REVIEW: Making the Butchers of the Balkan Wars Pay for their Crimes

The following review first appeared in The National Book Review

The Butcher's Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World's Most Successful Manhunt

By Julian Borger

Other Press 432 pp. $23.95

By James Graff

International justice has long provided sustenance to the world's cynics. Starting with Nuremberg, trials of reputed war criminals have been disdained for a host of flaws, the greatest of which is that the winners are generally guaranteed impunity. Even on the losing side, the clever puppet-masters and cowardly suicides never see the courtroom, making the effort to try whoever is left seem incomplete and opportunistic.

But being an imperfect business doesn't make it a pointless one. In 1993, as the rampant murder that marked Yugoslavia's dissolution was in full force, a constellation of powerful and guilt-ridden countries, unable to quell the conflict on their doorstep, pushed for the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia in The Hague.

The violence continued for two more years, eventually taking a toll of some 165,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians. A messy accord to end the conflict was reached at Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995, and NATO troops deployed to monitor and enforce it.

It remains a fragile peace, but what sealed it, as Julian Borger lays out in this fast-paced and copiously researched book, was that all 161 alleged war criminals indicted by the court were excised from the Balkan theater. Ten of them died before transfer to The Hague, 20 had their indictments withdrawn, and scores turned themselves in, either voluntarily or under pressure. But most of them were hunted down and captured in a rollicking operation that Borger masterfully illuminates, from the tense bureaucratic battles in Langley and Whitehall to the special operations troops hunkered down with binoculars on freezing Bosnian hillsides.

Only after many years did this effort, sometimes bumbling and occasionally brilliant, prove inexorable. It wasn't until 2011 that Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander who orchestrated the siege of Sarajevo and spurred his men to wholesale slaughter at Srebrenica, was captured. He was rounded up at a remote farm cottage in Serbia, having watched his once faultlessly deferential coterie wither away into nothingness. By then Radovan Karadzic, the self-aggrandizing poet who presided over the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia from the mountain village of Pale above Sarajevo, was already in the tribunal's well-appointed prison. And the sly master of the whole murderous enterprise, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, had forestalled a verdict by dying in his cell of a heart attack in 2006.

At first many Western officials seemed more inconvenienced than empowered by the mandate they had unwittingly received to go after the sadists and psychopaths who had fueled the wars of Yugoslavia. The U.S. military, humiliated by the killing of 18 servicemen in the 1993 'Black Hawk Down' disaster in Somalia, was so obsessed with force protection that its bases in Bosnia might as well have been on Mars, equipped with everything short of airlocks to ward off the unpleasantness around them.

Troops were instructed to assiduously ignore any evidence of wanted men for fear that trying to capture them could lead to fire fights. That ludicrously protective stance is remarkable to recall from this side of the thousands of soldiers' lives too often squandered in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The French, meanwhile, retained a residual ideological allegiance to the Serbs, allowing their claim on Yugoslavia's partisan legacy during World War II and its 'non-aligned' status afterwards to blind them to Milosevic's brutal designs.

Blundering Americans and perfidious French might be seen as stock figures in any account written by a diplomatic editor of The Guardian, but Borger makes his case. When Madeleine Albright's State Department finally prevailed on the Pentagon to take the manhunt seriously, the U.S. zone of Bosnia was flooded with so many Defense Intelligence Agency agents--"They all had North Face jackets [and] buzz cuts," one ex-intelligence officer told Borger--that Karadzic and Mladic fled for safer territory. Their hapless efforts were further hampered by French Major Hervé Gourmelon, a charmeur who took it upon himself--with the at least tacit knowledge of his superiors in Paris--to warn the Bosnian Serb leaders whenever a raid was in the offing.

While Borger reveals a soft spot for the cool, competent men of Britain's Special Air Service --"they were accustomed to manhunting from tours of Northern Ireland," he writes--even their practiced approach didn't always work. Their first raid was on three men responsible for making the northwestern Bosnian town of Prijedor the place, as Borger writes, "where concentration camps first returned to Europe half a century after the Third Reich." It ended in one capture, one death and one escape. Borger's account of the maneuver is riveting.

The hunt yielded plenty of heroes, some of them unlikely. Poland's nascent special forces earned their stripes in making the very first arrest of an indicted suspect, and the German military, putting its soldiers in action for the first time since 1945, nabbed the commander of the Serb concentration camp at Foca in 1998.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic pushed for Milosevic's arrest and extradition in 2001. Djindjic's subsequent efforts to purge his country's security apparatus of war criminals prompted his assassination in 2003--which in turn engendered a public disgust that made that purge finally happen.

It took a lot of arm-twisting and sheer bravado from Chief Prosecutors Louise Arbour and Carla Del Ponte to make the first-ever United Nations-sanctioned court for war crimes more than a noble gesture. U.S. diplomats Jacques Paul Klein and David Scheffer, their boss Madeleine Albright, and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook all helped by turning recalcitrant bureaucracies around.

Borger's command of the material is impressive. Given the glacial churn of justice in The Hague, it is a major feat to have structured this tale with all the narrative pull of a thriller without neglecting the crucial context.

The manhunt was bracing but its lasting legacy is mixed, as Borger demonstrates. For good or ill, the search for Balkan war criminals expanded the realm of international justice. It gave us the first "renditions" and a template for the International Criminal Court, which 120 countries have endorsed--not including the U.S., China or India.

But the process of indictment has proven far easier than conviction. The trials of Mladic and Karadzic are still dragging on. More ominously, a series of high-ranking defendants who appealed their convictions won reversals when a tribunal under the leadership of an American judge ruled that conviction required concrete proof of a commander ordering atrocities, rather than evidence that he encouraged them.

As that higher standard drew controversy, Borger writes, "It was hard to escape the conclusion that some of the tribunal's judges had taken fright at the consequences of its work for all states waging proxy wars through allied militias. They had wanted to bring some justice to the former Yugoslavia, not change the world."

James Graff covered the wars in Yugoslavia as Time's bureau chief in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.