Belgrade: war crimes in daily life

Dusan Velickovic
27 June 2005

It was a day of coincidences and associations: my “war-crimes day”.

My cellphone rang as soon as I left the studios of Belgrade’s TV B92. A very good friend of mine was terribly angry with me. She said: “I never imagined that you might be on the side of the war criminals.”

She was referring to the live talk show in which I had just taken part. I had been asked by the host whether or not I would point out the Bosnian-Serb general and indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic to the police if I saw him by chance somewhere. I wouldn’t even think about it, I replied.

I further explained that it was up to the state itself to arrest those indicted for war crimes, and that it was quite absurd to imagine myself meeting Mladic somewhere by chance, as if those who are paid to “meet” him “deliberately” haven’t had such a chance for ten years now.

I also argued that expressing my personal readiness to turn in the most wanted man in the Balkans would mean that I trusted the Serbian state, which still claims that General Mladic has not been seen anywhere at anytime on its territory. And I do not trust the state in this regard. On the contrary, I am sure that the government and the secret police know everything about those indicted for war crimes, including their whereabouts. Perhaps they even hide and protect them. So, my feeling was that to say “yes, I would report General Ratko Mladic to the authorities” would somehow excuse the state.

My friend didn’t listen to my explanation. That’s how things go in Serbia nowadays. There is no time for subtle argument. You are either for this or that – or you are not. That’s why I am not offended by my friend’s reproaches. In fact, I like her even more now. I know that she belongs to the small group of people in Serbia who stand for justice and do not consider those indicted for war crimes to be heroes.

It was a nice day, so I decided not to take a taxi. As I walked, I thought about the television show and my friend’s phone call, and I had an odd feeling that I was back in my own short film, Mortal Men, Immortal Crimes. In the film’s closing scene, I approach the Serbian Orthodox cathedral with a cage in my hands. A piece of paper stuck to the cage reads: “I know where General Mladic is.” It was how I responded to years of official statements on Mladic issued by the Serbian government or its ministers. My ironic artistic statement had found its way into real life.

I keep walking. Soon after, I meet Archbishop Amfilohije in the street. Recently, this patriarch had named Radovan Karadzic, the second most wanted war criminal, as an “immortal man”. Is it the church that protects people like Karadzic and Mladic? Does the church keep the so-called “anti-Hague” lobby together? Did I really shoot the scene in front of the Orthodox church accidentally, or had I a specific meaning in mind?

Also on Serbia, war crimes, and “reimagining Yugoslavia” in openDemocracy:

Alix Kroeger, “Bosnia’s war of memory” (August 2002)

Dejan Djokic, “The assassination of Zoran Djindjic” (March 2003)

Victor Peskin, “After Zoran Djindjic: the future of international criminal justice” (March 2003)

Anthony Dworkin, “The trials of global justice” (June 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

A question of loyalty

But there is no time now to think about the nature of coincidences. For at the very next corner, I find a new coincidence. Just now, on a day when I am besieged by thoughts about war crimes, Kosta Cavoski comes towards me. We have known each other for a long time. He was one of the foremost dissidents in Yugoslavia during communist times. Now he is a prominent professor of the faculty of law and a member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Art.

Kosta Cavoski is also president of the so-called “Committee for the Defence of Radovan Karadzic,” and is very active in supporting another indicted war criminal, Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who is now awaiting trial at The Hague. If the Orthodox church is the secret part of Serbia’s “anti-Hague” lobby (referring to the tribunal of the International Criminal Court near the Dutch capital city), Cavoski leads its public wing. In Serbian political jargon, this group is known as the “patriotic bloc.” And “patriots” of this kind are found most often in the church, the academy and the university – and at the faculty of law in particular.

Cavoski and I nod to each other, and I keep walking. To my right is the faculty of law itself. Many young people sit and talk in the small square in front of the building. On the wall, I see a poster made by Nomokanon, the law student organisation, announcing a special gathering on the occasion of the “10th anniversary of the liberation of Srebrenica”. The “liberation” was in fact one of the worst massacres in Europe since the second world war, with around 7,800 imprisoned Bosnian Muslim men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic. The poster says that the students will discuss the “truth about Srebrenica”.

I don’t think about coincidence and chance any more. Rather, I feel myself to be a sort of coincidence, as if I had emerged directly from Arthur Koestler’s book Roots of Coincidence. Maybe this is because, as Koestler says, “there is no coincidence if there is no one to interpret it”. So, let’s try to interpret this sad fact about the faculty of law. Did it happen to be “a bastion of the anti-Hague lobby” by pure chance, or there is some reasonable explanation for it?

My young friend, Vladimir Milovanovic, a student of law, says that his studies at the Belgrade faculty of law are like being on a road that leads to dogmatism and cretinism. The situation is worse at the department of international law, he says. The textbook for the international public law exam, written by Smilja Avramov, refers mainly to works over fifty years old, and only 10% of the notes refer to books written after 1976. By chance or not, Smilja Avramov is the first and most important defence witness in ex-Serbian president and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic’s trial at The Hague.

In fact, members of the Belgrade faculty of law have not changed since Slobodan Milosevic’s time, when it was subjected to a sort of Stalinist purge by the ruling nationalists. A number of prominent professors were expelled and new ones (among them Seselj) appointed in accordance with their degree of ideological correctness.

One of the most loyal is professor Oliver Antic, who was recently made a dean at the school. Regarding the relationship between the Belgrade faculty of law and the Hague tribunal, Antic says that the tribunal is:

“illegal and illegitimate. As we study law here, it is natural that at the faculty of law there are so many people who are against such a quasi-court which undermines international law.”

Gazes and coincidences

So is the anti-Hague lobby still dangerously strong in Serbia? And will the country’s war criminals be brought to justice? I staunchly stand by my own optimism. I realise that I have had this positive feeling since my own visit to The Hague two years ago.

When I arrived at the tribunal, they give me ticket number 53608. I passed through all the security checks and entered the public gallery of the courtroom. Seated to my left were a few journalists. Through the glass wall, I saw the former president of Serbia in front of me. The amici curiae (legal advisors in Milosevic’s case, appointed by the court in light of the accused’s refusal to recognise its legitimacy) are seated with their backs turned to me. Protected witness B42 is concealed behind a blind, and can be heard only through voice distortion.

Yes, you feel somewhat odd in this small and impeccably organised space. If you leave your headset off, you have the sensation of being in a puppet show or some sort of “matrix” of trickery. When you don the headset and listen to what is being said, suddenly you find yourself in a house of horrors where everyone is somehow absurdly dispassionate and polite, as if this is the purpose of justice.

The trial adjourns for the day. The former president gathers up his papers and turns to the public gallery. Our eyes meet and lock – and for a minute, we stare at each other. And then what happens? Instead of thinking about what that gaze on the other side of the glass symbolises, I suddenly begin pondering utterly trivial things. As if none of this has anything to do with me, as if everything I am seeing is nothing but a bad dream. I think about that famous quote from William Faulkner: “the past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past”. I feel that this does not apply to me right now.

Absorbed in these thoughts, I walk out of the courtroom, leaving the past behind me inside the walls of the tribunal, and feel a longing to see something beautiful. So I go to the Mauritshuis, climb up to the second floor and meet the gaze of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. I could spend all day talking about the light that illuminates her face and eyes, about how her earring is caught in the golden ray of light that falls across the portrait.

But, that is all really beside the point. One day, two people happen to fix you with their gaze. You give it some thought and then realise that two gazes from the past lie at opposite ends of everything there is in this world. And you understand that you can be an optimist, because that other radiant look lasts forever.

My day of coincidences and war crimes is over. At home, I read through the newspapers. One says: “Radovan Karadzic was seen in a Belgrade restaurant last month, reported Hague Tribunal investigators.” Another says: “The student meeting on Srebrenica at the faculty of law was cancelled.”

But the main news on the front page is about a road accident. A Macedonian bus on the Belgrade-Bitolj line has crashed into a canyon. There are casualties. Bad news, but finally, it’s not something that might provoke a coincidence.

Then I remember. Quite recently I travelled by the same bus. And, look, the driver has a Macedonian version of my surname.

I shrug.

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