Justice for Bosnia May Rest on Mixed Memories
War crimes trials jeopardized by discrepancies in witness accounts
GORNI RAHIC, BOSNIA HERZEGOVINA — The Bosnian Muslim woman swears that she remembers every graphic detail of the videotape. It depicted the brutal "ethnic cleansing" of her home town of Brcko by Serbs in 1992, which forced her and the rest of the Muslim population to flee.
The amateur video was shown once in this village before an audience of Muslims who had fled Brcko. The refugees screamed and cried as they saw the footage, many turning away at the most gruesome scenes.
Though the images left an indelible mark, those who saw the film have different recollections. The tale of this movie - and the reliability of witness accounts - highlights a problem now faced by prosecutors of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which heard its historic first case this week.
Lawyers for Dusan Tadic, a Bosnian Serb who is the first to be judged by an international court for war crimes in 50 years, say he is a victim of "mistaken identity" and that he is not responsible for 31 counts of torture, rape, and murder of Muslims. This line was greeted by hoots of laughter by Muslim survivors of the Serb-run camps, where prosecutors say Tadic carried out a "rampage of violence and terror." The survivors reportedly said they knew Tadic well, and spent the week watching live proceedings of the trial on television.
Strong as the evidence against Tadic may be, the story of the videotape - which focuses on Brcko and is far from where the alleged crimes of Tadic were committed - provides insight into the task prosecutors face as they try to piece together the truth.
The Muslim woman who saw the film - and who asked not to be identified further, for her own safety - said there is "no doubt" that she recognized people and locations in the video. She said that the video was provided by local militiamen, was shown in a number of nearby villages, and appeared to be shot clandestinely. She wears simple earrings, a little makeup, and fidgets with hands that have worked hard for decades. She saw the film with her son, and there appears to be no reason to doubt her testimony.
The film was a mishmash collection of images, she said, that first showed a young boy hanging from the minaret of a mosque. "The child wore blue shorts and a white shirt," she recalled.
The next scenes were more disturbing. They showed a refrigerated truck full of bodies pull up to the gate of a meat-rendering plant; it unloaded into two big vats as Serb soldiers milled about with their backs to the camera.
"There is no doubt that I recognize the man at the gate," the Muslim woman said. Before the war she used to visit a friend who kept a garden behind the factory. She walked by the vats "thousands of times" and recognized the same ones in the film.
"They repeated the same images again and again," she said.
Such testimony seem credible and could be used as evidence in court. But another woman who saw the film at the same viewing remembers it differently.
Her recollection raises a question for human rights investigators and the War Crimes Tribunal: How much of any story is accurate, and how much is the product of rumor, fear, or imagination?
The second woman, who also asked not to be named, works with a local charity in this village. There is no reason to doubt her testimony either, though it is at odds with the first. "I saw the child hanging from the balcony of a minaret, and there was a Chetnik [Serb] flag hung next to it," she recalled. "That was the first thing. The voiceover said: 'You didn't know what war is like. We want to show you.' "
She confirms seeing refrigerated trucks, and the voiceover said they were full of massacre victims. But she saw no bodies with the trucks, and does not remember any gruesome scenes at the meat-rendering plant.
What she remembered instead were panoramic shots of Brcko with bodies along the roads. "Several times I looked away, so I could have missed something," she said. "The tape was sheer horror. I couldn't believe that such things were done."
Four years later, the Tribunal at The Hague is sifting through a mountain of similar, sometimes disparate memories, in an effort to bring justice for Bosnians.
"We do run into people who have been in the same place and seen the same things," said Ivan Lupis, a researcher for Human Rights Watch/Helsinki for Bosnia. "But people choose to block some things out and remember others because they are afraid of reprisals or getting involved in more serious legal or political matters."
"Mistaken identity is unfortunately a tactic that is going to be used by a lot of defendants because it is easy and a strong one to use," Mr. Lupis said.
Prosecutors say that they will prove Tadic is responsible for "events of unspeakable horror" that "strains the most agile human reasoning." The accused, a barman, karate teacher, and sometime policeman from the once-Muslim majority town of Kozarac in northwest Bosnia, was swept up in the Serb nationalism of the spring of 1992.
That onslaught "cleansed" most of north and eastern Bosnia of Muslims and has been described by prosecutors as a genocide. Tadic was a "zealous tool of the Bosnian Serbs," they say, who was part of a much bigger plan.
This Tribunal is the first time that the UN is trying to enforce the 1948 Paris Genocide Convention and to prosecute violators of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
Court-appointed defense attorneys are taking advantage of the unprecedented nature of the case and the difficulties of gathering reliable testimony. They claim that Tadic is being made a scapegoat for all the crimes of Bosnia's war because the conflict's primary architects are still at large.
"The thirst for revenge should not be satisfied at the well of polluted justice. The case has become the symbol for everything that happened in the region," says Dutch trial lawyer Michail Wladimiroff for the defense.
Witnesses discussed their claims before, he said in a statement at The Hague, and "a composite story emerged. Rumor becomes truth: People have adopted the accounts of others and convince themselves that they saw things they could not have seen."
This Tribunal differs markedly from those held at the end of World War II in Germany and Japan. Then, defeated military commanders were tried based on volumes of evidence. The death sentence was the severest penalty.
The Tribunal has no powers of arrest and can impose a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Though 57 people have been indicted so far - 46 Serbs, 8 Croats, and 3 Muslims - only three are in custody.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, who are both indicted, are still at large in Bosnia, and their popularity among Serbs is increasing. The powerful American-led peacekeeping force in the country refuses to arrest any war criminals.
Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, who was the first to encourage Serb nationalism and is known to have been the chief paymaster of the Bosnian Serbs, is a signatory to the Dayton peace accord and has not been indicted.
Alleged war criminals already have large dossiers that will be used to try them - if they ever stand trial. But for "small fish" like Tadic, witness testimony is critical.
Charges of rape were dropped against Tadic because the alleged victim said she was too afraid to testify. Other survivors have refused to be in the same courtroom with Tadic and will testify in a separate room via video link.
All witnesses for the defense are still in Serb-held territory and fear that if they travel to The Hague they will be arrested. Such handicaps may still thwart justice. "This trial will probably not provide a successful search for the truth," Mr. Wladimiroff said.