Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Prosecutor Mulls Bosnian War Brutality

The man who helped jail the creator of Bosnian prison camps says he still cannot get inside the heads of war criminals.
By Emir Suljagic

One of the key prosecutors at The Hague, Nicholas Koumijan, told IWPR this week that despite spending thousands of hours on one of the tribunal's most important cases, he remains mystified by the motives of the mass murderer he helped convict.


Offering a rare insight into the workings of The Hague's prosecution service, Koumijan, who is from Los Angeles, said, "I don't believe I will ever understand the psychosis that led such educated and apparently normal social beings to commit such cruelties to their own neighbours."


Koumijan led the prosecution of Milomir Stakic, a former mayor of Prijedor convicted last month. Stakic, 41, masterminded the creation of a string of camps around Prijedor, where thousands of Muslims and Croats perished. Judges found him guilty of extermination, murder and persecution and jailed him for a new record sentence - life.


Despite the horrors paraded in front of him in the case, Koumijan said the result made it worthwhile. "Of course, when someone is given such a severe sentence it is a sombre event, realising the consequences not only for the accused but for his family," he said. "I felt deep satisfaction that some small measure of justice was being done for the victims."


Balanced against that is the realisation that it is impossible for the Hague to try more than a fraction of those who committed war crimes.


"Victims have had very high hopes, and many of them are understandably bitter that perpetrators of the crimes they had suffered themselves will not be punished. That is the practical reality of the situation," he said. "Hundreds or even thousands of perpetrators of serious crimes will not be prosecuted, at least in this tribunal. Obviously, that is injustice. But realistically I never thought that we are going to get all those responsible."


After three years on the Stakic case, Koumijan is now off to East Timor's war crimes court to be deputy prosecutor general.


As he leaves The Hague, Koumijan says he still cannot understand what led a man with no criminal past to wreak such havoc. One of the ironies, he says, is that Stakic was no thug, but a well-educated man - who nevertheless perpetrated some of the worst crimes of the Bosnian war.


"Usually these educated people maintained some distance from the actual crime," said Koumijan. "They used others to carry out the crimes and - at least literally - did not have blood on their hands. But they were certainly aware of what was happening and facilitated these criminal campaigns, often furthering their own personal ambitions by doing so."


He also finds it incredible that so many people supported the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, "It is still hard for me to explain, and I think it is hard for many of the witnesses and victims who testified in our case to explain how in a town where people got along, where normal, educated, civilised people lived, such terrible crimes could happen. And be supported by such a large percentage of the population."


Koumijan believes that the media played a big part in creating the environment for violence. "Looking today at some of those articles, you find it very hard to believe that anyone would have taken them seriously," he said. "Articles about physicians trying to sterilise women, medically incorrect articles about doctors trying to kill their patients. The campaign would not have happened if the media reported the truth."


And he thinks that Prijedor was singled out for the harshest crimes because of a desire to crush its earlier tradition of tolerance.


"I think Prijedor was a threat to those people who wanted ethnic division," he said. "The character and the reputation of the place was a threat to those who proposed and planted propaganda that harmony was impossible."


Koumijan also feels that the Stakic trial, despite lasting three years, only scratched the surface because time did not allow most victims to have a day in court, "In Stakic we had 36 witnesses, including two experts, so out of thousands of people who suffered in Prijedor, only a few stories were told."


But he says that the hardest thing for him was not the huge amount of evidence, but the sight of victims recounting their stories.


"The most difficult moments for me were when witnesses talked about the murders of their family members," he said.


"I cannot forget several witnesses who talked about seeing their fathers murdered or taken away to be murdered. I was close to my own father, and I could understand how painful this loss was for them."


But he said he was also inspired by the way that some victims emerged as heroes.


Prijedor doctor Esad Sadikovic was thrown into the Omarska camp for trying to defuse ethnic tension. Inside the camp, he tried to offer rudimentary medical treatment, even to guards who were beating the prisoners.


"I will never forget how several witnesses talked about the night he was taken away.


"When his name was called out, all of the prisoners in his room stood up to say goodbye to him, to thank him for all he had done for them, and to show their respect to a man who was about to be killed because he stood for the proposition that all peoples could live together."


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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