On the first day of a five-month stint reporting on the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Slavenka Drakulic came to a painful realization. After just an hour of being the sole occupant of a visitors' gallery large enough for a hundred, in a garishly lit courtroom that reminded her more of a hospital than of the lushly appointed houses of justice she knew from TV shows like L.A. Law, already taxed by the procedural back-and- forth, the Croatian journalist reached the conclusion that justice, essential though it may be, is boring.
But this was only the first of her epiphanies. The bigger revelation was that the monsters she went to report on, the monsters her friends in the former Yugoslavia said weren't worthy of her attention, turned out to be far more sympatheticófar more humanóthan she had ever thought. "The longer I studied them," Drakulic said in a recent interview, "the more I realized that to call them monsters was a form of self-defense. We, 'ordinary citizens,' don't like to imagine that we, too, could become criminals under certain circumstances."
It is not difficult to imagine how Drakulic would react to the argument that the abusers at Abu Ghraib were just a handful of bad apples. For Drakulic, such scapegoating doesn't cut it; for her, war itself is the crime, and even its so-called criminals can, to an extent, be counted among its victims.
Composed of fifteen discrete essaysómany arranged around defendants whose trials Drakulic attendsóThey Would Never Hurt a Fly is in a sense three books in one. Part novel, part memoir, and part reportage, its stylistic variety reflects not only the multifaceted nature of the subject matter but the complexity of the author's own relationship to it. Though sure to draw comparisons with Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in JerusalemóDrakulic herself cites a passage from Arendt as an epigraphóthe two books could not be more different. Where Arendt, a student of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, brought scholarly rigor to the reporter's task, Drakulic comes to it with far more writerly flair. Indeed, in a chapter describing a daylong massacre of Muslims from Srebrenica, Drakulic, whose preceding book, S: A Novel About the Balkans, is a fictionalized account of the Bosnian war, dispenses with the journalistic "he said's" and "according to's" in favor of third-person omniscient narration: "Draz´en kept shooting every few minutes without thinking much about what he was doing. The only thing he was aware of was trying to aim at elderly people rather than young ones; it seemed less of a waste." The chapter is one of the book's most affecting.
But the book's true emotional core lies in those sections where those on trial remind Drakulic of members of her own familyóand of her own past. When a pros- ecutor says of Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb general, that his story is one of the "triumph of evil," Drakulic is unpersuaded. "He looked anxious and frightened," she writes, "not like a vicious bully poisoned by hatred and hungry for revenge." But even more significantly, Krstic reminds Drakulic of her father, a career soldier who served in Tito's army after World War II. Drakulic's reaction to Biljana Plavs´ic, one of the three highest-ranking Bosnian Serb officials (and the only woman) on trial before the tribunal, is similar. Watching Plavs´ic's courtroom hauteur, Drakulic is irritated, that is, "until I recognize something very familiar about heróor does she irritate me only because I recognize it? She reminds me of my mother."
Yet Drakulic is no pushover. If she humanizes the book's defendants, she never questions that their actions were criminal or that the punishments they ultimately received were warranted. Nowhere is this clearer than in a chapter recounting the trial of three rapists, for whom Drakulic has trouble mustering much sympathy. The mere expression on the face of one of the three ("that small, cynical smile almost permanently attached to his mouth") is enough to drive Drakulic to think that he should be held in contemptónot just by the court, but by humanity.
This is in many ways a nostalgic book, one that betrays a yearning for the simpler, more peaceful past that Yugoslavs enjoyed under communism, much as it evinces a deep hostility toward those, like Slobodan Milos´evic, who traded communism for nationalism for no reason other than to preserve a hold on power. While it's clear that Drakulic is not looking for any sort of communist restoration, she can't help but think fondly of a time when Croats, Serbs, and Muslims "worked together, went to school together, married each other, and lived in relative harmony." In a cruel irony, nowhere was this harmony more profound than in the Yugoslav National Army, the very army whose soldiers later became the vehicle through which the country's unity was ultimately bludgeoned. This irony becomes crueler still in Drakulic's final chapter, an almost surreal scene set in the detention unit housing the tribunal defendants: Serbs, Muslims, Croats, and even Milos´evic himself. As they wait for their verdicts, the inmates cook together, eat together, and share the same newspapers; together they comprise the very picture of peaceful coexistence.
"But," Drakulic wonders, "if the brotherhood and unity among the sworn enemies of yesterday is indeed the epilogue of this war, one wonders what was it all for?"
Her answer? "Nothing."
Gabriel Sanders is a writer living in New York.