Bosnia Field Report: Seeking Justice at The Hague

August 27, 2010 | Jessie Beauchaine

From Associate Producer Jessie Beauchaine on location in Bosnia and the Netherlands

The Hague's Tribunal building.

The Hague's Tribunal building.

Holland’s pristine city, The Hague, feels every inch the 864 miles away it is from Sarajevo, blessed with an abundance of modern-art galleries, tree-lined streets and cafes. Young and old alike cruise the city on bicycles and seagulls fly lazily overhead.  Inside the city’s elegant Mauritshuis museum, sun-dappled landscapes and quiet scenes from 16th-century Dutch life practically whisper “all is well.”

But within the halls of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), tales from war-torn Bosnia — of genocide, torture, mass rape and sexual enslavement — stand in stark relief. Since 1995, survivors of Bosnia’s war have been coming forward to testify against perpetrators of the worst atrocities Europe has seen since World War II.

Our Bosnia production team has traveled to the The Hague to profile the bold women prosecutors and investigators whose efforts in the 1990s broke new ground in international gender law. The evidence of mass rape they uncovered laid the groundwork for landmark cases. These, in turn, resulted in precedent-setting laws, including rape as a crime against humanity, rape as torture and rape as enslavement. This new body of laws now challenges the centuries-old notion that wartime rape is merely a consequence of conflict and not a war crime in and of itself.

On the first morning of our Tribunal visit, we paused during a break in shooting to slip into the main courtroom’s public gallery. We’d hoped to catch a glimpse of the man the media nicknamed “the Butcher of Bosnia,” former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic. He is widely believed to have masterminded the ethnic cleansing meted out against Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the war.

In one of the more surreal moments of my life, just as I was settling into my seat, Karadzic lifted his eyes from the computer at his desk, scanned the gallery and looked me square in the eye. Several seconds passed before he finally broke off his gaze. Despite the wall of protective glass between us, I felt suddenly vulnerable, exposed. But in hindsight, I think the most unnerving thing of all is how ordinary Karadzic looked. Despite his distinctive mane of salt-and-pepper hair, the former psychiatrist and self-styled poet might have been any other man in a rumpled suit, slumped over his laptop.

Shortly, our team will return to Bosnia to film women whose stories of being tortured by “regular people” — former neighbors and family friends —  are almost too horrible to be believed. Not surprisingly, they still grapple with how and why any of it ever happened.

But we are also going to hear how their outrage, hopes for peace and quests for justice have prompted them to come forward with their stories. Whether they testified before the Tribunal in the 1990s or are telling their stories for the first time from the security of their own living rooms, each has chosen to challenge impunity and has refused to remain a mere victim.