Sudden death and the afterlife of truth

Slavenka Drakulic
16 March 2006

He died alone, like a dog. As did so many victims of his murderous nationalist politics. Like no human being should die.

Slavenka Drakulic is a journalist and novelist from Croatia. Her books include They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague (Penguin), Café Europa: Life after Communism (Norton), and Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War (Harper Collins).

She has also written the novels S. (Penguin) and Holograms of Fear (Hutchinson).

It happened just a few months before his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), after four years, should have ended and his sentence finally passed. It would have been hugely important to sentence Slobodan Milosevic, the highest-ranking figure responsible for the war crimes committed in three Balkan wars.

Not only because this would have meant a symbolic act of justice for thousands upon thousands of his victims – but also because of the Serbian people and their relationship to the truth about the wars, a truth that they are unable to face. Milosevic's sentence would have given them that chance. It would have forced them to confront the truth and the responsibility for the wars they have avoided for so long.

It now seems that the crucial moment has been postponed. But without truth there is no justice and, in the case of Serbia, without justice, there is no truth. The only source of truth about the wars in the Balkans, so far, is the tribunal. In every trial a new piece of evidence is unearthed. Indeed, it is this truth-gathering and truth-telling function that will prove to be the ICTY's more enduring historical role.

Milosevic's sudden death, however, makes one wonder if he died in time to save himself from human justice. Or was it perhaps a cunning act of a cruel God who took him away in order not to be able to defend himself and spread his own version about his role in history? In the end, human justice will triumph in another way. Because what will happen now is exactly what Milosevic wanted to avoid at all costs: the others will judge him and his role in history, and that verdict will be harsh.

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