Bosnian Journal

By Joe Rubin

Ratko Mladic and Karadzic Ratko Mladic and Karadzic

Amsterdam and The Hague

I awake to the winter sun rising over the canals in front of my hotel. Amsterdam seems like a dream version of Europe. It’s so bloody well run. You can leave your luggage in a computerized locker in the airport, then catch a speed train into the city. And even on this frigid snow-covered morning, a few early risers cycle the streets and thousands of gleaming bikes are parked in every conceivable spot, secured with flimsy locks that New Yorkers would consider a joke.

I already feel I could move here. But I also can’t help thinking that this idyllic place was in ruins half a century ago. The Nazis stormed Holland and pillaged Amsterdam, gradually placing the nation’s Jewish population in a vice of repression that ended in genocide. Many Dutch collaborators fought valiantly against the anti-Jewish measures, succumbing only when the stakes became too deadly and they were weakened and starving. Walking the streets of Amsterdam, I wander down an alley and come across a used-book store. I picked up a book entitled The Tulips Are Red, by Leesha Rose. It turns out to be a sublime and devastating account of this period -- reminiscent of Anne Frank’s autobiography, but told from the perspective of the Dutch resistance movement. In any case, I highly recommend it, along with the saltwater tubs.

As you may have guessed, I’m heading for a parallel here between the last two genocides in Europe. It infuriates me when I hear full-of-yourself, pompous statements like “People have been fighting each other in the Balkans for millennia; they are just prone to that kind of thing.” These dark figures, Slobodan Milosevic, Arkan, and, of course, Ratko Mladic and Karadzic, weren’t part of history’s destiny as some argue; they were dark men with a good and specific plan, men who knew how to play history.

There is another big connection between Holland and Bosnia. Holland is where the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is located, at The Hague Tribunal just a few minutes from Amsterdam. The ICTY is where war criminals from all former Yugoslavian countries, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia are tried. The big fish on trial was, of course, Milosevic before he was found dead in his cell; and the last two big players at large -- Mladic and Karadzic -- are out there somewhere, maybe in Bosnia, maybe in Serbia.

Until they are brought to justice, there’s little chance Bosnia can even begin to be part of the European Union -- be “a part of Europe” -- a yearning phrase I heard so many times while I was working on “Dark Shadows,” my last story for FRONTLINE/World. Standing in the check-in line for my flight out of Amsterdam, a young Dutch traveler asks me if I was, like him, going to Vienna. “No,” I reply. “I’m connecting to Sarajevo.” “Did you leave something there?” he asks wryly. I don’t think he meant it like that. It turns out he wrote his master’s thesis on why media coverage of Srebrenica drove Europe to get more involved in stopping the bloodshed in Bosnia. Bosnia, a beautiful place with so much grace and potential, has become, with its three governments, its organized crime rings, an unemployment rate of 50 percent and war criminals still roaming the place, a synonym for “lost” or just plain “screwed up.” Could Sarajevo be in the same top-tier league as Amsterdam some day? That may sound far-fetched, but remember that 20 years ago Sarajevo proudly hosted the winter Olympics and the city was considered a jewel of Europe.

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“Bosnia: The Men Who Got Away” is Joe Rubin’s third broadcast story for FRONTLINE/World. He has produced and reported for ABC’s Nightline, including his 2000 documentary on an emerging resistance movement against Slobodan Milosevic, which got him hooked on the Balkans. He also produced the Rough Cut “Dark Shadows,” which covers the rise of nationalism in Serbia. An unbridled enthusiast for the possibilities of video journalism, Rubin spent time in Latin America as a Knight Fellow, where he taught digital journalism in Panama, El Salvador and Ecuador. Recently, Rubin’s been working on the Pitch Room, a program in development with HBO. He lives in San Francisco.