Pursuit of Justice

The Butcher’s Trailby Julian Borger

Other Press. 432p $23.95

Julian Borger, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper, has written a book that displays the virtues and the limits of a reporter’s account of the world. The writing is crisp and the style engaging. In many ways the narrative framework of a “manhunt” reads like a detective novel. Only occasionally does the recounting of facts slow the pace of the pursuit, especially as the complications unfold. But judged by the highest aspirations of the journalistic profession, this book is a compelling exposition. It has gathered and made available the story of the greatest mass genocide that has occurred in Europe since the Second World War.


The lens through which Borger has chosen to present the events is the apprehension of the indicted war criminals of the former Yugoslavia who would come before the International Criminal Tribunal established by the United Nations in The Hague. Along the way readers are informed of the military and political contexts that necessarily frame the dramatic arrests and “renditions” (to use the term that would later be applied in the hunt for Al Qaeda) of the accused. A separate underlying thread is the very existence of a court to prosecute those accused of war crimes. Borger emphasizes the novelty of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. On a similar basis the United Nations also set up a tribunal for the genocide in Rwanda and has now established a permanent International Criminal Court. The only previous examples were the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after the end of the Second World War, judicial interventions that were sponsored by the United States in a largely ad hoc fashion. What makes the Yugoslav tribunal so significant is that it raises accountability for crimes against humanity into an internationally recognized principle.

The Butcher’s Trail does not go deeply into the inner workings of the tribunal or the judicial arguments with which it engaged. It limits itself to the tribunal’s own struggle to bring itself into existence, given the paltry level of support from governments that had nominally backed it. Of course, the United Nations on its own was incapable of doing much without its member states. In addition, there was the extraordinary challenge facing prosecutors who would have to direct the apprehension of individuals from a great distance without being able to order or control forces in the field.

In many ways the patchwork nature of the cooperative ventures that led to the arrest and transfer of 161 individuals is the real heart of Borger’s story. Without the personal conviction of the diplomats and military officers who happened to be assigned to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, nothing would have been accomplished. The governments that had sent them never viewed the prosecution of war criminals as a prime objective. They were there to keep the peace and avoid casualties. Only fitfully were the major players, like NATO and the U.S., French and British governments, roused to action. The massacre at Srebrenica and the Kosovo invasion were the most evident provocations. At no point was cooperation with the U.N. tribunal seen as a priority.

By comparison, Borger’s account retains that clarity of the objective. It is nothing less than the hunt for the greatest mass murderers in the Europe of our own day. We might well wonder how it was that governments could not have seen that as their own responsibility. Yet even with Borger’s avowed focus, it eventually emerges that the conception of a “manhunt” does not quite capture the full historical reality of what happened. The biggest prizes among the indictees, Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and the master butcher, Slobodan Milosevic, were never captured through the intrepidity of the pursuers. Not even the vaunted special operations forces that were occasionally flown in could ensure the capture of the greatest political criminals. For them it would require the gradual melting away of the political bases of support that had sustained them.

In Milosevic’s case it was the turn of fortune brought on by an electorate that had tired of his long dominance in power. Mladic was only taken when the resources of the institutional military, on which he had long depended, were depleted. The most inventive fugitive of all was Radovan Karadzic, whose elaborate new identity as a faith healer was eventually unmasked. But what was decisive was that he could no longer call on the protective layers of support that allowed him to sustain the persona. They were not so much caught as exposed by the melting away of their defenses. Political reality had changed.

The question that is raised by this fascinating account is how that return to normalcy had been blocked after the collapse of the entity known as Yugoslavia. It was a society that had even created a car to be marketed known as the Yugo, which resembled the ubiquitous Volkswagen Bug. How could the psychopaths and murderers among them have gained the levers of power and made so many of their fellow citizens accomplices in mass murder? This is the question that hovers at the edges of Borger’s excellent study. Occasionally he approaches it but rarely grasps its centrality to the investigation. Yet it is the question that the tribunal would have to confront. How is guilt to be assigned?

At the core each individual is responsible for his or her actions. Some found that they could acquire a taste for torturing and executing their neighbors. Beyond the individual level is the toxic ideological brew, the concoction of ancient nationalist grievances that, once ingested, could obliterate the moral restraints on which a civilized society had long depended. From a social and political perspective, that was the most decisive development. An ideological rationale is the crucial dispensation that allows ordinary people to countenance and support mass murder. Without it only psychopaths are willing killers. Beyond that level there is the wider willingness of world public opinion to turn aside from the horror, lest we feel compelled to risk the difficulty of intervention. The most sobering lesson of Borger’s riveting account is the realization that the descent into the maelstrom remains a permanent possibility, today as much as ever.

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