Team makes lists of Balkan horrors


CHICAGO -- On the computer screen before young Dan Bronson is the grimmest catalog of selections in the world:

Killed after torture. Killed after rape. Killed after imprisonment. Killed after forced evacuation. Killed in flight. Killed in combat.

Sitting in this nondescript office day after day, Mr. Bronson, 22, reads through the stacks of documents and makes his choices. Raped. Tortured. Mutilated.

What he is compiling is a record of atrocities in what was Yugoslavia. Operating in cramped quarters at the DePaul University College of Law, Mr. Bronson and his co-workers are creating a one-of-a-kind data base detailing the horrors of the Balkan conflict since 1991.

At a minimum, the 40 or so people involved in the DePaul project -- most of them volunteers -- are establishing a historical record of the brutality inflicted on civilians and captured soldiers in the war zones. But everyone here has a more immediate goal, one symbolized by the photographs on the hallway walls depicting the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany, and in Tokyo after World War II.

Last year, for the first time since those trials, the United Nations established an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes -- this time, in the Balkans. Many believe that if there are convictions, they will result from the work being done at DePaul.

"What they are doing will be in valuable to any prosecutions," says Diane Orentlicher, an authority on war crimes at American University in Washington.

The sheer volume of the evidence assembled at DePaul is overwhelming.

The project has collected more than 64,000 documents, much of it derived from eyewitness accounts gathered by the United Nations, the Red Cross, Helsinki Watch and other organizations active in the war zone.

The project has identified more than 5,000 crimes, involving all sides in the ethnic conflict; nearly 500 prison camps; and as many as 155 mass graves, one or two of which reportedly contain as many as 5,000 bodies each.

All the evidence is being transferred to the international tribunal, whose prosecutors will decide which cases to pursue.

For the predominantly youthful workers at DePaul, sifting through that evidence has been a sustained look into evil.

As snow flickers outside the window, Mr. Bronson, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago wearing a T-shirt and jeans, has before him the account of a Bosnian Muslim woman who described being taken from her bed by Bosnian Serbian soldiers last spring and herded into a village school with 300 other women. During the next seven days, she said, many of the women were repeatedly raped by soldiers, some of whom she identified by name.

Mr. Bronson says that after nearly a year, such reports no longer shock him, but that the cumulative effect of the reports has taken a toll. "I feel I should be doing this work," he says. "On the other hand, I feel I have to drag myself in here every day."

Patsy Campbell, a lawyer from Washington who recently joined the project, has not yet developed the comfort of desensitization. She recalls one of the early reports she read in which the word "butcher" was used. She believed at first that it was simply a metaphor.

"But butcher is what they meant," says Ms. Campbell, 30. "They went on to talk about dismemberment, of cutting open a pregnant woman and killing the fetus. I asked some of the others, 'Can this really be? Have you ever seen anything like this?' All of them said they had."

'Branded in my mind'

The very existence of the DePaul project is a reflection of the zeal of one man, M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born lawyer who is one of the world's foremost authorities on war crimes.

A law professor at DePaul, Mr. Bassiouni, 57, has long championed the idea of a permanent international criminal tribunal and often advised governments on the prosecution of war crimes. He was chairman of a U.N. war crimes commission that issued a report Friday concluding the Bosnian Serbs had committed "crimes against humanity" and probably genocide.

As part of that work, Mr. Bassiouni persuaded the United Nations to allow him to establish the DePaul project in 1993 as the collection point for all evidence.

The DePaul project does not do any of its own investigations at the site of the crimes, but Mr. Bassiouni has made several trips to the Balkans, most recently last month, when he led a team of volunteer prosecutors to interview more than 170 sexual assault victims.

He relates some of what he has seen: rape and murder victims, children with amputated limbs, whole villages wiped out. The images, he says, are "branded in my mind as if by fire."

"I was literally up to my knees in corpses at one grave site in Krajina," he said in his office late last month.

"The smell, the stench was overwhelming, the bodies in the most grotesque positions. I remember looking away for a moment as a woman's body was being removed. When I looked back, there was another body right below it. It was a man, completely composed, with his eyes wide open, like he had just lain down. Balding, with a beard like Lenin. I could almost hear him say, 'Why am I here?'

"It's a question I've asked myself time and time again. Why? Why me? Why so much violence? Why done in that way? Why didn't anyone do anything, and why isn't anyone doing anything now?"

At the least, Mr. Bassiouni says, the world owes those Balkan victims a measure of justice for their suffering. The world does not see the matter quite so clearly.

'Peace without justice'

The possibility of Balkan war crimes trials has always been in doubt. Nuremberg, after all, was the exception, not the rule. More typical was the situation after World War I, when there was strong sentiment to try alleged war criminals, including Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. But there was an even stronger desire for reparations and a lasting peace. The great powers believed they couldn't have it all and gave up on the idea of war crimes trials.

The same sentiment is evident now in relation to the Balkans. Britain and France in particular have indicated that the issue of trials should not stand in the way of peace. And the Serbs have made it clear that such trials would do exactly that. They insist on a general amnesty.

They also have an advantage that Germany did not after either world war. The Serbs are the military victors in the Balkans. Victors do not submit to war crimes trials.

"It's very unrealistic to expect that when you are attempting to get the Serbs to please, please sign on the dotted line, then on top of this say to them, 'Oh, and please turn your top political leaders over to the bailiff for trial,' " says Robert Goldman, a professor of international law at American University.

Mr. Bassiouni says the United Nations must not accept such dictates.

"You cannot have peace without justice," he says.

Even though the tribunal will not try defendants in absentia, Serbian assistance is not necessary in all cases.

In February, the Germans arrested Dusko Tadic, a former Bosnian Serbian militiaman whom Muslims accuse of maiming and murdering prisoners in Bosnia in 1992. The Germans intend to try him themselves under their own war crimes law.

Many dozens of other suspected war criminals are living all over Western Europe, says Antonio Cassese, head of the international tribunal. What is preventing their arrests and trials is doubt that the United Nations is serious about prosecutions, when the tribunal still lacks a chief prosecutor, investigators, a staff and even a budget. The preliminary war crimes commission Mr. Bassiouni headed also was given little in the way of funds and personnel.

With little help from the United Nations, he turned first to DePaul, which agreed to supply office space and supplies for the project. Wall Street financier George Soros, a Hungarian Jew whose family hid from the Nazis during World War II, contributed $862,000, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation added $300,000.

In some ways, Mr. Bassiouni has faced a more difficult task than the prosecutors at Nuremberg. The Nazis were meticulous keepers of records, creating a handy map for their own ruin when the war was over. Apparently, the combatants in the Balkans are not as scrupulous about paperwork. Any criminal cases, therefore, will depend on witnesses.

That evidence could be just as persuasive. For example, it may be impossible to trace military movements through records, but DePaul's collection of sightings of troops will accomplish the same purpose.

Day-to-day log

The information collected is categorized into five general areas: rape, prison camps and torture, mass graves, the activities of paramilitary groups and the siege of Sarajevo, where civilians are routine targets.

Bill Schiller, a 31-year-old former Cook County prosecutor, is in charge of the Sarajevo report. When completed, the 1,700-page report will provide a day-to-day log of events since the siege began in April 1992. A typical day's entry would show the number of shells that exploded, the caliber, the sniper activity, the targets, and the number of casualties. Through this type of recordkeeping, he has learned that the Kosevo Hospital has been hit 287 times.

The evidence in his computer will establish the link between the Serbian military commanders surrounding Sarajevo and the suffering of the civilian population in the city.

Implicating high command

Because of the scope of the evidence, the DePaul project will be crucial in establishing guilt at higher levels of command. The fact that the same pattern is repeated in different regions will be used as proof of the complicity of upper echelon officers.

For example, in an office down the hall from Mr. Schiller's, Marcia McCormick, a 26-year old lawyer, is at work on the rape report. She thinks that when she is done, she will have identified 1,200 cases of sexual assault, about half of which will have an identified victim and perpetrator.

Ms. McCormick says she has found patterns in various locales. Again and again, for example, the Serbs put women into their own prison camps where they were subjected to nightly rapes by their captors.

"This happens over such a broad area that it suggests that, at the least, the regimental commanders know what's going on," she says.

Similarly, Penny Venetis, who chairs the committee on prison camps, says certain types of tortures were used exclusively on certain types of military prisoners -- she refuses to provide specifics -- in a number of different camps. "Is there a plan?" she asks. "It gets hard to believe this is a coincidence."

Ms. Orentlicher believes that that sort of evidence will be crucial. "Creating a comprehensive list of crimes which will identify troop movements and atrocities under command structures is invaluable," she says. "Yes, it is circumstantial, but circumstantial evidence can be a very, very important resource."

With immediate prosecutions in doubt, at DePaul they are taking the long view about their work.

"Even if there are no trials now," says Mark Bennett, 29, the administrative officer of the project, "there is no statute of limitations for these crimes. People cross borders, political regimes change. As long as there is a historical record, some day these people can be brought to justice."

One way or another, his work and that of the others will be done by July.

Speaking for many of them, Mr. Bennett says he knows the value of what he has been doing.

"Never again in my life," he says, "will I ever do anything as important as this."

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