“They Would Never Hurt A Fly: War Criminals On Trial in the Hague”

I finished reading the book earlier this summer, “They Would Never Hurt A Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague” by Croatian auther, Slavenka Drakulić. I couldn’t put it down and the ideas presented stayed with me the past few weeks. I was reminded about the book last night when we watched the film, “The Reader” an account of a German war crimes trial from WWII.

One of the reasons that I came to Serbia was to understand why war broke out when Yugoslavia separated into its constituent republics. This was a war that occurred in the 1990’s and in Europe and I couldn’t fathom how. While it was going on, I was fresh out of university and working in my first international school in Colombia. I remember seeing the reports on the news and I remember when the Dayton Accords were announced. I was thinking, why Dayton, Ohio? I also vaguely remember the bombing of Serbia in 1999 by NATO and seeing the shocking images of refugees. But even though I was interested in foreign affairs, I was busy with falling in love and getting my career going.

What first piqued my interest in the Balkans was the book by Robert Kaplan, “Balkan Ghosts.” The American travel writer married a Greek woman and traveled through here. He mixed history with descriptions of recent events and his own adventures of traveling. I should read that book again now that I have lived here for over a year. When I saw the job opening here in Belgrade, I sent in my application, partly based on my interest in the region.

The war started in 1991 and finally ended in 1999. The worst of the war occurred in Bosnia and Croatia and was ended by the Dayton Accords of 1995. The separation of Kosovo led to NATO intervention in 1999, and what might be the end of it finally, the declaration of independence of Kosovo. I have read accounts of the war ranging from National Geographic to Misha Glenny’s “The Fall of Yugoslavia” which I previously blogged about. All of these works were beneficial to give me background on the “what” of the war. They touched on the “why” and “how” of the war, but the book by Drakulic, really focused on the last two questions.

She travels to the Hague where the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is convened to get to know and tell the stories of the individuals on trial. It is a personal account, and she weaves her family stories in with the stories of people in front of the tribunal. I loved the book because it delved deeply into how normal people, when put in extraordinary environments, could do horrible things they would not normally do.

The war was messy, and as I think about it, most wars are. I mean “messy” in the sense that the front lines were the cities and villages filled with civilians and not battles in remote areas involving only soldiers. Villages were ripped apart because they were ethnically mixed and people fled or were killed based on their ethnicity. I couldn’t understand why, after years of living together peacefully, that such an intense civil and ethnic war could break out. I now understand that it was a combination of media manipulation, selfish and disastrous leadership, ignorant villagers, bad luck, history, and the uncertainty of what came after Tito and communism. As I read and hear more individual stories, I think I’ll get a better understanding. The stories are tragic from all sides and the book is a sad and terrifying read. I recommend it to all who want to learn more about the break up of Yugoslavia.

I would like to note that the purpose of this blog post is to assist me in processing my reading of the book. I want to learn as much as I can about Serbia. The more I know, the more I get out of the experience of living here. I do this in all of the places I live in my career in international education. This post is not an opinion of validity of the ICTY or a judgment of who was right or wrong in the war. I do believe that every country in the Balkans needs to document what happened better and so some conclusions can be drawn and to prevent this happening again. It will also help future generations of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, as they enter this era of globalization.

Drakulic writes that the ICTY could have prosecuted 15,000 – 20,000 people. That is a staggering figure. I would like to know more about who they decide to prosecute and why. Below is a listing of the people she chose to write about.

  • Milan Levar – A Croatian war veteran from Gospić, Croatia that was murdered after he testified at the Hague. She describes the trial involving the leaders of that small town.
  • Three Bosnian Serbs from Foča, Republika Srpska that were found guilty torture and mass rape.
  • Goran Jeselić, a Bosnian Serb found guilty of executing prisoners at a detention camp in Brčko, Bosnia.
  • Radislav Krstić, a general in the Bosnian Serb army found guilty of participating in the siege on Srebrenica, Bosnia.
  • Dražen Erdemović, a Serb-Croat soldier from Tuzla, Bosnia.
  • Slobodan Milosević and his wife Mirjana Marković, former President of and First Lady of Yugoslavia.
  • General Ratko Mladić, leader of the Bosnian Serb army.
  • Biljana Plavšić, a female politician, high up in the Republika Srpska government.

She wrote several other books about life here and several novels about the war. I will be looking to read some in the future. Below are some links to other reviews of the book. Here are some other reviews of the book.

2 thoughts on ““They Would Never Hurt A Fly: War Criminals On Trial in the Hague”

  • Bill eventhough you live in Serbia for quite a while now you will never understand that war that happened here. First of all I want to ask you one question – which nationalities are people that drakulic decided to write about? They are all Serbs! Which nation has the majority in Haag (I ment majorit of prisoners)? Serbs! Politicans from which countries are in Haag prison? Only from Serbia (Seselj, Karadzic, Plavsic… they were politicans). Why there aren’t any Croats, Bosnians or Albanians (Kosovars)? Why there is a leader of politican party in Serbia (Seselj) while Hashim Tachi is prime minister of Kosovo but before 1999 he was a leader of terrorist organisation KLA? Why KLA general Cheku is relesed of accusation? Why Naser Olic (bosnian general that slaughtered serbian civilians in serbia) is also relesed and went home? What’s with Branimir Glavas?
    I do not expect from you to give me the answers on this questions, but I just wanted to point at how complexed and complicated this war was and it’s wery hard to understand if one is a foreigner. I met a lot of people who came to Serbia and were expecting to find savages with knives in their mouth and pistols and guns in their arms just waiting to kill someone. From media we are marked as killers, rapist and the worst nation in the world (well after iraqies and tallibans 🙂 )… I wrote all this because you have read a piece of Slavenka Drakulić – one very “questionable” author. She is a croat and one of the small number of croats that do not like the ustasha regime of Franjo Tudjman but alsolike most of the croats she hated serbs more than anything else. Just make a little experiment. Ask Serbs in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis about Croatian coast, products, cities,music, sports clubs, national teams, etc. and do the same when you are in Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik but ask Croats about Belgrade, music, Red Star, basketball, someregions and etc. You’ll be suprised whit the amount of hate that Croats fell about Serbians. Why? Well that is a mistery?
    Sory about comment and keep up wit excelent blogging.

    If you’re going to football match Serbia – France I wish you to have a great time


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