Albanian refugees fresh from the crime scene of Kosovo have documented the world's case against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
By bearing witness to the brutal campaign of expulsion and massacre carried out by his army and police force, they brought on the May 27 indictment of Milosevic by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague, Netherlands.
But the tribunal's investigators, an idealistic bunch with an eye on the bigger picture, are working an even bigger case, one that has yet to yield results. It is the effort to tie Milosevic to the larger, deadlier campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" carried out in Croatia and Bosnia from 1991 to 1996.
Far from having been dropped or dismissed, the probe of Milosevic's conduct in those wars is active, as tribunal chief prosecutor Louise Arbour made clear in announcing the Kosovo indictment.
There is little doubt of Milosevic's role in striking the matches that ignited Yugoslavia's eight-year burn and disintegration. His reliance on divisive ethnic and nationalist rhetoric in his rise to power is well-documented, as is the way he manipulated state media to heighten the fear, mistrust and ethnic zealotry that soon turned lethal.
Ditto for his secret prewar meetings with his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, in which the two reportedly discussed how to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina, the mostly Muslim province between their borders that eventually declared its statehood.
Nor is there any secret about the way Milosevic used the heavily armored Yugoslav People's Army to carry out the fighting at the beginning of the war. With the army leading the way, the brutality soon proved unstoppable, beginning with the leveling of Vukovar in Croatia.
The pace quickened with a vast sweep across Bosnia in 1992, a campaign of human cattle drives that routed large populations of Croats and Muslims from their homes and villages. Its hallmarks were concentration camps, "rape hotels" and mass executions, culminating in summer 1995 with the massacre of as many as 7,000 Muslim men and boys after the fall of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica.
But, as Richard Goldstone, the tribunal's former chief prosecutor, said this week in an interview, "Being linked to a war, and even providing an army and providing arms for it, is not a war crime.
"The link has to be considerably more than that. It has to be a direct command [for an act of genocide], or being in position to stop it and you don't. What you and I suspect is good grounds is one matter, but having enough hard evidence to actually make a charge is another."
Which explains why Goldstone's investigators, a team drawn from 40 nations, never came up with enough of the goods to justify an indictment.
"What we had wasn't sufficient," he says. "There's no question that had it been, he would have been indicted."
In fact, the most damning item to turn up in the early case against Milosevic turned out to be the most disappointing.
That was a sheaf of documents smuggled out of Yugoslavia by Cedomir Mihailovic, a one-time secret policeman in Serbia. The documents were stunning. Written over a 15-month period, they were government correspondence that clearly linked the establishment and operation of Bosnia's concentration camps to high officials in the Milosevic government.
But they were fakes. Although they purportedly came from several different offices of the Belgrade bureaucracy, forensic specialists determined they were all banged out on the same typewriter within a much shorter period of time. Mihailovic was apparently only trying to curry favor with Western governments.
The lack of that kind of paper trail" linking Milosevic to such infamous sites as Srebrenica or Omarska, a northwestern Bosnian camp, has left investigators the more grinding task of trying to build a link witness by witness.
The public record offers a reasonable start. Press interviews with Milosevic associates and colleagues show that, at the least, he personally engineered the machinery that carried out the first "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, establishing a tone and pattern for the rest of the war.
His first important move toward that end came when, on the eve of war, he culled the Bosnian natives of the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army (the JNA) and redeployed them within Bosnia. That gave the Bosnian Serbs their own local, committed -- and potentially zealous -- fighting force, with an overwhelming arms advantage.
Borisav Jovic, a top Milosevic aide, confirmed this in an interview with British journalists Laura Silber and Alan Little, for their book and British Broadcasting Corp. television documentary, "The Death of Yugoslavia."
Elements of the army were willing participants in the first clean-out of a Bosnian city's Muslim population, including scores of summary executions of civilians. That happened in April 1992 in Zvornik, a city just across the border from Serbia.
According to Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, the army was joined not only by private units, such as the Tigers commanded by suspected war criminal Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, but also by special units of Belgrade's -- meaning Milosevic's -- Interior Ministry police.
"The Bosnian Serb forces took part in it," Seselj told the BBC. "But the special units and the best combat units came from this side [Serbia]. These were police units -- the so-called Red Berets -- special units of the Serbian Interior Ministry of Belgrade. The operation had been prepared for a long time. It wasn't carried out in any kind of nervous fashion. Everything was well-organized and implemented."
But Milosevic is also helped by some public events, such as his well-publicized split later in the war with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is under indictment, though still at large, for genocide and crimes against humanity.
That makes it difficult for the tribunal to make the case that Milosevic could have stopped the genocide, Goldstone said, "especially with several cases where Karadzic directly flouted direct orders from Milosevic."
In fact, perhaps the only people who can link Milosevic to the alleged crimes engineered by Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic, may be Karadzic and Mladic themselves. That's one reason some diplomats believe Milosevic has offered so little help in bringing them into custody since the end of the Bosnian war.
And it is one of many reasons Goldstone's biggest disappointment as chief prosecutor, a tenure that ended in 1996, was that NATO forces occupying Bosnia were never willing to exert the muscle to capture either Karadzic or Mladic to bring them to trial.
"The military didn't have the courage," he said. "I know it from my own discussions. [U.S. Defense Secretary] Bill Perry was very upfront about it. They just weren't willing to take the risk."
Which, for now, means war-crimes prosecutors are still looking for their best evidence in what could wind up being their most important case.
Pub Date: 6/10/99