A mission no one wanted…Bringing Bosnian War Criminals to Justice: #Reviewing The Butchers Trail

Arriving back in Bosnia in 2006 the country was much different from my first tour in 1998.  In 1998 the mission concentrated on the return of refugees and their  resettlement, the discovery of mass graves and  the mission to arrest  the perpetrators of the worst war crimes since World War II was just gaining ground. While in 2006, the last four major war criminals were still on the lam and the mission to bring them to justice was the enduring mission for the forces assigned to the shrinking US mission in Sarajevo.

“There can be no lasting peace without justice.”


The Bosnian War ended with three warring entities signing The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also more commonly known as the Dayton Agreement or Dayton Accords, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in November 1995 and the deployment to Bosnia of NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) in December 1995. The U.S. Army assumed responsibility for Multinational Division North, a third of the country, and established its headquarters at a former Yugoslavian Army base in Tuzla.  The multinational headquarters, with a U.S. flag officer in command, was established in Sarajevo, the country’s capital. The IFOR mission, according to the U.S. Army Historical Center, was “…to enforce the cease-fire, control the airspace over Bosnia, separate the warring factions, and supervise boundaries…” One point the diplomats attempted to ensure was that the IFOR mission would avoid the “mission creep” associated with other military operations; however, one mission they overlooked was bringing those that committed atrocities during the war to justice.

Julian Borger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who covered the Balkan wars for The Guardian, tells the story of the mission that was forgotten during the peace negotiations, but became the prime mission of the coalition forces deployed for over fifteen years; to bring to justice to the worst of the Balkan war criminals. The Butcher’s Trail: How the search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt tells the story of the menagerie of international investigators, NATO soldiers, police and intelligence analysts that formed a linked task force to apprehend persons from all three factions indicted by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The military created the acronym PIFWC, persons indicted for war crimes, to describe those indicted by ICTY as well as those indicted by Bosnian state courts.

Radovan Karadžić 

“There can be no lasting peace without justice.” NATO Heads of State and Government, July 1997. Secretary General Javier Solana quoted the statement after the first arrest by NATO Stabilization Forces December 1997.

Rato Mladic

It is with some degree of irony that Radovan Karadžić the former president of the Republika Srpska, one of the signers of the Dayton Peace Accord, and his top general Ratko Mladić remained on the run and beyond the reach of the NATO and later European Forces Task Force until they were arrested in Serbia . Both Karadžić and Mladić have pled innocent to the charges and are now standing trial at The Hague.

First fugitives poster, published by NATO, 1996 (ICTY)

First fugitives poster, published by NATO, 1996 (ICTY)

NATO soldiers arriving in Bosnia for duty with IFOR (after the one-year mandate ended, this command was changed to Stabilization Force (SFOR)) were provided with the fugitives' names and photographs, but were “under orders that the fugitives should be arrested only if they were encountered in the normal conduct of NATO duties. In practice that meant never.” British Ambassador Charles Crawford said about the rules of engagement, “…In effect: Don’t pick him up, unless you actually trip over him. Anything that involved going off the road even ten yards was regarded as not being in the course of your normal duties.”

Borger asserts that the Dutch government, “haunted” by its Army’s failure to defend Bosnian Muslims at the U.N. protective enclave at Srebrenica and the presence of ICTY headquartered at The Hague, approached the U.S. to change NATO’s mission. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvilli argued that US soldiers were sent to Bosnia for one mission, “to keep the peace,” and the change appeared to smell of mission creep. However, President Bill Clinton overruled his advisers and sent David Scheffer, the State Department’s ambassador at large for war crimes, to “sell the idea” to the NATO allies.

Borger provides an accurate story of the PIFWC mission, especially the issues of multinational forces that are tied to national interests and sometimes the personal egos of the individuals involved.  After receiving the mission from their national leaders, the deployed military leaders began to plan an ambitious multi-faceted mission to arrest a number of the PIFWCs including Karadžić who continued to live in Pale, the unofficial capital of the Republika Srpska, located in Multinational Division Southwest commanded by the French.   Borger tells the story of how an individual in the French command, Herve Gourmelon, single-handedly caused the operation to be cancelled and “soured Franco-American military cooperation in Bosnia for years.”

Gourmelon, a French army major that Borger described as a French James Bond, was assigned to Sarajevo for several years. He had made contacts in the community to the point he was allowed to live off of the compounds which dotted the city. He had developed a unique relationship with the Bosnian Serbs in Pale, including Karadžić. However, the U.S., including the CIA, believed Gourmelon was giving away more intelligence than he was collecting, alerting Bosnian Serb officials of SFOR security operations in Pale. After General Wesley Clark, NATO commander, accused the French of “having a spy in their midst,” Gourmelon was eventually recalled to Paris. The U.S. continued operations but avoided including France in their operational planning. U.S. Ambassador at large for War Crimes, David Scheffer said, “The [Gourmelon] affair scared off the Pentagon from coordinating any Karadžić operations for a long time thereafter, and gave the cynics within the Washington bureaucracy plenty of reasons to back away…” Theerafter SFOR and the U.S., concentrated on lower level individuals which allowed Karadžić and other top-tier war criminals to leave Bosnia and start living underground in Serbia, out of the reach of NATO and SFOR but not the U.N. ICTY investigators.

David Scheffer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes unveils a poster at the State Department in March 2000. The poster includes the images of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadžić, and Ratko Mladic. (Rachel Griffith | UPI)

Having lost the prestige of their positions in the Bosinian Serb government, Mladić and Karadžić both assumed very private lives in Serbia. It is important to note that NATO, SFOR, and U.S. forces were not allowed to operated in Serbia however, the U.N. ICTY and the U.S. Department of State were able to investigate leads and coordinate with the Serbian Government.  While living in Serbia, their families remained under suspicion and their houses were routinely raided by European Forces, NATO, and ICTY.  The story of their capture brings to close the story of one the greatest manhunts in history. Now, the two accused of killing thousands are standing trial in ICTY’s trial chambers and reside in comfortable cells in ICTY’s detention center. Therefore, the final chapter of the worst atrocities since World War II remains to be written.

U.S. and NATO commanders learned many lessons from the PIFWC operations. Many of these lessons were transformed into the tactics and procedures used by U.S. special operators in the war on terrorism, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over twenty years have passed since the Bosnian War ended but the country remains fractured along the same ethnic divides. For example, while the trial of Karadžić continues at The Hague, a dormitory was dedicated in his name by his daughter Sonja in the present Republika Srpska capital of Banja Luka.

Borger’ experience  reporting on the Balkan wars has given him the ability to write from the perspective of an investigator walking the streets of Banja Luka, Pale, Mostar or Srebrenica while other books such as Madam Prosecutor by ICTY Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, and All the Missing Souls by U.S. Ambassador at Large for war crimes David Scheffer treat the issue from their positions in the international judicial and diplomatic community.

The story Borger tells is important as an example of how the international community acted after it failed to protect the innocents victims of the war. The question remains for U.S. policy makers and the international community on how to address the U.N.'s Responsibility to Protect treaty.

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He served in Bosnia in 1998 and returned to Sarajevo in 2006 with the U.S. National Intelligence Cell. He was recognized by the UN ICTY Sarajevo in 2008 for his work on the PIFWC mission..  He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader. The views and opinions expressed are the author's and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S Government.  

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Header Image: Serbian protestors wave Serbian flags and hold a picture of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic during an anti-Kosovo independence rally in Belgrade on February 21, 2008. (Dimitar Dilkoff | Getty Images)