Thu, Mar 14, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Serbia needs to come to terms with the truth

The war-crimes trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic -- far from awakening Serbs to the horrors that were committed in their name -- has reignited a feeling that they are the world's victims

By Timothy Garton Ash

Whenever I am in Belgrade, I go to see Dule. Dule is a former major in the Yugoslav army -- short, fat, and a louring anthology of Serbian resentment. I first met him when the memory of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica was still fresh. He told me that in Srebrenica "Muslims killed Muslims." Serbian forces, he explained, were driving the Muslims out and the Muslims got frightened, so they started killing each other.

Meanwhile, he said, the Serbs should definitely stick with Slobodan Milosevic. But hadn't the great leader just falsified the election results? Yes, but that wasn't Milosevic, "it was the people around him."

Over the years, it was fascinating to see his views change, and his personal memories with them. Three days after Milosevic fell, Dule was all civil and pro-European, like a man suddenly recovered from madness. Why, if Montenegro wanted to abandon Serbia too, that was fine by him. After all, he assured me, "Milosevic was a Montenegrin." (And, said the Germans after 1945, Hitler was an Austrian.)

A fortnight ago I was back in Belgrade. Everyone I met had been watching Milosevic defend himself before the tribunal in The Hague, slogging it out with the prosecutor Carla del Ponte: the Slobo vs. Carla show, a television soap. Dule too. He was in bed with the flu, so he couldn't receive me, but he passed on his views over the telephone.

The Milosevic trial was a disgrace, he said. Never before had a head of state been thus arraigned before a court. Milosevic was doing a great job: "He's fighting, and I admire him." Although, he added, "You know we never supported Milosevic." (Of course, of course, but may I just refer you to page 5 of my notebook entry for Saturday, March 8, 1997, open before me as I write?)

Once again, Dule speaks for much of Serbia. In a recent poll, 42 percent of those asked gave Milosevic 5 out of 5 for his performance at the Hague tribunal. More than two thirds said that the tribunal was biassed against Serbia, and more than half could not -- or would not -- name a single place where Serbs committed war crimes. This is a nation in denial, locked in a narrative of its own victimhood.

Syndrome of victimhood

The problem for enlightened Serbs is that the Milosevic trial is currently reinforcing that denial, and syndrome of victimhood, rather than breaking it open. People like Dule, who blame Milosevic less for starting the wars of the Yugoslav succession than for losing them, see him now as fighting bravely for Serbia against a victimizing world. There is even some danger of a backlash against the reforming Serbian government that delivered him to the Hague.

Does this mean the trial is a mistake? Certainly not. One might hope that a beneficial side effect would be to bring Serbs to confront the horrible things that were done in their name over the last decade. But that is not the main purpose. This is to establish an international standard and precedent by which certain crimes of extreme gravity and large scale, known as war crimes or crimes against humanity, will everywhere and always be pursued. No Fuehrer or Duce, no Pinochet, Amin or Pol Pot, should ever again feel themselves protected from the reach of international law by the palace gates of sovereignty. It may take years, but the world will hunt you down and call you to account.

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