Veteran Carroll prosecutor welcomes Kosovo posting

U.N. assignment is his third in region

March 05, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The view from the unnamed ridge in Bosnia reminded Thomas E. Hickman of the rolling hills and trees of Maryland's Catoctin Mountains -- until he turned around.

Behind him, he saw the skeletal remains of dozens of men, women and children, most likely those missing from a village near Kravica, a suburb of Srebrenica.

"We stopped counting the bodies after 100," he said of that scene in October 1996. "There were no bullet marks or scrapes, or holes in the rocks, the trees. I looked at the bodies, and each one had a bullet hole in the back of the head."

Hickman, who as Carroll County state's attorney from 1975 to 1995 handled hundreds of cases from marijuana to murder, currently has genocide on his docket.

"I thought, `I'd really like to meet the people who did this.' And now it turns out, years later, I might meet some of them after all," he said.

Hickman is in the Balkans as an international prosecutor for UNMIK, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. He is one of five prosecutors for the mission's Department of Judicial Affairs, said Susan Manuel, a U.N. spokeswoman in Kosovo, a province of Serbia.

Hickman's assignment is a difficult and dangerous job, she said, because U.N. prosecutors must investigate and prosecute suspects in an atmosphere of prejudice and revenge. Kosovo is his third assignment in the region and his first as a civilian.

Manuel said Hickman and his colleagues will handle three types of cases too dicey for Kosovo's police and judiciary: alleged war crimes by Serbs, some of whom have been jailed since mid-1999; alleged revenge crimes against Serbs by their former victims, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians; and organized crime, which is thriving in the aftermath of war and includes political assassinations along with trafficking in drugs, goods and people.

Because of the danger, Hickman said last month, he is living on a closely guarded German military base, where, he added, "I have `close protection guards' 24 hours a day."

The cases he prepares will be tried by a panel of local and international judges, Manuel said, similar to the war-crimes trials of former Nazis at Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II.

"The U.N. does not like to act like an imperial power or a colonial power," Hickman said. "They want the local people to feel they have a say in this. Otherwise, they will not honor or respect what has been done."

That is important to him, he said, noting that his work in Bosnia included helping to write a criminal code and laws for the selection and removal of judges there.

"I thought that would be the highlight of my career -- but this is bigger," Hickman said.

Hickman can appreciate the need for justice: He learned of the atrocities of the Holocaust from his late father, Charles, who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War II.

Hickman, 54, who lives on a farm near Uniontown with his wife, Susan, and 14-year-old daughter, Jessica, is familiar with the Balkans.

He retired in 1999 as a colonel in the Air National Guard after serving 30 years that included two tours of duty in Bosnia -- from August 1996 to January 1997, and from March to November 1998.

Hickman was a judge-advocate in Sarajevo in the Office of the High Representative, which was created to oversee civilian affairs after the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.

After his return to Carroll, Hickman kept in touch with his former associates and followed news of the Balkans.

"I expect to hit the ground running," Hickman said during an interview at his office near the historic courthouse in Westminster as he prepared to leave.

"He's been assigned the most serious war-crimes case coming up," Manuel said.

The international prosecutors double as investigative judges and decide whether a case has merit, she said. Hickman has been assigned to the Prizren district, which is bordered by Macedonia and Albania, and is the southernmost of the five U.N. administrative regions in Kosovo.

"It just so happens that it is the most beautiful region of Kosovo," Hickman wrote in an e-mail upon his arrival. He wrote that he was reviewing a 1999 incident near a village in which Serb police and paramilitary fighters are suspected of killing as many as 74 men, chasing away their wives and children.

"These cases are tough," he said. "Maybe we can learn who the killers are from the women and maybe even find a survivor."

But he seemed doubtful.

"It's a rough neighborhood," he said. "There is risk of assassinations of the accused, of witnesses -- even U.N. staff. If a person is arrested and facing trial, they've had problems with people coming down to the jail. There's an awful lot of weaponry in Kosovo."

When he returned to the United States after his second assignment in Bosnia, Hickman said, "The first thing I did was, I went back into the woods and I walked for miles. At home, I walk everywhere I can with our two dogs."

In Bosnia, he couldn't walk except in a public square because so much of the countryside was riddled with land mines and booby traps.

"I literally hugged the trees when I got back here," he said. "You don't appreciate what we have here until you see something like that."

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