14:37, November 29 125 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-29 14:37:03
The day I came face to face with General Slobodan Praljak in The Hague

The date was Tuesday 9 May 2006. General Slobodan Praljak was on his feet in the courtroom in The Hague, cross-examining me. And it was not the first time we had met face to face.

The other occasion was in September 1993, at his headquarters in the self-proclaimed statelet of “Herzeg-Bosnia”. General Praljak had signed an order allowing three reporters, including your correspondent, to enter a concentration camp under his command at Dretelj, near the Bosnian-Croat stronghold of Čaplinja, where Bosnian Muslim men were being maltreated, starved and killed.

With so much attention around the sentencing of Bosnian-Serb general Ratko Mladić last week, many have forgotten the supposed other war in Bosnia, in which Bosnian Croats tried to establish their own “ethnically clean” territory. Praljak stood accused that day in 2006 of being one of the leaders of that murderous enterprise, and I was called upon to tell the court what I knew of his role.

Like the Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, Praljak elected to defend himself, shunning lawyers and speaking – volubly – for himself. He shared Karadžić’s swashbuckling madness, which would have been eccentric were it not so lethal.

“We don’t have much time,” Praljak began, “so please try to answer briefly and precisely”. He was an assertive presence in any room, even this one.

I had told the court how in September 1993 we were following up on a letter by the Croatian president Franjo Tuđjman that suggested conditions at camps in Bosnia holding interned Muslims were not within the Geneva conventions.

We were repeatedly refused entry to Dretelj. But eventually – for reasons best known to him – Praljak signed the order to let us in. When we rolled up at the former Yugoslav army base and presented the order to the camp commander, a Major Sakota, he was aghast but obeyed Praljak’s order, and in we went.

In one warehouse, hundreds of terrified men were packed, sitting or squatting; some time beforehand the door had been closed for 72 hours, leaving them suffocating in the heat and stench, drinking their own urine.

We proceeded to two hangars dug into a hill. The doors were open, but it was dark inside. The prisoners within were in an appalling state – skeletally thin, eyes unfocused, with skin problems. They told us how the doors were often locked and one night drunken guards had opened fire through them, killing and wounding several.

We saw gnarled bullet holes in the metal door, and impacts on the rear wall of the tunnel. Though Muslim, many of the prisoners had fought for Praljak’s Bosnian-Croat HVO against the common Serbian enemy, and were now interned and persecuted by their former comrades.

I testified about the more widespread and terrifying carnage in the Muslim enclave of East Mostar, besieged by Praljak’s army, but not to my knowledge at the time on his direct authority.

Thirteen years later, Praljak was having none of it. He wanted to talk about how ethnic groups “have sovereign rights”, and asked me: “Is the right to defence and to freedom an obligation and the right of a sovereign people?” He didn’t have steam coming out of his ears, but it felt that way.

Judge Antonetti intervened – “Mr Praljak, would you please ask questions that the witness can answer?” – and we went on in this vein for some time.

Praljak fixed his gaze and asked me: “Are you an investigative journalist or a political journalist?” I told him that when covering a war “you have, I think, to know a bit about the political situation”.

Round and round it went. “Mr Praljak,” pleaded Antonetti, “the judges to my left and my right … think that you’re asking questions that are not pertinent.”

After some discourse from the accused about another camp, Gabela, time was up and Praljak insisted that “although I would have a lot more to ask you, I’ll rest there. Thank you for answering the questions.”

The court record reads: “THE WITNESS: Thank you, General.” And that was that.

He’d put on a show all right, but I was unsure quite what it had achieved, beyond me sticking to my story against a war criminal who had his own to tell.

Wednesday’s show was more decisive, but not entirely out of character.