Conversations With a Mass Murderer – The New York Times

Posted: January 29, 2020 at 9:49 pm


Personal Encounters With an Architect of Genocide

By Jessica Stern

Where do malevolent leaders come from? What drives them, and why do people follow them? The rise of populist demagogues around the world, from Hungarys Viktor Orban, Turkeys Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russias Vladimir Putin to our own Donald Trump, has given these perennial questions new salience. In My War Criminal: Personal Encounters With an Architect of Genocide, the counterterrorism expert Jessica Stern seeks an answer from one of those leaders himself: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb strongman implicated in atrocities committed during the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Croats and Muslims between 1992 and 1995, including the deadly four-year siege of Sarajevo and the murder of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. Indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1995, Karadzic, a trained physician, changed his name and, disguised as a practitioner of alternative medicine, managed to evade capture for over a decade. In 2008, he was finally arrested in Belgrade, Serbia, and sent to The Hague to stand trial before the ICTY, which in 2016 convicted him of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide (his conviction was recently confirmed on appeal).

Stern, who has made a practice of speaking with terrorists of various stripes in order to understand their motivations, sought and exceptionally, as such requests are usually denied received permission to visit Karadzic from 2014 to 2016 in his jail in The Hague. In My War Criminal, she interweaves excerpts from their conversations with explanations of the history of the Bosnian war and reflections on the influences that shaped Karadzic. As the title of the book suggests, Stern also sees herself as part of the narrative, frequently calling attention to her own responses to her war criminals statements and behavior.

Understandably skeptical of Karadzics self-serving answers to probing questions, but determined to make a fair attempt to understand him, Stern goes in search of his family members, friends and former colleagues. From her interviews, and from her investigations into Serbian history and culture, she is surprised to find some truth in Karadzics claims. His insistence that Serbs were merely defending themselves against external threats, she observes, is rooted in memories of actual historical wounds that continue to exert a powerful influence. Karadzic writes poetry, and Stern explores the Serbian tradition of epic poetry and music that glorifies historical victimhood and martyrdom, and formed a backdrop to his youth.

Stern quotes extensively from the large body of literature on the former Yugoslavia, and also explores such related topics as the legal definition of genocide, the international law on secession, the complexities of globalization and the new man that Communism hoped to create. These citations and digressions, often in lengthy footnotes, can lend the book the feel of a graduate school thesis, and some errors and false impressions creep in: a misleading suggestion that the ICTY one-sidedly prosecuted only Serbs (it did not); the mistaken characterization of a Serbian case against Croatia at the International Court of Justice as involving World War II rather than the more recent conflicts; the incorrect claim that the indictments of Karadzic and his notorious general Ratko Mladic were the first to be handed down by the ICTY. In an effort to be evenhanded and to consider all sides in the conflict (and perhaps because of her own expertise), Stern devotes more space than may be warranted to the question of the influence of fundamentalist jihadis on the (traditionally quite secular) Bosnian Muslim population. Despite interventions during the war by several Muslim countries, she rightly concludes, the fears raised by Serbian propaganda regarding an Islamic fundamentalist takeover were considerably overblown.

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Conversations With a Mass Murderer - The New York Times

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