The banality of evil

In the bland offices of a Dutch insurance company, Europe's most unspeakable crimes since World War II are finally being prosecuted. But will Bosnia's most infamous butchers ever see this room?

Published May 7, 1996 8:37AM (EDT)

The Hague, Netherlands --

The night before the opening of the first official war crimes trial since Nuremberg, the center of this Dutch capital felt incongruously giddy. Festive lights, designed for no apparent reason to look like bunches of grapes, hung above the walkway that runs by the pond surrounding the imposing royal palace. At the
nearby Maurithaus gallery, currently hosting a wildly popular exhibit of Johannes Vermeer, a big party went on well past midnight, the perfume of restrained civic delight in the air.

The opening of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia could have been taking place in another universe. And in a sense it was -- far from the architectural splendor of the old capital, in a part of town filled with industrial parks and corporate high rise structures on either side of the wide, tree-lined avenues that lead to the Congress Gebou convention center.

Here, in what was an executive meeting room once used by an insurance company, the International Tribunal will spend months, probably years, attempting to bring the worst war criminals Europe has seen since World War II to some form of justice.

That such awesome responsibility resides in such nondescript surroundings seems to further the sense of incongruity. Yet the depravity of the events to be related here can probably only be rationally judged in such a banal atmosphere. Indeed, the flat, legalistic, sometimes stumbling opening statement from prosecutor Grant Niemann, as he described the nauseating acts allegedly committed by defendant Dusan Tadic gave the proceedings a cool credibility the Tribunal is so anxious to establish with this first trial. The one surprise of the day was the dropping of rape charges against Tadic, a Bosnian Serb, apparently because witnesses are too frightened to testify. He remains accused of 12 counts of crimes against humanity, and 10 "violations of the laws and customs of war."

Forgotten, at least for the moment, is the probability that the Tribunal will fall far short of its goals. Fifty-seven men have been charged with war crimes. Just three -- two Serbs and a Croat -- are currently being held at The Hague. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military butcher, Gen. Ratko Mladic, are not among them. The odds that they will face justice in the foreseeable future -- given the seeming disinterest on the part of the U.S. and NATO in going after them -- are long, indeed.

The press corps were not particularly interested in these
complexities. Most of their focus was the manner in which the Dutch authorities have bungled the logistics of covering one of the biggest international stories in a long time. Access to the actual courtroom is limited to 25 journalists, their names picked lottery-style from a cardboard box by the highly unpopular Tribunal spokesman,
Christian Chartier. The rest of the several hundred journalists and cameramen were left to stand or sit in the two big plastic red press tents, watching U.N. TV's indistinct feed and pretend they
were really there. What Chartier neglected to tell them was that only one tent was supposed to receive the original English feed, while the other carried the French translation. Oaths directed at the worthlessness and arrogance of the French -- and Ms. Chartier -- became so loud and threatening in the second tent that serious consideration was given to calling security.

Return to Memici

A Bosnian village awakes from its nightmare


Memici, Bosnia-Herzegovina --

When Western journalists get together over dinner in Bosnia, talk invariably turns to the value, or lack thereof, of NATO's intervention. It may have stopped the war, but for how long? Could the so-called "Implementation Force (IFOR) help the Bosnian people rebuild their shattered lives and homes? What better way to find out, one journalist suggested, than to go to Memici, a Bosnian village that had been right behind the final Serb battle-line before the war stopped.

Memici, roughly 55 miles northeast of Sarajevo, sits at the base of the Tuzla Valley, one of the most fought-over pieces of real estate during the savage four-year war between Serb and Muslim. It had once been a prosperous farming area, with neat two-story brick and cinder block chalets and the ubiquitous hut-like hay stacks. Now it is reminiscent, if that is imaginable, of a ruined Switzerland.

We pass through the IFOR checkpoint into Memici, waved on by a skeptical and disapproving American sergeant, worried no doubt that dumb American journalists would carelessly step on an unexploded mine. First sights: shell-shot, blackened homes, shattered tile roofs showing the skeletal remains of the bracing underneath; windows blasted out of every classroom at the two-story primary school; signs on a rusting fence warning of booby-traps. The eerie groan and rattle of hanging gutters suggest lonely houses dying in the March wind.

Then we begin to see people moving through the ruins. A man on a bicyle pedals by, wobbling under the weight of bags. A couple walking with a child bid us "Salaam." Smoke curls out of one of the few intact chimneys and a handsome man dressed in a beret, boots and sweater beckons us over.

His name is Jamal Memic. He is in his early 60s, he tells us, pointing to the three houses that he owns. He has been back only two days, after a four-year exile. He starts counting on his hand in German -- ein, zwei, drei-- until he gets to sieben, indicating the seven years that it took him to build these homes, and the number of his cows, all stolen by the Serbs who had occupied the village. His tractor is also gone, as is his Volkswagen Golf. "All is kaput," he says shaking his head.

Jamal leads us to what had been an upstairs bedroom, filled with debris from a rocket-propelled grenade blast. The Serbs had stripped out all of the copper wiring and pipes and had even removed window frames. His three-year-old granddaughter appears, wandering dangerously close to the edge of a balcony that had been robbed of its railing. She runs her hand over the brick exterior and dreamily puts her finger into a hole that had been made by a machine gun bullet. Jamal gently leads her back inside where several women are sitting on rugs in front of a small stove. This is where Jamal and his family will spend the spring. Back outside, in the yard filled with debris, Jamal bids us good-by. "Mine house," he says, patting his chest, "I will rebuild."

Nearby the ruined school, we meet Becic Sead, a barrel-chested man in his early 30s, who explains he is an Imam, a Muslim religious leader. "I speak Koran," he tells us proudly. He points out his father's mill in which only the two large round millstones have survived. We wander past a wrecked car, a Zostrova 750 painted with Serbian graffiti. Stray papers blow down the dusty street; they are a pre-war architectural plan for a shop, as neatly printed, drawn and notarized as the town around us is ravaged.

Becic takes us past the spacious and once elegant three-story house that belonged to an old friend, a bus driver now living in Switzerland. Memici, Becic explains, once had 330 houses and around 2,000 people. Where are they? "In Germany, Switzerland and America," he replies sadly. How many dead from the town? Becic and his companions figure for a moment. "Fifty," they decide.

We walk to a clearing at the top of the hill. There sit five structures in various states of wreckage. "Mine house," he says fiercely, pointing to one of them. The others belonged to his father, uncle and brothers. I inquire about a slit trench dug between his house and his brothers. "Serbian toilet," he explains, holding his nose.

Inside, Becic makes a special point to show us a tattered prayer rug which he holds up against a wall in the bedroom. He shows how the holes in the rug match the pockmarks in the wall. "Why?" I ask, "Because Musliman," he says simply.

He rummages through the debris, and pulls out a pair of pink and blue baby pajamas left behind in the rush to escape the attacking Serbs. "Baby, my baby," he says. On the way back down the hill, Becic, to his delight, discovers a scythe, its handle broken but the blade intact. He swings it absentmindedly as we march across a field cratered from Serb shells. Becic sweeps his hands over the expanse. "My father's farm" he says, "no work since 1992."

A few days later, we find Becic and his friends back at his house, still sorting through the detritus of war. It is a fine, warm day, and Becic is in a frisky mood as we follow him up the hillside. He dances over the six-foot deep trenches -- once the Serbian front line -- with an athletic grace. More soberly, he motions down the other side of the hill, pointing out where land mines are still buried. Many Bosnians died trying to take this hill and even Becic will not walk through the kill zone below the trench line. He shakes his head; no one will climb this hill for a long time.

We continue to dig through the bunkers and machine gun nests, finding 30mm rocket shell casings and a torn clipping from a Serbian newspaper with the photo of a young man in a wheelchair. There are boxes of pasta with a logo that reads "Humanitarian Aid -- European Community." There are scores of tins of "Blue Fjord" mackerel. There are also dozens of wine and vodka bottles from Belgrade. Becic points to the valley of death below. "Chetniks; drink, drink, drink, shoot, shoot, shoot."

We walk back towards Becic's house, five men lost in their own thoughts. The hill towards Sarajevo glow darkly in the distance and atop a closer ridge an American Abrams battle tank clanks ominously along. Becic suddenly brightens. "Because of IFOR, Chetniks run away," he says.

"IFOR good?" I ask him.

Becic thinks for a moment. "Good IFOR," he finally says.

Quote of the day

The case of the missing books

"We have never had Nancy Drew. They're very obviously series books, with the same phrases repeated again and again. It's lazy writing."

-- Toni Bernardi, coordinator of children's services for the San Francisco Public Library, on why, despite the popularity of the girl detective, kids won't find any Nancy Drew books on the San Francisco library's shelves.

"Yes, it's junk literature. Junk literature is the way a lot of children read. We buy junk for adults, too."

-- Lisa Hughes, children's librarian, Santa Clara County (Calif.) Public Library.

By Deborah Geller

Deborah Geller is a documentary and features producer for BBC Television.

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