Witness for the Prosecution

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Editor's Note: This dispatch originally appeared in the October 28, 2002 edition of TIME Europe

I had never met Slobodan Milosevic face to face until last week, when I went to the Hague and sat across from him at the International Criminal Tribunal for war crimes in the Former Yugoslavia. I was testifying about events I had witnessed in Vukovar, Croatia in November 1991, where I reported on Milosevic's campaign to conquer parts of Croatia and merge them with Serbia. My news articles from that period form part of the prosecution's case against Milosevic for crimes against humanity, including genocide.

During Milosevic's 12-year rule in Serbia, I had often seen pictures of him in newspapers and on television. I even saw him two or three times in person, from afar, during his rare public appearances. But it was still something of a shock to meet him face to face—this man who shaped so much of my life as a journalist as well as the lives of thousands of others in my homeland. He was always a reclusive guy who seldom gave interviews.

But the consequences of his policies were all too visible, in Sarajevo, in Srebrenica and in Vukovar. Almost 11 years ago, I walked the town's muddy streets, stepping over corpses, as Serb militia members led away helpless civilians to what would be their mass grave. A year later, as part of a similar land grab in eastern Bosnia, the same men were happily torching Muslim homes and murdering their owners. The fighters were drunk with bloodlust and slivovitz, but they were also led by the invisible hand of Milosevic's secret police, who organized, armed and supplied them. It was the link between Milosevic and these crimes that my testimony was intended to help prove.

In the days before the war-crimes tribunal was established, I was stricken with anguish and anger over the things that Milosevic did in the name of my nation. When the investigators contacted me in 1999, I agreed to testify, although Milosevic was then firmly in power and the possibility of the trial seemed remote. So there I was, stuck for hours in a smoke-filled waiting room, drinking thin Dutch coffee and browsing through the only reading material available, a stack of women's magazines.

I was extremely nervous. As a print journalist, I rarely appear on TV, and knowing that everyone back home would be watching--and, I hoped, seeing me help convict a man who is still regarded as a hero in some quarters--didn't help me overcome my stage fright.

But what really made me nervous was waiting to be cross-examined by Milosevic himself. Since the beginning of the trial eight months ago, he has proved quite skilled in humiliating witnesses and making them look silly and confused. And though my closet is mostly skeleton-free, I was worried about what sort of dirt his people in Belgrade had been able to dig up on me. I tried to relax, but after a while felt I had forgotten everything I ever knew about Vukovar, and feared I would end up answering his questions with tips on anti-cellulite treatments and applying makeup to dry skin.

After the bailiff finally ushered me into the courtroom, my memory becomes somewhat scattered. I was surprised that Milosevic looked so much smaller than I remembered him, like a grumpy old man--and evil. Earlier that day he ridiculed a witness whose legs were amputated due to vascular disease by reminding him of the Serb proverb "Lies have short legs." Despite my nervousness, I felt strangely desensitized when the questioning actually began. I just tried to keep my composure and use all my remaining wits to answer his questions one by one.

This was not always easy, because some of Milosevic's queries were too ludicrous to be taken seriously. He implied, for example, that I was part of a vast anti-Serb conspiracy that also included Harvard University, a number of human-rights groups and various media outlets. He spent a lot of time trying to prove that my story was nothing but irrelevant hearsay. I tried to describe what I had seen in Vukovar as simply and clearly as possible. It may have been the most important thing I will ever do. After my testimony was over I felt as if a great burden had been lifted. For me, the Balkan wars were finally over. Now I could go home.

Dejan Anastasijevic has been TIME's correspondent in Belgrade since 1996