Book review: A game of hide and seek on The Butcher’s Trail by Julian Borger

In a comprehensive account of the 1990s Balkan Wars, Julian Borger tells the extraordinary story of a 14-year manhunt to bring ‘the Butcher’, Slobodan Miloševic, and 160 others to trial.

Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic in 1995. After eluding capture for 14 years, he was arrested in 2011 and jailed for life for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Mladic was responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, in which up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered. Pool Zambounis / Zamur / Gamma Rapho / Getty Images
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In the aftermath of the bloody wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the question of how to mete out justice to those responsible for some of the most brutal acts of ethnic violence needed to be addressed.

The peace that followed the Dayton Accords, signed 20 years ago last November, may have brought the conflict in Bosnia to a close but it was unstable, and the region was a powder keg of emotions and anger.

Many of the chief architects of the violence – which left 100,000 dead in Bosnia alone – were living with seeming impunity among sympathetic populations, while Nato forces on hand to keep the peace were loath to rock the boat for fear of further bloodshed and retaliations.

Julian Borger, now the diplomatic editor at The Guardian, covered the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s for the newspaper and BBC. He was able to see first-hand the chaos and misery those years brought to many in the region.

However, his debut book, The Butcher's Trail, is less about the conflicts and more about their aftermath, and the torturous journey to bring a small level of justice to those most responsible for those dark days of ethnic violence.

The Butcher's Trail charts the difficult, 14-year manhunt for 161 individuals placed on the most-wanted list, many of whom were ultimately behind some of the worst atrocities committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War, as first Slovenia and Croatia, then Bosnia (and later still, Kosovo – a Serbian province) broke away from the remnants of Yugoslavia.

By interviewing former soldiers, intelligence officers, diplomats, investigators and those involved in the manhunt, Borger has been able to expertly piece together the painstaking process of trying to bring justice to the region, and bring it to life for readers.

At the forefront of the attempts was the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Set up in 1993, the ICTY was the first time in history that a “truly global court” had been created to pursue war criminals, one that transcended national jurisdictions.

At first there was little faith in the ICTY. It was initially so short of money that it couldn’t afford to lease a court building, and it took 18 months to find someone of the right calibre willing to become the first chief prosecutor.

At the same time, reading The Butcher's Trail it becomes clear that there was also a serious reluctance to push ahead with the rounding up of war crimes suspects, as well as divisions over whether to go after the big names first or start with lower-level targets.

The French, British, Americans and Dutch differed significantly on their views, and with Bosnia divided into three military zones (one each run by Britain, France and the United States), this created tension.

For a while those who had perpetrated horrendous acts were allowed to blend back into society. After the fighting ended, some withdrew into the shadows, while others made no attempt to hide; indeed many high-profile suspects continued to hold office after the war – “such was the air of impunity,” Borger writes. This continued even after indictments began to be handed down.

In the Bosnian city of Prijedor, the British garrison actually bought pizzas from a restaurant run by one of the suspects. In fact, Charles Crawford, the British ambassador in Sarajevo at that time, tells Borger that the rules of engagement back then meant that suspects were only arrested if those doing the arresting could not fail to arrest them.

“Anything that involved going off the road even 10 yards was regarded as ‘not being in the course of your normal duties’,” he explains.

The French were even more reluctant, with France particularly loath to risk the lives of its men in order to bring individuals to justice.

In the end it was a Polish special forces unit, newly-formed, that made the first arrest in 1997: of a former mayor who witnesses said had been present at a massacre (he would ultimately escape being convicted by hanging himself a week before the verdict was due).

After this, however, the rounding up of suspects began in earnest, though there would be stops and starts, along with successes and plenty of failures in the years to follow.

The Butcher's Trail is studded with disturbing characters who, largely because of the lawlessness of those times, were able to enjoy their sadist urges.

People like Goran Jelisic, an ethnic Serb and former mechanic and petty criminal who was made a guard at a detention camp after the fighting began. He would introduce himself to inmates as "the second Adolf" and would select people at random to execute with two bullets to the head.

He once boasted of having killed more than 83 individuals.

Arresting these lower-level targets was dangerous, but doable. However, going after many of the higher-level suspects posed a political challenge, with Serbia and its leader, Slobodan Miloševic, whom many blamed for the conflicts in the first place, as well as other political leaders, protecting them.

State apparatuses kept many of these men safe and hidden from justice for years. At one point a camera positioned outside the hideout of Goran Hadžic, an ethnic Serb leader who was accused of war crimes in Croatia, caught footage of the fugitive climbing into a Serbian intelligence service car with a suitcase, hours after the agency had been informed about his imminent arrest. He would only be caught seven years later.

Despite increasing paranoia among those on the list, which was itself treated with high secrecy, some of the suspects were caught as they returned to see their families on birthdays, or let their guard down on the phone. Even then, some killed themselves rather than be captured.

After the collapse of the Miloševic regime in 2001, even those who had sought shelter in Serbia were no longer safe, and the hunt was on for the remainder of the list.

One of the last to be caught was Radovan Karadžic, the wartime leader of Bosnia’s Serb Republic.

He was eventually found after years of hiding in plain sight in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, where he had grown his hair long and dressed like a shaman, while living under an assumed name and professing to be a New Age mystic (he even had a regular column in a national health magazine).

Karadžic would spend his evenings in a “rough-edged” bar frequented by impoverished war veterans, and despite the picture of him in his former life on the wall no one appeared to be aware of his identity. In fact, one of Karadžic's neighbours worked for Interpol, and despite her job coordinating the hunt for international fugitives she never realised she had one living just across the hall.

Reading The Butcher's Trail, the events it deals with all feel worryingly recent. The book begins in the summer of 2011, with the arrest of Hadžic. It is almost inconceivable that all of this has taken place within the last two decades.

For the author, the tracking down of these war crime suspects was of profound importance. “By saving the ICTY from oblivion, the manhunt changed legal history,” Borger writes.

In a further step towards establishing international justice, in 2002 the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created, to initiate proceedings against those suspected of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, no matter who they are.

While the list of 161 individuals suspected of war crimes in the Balkans was not comprehensive, and many guilty men were never even targeted, by going after this group it sent a strong message that you couldn’t escape justice: of the 161, 10 were to die before ever getting to The Hague, while 20 had their indictments withdrawn, but all the rest were captured or turned themselves in.

The Butcher's Trail does a fine job of weaving together the details of the gruesome initial crimes, the elaborate manhunts, and the fraught diplomatic negotiations, to create what may ultimately become one of the defining accounts of this episode of Balkan history.

Kit Gillet is a freelance journalist based in the Balkans, where he writes for The Guardian, The New York Times and others.