THEY WOULD NEVER HURT A FLY: WAR CRIMINALS ON TRIAL IN THE HAGUE by Slavenka Drakulic is a nonfiction work to follow her fictional piece about the war in the Balkans: S: A Novel about the Balkans. In this book, Drakulic writes chapters on various accused war criminals from the war in the former Yugoslavia. To write the book, she traveled to the Hague and observed the trials. She is a native Croatian, and now lives most of the time in Sweden.
Drakulic's writing is clear and strong. At times she imagines the homelife of the various accused invidividuals or what their thoughts or surroundings might have been as they proceeded through the war, doing what would eventually land them in The Hague, but her imaginations aren't unethical or posed in a way that is difficult to separate from the facts at hand. Drakulic is really an "everyman" trying to understand crimes which seem incomprehensible to others. She struggles throughout the book to do so by examining individual cases in depth.
The various chapters deal with different crimes and individuals in the various regions of the war in Yugoslavia. For example, in chapter 3, "A Suicide Scenario," her first chapter about an individual, she writes about a Croatian man who testified for the authorities against other people in his village, and who was eventually killed by a bomb in his backyard after the war was over. She writes about the "You took a television" defense among townspeople in small villages after the war (and the war crimes) ended. Perhaps someone saw someone execute a Muslim or a Serb citizen in the street, but if he were to mention it, the perpetrator of that crime would remind him that he stole things from the home of that murdered man, and he would fall silent, ashamed of his own act, not recognizing the differences in the crimes, not willing even to take responsibility for a stolen TV. As the chapter on the murdered Milan Levar (the man murdered for cooperating with investigating authorities) shows, many Croatians despised the tribunals, wanting to try people themselves. But what they wanted more was to ignore the crimes, according to Drakulic.
Another chapter that was fascinating was "He Would Never Hurt a Fly" about Goran Jelisic, a Bosnian Serb. Jelisic liked to fish, and before the war, he was involved in minor criminal activity, but was a very relaxed, friendly man. She writes that he looked like someone you could trust, and since he is the age of Drakulic's daughter, she imagines him as a friend of her family's, coming over, sitting around, talking. The Tribunal sentenced him to 40 years for executing 13 civilians; however, it is believed that he actually killed more than 100, most of whom were Bosnian Muslims. In his trial testimony, people spoke of how he helped them during the war. In fact, even Muslims from his town testified about how he helped to save them. Yet in the camps, in which Muslims were rounded up and imprisoned, he randomly chose men to shoot in the head, and he made them place their heads over a grate because he hated the mess. He seemed to revel in his power and kept a running tally (out loud) of how many people he had killed.
Other interesting chapters deal with a man who was a Serbian soldier and was brought one day to a field near Srebrencia. Then the busses started coming and unloading men. All day he shot men, Muslims from Srebrenica (where ultimately around 7,500 civilian Muslim men were killed). And in the beginning of the day when he protested, the other men in his group threatened to kill him. In fact, there was one he knew didn't like him and wanted him gone (because he had mixed parentage). Or the chapters deal with more famous men on trial: Ratko Mladic, a general in the Bosnian Serb army, and the suicide of his medical student daughter after she took a trip abroad (did she find out about what her father was doing while in Russia?) and Slobodan Milosevic and his wife, Mira Markovic, their strange bond, and their ruinous (former) control over Yugoslavia and Serbia.
The final chapter, "Why We Need Monsters" and the epilogue are powerful statements on the vignettes Drakuliæ has told in her book about the trials, the individuals on trial, and therefore the very personal side of war. Drakulic wants to know how ordinary people can turn into horrifying demons in a time of war. Why are some people so willing to kill? What would another do in the same place? Given that personality is emergent, it's a frightening yet fascinating question.
"The more I occupied myself with the individual cases of war criminals, the less I believed them to be monsters. What if they are ordinary people, just like you and me, who found themselves in particular circumstances and made the wrong moral decisions? What might this tell us about ourselves?" (pp. 167-168).
It is this understanding of what might lie within the "normal" man or woman that we don't want to know. As she says, we would rather study an exotic insect in the Amazon than understand what we have at home.
The heartbreaking epilogue is about the prisoners in Scheveningen detention unit in The Hague, where the accused are housed as they await trial or their verdicts. The Croatians, the Serbs and the Muslims accused of crimes who are housed here seem to get along. They cook for each other the food from their homelands, even though the disputes over those lands led to the deaths of 200,000 in Bosnia alone. Drakulic realizes that the fact that these men, who were leaders in the conflict and key instruments of its terror, can get along when they choose to means that the war was for absolutely nothing.