Book review: Face to face with war crimes

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The Independent Culture
A FEW weeks ago a friend of mine came back from Kosovo. He had been watching Albanian returnees trashing and looting a Serbian Orthodox church in Vucitrn. What struck him was not the act of revenge itself but the perpetrators' indifference to being watched, photographed and documented. There was no shame or secrecy. One man even stopped to explain the best way to go about torching such a building.

When I was in Yugoslavia, from 1988 to 1994, the Serbs were a bit more secretive about their dirty work, but not that much. Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian leader, casually let journalists film rows of gaunt Muslim prisoners in his "detention" camp in northern Bosnia in the summer of 1992. And, in 1991, I remember a Dutch journalist weeping when he told me how some Serbian soldiers in eastern Croatia had lined up a couple of old Croatian peasants only yards away from where he was standing, and blown their heads off.

They didn't give a damn whether anyone saw because - as the introduction to this book says - journalists witnessed and reported numerous war crimes without the slightest expectation on the part of reporter or perpetrator that anyone would ever be brought to justice. Crimes of War says that this is all beginning to change. Now it doesn't seem so improbable that Karadzic and even the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, may have to face an international war crimes tribunal.

The Hague-based tribunal itself, such a puny little thing when set up, almost as an afterthought, in 1993, suddenly seems a rather important and permanent part of the scene. As the number of innocent war-crime victims grows, so does the public outcry and the demand for international humanitarian law to be developed and applied.

Crimes of War aims to feed this public interest with a handy A-to-Z of the atrocities committed over the last half-century, and of the law that can be applied to such crimes: A is for apartheid, B is for Bosnia, C is for carpet-bombing... There are lots of black-and-white photographs of murders happening right in front of the photographer. One of the most striking shows Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic's super-fit Tiger irregulars kicking the corpses of the two Muslim women whom he has just shot in Bijeljina.

The articles on war crimes have all been written by reporters who really witnessed them, or at least were there shortly afterwards. It's a handsome, rather scary book, written in an I-was-there-and-saw-it-all kind of way.

But I'm not sure that it's very reader-friendly, for all that. The editors have obviously imposed a strict formula on the writers, which demands that each article starts with a personal tale. "The old woman reached into her plastic bucket and pulled out a human bone," begins one. In fact, a lot of them start with an old woman screaming amid a pile of bones, or a ruined home, or the remains of a dead daughter.

One presumes that the aim was dramatically to propel the reader from his or her comfortable sofa to the scene of a horrible crime far away, but it is difficult to tell what really happened in any of these situations. Some of the articles are sermons and rants. Florence Hartmann's piece on Bosnia is just a series of accusations that have been bundled together. That "Milosevic made it his mission to set Yugoslavia's ethnic and national groups against one another" is one of a great many "facts" that are baldly asserted without any supporting evidence.

Does this kind of approach really educate anyone about the Balkans? Another problem for anyone wanting to use this lexicon is that the editors have not grouped the information very clearly. Liberia is under L and under C (Child Killers). Palestinians are under A for Arab-Israeli and C for Collective Punishment. You will find El Salvador under H for Hospitals, and Sri Lanka under an oddly-titled chapter in the Q section called Quarter (giving no).

This book is a good idea, and it looks striking, but if the editors revise it I hope they group more of the material under the countries in which crimes occurred. That way, the public will find it easier to know what happened.

Marcus Tanner