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? ”