Vladimír Dzuro: The ex-Prague detective who made a groundbreaking war crimes arrest in former Yugoslavia

Vladimír Dzuro, photo: Ian Willoughby

As a war crimes investigator in former Yugoslavia Vladimír Dzuro took part in the exhumation of a notorious mass grave in which 200 massacred Croats had been dumped. He was later involved in the arrest of one of those responsible, delivering the first European war crimes indictment handed down by an international tribunal since the end of WWII. He has captured his sometimes hair-raising experiences in the book The Investigator: Demons of the Balkan War.

Vladimír Dzuro,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Today Vladimír Dzuro probes crimes committed by staff on United Nations peacekeeping operations. But he actually started out in the mid-1980s as a regular detective in Prague 10. When we spoke at his offices at the UN, I first asked him how much the crime rate had risen following the fall of communism.

“There was a major impact immediately after. My experience, from the former Yugoslavia and other places, now tells me that wherever a change of system happens, some people believe that democracy is anarchy.

“I think it was the same in Czechoslovakia. The first years were really kind of anarchy.

“Also there release of prisoners – over 7,000…”

Under Havel’s amnesty?

“Yes. But it’s not the point. The point is that people were released and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“So the crime rate was amazing in contrast with what we used to have.

“Also the violent crime rate was much higher than we could manage.

“So it actually ended up very often that we were more registering crimes than actually investigating them.

“It took a couple of years before this settled.”

In the early 1990s you signed up to work for the United Nations, starting in Sarajevo. What were you doing in Sarajevo?

“First from the criminal investigation department I went to Interpol. I was working on organised crime at Interpol.

“It was kind of disappointing for me. It wasn’t the problem of Interpol, it was my own problem, because I had different expectations.

“Then when I realised that it is not what I thought, I decided I had to find a way out of it.

“At the time the UN established a peace-keeping mission in the former Yugoslavia and they were looking for workers.

“I applied for the job, went through the interview and was appointed as the chief of UN field security for the sector of Sarajevo.

“After some time you don’t hear shooting anymore. It’s like when you live next to the airport. You just stop hearing it. Which is extremely dangerous.”

“I spent one year there, under siege basically, from 1994 to 1995.

“It was one of the most difficult years of the siege, but also for me personally.

“It was really challenging. Because again I really didn’t know what to expect, coming from Prague to the middle of a war.

“It was a great school for me, professionally.

“I survived it. I changed my views on many things in life, and my life preferences.

“Because when you are faced with a war situation you realise that what you thought was important is no longer important.”

What kind of things did you experience there?

“You wake up in the morning and you go to bed – and you still hear shooting.

“If you don’t come from a war zone, or if you don’t get used to it gradually, when you land there one day and hear shooting around you all the time it makes you uncomfortable.

“It’s funny how the human body reacts to it. After some time you don’t hear it anymore. It’s like when you live next to the airport, pretty much.

“You just stop hearing it. Which is extremely dangerous. It exists in reality – you just don’t pay too much attention to it.

“I’ve talked quite often about a little boy that was begging for batteries in front of the Holiday Inn hotel, where I was living for some time.

“When I went out he came to me and said, You promised me batteries – I need them for my Walkman.

“And I always forget to bring them. I always thought, Oh, next time.

“Then one day I came back from the office to the hotel and I see the guy, on the ground, with a bullet in his head.

“A sniper gunned him down. There were snipers shooting around the hotel.

Photo: Nguyen Phuong Thao
“At that time I just said, Why would somebody shoot a child? There’s no military target to it. There’s no target – killing kids. Why would somebody shoot a child?

“It was something very real, about the brutality of war, that I saw with my own eyes for the first time.”

You then got the work with the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. What was the focus of that job?

“It was something that really happened while I was still in Sarajevo.

“The UN established the International War Crimes Tribunal and I would like to say that Madeleine Albright, our countrywoman, who was at the time permanent representative of the United States to the UN, was behind establishing it.

“The UN set up this tribunal and they were looking for investigators and lawyers.

“To cut it short, I jumped from Sarajevo to the Hague, where I was placed in a team that investigated crimes committed by Serbs on Croats in Croatia.

“So the next year, and the nine years after, my prime focus was investigations into Serbian war crimes in Eastern Slavonia, most of the time.

“In Krajina, around Knin. And also, as a part of this, was Western Bosnia, in Sanski Most, where Arkan and his paramilitary units were operating.

“Because they were headquartered in Croatia, in Eastern Slavonia, naturally those investigations came to us, even though it was not on the territory of Croatia.”

In your book one of the main cases you write about involved the killing of over 250 Croatian men, who were taken out of a hospital in Vukovar. What happened to those men?

“When the war was coming to an end, because the Croatians could not defend the city any more, the Croatian authorities made an agreement with the JNA.

“They surrendered to the JNA and they were supposed to evacuate the hospital. It was supposed to be evacuated by the Red Cross and the European Community Monitoring Mission, ECMM, and the JNA…”

The JNA was the Serbian army?

“Actually it was, funnily enough, the Yugoslav National Army. But when Yugoslavia started disintegrating the different nationalities were leaving.

“We were slowly uncovering the bodies. It was like a horror picture of legs and heads and hands sticking out of the ground.”

“The Croats left, the Slovenes left, the Macedonians left. So the Federal Army became a very Serbian army.

“They leaned towards the Serbs wherever the conflict was. They were supposed to be independent, they were supposed to be federal, but by virtue of having majority Serbs they basically became the Serbian army.

“And eventually they became formally the Serbian army.

“So those guys were supposed to help the Red Cross to evacuate those people.

“But Major Šljivančanin, who was a contra-intelligence officer, stopped the Red Cross convoy coming to Vukovar hospital on a bridge and then held them there for some time.

“Meanwhile, the JNA moved around 300 people out the back door of the hospital, put them on buses and moved them to former JNA barracks in Vukovar, where they kept them for hours.

“Only then did they allow in the Red Cross. So whoever was left in the hospital – there were hundreds and hundreds of people – those people survived.

“But those people who were removed secretly were eventually taken to Ovčara farm. It’s a big, mostly pig farm.

“They were held in a hangar there and beaten the whole afternoon.

“And at the same time the Serbian television ran a news piece saying that the JNA had found 41 Serbian children slaughtered by the Croats, which created the atmosphere that led to what eventually happened.

“This news wasn’t true.

“As you can maybe imagine, after they conquered the city, those people who lost were accused of killing children.

“It was an attack on the basic instinct of everybody.

“Because everybody is the father or mother of somebody, or the child of somebody. So these are very basic instincts.

Ovčara farm,  photo: Perun,  Public Domain
“What happened in the evening was the Yugoslav army moved out of the location and left those prisoners in the hands of the local Serbs who executed them, 20 by 20.

“They made a mass grave at a location that was used before the war for dumping dead pigs from the farm.

“So they made another hole and dumped 200 people into the mass grave and covered it up.

“There are 65 people still missing. We don’t know where the second grave is – we didn’t manage to find it.

“And they left.”

You were involved in uncovering that mass grave. As an investigator, when you do work like that, what are you really having to get right? What’s your aim? What are you most focused on doing correctly?

“I think you have to take the emotions of it. Because it can definitely cause problems over objectivity.

“So we were meticulously going after the evidence.

“Then we, as the Tribunal, hired Physicians for Human Rights, which is an NGO based here in New York, and they supplied the experts that actually did the work for us.

“The most famous of them was Dr. Clyde Snow, who is a well-known forensic anthropologist.”

He’s the guy who Indiana Jones is said to be based on?

“That’s right. He’s the guy. He’s got experience with Tutankhamen, with Mengele, he was helping to identify people in Oklahoma after the terrorist bombings.

“The UN hired him to go to the former Yugoslavia. He was supposed to identify possible mass graves.

“In Zagreb he got in touch with a gentleman whose name was Zdenko Novak, who survived this terrible incident.

“He was already being transported to the graveside and he decided to jump.

“The colleagues who were with him on the tractor refused to do it, because they were afraid of being killed.

“The hardest thing was not the exhumation – it was dealing with the families of the victims. They believed that their sons and fathers were somewhere in Serbia.”

“And he just took his life in his hands and ran and ran and ran. Eventually he was captured by the Serbs and with a name like Novak they weren’t sure if he was a Serb or Croat and he survived.

“A year later he met Clyde Snow in Zagreb and he told him the story.

“Based on the description, Clyde Snow identified where the location could be.

“He travelled there instantly and found remains on the surface, which indicated that there might be a grave.

“So he came back a couple of months later with a Physicians for Human Rights team and in a test exhumation they found nine individuals just below the surface.

“But the Serbs didn’t allow them to exhume the grave.

“What happened then was they left and negotiated and negotiated, but never got the permission.

“So when the Tribunal was established and General Jacques Paul Klein was put in charge of the new administration, which was called UNTAES, the Tribunal approached him and asked if he can help us to exhume the grave.

“And he did actually provide the logistics. So in 1996 we came there and I was a part of the team that actually did the exhumation.

“We managed to exhume 200 bodies out of the grave.”

Physically how is it possible to work in those conditions? I mean, I can’t imagine, for example, the smell.

“It is very difficult and challenging. We went there for three weeks and I ended up being there for seven weeks.

“Of course the location, it’s decomposing bodies, it smells. It gets in your clothing and into everything.

“Also we were slowly uncovering the bodies. It was like a horror picture of legs and heads and hands sticking out of the ground.

“It’s not easy for everybody to get used to it. We had some investigators who clearly were unprepared to put up with this.

“Some did. I didn’t have a problem with it, but it wasn’t a pleasant place to be, that’s for sure.”

Also you write in your book that flies from the mass grave were landing your food in your canteen or something.

“We were initially eating US military rations, so the forensic team asked for something better.

Sarajevo,  1992,  photo: Mikhail Evstafiev,  CC 3.0
“And because we couldn’t go to the catering facility at the headquarters, because of the clothes we had on and the smell that came with us, they started bringing us food to the location.

“That was just a couple of metres from the grave – and of course the flies are everywhere.

“You get very allergic to flies very soon. The same flies that are eating on those dead bodies are sitting on your food.

“It was difficult for some people to deal with this, I’ll put it this way.”

For you personally, what was the hardest aspect of this work?

“Surprisingly, it was not the exhumation – it was dealing with the families of the victims.

“They had expectations. They believed that their sons and fathers, and the two women who were among those missing, were somewhere in Serbia, working on a minefield, maybe in Kosovo or somewhere.

“They had these false hopes.

“We were coming there and interviewing them. After the initial resistance – because they didn’t trust us – we eventually managed to get their confidence.

“And they told us the heart-breaking stories of their lives. Because it wasn’t a five-year war.

“If you remember, the war started in August and in November that was the end of it.

“And in those few months their lives changed completely, from very cushy Yugoslavia living into complete misery.

“So those people were coming forward with their stories and we, through the exhumations, eventually proved to them that those people are not alive – they were murdered and dumped into a mass grave.

“Dealing with them at the front end and then when we actually presented the bones and the clothing to them, they were nerve-breaking situations, with mothers crying and men being very upset.

“It’s much more difficult than the actual exhumation.”

One of the men who bore central responsibility for this atrocity was called Slavko Dokmanović. You played a role in his capture. What was the significance of his arrest?

“Dokmanović was indicted for participation in this massacre. He wasn’t indicted for killing. He wasn’t the shooter.

“But based on the evidence we had, we were sure that he came to Ovčara as they mayor of Vukovar, he did nothing to help, he didn’t stop it – and actually participated in the beating of several individuals.

“At the time Bill Clinton issued a press statement praising our work. NATO was publicly happy that we managed to make the arrest, but that wasn’t necessarily the case under the surface.”

“At that time, you’ve got to remember, the Tribunal had around 70 indictments but nobody was in prison.

“The judges were very upset about this and the prosecutor didn’t know what to do.

“And there was pressure from the international community to do something about it.

“The member states of the former Yugoslavia had no interest in arresting anybody. NATO was saying, We don’t have jurisdiction – we were sent there as IFOR, implementing force, to implement the peace after Dayton, the replaced by SFOR, stablisiation, so the mandate was stabilisation.

“They somehow didn’t believe that arresting war criminals would be in their best interest.

“They believed that it could turn the local Serbs and the local Bosniaks and Croats against NATO.

“So the prosecutor started issuing sealed indictments. And one of those persons who was indicted under seal was Slavko Dokmanović.

“By accident I was talking to a colleague of mine, over coffee, who was working on the team that investigated Croats as criminals and Serbs as victims.

“She was telling me a story about meeting Dokmanović and agreed with him that he would testify for them as a witness. She didn’t know that he was indicted, because it was a sealed indictment.

“She gave me the details and I talked to Clint Williamson, who was a lawyer on our team.

“Then we went to see the chief of the investigations with a plan that I put forward, that we can trick Dokmanović to come from Serbia, where he was hiding, onto the territory of Hungary or to Eastern Slavonia, which was controlled by UNTAES.

“Eventually we presented the case to Louise Arbour, who was the chief prosecutor at the time. She considered the situation and said, This is something that we’ve got to try – if nobody else does it, we’ve got to do it ourselves.

“She gave the green light and put together a team of which I was a member.

“There were two British police officers, Kevin Curtis and Dennis Milner, there was the team lawyer Clint Williamson, and Thomas Osorio, who was our operations officer from Zagreb.

“We contacted General Klein and explained to him what we planned to do. He agreed to assist with the arrest.

“He put us together an American military intelligence officer, Dave Jones, who was working for him as a special assistant.

Vukovar,  1991,  photo: Peter Denton,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“This team worked for six months to prepare a trap to trick Slavko Dokmanović to come from Serbia to Eastern Slavonia, where the Polish special unit GROM arrested him for us.”

He was the first war criminal arrested in Europe since WWII, is that the case?

“Yes, indeed. That was the first war criminal indicted by an international tribunal since WWII that was arrested.

“I read his rights and then we transported him to the Hague.”

That must have been a huge international news story when you arrested him?

“Yes. Many, many states and states’ representatives congratulated us.

“At the time even President Bill Clinton issued a press statement praising our work.

“Even NATO was publicly happy that we managed to make the arrest.

“That wasn’t necessarily the case under the surface, because the arrest gave a stick to Louise Arbour to go to the headquarters of NATO and say, Look, if this gang can do it – nobody got harmed, nobody got killed – how is it possible that 60,000 of your troops with all the intelligence and might that you have cannot do it?

“So indeed things changed. About 10 days later the SAS from the UK, under the NATO umbrella, made the first arrest in Prijedor.

“Then everybody was awaiting an outcry, that the Serbs would revolt and there would be attacks on NATO.

“But very little actually happened. There were a few demonstrations here and there, but it proved that it could be done.

“Then shortly after that NATO started arresting others from the list that the Tribunal provided to them.”

Dokmanović killed himself in prison. What was your reaction when you heard that news?

“It was a major frustration, you know, because nobody wanted him dead.

“The importance of his arrest was to show that it’s possible to do. And also to prove the case – that it happened.

“Because we had other people who were more responsible for what happened there, which were Colonel Mrkšić and Major Šljivančanin and other people, the shooters.

“But legally we had to prove that the case actually happened. And by that verdict we would not have to prove again and again that the case actually happened – we would only have to prove the responsibility of the others.

“The International Tribunal wasn’t perfect, but there’s nothing perfect in life.”

“That all went down.

“Also the witnesses that we brought were victims and they expected that finally justice would come, after several years, to somebody, that somebody would be punished.

“And again, because he was dead, nobody would issue a verdict. So it was a major frustration for all of us.”

Today, how do you look back on the work of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia?

“It wasn’t perfect, but there’s nothing perfect in life.

“The Tribunal clearly prosecuted more Serbs than others. Now that doesn’t mean that the Serbs are a more criminal nation than other nations.

“It was just the reality, the fact that there were 10 million of them, they controlled the military and the federal police, so they had more opportunities to commit crimes.

“The Tribunal didn’t necessarily reflect that, because we were tasked with investigating crimes which were established, which we found out about and in which we found evidence.

“So people on the outside will look at that as one-sided – it wasn’t like that from inside.

“When we worked on crimes, nobody gave us any quota, that we needed to indict more Serbs than Croats.

“It just wasn’t a fact, no matter what people say.

“But I think that the Tribunal was successful. I think it was the most successful of all the tribunals.

“We indicted 161 persons and when the Tribunal finished there were no indictees at large. We managed to arrest all of them, or they died.

“We prosecuted all the cases we could. Some cases were referred to the national authorities: to Serbia, to Croatia.

“Considering that we are living in a non-perfect world, the achievements of the Tribunal are actually very positive.”

Sarajevo,  1992,  photo: Christian Maréchal,  CC BY 3.0
You’ve seen things that most people can’t imagine, things that they wouldn’t want to even begin to imagine for a second. Has that changed how you view of humanity?

“As I said at the beginning, it definitely changes the perceptions that you have.

“You realise that something I thought, before I joined the Tribunal or the mission in Yugoslavia, were important to me are no longer that important.

“And other things that I underestimated before became more important.

“Also I realised that we as humankind have got to be very careful, because we sometimes look at things that aren’t necessarily next door and think that can never happen to us.

“But history and what I have seen prove that everybody can do everything, if the circumstances are right.

“The most terrifying thing about the war in Yugoslavia was that it was a war of neighbours: neighbours were killing neighbours.

“The media propaganda, controlled by the states, created hostilities between neighbours.

“You know, for a number of years, from the end of the war until 1990, they were peacefully living together and nobody would have looked at that as potential danger.

“They were the better Communists, if you will, because they were not under Stalin, they took the Marshall Plan.

“For us, from Czechoslovakia, even to be able to go for holidays to Yugoslavia was a problem, because there were free borders, open borders.

“So imagine then that in a couple of months that stable state turned into a war where neighbours were killing neighbours. At the time it wasn’t possible to imagine.

“And I’m a little bit concerned that people are forgetting that things like that could happen to them as well.

“Look at the separating of Czechoslovakia. It went peacefully, but it didn’t have to.

“Look at the separating of Czechoslovakia. It went peacefully, but it didn’t have to.”

“Luckily it didn’t happen. But just imagine if the politicians started splitting Moravia and Silesia, for example, or if there was a huge minority of Czechs living on the Western side of Slovakia or a Slovak minority living in the eastern part of Czechia, and there were things about changing the borders, or something like that.

“It could happen. It didn’t happen, but it could.

“And then imagine if there was a football fight, like for example in Zagreb in 1990 where Dynamo Zagreb played Red Star Belgrade and there was a huge fight, broadcast on television, which is believed triggered the violence in former Yugoslavia between Croats and Serbs.

“Something like that could happen as well.

“We are not immune from it. We are lucky that it didn’t happen.”

Do you ever have to reassure yourself that most people are basically OK? You’ve seen terrible, terrible things – do you ever feel despair for humanity?

“No. I’m still probably an idealist in this way. I believe in good people.

“You wouldn’t be able to do the job that I do, if you saw everybody as a criminal.

“It is not possible, you know. And it is not true.

“Circumstance sometimes push people to do things that they normally wouldn’t think of doing.”

Today you still work for the UN, investigating corruption on peacekeeping missions. In general, what has the experience of working for the UN for, I guess, a quarter of a century given you?

“It’s actually an amazing experience.

“I mean the diversity of the staff.

“The UN is the only organisation which helps people to stay where they are, helps to separate warring factions, to bring food education to children. Overall I think its impact is positive.”

“I’m a chief in the office here in New York of the OIOS, the Office of Internal Oversight Services and under me I have people from all over the world.

“I have South Koreans, I have a Romanian investigator, Danish, Polish.

“My superior is American, the director is British, so we come from the whole world and work next to each other and it’s an amazing experience.

“Again, the UN is not perfect, like any other organisation. There are some problems and there will also be problems.

“But if the UN doesn’t work somewhere, or is not allowed to work… for example in Syria, you see millions of refugees across Europe.

“Because there was no mechanism put in place to keep the people there.

“In other parts of the world where the UN has put a peacekeeping mission there might be some refugees from here or there, but not in such numbers.

“So the UN is the only organisation which helps people to stay where they are, helps to separate warring factions, to bring food and – with UNICEF, for example – education to children.

“There’s nothing else in the world similar to the UN.

Vladimír Dzuro’s book The Investigator: Demons of the Balkan War will be published in September 2019 by Potomac Books. It came out in Czech last year.

“Of course, that also brings, which is why are here, problems, where soldiers are sexually abusing the people that they were supposed to protect.

“But these are individual examples where people misbehave.

“That’s why we are here, to investigate things like that.

“But overall I think that the UN’s impact is positive.”