In describing his initial reaction to receiving the news that he had been selected as one of this year’s class of Rhodes Scholars, UC Berkeley alumnus Zarko Perovic could equate the moment to only one thing.
“You know when after a grenade is thrown in a movie, there’s this silence?” Perovic said. “It felt exactly like that. They said my name, and it became silent. I was shaking hands with judges and other finalists, but I was just in this haze.”
Perovic was named one of 32 young scholars nationwide to receive the Rhodes Scholarship, which provides scholars full financial support to pursue degrees of their choice at Oxford University.
As a young child, Perovic was often surrounded by turmoil in his hometown of Nis, Serbia, where war crimes were not uncommon.
“It was seeing the effects after the bullets stopped firing that struck me most,” Perovic said of growing up in Serbia. “Hearing about organ trafficking, watching executions on television. Over time, you start thinking about these crimes every day, and they influence your passions and how you see the world.”
As a UC Berkeley undergraduate, Perovic majored in political science and classic civilizations, and during his sophomore year, he co-founded and edited Caliber Magazine.
Perovic also worked as a research assistant with the War Crimes Studies Center, where he worked with professors to synthesize a project called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
David Cohen, founder and director of the center, worked closely with Perovic and nominated him for the John Gardner Fellowship, which Perovic was awarded his senior year. The fellowship allowed Perovic to apply to work with the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the U.S. Department of State after graduation in order to pursue his passion for preventing war crimes.
“Apart from being brilliant, (Perovic) is one of the most thoughtful and interesting students I’ve worked with at Cal,” Cohen said in an email. “I was pleased to be able to personally recommend him to that office.”
Perovic said that in his role with the State Department, he was able to provide research and analysis about war crimes to better implement various policy initiatives, such as the expansion of the War Crimes Reward Program. This program offers awards of up to $5 million for information that could lead to the capture of war criminals such as Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, centered in northern Uganda and South Sudan.
After finishing his fellowship, Perovic began work with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, where he has been leading the development of an atrocity-documentation system that allows individuals to document atrocities in conflict zones.
“People witness atrocities and are called upon 10 years later to recall specific details about the crime,” he said. “There is a high likelihood that they won’t remember. This system prompts them to answer questions that are all-encompassing.”
Alicia Hayes, the coordinator of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Prestigious Scholarships at UC Berkeley, said she has no doubt that Perovic will be influential in war-crimes policy issues in the future.
“He is the type of person who sees a need and then seeks ways to ameliorate it,” Hayes said in an email.
Perovic intends to study international relations at Oxford and hopes to work as a lawyer and policymaker. By working at the intersection of law and policy, Perovic said he hopes to prevent the types of conflicts that destroyed his country of birth and are currently tearing apart other countries around the world.
“My relationship with atrocity crimes is a love-hate relationship; it is what draws and repels me,” Perovic said. “Some days, I would rather do anything else in the world than work with international criminal law. But at the end of the day, it’s what I care about.”