Doc taking Czech Dzuro back to scenes of Yugoslav war crimes hits cinemas

Vyšetřovatel / Investigator

In ex-Yugoslavia in 1997, Vladimir Dzuro delivered the first European war crimes indictment from an international tribunal since WWII. The Czech also investigated the notorious 1991 massacre of Croat POWs at Ovčara near Vukovar. His story is recounted in The Investigator, a documentary by Viktor Portel that enters Czech cinemas this week. I spoke to Dzuro on the eve of its release.

“I thought maybe it would be a documentary where different people are talking from the international community as well.

“That means Ambassador [Clint] Williamson, who worked with me on the arrest, for example, Ambassador [Jacques Paul] Klein, prosecutor Louise Arbour and [prosecutor] Carla del Ponte and people like that – and looking at the big picture.

“But the filmmakers had a different view of it: that it was going to be more the stories of the common people.

“When I talked to Viktor [Portel] about it, I thought it was an interesting concept.

“Because the success of the tribunal is a fact; whether somebody likes it or not, it was successful.

“If it was not for the success of the tribunal, there would be no International Criminal Court, there would be no Rome Statute.

“But nobody actually looked at the common people, the people who were affected by the conflict.

“I thought that was an interesting concept. That’s why I agreed with it.”

Vladimír Dzuro in 2018 | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

During the filming you went back to former Yugoslavia for two weeks and visited some of the scenes of these really intense experiences you had back in the 1990s. What were some of the toughest moments of going back to that part of the world, after all those years?

“I landed in Zagreb and they produced a car for me which was a 1990 car, a jeep, because they wanted to have a car that would fit the story.

“Then I drove on the highway from Zagreb to Vukovar. And my first stop could not be anywhere else but at Ovčara.

“I spent seven weeks exhuming the grave and I spent many, many years investigating the site.

“And notwithstanding when I was there doing the investigation, when I had almost no emotions, I was very surprised when I came after 17 years by how emotionally it impacted me.

“Because I was no longer there with a job to do. Now I came there pretty much as a tourist, to the site.

“I was really impacted by the emotions. It brought back the memories of the dead bodies and the stench of the exhumations and all the other things.”

Ovčara farm | Photo: Perun,  public domain

Did being there again make you consider if you could have done anything differently – if you thought about things you might have done differently, from today’s perspective?

“Many things, of course, could have been done better, had we known how to do them.

“As you know, the last war crimes tribunal had been the one in Nuremberg, after WWII. Then of course in Tokyo, in Japan.

“But between then and the war in the Balkans there were many, many years when nobody had experience with the investigation of war crimes.

“So we were developing the procedures basically on the go.

“We couldn’t look into something where it would say, It has been done this way – we are going to do it this way or that way.

“The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials were trials of the victors.

“They took over the territory of Germany and Japan and they arrested pretty much who they needed.

“They brought the witnesses as they needed them, and they went to the crime scenes as they needed.

“You know, we were operating in a situation where the war was ongoing.

“So we didn’t have access to the crime sites, to the victims and the witnesses.

“And most of those subjects were in power.

“Talking about doing things differently, in hindsight of course we could have. But at the time, we just didn’t know any better.”

Vladimír Dzuro | Photo: Luboš Vedral,  Czech Radio

The film The Investigator is about to go to cinemas here in Czechia. What would you hope that viewers would take away from the documentary?

“When they were filming it, there was no war in Europe.

“The war in Europe, the second one in my lifetime, happened only a year ago.

“At the time of the filming, I personally that it would be good to show people that it can happen to anybody, under certain conditions: economic crisis, political instability, irresponsible political leadership – and then a war can start, like that.

“At the time, I didn’t believe that I would see another war in Europe in my lifetime.

“So I really thought that it should be a reminder that it can happen to all of us.

“Now, with the situation in Ukraine, it also shows what kind of suffering the people of Ukraine are facing now.

“Because they are very similar to those that the Bosnians and Croats and the Serbs and everybody else suffered 30 years ago: attacks on hospitals, shooting at civilians, bombarding cultural properties and churches, mosques.

“This is all happening again in Europe, 30 years later.

“And I think this film could be a good reminder to people in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, to see the real impact of war on the lives of common people.”