Justice knocked at six in the evening last Thursday for Slobodan Milosevic. It was St. Vitus' Day, a date steeped in Serbian history, myth and eerie coincidence: on June 28, 1389, Ottoman invaders defeated the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo; 525 years later, a young Serbian nationalist assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, lighting the fuse for World War I. And it was on St. Vitus' Day, 1989, that Milosevic whipped a million Serbs into a nationalist frenzy in the speech that capped his ascent to power.
A tiny fraction of that throng gathered last Thursday night outside the Belgrade prison where Milosevic had been held since April, chanting "Slobo, Slobo, we will never abandon you." Milosevic's wife Mira and his daughter-in-law Milica Gajic were there, too, waiting silently in a green car.
But they came too late. Just before 6 p.m., the warden of Belgrade's Central Prison entered Milosevic's cell. He was surrounded by several policemen. "Get ready to go," the warden said. When Milosevic asked where, the warden told him, "To the Hague." Milosevic got up, changed out of his track suit and into a jacket and tie and went with the police. A blue-and-white van, commonly used for transporting prisoners, sped past a group of unwitting journalists and headed for a police base in the nearby suburb of Batajnica, where officials from the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal in the Hague were waiting. "They read him his rights, we signed the papers and that was it," a Serbian official told TIME. "He never said a word. There was no fuss, no problem." He was choppered to a U.S. military base in Tuzla, Bosnia; from there a British military plane flew Milosevic to an airfield near the Hague. At around 1:30 a.m., Milosevic entered the Dutch prison where he will live for the duration of his trial as a war criminal.
For a man who led his people into four bloody battlefield defeats in less than a decade, presided over a nation's dismantling and masterminded the hate-inspired slaughter of thousands all in the service of his own political survival Milosevic's ultimate surrender stunned the world for its utter lack of drama. The magnitude of what it represented was even more staggering: a tyrant who for years mocked the values of civilized nations is now in the international community's custody. When he appears this week at the U.N.'s courtroom in the Hague to hear the charges against him which include crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war the former President will be the first head of state ever to face the reckoning of an international war-crimes tribunal.
The snaring of Milosevic was a triumph for the eight-year-old court and its chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, who spent months barnstorming through Western capitals demanding his transfer. The tribunal has gone after Serb, Croat and Muslim suspects and successfully prosecuted 19 defendants, but until now has yet to bring to dock the supreme commanders of the Balkan wars. American officials who pressed the Yugoslav government to give Milosevic up, conditioning aid on his handover to the U.N., also claimed vindication. "Today's unfolding events demonstrate the wisdom of our position," crowed Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. By some measures Belgrade was the biggest winner of all: with Milosevic in U.N. custody, the government garnered pledges of some $1.28 billion in desperately needed international assistance for this year alone.