THE HAGUE, The Netherlands -- Between them, they have taken aim at some of America's most notorious criminal targets in recent memory. One prosecuted Exxon for its Alaska oil spill. Another helped convict the Los Angeles policemen who beat up Rodney King. Still others have hunted down murderers, Mafia bosses, drug lords and fugitive Nazis.
Now they're here, some 40 American lawyers and investigators in all, and they're working the biggest case of their lives.
Their employer is the International War Crimes Tribunal, established in 1994. Their crime scene is the former Yugoslavia, and their prime suspects are named Karadzic, Mladic and so on, an infamous roll call of Serbs, Croats and Muslims accused of Europe's most horrendous crimes against humanity since World War II.
And in all their combined years of poking through the worst that society has to offer, never have they been so overwhelmed by depravity writ large.
"In 20-something years, in a sense you get kind of numb to reading about murders and the details of murders, 'cause it's your daily work," says former federal prosecutor Mark Harmon. "But nothing can prepare you for reading some of this stuff. It brings tears to your eyes."
But for many, never has an investigation offered such jarring paradoxes.
Teresa McHenry, an attorney on loan from the Justice Department's organized crime division, says, "This has been the most fascinating and the most frustrating job I've ever had."
On the one hand, for example, they're equipped with a United Nations mandate, the mantle of international law, and legal and investigative personnel contributed by 36 nations.
Yet they are understaffed and underfunded, routinely forced to delay or cancel evidence-gathering trips in order to accommodate a budget ever in danger of running dry.
They are enforced in the field by the forces of NATO and the U.S. Army, and the host governments of the former Yugoslavia have pledged cooperation as part of the Dayton peace accord.
Yet they've been blocked from reaching some of the most important crime scenes, and watch helplessly from afar as their most wanted suspects walk the streets of Bosnia, relax in cafes and glide through NATO checkpoints.
Then there is the matter of their own family and friends back home in America.
Many, it seems, couldn't care less about Bosnia.
Sheila Berry, detailed to the war crimes tribunal from the State Department's bureau of international organizations, recalls the reaction she got during a Christmas trip home to rural Arizona.
"It was a large family gathering," she says. "I buttonholed virtually all of my relatives to expound in fairly passionate terms why [Bosnia] was important and why we should be interested.
"Finally, one of my cousins took me aside and told me not only was this not very interesting and not very important, but would I please shut up and go away."
This sense of American detachment has struck nearly all of them at times as they work so far from home, sometimes under dangerous conditions, on the world's most important prosecutions since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.
"I go back and talk to people in America and ask what were they doing in late July of 1995, less than a year ago," says prosecutor Greg Kehoe, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa. "They say they were on vacation with their kids, maybe going to Disney World in Florida, or whatever.
"And the fact of the matter is that at that time [in Bosnia] outside Srebrenica, thousands of people were being annihilated after digging their own graves. That's not in 1945; that's less than a year ago."
After 50 years of hearing "Never again" in response to the genocide of the Holocaust, he says, "This is still going on, and the ultimate question for us as Americans is, when is it going to stop?"
A challenge, making history
A wide variety of motivations attracted the Americans to the tribunal.
Twenty-one are on loan from the U.S. government, chosen from hundreds of volunteers in 1994.
Most came from the Justice Department, such as Alan Tieger, who had just finished the civil rights prosecution in the Rodney King case, or Terree Bowers, who was the U.S. attorney for the Los Angeles district.
Some were suffering the usual letdown in the wake of a big case, looking for another big challenge. Others were attracted by the monumental nature of the job, the chance to make history. Then there were the unabashed idealists, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accomplish something for the sake of humanity.
Among the latter is Mark Harmon, a former Justice Department prosecutor who is one of about 20 additional Americans directly hired by the tribunal rather than coming on loan.
During five years in the civil rights division and five more in the environmental crimes division -- where he helped prosecute the Alaska oil spill case against Exxon -- Mr. Harmon never quite lost the save-the-world zeal that grips some young people to law school.
As a boy in California, he asked his mother about the old couple down the street, the neighbors who seemed to have lost their zest for life. She explained they were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. He wanted to know more.
"You'd look through these Time-Life books," he says, "and you'd see these bodies stacked like cordwood. 'What is this? This can't be real.'
"Well, I never forgot that. The Holocaust has probably been the single, most touching, meaningful event in my life. I can't comprehend it; I want to do something about it so in the future it doesn't happen again."
The first few Americans arrived here in the spring of 1994, just as the tribunal was getting organized. They had to draw up guidelines that not only conformed to international law but would also feel comfortable to investigators and prosecutors from dozens of legal systems around the world.
The American practice of preparing a prosecution witness for testimony, for example, came across as appallingly unethical, even illegal, to one Scotsman who joined the tribunal.
Next came the field work and the compilation of evidence, an unfinished chore that has taken tribunal investigators and attorneys to the heart of the war's devastation -- past mile after mile of burned, blown-up homes; past families on the move, their cars and horse carts piled with their belongings, or sometimes with the belongings of former neighbors.
The journeys have at times taken them to the edge of safety, such as last fall, when Americans Mike Keegan, a Marine Corps attorney, and Greg McIntosh, on loan from the Justice Department, headed for a mass grave site behind the advancing Bosnian Muslim army.
Artillery shells exploded to the front and rear of their vehicle. They wisely retreated.
They return from such experiences to the tranquillity of The Hague, an old and orderly government town in a land of tulips, canals and tidy brick storefronts, a place where the week's biggest crime might be a bicycle theft.
Yet, even here, there are signs of the battle zone. A sheet of paper posted near Mr. Kehoe's desk lists a dozen Bosnians whose names kept coming up in his investigation. Eventually he found out that, due to a common Bosnian circumstance, none would ever be of any help to him, so he posted their names for future reference.
"Presumed dead," it says at the top of the list.
Some days, doses of Bosnian reality are available in the building's courtroom, a chamber enclosed in bulletproof glass and decked out like the bridge of a star ship.
Last week one could drop in on a hearing related to the 1991 massacre of 261 people in the Croatian city of Vukovar. A parade of witnesses told one frightening tale after another, some of them blocked from public view because they're still too scared to show their faces.
But for now the building's deepest shadows are found in its dark archival pools of evidence, stored in computers and file cabinets. Mr. Kehoe still broods upon the meaning of it all whenever he explores these realms.
"I never would have thought that, literally, an individual could invite his friend over for a drink at four o'clock in the afternoon, and then at eight o'clock the next morning go in with a semiautomatic weapon and take out that friend's family, a family that he'd been living next to for a generation. But it happened in the Lasva Valley [of Bosnia]. That's the reality," he says.
Confronting this kind of information has its side effects, especially when one considers how these horrors began. One reason was hatred stored up for generations.
But the device that awakened the old feelings, the investigators have found, was little more than talk; angry talk of "Us" vs. "Them" that got out of hand in a welter of lies and fear in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
And now, even when visiting America, the investigators react differently to certain types of speechmaking, to certain styles of argument.
"I think what it teaches," says Mr. Bowers, the former U.S. attorney from Los Angeles, "is that we have to be vigilant and on guard for these demagogues, those who would try and exploit our differences and our insecurities for their own power base and their own needs. It's very difficult for reason to prevail if you play on people's fears and hatreds."
At the heart of the task
With their wealth of experience, and by having been among the first arrivals at the tribunal, several Americans have ended up at the heart of the tribunal's most important work.
Mr. Harmon wrote the indictments of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He's also closely involved in the case against those two in connection with the alleged massacres of up to 8,000 Muslims last July after the fall of Srebrenica.
Mr. Kehoe is on the case against the six Croats and Bosnian Croats accused of "ethnically cleansing" thousands of Muslims from the Lasva River Valley in central Bosnia in 1993, including a pre-dawn roundup and massacre of more than 100 civilians in the Muslim village of Ahmici.
Mr. Bowers is working on the case against the Bosnian Serb commander of the Luka concentration camp, near the strategically important town of Brcko.
Ms. McHenry is working on the indictments most recently handed down, a landmark in their own right by being the tribunal's first case for crimes committed against Serbs.
The co-prosecutor in the case of the Vukovar massacre, featured in last week's hearings, is from the Justice Department's organized crime division.
And Americans will be leading the teams of forensics investigators who will attempt this spring and summer to exhume bodies from several mass grave sites in Bosnia and Croatia.
But for all the diligent work by the Americans and nearly 300 others, the tribunal still has custody of only a handful of relatively minor suspects. And never have the investigators and attorneys felt their frustration over this as keenly as last July, during the events at the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.
Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic, though not yet indicted at the time, had already been named as suspects, largely on the basis of widespread "ethnic cleansing" in 1992 and the subsequent siege of Sarajevo.
In effect, the tribunal had put them on notice that their behavior was not only unacceptable but would be closely watched.
"One would think that, at a minimum, that kind of inhumanity would be concealed, wouldn't occur again, that there was too much world attention," Mr. Harmon said.
Then Srebrenica fell. Eight thousand Muslims disappeared into the blackness, and survivors emerged from the woods with harrowing but consistent accounts.
"All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there's this hideous set of massacres," Mr. Harmon says. "Systematic sorts of massacres, perpetrated at the highest levels."
He shakes his head, as if still disbelieving.
Some members of the tribunal believe hopeful signs have come in the wake of the Dayton agreement. Perhaps, they say, some of the bigger suspects will be handed over within the year. Others are less confident.
"If at some point we don't start getting some suspects," Ms. McHenry says, "then it will become a matter of 'What are we doing here?' "
It is the self-professed idealists who seem willing to slog it out no matter what.
"It will be a broken promise to the people of the former Yugoslavia if all we can do is point an accusatory finger at somebody and not bring them to justice," Mr. Harmon says.
"Because [if that happens] I suspect that there will be a lack of closure, a lack of fulfillment. So I hope we stay in business a long time."
Pub Date: 3/31/96