My neighbor, the war criminal

An author who followed the lives of survivors in Rwanda and Bosnia talks about how people and nations learn to go on after they've suffered the unthinkable.

Published December 5, 2001 3:08PM (EST)

"Now you can see why it is difficult to bring justice to Rwanda" a Tutsi survivor told Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer during a visit to Rwanda in the spring of 2000. The physical remains of the 1994 Rwandan genocide -- which lasted 100 days and claimed between 500,000 and 1 million lives -- now took the form of heaps of bones. At one memorial to the tragedy, Neuffer counted 875 skulls lined up on a table. In a church outside Kigali, the decomposed remains lie strewn across the pews, the skeletons barely visible under heaps of clothes. What is justice in the face of genocide? What form of punishment would bring relief to those whose loved ones are among those bones? Rwandan government officials believed it would take 150 years just to try all 125,000 Hutus who were in custody.

Neuffer was reporting from Bosnia when she first became interested in Rwanda's daunting task. In "The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda," she looks, largely through the eyes of seven people, at the problems that both war-ravaged countries share in their attempt to rebuild towns and bring justice to survivors. She details the establishment of Bosnia and Rwanda's ad hoc war crimes tribunals and the stumblings and victories along the way.

Through Neuffer's eyes, it's all too easy to understand why -- for Hutus and Tutsis as well as Croats, Serbs and Muslims -- a prison sentence in a faraway tribunal doesn't always compensate for the tragedies they've suffered. She befriends one Muslim college student, Hasan, whose family expected U.N. peacekeepers to save them from the mass murders at Srebrenica. By the end of the book, Hasan, who has lost his father, mother and brother, can't speak about Srebrenica without a cigarette in one hand and a glass of brandy in the other. Beyond such private traumas, Neuffer also gives a clear and unnerving sense of what it's like to face the proximity of former enemies. In 1996, Neuffer and her translator, Francoise, had stood watching as streams of Hutu refugees returned to Rwanda. "See that one?" Francoise said to Neuffer. "I'm pretty sure he's the man who killed my neighbor up the street ... Yes, that's him."

Neuffer juxtaposes scenes of almost unbearable suffering with damning accounts of the inaction of world leaders. In the end, however, the UN's fledgling tribunals offer hope: Just when a victim's thirst for justice becomes desperate, a tribunal will reveal the truth of what happened at a mass execution or a murderer will bear the shame of trial and punishment.

Neuffer spoke to Salon from Boston about coming face-to-face with evil, why she wants to see Osama bin Laden in court, and what the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks share with the survivors of genocide.

What was it like to come face to face with some of these murderers? Do you believe that people can be evil?

All men have the potential to be evil. That was the great thing that I learned from meeting these people. You're impressed by their very ordinariness. It's like what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil." When you meet a murderer, you meet yourself. One of the things you recognize is that these men -- and women, in Rwanda -- fell out of society and for reasons, perhaps of biology or upbringing or poverty, fell sway to the propaganda, the fear and/or the economic opportunity to kill more readily than others. At the end of the day, war is always about money and opportunity. Some people gladly kill because they feel that they'll be better off for it.

Within a small town, how quickly did they turn on each other?

One of the things that happened in Bosnia is that Slobodan Milosevic, who was engineering this whole push for a greater Serbia, had sent in paramilitary forces. And these were guys -- when we talk about evil, this is the level you're talking about -- who were thugs that were recruited from the criminal classes specifically because they have no moral stance. Some of them are psychopaths and others were opportunists who wanted to make a buck and could care less if they killed people along the way.

These paramilitary people -- you're heard of Arkan [Zeljko Raznatovic, the leader of the "Tigers" who was assassinated in January 2000] -- swept through Bosnia and made up the first wave of killing. That's an important point because people did not turn on each other. Outsiders committed the first acts of killing. It was those outsiders who forced others to kill. And killing begets killing begets killing. In the hysteria this has created, people forget that the first wave was created by outsiders.

Was it similar in Rwanda?

I wasn't in Rwanda during the genocide, so I would want to qualify any answers: I wasn't there to witness it. To some degree, it was different in Rwanda, but the forces in Rwanda were very chaotic. You had a Tutsi army that was basically at war with Rwanda. If you remember in the early stages of the genocide, Habyarimana, the Rwandan president, claimed that Kigali was under attack from the Tutsis, when in fact he made that up. So some people probably felt that they were engaged in acts of self-defense for a while.

Again, in both places, don't underestimate the nature of public hysteria. We saw evidence of that here, when people decided to kill Sikhs in gas stations, convinced that they were terrorists. Multiply that incident by 100 or 1,000 and you can see what happens.

Yugoslavia has a long, twisted history of fratricide and war. What accounted for the times of peace? For example, after the bloody battles of World War II, how was Tito keeping peace among them?

Tito's was a false peace. He thought peace was best achieved by forgetting the past and mandating that they forget the past and papering over who had done what to whom. And it just re-erupted. That was one of the reasons that passions were so readily ignited. There had been these two separate kinds of histories. There'd been the history that Tito mandated be taught in schools and the private history that was passed down around the dinner table: "Well, you know, we really were killed by those creeps down the road. Our relatives were slaughtered." It was a strategic error even though [that strategy] is remembered somewhat romantically.

How close to each other were the neighbors who turned on each other in Bosnia and Rwanda? In your book, for example, there's Hamdo, a Bosnian history teacher who ends up in Omarska, a concentration camp in Bosnia. The former legal advisor to his school is now running Omarska and won't even speak to him.

It varied tremendously. In some cases, they were really close. Some were acting on grievances left over from high school.

What is it like for Bosnians to move back to their homes?

I haven't been back for more than a year and a half now. I can't tell you what it's like in [very] recent times. I can tell you that it's a state of uneasy coexistence. There are still a lot of thugs who control a lot of areas and who haven't been ousted yet and we haven't seen the complete political transformation in Bosnia that we have in Croatia and Serbia.

After a close call with a Bosnian army soldier, you wrote, "One thing I did know: Had I been Bosnian or, for that matter, a Rwandan, at that time I probably would have been raped." What about the rape victims? Are women facing something separate that should be addressed?

I can't answer that because I've never been raped. You have to assume about any woman in that circumstance that there is the added social burden of having been raped and what that carries -- "Oh, she asked for it." And "She just made it up." Certainly for Rwandan women, and probably for some Bosnian women too, there's a sense that they're spoiled goods and can't marry.

Rape became a war crime because of Rwanda, right? Can you explain what about that case made this come to pass?

This was the first time that rape was looked at by an international court of law as an actual act of war. It was clear in both countries, and certainly in Rwanda, that one of the tools of war was rape. It was a way of subjugating women, it was a way of attacking their ethnic group by impregnating them with another ethnic stock. Many of these women were raped and their genitalia were mutilated as a way of punishing them for who they were. It became part of the attack on another ethnic group, which is why it became ruled by the court as an act of genocide.

How fragile are the situations in Rwanda and Bosnia now? Is it likely that further conflicts will break out?

My fear is yes, but so far it hasn't happened. Until the ad hoc war crimes tribunal does a better job of bringing its verdicts to the country, publicizing them and engaging the public; until legislation is passed to create some kind of truth and reconciliation commission; and until those involved with reconstructing Bosnia realize that it is as important to bring people together to talk about what happened as it is to rebuild buildings, potential for future war will always exist. The only way to do away with that potential is to indict and prosecute those most responsible for the crime and to engage in a process of dialogue so people can understand what happened and not mythologize it.

How do the individuals involved feel about these tribunals?

It varies and that's one of the lessons of the book. These tribunals are experiments. In a way, they're still feeling their way.

It's funny, because had the book gone to press when I started writing it in 1998, it would have been unbelievably critical of the tribunals. But in the two years that I was working on it, the tribunals got their act together and started doing what they were intended to do all along. It helped me to realize that it's not easy to create a court out of nothing and they made a lot of errors along the way. They weren't always helped by world governments in their mission.

People on the ground -- Rwandans in particular -- feel very cheated by the court, in part because they know very little about it. There has been very poor outreach in Rwanda.

Why do you think so?

With all due respect to both tribunals and the lawyers and judges who make them up, by nature courts do not necessarily see their role as educational. They don't see their role as including publicity. Every court I've covered has been media-phobic to some degree. It is not in a court's nature to advertise what it does because they think it's unseemly or that it's not the nature of the law. But most courts have the luxury of passing judgment in the society where they sit. These do not. [The Rwandan trials are held in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. The Bosnian trials are held at The Hague, Netherlands.] So I just don't think people got it for a while.

There's no death penalty in these tribunals. Will that ever change?

No. It's run by the United Nations. The majority of the member states that make up the Security Council of the U.N., which is its decision-making body, are opposed to the death penalty and do not have it in their own countries.

What are their punishments for war crimes then?

Life in prison. And that is one of the great ironies that people find hard to understand. The argument is that the death penalty is a violation of universal human rights. It's hard to explain to a Rwandan, where the death penalty is handed down routinely in their country, that in fact, the really, really bad guy is going to have to spend life in a cushy prison instead of being killed. On the other hand, if your overall aim is to try to make countries recognize the value of human rights, then this is a very important step to take.

Do most citizens of the countries feel that life imprisonment is justice for these people?

No, they don't. However, they may begin to feel a little better because there have been decisions -- certainly in the Rwanda tribunal -- that these men will be held in an African prison. So at least they're not going to be in some luxurious prison. Not that The Hague prison is luxurious, but it has to meet international criteria. International criteria are fairly comfortable. But that's not where they're going to serve their whole term. A lot of education has to be done to get people beyond wishing that their attackers could suffer in the same way they did and to help explain that even if they did, it wouldn't change anything.

What about truth commissions? You obviously are an advocate of them. What do you think that they can do for the people?

There is no truth commission in either Rwanda or Bosnia, though there is a push to have one in Bosnia. What I think would be helpful, based on what I know about Bosnia, would be a series of regional truth commissions that are under the umbrella of one overarching truth commission that is really aimed at writing the historical record. I don't think this should be a body that passes judgment. It should be a body that's aimed at writing one history of the country that can be passed down in schools and puts the doubts to rest.

How important is it for people to find the bodies of their loved ones? I thought that was interesting because of the intense arguments that have arisen amongst the New York firefighters and the Giuliani administration.

Very important. One of the things that was so striking -- because I covered the World Trade Center attack -- is that while I was interviewing the firefighters and rescue workers and survivors, I was struck that the vocabulary was almost identical to the language used in Bosnia and Rwanda.

There would always be this: "I want to know who did this. I can't believe anyone could do this. This is a crime beyond description. Whoever it is, I hope they are brought to justice." It made me realize that this book is a blueprint for what Americans face. This book is the story of seven people searching for justice in whatever form that justice takes. They had to pose the question to themselves: What is justice after an atrocity so unspeakable that it defies description?

Some Americans had to pose that question to themselves because their loved ones' bodies were in the rubble at the Trade Center. Did they want to wait until the body could be retrieved or did they want to move ahead to the funeral? That was one of the very first questions that relatives had to ask themselves. I wish I had a list of every single family member and I could afford to send them this book. I would send every one a copy so they could read about the people in this book who faced the same problem and how they came to terms with it.

Because they want to know the details of their loved ones' deaths. They need proof.

Hasan's story illustrates how someone finds a great peace when they're able to demystify exactly what happened.

[Neuffer helped Hasan figure out how and when his father was most likely killed (during a mass execution), based on confessions at the tribunal. Afterwards, Hasan returned to the former site of a U.N. compound, where in 1995 his family believed they would be saved but were instead handed over to the Bosnian Serbs. "He was retracing his family's final moments step by step."]

This is one of the reasons why I'm so uncomfortable with the Bush administration's decision to possibly try al-Qaida members by military tribunal. Military tribunals by their very nature are very private and more secretive than a public tribunal. I certainly respect the Bush administration's desire to do things out of our own national security interests, but it's also very important that survivors not be denied a public forum, a chance to get a public accounting, so they can know exactly what happened.

Is there an advantage to military tribunals?

The argument is that because we're in a state of war and there's been a terrorist attack there should be a different measure of justice. And that it wouldn't be safe to have a trial in the United States. My argument is that you can set up an ad hoc international tribunal somewhere else. Their argument is that issues of military secrets would be revealed. But we can point to other cases, carried out by our own courts, as well as by the ad hoc tribunals, where military secrets have not been exposed. I don't see any advantages to military tribunals.

Would you want to see Osama bin Laden in court?

I would. I know a lot of people think that he'd become a martyr and people would rally behind him. All you have to do is look at Slobodan Milosevic every time he appears in court to know how powerful a symbol that is to anybody who ever supported Milosevic. He looks like a fool. He stands up in court and he whines and complains and pounds his fists and the judge says, "I'm sorry, that's not appropriate, Mr. Milosevic, you need to get a lawyer." He's humbled. He has to play by the rules.

But is Osama bin Laden different in some way?


He has defied a lot of expectations.

You don't think Slobodan Milosevic defied all expectations? The man who masterminded the death, so far, of many, many more people than Osama bin Laden? I can think of nothing I'd like to see more than Osama bin Laden on trial, in some kind of international forum, an international tribunal possibly under slightly different rules to protect military secrets -- perhaps something more like the Lockerbie trial. To me, this is a very powerful message. I don't think that we'll ever see him in a courtroom because I don't think he would ever allow himself to be arrested alive. But it would be very, very powerful. There's something about tyrants -- and he is one -- and terrorists that makes them humbled by the rule of law. That is the importance of having the rule of law and I don't think you make exceptions to it.

America initially wasn't supportive of the International Criminal Court, right?

Just the permanent International Criminal Court. But America was one of the strongest lobbying forces behind the two ad hoc war crimes tribunals.

Why not the permanent one?

The fear has been that American soldiers that have served on missions overseas would be wrongfully brought up and tried out of political interests that are trying to undermine America. I don't happen to agree with this analysis but many Pentagon members, ex-military members and conservatives feel that because America acts as the world's superpower, and because we do things that a lot of people find controversial, that the court would become a place to take revenge on our actions.

Why don't you agree?

Because I think that the court is going to be orchestrated in such a way that it can't readily become a political tool of any one country. The more involved we are in this court, the more likely that it's not going to become that way.

What do you think a permanent international criminal court needs to focus on?

One would hope that a permanent international criminal court -- when it comes into being, which I think is this summer -- would learn from the mistakes of the two ad hoc tribunals and realize that one of their strongest obligations is the issue of public outreach. They desperately need a mechanism for bringing their verdicts home to the people that they are meant to serve.

Did you get the sense from most of the people in Rwanda and Bosnia that they were eager to rebuild? Did they want to return home after an atrocity like that?

In Rwanda, they didn't have a choice to leave. The Hutus who had left and gone to Zaire had found it to be fairly uncomfortable. Countries that took them in didn't welcome them. I think they felt they had no choice. Some wanted to, some didn't -- it depended on how much they had embraced the Hutu line and how much returning to a Tutsi-led Rwanda was a good or bad thing.

In the case of Bosnia, it was different because many Bosnians were welcomed into Europe and America. Some people feel very strongly that Bosnia is not what it was and it will never feel the same and they have decided not to return. Others move back in the hopes that they can help return it to what it was.

Are you hopeful for how countries can be reconstructed?

I am. I don't think it's easy and I don't think there's one right solution and I don't think that those outside always know what's best. One of the things that gives me hope in Afghanistan is that we're making such an effort to work with the Afghans in designing a solution, as frustrating and difficult as that is going to be. But we've learned a lesson that Western-imposed solutions often implode because we don't always know what's best for another society. On the other hand we have the tools that help make reconciliation occur -- we have people who have made careers out of this.

I'm leaving for Kabul soon and I'm hoping we'll be in the early stages of reconstructing Afghanistan. How you reconstruct a society is an interesting question and it's different in every single society.

For starters, in Afghanistan, do you think members of the Taliban should be tried in an international court?

I don't know. We don't want to confuse the Taliban with al-Qaida. One of the reasons that postwar justice is so vital is because it holds individuals accountable, not groups of people. There is nothing more destructive than saying, "The Germans did this," or "The Bosnian Serbs did this." One of the beautiful ideas put forward by the people wanting to do a truth and reconciliation commission in Bosnia is that they want to do a project that looks at good deeds done by different ethnic groups for each other. They want to look at positive as well as negative things.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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