The loneliest place in the world

How a witness and a prosecutor at the Yugoslavia Tribunal became colleagues

Ron HavivSerb paramilitaries burn the Croatian flag as they take over a town. 1991.

By Vincent Bongers and Petra Meijer

Thanks to Aernout van Lynden’s reports, Prosecutor Dan Saxon knew how to convict war criminals at the Yugoslavia Tribunal. Now they both work for Leiden University College. “I was ashamed of mankind.”

“The first time I interviewed Ratko Mladi? was in September 1992’, recalls former war correspondent Aernout van Lynden. He experienced the bloody civil war that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia at first hand. “The commander-in-chief of the Bosnian Serbian army took us to an artillery position on a hill close to Sarajevo. It was weird. While we looked out over the city, he said: ‘I have Sarajevo in the palm of my hand.” He wanted to show off his might – that was so typical of him. He is a real villain, the worst I encountered there, and that’s saying something. The Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague had just been established so I asked him whether he was worried that he would be prosecuted for war crimes. “Oh that, no” he replied, unconcerned.
“The last time I spoke to him was in February 1994, in Pale, the headquarters of the Bosnian Serbs: he was much more worried then. Mladi? noticed me and started to yell: I was a liar and all sorts of other things. He grabbed me by the face and there was not much I could say or do in that position. In the end, he let me go and I said: ‘I’ll see you in The Hague.’
“And that’s exactly where we met again, many years later. He was a suspect; I was a witness. I couldn’t stop myself telling the court that I had told Mladi? that I would see him there. He called me a dog, a thief and a CIA spy, but he also swore at his victims in court, which was much worse.”
Nowadays, Van Lynden teaches Journalism and War History at Leiden University College. “I met Aernout six years ago”, explains Dan Saxon, an American who was a prosecutor at the Tribunal between 1998 and 2010 and who currently also works for the University College in The Hague. On Saturday, they both talked about their parts in the Yugoslavia Tribunal at the conference European Association for American Studies, hosted by Campus The Hague.
Saxon continues: “I led the case against General Mom?ilo Peri?i?, who was the highest officer in the Yugoslavian army during the war. Perisic was prosecuted by the Tribunal for war crimes committed during the siege of Sarajevo. He was held responsible for the horrific assaults on the city by artillery and snipers – illegal attacks on civilians. It was not easy, as he mainly stayed in his office in Belgrade during the war and probably never even set foot in the mountains around Sarajevo, coordinating the Bosnian-Serbian troops from a distance.”
Saxon couldn’t think of a way to prove the general’s guilt. “Then I watched the reports Aernout had made about the city for the British broadcasting service Sky News. You could see how the houses and buildings were bombarded day and night by heavy machine guns, which are well-known for their lack of accuracy, and similar weapons. Those images were evidence that innocent civilains had been attacked.”
In addition, the reports were aired everywhere. “Peri?i? would have watched them too, so he actually knew what was going on. Arkan, the notorious commander of Arkan’s Tigers, the Serbian paramilitary organisation, even rang him up to complain about the reports. They all watched them.”
Van Lynden adds: “War correspondents were summoned to the Tribunal as witnesses a long while before Dan contacted me, but there were hitches. Nobody spoke to us; we had to listen to boring treatises on the history of Yugoslavia and then we were questioned for hours. Some of the details were hardly relevant or were entirely forgotten after twenty years, like the colour of someone’s uniform. We were frustrated because we could only provide answers; we weren’t allowed to have our say or to ask questions. The witness stand is the loneliest place in the world. We weren’t permitted to speak to other people and we had no idea what the defence were planning. Meanwhile, the court allowed criminals all the time in the world. The Bosnian witnesses who had to fly to The Hague, an intense and overwhelming experience for them, were always sent home if Radovan Karad?i? needed yet more time. It was frustrating, but I returned from that war with a deep-rooted hatred and I felt ashamed of mankind. We had to show the world that this was unacceptable and if people like Saxon want you, you don’t say no.”
Sometimes, Van Lynden reported while the buildings around him in Sarajevo burned. “We were on the top floor of a hospital that had been badly damaged by the shelling: we could see the entire city from there. The building was hit every day. When it quietened down, we would do reports about the doctors and nurses, and sometimes we’d give them a hand. I held legs while they amputated.
“I was just doing my job; it’s a calculated risk. But you couldn’t relax – that could be fatal. We once picked up someone from the television station ABC at Sarajevo airport. We had brought along a bullet-proof jacket but he refused to wear it. He was shot and killed on the drive into the city. Another time, our car was hit by three bullets; they only just missed us. One went through the headrest but even then I never thought about giving up my job. I eventually abandoned my career as a correspondent where I had started it: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I found myself lying on the street with a bullet in my leg and I thought: ‘Enough is enough.’ I was fed up with it.”
Saxon also wanted to call Van Lynden as a witness because of his personality. “I already knew a few war correspondents, but they led quite turbulent lives: lots of booze, dope and women. Aernout is a different animal, a modest, courteous man with ample experience; someone who knows what he’s talking about. Aernout is quite opinionated about the guilty parties and I worried that he might be considered prejudiced. But it all worked out in the end: Peri?i? was convicted.” However, the decision was overruled on appeal. Van Lynden remarks: “That was very disappointing, to put it mildly.”
His cooperation with the Tribunal had a major impact on Van Lynden. “Probing so deeply into my memories was very disturbing. I started sleepwalking; I would wake up, bathed in sweat, somewhere in our apartment without knowing how I got there. It grew worse: I started having flashbacks and lost track of my time. The nuclear summit was very unpleasant because the sound of the helicopters reminded me of Afghanistan where we were attacked by Russian attack helicopters. But it’s getting better; nowadays, I only have a bad night every now and then.”
Saxon, too, had to arm himself to cope with the files of appalling stories he had to examine. “I developed a rather good psychological defence mechanism: I read the files without emotion, with professional remoteness. But I still found it difficult to deal files that involved children.”
Van Lynden thinks it is a pity that nothing was asked about certain events in the war. “I would have liked to have given evidence about what happened in Biha?, an enclave in the northwest of Bosnia. The town was besieged by the Serbs for years and I witnessed things there that were similar to the siege of Sarajevo, but the prosecutors decide which cases go to court.”
In Saxon’s opinion, the Tribunal was reasonably effective: “It served to reduce impunity. People who commit war crimes must learn that they can’t get away with it. The most important results are not the cases in The Hague, but the legal developments in the countries where the atrocities took place. That’s what we need to work on.”
Van Lynden adds: “It’s a difficult, step-by-step process and sometimes we have to take two steps back, but at least we’ve made a start.”

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