Authors: James Patterson
I thought I was prepared to see him, but when the side door opened and Slobodan Petrović was escorted by guards into the courtroom, I felt sick.
Tunnel vision, light-headedness, dropping-through-the-floor sick.
Joe gripped my arm. “You okay?”
“Uh-huh. I’m fine.”
I wasn’t fine. I was enraged.
When I looked at Petrović, I saw his gun pointed at my face. I had other images in my mind, ones I’d absorbed from hearing Susan’s tearful rendering of rapes and beatings. I thought about meeting Anna that first time when she was semiconscious in the ICU. And I would never, ever forget the mutilated bodies of Carly Myers and Adele Saran.
Petrović had done all of that and much more. And he hadn’t paid for any of it.
I’d relied on the ICC to return Petrović to his cement-block
sarcophagus. My mind had rested on that image of him, a cockroach in a block of concrete.
Seeing him on his feet, well dressed, put a new picture in my head. I saw the clever, undefeated military officer who might have found another loophole. By the end of the day, he might get released for time served.
Petrović smiled at the judges as he passed the benches, before taking his place in the dock.
Joe took my hand, and together we stared at the master killer who had once been our focused obsession. Petrović looked much as he had when we’d seen him last. Yes, his hair was grayer, and he’d lost weight. But he still looked like Tony Branko in a good blue suit, a white shirt with a tie.
There was a buzz in the gallery, exclamations in many languages, muffled sobs, and his name, a sound like clearing one’s throat. Petrović.
I’d researched the trials of Serbian war criminals before coming to The Hague. I knew that over the last four months this court had heard appeals from seven previously convicted former top-level officers of the wartime Serbian Army, all of whom had been betrayed by Petrović.
Six of the seven appeals had been rejected. One sentence had been reduced, owing to an error made at trial.
Today was Slobodan Petrović’s turn.
I looked at him standing in the dock, his face radiant with confidence. I quickly switched my eyes across the room to Anna Sotovina. She looked resolute.
I thought that Petrović and Anna were evenly matched.
Judge Bouchard spoke, saying, “Slobodan Petrović, you were formerly a colonel in the army of Republika Srpska.
When you were tried, you were found guilty of killing, and ordering your troops to kill, over fifteen hundred civilians—men, women, and children—in Djoba, Bosnia. In addition, it was proven that prisoners were tortured and raped before execution. Afterward they were buried in mass graves.”
“Your Honor—” Petrović said.
Bouchard cut him off. “I will let you know when it is your turn to speak.”
Judge Bouchard summarized Petrović’s testimony against his superiors, and his reward, a commuted sentence, and the terms of his release.
Bouchard’s face was inexpressive when he said, “Because you violated the agreement, Mr. Petrović, your sentence was reinstated and justice was done.
“But you are appealing your sentence, requesting that the charges against you be dropped and that you be released immediately. Beyond your stated facts that you don’t feel safe in prison, you did not state a reason for why you should be acquitted.
“Now, sir, if you’re ready, the court would like to hear what you have to say.”
Petrović took a moment to tighten the knot of his tie, secure his microphone, and sweep his gaze across the glass wall sequestering the press and interested parties.
He took a quick look at the witnesses’ area, a bench similar to the judges’ benches. Beside it was a bank of folding chairs, every one of them occupied by a witness.
Petrović paused for a fraction of a moment when he saw Anna among the witnesses. He may have gasped, or was that a wink? But his gaze continued past those men and women, and he turned so that he was looking directly at the judges.
He said, “Greetings, Your Honors.
“Judge Bouchard mentioned that when I was brought back to this prison, justice had been done. I find this surprising that he would make such a statement on two counts.
“First, I was arrested and thrown into an airplane to Sarajevo. I was not tried. I had no trial. I did not face my accusers. I was not presented with evidence, and I did not have a lawyer present. I was arrested, restrained, flown to prison. How is this justice?
“Justice. You speak of
? Perhaps you should consider as well the absence of justice, or its selective application.
“Let me ask you, jurists. Where was the justice for Dragan Ilic? Murdered by Bosniaks, on his son’s wedding day, walking in procession to the church.
“Where was the justice at Sijekovac, where eleven of our people—civilians—were fatally struck down by Croat and Bosnian units?
no justice. No UN or ICC retribution. Were you sleeping?
“These were unprovoked crimes caused by the tragic and unlawful breakup of a country in an attempt to thwart the destiny of Greater Serbia. These were attacks on our people—
people—that could not remain unpunished.
you seekers of justice,
were acts of war.”
He had the gallery and the courtroom transfixed. I was also in his grip. If I’d thought he might be slippery, manipulative, begging for his liberty, I was wrong. He was angry.
“I am a soldier. My father was a soldier. He was murdered in the Ustaša genocide, a crime against humanity perpetrated mainly against Serbs. Was I to allow the allies of those who killed my father—enemies for centuries and attackers of our beliefs and traditions—to repeat, with impunity, their crimes?
“No. You judges have been deceived if you think that any man could do that. I could not, because I am a man who believes in justice. I. Not you. I.”
There was an outcry in the room—an exhalation of emotion, outrage, grief, throughout the gallery. An older
woman wearing a head scarf, sitting in the row in front us, shook her head,
No, no, no,
and cried into her hands. Before us in the courtroom, one of the witnesses, a woman of about my age, got to her feet and cried out.
The judge slammed down the gavel until the sounds ceased. The witness who had gotten to her feet sat down.
Judge Bouchard said, “Mr. Petrović. You’ve been heard. Please step down from the dock and return to the table with your attorneys.
“Witnesses to the military operation in Djoba will give testimony about the actions of Mr. Petrović’s troops on the town’s people.
“Anyone, anyone at all, who cannot control their emotions will be escorted out of the courtroom.
“Mr. Petrović will have an opportunity to rebut witness testimony after all the witnesses have spoken. After which,” said the translation of his words in my ear, “the court will decide if his appeal should be granted or refused. The tribunal’s determination shall be final.”
Bouchard turned and spoke to the bailiff.
“Mr. Weiss. Please call the first witness.”
I was stunned by Petrović’s speech.
If I had not witnessed his savagery in San Francisco, I might have been moved by his story. Even so, I was rocked by his defense. He felt justified in what he’d done in Djoba, and had shown no remorse when he was brought down in San Francisco.
But he did have perspective, even if rooted in his narcissism. Innocent Serbs had died, too.
It was only ten in the morning when the courtroom’s attention shifted to the witnesses against Petrović. They would be called in alphabetical order and sworn to tell the truth on the religious book of their choice, or on their honor. They were required to keep their testimony to five minutes, with a thirty-second warning from Mr. Weiss.
For the next four hours the spectators in the gallery and the participants in the courtroom heard victim accounts of murder and destruction, of loss, hope, love, and faith that could have broken even the hearts of sociopaths.
But not his.
I watched Petrović as the testimonies were given. He folded his hands on the counsel table, and sometimes he took notes.
Anna was the last witness to be called and Petrović did give her his attention.
She stepped across the polished floor to the witness area, took an oath to tell the truth, and addressed the tribunal.
“My name is Anna Sotovina, but I am speaking today for all of those who were killed in Djoba, and all of the ones who survived but who have lost everything and everyone they loved.
“When Petrović came into Djoba with military weapons, I was twenty, a housewife with a small baby. My husband told me to stay inside, and he took his rifle into the streets, where he was killed immediately. Soldiers broke down my door, took my little son from my arms, and threw me to the floorboards, where they ripped off my clothes and took turns defiling me.
“The first man to rape me was him, Petrović.
“I listened for the sound of my son and heard his cries out in the street. And they were cut short. I must have screamed for him, but Petrović told me to stop. Then he lit his lighter and did this.”
Anna showed the scar on her face to the utterly silent room.
“The same day I’m telling about, the women of the town were rounded up, corralled into the school auditorium. They were stripped naked, and those who were pregnant were taken out and shot. We were told that we were to bear the children of our enemies and only when we were pregnant would we get rest.
“We were fed. We had to clean the school, and we slept on
the floors of the classrooms. We were raped repeatedly and beaten, and we did not complain or even talk to each other for fear of our lives.”
Anna paused. I could see that she was keeping a tight hold on her composure. I was glad when she was able to go on.
She said, “Women with children were told that they could have more. ‘You will give us little Chetniks,’ the soldiers said. They put blades to the children’s throats, used them as hostages to make their mothers comply. Sometimes we were gang-raped by two, four, or as many as seven revolting and cruel soldiers. He—Petrović—frequented the rape hotel.
“Sometimes a woman fought back. It was a suicide wish that was often granted by pistol or the leg of a chair. My aunts and sisters and cousins and friends were all raped and killed in the schoolrooms.
“I did become pregnant. I was brought to a doctor who said so. But before I could retire to a closet and sleep, a fight broke out and I was beaten with everyone else. I lost the baby I did not know and didn’t yet love.
“Later I learned that I could not ever again bear a child.
“When the war ended, I came to the USA and found, to my horror, that he, Petrović, was living a half mile away from my door. I know that his crimes outside of Bosnia are not the purview of this court, but I say this with your permission. Petrović was not fighting his father’s war or any war when he raped and beat me, and when he did the same to other women and killed them with his hands in the sunny state of California. There was no war in California. It was about him, and his love of power. His love of power over life and death.
“Please. Keep him here. Do not release him. Please.”
There was an attenuated silence as Anna returned to her seat, and then the crying started in the observation room and the witness section. Even some of the judges put handkerchiefs to their eyes.
I sobbed into my husband’s jacket and I couldn’t stop. But I was forced to look up when I heard the sound of the gavel cracking through my headphones. Judge Bouchard called the court to order. He thanked the witnesses, and he adjourned the proceedings for thirty minutes.
The main hall outside the courtroom was flooded with people who couldn’t stay in their seats any longer. Friends and even strangers embraced. Press spoke into phones and recorders. Lines to the washrooms were long. No one broke the tension with conversation or laughter.
Twenty-nine minutes later the gallery was full and court was in session again.
The rooms were utterly quiet, filled with expectation. Judge Bouchard’s use of the gavel was pro forma.
The judge asked, “Mr. Petrović. Would you like to make a closing statement?”
Petrović got up, crossed the room with a heavy stride, and mounted the three steps to the dock. The overconfidence was gone, but his anger was fully present.
Without thanks to the court or any preamble, he said, “I am not a war criminal. You,” he said, pointing a finger at the rows of witnesses, “are liars.
of you are liars. I am a patriot. I am a Serbian hero, and history will remember me as such. Streets and parks and sons will be named for me. So all of you can go to hell.”
With that, he put his hand up to his mouth. I couldn’t see what he was holding, but when he tipped his head back, I gathered that he had swallowed something.
“Joe. What was that?”
“I read that he has hypertension.”
Petrović dropped something, a vial, and made an obscene gesture with his hand, waving it in a slow circle, taking in the whole room. And then he collapsed to the floor.
The bailiff moved fast. Guards left their positions at the doors. They all rushed to the dock, where Petrović slumped partially on the steps, his head on the floor.
Was this a trick?
Petrović was flung about by spasms. He writhed, grabbed at his throat, and made sounds that could only be caused by agonizing pain. I could tell from the cherry-red color of his skin, the way his open eyes bulged, that Petrović had evaded a life sentence in prison by taking cyanide—easily obtained, easily smuggled in, guaranteeing a quick but excruciating death.
Where had his self-confidence gone?
To hell. He’d known when Anna made her statement that there was no chance he’d be leaving court a free man.
Petrović’s attorneys were detained by the guards. The judge cleared the courtroom, but those of us in the observation room saw the paramedics come in. It took four of them to get Petrović onto a stretcher and out the door.
They were too late.
Slobodan Petrović was finally dead. We’d never forget him.
And, for sure, Joe and I would never forget Anna Sotovina.