The party was full of lawyers, most of them working as trial monitors, and the usual human rights, development, and democratization cliques: the typical international set.
The prosecutor stood out as by far the oldest person there. A permanent exile from a country that no longer exists, he was now prosecuting war crimes in the special chamber of Bosnia’s state court. My friend, a new lawyer, asked him what it was really like to prosecute people accused of the very worst crimes imaginable, and those that defy imagination.
The prosecutor sipped his wine and smiled at my friend and me for a moment in the way people who’ve seen and been part of much history smile at the young and ambitious.
“Working over so many decades on both the defense and prosecution, from Africa, to the UK, to the Balkans, has taught me that there are very few truly evil people,” he said. “Most of the men I’ve prosecuted are just ordinary people who went wrong at some point. They committed the crimes they did out of anger, or hatred, or misguided loyalty, or simply because they didn’t think at all.”
It wouldn’t have been possible for me to raise my eyebrows any higher at this point without them melting into my hairline. “Well, what about someone like Radovan Stankovic?” I asked, a bit too loudly, referring to the notorious –and recently escaped– convicted war criminal from Foca. An aggressive gulp of fiery liquid slid down my throat.
“Radovan Stankovic is despicable, sick,” the prosecutor replied, shaking his head, “But you must know that most criminals in the Bosnian war were not like him or any of the other notorious ones.”
The prosecutor had just secured the convictions of two men accused of torturing prisoners. These men weren’t murderers, he explained, but they did beat and torture people who were disarmed and defenseless. Convicted, they were sentenced to lengthy prison terms under postwar Bosnia’s minimum sentencing laws. The prosecutor was pleased to have won the case, but couldn’t be too pleased, because he felt the sentences were too harsh and the defense counsel “rubbish.”
Turning to an influential human rights advocate, he said, “Will you please attack the minimum sentencing laws? You are I both know they’re unfair.”
He then turned back to my friend and me. “ Here’s my advice for you two: you punish a man with dignity. When you see him in the courthouse in the morning, you don’t frown or stare at him like he’s some kind of monster on display. You say, ‘good morning.’ You mustn’t think of him as evil, because, if you do, you put too much distance between you and him.” Pausing for a moment, he studied our faces. “We’re all capable of many things.”
As I walked home, the prosecutor’s words rang in my ears. They lodged uncomfortably in my subconscious.
I am around thirty years old. My hair is cut very short. No makeup, hard lines around my eyes. I am on the witness stand in a tribunal. I’m not a victim witness, I am a defendant on trial for war crimes. The prosecutor is a Canadian woman with curly hair and multicolored earrings shaped like puzzle pieces. She keeps asking me to explain my involvement in the events of April 24th, and I keep saying I’ve already explained everything there is to explain. The prosecutor presses on. My chest heaves with distressed breaths, and I dig into my already bloody cuticles. There is an observation gallery on a mezzanine above the courtroom. I can see interns in the gallery, their youthful faces stern, gazes fixed on me. My throat tightens. The room begins to spin. “Ms. M, Ms. M, will you please answer the question? Ms. M, please answer the question.” This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, I’m not supposed to be here, to be on this side, no!
Tears had soaked my pillow when I woke up, shivering. It was near dawn. I waited until I heard the morning call to prayer and saw the orange streetlamps switch off before going back to sleep.