Judging Milosevic

Judging Milosevic

Slobodan Milosevic died without a definitive judgment of his responsibility for war and crimes against humanity. Now others will judge him, precisely what he wanted to avoid.



It is a gray, cold Saturday, and I am glad that I don’t have to go out. I will read a book and drink a warm cup of tea, I think. Just then the telephone rings, piercing the silence of a quiet day. Slobodan Milosevic seems to be dead. Seems to be? I check the website of Belgrade’s Radio B92. The news, that he was found dead in his cell in the Scheveningen detention center in the Netherlands, is indeed not confirmed. I don’t know whether I should believe it or not. I can do nothing but wait.

I have a clear memory of the first time I saw Milosevic. It was four years ago, in the courtroom of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Of course, I had seen his face a million times before; he had been omnipresent in the media for decades as the president of Serbia, the president of Yugoslavia, the main politician linked with Serbian nationalism and the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, with the sieges of Vukovar, Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica, the Dayton Accords and, finally, as an accused war criminal at the tribunal. A person larger than life, you believe, if you have been brought up in the tradition of the personality cult–as I was, as we all were in Yugoslavia. When Tito died in 1980, a popular Socialist Party slogan was repeated endlessly: “And after Tito–Tito.” Tito was dead, but the personality cult was not. Indeed, Milosevic was the Serbian heir of that cult, in a way. As if in response to the fact that people in Yugoslavia were not capable of living without a father figure, he was turned into one.

Looking at him in that courtroom, a mixture of feelings engulfed me: relief, and satisfaction at the thought that there was, after all, a chance to bring such a person to justice. Milosevic sat perhaps ten yards away from me, behind bulletproof glass. Dressed in a dark blue blazer, a white shirt and a tricolor tie, he carefully scanned the audience. Maybe he was looking for familiar faces, maybe just calculating how many journalists were there to follow his performance. This was at the very beginning of his trial, when the attention of the world media was focused on him. I stared at him as if he were a ghost, not a person. I remember how surprised I was at that moment–and how angry at myself, at my own surprise. This is what happens to a person brought up in an adolescent country, I realized: She is surprised that such a person can be brought to justice.

From the very beginning he was arrogant, cocky and self-assured. Even his body language did not reveal a defeated man, but an actor who dominates the stage. Indeed, at that time the judge had difficulty controlling Milosevic’s outbursts. Very soon it became apparent that he had a clear objective: to prove that his role in the history of the Serbian people was that of a hero who had fought in defense of his nation. War in Bosnia? Not involved. War crimes? Had nothing to do with them. It looked almost as if he perceived himself as a Serbian Che Guevara.

But as his trial dragged on, Milosevic became less interesting to the media, and other events took the world stage. The war in Iraq and terrorism finally removed the spotlight from the Balkans and its troubles. Even Kosovo was no longer a priority. And in Serbia people had other things to worry about–for example, how to survive as poverty and corruption flourished. Yet Milosevic did not give up his fight. He led his own defense, and he worked hard at it. In the meantime his wife, Mira Markovic–who is suspected by the police of having taken part in the assassination of former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic, once Milosevic’s mentor–escaped to Russia. This must have been a big blow, since she was his biggest supporter, both in life and politics. She could no longer visit him in Scheveningen, and he must have felt pretty much alone.

I did not have to wait long for the news of his death to be confirmed. Slobodan Milosevic was dead at age 64. What a sad day to die, and what a sad way: in a prison cell, alone, like a dog. Was it a heart attack? Or… the possibility of suicide comes to me, but I dismiss it vigorously. There will be investigations and a lot of speculation in the days to come, but anyone who ever saw this man alive would not believe that he would commit suicide. He valued his own life too much, and moreover he had a task, a big task: to prove the truth about himself to history, to the world. Now others will judge him, which is precisely what he wanted to avoid.

As I watch the frenzy of comments on television, my first reaction is anger. Why, why did it happen? Why could not justice–human justice, not the supreme one of which we know nothing–be done? Is God merciful toward alleged war criminals? Or is he perhaps cunningly taking away their chance to defend themselves? For Serbs it would have been better to see the end of his trial–not only to see Milosevic, in all probability, sentenced to prison but to confront themselves with the truth about, and their responsibility for, the wars and the war crimes their soldiers committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. And perhaps to find the strength and the wisdom to conclude that dark, bloody chapter in their history, a terrible chapter of which this ambitious politician was the foremost symbol.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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