Monday, February 22, 2016

The Butcher's Trail by Julian Borger

Hardcover, 432 pages Published January 19th 2016 by Other Press

Twenty years after the massacre of 263 men, boys, and one woman at Vukovar, the centuries-old Croatian town alongside the Danube, Goran Hadžić was captured and extradited to the Hague, last on a list of 161 indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It was a fifteen year manhunt filled with big personalities, creative surveillance techniques, much double dealing, and the leaking of sensitive documents which allowed many of the indicted to initially slip their would-be captors. Intelligence services of several nations both cooperated and obstructed each other and the small intelligence arm of the ICTY at different times, depending on the priorities of their individual services, on the egos of their team leaders, and to ensure no casualties on their own teams would cause consternation in their home countries. Borger brings the manhunt to life in stunning detail yet with a reporter’s distance, allowing us to see the curve of the investigation and what the Hague trials ultimately meant for the survivors of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

The overwhelming majority of those indicted for war crimes were men, and yet two women did more than anyone else to ensure those on the list were tracked down: Louise Arbour and Carla Del Ponte, both chief prosecutors for ICTY at different times. Borger shows how their contrasting prosecutorial styles and strategies were instrumental in imposing maximum pressure on reluctant governments to search for and apprehend those responsible for the crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

In the process of highlighting the men most responsible for the genocide in Yugoslavia and recounting the search for their henchmen, Borger gives us an overview. of the history of the region and snapshots of the worst atrocities. Many of those accused of crimes against humanity stayed in positions of power in the states newly formed after the fall of Yugoslavia, going about their business, literally, without fear. In perhaps the most banal of captures, Mitar Vasiljević, a former waiter-turned-paramilitary terrorist of his town’s Bosniak majority, was captured when French intelligence rented an apartment Vasiljević owned, seizing him when he came to collect the monthly rent.

The ICTY tracking team experienced only one truly voluntary surrender: Vojislav Šešelj was founder of the far right nationalist Serbian Radical Party and was accused of recruiting brutal paramilitary groups to carry out ethnic cleansing. He arrived at ICTY’s Belgrade outpost one day with a suitcase, demanding to know who was going to pay for his ticket to the Hague. Šešelj had cancer and was released in 2014 for treatment in Serbia, his case not yet settled.

Borger includes lessons learned by special forces in the laboratory of the Balkans, shares the story of a hairpin turn and the cognitive dissonance theory of a gorilla suit, and liberally seeds his reportage with names we recognize, including a younger David Petraeus taking small roles in intelligence or capture and learning lessons he will go on to use as commander of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polish, French, British, American and even German special forces had teams doing investigations, some more effectively than others.

This nonfiction is so filled with criminals and covert attempts at capture that the reality of the vast genocide in the region begins to take a backseat to the ludicrous wealth of storytelling possibilities, whether it be for film or fiction. The history is tailor-made for a long-running film series allowing one to see into the twists and turns human reason takes when nationalism, religion, guns, and power converge.

Borger makes the case that vast military resources of participating countries searching for the war criminals were not as effective as a small band of dedicated and resourceful investigators hired by the ICTY to pursue leads, one example of need for focus rather than overwhelming strength. Participating countries’ intelligence services were often victims of false leads and misinformation, and their mandate to eliminate risk ensured every high-profile capture was accompanied by too much of everything, an embarrassment of riches.

As a test case for criminal prosecution of war criminals, the ICTY could be said to have succeeded, finally, though several of those convicted of terrible crimes have already been released back to their home countries, having served two-thirds of their sentences. In some cases, the sentences of some high-ranking defendants were reversed:
"Under the leadership of an American judge, Theodor Meron, an eighty-three-year-old Holocaust survivor and former Israeli diplomat, the new judgments significantly raised the threshold of proof needed to convict political leaders. It was no longer enough to demonstrate that senior officers had control over the units who committed mass murder."
Apparently American and Israeli governments were concerned that their generals would be indicted one day for backing armed rebels or insurgents in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Governments are being forced to recognize and acknowledge where their actions come dangerously close to crimes against humanity.

Julian Borger covered the Bosnian War for the BBC and The Guardian. He is currently diplomatic editor at The Guardian.

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