Judith Armatta

Excerpt from the Book

Excerpt from Twilight of Impunity

 Preface: A Personal Note

For nearly three years, I sat in a courtroom in The Hague, observing what was billed as “the trial of the century.” Slobodan Milošević was accused of sixty-six counts of war crimes,Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, photo by author  crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the decade-long conflict that tore Yugoslavia apart, leaving over 100,000 people dead, millions displaced and a way of life destroyed. His path to the courtroom was one of power, carnage and hubris brought low. Mine evolved over a five-year odyssey that began in Belgrade in 1997, when Milošević was still Serbia’s president. I was sent by the American Bar Association’s Central and East European Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) ) to assist a group of dissident judges establish an independent judges’ association and to support other rule of law efforts. A year after fighting ended in Bosnia and Croatia, Milošević's power was shaken by three months of Serbian demonstrations against his autocratic rule. After the democratic opposition squandered its victory through infighting, Milošević reasserted authority by fomenting yet another war to drive the majority Albanian population out of Kosova. When NATO began bombing Serbia and Montenegro and hundreds of thousands of refugees poured over the borders, I left for Macedonia to document what was happening. The stories we gathered from refugees – of rape, murder, beatings, property destruction, looting and forced deportation – formed part of the data used by the ICTY to indict and prosecute Slobodan Milošević.

Image of a house in Pristina, Kosova a few days after the war ended, photo by author.

When the war ended and Serb forces withdrew from Kosova, I returned to work in Montenegro, then went home to the US for a respite that included my mother’s last year of life and her death. In the meantime, the Serbian people ousted Milošević from power and, one year later, their new, reform-minded prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, orchestrated his handover to the ICTY, responding to pressure from the United States. Milošević would stand trial for the most grievous crimes associated with his ten-year reign of destruction. When the Coalition for International Justice, a human rights organization in Washington, offered me a front-row seat at his trial, I jumped at the chance to see law applied to the man who had used it as a tool to distort reality at great cost to people and to the rule of law itself.

This book is my account of the trial, from the beginning to its bitter end over four years later. It is not the definitive trial record, nor entirely objective. Who we are -- our values, interpretation and worldview -- determines what we see. My years in the former Yugoslavia inform my point of view. The trial of Slobodan Milošević is more personal for my having lived under his rule and seen the havoc he made of people’s lives – Serbs as well as Montenegrins, Bosniaks, Kosovars and Croats, friends and colleagues as well as strangers.

In March 1998 I sat on a couch in Pristina, Kosova, looking at photographs of massacred civilians, men, women and children, some horribly disfigured from being shot at close range. At a Women in Black conference I listened to Bosnian women from Gorazde describe how they survived a multiyear siege and bombardment of their city, Muslims and Serbs looking out for one another. In Belgrade, I walked past a legless veteran who was no longer of any use to the army that left him to beg on the streets for survival. A friend in Montenegro told me of a woman badly beaten by her husband, who threatened to kill her when she confronted him about sexual assaults he had committed during the war. I saw the bullet-ridden skeletons of buildings and houses in Sarajevo, Vukovar, Mostar and Dubrovnik; the yellow ribbons marking off areas still mined years after the war; soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs running in formation through the streets of Belgrade, just as they had walked the streets of Pristina to intimidate and frighten; UN tanks in the narrow streets of Sarajevo; people who feared crossing a border with the wrong license plate, or speaking the wrong dialect; the vacant eyes of those who had seen too much. On and on the images and words float in my memory.

Courtyard in Dubrovnik in Spring, photo by author Dubrovnik after the war, photo by author

They brought me to The Hague, where people do not shoot guns to celebrate. Yet this placid Dutch city housed men accused of responsibility for the most heinous crimes imaginable. Among them was Slobodan Milošević, for three years a man I would see more often than my partner, friends and loved ones. I watched and listened as the famous and the common folk took the stand to describe how he had destroyed Yugoslavia and its tolerant, multiethnic way of life. The survivors confronted him with their very personal losses – of family, friends, and communities, of wholeness and peace of mind, of trust in their neighbors and humanity. Milošević watched it all with no apparent remorse, sympathy, or compassion. He brought his yes-men (and a few women) to play the parts he had written for them, describing a fantasy world where Serbs were always and only victims, never causing harm. Milošević attempted to manipulate and undermine the trial, at the same time that he used it to further the "Myth of Milošević," which he himself had created. And then he died, robbing many, including me, of some hoped-for resolution. It would have to be enough that he spent his last years confined to a jail cell and a courtroom, compelled to listen as his victims recounted the suffering and loss that his obsession with power had caused. It is more than the vast majority of dictators ever face. And it is an important marker on the road to end the impunity of powerful men who destroy hundreds of thousands of lives as if they were brushing off a fly. Is it the twilight of impunity, as the title of this book suggests, or is that merely a hope? Only time will tell, but I offer this book in an attempt to tip the scales a little more toward justice.

Judith Armatta
Cambridge, Massachusetts
January 2008

© Duke University Press, 2010
    All rights reserved 

Read More Excerpts from the Book

Go Back to Twilight of Impunity Main Page