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In Yugoslav tribunal, welling up of conscience

Radovan Karadzic appears Friday to answer to charges of war crimes in the 1990s.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2008



The Hague

Before the dazzling Olympics and the war in Georgia, world attention focused on the capture of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the accused architect of genocide posing as a guru. Mr. Karadzic appears Friday here at the Yugoslav tribunal to plead innocent or guilty for a one-sided war whose inhumanity was even this week disputed by Moscow.

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Karadzic is not expected to plead guilty. Yet over the years a stream of defendants – mostly ignored – have broken from the pack, overcome intense pressures, and helped illumine the court's mission to establish a record of truth: They did plead guilty.

"During many sleepless nights, I kept asking ... how is it that possible that we did this to each other?" stated Miroslav Deronjic, a Serb leader who pled guilty to destroying a town. "I have not found the answers ... but I know one thing: If the truth cannot save us, then really nothing can save us."

Of 161 accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), some 20 persons – colonels and privates, political leaders and paramilitary honchos – have said essentially, "I did it."

In a war the scope of whose horror is still largely denied in Serbia, these collective admissions, the eyewitness accounts of what happened on this day at this time in an attack or massacre, the descriptions of being swept up in a racial project of hate and brutality, the often heartfelt regret at violence that one confessor said "scattered us to the far corners of the earth" – all of these make up some of the most powerful records in the first court of its kind since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg.

Defied boss's threat, told the truth

The tribunal's first trial of Drazen Erdemovic, who killed dozens of Bosnian Muslims at the Srebrenica massacre, and who court officials still say may have been the court's most important witness, wanted to tell his story – insisted upon it. When Mr. Erdemovic arrived at the Hague, Milan Babic, the leader of Krajina Serbs accused of coordinating persecution of Croats, pushed him hard not to testify.

Yet Erdemovic told Mr. Babic and the court that "because of those victims, because of my conscience, because of my life ... my child and my wife, I cannot change what I said ... because of the peace of my mind, my soul, my honesty, because of the victims and war and because of everything."

Later, in an about-face, Babic himself admitted guilt, becoming in the eyes of many tribunal insiders one of the more authentically contrite pleaders: "I can only hope that by expressing the truth, by admitting to my guilt, and expressing remorse, [I] can serve as an example to those who still mistakenly believe that such inhumane acts can ever be justified," Babic told the court on January 27, 2004. "I ask from my brothers, Croats, to forgive us, their brother Serbs, and I pray for the Serb people to turn to the future..."