Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (4/7)

“You’re no fun, Karla! Anyway, as I was saying,” continued the Deutsche Welle reporter undaunted, “last year I had an assignment at Phnom Penh, covering the trials there.  I’m telling you, Julian, my producer and I know how to party. He has a sixth sense for where the action is.”

“Too third world over there, isn’t it?”

“Not if you know the hotspots.  Listen, you’ll have a good time tonight. Trust me. I’ll tell you one thing: correspondents get better treatment over there.” The reporters had been smarting over the way ICTY staff had relegated them to a tiny room, overlooking the fact that their location near the courtroom marked an improvement over the main lobby, where their respective camera crews remained.

“Shush now,” the Reuters reporter interrupted. “I can’t hear. Judge Polecritti is nearing the end.”

“About time,” came a response.

A long way off from these plans for nightlife escapades and heedless of Dr. Anderson’s caffeine cravings, Mustafa considered the winners and losers in his line of work. To the latter category undoubtedly belong the hapless souls who found themselves at the other end of a gun and met their fate in a ditch or pit. Reducing these atrocities to a game might seem reprehensible; yet, though Mustafa promised himself (and Sirma) he would not become cynical, it was a coping mechanism to think in such terms. What’s the scorecard?  Mustafa calculated, in a mental non-scientific survey, that ethnic cleansing pays off 90% of the time it’s tried.

Apart from Aida, the other victims sitting in the room were elderly women in headscarves, with one exception.  Mustafa studied a gaunt, septuagenarian man who was slouching back in his chair, his elbow on the armchair bracing his hand over his mouth and looking down. He clearly had hardscrabble living behind him, probably the life Mustafa and his brothers would have known were it not for his grandfather’s good fortune almost a century ago.  These haggard peasants looked lost, unaccustomed to such comfort and wealth on display at the courthouse and throughout an international city where jaded journalists and debauched dignitaries indulge themselves.

From Mustafa’s experience victims tended to exaggerate the extent of the perpetrator’s crimes. He would never divulge this insight in the presence of victims of course, but he had given it some thought from a purely scientific point of view. Sometimes families seem more concerned about financial restitution than the loss of a loved one, particularly if the victim is a female. Mustafa had no doubts about his own feelings: the death of his sons would be the death of him.

Rarely had he worked at a site where victims did not give a highly inflated body count. Contrariwise, the killers and their accomplices diminish, if not deny, their nefarious deeds. Half a village would claim three hundred dead, whereas the half that belonged to the same ethnic group as the perpetrators, if circumstantial evidence pressed them, might concede five. Such was the game of accusation and denial for the losers and the winners.

The yellow marker now discarded, the judge began his concluding remarks. “Based upon this credible evidence we can assert that the men standing to our right in this chamber, and cohorts who have since died or are still in hiding, are responsible for the torture and mass execution of forty-three unarmed civilians. The Appeals Chamber unanimously rejects the grounds for appeal, finds no merit in the defense’s case, and upholds the decision of the Trial Chamber.”

A few of the judges looked directly forward toward the families, while others turned toward the appellants on their right. The forty-four year old Lukić, a father of four, slunk in his chair. Mustafa still couldn’t get a clear read on the other two: apart from Drago’s anomalous twitch, they either showed no facial sign indicating these words had registered or they betrayed a slight irritation in their blinking eyes. Behind the screen relatives of the victims audibly sighed. Aida bent forward in her chair, hugging herself, and staring at the floor. Dr. Anderson, smacking her gum, quietly clapped her hands together and then tapped Mustafa on the wrist.

“Let this verdict stand as a beacon of justice that can never ease the pain of those who have lost and suffered, but as another buttress, however small, of basic morality and civilization that virtually all human cultures share. Those who would commit wanton acts of mass murder and systematic rape, those who would sell women the same age as their daughters to the sex trade, those who would destroy families and communities for their immediate gratification or for any reason, let them beware. May your God forgive you for these crimes and may the years in prison be a time for you to reflect upon the suffering you have inflicted on others. Gentlemen, you went beyond the necessary actions of soldiers in combat; you murdered—murdered—and raped for your own material gain, your sadistic pleasure and in the name of some hateful ideology to which you appear to subscribe. In short, you have perpetrated evil.”

Judge Polecritti emphasized the last word, which seemed to hover and resonate in the courtroom and pierce the hearts of those present, even those of the accused and their lawyers, or so it would seem. Dr. Anderson cast a reassuring glance at Mustafa. Case closed.

Mustafa was so transported to another place with that two-syllable word that it took him a few seconds to notice the mayhem breaking out in the courtroom. Drago, no longer docile with the reading of the sentence, evidently thought he saw one of the judges gloating. He bent his trim, six-foot-four frame over the table, pressing both hands firmly on the surface as if he was about to leapfrog it and rush the bench. His reaction only served to set off the other two condemned men into a verbal assault

Mustafa, again in the surreal mode of detached observer, saw Drago, Krajiŝnik and Lukić less as the caged animals that they had become than minions of Iblis contorting their grotesque faces and spitting out curses. The Belgian reporter got his “magic”; back in the pressroom he and his colleagues attacked their notebooks and laptops. Additional blue-shirted security guards emerged from the backdoor to restore order. They seized a black suede briefcase from Lukić who had grabbed it from his legal counsel and wielded it like a weapon. When two of their lawyers rather disconcertedly joined their clients with harsh words, the judge had to turn their microphones off.

As the guards led the trio out of the courtroom, Drago was smiling from ear to ear. Turning toward the large glass wall that separated the courtroom from the public gallery, he gave a parting shot to the man most responsible for his fate: some rather unkind words in Turkish. Dr. Anderson, recognizing the language, looked at her elder colleague who raised his eyebrows. Only later would Mustafa, the intended target of the hateful message, puzzle over Drago’s newfound linguistic skills. Who fed him these words? Mustafa, Dr. Anderson, and colleagues would be talking about these histrionics at the Ridder Hotel restaurant later that evening.

For the moment, Mustafa saw in Drago’s smile a world of darkness, a sick expression that served as a coda to the thoughts that preoccupied him as he had sat in the courtroom.

“A bottle of plum brandy?” Wim Selderhuis repeated her words incredulously. As the only person at the table not privy to the case, he was intrigued. Though he formerly served as liaison between the ICTY and dozens of field investigators in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, he had not been following the details of the Drago Investigation, as legal and forensic personnel involved in the case were calling it.

“A Slivovitz brewed in Dalmatia to be exact,” clarified Dr. Anderson.

“Did you find fingerprints on it?” Selderhuis continued.

“Nope,” answered Gary Parkinson, the founder and director of Citizens for International Justice. Looking at the taciturn Mustafa and getting nothing but a mischievous grin, he continued to explain the one piece of evidence that ultimately delivered Drago and his subordinates a long prison sentence. “As it turns out, they were able to get a DNA match from saliva in the bottle.”

“After so many years?” Selderhuis went on. “Is that possible? Those bodies had been buried for, what, a decade? Let’s see…1995…more than a decade!”

“I once helped on a case in Santa Barbara,” responded Dr. Anderson. “Five years after the murder investigators were able to use a bite mark and DNA found on the adhesive part of duct tape that the killer had used to bind his victim. The body had been exposed to the elements: ice, rain, a flood. Anyway, it certainly helped that Drago took the effort to cork it before discarding it. The really amazing aspect of this case is that, for all of his crimes, he was able to distance himself from the executions. He covered his tracks well. He wasn’t stupid.”

“You name it, he did it,” added Parkinson. “Drugs and weapons smuggling, prostitution, murder, assassinations, and the pièce de résistance: genocide. The war was tailor-made for Drago and hundreds of punks like him. Pundits talk about ‘ethnic cleansing’ and so-called ‘ancient tribal hatreds’ coming to the fore, but the conflict was simply about theft and pillage. Ask a Bosnian, any of variety thereof, and they’ll tell you.”

“Neighbor against neighbor. A Hobbesian war of every man against every man, was it not?” put forth Selderhuis.

“See, Wim, that’s why we have you at the table,” said Parkinson in a giddy mood. “You’re our requisite European to help us keep things on a higher level of consciousness.” He sat back in his chair, reading glasses in one hand and gesticulating toward Selderhuis with the other. “Whatever Hobbesian means, I’m sure it’s too erudite and decadent for our American ears.”

“I'm referring to  Thomas Hobbes,” Selderhuis unnecessarily explained, “the seventeenth-century political philosopher.” His response reminded the group of his tendency not to get a joke.

“Hobbes!” Parkinson chuckled.

Cued by Parkinson’s response, Selderhuis endeavored to get into the spirit of the discussion—a curious blend of wit and gravitas—in his own way. “I’m a man of many hidden talents, Gary. I can play the part of the Euro-trash European, the erudite scholar, or whatever best serves the conversation.”

“Excellent,” responded Parkinson, not missing a beat and mildly surprised by Selderhuis’s effort at humor. He nodded in Dr. Anderson’s direction. “I suppose our job is to acknowledge only the superior contributions of the American Imperium.” He guffawed at his own words, a bit too much, as if to make it clear to European friends that he intended his jingoistic words as satire.

“And Mustafa? What’s his role?” asked Dr. Anderson playfully.

“Yes, Herr Doctor Özerkan Bey, the world-renown forensic anthropologist from the Near East. He doesn’t just dig up bones or help put psychopaths behind bars. No, that’s his day job. He prevents us from pontificating from our Western pulpits about the benefits of a global economy and the panacea of democratic institutions.” Parkinson had a discussion with Mustafa yesterday morning at the forefront of his mind. The forensic anthropologist expressed his views on these topics, more forcefully than Parkinson recalled from earlier conversations, and he took this change as a welcome sign that the old man was warming up to Parkinson, a self-styled liberal Democrat from Georgia who enjoyed letting others know about his contrarian outlook. What Parkinson didn’t realize was that Mustafa usually doesn’t address political matters with anyone outside the nargile café in his hometown.

“Thank you. It’s nice to be appreciated.” Mustafa shot a wry glance at Parkinson. Half of his mind was engaged in the conversation while the rest was admiring the yellow and lavender lilies inside a small porcelain mother-of-pearl vase next to the salt and pepper shakers. The same color-coordinated floral arrangement adorned the other tables in the restaurant hotel, which, in spite of the 17th-century motif of the building’s exterior and lobby, looked more fin-de-siècle to his aesthetic sense. He had learned to appreciate architectural detail in his college days after repeated visits to the Dolmabahçe Palace where his girlfriend served as a tour guide. Lilies in autumn. Seen from afar they could pass for the real thing. Dr. Anderson cast a knowing glance at him. Where’s your mind right now, Mustafa?

“So with this evidence you were able to prove that Mr. Drago was at the site?” Selderhuis wanted his answer. The moniker, Mr. Drago, became the group’s way of referring to Slovac. “How did this come about? I mean, you’re looking at the skeletal remains and...?”

“And we’re in the autopsy tent examining one of the decedents,” responded Dr. Anderson, following his line of inquiry. “Mustafa points to one of the anatomy tables and says, What’s that? I say, It’s a bottle, so what? ”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Day to Remember

I’d like to comment upon the number 29. I could have done so for any other month—January 29, April 29 and so on—though September 29, the month and number written together, for reasons I’ll never know, is especially aesthetically pleasing to me. I suspect it’s related to my palatial estate and concomitant country club membership in Twentynine Palms, California.

Significant references to 29 are few and far between, but I did some digging in the archives to see what I could find. The number, as it turns out, was important in the ancient Mycenaean civilization. You’ll probably want to shelve this one in the “stranger than fiction” category. The Mycenaeans had a phrase, “I’m going the 29th,” which meant something like, “I really need to shit, and right now!” According to the legend, Ekelotos, the bastard son of a Greek deity, was doomed to walk from Mycenae to Pylos and back again, repeatedly, until he felt the need for a bowel movement. Taking a dump would be a sign of divine recompense for having eaten the sacred meal at the Oracle of Delphi, a mixture of roasted lamb, feta cheese, and plenty of raisons that the priestesses left on a plate just outside the cave. On the 29th trip to Pylos, between some bushes and upon a makeshift pile of stones, the gods had spoken.

My perusal of the annals of antiquity made me aware of not only a longstanding controversy over the origins of this phrase, but other myths about 29, some more plausible than others. According to the 4th century BCE historian, Polydius the Smaller, who albeit is writing about events that probably transpired eight centuries earlier, the number figures in the Minoan expression, “I got the bowels of Artemus.” Artemus Gorgon was a quasi-mythical king of Crete who allegedly had no less (but no more) than 29 rectums. The description of Artemus sounds suspiciously like that of Aslanotaur whom Thracian poets and sculptors depicted as having the head of a bull, the body of a lion, the tail of a goat, and, again, 29 (presumably human) rectums. The phrase had many uses. If a waiter were to ask: Are you still working on that or do you need a to-go box? The answer would be: I got the bowels of Artemus. Likewise, if someone expressed incredulity: Are you shitting me? You could confirm his suspicion: I got the bowels of Artemus. Sometimes you could use the hallowed phrase as a non sequitur to avoid an awkward situation, and the person would tacitly understand. Listen, I really need to know whether you feel the same way about me as I do about you. Where is our relationship going? The response: I got the bowels of Artemus.

On a side note, scholars have developed theories to account for the uncanny similarities between the Artemus and Aslanotaur myths. Decades ago two schools of thought emerged, one affirming the influence of Minoan culture on Thrace, and the other insisting on the reverse. However, Hellenists today accept the existence of a “Q” tradition (so named for the German Quelle, meaning “source”) which predated both cultures, perhaps originating in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE. The Minoans and Thracians had tapped into this earlier epic, appropriating parts of it for their own respective cultures. Thus, the tale of 29 rectums, according to this generally accepted theory, has a venerable history going back to the dawn of civilization. So much for the murky myths about 29; now let me turn to concrete historical events that occurred on this date.

On 29 September 1347 the papal armies had overrun Lombardy only to find a lone Franciscan friar praying inside the citadel of Milan. When the condottieri of the invading troops, Pope Giovanni Bon Jovi IX’s “nephew” Rodrigo il Bastardo, ordered his henchmen to torture the poor old man for information, the latter’s appearance transformed into the Duke of Milan. Fearing the work of the Devil, his tormentors became afraid. “He who touches me or harms anyone in my realm will be castrated and slowly dipped into scalding oil,” proclaimed the duke, as he lifted the cowl to reveal his haughty countenance. Rodrigo scoffed: “You are one man, surrounded by an army. The Duke, I see, has become so drunk with power over the years that madness has crept into his proud heart. And may the Lord forgive your blackened soul for having disobeyed my father….er…I mean…my Holy Father, that is to say, our Holy Father, the Pope, Bishop of Rome, and not my biological father, if that’s what it sounded like.”

While Rodrigo was unsuccessfully covering up his Freudian slip, the duke escaped the clutches of Rodrigo’s retainers, opened up a secret panel, and fled down an underground passageway. Within the hour he ordered an artillery unit stationed in the hills above the cathedral to besiege his own citadel with flaming projectiles. The bombardment became unnecessary after the first round. The west wall had collapsed, exposing the hapless mercenary soldiers to asbestos fibers from the insulation and fireproofing. As the thin fibrous crystals entered their lungs, they fell to the floor writhing in agony. Once this particular charcoal-like asbestos seeped into their bloodstream, it produced grotesque bulges all over their bodies.

I found this variant story of the Black Death the most interesting in my perusal of history, but a few other historical events occurring on September 29 deserve at least brief mention. On this date in 1943, the underground Masonic organization known in Germany as Der göttlicher Gerechtigkeitsverschwörung successfully assassinated Hitler with a gas-filled water balloon and replaced him with a fake Hitler just as dangerous. In 922 BCE, the Hittites conquered both the Hottites and Hattites on the Malarkeian highlands of Anatolia using iron spears and a superior stratagem. Perhaps most intriguing, on the penultimate day of September in the early Tokugawa Era, namely 1621 in the Western calendar, the Japanese macaque monkeys took over the island of Hokkaido and set up a separate kingdom that lasted until 1963. When one of their subjects waded into the hot springs of Nagano to fetch a banana that slipped out of his hands, however, the fate of the Macaque Shogunate took a turn for the worse. The natural Jacuzzi felt so good that the monkey told a friend about it; this friend in turn told a friend and so on. At first the spring galvanized the macaques and made them feel like a million bucks. Meanwhile back in Tokyo, the people of Japan, in alliance with the Ainu, conspired to take advantage of this monkey-see-monkey-do mentality. While the macaques were relaxing in the soothing hot water, they recaptured the island and erected a series of national parks as the ultimate revenge.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Suicide for Beginners

For those of you contemplating suicide, please wait until the end of December. You won’t want to miss another autumn. If it makes you feel better, carry a knife or sleeping pills with you and dwell on your misery or the fact that nobody pays attention to you—whatever, just get outdoors and enjoy the sights and scents of this beautiful season. Heck, you probably don’t have the guts to go through with it anyway. I’m not an advocate of suicide, mind you; however, I do believe in working smarter, not harder. So if you’re bent on the ultimate act of selfishness, then, as Larry the Cable Guy says, git-r-done! Have at it. Go to town. And don’t waste anyone’s time with a half-hearted “cry for help” attempt. You might accidentally put yourself in a coma or become a paraplegic. Your family will be caring for you for the rest of your life. Is that what you want? Do you want to be a worse burden to society than you already are? Think about it. You half-consciously wanted to get people’s attention and have people feel sorry for you, and now you’re a vegetable having your dear wife spoon applesauce into your pie hole. To quote Homer Simpson: Doh!

You’ll forgive my seeming insensitivity on this issue. To explain my feelings on the matter, I’ll use an analogy of illegal immigration, but keep in mind that my intention is not to be political, okay? Imagine you're a legal immigrant to this country who jumped through all the legal hurdles. You waited the long years for the paperwork to go through and took all the painstaking steps to become an American citizen. You studied American history and political science. Finally, you take an oath and become an American. After all this hard work, you see illegal aliens jumping over the fence and receiving healthcare, education and practically all the benefits of citizenship. They did nothing to earn these privileges. Well, that’s how I view people who take their own life. I’m not a stranger to depression. I have suffered at least a modicum of setbacks, not to mention the “insolence of office” and the “whips and scorns of time.” But suicide, my friend, is not an option. I’ll fight the good fight to the bitter end. Whatever adversity comes my way, I’ll face it, for the sake of others if not myself.  You want to take the easy way out.  I cannot respect that.  I've always held a special esteem for those who face adversity and depression with stoic fortitude.  Besides, the fact that people suffer greater hardships than you and press on should at least give you pause, no?

Perhaps a reader will respond thus: “But Der Viator, surely you realize that suffering is relative. You cannot judge someone for something so personal and individual.” Yes, indeed.  I'm aware that people respond to adversity differently, and in part the difference has to do with cultural context. For this reason we have some dude in Africa continuing on with his life after diamond thugs killed and raped family members before his eyes, whereas a UCLA student kills herself because her boyfriend broke up with her and she failed a couple exams. Suffering, or the response to suffering, is an individual thing. Therefore, you won’t begrudge me having little sympathy for those who commit suicide, for my view of suicide is also individualistic. Some people think it's a tragedy (and it is with respect to the grief and sense of loss that loved ones must now suffer), whilst others see it as a heinous act of selfish behavior.  By the way, I’m not Dr. Kevorkian, but I personally differentiate those who take their lives because they suffer from excruciating physical pain. I’m not so quick to tell these people what they can or can’t do with regard to their lives. However, if you’re gonna kill yourself because you’re depressed or feeling slighted or forlorn, do what you gotta do. My disrespect for your selfish choice and need for a melodramatic exit shouldn’t matter none. But as I say, wait until the end of December. It’d be a shame to miss the change of foliage one last time.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (3/7)

Why does Allah allow such evil? Left on their own, without the restraining hand of their creator, humans transmogrify into vicious primates run amok in a godless world. Like others who have hazarded this rocky path, vexed by both the perversity and tenuousness of life, unable to find sanctuary in the mundane, Mustafa knew that the inexorable search for answers to these perennial questions was as much endemic to the human condition as fruitless in its results. He had mulled over the words of Al-Ghazali often enough:
Now this is a vast and deep sea with wide shores and tossed by billows. In extent it is comparable to the sea of God’s unity. Whole groups of the inept drown in it without realizing that it an arcane matter which only the knowing comprehend. Behind this sea is the mystery of predestination where the many wander in perplexity and which those who have been illuminated are forbidden to divulge.
One might say that the good doctor’s interior life, like the Bosphorus, flows in complicated cross-currents between two worlds. We do well not to forget this dual allegiance; otherwise, in trying to account for the seeming contradictions in Mustafa’s life, we, like many seafarers in those narrow straits, unmindful of the twists and turns, run aground on either shore.

“My heart is in Anatolia, my intellect is in Rumelia,” he once told an inquiring student in a rare moment of candor. Like most educated Turks especially since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, both Asia and Europe contributed to his Weltanschauung, making him a walking riddle. He was an old-school Kemalist advocating women’s headscarves at the university.  He fancied himself a supporter of the rights of persecuted minorities throughout the world, yet he ardently opposed a Kurdish state.  A scientist to the core, he clutched prayer beads in quiet moments and times of adversity.  A supporter of the Justice and Development Party, he was nonetheless severely critical of his country’s membership in the European Union.  He was a dogmatist asserting an agnostic belief in an inscrutable universe and a skeptic tiring of his skepticism—as all skeptics do.  His education in Istanbul and Germany left its indelible stamp on his consciousness, but his early upbringing in central Anatolia had already rooted him in his syncretic Islamic faith.

Only after the young Mustafa relinquished the orthodox Sunni creed of his forefathers would his spiritual journey begin. Later in life he realized the irony of his fate: the more he tried to distance himself from the cruelty he had witnessed since his youth, the more he faced head-on the handiwork of hate’s worst practitioners. Surely there must be some kind of heavenly recompense for the heinous crimes he has investigated, the Day of Judgment promised in Holy Writ.

So Mustafa could never accept the idea of a godless world, nor could he ever retreat into fideism. The disconcerting prospect of having no divine hand directing the apparent moral chaos on display around him accounts for the former. Rumi, his guide in life eight centuries removed, cautions him against the latter: Trust in Allah, but tie the camel’s leg.

Instead, Mustafa took refuge from the somber thoughts that confronted him, and a family past that haunted him, in an indefatigable commitment to forensic science. Perhaps the exhumation of those contorted, forlorn souls caught in their final moments of desperation would somehow speak to him through their silent remains and help unravel the enigma. Perhaps he would someday find meaning and purpose in the bestial instincts of man. In quieter moments of contemplation, this search into the perverse and sadistic, he now recognized, had been a circuitous quest for God, the divine, in a universe devoid of divine providence. But his queries had only increased hundredfold over the years and he was still swimming in Al-Ghazali’s sea.

Ahmet, an Anatolian customs official and committed Republican during the halcyon 1940s, needed little reason to name his son after Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey; but the boy’s birth on November 10—five years to the day after Atatürk’s death—and the “blue” eyes he inherited from his mother’s side gave an air of providence and destiny, not to mention playful and sometimes not-so-playful teasing from schoolmates for his “evil eye.” Mustafa grew up on a farm the family had acquired after the First World War, but Ahmet, like his father before him, having sought his whole life to break out of his peasant origins, used his position and income to provide his sons with a university education. Mustafa would do the same for his own boys, Cenap and Orhan.

Mustafa recalled his father’s constant refrain when it came to the topic of his future: “No sons of Khan shall sully their arms with the earth nor splinter their hands at the plow!” He would sometimes think about the irony of these words, given his chosen profession. “Khan,” as Turks called Gökberk Effendi after the war, was Mustafa’s grandfather and had served under the dashing, vainglorious and foolhardy Enver Pasha in the miserable eastern campaign against the Russians before he was left for dead on the snow-covered battlefield of Sarikamiş. His military service brought him a degree of position, wealth and respect. As a child Mustafa knew only a cold and cruel old man, and the latter could perceive a commingling of revulsion and respect in the boy’s Atatürk eyes whenever Mustafa kissed his cheeks.

The bookish son of the son of Khan went to Robert College secondary school where he honed his English, then to Istanbul University, with the intention of studying history and literature, but he compromised with his father, who wanted him to become a doctor, and settled upon anthropology. Finally, a scholarship sent him to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Magdeburg, Germany, which proved to be the beginning of a distinguished career. At first he gained recognition as an investigator in a number of high-profile murder cases in Germany, most of them involving serial killers; but his work with the International Criminal Court would garner world-wide acclaim in the realm of forensic anthropology.

“We have considered the coroner reports submitted by both the defense and prosecution,” continued the chief judge. Mustafa snapped back from the ethereal, momentarily, to the prosaic present. The security guards hadn’t taken their eyes off the three men throughout the legal proceedings. The vein in Drago’s left temple started to twitch, drawing Mustafa’s attention back to the problem of appearances and the reality behind them, as if it were possible for him to have strayed from this distinction for long.

He wondered whether fear of long-term incarceration finally seeped in and breached the man’s insouciant exterior.  Mustafa pulled out his glasses from his vest pocket to get a better read on the defendant. Similarly, one of the defense lawyers, a large man with a goatee, looked visibly perturbed throughout the reading of the sentence. Mustafa contrasted his facial contortions with the judge’s obligatory and perhaps hasty prefatory remark about professionalism in the courtroom.

Relatively handsome and still muscular at forty-six, Krajiŝnik was not about to destroy his image on camera with a tear or a scowl. His glamorous wife, many mistresses and Belgrade fan base found him appealing precisely because he came across as a stalwart if brutish patriot supposedly committed to Serbian ascendency in the world. He enjoyed neither the post-war popularity nor entrepreneurial success of his former commander, Drago, but he lived in the spotlight of Serbian nationalism in less respectable venues: muscle magazines and even a couple of porn films.

Hearing testimony about his molestation and exploitation of pubescent girls day in and day out, Lukić had exhibited during the Trial Chamber months earlier what others might misconstrue as a modicum of shame for his wicked deeds; but Mustafa had never seen or sensed legitimate remorse in an offender, and he made no exceptions now. Of the depraved threesome, Lukić was evidently reading the writing on the wall, for he was becoming more visibly agitated.The guards continued to stare at the defendants. Would they storm the bench, swinging fists and cursing? Mustafa straightened himself up, crossed his arms, and slightly tilted his head with this fleeting thought in his head.

As she reached for her purse under the chair, a middle-aged woman sitting next to Mustafa whispered: “Gum?” He bent his head in her direction and, once he understood what she was saying, gave her a look. “Do you want some gum?” she repeated, though she knew his answer even before she asked the first time. Mustafa gave her a harder look and she rolled her eyes.

Dr. Lynnette Anderson was the chief pathologist in the investigation and had worked with Mustafa for almost two decades in a number of missions, some under the auspices of the U.N. and others for human rights NGOs directly. When Aida identified the clothing of her brother and uncle, it was Dr. Anderson who interviewed her and later conducted the DNA tests to confirm the identity of the human remains. A framed photo in her office shows her, her now-deceased husband Frank, Mustafa and other field investigators standing at the base of the ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiyan a few years before the Taliban blew them to smithereens. Only Mustafa is looking off camera.

She had started out as an archeologist, her doctoral work focusing on a Hittite site in southern Anatolia, before she turned to forensic cases and worked alongside her husband to assist Dr. Özerkan in investigations of mass grave sites, mostly in Afghanistan and now the Balkans. Tenure with UC Santa Barbara gave her some flexibility to go on such missions. She imbibed his passion and commitment. Did she know that something deeper drove him than mere professionalism or even personal fulfillment?

The mission had been tough for both of them. Mosquitoes feasted on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner; they lacked proper equipment and a reliable generator; the team suffered from a clash of personalities; investigators in The Hague constantly pulled archeologists and autopsy assistants from the site for other investigations. By the end, Mustafa had had enough of herding cats and wrestling with the proverbially incompetent U.N. bureaucracy.

To make matters worse, the team, and especially the locals they had hired for the exhumation, became persona non grata in the eyes of the Serb residents, some of whom “greeted” their convoy on the first day with rocks and glass bottles. Hooligans also managed to sabotage the backhoe and set work back for days. A Pakistani battalion provided mediocre security at best for the team and the site. Finally, Mustafa the Turk, as the locals saw him, became a liability in this ethnically cleansed Serbian village.

Republika Srpska leaders in Banja Luka had eventually threatened to kick out the investigators until Belgrade, whose cooperation with the international community brought economic and political concessions from the EU, stepped in to chastise its intractable, irredentist brethren. By this time Mustafa, as it turns out, had found incriminating evidence that solidified the prosecutors’ case against the Demons.

The judge had not yet come to this piece of the puzzle in the verdict. “Mr. Lukić, according to Witness B, whose location behind the said cistern has been substantiated, ordered the victims to walk into the tree line, though there is no evidence he ordered the men to dig their own graves. Forty-three males, twelve of whom were under the age of fifteen, were shot execution style. Either the defendants or subordinates under their direction bludgeoned two or three of the victims to death on the edge of or inside the makeshift pit, though the forensic evidence is inconclusive on this latter form of execution.”

The matter of his apricots settled and the problem of evil unresolved, Mustafa imagined himself at a Roman tribunal two millennia ago, the presiding judge’s Italian inflection and his Tuscan features giving license to Mustafa’s imagination. Mustafa had a self-inflicted habit of widening the singular moment into an episode in an epic story, but the mundane always had some way of invading Mustafa’s pensive moments.

“I swear they have a Starbucks back there.” Dr. Anderson arched her neck back to a door at the back of the gallery. The women in headscarves sitting behind her looked at her expressionless. She was speaking in her quiet voice, that is to say, what she, not Mustafa, considered her quiet voice. Her way of dealing with anxiety, Mustafa gathered long ago, was to treat a situation with witty remarks or to make trite observations. She was right about the coffee. Everyone in the public viewing gallery nosed the caffeinated aroma emanating from a cup carried by a man making his way across a hallway behind them.

“How’s the action?” he jested in his Belgian accent upon entering the pressroom. Correspondents with AP, Reuters, BBC, and Deutsche Welle were watching the appellate ruling on a CCTV screen. They were sipping coffee beverages, telling each other war stories, and scribbling in their notebooks. The three condemned men, responsible for the torture and deaths of unarmed civilians, look on with blank stares, seemingly oblivious to the chief judge’s wagging finger.

“We got the calm, cool, and collected Dragoljub today,” observed one reporter. “No fireworks since the hearing make Drago a rather dull devil.”

“Yeah, he’s a good boy, but all things must come to an end. No more hotel empire and high life for him, I’m afraid,” said another reporter. “Maybe in ten years they can resume their criminal activities if they lay low in prison.”

“I’ve heard of cynicism, my friend, but you take the cake,” spoke up a fourth reporter, adding sweetener to his coffee. “Ten years, you say? Unless this sentence is not overturned—and it doesn’t sound like it will be—their thirty-two years are set in stone.”

“O ye of little faith. Ten years, I say, regardless of this sentence. You’re still waiting for your induction into the Cynics Club, I can see. Some deal will be made between Serbia and the EU—quid pro quo.”

“International law doesn’t work that way.”

“Of course not.”

“Sarcastic bastard.”

“If you mean realistguilty as charged.”

“We’re almost done with this nonsense,” responded the Belgian journalist. “Everyone knows the outcome, but let’s hope for some magic at the end, something to write about. Maybe there’ll be interesting reactions in Belgrade. To the Serbs!” He mockingly raised his steaming Styrofoam cup.

“So are we hooking up at the Royal Chamber tonight or what?” asked a journalist between gulping and typing.

“Gotta flight early. We’ll see. Topless?” The journalist laughed through his nose, self-cognizant of his own naughtiness.

“It’s not Amsterdam, but it’ll do.”

“You guys are incorrigible,” the one female reporter in the room felt obligated to say.

“What? I go there strictly for the drinks…”

“Yeah, right!”

And the ambience and backdrop too, I admit. There’s no harm in looking! My wife and I used to go all the time. It’s fun.”

Used to. That says enough.”

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Turning Over a New Leaf

Do you ever question people’s motives? Can you spot self-interest and selfishness a mile away? Do you look askance at your fellow primates? Well, I do not, not anymore. Sure, there's a lot to get worked up about.  However, we need to remind ourselves from time to time that life is good, do we not? Like the Neoplatonists of old, we ought to find repose in beauty, goodness, and truth.  I mean, heck, evil and corruption—negativity of any kind—are ubiquitous. We’re going to die someday. Check.  People are hypocrites. Check.  Stories of killing, maiming, raping, cheating, and robbing headline our newspapers and provide fodder for novels. Check.  We’ve all defecated in our pants at one time or another.  Double check.  (On an unrelated note, I cannot figure out why I don’t receive invitations to dinner parties.) Many of you have realized by now that I can get quite lugubrious and morose. One of my readers wrote in about my narcissistic drivel and woe-is-me attitude. In fact, like the Danish prince, I have of late lost all my mirth. I therefore decided the time has come to turn over a new leaf. Henceforth I will restrict my commentary to uplifting topics, themes that put a smile on your face and make you feel good. I’m taking to heart Paul’s advice to the Philippians: Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirableif anything is excellent or praiseworthythink about such things. I agree. So I will no longer talk about serial killers and genocidal maniacs. As far as this blogger is concerned, they will keep their murderous hands in their pockets and sheathe their machetes.  I have also taken unpleasant aspects of our mundane existence, such as vomit and diarrhea, off the table.

Here I go. I……I like flowers. Flowers are cool, not that I’m gay or anything like that. At the same time I have gay friends, so I’m not saying that....I should add that they’re not close friends, which is okay, by the way, it’s just that….What I mean is that…I did my laundry today…..that was cool, I guess. Love and friendship….Those are good things, right? Puppies are cute and all. I like dogs a lot (but not in the way you're not supposed to like them.) I believe in love and have faith in faith.  People are good and decent; they just get confused once in a while.  It happens.  The next time you're out in public take the time to embrace a stranger and tell them how much you appreciate him or her.  I like to laugh, but not at someone's expense.  Sometimes I just laugh for the heck of it.  Are you ticklish?  Me too.  I didn't know that life could be so wonderful.

There! I saw the glass half full.  I've encouraged my readers with some encouraging and uplifting sentiments.  That’s not so bad. You can expect more uplifting sentiments and loving thoughts on this blog.  Needless to say, this blog has just become hundredfold more interesting.

Postscript: I'm well aware that the phrase "turn over a new leaf" refers to turning a new page or folio (leaf).  However, being a huge autumn freak I couldn't resist the maple leaf.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fighting the Good Fight

I’m still plowing through this Army officer course at “Relaxin’ Jackson”! The weeks seem to fly by. I guess that means I’m enjoying the program, more or less. Certainly the weather's been great, and we get weekends off.  I already mentioned my excellent thirty-six classmates. About half of them are Active Duty Army, whereas the rest of us (including me) come from the National Guard or Army Reserve.  As officers, no matter the branch, we should know how to fight.

On Monday we received instruction on effective written and verbal communication. You might think that a 40-something academic already mastered this topic, but I always learn something new. (Whether or not I opt to apply this knowledge is a different question, though.) The key to my learning this time around was an excellent instructor, the best one in this program so far. He’s a retired command sergeant major in his mid fifties and has served in the Pentagon. His voice, speaking ability, gestures, overall body language, and ability to connect with the class make him a superb teacher in my book. Moreover, he knew his stuff. One of the writing techniques he focused on was the active voice. I smiled in my heart as he explained the passive voice and reasons it should be avoided—or better yet, reasons students should avoid it :) I don’t downgrade my students’ papers for using the passive voice, but I certainly bring it to their attention and try to explain why it’s stylistically inferior. We had the same instructor on Friday as well; he went over leadership and successfully presented the subject as an open forum for discussion rather than as a “block of instruction” proper.

The highlight of the week was combatives. On Tuesday and Wednesday the cadre instructed the class on fighting positions and various ways to subdue an opponent. We grappled, fought, and tried to dominate or choke out each other seemingly nonstop. Everyone got tuckered out after the first day! Apart from a few bruises on my biceps, and my neck feeling as if someone were still chocking me the next day, I came through unscathed. Punching and kicking were off limits; otherwise, more of my classmates would have gone to sick call and the injuries would have been more extensive. The cadre, consisting of three captains, also sought to “motivate” us with a series of strenuous drills. They had us rolling around on the gym mats looking like epileptics and possessed souls. Bless their hearts! Actually, I enjoyed the whole thing. A few classmates didn’t fare so well, however, as one of them injured a knee, another a shoulder, and a third a hip; they had to get a “profile” (Army speak for a note from the doctor).

This week marks the third time I’ve had combatives training. I think I got more out of it here than I did at Fort Leonard Wood and Fort Huachuca. Chalk it up to great instructors who took the time not merely to watch us fight or even fight us but provided tips while we were in the throes of grappling. “Break his guard!” “Try to shrimp out with your left leg!” The only thing I didn’t hear in this week’s training is the background and philosophy behind Army combatives. It’s my understanding that the Army bases combatives largely on Brazilian jujitsu, with some insights from ultimate fighting thrown in for good measure. In part, this fighting style, largely redistricted to the ground, is about eliminating space between you and your opponent so as not to give him or her any opening or opportunities to exploit to your disadvantage.

I had my one social outing for the week on Wednesday evening. Seven of us dudes met up at Eric’s San Jose Mexican Restaurant. The food and prices were worth the drive. While solitude is often my best friend, for good or ill, it’s good to have other friends once in a while as well, especially when they come from different parts of the country. I appreciate the diverse perspectives and backgrounds of my classmates.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Going Off Meds

I’m getting the "thumbs up" from the key people.  My therapist, shrink, pastor, and life counselor have recommended that I go off my medication.  Even my guru, Rashneesh B., whose teachings I came across while at a retreat in Santa Barbara, thinks the time has come.  I’m ready to face the challenges of life without any kind of chemical support, they say.  Well bless their hearts!  What do they know?  I suppose I should have told them about the last time I went clean.  I wasn’t aware of what happened, but the police arrested me for indecent exposure.  I was walking naked through a mall warning people about the imminent end of the world.  I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to these pills, but I have accustomed myself to the numbing effect that they provide.  At the same time, though, I look forward to complete independence and freedom.  Heck, I had already decided that I would turn over a new leaf once autumn began.  I guess I should put freedom in quotations, however; for whiskey and therapy will still help me through the rough times.  Life is good and it's about to get even better.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (2/7)

Mustafa’s reassuring response encouraged the woman to venture words more introspective. “Sometimes I question whether I would have done anything even knowing what I know now. It’s like they say about the Jews. We knew what was happening and yet we went like sheep to the slaughter.” The image of the passive, sacrificial lamb, though spoken here innocently enough, in point of fact characterized neither her nor many victims of the Holocaust; but Mustafa, who lived in Germany for almost twenty years and knew something of its tortured history, let that go.

The young woman misread Mustafa’s apprehensive face as a sign of discomfort with her.    “You can call me Aida.  Please?”

Aida provided the most dramatic moment in the trial when she took the stand to testify against the militants who one day in Žepa dragged her from her home, violated her repeatedly, and destroyed both her past and future life. Most of the rape victims who were present on the day of the executions declined to testify because of the shame they felt or the reprisals they feared. Two other women had given their testimony through closed-circuit television screens behind closed doors. Aida chose to face her killers directly and publicly. Though frightened, she knew she would later regret not having faced her demons when she had the chance.

She had nowhere to go, nothing to lose. Beyond the loss of an uncle and brother on the same day of her own torment at the Demons’ rapacious hands, another Serb death squad had tortured her father and older brother Rezak to death in a cowshed that had served as an internment camp for supposed POWs. Aida’s old man was pushing sixty at the time and Rezak, whom she idolized and considered her protector, had Asperger’s syndrome that barred him from military duty; neither of them served in the Bosnian army. They died early on in the war, May of 1992, leaving behind Aida’s grieving mother whose fragile heart condition now had extra strain to bear. The only saving grace of her death months later was not hearing about the murder of her brother and second son or the rape of her daughter.

Aida’s tragedy long survived the war years. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins looked at her askance for carrying a Serbian seed within her and in any event worried about their own fate. Squatters with proper ethnic credentials had moved into her old neighborhood. Were it not for Serb neighbors, a grocer and his wife who hid Aida’s niece inside their kitchen cabinet, she would have no kin left alive in her ancestral home. But her niece ended up marrying the old couple’s son, settled in a nearby village, and Aida hadn’t heard from her in years. After having an abortion and finding intermittent work as a translator for the BBC, Aida eventually moved to the UK to live with a distant relative. A decade and a half later she was still trying in vain to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, working as a hotel maid, her dream of becoming a successful graphic designer, along with her will to live, having long since died. She now wore blouses and sweaters with high collars to hide the rope scar from a suicide attempted in 1996.

Mustafa knew Aida only as Witness G in the courtroom when she testified on the same day he presented a PowerPoint presentation on the grave and its unearthed contents. She remembered him from an earlier encounter, however. In the final weeks of the on-site investigation Mustafa’s forensic team and Citizens for International Justice set aside a day for survivors in search of their loved ones to view and identify non-biological remains exhumed at the gravesite.

Laid out on tarps, articles of clothing made up most of the evidence, but the items on display also included keys, combs, empty cigarette packs, spectacles, an ink pen, crutches, prosthetic limbs, a bottle, a wristwatch, a few identification cards, a tobacco box, some lighters, and a yo-yo. (One of the excavators found the last artefact in the pockets of a skeletalized body whose unfused distal femur and teeth indicated to Mustafa and the chief pathologist that the victim was a boy between the ages 8 and 12. Experienced forensic scientists learn to put aside emotion and concentrate on their work, yet this find had gotten the best of some of the team members in an unguarded moment. “I’ll have time to weep when I retire,” Mustafa would often tell those who asked about the emotional toll of his work.)

Aida recalled Mustafa in a rim hat and yellow rubber gloves up to his elbows as he approached her and a group of women standing just outside the entrance of the excavation site that investigators had cordoned off earlier. The U.N. security guards were barring them from entering because they didn’t have proper identification. Mustafa convinced the Pakistanis to let them in, called over one of his archeologists to chaperon them through the tarps, and disappeared inside the autopsy tent. Aida managed to identify the clothing of her brother from the blue stitching and specific seam style on his shirt and britches.

“You don’t know how much this means to me….to have closure and not wonder what happened to my brother and my uncle.” She slowly lifted her head and shook it slowly. “The appeals process is almost over and the prosecution has been thorough. I have no complaints about them. I feel confident that the judges will not grant these animals their appeals, but I am unsatisfied with the sentences. I don’t understand why they get to live. I don’t understand why the media treats them like celebrities. My father and brother didn’t have…” Aida suddenly realized that her gesture of gratitude slipped into an expression of bitterness and sorrow. She caught herself. “I’m sorry. Thank you for all that you have done. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

Ill at ease with her behavior, Aida pasted a fake pleasant smile on her face and stared at the check-in desk across the lobby to avoid what she expected to be a quizzical look or expression of exasperation from an important man on a busy schedule to accomplish important things. But when she turned her eyes back to Mustafa, she discerned a kind heart.

Mustafa normally would correct someone who ascribed to him too much credit. This investigation, he would point out, had involved an international and multidisciplinary team of ten forensic scientists who worked for five miserable weeks under difficult climatic and political conditions. Moreover, enough eyewitness testimony, including Drago’s own damning admissions, would have gotten him time for rape and the murder of unarmed civilians. But the evidence linking them to mass execution—evidence that Mustafa’s forensic work had yielded—and the charge of crimes against humanity added significant years to the prison sentences. Try as he might, Drago could not chalk up these murders to “battlefield casualties.”

Later in the hotel room Mustafa would think about Aida’s kind demeanor and strained smile. He admired her courage and disguised equanimity. It’s easy to be melancholy this side of paradise, he thought. Those who have suffered a tragedy understandably want others to know about their pain or their disapproval of an insane, heartless world. How noble-hearted (and wretched) are those who, in spite of tragedy, in defiance of adversity, do not broadcast their suffering and torment, indeed at their own psychological expense, but instead attempt to shield the innocent, and perhaps their memory, from the horrors of this world. Never mind that Aida’s disfigured face betrayed the effort.

Mustafa, seeing in her hazel eyes someone from his childhood he had tried to forget, clasped his hands over hers, tightened his face as if suffering along with her, and groaned under his breath. He told her in the best Serbo-Croat he could muster, “Allah has given you courage. I don’t know why such evils occur in this world, child. I have not yet come to terms with these horrific deeds and I haven’t even suffered the pain that you have gone through. May Allah continue to protect you and watch over you with His loving hand.”


Unfortunately, the gods appear to have been at cross-purposes that day. After they looted the place to their hearts’ content, and only after, the Demons fancied themselves avenging angels sent to rectify the wrongs of history and reclaim the land the Lord had given them centuries ago. Drago, a devout orthodox Christian, took his divine calling in earnest. He brought military muscle to his piety and a sanctimonious approach to his thuggery. Nor was he averse to sadistic religiosity. During interviews Muslim mothers shocked the chief investigator, his aides, and interpreters when they revealed the crosses that Drago had carved on their children’s foreheads—gruesome replicas of the Serbian cross tattooed on the nape of his neck. His renewed commitment to the faith before family and friends at the Slava celebration, occurring as it did on eve of the Bosnian War, did not put a serious dent into his criminal activities.  To the contrary, in the eyes of his compatriots and fans his tightrope walk between saint and sinner added color to his status as a regional hero.

During the preliminary hearing, the defense team recalibrated their courtroom strategy after Drago, not known for keeping his tongue in check, and to the glee of prosecutors, launched into an impromptu harangue that eventually descended into personal attacks on the judges. “I did not throw big bombs at civilian cities in Japan,” he began, “nor did I massacre Indians in the Old Wild West.” Though he barely knew the language, he managed to deliver these last three words in English and even hazarded a southern twang, laughable in both the Anglo-American and Serb worlds for contrary reasons.

“I did not slaughter Jews in Polish death factories,” he went on. “I didn’t receive instructions from the Qur’an to blow up high-rise buildings in Manhattan. Whether 911 is divine justice for America’s bombing of Serbia, I’ll let others judge. I’m not one of those,” he searched for a word, “pygmies, one of those Hutee Tutees, who butcher each other in the streets. There’s your genocide!” The defense would have applauded his oblique reference to Rwanda, the genocide occurring at the same time as the Balkan conflict, had it not been tainted with a racist tinge, and they worried, rightly or wrongly, about its deleterious effect on the Kenyan judge sitting on the panel.

“I’m just a Serb patriot defending hearth and home, nothing more and nothing less. God is my witness. You should be trying those butchers who killed my brother, who raped our mothers and grandmothers, and all in the name of Allah. The world is currently aflame from Gaza to Delhi, Indonesia to Colombia, thanks to the handiwork of hajjis and American imperialists, and you want to condemn patriots defending their homeland? This trial is not about me and my men. We’re insignificant and we’ve done nothing; it’s about hatred for Serbia, a historic defender against the hordes who would undermine Western civilization!”

Drago’s penchant for self-righteous indignation operated like a tape recorder with only two buttons: pause and play. The erratic and swift cadence in his speech, when aflame with nationalistic fervor, sounded as though his mouth were an assault weapon switching from single fire to semiautomatic. His counsel thought their client would sway some of the judges at first. “These heinous crimes that I’m accused of are nothing but the imaginings of a feeble people who have been subdued in battle, fair and square. Now these malicious liars seek to destroy my good name, and the Serb people more generally, by resorting to whatever means losers have at their disposal.”

He took a prolonged sip from a glass of water for dramatic affect. He was looking beyond those present in the courtroom and setting his sites on another audience. How he would look on Serbian television programs beclouded his survival instincts, but then Drago, like most people, often walked a fine line between succumbing to unbridled passions and heeding the dictates of self-preservation.

At that point, the real Drago, the one whom the victims knew, came to the fore when he stumbled into a pornographic tirade that indicated to the staff in the Chamber, especially the two female judges on the panel, what he thought of the court and what he’d like to do to it. “And what are those means?” he continued. “Quite simply, a fucked-up court of nitwits who think they can impose some kind of victors’ justice on behalf of idiotic peasants. Jebo ti pas mater!” Since that ugly scene, Drago had followed his counsel and, though Mustafa and other acute observers of human nature descried a restless spirit resisting his exorcism on the inside, remained docile in the courtroom.

To his left sat the powerfully built Krajiŝnik, fidgeting in his chair and rolling a ballpoint pen in his sausage fingers, now the picture postcard of evil’s banality. Yet the feigned demeanor of a polite store clerk or mild-mannered actuary could not obfuscate the evidence stacked against him. He was not the pencil-pushing type, crossing Ts and dotting Is. Ambition to rise above his drab suburban life, coupled with resentment towards his abusive, disciplinarian father, brought him into contact with the Serbian mafia, which provided a mere training ground until his sexual appetites and taste for blood could find a home in Drago’s paramilitary unit. Contexts might change, yet character remains, thought Mustafa.

The last of this twisted triumvirate, Miko Lukić, had only one regret in life: he would have given anything to play forward for the Yugoslav national football team. A sexual sadist at heart, he had characterized this aspiration in his own hyperbolic way: I’d pimp out my fuckin’ sister to the greenest mujahideen bastard to get on that ballclub. After a knee injury destroyed his dream, he focused his monomaniacal energy on rifle marksmanship, and rather than shooting his way into the 1992 Olympics, another dream that captivated him since boyhood, he found “employment” as a sniper in the hills overlooking the Sarajevo Airport. Having exchanged his military uniform for the makeshift paramilitary garb of the Demons a year later, he added rape and sexual trafficking to his resume.

As his words with Aida in the hotel lobby indicated, Mustafa wondered why men committed such evil acts. The answer to this question, and many more besides, still eluded him. One would think he no longer pursued these mysteries. He had dug up and examined countless victims in every stage of decomposition for almost four decades. He had visited POWs reduced to walking skeletons and espied countless beatings in their fearful eyes. He had held his fair share of skulls ridden with bullet holes, bashed in with bicycle handles, impaled by daggers, indented from rifle butts, scarred with machetes, poked with ice picks, and crushed by boulders. He had seen bodies of children with the eyes and genitals plucked out, a delicious feast for maggots; and he had beheld more horrors better left unspecified. Only the imagination limits the recreational activities that men devise and perpetrate. In the twisted musings of his younger days Mustafa would dream up the most foul and loathsome deeds only to discover later that the sons of man had indeed committed such atrocities, and probably long before the birth of civilization. He drew the following conclusion (and utters these very words at the beginning of his classes at Inönü University): If you can think it, someone has already done it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Family Portrait (12/12)

“I guess I’m talking about a twenty-year-old woman named Francine Lockert, or Fran, who worked as a waitress at a café in Batesville. You met her thirty-two years ago. Do you remember? She was a local girl and still lives there to this day. She’s my mother.” I didn’t wait for him to wipe the stunned look off his face—feigned or otherwise—and deny everything. “You might be tempted to say I’m dreadfully mistaken, but my mother told me that she informed you she was pregnant. She was merely a one-night stand for you. She knew that. But she had no alternative, no prospect, and so at her mother’s urging sought your help.  What did she get from you?  Nothing but strong encouragement to get an abortion.”

Though a vein in his temple betrayed his inner state, Sheriff K smiled widely. “You've got quite an imagination. You’re pathetic, and were you not a monster I might feel sorry for you. You really believe all of this, don’t you? What’s worse is that you’ve probably lived your whole life with this false notion—yes, a mistake—in your murderous brain. I admit that I’ve had youthful indiscretions, and my wife is not unaware of these indiscretions; but you, well, you're delusional.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at yet another inane effort to throw a label on me and thereby relinquish any real attempt to understand. “Delusional,” I echoed his word.

“I’m starting to doubt everything you’re telling me.”

“Such as your tryst in Batesville as a St. Louis cop supposedly vacationing with his family?”

“Such as your murderous rampage. Why you would claim to have killed these people is a mystery to me, except perhaps some kind of psychological need for attention, as twisted and sick as that is. You almost had me.” Sheriff K started undoing the handcuffs as he spoke. Did he really think I had nothing to do with the death of Peterson and Melissa? I didn’t expect this reaction from him. Surely he is going to arrest me, I thought.

“I’m going to file a report a station, Mr. McMasters. We’ll keep in touch….” He seemed to speak with little emotion.

“That’s it, then?”

“Don't go anywhere.”  He was clearly agitated and walked out of my studio without saying another word. So much so that he practically plowed through a stack of leaves that I had raked yesterday.

So is this how it all ends? What kind of game he was playing I just couldn’t tell. If he thinks I didn’t kill Peterson—which I seriously doubt—he’ll find out soon enough. As far as him being my biological father, well, I could care less; I have no emotional attachment to the old man. Pathetic, am I? No, I’m only interested in revealing the hypocrisy of a putative pillar of society.

Not long after his Volvo disappeared past the gate of the my drive, I took Shannon the Pumpkinhead and buried her, it, in the woods about thirty meters behind my place. 

I’ve been collecting my thoughts on my laptop looking out the window at another fine autumn day. I feel both a sense of triumph and unease.  Remember that I become quite wistful and melancholy during this season. I inevitably think back on my youth, especially Halloween, my favorite holiday, bittersweet though it might be.  I remember my mother crying and shocked when I came back from trick-or-treating with blood all over my Spiderman outfit.  I had sustained a severe blow to the head when some pranksters threw rocks at me and my friends.  I've never harbored bitterness toward my enemies.

A car pulling up my drive interrupts my recollection of Halloween. It’s Sheriff K. He’s alone again in his personal vehicle. Is he going to plead with me not to reveal his secrets? I would be delusional if I really thought that. Is he here to arrest me, finally? See what makes me tick? Seek some kind of reconciliation with his bastard son? I can’t know for sure, but if this is the last sentence of my “testimony,” dear reader, I’m already dead.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (1/7)

September 2010

The Hague seems worlds away from the apricot groves of his Malatyan farm, thought Mustafa. The contrast in tones came first to his senses, the grays and whites of Dutch jurisprudence and court buildings clashing with the warm hues of Sirma’s chestnut eyes or the turbid Turkish coffee of his youth. Once the latter earthen images won the inner battle for his half-conscious reflections, his restless mind would inevitably find its center under clay and dirt. Mustafa worried about the late harvest yet knew the season was auspicious: low rainfall, well-drained soil, plentiful sunlight. Besides, Cenap was taking care of the family inheritance and as the eldest son he exhibited more diligence and ambition than his father had at that age. The old man’s friends in the Agricultural Engineering department at Inönü persuaded him to invest in a harvesting machine to cut time and cost. Was such an expense justifiable for part-time farmers, amateurs really, on a smallholding? Upon his return next week, Sirma would register her disapproval for such wasteful spending, but not before scolding Mustafa yet again for long and frequent trips abroad.

Over thirty years spent working in forensic labs throughout Central Europe and at excavation sites and morgues in other bloodstained lands had left their mark in the crevices on his face and the furrows in his forehead. He had already scripted in his mind the anticipated conjugal spat he would have with Sirma and in fact arrived at the secret weapon to disarm her arguments, albeit a subject they had already discussed at length: his retirement. To clinch the deal, he hoped to spare an hour in Istanbul to haggle a bargain kilim, the one with the intricate 16th-century designs and authentic chamomile dyes Sirma had seen on the internet and coveted as a prayer rug for their entry way. As he sat in the sterile courtroom and felt tension in the air, Mustafa longed to be home.

Flanked by two U.N. security officers the three appellants filed into the courtroom. The tall angular men looked sharp, dressed to the hilt in tailored Giorgio Armani suits and striped ties. Two of them sported perfectly coiffed hair to cover tattooed scalps once shaved for war; the clean-shaven appearance of the third marked a significant change from the 90s when he wore long unkempt hair and a scraggly beard in the affected guise of a Chetnik fighter. Even Mustafa, who had experience in the realm of dark imagination, took some effort to envision the three defendants in their camouflage fatigues and flak jackets, toting AK-47 automatic assault rifles and laughing like fiends. How tranquil and serene life can seem, he pondered, as he glanced peripherally at the bereaved families sitting to his left. The distinction between appearance and reality has preoccupied thinkers time immemorial, and Mustafa for his part ruminated on the problem not infrequently.

During the investigation that brought everyone into the courtroom this morning, he had observed this dichotomy in the grassy fields around him. One sunny day he raised his steely grey eyes from the entangled skeletal remains at the mass grave site—yet another pit of hell and earthen monument to human cruelty in his line of work—to take in the arresting, bucolic scenery of Žepa valley. He had arrived at a descriptive phrase to account for this troubling juxtaposition, the Deception of the Sublime, until he later decided not to ascribe sinister intent to nature. Satan’s children perpetrated their horrific deeds in spite, not under the cover, of this verdant innocence.

This recollection retreated to the recesses of his brain once the judges entered and took their seats. “The Appellate Chamber,” came the voice through a speaker, “has carefully reviewed the evidence presented in this courtroom over these past three weeks. I want to express appreciation at the outset for the professionalism and cohesive argumentation from both prosecution and defense. I also would like to recognize the hard work that went into this case on the part of legal advisors, investigators, security personnel, and ICTY administrators. I will first review the eyewitness accounts, proceed to the forensic evidence, and conclude this section with the Chamber’s analysis thereof. As usual, you will have access to the cited documentation in the monitor.”

The presiding Judge of the Appeals Chamber would take the next forty minutes reading aloud the ruling in his thick Italian accent. He and his six colleagues sat in black gowns and ostentatious neck-bands before their respective computer screens in two rows of seats, one elevated behind the other. Cameras bolted to the beige paneled-walls above them peered out Orwellian-like into the courtroom.

Despite the illusory civility the three men exhibited before the judges and lawyers, what did remain, especially in the faces of Dragoljub Slovac and Zeljko Krajiŝnik, was their arrogance. For all the coaching of their Russian and Serbian lawyers, it was palpable, and it seemed to slither through the courtroom like a vicious reptile. For less acute observers the Bosnian Serbs’ demeanor still bespoke of indignation. The men dwarfed the stocky guards standing next to them, inadvertently giving visual display of the absolute power they had once wielded, a disturbing reminder not lost on the victims’ families. The jig was up for the killers and they knew it, but they choreographed their posture and blank stares so as to give no satisfaction to those seated behind the glass screen looking intently for any sign of remorse or grief. Mustafa, not one to betray his fears in body language, remained ostensibly tranquil, like a dervish deep in a Sufi meditation.

The old man happily pocketed the handheld translator the court had issued him; he never liked the flimsy, foldable headset that irritated the back of his neck. The fluctuation in volume and the sporadic crackling from the wireless signal gave him grief during the trial months earlier.  He wouldn't need a translation today.  The only language he could expect to hear in the courtroom today was English.  The appellate court had reached a decision and the defense had nothing more to say, or so Mustafa and most everyone in the courtroom thought. It’s not the first time Mustafa discarded the headset. From his travels and investigations in the Balkans he had picked up a smattering of Serbo-Croat and tried to understand the defendants and their advocates in their own language. Afterwards, when he looked at the court transcript, particularly those sections that dealt with the forensic evidence gathered at the execution site and deceptively referred to as a "soccer field," he found to his chagrin that he had gotten words and phrases completely wrong. He also got wrong his expectation not to hear the appellants speak up today.

Mustafa had been keeping watch on any slight change in expression or mannerism that could hint at a sadder reality behind the façade of civility.  He was no stranger to the courtroom; yet, as he studied the faces of the lawyers, the judges, and the three Serbs, a dark image, a metaphor of some kind perhaps, was trying to emerge from his consciousness, like a skeletalized hand sticking out of an embankment.  Watching the scene playing out before him, Mustafa imagined himself a social psychologist overseeing a lab experiment on peculiar behavioral patterns in the Homo sapiens, and at the same time he knew this analogy couldn’t adequately capture his surreal sense of detachment.

The wedding bands each of the men wore raised question marks in Mustafa’s head. What did their obsequious wives have to say about their husbands’ dark hobbies? Naturally people will get hurt when well-trained soldiers ward off their attackers. How do these women view the indictments? A kangaroo court, predisposed to hate the Serbian people, has turned lies into trumped-up charges. Did they rationalize all of them away in the name of Greater Serbia or some kind of historical comeuppance? Do they harbor bitterness toward the “international community” for abducting their husbands and reducing their sorry lot to one of widowhood and drudgery? How am I supposed to provide for my children? Could they still think of their husbands as honorable soldiers fighting to protect hearth and home from Muslim and Croat murderers next door? What about the rapes? Ah, they’re an ugly byproduct of war, and, besides, my man did not do such horrific things. Do they think about the suffering their husbands have inflicted, while they pray piously and receive the priest’s benediction in their orthodox churches? May the Lord bless you and give you His peace. When they see a neighbor on the streets, do they see first a Bosnian Muslim before they see an individual, a human being? Women are not this way, reflected Mustafa.

As he spoke, the judge would periodically stop to mark parts of his text with a yellow highlighter. Mustafa became mildly annoyed with his habit of uncapping and recapping the marker every paragraph and thereby making his pauses longer than necessary. “Witnesses on both sides of the conflict and forensic evidence gathered and analyzed from the scene of the crime,” he continued, “have confirmed the events that transpired on the late afternoon-early evening of 25 July 1995.”

A few years ago the painful details of “Drago’s Demons” and their “operation” in the so-called U.N. safe area of Žepa had come out. Named after the aforementioned Mr. Slovac, the paramilitary unit was essentially a freelance army of criminals and thugs who did their part, in coordination with the Drina Corps, to seize a swath of territory and empty it of its Muslim enclaves. After the Bosnian Serb army beat the town into submission with artillery, Drago and his grim-faced men, brandishing guns and truncheons, entered the smoking, bullet-scarred ruins in search of Muslims to kill and souvenirs to pocket. They were not the only ones given free reign to torture and rape the hapless inhabitants. Hordes of Special Forces units with their own theme names—Jesters, Tigers, Wolves, White Eagles—and concomitant insignias, as well as Chetnik regulars, competed for the loot. Now, fifteen years later, three of the perpetrators stood in the dock before the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), hoping for a reduced sentence. Unhappy with the Trial Chamber’s ruling and citing procedural violations in the prosecution’s case, the defense team had filed an appeal.


As the Armani trio took their seats behind their monitors, Mustafa scanned the room. A tall, thin woman with auburn hair and a scar on her left cheek caught his eyes and smiled back at him. They had met briefly yesterday in the lobby of the Ridder Hotel. She approached the old man gingerly as he was checking in.

“Excuse me, Dr. Özerkan?” It is unusual for trial witnesses to know, let alone meet with, one of the forensic experts involved in an investigation of this nature; however, the auburn-haired woman had lost a brother and an uncle at the hands of Drago and company on that fateful summer day, and she had seen Mustafa during a visit to the excavation site. She felt comfortable in addressing him outside the courtroom.

Mustafa barely had time to catch the gist of the message the front desk clerk was handing him when she approached. He ripped open the envelope and caught random key words: investigation, Parkinson, Paktia, Afghanistan, ISAF, Jürgenmeyer. Though the last name was vaguely familiar to him from a phone call weeks ago, the rest was enough to put a frown on his face.

“Yes,” he responded, with a tone poised between an affirmation and a question. He was unaccustomed to speaking with a stranger of the opposite sex without some kind of introduction or prearrangement, a social habit more than principle.

“I just wanted to thank you,” she said timidly in a thick Bosnian accent. “These men would still be living comfortably in Belgrade and Bosnia if the graves had not been found…if you had not linked Drago and the others to the murders. Had it not been for you, I would still be living without answers about my brother. Now I can move on with my life.”

Mustafa slowly shifted his attention from the message and toward the young woman; she could have been his daughter. As she spoke, he recalled her testimony in court, though the details of her own harrowing experience, unrelated to the “soccer field” executions, were unknown to him.

“I didn’t believe they were dead for the longest time, even though I knew it in my heart; but I’m glad I know the truth. If I had only known what was going to happen that day, I would have done something. I could have grabbed one of the weapons from the backseat...” She looked down momentarily to rein in her emotions. Mustafa took the opportunity to examine the mark on her cheek. Cosmetic surgery and time could not conceal the cigarette burns. Or were they knife cuts?

Mustafa gently interrupted her in an attempt to console her with words that had never offered him any solace. “It’s no use torturing yourself for what others have done, child, and you can’t change the past by dwelling on it.” Finding it difficult to hear each other in the bustling lobby, they instinctively walked over to a marble column near the revolving door entrance, weaving through the concierge flipping through his planner, a portly middle-aged man with briefcase in hand making a beeline for the exit, and a rather garrulous group of Australian tourists traipsing around without a clue.