The House of Warlords – The Sunday Times

God wants to say a few words. General Ratko Mladic — known by many during the war as “the Butcher of Bosnia”, but who preferred his self-appointed nickname, “God” — is anxious to address the court.
This is most irregular. At pre-trial hearings, such as the one now under way in Court 3 of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), it’s normally just lawyer talk: paperwork, schedules, wrinkles to be ironed out before the first witness is called. No speeches, no jeremiads.

But General Mladic insists, says his counsel. He would like to say a few words. Judge Alphonsus Orie — a Dutchman with an impressive grey moustache — confers with his two fellow judges. Turning back to the court, he inclines his head. “Mr Mladic,” he says. “We’ll exceptionally allow…”

Mladic stands up. He is 69 now, and frail. Not the jowly, pig-eyed warrior of the 1990s, but a pensioner on a day trip. He wears a dark-blue, single-breasted suit, and a light-blue tie and shirt. Headphones, too, so he can follow proceedings in his own language. As he speaks, he raises one hand, as if hailing a taxi.

The ramble begins. He complains that he cannot understand the lawyerly language used in court. He asks whether America is paying the judges’ wages. But his real problem is that the ICTY is using the wrong picture of him on its website and telecast — a photograph taken when he was arrested in Belgrade last May. He says the image makes him look ill. “When I was captured, I was weak and infirm,” says Mladic. “Now, I have perked up a bit… I want my enemies to die of envy when they see me.”

As Mladic makes his vain entreaty in Serbian, my headphones transmit an English translation, spoken by a haughty-sounding woman. The effect is unintentionally comic. In any event, Judge Orie has soon heard enough.

“You have used your time,” he says. “Thank you, Mr Mladic, for your observations.”

Here, in this quiet building in this quiet district of this quiet city, men such as Mladic have a special name. They are not called defendants, or patriots, or rapists, or warlords, or butchers, or gods. No, while they are on trial at the ICTY, they are known as “the accused”.

That term “the accused” — at once anodyne and loaded — is a perfect fit for the tribunal. It was clear, from an early stage in the conflicts that ripped Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 2001, that war crimes were being committed on a grand scale. For instance, in the Bosnian conflict, which began in 1992, there were concentration camps, summary executions and rapes. The term “ethnic cleansing” entered the lexicon.

It was also clear that the guilty parties were unlikely to face justice in their own countries. The United Nations — never the nimblest in a crisis — felt that something should be done to end the culture of impunity in the Balkans. Their answer was the ICTY. The court, which was established in the Hague in 1993 “for the sole purpose of prosecuting persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia”, has tried the worst atrocities witnessed on European soil since the Nazi Holocaust.

The tribunal has attempted to bring 161 indicted men to justice. Sixty-four have been sentenced, and 13 acquitted. But its work has been slow. Because of the size of some cases (in which the accused are charged with dozens of crimes, each with a mountain of evidence), the necessity of building and staffing a new court to hear these cases, the dulling effect of translation, the multinational cast of lawyers and, until recently, the unwillingness of states in the former Yugoslavia to locate and deliver wanted men to the Hague, the tribunal has rumbled on for nearly two decades. And its mission is not complete. Indeed, several cases — including those of the recently arrested former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic — will run to the middle of this decade.

Compared with the hurly-burly of a criminal court in London, the ICTY’s pace and relative isolation lends it a monastic air. Conversations are hushed, sober and polite. Even court cases involving notorious former world leaders unfold in an atmosphere akin to a poorly attended council meeting. But, as I would discover in a week of unprecedented access to its facilities ­— and talking to staff about their personal experiences — the tribunal’s somnolent appearance hides many surprises.

The first surprise is this: its people are messianic. One might think that, in a UN-funded body that employs 869 people, spends more than $150m (£92.8m) a year, and is — gradually — winding down, the work ethic might be dilatory. Not so.

Take Theodor Meron, the tribunal’s small, spry president. At 82, he is responsible for the leadership of the ICTY, and also presides as a judge in appeals hearings. His biography is remarkable. A Polish Jew who spent much of his childhood in a Nazi work camp during the second world war manufacturing ammunition for the Germans, Meron trained as a lawyer in Palestine. In 1967, he wrote an opinion for the Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol that settling in the newly conquered Occupied Territories would be illegal under the Geneva Conventions. His opinion was ignored, with significant consequences. Later in Meron’s career, he moved to America, became a visiting fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, a Shakespeare scholar, a worldwide authority on international criminal law, and, finally, president of the ICTY.

Until recently, Meron found it impossible to discuss the second world war. He lost most of his family in the Holocaust. But this trauma has, he told me, informed his life’s work. “My experience during the war was a total loss of autonomy,” he says. “It had a tremendous impact on me at that time… [When I was nominated] as a judge in this tribunal, I thought it was some kind of fate, some kind of poetic justice.”

Some of the worst crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia bore the watermark of the Holocaust. For instance, the photographs taken at Omarska and Trnopolje — where Bosnian Muslims and Croats were interned and murdered by Serb nationalists — could have been taken at Belsen. Given Meron’s history, how does he retain his objectivity?

“I think that I would not have remained at the Hague for so many years if I had any doubts that my approach was not totally cool, objective, detached and professional,” he says. But, I suggest, he would not be human if he did not hear a faint echo of his own experience. Meron nods. “Perhaps in some little cubicle in my brain,” he says. “[But] it is not something I am actively thinking of when I’m sitting on the bench, no.”

Many staff at the ICTY have similar “cubicles” in their brains. Nerma Jelacic, the glamorous chief spokeswoman for the tribunal, was forced from her home in Bosnia as a 15-year-old in 1992, at the beginning of the war. Before the conflict, she had been living “oblivious to ethnic differences”, and raised “as a Yugoslav”.

“It was strange, one day waking up and being told that, apparently, I’m a Bosnian Muslim,” she says, with a dusty laugh. Jelacic left the war, but the war never left her. To cut a long story short, she spent between the ages of 15 and 26 in Britain, where she eventually worked for The Observer and Financial Times as a journalist. In 2003, she suffered an “existential crisis” and returned to Bosnia to work for an NGO. As part of her work, she began to track down suspected war criminals, armed only with her notebook and a winning smile. Surprisingly, nobody shot her. In 2008, she was given a job in the communications department of the ICTY — a significant change of pace. Why? “I felt that the impact the tribunal should have had was being denied across the region — across all sides,” she says. “When I think about what the former Yugoslav region would be like today, had the tribunal not existed, I get a very, very bleak picture.”

Her attempt to communicate the work of the tribunal in the former Yugoslavia is not mere window-dressing. Having travelled in the Balkans, it’s obvious to me that the ICTY is a much unloved body. Graffiti slating its work is commonplace. Indeed, every single national and ethnic group seems to believe that more of its people have been indicted by the tribunal than any other. For this reason, Jelacic has decided to spread the message that the court is bringing blind justice to the region.

Her family was ousted from its home on the orders of men who have since walked through the ICTY’s doors. Is it emotional work?

“Of course, every day you deal with real people, and I will never stop having compassion for the victims,” she says. “But I’ve never developed hatred for those who are accused. And that is because, through the years, as I have tried to understand how things like this can happen, I realised that — it can happen anywhere. It doesn’t take a special type of person to start doing bad things in a war. Primarily, [the accused] are human beings.”

The accused are certainly treated as human beings. Most of the 35 men currently held by the tribunal spend little time in the courtroom itself. Three courts sit in two shifts a day, so six cases can be heard daily. But often there are weeks-long delays. While the accused wait out their trials, and appeals, they are kept in a special prison called the Detention Unit, 3km down the road, at Scheveningen. Only once their appeals process is finished are the sentenced men shipped off to one of 14 volunteer countries to serve their time.

The DU, as it is known, is incubated within a larger Dutch prison, housing run-of-the-mill inmates. To get there, one has to walk across an open yard within the main prison, and behind a high wall to a large red-brick edifice with a walled-off yard on one side. This complex houses not only ICTY inmates, but those from the International Criminal Court (ICC) too — a separate institution that tries war crimes from other parts of the world, mostly Africa. Because they are held under different jurisdictions, the African and Balkan accused never mix. Indeed, they are governed by different staff, kept in different wings, and take exercise at different times of the day.

Among themselves, however, the ICTY’s accused are a sociable bunch. Given single rooms, with satellite television, desks, computers (without internet) and a loo, they exist in relative freedom on their shared corridors. They are allowed 10 days a month of visiting time, including 3½ days for “family visits”, which are unsupervised. On the wings, Bosnian Serbs mingle with Kosovars and Croatians. Men who formerly hated one another — indeed, tried to exterminate one another — now share cooking duties and celebrate each other’s feast days with food they buy at the prison’s Balkan shop.

They are allowed regular breaks for exercise. When the weather allows, most opt to play tennis outside, and matches, I’m told, are fiercely contested. Indeed, when I arrived at the complex, it was break time for the ICC prisoners, and Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was sitting by the tennis court watching two Congolese warlords knock up. About an hour earlier, he had been found guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes. Wearing a yarmulke (he converted to Judaism in 2009), white trainers and his courtroom suit, Taylor puzzled over the many pages of his judgment while the players worked on their backhands. If his appeal is unsuccessful, Taylor will be shipped from the Hague to serve his sentence in Britain. But, for now, he will string out his days in the relative comfort of this well-appointed hall of residence.

As for the Yugoslav prisoners, I’m told that Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general, is king of the tennis court. Gotovina was found guilty of committing manifold war crimes against the Krajina Serbs. The specifics of his indictment included murder, deportation, persecution and command responsibility over “inhuman acts” that included “burning” and “stabbing”. It would take a brave opponent to question a line call.

On the whole, however, the prison governor — a cheery 58-year-old Brit named David Kennedy — says his men are no trouble. Kennedy’s previous job was as governor of Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution.

“Aylesbury holds 18- to 21-year-olds, the vast majority of them for violent offences,” he says. “The average age here is 58. Most of the guys were at the top of their organisations, so you’ve got presidents, generals, chiefs of police and heads of state departments, and… well, they’re mostly first-timers in prison.”

“So, you know, they don’t do the things that prisoners do in normal prisons. We don’t have to deal with drug problems, for a start, and we don’t have a violence problem… It’s very relaxed.”

The key to maintaining the calm, says Kennedy, is a rule of conversation the accused have devised themselves: no war, no religion, no politics.

“I’m not saying there aren’t guys who don’t get on with each other,” he says. “But any friction is buried. It’s not in the unit. We’ve heard that the detainees themselves made sure the wars aren’t mentioned… The battle is in the courtroom, not here.”

Indeed, the ICTY is a temple to civility. For instance, the blue-uniformed security guards (carrying Smith & Wesson handguns that have never been drawn in anger) call their charges “Mister” or “General”, but never just by their surname. And, counterintuitive as it may seem, it is the staff at the ICTY with the strongest connections to the wars in the Balkans who are least emotional — and most strident about the need to presume innocence.

Ljiljana Hellman, for instance, is a leggy 38-year-old Serbian lawyer who now works as a court officer at the ICTY. The daughter of a rock star, she worked for much of her twenties in an NGO, collecting witness statements about war crimes. While many of her former friends were brainwashed by Serb nationalist propaganda, Hellman was gathering evidence of crimes committed by her people. As a result, she was taken in for questioning by police in Belgrade and asked, “are you a spy?”

She laughs about this now. Her job at the ICTY is to make sure “proceedings go as perfect as they can”, and the greatest service she can give victims is to make the trials “un-attackable”. When the accused come before her in court, she says she feels nothing.

“You see this person, and [people say] this person did many bad things,” she says. “I always think, at the end of the proceedings I’ll know for certain. For now, you can never be sure. I always refer people to 12 Angry Men, my favourite movie. These things can always be seen from different sides.”

International justice cannot be propelled by fine words alone. It also requires courtrooms, cells, food, microphones, translators, computers, guards, ushers, air conditioning, televisions, and a hundred things you have not thought of.

Paddy Gavin, a garrulous 45-year-old Irish carpenter, is a facilities manager. He is Mr Fix-it. In his 13 years at the tribunal, he has assembled much of the physical machinery of the court. He knows the building’s history inside out. Built in the 1950s, this triangular, grey-bricked edifice was once the headquarters of the Aegon insurance company, and had to be completely remodelled when the ICTY moved in, in 1994. When Dusko Tadic, the first accused, came to the Hague in 1995, there was no court in which to try him. The old Aegon director’s boardroom — which looked, I’m told by one of Paddy’s colleagues, like a “bordello”, with plush red carpet and a bar — had to be cleared, office chairs found for the judges, and bulletproof screens erected. This space is now known as Court 1. Court 3 used to be the cafeteria.

Gavin and I meet in the empty holding cells in the basement of the tribunal, known by security as Cell Block D. These cells were once Aegon’s vault, holding contracts and wads of cash behind a 50cm-thick steel door that still remains. No journalist has ever been allowed down here, until now. To enter Cell Block D, one has to travel along the “accused corridor” — a whitewashed subterranean passageway.

Each of the cells in Block D contains two fixed chairs, a bolted-down table, and a door with no inside handle. Plastic ashtrays are provided — the cells are the only place inside the building where smoking is allowed. The walls are painted a lurid yellow. The colour is meant to be “calming”, but it gives me a headache.

Gavin tells me these cells were only built in 2005, when the court was struggling with three “multiple-accused” trials, including that of nine men accused of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of more than 8,000 men and boys.

Only one prisoner has ever received special treatment: Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia. Because of his high profile, the security staff at the ICTY believed it would be prudent to ship him from Scheveningen to the court in the early hours, before reporters were up. Often, the accused are represented by professional counsel — normally lawyers from their home state. But, because Milosevic was representing himself, the ICTY decided to build him somewhere he could work on those early mornings: a “bedsit” at the head of the “accused corridor”. The two-room suite comprised a bedroom, desk and a separate carpeted meeting room. The bed was never used.

Gavin’s job has led him into some weird situations. When a court needed to understand more about the concentration camp at Omarska, he assembled a scale model. When one prisoner became locked in his holding cell, Gavin drilled him out. And when an elderly accused man in a wheelchair complained that his feet were hurting, Gavin fashioned him a pouf. “You just get on with it,” he says. “I definitely think this work has a noble purpose.”

The ICTY is a triumph of international co-operation. It employs staff from 24 countries. Lawyers and judges from different legal systems, speaking different languages, working on international criminal law — which, before the tribunal was established, had lain dormant for half a century — have somehow muddled along.

The British are well represented. Judge Howard Morrison, who sits on the Radovan Karadzic trial, is a large man with a silver beard, whose work has taken him from the Midlands to the Hague via Fiji and Anguilla. Having worked in the British system, the leaden pace of proceedings at the ICTY must have been frustrating.

For instance, Karadzic, accused of multiple war crimes, including genocide, was arrested in Belgrade in 2008, disguised as a long-bearded doctor of alternative medicine. His trial, at which he represents himself, began in October 2009. Judgment is scheduled for October 2013. That, by anyone’s reckoning, is a long haul. “Yes, it’s a slow process,” says Morrison. “The cases are huge, the mounds of evidence, the paper trails, the complexity of the case goes well beyond anything you’d normally find in a national jurisdiction, by a factor of 10. Everything has to be translated. It’s expensive, and it takes a lot of time.”

There is a perception that the ICTY, like many large UN-funded bodies, is something of a gravy train — the money’s good, while the work is slow and bureaucratic. Is this true? “Anyone who thinks this is a gravy train!…” exclaims Morrison. “There are some people here who are probably earning more than they would elsewhere but, for a lot of people, they come to the Hague and have to set up home, and it’s not a cheap city. One thing you wouldn’t come here for is the money. You work in this place because you believe in it, or you go somewhere else.”

Joanna Korner is a prosecutor. A 60-year-old English QC with a plummy accent, wearing pearls and a high stiff collar, she exudes an amiable vulnerability at odds with her station. Unlike the British system, prosecutors for the ICTY are not only advocates, but also investigators. Korner first came to the tribunal in 1999. At one point, when she was building cases for two trials simultaneously, she had a staff of 40. In the early days, she says, she made “real mistakes”. “It was hugely daunting. I’d never been the detective, looked for the evidence, and interviewed potential witnesses.” The detective work on the ground in Bosnia was, she says, “very unpleasant… ICTY investigators were sometimes at risk of being attacked”.

At times, her work can be overwhelming. “The worst was when I interviewed a victim of a gang rape [from Bosnia] in St Louis, Missouri,” she says. “It was almost unbearable. Sitting in this woman’s house and asking her what had happened, having to get to the details of the gang rape. That’s an experience I’ve never forgotten.”

The question that is often asked of the tribunal is this: justice for whom? Do the victims of heinous crimes committed in the Balkan wars feel that justice has been done because a judgment is handed down, hundreds of miles away, in a country they have never visited? Is it enough that these trials take place, that facts are established, and victims’ voices heard?

History’s view on the ICTY will, I suspect, be kind. Its even-handed approach, its diligence, and its willingness to calmly call people to account for their role in the most terrible period in recent European history is a significant and irreversible achievement.What’s more, its success has prompted a new enthusiasm for, and belief in, international justice.

In Arusha, Tanzania, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has tried 50 cases relating to the 1994 genocide. In the Hague, the International Criminal Court has begun to process its logjam of cases. The Special Court for Sierra Leone has just delivered a verdict in its only case: that of Charles Taylor. And the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is putting its wheels in motion.

Justice is never perfect. But, shortly before I leave the DU, and the Hague, I get a glimpse of what, in the case of the former Yugoslavia, a just result might look like. From a high window, I watch the yard of the prison, in which three Serbs — Vlastimir Djordjevic, Sredoje Lukic and Vladimir Lazarevic — are taking a walk, anticlockwise, around the tennis court. Between them, these men are facing 62 years in prison for crimes including multiple murders and forced deportations.

It has just been raining, and all three wear anoraks tied around their waists, like ramblers. Two sport huge bald spots. These men were once objects of fear. Now, stripped of everything except their right to a fair trial, and comfortable living conditions, they look like what they are: old men.

David Kennedy shows me another building, beyond the high wall of the yard. It’s a pink, one-story complex that lies before a series of dunes, the final barrier before the North Sea. Kennedy tells me that the Nazis used to house Dutch prisoners there during the second world war. Periodically, the Germans would take groups of prisoners into the dunes and shoot them — a flagrant violation of the laws of war.

It seems somehow appropriate that, half a century later, suspected war criminals should be held in such a place. The Nazis committed their crimes because they were answerable to nothing but their own ideology, and the Nuremberg trials were an attempt to redress that spirit of impunity. Likewise, when awful crimes were committed in the Balkans, they were perpetrated with the swagger of men who believed in the rectitude of their cause, and their inviolability. The ICTY is slow, it is bureaucratic, and it is unloved by almost every nationality and ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia. But it has transformed butchers and gods back into men.