Yugoslav war criminals have little to fear: Robert Fisk reports from Sarejevo on the killers who will never be brought to trial

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EVEN before President Clinton's call for a war crimes tribunal last week, the Bosnian government had run up a series of 'Wanted' posters containing its own choice of defendants. Printed within large black borders and entitled 'Ratni zlocinac' ('War criminal') they contained grainy photographs of the men and women whom President Alia Izetbegovic's administration regards as the nastiest in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Biljana Plavsic, for example, is accused of state treason, militia attacks on civilians, massacres and 'ethnic cleansing'. A sinister, snapshot of the 63-year-old Serbian woman professor, who helped to set up the so-called Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, shows a heavy-set, almost grandmotherly figure with fleshy cheeks and harsh, staring eyes.

The charge against her reads as follows: 'She took part in drawing up Arkan men, Seselj men, 'White Eagles', Royalists and other hired criminals for the purpose of the ethnic cleaning (sic) of territories. By her presence, she blessed the massacres by Chetniks in Foca and Bijeljina.

'With the war criminals Radovan Karadzic, Nikola Koljevic, Velibor Ostojic, Vojislav Maksimovic and Mimcilo Krajisnik, she took part in issuing orders for attacks on . . . Sarajevo, Mostar, Siroki Brijeg, Kupres and many other towns . . . she was responsible for committing genocide.'

The charges against 57-year- old Professor Koljevic from Banja Luka - who, like Plavsic, helped to create the Serbian state in Bosnia - are equally forbidding. 'He participated in the drawing up of hired butchers from Serbia and Montenegro for the purpose of ethnic cleaning . . .

'He participated in issuing orders to use arms for preventing the international and domestic humanitarian organisations from their work . . . holding up a convoy of several thousand children in Ilidza. He is jointly responsible for the death of 127,488 people and for the wounding of 129,000 persons. He is responsible for the existence of detention camps and genocide against the Muslim and Croat population . . .'.

Already, the Bosnian government has its own 'Commission for the Investigation of War Criminals', which includes an 83- year-old Jewish professor, survivor of a Second World War concentration camp. Every reported rape and murder has been catalogued in a score of Sarajevo government offices in preparation for Bosnia's very own Nuremberg.

In Zagreb, too, the Croats have their lists of Serbian mass murderers, among them the unknown Yugoslav Army officers who arranged the massacre of more than 200 hospital patients at Vukovar. And it is only a matter of time before the Serbs - always a little late in the propaganda war - produce their own lists of Croatian and Muslim thugs (the leadership of the far-right Croatian HOS movement among them) who have slaughtered Serbian civilians. The brutal truth, however, is that there are not going to be any war crimes trials. The Plavsices and the Koljevices, the Karadzices and the Milosevices are never going to appear before any tribunal - unless by mischance they fall into the hands of their enemies and are placed before a kangaroo court. Seselj's 'White Eagles' - responsible for the gang-rape of 95 women, details of which were published in the Independent last week - will never face charges, nor be called upon to answer for their crimes. The mass graves that now lie in the forests and valleys of Bosnia have ensured that many thousands of witnesses have disappeared forever. Even with them alive, however, the war criminals would be safe from prosection.

If this seems a cruel irony for those who still search for some 'justice' amid the horrors of Bosnia, they have only to remember history. With the single exception of the Second World War, there has never been a war crimes trial in this or any other century. The Geneva Convention of 1949 lays down the standard of humanitarian behaviour expected of warring armies, yet none of the post-war conflicts produced a single trial. Korea, Vietnam and four Middle Eastern wars were awash with bloody atrocities, yet no international tribunal ever charged the participants with mass murder or rape.

There were charges aplenty. Allied servicemen were brainwashed in Korea and civilians were tortured by South Korean forces under the UN flag. The Vietnamese and Americans tortured and murdered civilians in Vietnam; the My Lai massacre - not unlike some of the Bosnian slaughters - remains the bitterest United States legacy in South- east Asia.

In 1948, Israeli forces knifed to death hundreds of Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin. Between 1960 and 1962, hundreds of Algerians were tortured and murdered by French special forces. In 1967, Syrian troops massacred Israeli prisoners-of-war.

In 1982, Syrian troops - in a civil conflict every bit as ferocious as, if infinitely shorter than, that in the Balkans - killed up to 20,000 civilians in Hama. In the same year, Israeli troops watched their Christian allies butcher up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut.

Yet justice was not done. Lieutenant William Calley got away with the My Lai massacre after brief detention. The leader of the Israeli murder gangs at Deir Yassin, Menachem Begin, lived to write his autobiography and become prime minister of Israel. The only Algerian veteran ever shot by De Gaulle was executed for trying to overthrow him.

President Assad's brother, Rifaat, whose men 'liquidated' their opponents at Hama, is a retired playboy in Damascus. The man who sent the Phalange into Sabra and Chatila, Ariel Sharon, remains a highly decorated ex-general respected by his country's right wing. The militiaman who led the Phalange into the camp is now a member of the Lebanese government.

Then there is Saddam Hussein. His fate is worth recalling for it was just before the 1991 liberation of Kuwait that an American president last talked about war crimes. George Bush, it will be remembered, suggested war crimes trials for the Iraqi leadership and for Iraqi army officers found guilty of the massacre of civilians. Yet when the war was over, the idea was quietly forgotten.

The problem, of course, was that the Iraqis were never beaten, except in Kuwait. The allies did not go to Baghdad. Nor did the Americans ever go to Hanoi. The Allies did reach Berlin, which is why the Nuremberg trials took place. But no Western troops are going to occupy Belgrade and hunt down the Montenegran rapists of the 'White Eagles'. At Nuremberg, there was an Allied consensus that the Nazi leadership should pay for its crimes. At the trials, the Russians - who lost 20 million dead in their war against Hitler's Germany - were by far the fiercest prosecutors, invariably demanding the death penalty for every defendant. No war crimes trials could take place in the Balkans today without equal collaboration. Yet it is Russia which is now most sympathetic towards Serbia, even gently seeking an end to sanctions against Belgrade. Those searching for justice in Bosnia can look with no hope towards Moscow.

There is always the argument that those named will find their future lives blighted with shame. But Vojislav Seselj, among the cruellest of Serbia's murderers, won a substantial vote in the Yugoslav elections. And the ever- smiling face of Mr Karadzic, spokesman for the Bosnian Serbs, arriving at the United Nations in New York on a US visa only months after Lawrence Eagleburger named him a war criminal, does not suggest that such men suffer unduly for their sins.

And then there is the problem of the Balkan numbers game. When the US State Department first provided its own statistics for rape to the International Red Cross, it handed over a figure of 70,000. The IRC could list only 12,000 possible cases.

'We all know rapes have occurred here,' one of the most prominent relief agency men said in Bosnia last week. 'Rapes occur in all wars. And here it has been very bad. In some cases, rape was clearly systematic, a policy. But how can we ever find out if it was 20,000 or 50,000? Where is the evidence? Most of these rapes took place between May and August last year. Why did it take so long for this to come out?

'And look at the case of the missing. People come to us and say, 'We know some women are being kept in a brothel in Foca, or in Banja Luka.' And maybe they are right. But the information is usually months old. And what do they expect us to do? Go to the local hotel, knock on the front door and ask to see the women? They will not be there.'

Merely to target civilians in a war - let alone rape and murder them - constitutes an infringement of international law, as the Bosnians are well aware. They have already invented the preposterously phrased charge of 'urbicide' for the siege of Sarajevo, although lawyers would argue that every shell knowingly fired on to civilians here is an individual war crime.

But in Bosnia, the war has no rules and is undertaken without recourse to law. A new set of international observers - six Red Cross delegates in a fleet of white armoured cars - has just opened an office in Sarajevo. They might, just, act as a mildly restraining influence although their job is not to investigate war criminals, merely 'to remind all parties of humanitarian law'.

But the atrocities are not going to end. Towards the end of last week, a gunner, identified by UN officials as a Muslim, deliberately fired a mortar at foreign legionnaires at Sarajevo airport, an attack against the peacekeeping force which represents - or is supposed to represent - world opinion. The shell landed next to one of two French soldiers and sliced off half his head. In anger and horror, French doctors managed to keep the man alive for several hours, but the bombardment of the airport prevented relief flights from taking the dying legionnaire back to France.

Another war crime which will go unpunished in Bosnia.

(Photograph omitted)