Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gonzo Travel in The Hague: The Search for the ICTY

Yesterday I woke up with the idea of taking a train from Amsterdam to Den Haag, or as many of us say—The Hague—to catch some of the ongoing war-crimes trials happening now at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, for short.  You know, fun stuff on my last couple days abroad.

I hopped a train at Amsterdam Centraal, and about forty minutes later, emerged from Den Haag Centraal.  I had no map and no idea where the court was located.  I didn’t bother to look anything up beforehand, either.  I only knew that The Hague is famous for its international courts.  I just figured I’d ask around and someone would point the way.

The first person I asked was the man sitting behind the train-station information kiosk.  He did not speak English, so that was a bust.  The second person I asked—a Dutch passerby—spoke perfect English but had absolutely no clue what I was talking about.  It was then that I realized that I had become way too über-cocky with this gonzo style of travel.

In fact, on this journey, I never carried a guidebook.  Most times, I didn’t carry a map.  I realized long ago that I’d become so adept at travel, I didn’t really need that stuff weighing me down.  And I confess:  this old pro loves the kind of bad-ass feeling she gets going travel-commando this way.  I like to be my own guide; and I like to find my own way. 

This doesn’t mean I don’t stop and ask for guidance.  I am, after all, a woman, and not a man.  I always begin with a vague notion and some scribblings in my journal, and then I recruit help.  This often means that I walk into the nearest hotel—preferably a fancy one—and throw myself on the mercy of the concierge.

I cannot tell you how many times this has worked like a charm.  Time after time I got great directions, little tips, and usually a free map.  Often I’ll score a trip to the fancy restroom, and sometimes a piece of fruit, just by asking.  This was true everywhere from the Ritz Carlton in Moscow to the Hotel Amalia in Athens.

Yesterday, though, my crackerjack strategy didn’t work too well.  This was because many people—including one concierge and the security guard at the Ministry of Economic Affairs—thought they knew where to send me, but they were mistaken.  I must have asked five different people for directions.  Each time I would take the information on faith, and shortly thereafter, I'd be hopelessly lost.  

After a couple hours of hopping on and off trams—going this way and that—and not finding the place, I felt silly.  I was a lawyer who couldn’t find the world's most famous courthouse.  I had broken Lawyer-Rule Number One by turning up in The Hague completely unprepared.  

Finally, the guard at a place called “Europol” called a colleague and told me to make my way over to something called the World Forum.  There I would find the ICTY close by, she was certain.  I set off, feeling wary.

I hopped the tram going toward the World Forum, got off, walked around a bit, and still did not see the court.  Frustrated, I walked into the closest hotel, and approached the reception desk on which sat the biggest bowl of enticing-looking green apples I’d ever seen. 

The girl told me that the ICTY was the building directly across the street from the hotel.  I sighed in relief and thanked her profusely.  I turned to leave, but realized, I really wanted one of those apples. 

So I pulled out my old standard.  I asked, timidly:  “Would it be possible for me to buy one of those green apples?  I’ve been dying for a piece of fruit.” 

I knew what the answer would be, because it’s always the same.  “Go ahead and take one,” the receptionist replied, with a genuine smile.  “In fact, take two,” she said.  Of course, I took two.  I mean, I haven’t worked in six months—how could I refuse such an offer?

Now, onto a much more serious note:

I arrived in the tribunal in time to catch the last part of one trial’s morning session.  Two men—Mico Stanisic and Stojan Zupljanin—were being tried together for “[p]ersecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, extermination, murder, torture, inhumane acts (including forcible transfer) and deportation (crimes against humanity).”  The first defendant was a Minister of the newly-established Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The second was the Chief of Regional Security Services Centre (CSB) of Banja Luka in northwestern Bosnia.

The proceedings, interpreted into several languages including English, were being streamed into the gallery in which I now sat, separated from the courtroom by a soundproof glass window.  Three judges sat up front and the rest of the courtroom was filled with clerks and lawyers and their assistants.  The way it was set up, it was hard to tell where the defendants were sitting.  

I sat in the gallery listening to counsel for one of the defendants question a witness, who I think was a member of the aforementioned CSB.  At the end of the morning session, counsel thanked the witness and I could swear he called him “Mr. Milosevic.”  I wondered if he was any relation to Slobodan himself.  Perhaps in Serbia, though, Milosevic is similar to Smith.

I returned to the court to catch part of the afternoon session of a different trial.  This one was of Zdravko Tolimir, indicted in connection with the genocide of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica.  Tolimir was the Assistant Commander for Intelligence and Security of the Bosnian Serbian Army. 

According the Case Information Sheet available in the court's lobby, Tolimir is accused of committing “the crime of extermination through the large scale systematic murder of Muslim men from Srebrenica,” including, among many others, “1,000 Bosnian Muslim men at Kravica Warehouse and the Sandici meadow.”  At the moment, the prosecutor, who sounded American, was questioning a Serbian reporter about footage he had taken of Muslim boys being rounded up, presumably to be slaughtered.

The defendant was representing himself, and at one point, he broke into the testimony and made an inarticulate objection.  It kind of made me sick to my stomach to listen to his voice and look at his face.  As a lawyer, I know people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but I couldn’t help the way I felt.

I was thinking back to the time I spent in Bosnia several years ago, and more recently in Kosovo.  When I visited Bosnia in 2007, I was largely ignorant about what had transpired.  I knew about the war, and what later was labeled ethnic cleansing and genocide, but the details were fuzzy, if not non-existent, in my mind.

I learned more on my visit to Bosnia, especially when I saw buildings torn up by shelling, and the gravestones of young men and women who were killed.  In fact, the man who owned the guesthouse where I stayed had lost over twenty members of his family.

More recently, in Kosovo, I could not help but become emotional over what happened to its people, who were so warm and friendly to me.  One day, I ran across a huge banner hanging on a fence somewhere near the city center in Pristina.  On it were the faces of people with names and dates and places.  These, I presumed, were people who were murdered.  I asked someone passing by the meaning, and he explained these were the "martyrs" who died.

I couldn't tear myself away form one girl’s picture.  The date underneath indicated that she was killed when she was just 17.  What had she done to deserve it?  Nothing, of course.  She was killed because of her faith and ethnicity.  I thought about the family of this girl, assuming they survived the slaughter, and could not stop tears from falling right there on the street. 

We all naturally think about how we would feel if our loved ones were killed in this way.  I'm sure we cannot even imagine the horror.  Now I was sitting in close proximity to someone who might have had a hand in genocide.  It was, in a word, surreal.

I have now visited every country that makes up the former Yugoslavia, and I know from my travels that there are different sides to every story.  The Serbs and others lost loved ones too, and everyone has experienced pain.  No one can go back and undo what happened.  Perhaps the next best thing is to know that justice is being done.