction of the perpetrators. Fourteen of those involved in the Srebrenica massacre were convicted on charges of genocide and other war crimes. Cases against Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs’ military commander, are ongoing.

But many of the low-level perpetrators of the massacre and other crimes—the drivers, the guards, the men who pulled the trigger—have escaped justice. Thousands of people were intimately involved in what amounted to criminal enterprises. Take Srebrenica: The operation took place over several days in July 1995 and required detailed planning, logistics and transport, as well as burial squads. Victims were hunted down as they tried to escape through the woods, incarcerated in makeshift prison camps, and beaten and tortured before they were murdered. Witness “O,” whose name and identity the ICTY withheld out of concerns for his safety, said in testimony against Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb general, “From all of what I have said and what I saw, I could come to the conclusion that this was extremely well organized.” Two whole brigades of Bosnian Serb soldiers took part in the operation, along with additional troops and police officers.

“With that level of killing, there would never be full justice; it could only be partial,” says Borger. War crimes investigations units have been set up in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the legal process inside the former Yugoslavia, already slow and uncertain, often falters under pressure. In January, the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina was forced to issue a statement calling on politicians, journalists and lawyers to immediately cease attempts to “politicize the institution and degrade the work of its judges.”

The Butcher’s Trail can sometimes feel relentless; the book would have benefited by varying its pace, stepping out of the Balkans and adding more historical context. Nonetheless, it is an important work that adds greatly to our understanding of how international criminal justice has evolved and offers lessons for future war crimes investigations. “International justice for mass killers can be enforced when the international community agrees on the benchmarks and to cooperate,” Borger says. “Impunity for mass killers is not inevitable.”

It was the prospect of European Union membership—and the torrent of funds that would follow acceptance into the union for countries such as Serbia—that also helped nab Yugoslavia’s killers. Some of the most ardent nationalists, on all sides, soon tempered their enthusiasm for sheltering indicted suspects once it was made clear that EU membership was dependent on cooperation with the ICTY. Others escaped justice. Dokmanovic hanged himself in his cell. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president, died in his during his trial.

The ICTY, despite its early problems and limited mandate, achieved much, says Borger. “The way to look at it is, What if there was no ICTY, and the tribunal had not gone after people? What would that mean for international justice? Yes, the glass is half-full, but that half is significant.”

Julian Borger is the author of The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt. Adam LeBor is the author of Complicity With Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide.