The idea for a book about witnesses first germinated years ago while I was researching an earlier book on war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. It was the summer of 1997, the place was the grim industrial city of Tuzla in central Bosnia, and I was having afternoon tea with a group of Muslim women who had survived one of the worst massacres committed on European soil since the end of the Second World War.
We were sitting in a semicircle of sorts. My translator and I were on the floor, cross-legged, with our backs against a wall, while the women sat on makeshift bunk beds knitting and fussing over a sputtering teakettle that teetered precariously on a hot plate in the space between us. Every afternoon for the past four days, we had met like this: me asking questions and scribbling notes, as the women took turns relating harrowing accounts of wartime survival in their hometown of Srebrenica, over an hour's drive away in the mountains to the east.
Their ordeal had begun on the afternoon of July 11, 1995, when the Bosnian Serb army, under the command of General Ratko Mladic, descended on the poorly defended town. Declared a UN "safe area" two years earlier, the predominately Muslim community had swollen from a prewar population of 9,000 to 40,000 people, many of whom had been "cleansed" from elsewhere in northeastern Bosnia. As Serb troops swarmed over the town, the women, children, and elderly took refugee two kilometers away in a UN base, staffed by a Dutch battalion, in the village of Potocari. Meanwhile, the remaining men and boys—some 10,000 to 15,000—had fled through the woods on foot, trying to reach Muslim-controlled territory, nearly 40 miles away. Over the next three days, as the UN debated whether to bomb the Serbs and send in peacekeeping troops, soldiers under the command of another Serb general, Radislav Kristic, captured and executed over 7,500 men and boys, leaving bodies where they fell or burying them in clandestine graves scattered throughout the hills. The women and children who had taken refuge at the UN base were later transferred to Bosnian Muslim-controlled territory outside of Tuzla and housed in abandoned buildings known as collection centers.
Life in the collective centers was a miserable lot for the refugees. The building where my hosts had been housed had once been a schoolhouse. In the direct line of fire during the war, its shell-blasted windows and walls were now covered with sheets of light blue plastic, bearing the ubiquitous UN emblem, and held in place with gray duct tape. On windy days, the air inside the building was filled with the sound of plastic sheeting billowing and snapping in the wind.
My conversation with the women was gradually slipping from the past to the future. Three years earlier, the United Nations had established a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands to prosecute exactly the kinds of killers that had slaughtered their husbands and sons. Already the tribunal had charged General Mladic and his civilian boss, Radovan Karadic, with genocide, considered the most heinous of all state crimes, and NATO troops were now searching for Radislav Kristic. I was curious to know what the women thought of the court.
No sooner had the question trailed from my lips, then one of the women leapt angrily to her feet. "Why should I care about that court?" she demanded. "My husband and sons! Where are they? That's what I want to know!" Another woman, older and frailer, tugged at the sides of her headscarf and leaned towards me. "This court. This UN court?" she asked. "Where was it when the Serbs took our men away?" Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of two of the younger women shaking their heads as they rose and slipped out of the room.
I was flabbergasted. Like many people, I had always assumed that the survivors of horrific crimes wanted the perpetrators of these deeds tried publicly in a court of law. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I had accompanied dozens of forensic and medical teams to some of the world's worst killing fields and spoken to countless families of victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Most of them, like the women from Srebrenica, yearned to have the remains of their loved ones recovered and returned for proper burial. But they also were adamant that those responsible for the killings be held accountable for these crimes. So, why were the Srebrenica women so opposed to a court whose mandate was to bring them justice?
In search of an answer, I tracked down the two younger women who had slipped out of the room the day before. They told me that while they might consider testifying before such a court, most of the Srebrenica refugees, and especially the older ones, would have nothing to do with it. For the Srebrenica women, believing in and, most important, engaging in the pursuit of justice was an anathema simply because it meant abandoning all hope that their men were still alive and would some day return. Hope, in their desperate world of loss and remembering, was all that was left them. Nor could they accept the legitimacy of a court established by the very entity—the United Nations—that had forsaken them in their hour of greatest need. In this sense, international criminal justice brought with it the baggage of history.
My encounters with the Srebrenica women that summer made me wonder what motivated people to testify about their great personal losses. Was it spurred on by a desire for revenge? Was it survivor's guilt? Or, perhaps, some altruistic impulse to do good?
Armed with these questions, I traveled to The Hague and to the headquarters of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, commonly referred to as the ICTY or the Hague Tribunal, where I met with the tribunal's deputy prosecutor, Graham Blewitt. I posed the idea of a witness study to him, and much to my surprise, he agreed. Together with David Tolbert in the Registrar's office, we developed a strategy that would allow me access to prosecution witnesses without compromising the work of the tribunal or my independence as a university-based researcher.
After close deliberation, we selected seven trials involving Serb, Croat, and Bosnian Muslim victims and defendants. The prosecutor's office provided me with a list of names of "unprotected" witnesses—that is, individuals whose identities had been made public in court. For reasons of confidentiality, the tribunal could not divulge the names of "protected" witnesses, whose identities had not been revealed at trial. I would then locate and interview the witnesses without any further assistance from the tribunal. It was agreed that I would conduct the study independently from the tribunal and that the conclusions and recommendations emanating from it would be completely my own.
Over the next four years, I interviewed 127 people for the study. Of these, eighty-seven were victims or witnesses who had testified in one of the seven trials at the Hague tribunal. I also interviewed seven potential witnesses who had given statements to prosecutors but, for one reason or another, were not called to testify. Sixty-two (72 percent) of the witnesses were Bosnian Muslims who had appeared in one of five trials involving alleged war crimes committed during the siege of the Lasva valley by Bosnian Croat troops in April 1993. Twenty respondents (23 percent) were Croats who had testified in the trial of the former major of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic. Five were (5 percent) were Bosnian Serbs who had testified in the trial of four codefendants who, for a period of several months in 1992, were commanders or guards at the Celibici prison camp in southern Bosnia. A final group of respondents, 33 in all, were current or former members of the ICTY staff—judges, prosecutors, investigators, interpreters, and psychologists—or journalists and human rights workers that had interacted with ICTY witnesses on a regular basis. The interviews took place in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.
This book provides the first "systematic glimpse" into the world of witnesses who have appeared before an international war crimes tribunal. But it is only a glimpse. We have much more to learn and, hopefully, more studies will follow with the aim of making the process of testifying in war crimes trials as safe, respectful and dignified an experience as possible.