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  • Marcia Jacobs

20 | Would I? | Fall 2004

In 1993 a groundbreaking institution was created by the United Nations Security Council - the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, better known as the ICTY. Located in The Hague, Netherlands, its mandate is to prosecute and try perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 onward.

The spring of 2002 I was employed by the Victim and Witness section of the ICTY to work at their Sarajevo field office. There we would assist witnesses in traveling to The Hague to testify, and upon their return home to the region. We helped them in all aspects of their monumental journey to be witnesses, from buying clothing for travel, to making sure they had their medicines on hand. They were often elderly and ill, and in all cases highly traumatized, having survived such atrocities including seeing their families slaughtered, and suffering violent rapes in front of their children and husbands. Some had even escaped alive from in mass graves. We secured medical assistance and provided emotional/psychological support, both in the region before and after they appeared as witnesses, as well as in The Hague while they were going through the harrowing experience of facing their perpetrators and testifying in the court.

I met and worked with hundreds of witnesses in my three years with ICTY.

All of their stories were deeply disturbing. It was in this capacity that I met Senada, a woman who made a profound and lasting impression on me.

She was close to my age, in her early 60’s, but the hell she lived through had taken its toll, and she appeared much older. The deep sea of grief she was forced to navigate had put her off balance. It hadn't broken her indomitable spirit, but did send her spinning through eddies of unfathomable memories. Glaucoma had rendered her nearly blind. In her case it might have been a trauma related disease; the body saying “no” to the sights she had witnessed. Even so, her flashbacks were so powerful that, even as her eyesight worsened, she must unremittingly see, over and over again, the horrible acts which had taken so violently that which she most loved. Not only “see” them, but live them as though they were happening right now. I witnessed her flashbacks numerous times. Often, unbidden, she was taken back to the last time she saw her two sons, on a bus taking all the young men from the detention camp in which they were imprisoned. Pulling away, never to be seen again.

Her sons - young men with, in different times and universes which now seem so impossibly sweet, wives and children and jobs and futures - were rounded up with her. The village was being cleansed of Muslims, and everyone who was not too young or too ill was taken. She and her sons were forced from their homes and imprisoned together in a notoriously brutal detention camp near their Bosnian village. Brutality there was measured in cold-blooded acts of sadism; starvation, torture, rape and murder.

It’s theorized that flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts are the psyche’s attempt to redo the traumatic event and have it end differently. All futile of course. When in the grip of a flashback, her eyes would lose focus and fill with terror. Sitting in the present, in the safety of her living room, she would suddenly see the bus pulling away from the camp as if it were happening NOW.

That scene had left an indelible stamp on her psychic home in the hell realms.
It was the eternal moment in which her tortured heart lived, when time stood still As she cried out, her husband and I restrained her from running after the phantom bus which had carried her sons off almost a decade before.

Her elderly husband is too ill to travel to the trial with her, and I arrange for a neighbor to accompany her from Bosnia to The Hague, from the site of the genocide to the place of reckoning and responsibility. Senada would not miss it for the world. A former guard in the camp is on trial for murder, torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide, in the deaths of 36 unarmed men and boys. The day Senada arrives in The Hague, hours before she takes the stand, the accused pleads guilty to the charges. Senada is heartbroken; she will not be able to do her duty, to give her eyewitness account in the service of justice being rendered. Thankfully, at the last moment, she is asked to testify at his sentencing hearing.

Although elderly and frail, she has great dignity and stature as she faces the perpetrator in the courtroom, among powder-wigged and robed judges and attorneys.

I watch him from the public gallery. To me he is a maniac, a monster, the devil incarnate. He is 38, the same age her younger son would be, had he not been taken. He lived on their street, and knew both of her sons. This is the tragic irony of victims and perpetrators when neighbor turns on neighbor. Senada has had a long acquaintance with him and his family. To her he is still that snot-nosed kid, not even a bully, but shy and insecure, still with an innocence impossible for me to imagine.

Breaking all precedents in this most correct and stodgy of judicial institutions, when face to face with the accused, she jumps up from her chair, points her finger at him, and screams,

“Miro, (she uses his nickname), tell me where my sons are! I must know before you are taken away. What happened to them?”

The likes of this interruption, this so human response, has not been seen in the decade the Tribunal has been hearing cases of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. There is havoc and confusion, and the court moves quickly for a one hour adjournment. The judge returns with the decision that 'Miro' will be allowed to answer the question of a mother desperately searching for her children. With eyes downcast he addresses her in a halting voice.

“The men were taken by bus, and transported to a part of the forest not far from the camp, where they were made to disembark. I awaited them on the outskirts of town, with my unit. We bound their hands, and marched them to the edge of an empty pit already prepared for their bodies. As they were shot, they fell, one by one, into the pit behind them. That is where their bodies can be found.”

On hearing these words, which she had been awaiting with dread all these years, Senada faints in the witness box. Medical personnel are summoned, and the court proceedings halted for the day. Senada’s mission is complete. She can return home now.

Three weeks later I visit her at her home to offer what support I can, and to deliver her glaucoma medications. She is much the same as before, except that her eyesight has deteriorated even further. I speak to her of her courage in the courtroom. She shrugs. To her it is insignificant. I express my disturbance about the sentence the perpetrator received in the plea bargain - nine years. It doesn't seem right that plea bargains should be permitted in cases of crimes against humanity. But Senada corrects me.

“Well, you must understand, he’s not all bad. This evil war has twisted people. I try to remember that he helped people, too. I saw him stop some beatings, some killings.”

She has lost everything; her health, her home, her country, her sons. But she hasn’t lost her humanity. She holds naturally and firmly to a deep sense of justice. She has not given herself over to vengence and malice. I ask myself, would I be able to look into the eyes of my child's murderer with compassion? To face someone who has robbed me of everything important in my life, and not lose sight of our shared humanity? Would I?

~ Please note that this is a fictional account based on the testimonies of a number of ICTY witnesses. As in previous posts concerning war victims, all identifying information has been altered to preserve privacy. ~

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