Book Review: The Butcher’s Trail
by Julian Borger
Other Press, 2016
Julian Borger, the diplomatic editor of the Guardian, covered the Bosnian War for the BBC and the Guardian, and he’s distilled a quarter-century of investigation and contemplation into his latest book and its footnote-length subtitle: The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt, in which he details in a controlled, dramatic narrative the story of the special forces operatives commissioned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to track down and apprehend the 161 suspects on the ICTY’s warrant list for Bosnian war criminals. The book describes the pursuit and arrest of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the hunt for his various thugs like Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and Goran Hadzic (“Milosevic’s puppet, but the sort of puppet that belongs in a horror film, a bloodied ventriloquist’s dummy,” Borger writes. “He helped preside over the first large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Europe since the Nazi era”).
The foremost crime here, of course, was a thing straight out of the nightmare of Europe’s past: genocide. And the traces of Borger’s outrage over Europe’s reaction are still easy to see in his recounting:
Genocide and other mass atrocities challenge our idea of what it is to be human. The acts perpetrated against innocent victims are so grotesque and disturbing, we recoil from their contemplation. We prefer them to be either far away or long ago. When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, the rest of Europe started to distance itself, like neighbors of a dying household. Shutting their doors, they convinced themselves that if they looked the other way, they would never catch the disease. Western politicians diagnosed “ancient ethnic hatreds” let loose by the fall of Communism as the cause of the bloodshed. It was one of the litany of excuses for not getting involved, but it explained nothing.
“In Western capitals,” he writes, “it seemed beyond comprehension that wholesale slaughter was being committed once more in the heart of Europe” – and when comprehension did finally begin to dawn, it was only after countless atrocities like the one Borger describes as befalling the Croatian town of Vukovar:
Once the town had fallen, some three hundred Croat men and teenage boys, many of them wounded, were taken from a hospital to a nearby far where they were beaten and tortured by Serb soldiers and paramilitary volunteers serving with the Yugoslav army. They were driven away at night in trucks, ten to twenty at a time, taken to a wooded ravine, and executed. Only a handful escaped. In all, 263 men and boys were killed, the youngest aged sixteen. There was also one woman among the victims. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave and covered by a bulldozer.
Many of the men who committed these atrocities ended up standing trial for their crimes, although Borger notes throughout his book that this process was neither fast nor neat:
But those trials would never have taken place if the defendants had not been tracked down, arrested, and brought to court. That pursuit itself was a historic achievement. It took a very long time, but by 2011 all 161 people on the ICTY list of indictees faced justice one way or another. Former prison camp guards and ex-presidents all stood before the same tribunal. More than half the suspects were tracked down and captured. Others gave themselves up rather than lie awake every night wondering whether masked, armed men were about to storm into their bedroom. Two committed suicide. Others decided they would rather die in a blaze of gunfire and explosives than be taken alive. Two of them got their wish.
The Butcher’s Trail takes an immediate place on the short shelf of indispensable books about the Milosevic war and its long and complicated aftermath. Borger’s vivid prose and closely-channelled moral involvement give his account a memorable power. Living history is seldom written this well.