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.