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The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwandaby Elizabeth Neuffer
Let me begin as it began for me: glimpsing evil in a man's soul.
The man I've been expecting has just swaggered up to my table in this smoke-filled cafe, followed by one of his henchmen and the aroma of cheap cologne. Like any city tough, his hands are jammed into his pants pockets and his muscular shoulders strain at the seams of his cheap black leather jacket. But when he looks at me, his eyes are as empty of expression as pure glass.
He pulls up a chair, summons the waitress, and sends her scurrying to get brandy, beer, more coffee, with the arrogance of a Mafia don. He sits down on my right, blond and mustachioed, and cocks his eyebrow. The war-hardened soldiers slouching at nearby tables, their cigarettes drooping from their lips, nod with approval. They believe this man, a fellow soldier, to be a hero. But I've been searching for him for six weeks because I believe him to be something else: executioner.
I am in the Bosnian-Serb half of Bosnia and Herzegovina and it is 1996. Peace is so newly minted here in the city of Bijeljina that civilians still don't venture onto the streets. Only a mere seven months have passed since this man and others in the Bosnian Serb 10th Sabotage Unit rounded up 1,200 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and led them to an abandoned, grassy meadow at a collective farm just down the highway from here. They ordered the men to turn their backs and kneel on the ground. Then, as their captives wept and pleaded for their lives, they shot them.
At the time, I'd been reporting from Bosnia for more than two years, and I still couldn't understand what turned neighbors of long standing into killers, rapists, torturers: whether it was ideology or hate or madness or history or blood lust that made civilization's constraints vanish.
I had wanted to talk to this man's commander, General Radislav Krstic. But Krstic has quit Bosnia for neighboring Serbia, where I was rarely granted a visa. So I had set out tracking down this young soldier instead, whose name I had gotten from Bosnian Muslim war crimes investigators. I've spent nights searching for him in drafty bars filled with grimacing thugs and pounding rock music, and days hunting him down, the car jogging along like a child's pogo stick on roads pitted by shelling and years of communist neglect. I've come too far now to turn back. Never mind that I am the only woman in the room, save for my translator, Alex, and the waitress; never mind that suddenly the interview karma doesn't seem quite right. Much later I would offer the typical journalistic defense: The interview had been my editor's idea. Because Marko "Macak" Boskic was not in a cooperative mood.
"Do you have a tape recorder? Let's see," Boskic said with a growl, as he rifled through our coat pockets, scattering pieces of old gum, gas receipts, and shredded Kleenex across the table. Discovering my small Sony portable, he debated stealing it, but simply removed one of the batteries and the tape. The waitress, giggling at the cloak-and-dagger preparations, was shooed away with a scowl, and Boskic got down to business.
"Where did you get my name?" he demanded, leaning over the wooden table.
"From Erdemovic," I lied, naming a soldier from his unit, Drazen Erdemovic, who had recently confessed to the executions to international war crimes prosecutors in The Hague, Netherlands. In truth, Erdemovic would later identify Boskic as part of the massacre squad.
"That traitor." Boskic sneered. I took this as an opening.
"Look, I'd like to talk to you about Srebrenica?I want to talk to you about your side of the story," I gushed nervously, referring to the massacres, which I had been told he participated in, that followed the fall of the UN safe area of Srebrenica and left thousands of Muslim men and boys dead. "Were you ordered to kill those men? Why did you do it?"
The coffee in my cup suddenly tasted like silt. The dreary cafe began to look as welcoming as one of those graffitti-scarred, inner-city gas stations, where the cashier is encased behind thick, bulletproof glass. There comes a moment in every interview when you realize things are not going as planned; in this case, I'd just realized Boskic was not going to tell me why he had executed those men, after all.
Instead, a flush appeared on Boskic's cheeks and grew steadily darker. His hands, when he raised them, were trembling, even as he held them out toward my translator and me as if he would strangle us like chickens whose necks he'd break with a wrench of their heads.
"Would you like to get whacked?" he hissed. "I want you to forget this street and this restaurant. It doesn't exist any more for you. Don't come looking for me any more. I cannot guarantee the safety of your lives."
And with that he stood up and strode from the restaurant, stopping only to point us out to several Bosnian Serb military soldiers sitting at a nearby table, still carrying guns and clad in camouflage, despite the war's end. One winked at us. Another glared. The waitress arrived with more coffee. We drank it, wiser?and yet no wiser?than we had been before.
Perhaps I was naive in trying to interview Boskic, although I had known killers to brag about their exploits. Though I found out nothing new about the Srebrenica massacres, I did learn something else, something that had eluded me in the many months I'd spent reporting on one atrocity in Bosnia after another: why victims, particularly those who knew their tormentors, struggled so to put the demons of those memories to rest. Before I met Boskic, he was a name; afterward, he became a nightmare. Once you put a human face to evil, it will not let you go.
The evil I glimpsed in him had nothing to do with ideology; in some ways, if I could have chalked up his actions to a kind of nationalist brainwashing, I would not have felt so disturbed. Nor did it have anything to do with his being a member of the Bosnian Serb forces. While Serb paramilitaries and troops had committed the majority of the war crimes, there were atrocities on all three sides of the Bosnian war, and Boskic was actually a Bosnian Croat. The evil I glimpsed in him was the potential for evil we all share, for being human is no guarantee of our humanity. What's most chilling when you meet a murderer is that you meet yourself.
This young man had allegedly killed unarmed men who had surrendered?a heinous crime, by any measure?and yet he walked away from my table, free. The more I thought about the fact that Boskic had flouted society's rules with impunity, the more I felt a growing sense of injustice. For nights afterward, I would relive my interview, providing different, more satisfactory endings that unreeled in my mind like Hollywood movies. I'd fantasize about reaching across the table, slapping on handcuffs and arresting Boskic. I'd imagine NATO troops storming the restaurant and doing the job for me. I'd envision one of the Bosnian Serb soldiers drunkenly lounging in the cafe suddenly becoming so outraged by Boskic's participation in an execution that he would stand up, draw his gun, and shoot him.
What I realized was that there is an innate human need for some kind of reckoning, an accounting. Like everyone I met in Bosnia, I wanted something that would assuage my guilt, answer my fears, and punish those who were responsible. I wanted order imposed on a world that would right the wrong that Boskic and his men had committed that day. I wasn't sure what outcome was best: Boskic on trial, Boskic forced to apologize for his crimes, Boskic forced to pay reparations.
But I did know this: I wanted some kind of justice for Boskic?whatever "justice" meant.
This is not a book about evil, although you will read plenty about it. It is a book about the pursuit of justice, about the people whom I met who were also trying to understand what it meant in the wake of full-scale atrocities. Many of the people I will introduce you to are from Bosnia and Rwanda, where I traveled as a reporter for the Boston Globe. Politicians and policy makers had prescribed ``justice'' as the means through which both countries could shake off the nightmare of their recent past, move beyond cycles of hatred and the sense of grievance to achieve reconciliation. But while everyone wanted justice, not everyone was sure just what that meant?or how best to deliver it?particularly in such devastated societies.
Vengeance was not an option: One need only look at the mass graves littering the hillsides in both Rwanda and Bosnia to understand that. Facing the past, looking "the beast in the eye" lest it "haunt you horrendously," as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it, certainly seemed to be part of the answer. Yet as I traveled from Sarajevo to Kigali, from Srebrenica to Kibuye, as I met weary prosecutors and unrepentant war criminals in shabby courtrooms and flea-infested prisons, families searching for their missing loved ones and forensic experts exhuming mass graves, questions multiplied. How much should a society remember and how much should it forget? Where does the boundary fall between enough justice to destroy impunity and so much "justice" that it becomes revenge? How can any punishment, in the wake of mass atrocities such as those Bosnia and Rwanda have seen, ever address the needs of the thousands of people raped, maimed, tortured, or homeless?
Questions like these, which I heard posed by a Tutsi woman living in a simple mud-brick home as well as by a Bosnian Muslim woman knitting a sweater in a refugee camp, suggested that, for all the culture and geography that separated Bosnia and Rwanda, the two countries had much in common. Both were rugged, beautiful lands laid waste by war and by hate. In both, conflicts had erupted in the shifting era of post-Cold War politics, when power-hungry politicians used history's unsolved grievances to fan the embers of ethnic discontent. In both, wrongs had been unpunished and vengeance often triumphed over the rule of law. In both, staggering atrocities set neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend.
Yet Bosnia and Rwanda shared something else, and that was the legacy of Western shame. American and European leaders largely stood by, wringing their hands even as the killing in both countries rocketed around the world in televised images: Rwandans macheted to death, emaciated Bosnian Muslims behind the barbed wire of concentration camps. Pleas for help buzzed along the Internet. UN peacekeepers, under orders to shoot only in their own defense, stood by helplessly as killings took place around them.
Stung by world outrage, desperate to lay the foundations for a lasting peace, the United Nations Security Council had clutched for a face-saving solution and found one in the creation of international war crimes tribunals. Trials, applying international humanitarian law, would bring Rwanda's and Bosnia's tyrants to heel. And so, as Rwanda and Bosnia unearthed mass graves and counted the dead, as rubble was swept up and rebuilding began, the hope was that with war crimes trials both countries would take a different path than in the past. This time they would walk on the far side of revenge?toward justice and even reconciliation.
Delivering justice, however, has proved easier in theory than in reality. The two war crimes tribunals, once created, were undermined by a lack of political will and funding in their early years. UN bureaucracy snarled their workings into knots. The result was a limited number of accomplishments achieved against incredible odds. The Yugoslav Tribunal's decisions revolutionized the field of international humanitarian law, but for the first few years of its existence, it had no high-ranking defendants behind bars, thanks to Western leaders' reluctance to have their troops in Bosnia arrest them. The Rwanda Tribunal would deliver the first genocide verdict by an international war crimes court. Yet prosecutors working on the case remember throwing doors on top of orange crates to serve as a desk, arguing over whose motion was the most important to be printed out from the scarce paper supply, and being stymied by a court administration riddled with mismanagement.
Yet as verdicts were handed down, as war crimes law was expanded and refined, as more alleged war criminals were arrested, convicted, and put behind bars, it became clear that judgments had little immediate deterrent value: The 1998 fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo raged long after the Yugoslav Tribunal was established. In addition, thousands upon thousands of victims knew little about the war crimes trials, ongoing outside their homeland. Increasingly, the courts' decisions seemed remote to each country's survivors, forcing many to turn elsewhere for their sense of justice. And there were so many victims and so many cases and just so much either war crimes tribunal could do.
Could a war crimes tribunal?much less any court?caught in that delicate interplay between judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney ever cope with all the cases at hand? "Perhaps what you end up with in a post-genocide society is not justice at all," Gerald Gahima, Rwanda's then deputy minister of justice, told me in 1996, as he contemplated his country's jails, crowded with 125,000 people accused of taking part in the genocide. "Maybe we should think of another word for it."
Justice, I learned, was not so simple as the lessons the Nuremberg trials would have us believe. During the years I traveled in Bosnia and Rwanda, my home base was Berlin, Germany, where fifty years after the end of World War II questions of justice and injustice, guilt, and forgiveness were still being actively debated. Almost every dinner party, every social outing, at some point came back to the same, haunting questions: Who knew what and when?and can Germany ever afford to stop remembering the Holocaust? "Facing the past, reconciliation," said former German president Richard von Weizsacker, "is too much of a burden for a court. That has to come outside....this has to be done not only by institutions, but by individuals." Von Weizsacker should know: One of the most outspoken Germans to urge his country to face its Nazi past, the stately, white-haired diplomat had once defended his own father at the Nuremberg trials. (His father, the state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry, was convicted of crimes against the peace, although the judgment was later reversed.)
Justice is not just a court verdict, it is also a personal journey. When people say they want justice after a war, what they really mean is that they want to be able to put the ghosts of their past to rest, to lay down the burden of their guilt, to unearth the truths they seek. "Justice is not only in the end result," noted Justice Albie Sachs, the South African Supreme Court justice. "It is also in the process." As I learned from the people in this book, achieving "justice" is as much a process of questioning what justice is for them and their country as it is a court verdict. The longer I knew them, the clearer it became over time that each had traveled his own path to find justice.
I admit, chasing after war criminals and conducting interviews next to mass graves was not what I'd had in mind when I moved to Berlin in 1994. My mother, perhaps my closest friend, the magnetic north on my emotional compass, had just died; I wanted to immerse myself in Europe to forget my pain. I had visions of cozy chats with French filmmakers in chic Paris bistros, trips to Rome to investigate the intricacies of Italian politics, an investigation into Nazi gold allegedly hidden away in Switzerland.
No sooner had I arrived, though, than the Bosnian war reignited. So I had to learn quickly about things alien to me: massive shelling, indeterminate sniper fire, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. Rather than visiting Europe's museums, I toured its battlefield in Bosnia, and then went on to Africa's version, in Rwanda. Instead of tasting the fruits of Western civilization, I felt as if I were witnessing its collapse. After watching an elderly woman gunned down in front of me in Sarajevo, in full view of two UN peacekeepers with orders not to return fire, my grief vanished, replaced by outrage.
That anger fueled my interest in Bosnia's and Rwanda's search for justice. I wanted to see wrong made right. I had begun my career as a reporter covering the Boston Mafia in trials before U.S. federal court, and I loved the soothing logic of the law, how it took moral chaos and rendered some kind of order. Over time, however, as I listened to Bosnians and Rwandans tell their stories, I always heard the echo of my own.
Who hasn't wanted revenge, when betrayed by a close friend? Who hasn't struggled to face the dark truth, about their family, themselves? Who hasn't grieved over the untimely death of a family member or lover? I myself knew the most meaningful "justice" often comes about in the very personal act of searching for it. My family, riven by a long-running emotional war, had been struggling to find its own balance. By the time I was sent to Bosnia, my feud with my father had shifted into an uncertain cease-fire. Our reconciliation played out on trips back home between Bosnia and Rwanda, and there was good reason that it did. My father had been a U.S. Marine at the battle of Bloody Ridge at Guadalcanal, a man who still bore the burden of what he had witnessed. In Bosnia's war, we found a common language and, in its horrors, shared experiences. That war crimes should not go unpunished was important to him: Among his firm beliefs, which he ran up the flagpole along with Old Glory on every public holiday, was that justice and peace went hand in hand. He was as appalled as I by the reluctance of NATO troops to arrest war criminals after Bosnia's war ended. He followed the stories I was writing about the people in this book as if they were close friends. He wanted them to get their day in court?and to reconcile with their former friends as we had learned to do.
It took turning on the television one day in 1995, however, for me to understand the connection between Bosnia and Rwanda's search for justice and the United States. As I listened to Americans bitterly dispute the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, I heard the same voices, the same arguments, the same hatred, the same strained political correctness I had heard just a few days before in Bosnia. We too have our racial prejudices, tensions, and misunderstandings and yet live side-by-side. We also have those who accept intermarriage and those adamantly opposed to the mixing of America's ethnic groups. While we have seen no recent genocide or war, we have had our share of killings spawned by divisive propaganda: lynchings, deadly riots, hate crimes.
Whenever I returned to the United States to visit, people used to say that Rwanda's and Bosnia's slaughters seemed so unimaginable to them. I answered them this way: Imagine, say, that New York's Little Italy or Chinatown, in the midst of an economic crisis and brainwashed by ethnically divisive propaganda, decided to secede from the United States, arm itself, declare war, and then ethnically cleanse Harlem of its inhabitants. Put that way, the tragedy of mass ethnic killings seemed less incomprehensible, although still unlikely: Our democracy, our rule of law, our economy, and our overarching belief in the ideal of America help prevent it.
The stories of the people searching for justice in this book matter because they are powerful human tales. But they should also speak to us because their narratives parallel our own. They tell us something about what justice could mean, as Americans struggle to reconcile as individuals to misfortunes and as a society to our hatreds. And they show us the path so many other countries around the world are traveling, as strife, often driven by perception of ethnic differences, erupts into war.
That is why, long after my job was over in Europe, I packed my bag and traveled again to Bosnia and Rwanda. I wanted to find out how far beyond hatred these countries had traveled. That tyrants are punished, that societies heal, that individuals find justice are the responsibilities of us all?in order that they not become our fate.
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