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They Would Never Hurt a Fly By Slavenka Drakulic (Viking Books, 209 pages, $22.95) Trial narratives can be found in all sorts of courtrooms, based on all sorts of alleged misdeeds. For sheer horror, however, few narratives can be found to match the scope of trials taking place in The Hague, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In her new, wrenching book, They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague, Slavenka Drakulic recounts and ruminates upon what she saw at the tribunal trials. Any journalist who purports to provide definitive answers on why seemingly ordinary human beings become mass-murdering war criminals is probably a fool. Drakulic, a Croatian novelist and reporter, is no fool, but rather a directly affected, keen observer, who asks the right questions on the path to plausible, though not definitive, answers. Her ruminative yet heavily researched book is a touchstone for the informed the world over grappling with the who, what, when, where, why, and how of war crimes and those who commit them. Born in 1949, Drakulic grew up hearing accounts from her father and other World War II veterans about how a nation we have come to call Yugoslavia overcame ethnic divisions, geographic challenges, and poverty to more or less unite and thrive. But by the early 1990s, the ethnic divisions had turned into unfathomable hatreds among Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Macedonians, Mantenegrens, and Muslims. War ensued. Call it genocide, call it ethnic cleansing, call it something else, but from 1991 into 1995 (extending through 1999 in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia that was home mostly to Albanians), about 200,000 men, women, and children died, mostly in Bosnia. About two million people ended up displaced. New nation states emerged, with uncertain futures. As the rapes, torture, and fatal shootings of both civilians and soldiers multiplied, Drakulic thought little at first about the characters of the brutalizers. At first, she focused on the masses, the citizenry at large: “The whole world was surprised by this war,” she says. “. . . I am still angry with myself. Is it possible that the war crept into our lives slowly, stealthily, like a thief? Why didn’t we see it coming? Why didn’t we do something to prevent it? Why were we so arrogant that we thought it could not happen to us?” Slowly, Drakulic shifted her focus from the mass mentality to individuals. She began with a list of about 80, those being prosecuted in the far-away nation of the Netherlands, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Of those 80 or so, Drakulic focuses on a relative few. “Who were they?” she asked herself. “Ordinary people like you and me — or monsters?” Drakulic harbored doubts about whether trials in The Hague could answer her questions. The tribunal, she writes, “has been a source of controversy in the Balkans. [It] was established because the former Yugoslav states were either unable or unwilling to prosecute their own war criminals. Far from being independent, their judicial systems were deeply corrupt, and there would have been enormous political pressure if alleged war criminals were tried in local courts. Back home in Croatia, this argument immediately became fiercely disputed. Opponents of the [tribunal] on the right argued that the court was a political instrument established to punish and humiliate their country. The more sophisticated critics argued that it would be better to hold the trials for war criminals at home, because it would give the nation a way to face the truth about the war and experience a catharsis.” As Drakulic begins her courtroom attendance, she first perceives the drawn-out trials as boring. Only one hour has passed, and to her it seems like an eternity. Then a defense witness, a prison guard explaining the actions of the accused, says prisoners got what they deserved after trying to escape. If the defendant shot and killed only prisoners trying to escape, the judge asked, how can the blood on the cell walls be explained. Drakulic snaps to attention. Blood on the walls? She writes: “Suddenly I see a picture in front of my eyes, and I realize what the judge is talking about. The death of 120 prisoners is no longer an abstraction, no longer mere words. Now the tedious, precise interrogation takes on a new meaning. Now I realize how much we are all poisoned by the trials depicted on television shows and Hollywood movies, with their rapid exchanges of arguments between good-looking lawyers in expensive suits. In The Hague there is no such drama. The drama is everything that really happened; there were real deaths, real victims, real murderers. Real blood. The drama is that there can be no escape from that reality. When at the end of that day in the court I take a long look at the defendants, they suddenly seem different to me. I see what I did not see before, not their dull faces but a room with walls splashed with blood.” Drakulic discusses the judges and the lawyers vividly, but mostly in passing. The remainder of her narrative focuses primarily on individual defendants, witnesses, and victims, chapter after chapter. Milan Levar, a Croatian war veteran, is murdered in 2000 after blowing the whistle on townspeople who committed atrocities. Bosnian Serb soldiers Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac, and Zoran Vukovic are convicted at The Hague of crimes against humanity for their rapes of Bosnian Muslim women. Although devoting most of the book to the nearly unknown, Drakulic cannot resist dissecting the thoughts and actions of one-time Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the former president’s wife, Mira, a sociology professor often blamed for pushing her husband beyond the pale. Drakulic ends the book with an unforgettable prison narrative. Milosevic and other accused war criminals from the former Yugoslavia put aside their ethnic differences and cooperate in their prison setting. If the brotherhood “among the sworn enemies of yesterday is indeed the epilogue of this war,” Drakulic muses, “one wonders what was it all for?” Her conclusion: “Looking at the merry boys in the Scheveningen detention unit, the answer seems clear — for nothing.” Steve Weinberg, a freelance author and sometime member of the University of Missouri Journalism School faculty, reviews books frequently for Legal Times.

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