This morning I am watching the start of the trial of Ratko Mladic at The Hague and memories were stirred of my youth. I remember being fascinated by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was deeply involved in the implementation of the Holocaust. Eichmann was apprehended by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960, put on trial in 1961 and executed in 1962. For months, newspaper pictures showed him in the dock behind a bulletproof screen while the court heard the chilling details of Eichmann’s activities – many of which seemed to be ‘everyday’ transport logistics, but which took countless thousands to their efficiently arranged deaths.
Eichmann was on the run for 15 years, hidden within some communities who knew him and those who did not. But eventually he was tracked down and placed before a court. In the end, his deeds were made known to the world and he had to answer for them.
Fresher in my memory is the foreboding and anger of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. Time after time the political commentators prophesied that, on the election of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Yugoslavia would descend into civil war. So it proved. The consequences of that civil war are well documented and probably the best known atrocity committed by either side was the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. Under Mladic’s command, Bosnian Serb fighters captured a so-called ‘safe area’ guarded by 400 Dutch UN peacekeepers. Frustratingly, these 400 UN soldiers did not have a mandate to engage in combat to defend civilians in danger and so walked out of the city leaving its inhabitants to the terrors of those who wanted to cleanse the land of their kind. After giving the people hope of safety, the world’s nations abandoned them, innocent civilians, to their deaths at the hands of Mladic’s execution squads. (The culpability of the UN in this incident must wait for another time, but I remember my deep frustration and anger that we deserted those whom we knew would die.)
But now Mladic is in the dock facing his accusers, another war-criminal being brought to justice after many years on the run having been sheltered by some communities who knew him and perhaps some who didn’t.
Eichmann was not the first fugitive from justice to be apprehended and Mladic will not be the last. The older I get and the more of these tragic events I see across the years the more I remember two quotations. The first is of classical origin which I learned in my school English class: ‘The mills of God grind slow, but they grind exceeding small.’ The other was used by Martin Luther King to predict that however long it took, the Civil Rights Movement would succeed: ‘The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice.’
It should grieve all of us who have an ounce of humanity that justice should take so long to catch up with whose deeds are so calumnious. However, while it must never make us complacent, it is uplifting to know that sooner or later justice will be done. And if, perchance, they should escape the grasp of justice on earth, they, and we, will not evade giving account to God of all that we have done.