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Punishing Genocide: Laura Curtis recounts watching the trial of Radovan Karadžic

Upon seeing Radovan Karadžic for the first time, I was struck by how familiar he seemed to me, like an old geography teacher. There was at least a twenty-second delay between seeing him and the realisation of his identity, a man allegedly responsible for the Srebrenica massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo. Once this realisation sank in, I felt a jolt in my chest, like someone had violently squeezed my heart. I had never expected his appearance to provoke such a visceral physical response.

Karadžic was a Serb general during the Bosnian war, under arrest by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) since 2008. After visiting Sarajevo the previous autumn, and studying the conflict for significantly longer, I decided to attend the Karadžic trial in an attempt to further understand the process and possibly the man responsible for so much misery and death during the conflict. The courtroom gallery was entirely deserted apart from my group and separated from the court by a huge glass wall, which could be glazed over during secret testimony. It had the most up-to-date technology as well as three-way translation.

Past the initial jolt of fear and embarrassingly, a kind of awe one often feels upon encountering a celebrity, my primary reaction to Karadžic was that of sympathy. This man faced at least fifteen people in the room who were absolutely convinced of both his guilt and his certain future of further trials and a lifelong prison sentence. His legal assistants (he insisted on representing himself) seemed disinterested and his self-defence rambling and pathetic. However, his speaking style was confident and clear and although he spoke primarily Serbo-Croat, while reading English documents his diction and fluency were remarkably good.

After a while, I began to notice small things beyond the shock of being less than eight feet away from a mass murderer I had been brought up to equate with Hitler or Pol Pot. Whenever he was about to make a controversial point, he would glance quickly over to my father and I. At first I assumed this was coincidental, a minor interest in the only changing scenery in the courtroom. It wasn’t until the fourth of these token glances that I realised that he was playing to the audience, gauging our reaction and trying to glean a response from us.

The trial itself was an alarmingly humdrum affair, with constant qualifications, clarifications and pauses for the three-way translation to kick in. The key issues were examined on a microscopic level and every fact haggled over exhaustively. One can only imagine Karadžic’s legal strategy consisted of wasting as much time as possible based on the probability that the ICTY court would be more interesting than the long prison sentence that definitely awaited him.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt’s quotes about the banality of evil sprang to mind, when over an hour was spent arguing over whether a photo showed the doors of a barn as being opened or closed. It appeared to show door handles but no door hinges, and the expert witness and Karadžic spent long periods of time discussing this. Of course, the subtext to this argument, which was easy to forget, was the thirty or so dead bodies inside the building, shot by Serbian paramilitaries. Occasionally, this subject matter came sharply back into focus, as when Karadžic exclaimed loudly, “I want to SEE a photo depicting thousands of bodies in one grave!”

I left the trial decidedly disappointed. I’m not sure if I expected an explanation for his actions or at least some manifestation of guilt on Karadžic’s part, but the entire process seemed to be an opportunity for him to act out his innocence to an audience already convinced of his guilt. I was far more affected by seeing Karadžic than the trial itself, which had more of a feeling of tying up loose ends than leading the charge against genocide. The ICTY itself is a court conducted primarily in English, in a western European country and so seemed like an expensive, flashy attempt to purge a Western sense of guilt for a late intervention rather than provide justice and restitution for the real victims of the war.

Laura Curtis

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One Comment
  • ruth
    20 June 2012 at 17:54
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    will you go back and see more do you think?

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