Team Complies Bosnia Atrocities for War Crimes Trial – Los Angeles Times, 1st May 1994

Los Angeles Times
May 1, 1994, Sunday, Bulldog Edition

SECTION: Part A; Page 23; Column 1; Advance Desk

For Marcia McCormick, the day begins and ends with unforgettable horror.

Hour after hour, she pores over pages filled with the words of women whose bodies have been brutalized and souls scarred in war. They are as young as 5, as old as 81. All are rape victims in the former Yugoslavia.

McCormick, a lawyer, catalogues each of these hundreds of reports into a computer. Her task: to record a first draft of history. Her hope: that the testimony will be a first step toward justice.

She is among about 40 people at DePaul University’s College of Law compiling a data base of atrocities and aggression in the former Yugoslavia to be used by the prosecution at a United Nations war crimes tribunal — the first since Nazi and Japanese leaders were tried after World War II.

“What we have here is the beginning of historical archives,” said M. Cherif Bassiouni, project director and international law professor at DePaul. “We owe it to the victims; we owe it to ourselves in terms of our own humanity to make a record of the truth.”

Bassiouni began the project in late 1992 after being named to a five-member U.N. commission selected to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Last May, the U.N. Security Council set up an 11-judge tribunal at The Hague.

DePaul’s team of lawyers and researchers — many of them volunteers — will present to the commission a compendium of cruelty in the Serbian-Muslim-Croatian conflict: more than 5,000 incidents of murder, rape, torture, kidnaping, mass graves and prison camps.

“It’s the sort of thing one reads about with respect to medieval wars and thinks, gee, these things didn’t really happen, or if they did, they won’t happen again,” said the Egyptian-born Bassiouni, who has stood among corpses in mass graves and dodged sniper fire during trips to the war zone.

“People say these ethnic groups have been fighting for hundreds of years so it’s just inherent in their nature . . . but that’s not the case,” said Mark Bennett, assistant project director. “It shows what human nature is when there are no controls. I think this would happen anywhere in the world given the same set of circumstances — and that’s what’s most frightening.”

The DePaul team’s series of reports has been culled from 63,000 pages of documents, including eyewitness and victim testimony, news stories and reports from governments and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch.

Gathering facts immediately is critical, said Bassiouni, who secured foundation funding and support from DePaul. The United Nations did not provide any money.

“People change their views,” he said. “Their perceptions also change. The information disappears. You have to do it when it’s fresh in the minds and memories.”

Still, some human rights experts doubt there is the political will and financial resources in the international community for trials. The tribunal still has no top prosecutor or indictments and a February report by Helsinki Watch claimed “the U.N. has delayed and obstructed its ability to function.”

But politics isn’t the focus on the fourth floor of DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Institute, where boxes of affidavits and maps line the halls and walls and staffers sit hunched over computers, using special software tailored to classify war crimes in a conflict that has killed up to 200,000 people.

Some reports are spare, but shocking: a girl known as K.J., shot 10 times, bullets piercing her lungs and liver; the forced evacuation of Croatian patients from a hospital to Ovcara where it is believed 280 prisoners were executed; a 28-year-old woman raped in an outdoor stadium by 28 Serbs in a single day before she blacked out.

“It’s a cliche but it comes back to haunt you,” said McCormick, who is compiling the rape report. “At the beginning it was much easier to be upset when I read (the testimony). . . . Now, I’ll have a horrible nightmare.”

Translators decipher documents in Serbo-Croatian, French or German, but lawyers have a more arduous mission — trying to find a method in the madness.

“Every big case I’ve worked on has an element of what I’m doing — putting together a puzzle,” said Penny Venetis, a New York lawyer who tackled savings and loans cases before taking a leave to work at DePaul.

“We’re trying to figure out relationships between 700-odd (prison) camps we have identified,” she said.

If they succeed, the project could be very valuable, said Diane Orentlicher, professor of international law at American University in Washington, D.C.

“What they’re doing can become state-of-the-art documentation. . . . they’re creating the potential for tracking the movement of soldiers and showing patterns of abuse that make it possible to see things you can’t by looking at one case, then another one,” she said.

The team also will transfer more than 140 videotapes to CD-ROM, breaking them down frame by frame to identify perpetrators, which sometimes is surprisingly easy.

“In areas where some of the worst atrocities occurred, they were carried out by people who had lived together,” Bennett said. “They knew their perpetrators and, in a lot of instances, they made no attempt to hide their identity.”

But identifying them and prosecuting them are two different matters.

The tribunal will not try anyone in absentia and governments can’t be forced to turn over citizens, though the court’s president has expressed optimism that they will. Two war-crime suspects are in custody in Denmark and Germany; two others have been convicted.

Bassiouni is confident there will be trials.

“The question is how many, how long it will take and how high they will reach,” he said. “If we catch 10% of the people who committed the crimes and prosecute them . . . the message we will be sending will be extraordinary.”