In today’s historical culture, it’s easy to forget that the criminal actions of groups, like ISIS, dominating our 24/7 television and internet driven news cycle are not unique. Indeed, the human capacity to produce atrocities – from the Crusades to the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda – has a long and ignoble history. Toronto-born former prosecutor Eliott Behar bears witness to part of that bloody record with a well-
written memoir chronicling his two years on the international legal team investigating and trying those accused of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
Following the 1980 death of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito, the nation he had kept together for four decades gradually devolved into a series of brutal civil wars that thrust Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia into the global consciousness for all the wrong reasons: massacres, rape camps, a refugee crisis that displaced millions, and the destruction of some of Europe’s most beloved cultural sites. As the fighting came to an end, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was formed in the Hague to prosecute those who maintained command responsibility for some of the most egregious crimes.
In 2008, Behar travelled from Toronto to join the legal team, and recounts in vivid, disturbing detail a series of crimes and cover-ups, as well as courageous testimony from survivors who often risked their lives to tell their stories. Behar offers a series of depressingly similar accounts of slaughter and the infrastructure of disappearance: victims are first buried, later dug up, transported elsewhere, then reburied or incinerated – all to hide clear evidence of wrongdoing.
While Behar’s presentation of geopolitics is limited – his overview of the conflict’s roots could have benefitted from more discussion of the roles NATO and international financial organizations played in the Yugoslav breakup – he nonetheless raises
important questions about what difference this complex, labyrinthine legal process will ultimately make. By looking at the patterns of war crimes from Cambodia to Rwanda, he also explores how people justify such acts to themselves – usually by nursing a collective historical wound or experience of real or perceived victimhood.
Tell It to the World is a difficult read, but a necessary one, given that, to paraphrase Life magazine’s rationale for publishing Robert Capa’s graphic 1930s Spanish Civil War photographs, the dead need to be spoken about so that they did not die in vain.