My weekend at the “Hague Hilton”
By Damir Sagolj
I have followed their bloody trail for 20 years now.
As a Bosnian and as a photojournalist, I have tracked them through the ruins of Sarajevo — the target of concealed snipers and heavy artillery from the hills — to the mass graves of eastern Bosnia and the villages that were ethnically cleansed and destroyed forever, past houses, now owner-less, that nobody will rebuild and churches, barren of worshipers.
I visited every single corner of the Balkans’ “vukojebina” — literally, where wolves f** — a term that perfectly captures these remote, forgotten places, far from civilization. Always too late to be a victim, but early enough to see and feel. I followed war crimes with the passion of a journalist and the guilt of a survivor.
That road ends at “The Hague Hilton”, as the detention unit of the war crimes tribunal is sometimes called. There, 40 or so accused war criminals — innocent until proved guilty — live in harmony and comfort awaiting their sentence.
As I entered, the first journalist ever allowed to report from inside, I had butterflies in my stomach. For I am a prisoner of my past. Some of the people detained here were accused of crimes against members of my family. We lived through the siege of Sarajevo. My Muslim relatives — my grandmother, my uncle and others — were forced from their homes and ended up in Sweden. Croat relatives on my father’s side were driven out — different armies, different turf. Some of my relatives were killed, and found in mass graves later.
I had already been tested. The previous day, in the corridors of the tribunal building, I bumped into Radovan Karadzic. A brief encounter, our eyes locked, and then he said a hello. I said nothing, my cameras stilled. I thought, “he looks so arrogant, so confident, even in handcuffs he dwarfs the guards”. And then he was gone, escorted to his chair in the courtroom.
I felt no reaction, and that shocked me. My life was in his hands back in the 1990s, when he was known as one of “the butchers of the Balkans”, in control of the artillery and snipers around Sarajevo, and I was just a sad statistic in the ruins of the former Yugoslavia.
I have to admit, Karadzic looks good. He has regained his strength and confidence — even that devilish old smile is there, freezing my instinct to take pictures for a second. He is no longer the pale shadow that the world saw when his alias Dr. Dabic was exposed, shaved clean, and turned back into the Karadzic we all knew.
But when we met in The Hague, I found he means nothing to me because I don’t care what happens to him or to the others that were brought here. I only care about the sentence and justice and what happens in the future, when this court shuts down. He and his fellow detainees are treated well in “the Hague Hilton”.
I know it is wrong to compare it to the standards of ex-Yugoslavia’s “vukojebina” and to think of the crimes committed, but I can’t help feeling this is just too much.
Back home, the perception of the court and its “prison” as it is wrongly called there, reflects the divide of a schizophrenic society. For the nationalists, who still regard these people as heroes, this place is a dungeon, but for so many others it’s a stopover on what they hope is the road to hell.
As I smoked a cigarette (I recently quit smoking) on a balcony, I heard the thwack of a strong first serve on the tennis court below, and then some words in the different dialects of my language. I couldn’t recognize who was playing on the tennis court below but I’ve been told that Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general accused of war crimes against Serb civilians, is the undisputed tennis champion round here.
Opposite are the solitary cells, rooms with a single mattress on a bare floor and bright yellow walls. David Kennedy, Chief of the Detention Unit, says none of the accused from the former Yugoslavia behave badly enough to end up in solitary.
In fact for most, life here is good: art rooms, tennis and basketball courts, indoor and outdoor, a gym with enough toys for all the survivors of the Srebrenica genocide. There is a kitchen, showers and phone booths in between the wings where detainees have their cells. Mobile phones are forbidden so war crimes suspects have to use calling cards (30 euros a month, courtesy of the UN) if they want to call home.
No incoming calls are allowed, no internet, just letters.
Inside their cells, they can watch programs from home on flat screen TVs. Books and papers are delivered regularly. In one empty cell, there’s a pornographic sketch on the wall, someone’s homosexual fantasy.
In the kitchen, I saw a pie ready to be baked, a pack of playing cards, and a receipt for 23 euros for a kilo of Dutch beefsteak and some other food delivered to a detainee. The food here is prison food, but special orders are delivered from outside, including from a Balkan shop every week. Cartoons of Iranian president Ahmedinejad and ex-Libyan leader Gaddafi snipped from the newspapers are stuck to the kitchen door.
There are even parties. Birthdays and religious holidays are celebrated here, as they were under Tito’s brotherhood and unity. Men who allegedly exterminated on the basis of religion or ethnic group in the 1990s when they were free now sit down at the same table to celebrate each others religious festivals.
“They’ll cook for the saints days, get the materials in from the Balkans shop, and the whole wing will sit down and celebrate whatever it is,” said Kennedy. Even when they are competing on the football field they don’t team up along ethnic lines, and Kennedy says there has not been a single incident of a national or religious nature in all these years.
What a contrast to what happened under their command back in the 1990s. I vividly remember the few photos leaked from The Hague several years ago, images that haunted me for months before I managed to read them properly. It was Slobodan Milosevic’s birthday and the pictures showed a party in that same kitchen. There they were, those war-time enemies, commanders and leaders, all having a good time, hugging each other and looking straight at the camera for the one who took the pictures.
How could it happen, among those men who allegedly committed serious war crimes against other ethic groups?
“They get along together because they are in the same circumstances,” said Kennedy. “They’re facing the same restrictions that custody, being detained, puts on them, they are all living together in the same area, in the same wings, there’s no segregation based on ethnic background, and in those circumstances it’s best and easiest to get through it if you can get on with your neighbors.”
Maybe. But to me, regardless of whether they are Serb or Croat or Muslim, all these people are notorious criminals and ethnic cleansers. Accused and innocent until the court gives its verdict, which I hope is soon.