Team makes lists of Balkan horrors

April 18, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- On the computer screen before young Dan Bronson is the grimmest catalog of selections in the world:

Killed after torture. Killed after rape. Killed after imprisonment. Killed after forced evacuation. Killed in flight. Killed in combat.

Sitting in this nondescript office day after day, Mr. Bronson, 22, reads through the stacks of documents and makes his choices. Raped. Tortured. Mutilated.

What he is compiling is a record of atrocities in what was Yugoslavia. Operating in cramped quarters at the DePaul University College of Law, Mr. Bronson and his co-workers are creating a one-of-a-kind data base detailing the horrors of the Balkan conflict since 1991.

At a minimum, the 40 or so people involved in the DePaul project -- most of them volunteers -- are establishing a historical record of the brutality inflicted on civilians and captured soldiers in the war zones. But everyone here has a more immediate goal, one symbolized by the photographs on the hallway walls depicting the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany, and in Tokyo after World War II.

Last year, for the first time since those trials, the United Nations established an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes -- this time, in the Balkans. Many believe that if there are convictions, they will result from the work being done at DePaul.

"What they are doing will be in valuable to any prosecutions," says Diane Orentlicher, an authority on war crimes at American University in Washington.

The sheer volume of the evidence assembled at DePaul is overwhelming.

The project has collected more than 64,000 documents, much of it derived from eyewitness accounts gathered by the United Nations, the Red Cross, Helsinki Watch and other organizations active in the war zone.

The project has identified more than 5,000 crimes, involving all sides in the ethnic conflict; nearly 500 prison camps; and as many as 155 mass graves, one or two of which reportedly contain as many as 5,000 bodies each.

All the evidence is being transferred to the international tribunal, whose prosecutors will decide which cases to pursue.

For the predominantly youthful workers at DePaul, sifting through that evidence has been a sustained look into evil.

As snow flickers outside the window, Mr. Bronson, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago wearing a T-shirt and jeans, has before him the account of a Bosnian Muslim woman who described being taken from her bed by Bosnian Serbian soldiers last spring and herded into a village school with 300 other women. During the next seven days, she said, many of the women were repeatedly raped by soldiers, some of whom she identified by name.

Mr. Bronson says that after nearly a year, such reports no longer shock him, but that the cumulative effect of the reports has taken a toll. "I feel I should be doing this work," he says. "On the other hand, I feel I have to drag myself in here every day."

Patsy Campbell, a lawyer from Washington who recently joined the project, has not yet developed the comfort of desensitization. She recalls one of the early reports she read in which the word "butcher" was used. She believed at first that it was simply a metaphor.

"But butcher is what they meant," says Ms. Campbell, 30. "They went on to talk about dismemberment, of cutting open a pregnant woman and killing the fetus. I asked some of the others, 'Can this really be? Have you ever seen anything like this?' All of them said they had."

'Branded in my mind'

The very existence of the DePaul project is a reflection of the zeal of one man, M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born lawyer who is one of the world's foremost authorities on war crimes.

A law professor at DePaul, Mr. Bassiouni, 57, has long championed the idea of a permanent international criminal tribunal and often advised governments on the prosecution of war crimes. He was chairman of a U.N. war crimes commission that issued a report Friday concluding the Bosnian Serbs had committed "crimes against humanity" and probably genocide.

As part of that work, Mr. Bassiouni persuaded the United Nations to allow him to establish the DePaul project in 1993 as the collection point for all evidence.

The DePaul project does not do any of its own investigations at the site of the crimes, but Mr. Bassiouni has made several trips to the Balkans, most recently last month, when he led a team of volunteer prosecutors to interview more than 170 sexual assault victims.

He relates some of what he has seen: rape and murder victims, children with amputated limbs, whole villages wiped out. The images, he says, are "branded in my mind as if by fire."

"I was literally up to my knees in corpses at one grave site in Krajina," he said in his office late last month.

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