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Culture

Croatian Writer Wins Leipzig Prize

At the opening of the Leipzig Book Fair, Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic was awarded the Book Prize for European Understanding for her look at Balkan war criminals on trial in the Hague.

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A critical voice from the Balkans

She's one of the most renowned and internationally best-known Croatian writers -- Slavenka Drakulic. Born in Rijeka in 1949, Drakulic grew up in Tito's Yugoslavia. Today she lives in Vienna, Stockholm, and from time to time, in her home country.

Four of Drakulic's novels and five of her non-fiction books have been translated into over 20 languages. At the heart of her writing are 12 years of attempting to understand the horrors of the Balkan wars.

Her latest book, "They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague," won her this year's Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding. The €10,000 prize honors people whose work increases tolerance in Europe, and especially in central and eastern European countries.

Perpetrator's perspective

Drakulic's book walks a fine line between literature and journalism, said jury member Inke Brodersen.

"It's a highly political book and at the same time, undoubtedly a literary work, not least because the author succeeds in prompting a reflective process in the reader -- something one doesn't often find in this form," Brodersen said. "Her description of how neighbors turned into murderers touches the reader. You ask yourself how you would have acted in the same situation."

Drakulic cannot forget how it was just recently that one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II took place on Germany's doorstep, in supposedly "secure" Europe. In her second-to-last novel, "As If I Was Not There," she described from the victim's perspective, how an unnamed woman experienced the horrors of war. In "They Would Never Hurt a Fly," it's the perpetrators who again are in the foreground.

Milosevic und seine Generäle

March 17, 2000 photo of Army General Dragoljub Ojdanic, center, the former Yugoslav army commander during the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, 2nd from right. Ojdanic surrendered to the U.N war crimes tribunal and flew to The Hague, Netherlands on a commercial Yugoslav Airlines flight Thursday April 25, 2002.

"I've written so much about the victims," said Drakulic. "At a certain point, you logically start wondering, who are these people who did all those things, who gave the orders for these crimes? In Bosnia, 200,000 people were killed, two million were exiled. Someone has to be responsible for that, someone is guilty. We've got the tribunal in The Hague -- and governments that are not being very cooperative. So, there are questions. I think it wasn't any different in Germany after World War II."

Drakulic observed proceedings at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for five months. She followed the appearances of Slobodan Milosevic and Biljana Plavsic, as well as other lesser known war criminals.

Normal people

How is it possible that they became what they are? That's the question Drakulic asks herself in 13 unsettling stories. Unsettling because, with these stories, Drakulic brings the war in the Balkans from the periphery back to the center of our consciousness. Unsettling because all these criminals led such completely normal lives before the war: waiters, hairdressers, police officers and taxi drivers were suddenly turned into butchers.

"The more I read about what happened and listened to people, the more I realized just how normal they were," she said. "What happens next is a unique interaction between a person's character and their situation."

"The moral of the book is, yes, these people are just ordinary people like us. Which means, should we find ourselves in a similar situation, we could choose to react the same way they did. In other words, we don't know what we're capable of."

Slobodan Milosevic

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during his trial in the Hague.

In the end, these arch-enemies find themselves cooking and playing cards together in The Hague's Scheveningen prison. And they all still address Milosevic as "Mr. President."

"If this sort of fraternalism among the sworn enemies of yesterday really is the epilogue to the war, then what was the reason that it had to come to all this? Just looking at the lads now sitting in Scheveningen, the answer is clear: no reason."

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