Americans track truth in Bosnia war crime probe Depravity: U.S. lawyers and investigators are on the U.N. team seeking to bring to justice people accused of Europe's most horrific crimes against humanity since World War II.

March 31, 1996|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands -- Between them, they have taken aim at some of America's most notorious criminal targets in recent memory. One prosecuted Exxon for its Alaska oil spill. Another helped convict the Los Angeles policemen who beat up Rodney King. Still others have hunted down murderers, Mafia bosses, drug lords and fugitive Nazis.

Now they're here, some 40 American lawyers and investigators in all, and they're working the biggest case of their lives.

Their employer is the International War Crimes Tribunal, established in 1994. Their crime scene is the former Yugoslavia, and their prime suspects are named Karadzic, Mladic and so on, an infamous roll call of Serbs, Croats and Muslims accused of Europe's most horrendous crimes against humanity since World War II.

And in all their combined years of poking through the worst that society has to offer, never have they been so overwhelmed by depravity writ large.

"In 20-something years, in a sense you get kind of numb to reading about murders and the details of murders, 'cause it's your daily work," says former federal prosecutor Mark Harmon. "But nothing can prepare you for reading some of this stuff. It brings tears to your eyes."

But for many, never has an investigation offered such jarring paradoxes.

Teresa McHenry, an attorney on loan from the Justice Department's organized crime division, says, "This has been the most fascinating and the most frustrating job I've ever had."

On the one hand, for example, they're equipped with a United Nations mandate, the mantle of international law, and legal and investigative personnel contributed by 36 nations.

Yet they are understaffed and underfunded, routinely forced to delay or cancel evidence-gathering trips in order to accommodate a budget ever in danger of running dry.

They are enforced in the field by the forces of NATO and the U.S. Army, and the host governments of the former Yugoslavia have pledged cooperation as part of the Dayton peace accord.

Yet they've been blocked from reaching some of the most important crime scenes, and watch helplessly from afar as their most wanted suspects walk the streets of Bosnia, relax in cafes and glide through NATO checkpoints.

Then there is the matter of their own family and friends back home in America.

Many, it seems, couldn't care less about Bosnia.

Sheila Berry, detailed to the war crimes tribunal from the State Department's bureau of international organizations, recalls the reaction she got during a Christmas trip home to rural Arizona.

"It was a large family gathering," she says. "I buttonholed virtually all of my relatives to expound in fairly passionate terms why [Bosnia] was important and why we should be interested.

"Finally, one of my cousins took me aside and told me not only was this not very interesting and not very important, but would I please shut up and go away."

This sense of American detachment has struck nearly all of them at times as they work so far from home, sometimes under dangerous conditions, on the world's most important prosecutions since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.

"I go back and talk to people in America and ask what were they doing in late July of 1995, less than a year ago," says prosecutor Greg Kehoe, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa. "They say they were on vacation with their kids, maybe going to Disney World in Florida, or whatever.

"And the fact of the matter is that at that time [in Bosnia] outside Srebrenica, thousands of people were being annihilated after digging their own graves. That's not in 1945; that's less than a year ago."

After 50 years of hearing "Never again" in response to the genocide of the Holocaust, he says, "This is still going on, and the ultimate question for us as Americans is, when is it going to stop?"

A challenge, making history

A wide variety of motivations attracted the Americans to the tribunal.

Twenty-one are on loan from the U.S. government, chosen from hundreds of volunteers in 1994.

Most came from the Justice Department, such as Alan Tieger, who had just finished the civil rights prosecution in the Rodney King case, or Terree Bowers, who was the U.S. attorney for the Los Angeles district.

Some were suffering the usual letdown in the wake of a big case, looking for another big challenge. Others were attracted by the monumental nature of the job, the chance to make history. Then there were the unabashed idealists, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accomplish something for the sake of humanity.

Among the latter is Mark Harmon, a former Justice Department prosecutor who is one of about 20 additional Americans directly hired by the tribunal rather than coming on loan.

During five years in the civil rights division and five more in the environmental crimes division -- where he helped prosecute the Alaska oil spill case against Exxon -- Mr. Harmon never quite lost the save-the-world zeal that grips some young people to law school.

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