“He doesn’t look like a war criminal…”
“What does a War Criminal look like?”
“Y’know, angry, dead inside, crazy eyes… This guy looks like a folk singer or a farmer…”
I wish I were merely fabricating this conversation to build a straw man of ineptitude on human rights issues. The lesson of “the war criminal next door” has been taught and learned time and again, most recently with the Hungarian concentration camp supervisor living undetected for 50 years in middle America extradited months ago. But this was an actual quote from a very intelligent colleague, and the sentiment was echoed throughout friends and family in the past 3 days.
On the train to Kiev, Ukraine from Novi Sad, Serbia, I learned this lesson firsthand. As the vast curly-haired Russian babushka guided me to my train car, I was disappointed to find there were 3 beds per room, and a drunken Slav had already taken the bottom bunk. I guess that’s what $50 for a 38-hour train ride gets you. We shook hands, he raised a glass to me, drunkenly screamed a Serbian “Zdralavo ee jeevalee!” (I can only assume it was meant to be “hello and cheers!”) chugged down the contents and collapsed back onto his pillow. As I monkeyed my way to the top bunk, an even more disappointed Russian appeared in the doorway. He introduced himself as Kolya. Seeing us shake hands, the Serb sat up, poured two extra glasses of his homemade liquor, pointed to himself and declared “Ja Bojan!” and lifted his glass to us.
An American should never try to drink the hard stuff with a Russian and a Serb. We can’t compete, and we can’t cop out. You see, Slavs don’t understand the word “no.” “Ne” and “Nyet” don’t work either when it comes to booze. Believe me, I tried. After we’d shared 3 cups, my language skills improving with every sip, Bojan brought out the homemade bread and sausage. I’d been thinking the entire time “make sure you’re still sober enough not to have anyone jack your stuff,“ later recalling that I didn’t really have any stuff to jack. Food will help me retain some level of sobreity. “Moras da jede!” slurred the volume-control-challenged Bojan. “If you drink, you must eat!” he wisely suggested and forced fresh bread and home-made sausage into my cup-less hand.
After hours of tri-lingual humor and camaraderie, the conversation subtly turned from coffee to politics. Foolishly, after being engaged on the advice of Seselj, a radical Serb on trial in the Hague, I disparaged the memory of Arkan, the most atrocious of Balkan villains. Arkan, who led a paramilitary tank unit called The Tigers known for the rape of hundreds and the murder of thousands. It turns out, our drunken bunkmate had served under the notorious Arkan and took it upon himself to defend his honor.
“ Arkan nije bio los covek! Arkan je voleo svoju zemlju! Osmanlije ne vole nista!” lectured Bojan in a serious slur. Arkan is merely a man who loves his land, whereas the Muslims love nothing. This all started with a discussion of coffee. I needed to sober up fast. With that much moonshine in me, it wasn’t going to happen.
As we crossed into Ukraine, it seemed like the entire Soviet military was piling into the train. As row after row of scowling Soviets with German Shepherds filed past, a pair of very cute Ukrainian twins in camouflage entered our cabin to request my passport. I happily obliged, handing, to my surprise, one passport to each of them, at the same time using only one hand. I didn’t remember having two passports, though at this point I didn’t remember how I got on the train. This is about the last thing I recall before the terror of being shaken awake by the jovial, balding pudge of Bojan yelling “Kiev! Kiev!”
I rushed out of the train, nearly forgetting my bag, which my new war criminal acquaintance carried off the train to me. Kolya waved goodbye from within the train, but Bojan actually led me off the train and to a taxi, arranging my ride to a hostel he knew well.
Why tell this story? Ratko Mladic, the most wanted man in Europe, the second-most heinous Balkan war criminal, only after the now-deceased Arkan himself, was apprehended yesterday in northern Serbia. He’d been on the lam for 15 years. He was thought to be isolated in a small apartment in Belgrade last year. A 5 million dollar bounty had long been offered for information on his whereabouts. Yet it was only yesterday, far from the Serbian capitol, that he was finally arrested at his home, under the assumed identity of Milorad Komadic. Mladic was found in the Bosnian Serb village of Lazarevo, a self-contained unit within the multi-ethnic semi-autonomous province of Vojvodina, inhabited by some of Mladic’s family members.
“How could the people of Vojvodina have been fooled by such a flimsy disguise?” I hear asked. “They must have supported his actions, the people must have known and simply wished to keep him from justice.” Had I not been drunk and loose-lipped on my way to Ukraine, I’d never have known that I was traveling, drinking and laughing with a war criminal. Had my traveling companion not been quite so drunk, he might not have admitted so openly his allegiance and his deeds. Had he known he were a wanted fugitive, Bojan could easily have hidden the fact. In Mladic’s case, with government reports coming out that he had been located in Belgrade and with the protection of his quiet supporters in Lazarevo, what neighbor would have thought to ask? The tragedy of the arrest is that it is not simply his supporters within the Bosnian Serb village who will be tarred by the brush of war crimes.
I am deeply sorry for the liberalizing, pro-Western forces of Serbia who take European leaders at their word that they are now on the path to EU entry. This arrest will, in all likelihood, take Serbia further from, not closer to, EU entry. Not only must you deal with the inevitable radicalization of your own nationalists, the extremists of whom are already active and vocal even without this international “insult. No, you must also face the fact that, by making Serbia’s best-known persona once again a war criminal, the world will identify the innocent citizens, such as Mladic’s accidental neighbors in Vojvodina, as villains and sympathizers once more.
Zachary Gallant is a Fulbright Scholar in Postwar Redevelopment in the former Yugoslavia and author of the e-book Voices of a Revolution.
Copyright © 2011 Zachary Gallant All rights reserved.