The Slobo I Know

A hot day in late June 1992. Fighting had erupted around Sarajevo in April and, by now, has spread through much of Bosnia. I am standing on the platform of the old station in Subotica, a small town in northern Serbia. A train with 18 cars has just rolled in, doors locked and packed with people. Armed guards pace along the rails. They order me away but not before I get close enough for a brief conversation with several men leaning out the open windows. Muslim villagers from Kozluk, in eastern Bosnia, they whisper hurriedly to me. Serbian paramilitaries came several days ago with tanks. They threatened to kill them and destroy their houses if they did not leave, immediately. After signing away their property to Serb authorities, they were bused to the local rail depot. Now they are on their way to the border with neighboring Hungary, where (I later learn) they will be forced into exile.

Locked trains and refugees. Armed guards. Mass roundups and deportations. It's impossible to escape the echo from the Third Reich. Yet at the time, I was baffled. What was going on here? Within a few short weeks I came to realize that "never again" was, in fact, happening again--and on an immense, systemic scale in the heart of Europe. "This is Milosevic's doing," I remember thinking, with frightening clarity. "He is up to something terrible."

Now I watch him, in the dock before the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, the first head of state ever to be tried for crimes against humanity and genocide. In the oddly antiseptic language of the prosecution, he's charged with heading a "coordinated and criminal enterprise" that used torture, killings, terror and expulsion to cleanse non-Serbs from large areas of the Balkans and create an ethnically pure Greater Serbia. For more than a decade, he has been Europe's dark force. I covered his terrors, from the origins of the Yugoslav war in the early 1990s through the killing fields of Sarajevo and Srebrenica to the denouement of Kosovo. Never would have I imagined him where he is today, this man who for so long seemed immune from his crimes. Strangely (to my mind, intolerably) he became the partner of the West in efforts to bring respite to the region, even as he covertly made war. Will there now be justice? Can there be for more than 200,000 dead and the millions more scarred for life by his deeds and memory? And who among Western governments will take the stand to defend their silence and inaction as his horrors unfolded?

Not long after my encounter in Subotica, I traveled to Banja Luka, the biggest city in northern Bosnia. By telephone, I had received reports from local Muslim and Croat leaders in the Serb-dominated territory and heard dreadful news. "In the name of humanity, please come!" one man had pleaded. "They are shipping people out in cattle cars, like Jews being sent to Auschwitz." Last night, he said, he and others had counted 25 train cars passing through town, laden with Muslim women, old people and children. "You could see their hands through the openings." The Banja Luka police were matter of fact. "None of the refugees asked for first-class carriages," chief Stojan Zupljanin told my colleague, a Serbian journalist named Seska Stanojlovic. A spokesman for the Bosnian Serb Army then told me, almost casually, that they'd set up detention centers for so-called suspect individuals.

I asked whether he would take me to visit one of these places. I didn't mention that I'd heard reports from locals about the grim conditions--men dying daily of starvation, beatings, executions. Incredibly, he agreed. At Manjaca, a camp run by the Army, supposedly for POWs, I saw prisoners being publicly humiliated, having their heads shaved like sheep and then being made to run a gauntlet of reservists swinging rubber truncheons. Afterward, I asked to visit Omarska, a disused iron-ore mine which I'd heard was nothing less than a concentration camp. "We cannot guarantee your safety," the Army spokesman told me. Later, in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, I found a survivor from Omarska who witnessed wholesale slaughter, as well as another from a similar camp at Brcko Luka, who counted 1,350 executions. The guards tossed the bodies into the nearby Sava River, saying they were "feeding the fish," the witness said.

When I reported this story, it hit like a shock wave. The International Red Cross demanded access to the camps. Journalists descended on Bosnia from around the world, turning up bits and pieces of a story that every day took on a larger dimension. Those famous pictures of emaciated men, standing behind barbed wire, marked a dramatic change in the way the world saw the Balkans. What until then was just another war was revealed as the most grievous of crimes--a genocide.

That is a strong word. But given the evidence there is no escaping it. In August, investigating another report, I went to Tuzla, in central Bosnia, to meet 20 or so young Muslim women, part of a group who had been rounded up in their home village, bused across the countryside, held at gunpoint in a furniture warehouse and systematically raped. The paramilitaries told their victims they had orders to do it. The young women had the courage to recount their stories and be photographed with their mothers. It was the most wrenching moment I ever experienced. As we parted, everyone in the room was in tears, except me. I just wanted to get the story out.

Tuzla was the center of a region surrounded by Serb forces, and as I traveled around it, what shocked me was not only the destruction of Muslim villages and towns, but the targeting of mosques, monuments and schools. I hadn't heard of such an assault since Kristallnacht, in 1938, when the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues all over Germany. If Serbs were following orders, it was also clear to me that those orders came from one man. Slobodan Milosevic.

As we watch his trial, our eyes should be on his eyes. This is a man who looked countless visitors in the eye--and lied. He lied to his own people, the Serbs. He lied to foreign statesmen, who knew he was lying but hoped he would somehow, for some inexplicable reason, stop the carnage he had set in motion. Now before the U.N. tribunal, he feigns innocence. He sleeps soundly, he says, clear of conscience and relaxing to Sinatra. He claims he never signed any papers ordering the crimes of which he is accused, ignoring the demonstrable fact that his Army ran the show and reported back to him routinely. If there was wrongdoing, he says, well, there were no innocents in the Balkan wars, and anyway he was merely defending his own people against the threats of others.

Now he faces life imprisonment, since the tribunal has no death penalty. The trial will take two years and will no doubt inspire outrage and anger, including my own. In the former Yugoslavia, perhaps more than elsewhere, there are competing versions of truth. Simo Drljaca, a local police chief who directed three concentration camps around Prijedor, another ethnically cleansed Bosnian town, once told me: "You have your facts. We have our facts. You have a complete right to choose between the two versions." Like Milosevic, he, too, was indicted by the tribunal. Shot and killed while resisting arrest, he won't have the chance to tell his version of events. But Milosevic will, as will their victims in Kosovo (1999), Croatia (1991) and Bosnia (1992-95). The court will decide who is telling the truth.