The bloody life and times of the butcher of Belgrade

Slobodan Milosevic's death means he has cheated UN justice and his millions of victims. Marcus Tanner, who covered the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia for the 'IoS', reports
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To the end, he cheated his victims. Millions waited years to see Slobodan Milosevic, the so-called Butcher of Belgrade, found guilty for the terror, mass murder and expulsions that Serbian forces visited on the unhappy peoples of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But survivors of the massacres of Vukovar and Srebrenica never got the chance to see his face when a verdict was read out.

His death in a cell at the Scheveningen jail, where he had been a prisoner of the International War Crimes Tribunal since 2001, means that justice never quite got him in the end. Blood pressure and heart trouble got there first.

To those of us who lived in Belgrade at the height of his powers, and who did not share in the then prevailing adulation, he was a terrifying figure. Apparently in absolute control of the passions of almost the entire Serbian nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he made use of this morbid skill to send his people off the precipice like lemmings into a series of catastrophic wars with their erstwhile Yugoslav compatriots.

Like Hitler, he seemed to receive much of his strength from the vast, Nuremberg-style rallies that were a hallmark of his early years as Serbian leader. In Kosovo in 1989, at ceremonies marking the 500th anniversary of the historic Battle of Kosovo against the Turks, I watched him sweep out of his limousine. Flanked by prelates of the Serbian Orthodox Church, he addressed the biggest rally of them all in front of about a million adoring Serbs. For me, that day in 1989 provided a rare glimpse of a man who otherwise led a secretive existence in the fortress-like home in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje with only his deluded termagant of a wife, Mirjana, and two children, Marko and Marija, for company.

From there, after he took power in Serbia in 1987, he plotted one violent adventure after another. There were "only" about 60 Albanian deaths when he sent the Yugoslav army and Serbian police charging into Kosovo to suppress its autonomy in 1989 - an action that the other Yugoslav leaders foolishly acquiesced in. Then it was the turn of Croatia, where about 10,000 died in fighting in 1991 after that republic seceded from Yugoslavia.

After that, keeping a tally of the figures became useless. In the war that followed in Bosnia in 1992-95, at least 100,000 were killed. Most were Muslims, murdered by well-armed Serb forces in the spring of 1992 as they raced from one undefended town in north and east Bosnia to another, on a mission to drive out Muslims and Croats and so make possible Bosnia's annexation by Serbia. A new phrase entered the lexicon as a result - "ethnic cleansing" - a rough translation of the chilling phrase used by state-run Radio Belgrade.

In retrospect, Milosevic was a brazen, bloody chancer who gambled correctly on the weaknesses besetting the European powers. Time and again, diplomats made their way to Belgrade with their ultimatums, only to leave mollified by Milosevic's expressions of wide-eyed innocence.

As Adam Lebor, author of a book on Milosevic, noted, he had a chameleon-like ability to switch off playing the dictator and turn on a folksy charm. Mr Lebor recalled one British diplomat who left one such encounter not quite persuaded by what he had heard. "Milosevic gave the impression he did not care about people as individuals," he told Mr Lebor. "Nothing seemed to affect him emotionally. Any kind of human suffering just did not register."

Indeed, he even arranged for the murder of the best man at his and Mirjana's wedding, Ivan Stambolic, who was also his predecessor as President of Serbia. Stambolic was kidnapped in 1999 and killed, almost certainly by secret service agents acting on Milosevic's orders.

Or was he? The great problem about establishing Milosevic's responsibility for the carnage of the 1990s was the secretive style, which has made it hard to establish who gave orders. This dilemma has dogged the tribunal prosecutors ever since 2001, when the Serbs, now disillusioned with their former idol, turned him over to the court.

Milosevic soon recovered his equilibrium, hectoring judges and disconcerting witnesses with his mocking and jeering. As the tribunal's former chief prosecutor Richard Goldstone said yesterday, he was completely unrepentant. "In spite of his health, he had started to enjoy the trial, and was keen to outwit the tribunal," he said.

Tribunal experts yesterday described his death as a severe blow to international justice. "It's an absolute tragedy that there will now never be a final judgment about Milosevic," the Balkan expert Tim Judah said. "Without that definitive judgment for future generations, the question of whether he was guilty of genocide will always be disputed now." His death also follows embarrassingly soon after the prison suicide of one of Milosevic's former cronies in Croatia, Milan Babic. "In less than 10 days two important Serbs have died in custody," said Gordana Igric, a London-based Serbian journalist. "Serb nationalists will be asking why they should hand over Ratko Mladic when, as they will say, 'Serbs are dying in The Hague'."

Even if it is too much to say Milosevic had the last laugh, his death is certainly, as Adam Lebor put it, "very frustrating", as he went to his grave without showing a glimmer of remorse.


1941: Born in Pozarevac to parents who both committed suicide.

1964: Graduates from Belgrade Law School, joins Communist Party.

1989: Becomes President of Serbia, strips Kosovo of autonomy.

1991: Croatia and Slovenia declare independence from Yugoslavia. Milosevic sends tanks to Slovenian borders, triggering a brief war.

1992: Ceasefire in Croatia in January. In March, Bosnia declares independence. Milosevic bankrolls Bosnian Serb rebellion.

1995: Agrees to settlement of Bosnian war.

1998: Milosevic sends troops to crushuprising in Kosovo.

1999: Milosevic ousted after huge mobs rampage through Belgrade.

2001: Milosevic faces war crimes trial at UN tribunal.

2002: Trial begins.


Eleven war crimes suspects indicted by the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have died:

11 March 2006: Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his bed at the UN prison near The Hague.

5 March 2006: Milan Babic, 50, a Croatian Serb convicted of war crimes during a Serb rebellion, was found dead in his prison cell after an apparent suicide.

May 2003: Momir Talic, a Bosnian Serb general charged with genocide, died at the age of 61 after doctors diagnosed cancer.

March 2003: Mehmed Alagic, a Bosnian Muslim general indicted for war crimes, died of a heart attack during temporary release from UN custody.

April 2002: Vlajko Stojiljkovic, Serbia's former police chief, shot himself, saying in a suicide note he did it because he refused to be handed over to The Hague.

October 2000: Janko Janjic, a Bosnian Serb wanted for alleged rape during the Bosnian war, committed suicide while resisting arrest by Nato troops.

January 1999: Dragan Gagovic, a Bosnian Serb accused of raping and torturing Muslim women, was killed by French Nato troops while resisting arrest.

August 1998: Milan Kovacevic, a Bosnian Serb charged with crimes against humanity, died in UN court detention from a ruptured aorta.

June 1998: Slavko Dokmanovic, a Croatian Serb indicted for war crimes during the Croatian war, hanged himself in his cell at the UN detention facility.

July 1997: Simo Drljaca, a Bosnian Serb suspect, was killed by British commandos trying to arrest him.

April 1997: Djordje Djukic, a Bosnian Serb general charged over his role in the shelling of Sarajevo, died shortly after being released from the UN detention centre, from pancreatic cancer.