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.