You donʼt work with Ukraine directly, but you are involved in the investigation of Russian crimes. How exactly?
I donʼt directly investigate war crimes in Ukraine, but I try to share my experience. For example, NATO military police, Czech military police and others asked me to give some lectures for them, because they are collecting evidence in Ukraine.
What do you focus on in your lectures?
I talk a lot about exhumation from the point of view not of a forensic expert, but of an investigator. Everything that investigators do in another country must be legally justified and with the permission of the prosecutorʼs office and the local police. Because if the investigators come and start collecting evidence according to the standards of their countries, then it may not be accepted in court or in a potential tribunal or in the ICC. I also talked about safety, because in the graves there can be, for example, landmines.
Why did you decide to write a book about your experience at the Yugoslavia Tribunal?
The last war crimes investigations were in Nuremberg and Tokyo in the 1940s. From that time until 1991, when the war in Yugoslavia began, there was no such experience, and the prosecutors and investigators who participated in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials have mostly died. The rules were established by the UN, but we gained practical experience and did many things for the first time. So I thought this book would be useful for people involved in similar missions. It is similar to a report, there are many descriptions of how we carried out exhumations and arrests. I didnʼt write it as a bestseller.
And it started with the fact that The Guardian journalist Julian Borger was working on the book "The Butcherʼs Trail" about the arrests of war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. He talked to Clint [Williamson], to me, to Kevin Curtis and asked for help with the first chapter of the book. Borger invited us to the presentation of the book at the UN, where we saw that people were interested in our experience. I wrote the book itself quickly, but it took ten years to get UN approval for publication.
I want to talk about the investigation of the case of mass murders in Vukovar. How did you find out about these events?
I learned about it even before working at the ICTY. In 1992-1993, I worked as a senior special agent of Interpol, I was seconded for a year to Sarajevo as part of UNPROFOR. The city was under siege, there was constant shooting. Once I had an operation, and I was recovering in Zagreb in an American military hospital, where I watched Croatian television — there was a lot of talk about the massacre in Ovčar. And then I joined the Tribunal.
The situation was similar to what is happening now in Ukraine. At that time, there were many non-governmental organizations working in the former Yugoslavia, which collected peopleʼs stories about events and then gave us reports. We studied the documents, prepared a work plan, where we were going to go and whom to interview. As in Ukraine, we did not have access everywhere, because the Serbs occupied the territory of Croatia, where we were not allowed. Therefore, we talked to those who managed to escape from there. We also took information from the few local media that could work on the ground until now. Thatʼs how we made a general picture of what happened in Vukovar.
Dr. Clyde Snow, a famous American anthropologist who is considered the prototype of Indiana Jones, found the mass grave in Ovchar. The UN sent him to work in the former Yugoslavia even before the International Tribunal appeared. It was Snow who reported about the grave in 1992. We tried to get access to it, because it is difficult to bring someone to justice if there are no bodies of the dead. But the territory was controlled by the Serbian authorities, and they did not allow the exhumation. We were able to do this only in 1996.
And how did you manage to gain access if the territory was still occupied?
At that time, the UN administration was there, it controlled the territory, although the Serbian authorities were still on the ground. But the UN had military personnel, police and military police, and the administration was headed by American General Jaques Paul Klein. He supported justice and legality, therefore, despite the displeasure of the Serbian authorities, we were able to carry out the exhumation.
We have at least three mass graves in occupied Mariupol, and there is no access to them. When is the time limit after which it is impossible to identify the dead and find out exactly how they died?
Over time, bodies decompose. And after one, two, four, six years, the evidence gradually disappears. During exhumation, two things need to be clarified: to identify people and to find out how they died. When we investigated the tragedy in Vukovar, six years after the massacre, we were able to identify one hundred and ninety-three people out of two hundred. Back then, DNA testing was something new, but now itʼs the norm. Therefore, there should be no problems here.
Establishing the cause of death will be more difficult. When youʼre dealing with executions, such as when a person is shot in the head, any forensic pathologist will be able to give a reason. And if the bullets pass through the flesh, the body decomposes, and it will not be so easy. But I completely trust forensic experts. Science is moving forward quickly, and there are better tools now than there were when we were working.
The main thing is to get to the crime scene. The earlier the better. Everything depends on the political will of the international community, because the Russians will not cooperate. And in addition to the crime scene, you need access to witnesses who may be in Russia or in territory controlled by it. It is hardly possible to even think about the fact that the international investigation or prosecutors from Ukraine will be able to go there and talk to people. And we got such an opportunity in the former Yugoslavia.
The time that passes between the moment of the crime and the moment when the investigators finally question these people affects the quality of the testimony. People forget details or begin to mix up what they actually saw with what they later learned from others or saw in the media. This affects their critical perception of things. We came across this when there was a witness in the documents of a non-governmental organization who gave information in an interview as his own testimony, and it turned out that someone just told him this. Such testimony will not be accepted in court.
Who was accused of the massacre in Vukovar?
There were two groups. The first are people who served in the Yugoslav Peopleʼs Army, military personnel. When Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, soldiers from other republics began to flee the federal army, and in fact only Serbs and Montenegrins remained in it. So the army sided with a particular side. And the commanders of this army had to observe the Geneva Conventions.
The objects of our investigation were two soldiers of the Yugoslav Peopleʼs Army — Operation Commander Mile Mrksic and Security Service Officer Veselin Šljivančanin. It was they who prevented the Red Cross and the international community from entering the hospital, where they took the people, secretly put them on buses and took them to Ovčarʼs farm, where they were eventually killed. There were soldiers of the Yugoslav Peopleʼs Army and local Serbian paramilitary formations in Ovčar. That day, the Serbian media spread the fake news that the Croats had killed forty Serbian children before surrendering. That is why Serbian militants decided to kill these people. And the commander of the operation, Mrksic, instead of protecting civilians and prisoners, decided to withdraw the troops.
Then another suspect appeared, whom we identified during interrogations. It was Slavko Dokmanovych, the mayor of Vukovar who was elected even before the war. Not only Serbs, but also Croats voted for him. On the position of mayor, he had to protect people, regardless of nationality. And our witnesses knew him personally and saw him in the hangar in Ovčar when he beat some prisoners.
The second group is the shooters, that is, the actual performers [of the crimes]. They were from Serbian paramilitary formations. We did not investigate them, but we collected evidence about them. After Milosevic was arrested, the Serbian authorities began to cooperate with us, they appointed a war crimes prosecutor in Serbia, Vladimir Vukcevic. Prosecutor Carla del Ponte agreed with Vukcevic that Serbian justice would prosecute the shooters. Based on our evidence, they brought them to justice. The shooters received from 5 to 25 years in prison.
And we brought the military leadership to justice — they received real terms, and Dokmanovic hanged himself in prison.
Dokmanovicʼs detention was the first in the history of the Tribunal. You spent six months developing the detention plan. How was it?
At that time, the Tribunal faced a problem: we had about 70 defendants, but no one wanted to arrest them: NATO did not have a mandate for this, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia did not want to cooperate with us. Prosecutor Louise Arbor from Canada insisted that we try to arrest one of the accused. So that the suspects do not know that they have been charged, we have not made this information public. This allowed us to turn to them as witnesses, as an example.
Once, over coffee, I learned from a colleague who worked on crimes by Croats against Serbs that Dokmanović, who was hiding in Serbia, was ready to testify against the Croats. She didnʼt know he had been charged. I said I would like to talk to him too and asked for her contacts. I later apologized to her for this, but at the time I could not say that I wanted to arrest him. She gave me her phone number and address.
With that, I went to our lawyer, Clint Williamson, and asked if I could try to lure Dokmanovic out of Serbia to either Hungary or Eastern Slavonia, which was then controlled by UN forces. He agreed, and then we went first to the head of the investigation, and then to the prosecutor Arbor. She was in Ovcar for the exhumation, saw the bodies. I still remember how it was: the room was quiet, we sat at the table and waited for her verdict. “If no one wants to arrest the suspects, then we should try,” she said and gave us the green light.
We needed a unit that could make an arrest. There was a Polish special unit "Grom" guarding General Klein. We went to Klein, presented him with our plan, and he supported it.
At first, we hoped to ask Dokmanovic by phone to come to Vukovar as a witness, so that he would show us the places where the crimes were committed. He agreed, but then changed his mind. I had to change the plan.
You called the operation "Little Flower". Why?
Dokmanovic was the mayor of Vukovar, and once upon a time, the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, had the nickname "Little Flower", and thatʼs how the name came about. La Guardia had nothing to do with Vukovar, he just was also the mayor.
I had to go to Serbia. We gathered a small team: the commander of the Polish detachment, myself and two British police officers — Kevin Curtis and Dennis Milner. Together they worked out all the details, starting with training, arrest and ending with all other things. Then Clint and I went to Serbia to conduct reconnaissance, operating undercover, like ordinary tourists. We had to find out what Dokmaovic looked like, walk the streets and see where he lived, where the military barracks might be, the police, just to see what we were dealing with.
Then Curtis went to speak with Dokmanovic as a witness. And I was there undercover in a civilian car, again as a tourist, and watched. We were afraid that this could be a "pretext" behind which either the Serbian police or Dokmanovićʼs friends could be the killers from Ovčara. So we wanted to be sure that if something were to happen to Kevin, we would be able to respond quickly. I had a cell phone, but I turned it off before leaving for Serbia so that I could not be tracked. I rented a car at a car dealership in Belgrade and went "on a tour of the city", but actually watched the house.
Curtis suggested that Dokmanovic come to General Klein. The thing is that Dokmanovic was left with a house in Vukovar that he could not sell. So we suggested that he go to Klein to discuss the sale of his house with him, and then show us the crime scenes. Dokmanovic initially agreed to go, but then changed his mind again because he was afraid that he would be arrested by the Croats. We gave him a guarantee that the Croats would not touch him.
But was he going to be arrested?
He was not afraid of the tribunal, because he did not know that he had been charged. He was afraid that the Croats would arrest him. Therefore, we gave him a good faith guarantee that the Croats would not arrest him. And he agreed to go.
And then we waited for him to appear. And he appeared. He crossed the bridge, got into the car that was supposed to take him to a meeting with General Klein. On the way, we arrested him and took him to The Hague. It was the first arrest of an accused war criminal since World War II. And this opened up opportunities for other arrests. Louise Arbor went to NATO commanders and said: “My small team managed to arrest a war criminal and no one was killed in the process. You have thousands of soldiers, and you tell me that you cannot do this." So two weeks after our arrest, the British SAS launched an operation in Prijedor.
Did you have any doubts then that such detention was legal? And did you have to prove it in the Tribunal?
Yes, there were doubts. Previously, war criminals were arrested in this way only by states, for example, the Mossad kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina, the Americans also did this. But such actions have never been tested in an international tribunal. Williamson and other lawyers worked on the case. There were hearings, Dokmanovicʼs defense demanded his release, because in their opinion it was an illegal kidnapping from another country — Serbia. But the lawyer made a mistake. He decided that Dokmanovic should testify during the hearing as a witness. And if the suspect can say whatever he wants in his defense, then the witness should only tell the truth. And Clint interrogated Dokmanovic as a prosecutor. One of his questions was: "When did you feel you were under arrest?" And Dokmanovic said under oath that it happened when he was pulled out of the car by the Polish military.
And why was it important?
The border between Croatia and Serbia runs in the middle of the Danube River. An escort was waiting for Dokmanovic outside the checkpoint on the bridge, but it turned out to still be on the Serbian side. And it was on the territory of Serbia that Dokmanovic got into our car. But the Poles arrested him already on the territory of Croatia. We did not know about such nuances then, it was a coincidence.
The argument that he was kidnapped from Serbia would have been valid if he had not said himself that he felt arrested when he was taken out of the car, not when he got into it. So the judge decided that the arrest was legal. It was a great success. In addition, the judge said yes, you cheated him, but you provided him with all due legal process: he was not beaten, he was given a copy of the indictment in his language, he was provided with an interpreter.
During the detention, there was a loaded gun in Dokmanovicʼs case, it was found and unloaded only in The Hague in prison. After that, the safety rules were revised. How did this even happen?
It was a mistake. But we needed to get him out of Serbia as soon as possible to avoid any questions. The Poles searched him, took everything he had and gave it to us. And then we hurried to the airport. They did not want to deal with his personal belongings in the field, so that later there would be no accusations that something had disappeared. It is interesting that Dokmanovic twice asked to give him the case [in which the gun was lying] — first to get cigarettes, and then to file an indictment. But Curtis did not give him the case.
One of your witnesses was involved in the atrocities but was freed in exchange for testifying against the commanders. How to explain such a decision to the victims?
We needed someone from the [military] group to prosecute. We thought that if we presented only the victims who survived, the prosecution would say that it was all fabricated. If you have a group of killers, itʼs hard to identify exactly who did what. So we were looking for someone who had done something good. This was a man who saved eight people. The father of this Serbian soldier told him that one of the Croatian boys had somehow protected him in the hospital in Vukovar. So this Serbian boy went looking for the man who had saved his father, found him in a hangar in Ovčara, and saw other people he knew. He took eight people, brought them to the hospital, and they survived. In addition, we had no evidence that he was the direct shooter in Ovcar.
I questioned him, and then Clint and I discussed it, and he argued to the prosecutor that we needed such a witness for the prosecution. They decided to place him in the witness protection program. And he still lives by this program.
But you are absolutely right that it is an ethical issue when someone who has potentially committed a crime has more value as a witness than as a suspect. And this is a difficult decision that is hard to justify to the victims. But it was a professional decision.
During the tribunals, there were several cases when suspects committed suicide, including Dokmanovic. Or Slobodan Praljak, who drank poison right in the courtroom. Why did they killed themselves — is it conscience, fear, despair? And did it become an obstacle to justice?
They chose death. The tribunal would never give them the sentence they chose for themselves, because the harshest sentence of the tribunal is life imprisonment.
Dokmanovic was depressed. His defense attorney — Mr. Fila — as we later learned, was close to the ex-president of Serbia [Slobodan] Milosevic. Fila was at his home in Belgrade when he was arrested. And it seemed that Fila was more protective of Serbia than Dokmanovic himself.
After Dokmanovic failed the first court hearing, Fila called him again as a witness in the prosecution case against him. We didnʼt understand why Fila was doing this. They built a defense on the alibi they invented for him. And the alibi was based on a videotape, which was supposed to prove that at a certain time Dokmanovic could not be in Ovcar, because he was in another place. We managed to prove that the alibi was fabricated. Then Fila decided to show the judges that Dokmanovic was actually a good person, a father, a grandfather. Therefore, he began to bring witnesses to the courtroom who told about it. With this, he forced us to find witnesses to refute it.
We managed to find one guy, a Syrian who lived in Yugoslavia, was a doctor and a personal friend of Dokmanovic. During the war, the doctor was arrested and put in one of the camps. Dokmanovic came there, and by chance they met in the corridor. Dokmanovic demonstratively turned away and did not help him, although he knew that he was not involved in crimes.
All this had a negative effect on Dokmanovic. He tried to cut the veins first, but the razor blade did not reach them. And then he hanged himself on his tie.
Dokmanovicʼs death had a negative impact on the case. It is not possible to pass judgment on someone who has died. And if there was a verdict in his case and it was said that a crime had taken place, then we would not have to spend energy and prove the crime itself for the other two persons involved in this crime, we would concentrate only on their role in it.
There was another suspect whom you did not name — Milan Babic. He surrendered to us and later pleaded guilty to the crimes. Babic found himself in a situation where he became a war criminal for the Croats, and a traitor for the Serbs. Left on his own, and then committed suicide.
On the eve of the Ovčara massacre, Serbian television reported that the Croats had killed 40 Serbian children before surrendering. Should propaganda and hate speech be subject to investigation by tribunals?
We did not investigate this. The Serbs should have done it, but they didnʼt, of course. It was not a war crime, so it was already outside our mandate. To be honest, I think that journalist was used. I think someone was behind it, maybe the secret service or the military, but thatʼs just speculation.
Justice is needed not only as a punishment for criminals, but also as an example for others and a way to prevent crimes. But Russia is now actually doing the same thing you investigated in Yugoslavia. Why didnʼt it work?
Thatʼs a good question. Russia is not Yugoslavia. They think they can get away with it. The UN canʼt deal with the Russians because they have a seat on the Security Council and have veto power over anything that goes against them. And they know that the UN will not be able to do anything. And I agree with you that what happened in Yugoslavia is happening in Ukraine, but on a much larger scale, because Ukraine is a bigger country, and Russia is a superpower.
Sometimes I hear that it would be better to kill Putin because it is more realistic than waiting years for him to appear before the ICC or the tribunal for aggression. What is better for victims and for justice?
If Putin dies, are you sure that his replacement will be better?
Not sure, of course.
We are talking about Putin because he is the president and is responsible for this. But are his surroundings any better? Look at someone who recently died in a plane crash, would he be any better? No. Listen to [Dmitriy] Medvedev, who was considered a democrat for many years. I simply do not believe that killing one person will necessarily solve what is happening in Ukraine now. But please believe me, I feel for you and your people. He is evil to you because he started this war. He sends planes, bombs and missiles at your country and your colleagues, friends, other people die.
Milosevic was handed over to the Tribunal under pressure from the EU and the US. This was done in exchange for financial aid to Serbia. Could this option work for Putin and other Russians?
To be honest, I donʼt think it can work for the president of the Russian Federation. Russia is not Serbia. I think that if someone arrests President Putin, it will be inside Russia itself. They must come to it themselves. Or if he decides to go to a country that will be ready to arrest him. You may hear that he is supposedly not afraid of international persecution. But did he go to South Africa for the summit? He didnʼt.
You left the Tribunal in 2004. One of the reasons, as you mentioned earlier, is that it was difficult for you to work with terrible atrocities for 10 years straight. Should investigators working with such crimes seek help from psychologists? And have you or your colleagues worked with psychologists?
We didnʼt have that kind of support. Maybe that has changed now. But personally, the most difficult thing for me was to deal with the survivors. Families expect that their son, daughter, or husband is still alive and in prison somewhere. And you bring a box of bones and a pile of torn clothes and say that this is their son.
People have different experiences. There are employees of the Tribunal who really suffered psychological trauma. A good investigator from France, I wonʼt mention his name, but he worked on the Srebrenica case, and he really had to seek psychological support. We also had a colleague who committed suicide, shot himself with a gun. There is a version that it happened because of post-traumatic syndrome.
When I left the ICTY, I thought I had done everything I could. But now I think that was a mistake. I had to stay and carry on. I have no regrets about the work I did for the UN after I left. Iʼm actually proud of it. But I believe that I should have remained in the field of war crimes.
Based on your experience, what mistakes should Ukrainian investigators avoid now?
I donʼt think technical glitches will be a problem. The Ukrainian police and prosecutorʼs office are no worse than in the Czech Republic or the USA. Another problem will arise, which cannot be avoided. Ukrainian authorities will have to investigate war crimes committed by Ukrainians. This will be a political issue. And this is important, because otherwise you will be perceived from the outside as engaged. There are no doubts or questions about who attacked, who is the aggressor. Thatʼs clear. But under the Geneva Conventions, the fact that you were attacked does not excuse your war crimes.
There is a threat that society will start to pressure, because it will be easier for Ukrainian justice to get to Ukrainian war criminals than to Russians. This will put a lot of pressure on the prosecution, saying why are you persecuting our people.
It is naive to believe that Ukrainians do not commit war crimes. I am not saying that the Ukrainian authorities organize these crimes. Iʼm talking about something else. You serve in a combat unit with your comrades, work together, eat from the same pot, and then you see one of them killed by the enemy. And if, for example, someone who did this fell into your hands and he was unarmed, surely you would refrain from shooting him? And if you pull the trigger, you commit a war crime. And if this happens, the prosecutorʼs office will have to investigate it.