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

VIEWPOINT: Courtroom Short on Drama

Hague trials are often slow, boring affairs - and so they should be.
By Slavenka Drakulic

The court building smells of fresh paint. A young man in white overalls is slowly painting the entrance hall. The hall is otherwise empty, with big glass walls to the right and the left. On the left there is the entrance door to offices, with a metal detector and a policeman, of course.


I want to go to courtroom number 3, for the trial of Miroslav Kvocka, Dragoljub Prcac, Milojica Kos, Mladjo Radic and Zoran Zigic, who are accused of murder and torture at the Omarska and Keraterm camps. At the top of a marble staircase is a second metal detector - tape recorders and cameras are not allowed.


Next, I climb a narrow metal staircase to the courtroom, where yet another policeman stands at the door. The courtroom is rather small, divided by bullet-proof glass. In the public gallery, about 100 people can be seated on uncomfortable blue plastic seats. There are two TV-screens in each corner.


This is nothing like the courtrooms in the movies and TV series like "LA Law" - no huge rooms panelled with dark wood. It looks more like a hospital waiting room - antiseptic, with simple and functional furniture and grey wall-to-wall carpet. The lighting, strong neon fixtures, make people look pale and somehow sick.


I sit in the first row to see well. But I could sit anywhere I please because I am the only member of the public today. I am a bit surprised: the entrance is free, but it seems there is not much interest in following the trials day to day. I was told that law students and relatives come here from time to time. Journalists come only at the opening of a new trial and when a sentence is delivered. Then you can hardly squeeze yourself in.


I face the three judges sitting on a platform - the defendants and their lawyers to my left; prosecution to the right. The defendants can see the public through the glass; there are only a few metres between us. The glass wall is probably intended to protect them from assault, but the feeling is different. Like a fence in a zoo, the glass seems to protect the public from attack from dangerous animals behind it.


I sit and watch them, the five defendants. They look so normal. I would feel more comfortable if they were somehow marked, so it would be immediately clear they are alleged murderers. It is actually unpleasant to see that they seem normal and in no way different from your neighbours or people you meet at work. But what did I expect to see: Horns? Pointed ears?


In fact, they were all ordinary policeman, except Zigic who was a taxi driver. He is the only one who looks threatening, maybe because he is stronger than the other four - a dark man in his forties with a strong neck, dressed in a brown suit and a yellow shirt.


Today his defence witness is being examined. Next to him is Prcac, an older grey-haired thin man. Wearing a grey suit and boasting a small moustache, he looks like a mouse. The two of them sit between two policemen. Behind them, also seated between two officers, is the rest of the group: Kos and Kvocka seem like village troublemakers, while the stocky Radic seems more like a manager.


Zigic shifts nervously in his chair. He looks like he needs a cigarette. Surely he smokes - all Bosnians do. He would probably like a cup of coffee, too. They drink a strong brew in Bosnia which was called Turkish coffee before the war. I wonder what is the politically correct expression now: Serbian coffee?


The defendants sit there day after day, hour after hour, without cigarettes or coffee, listening over headphones to the translation of the endless exchanges between lawyers and judges. They must wonder how they ever ended up in this strange country with all these strangers around them. What is happening to them is so out of context for them it must be hard to understand that it is happening for real. Certainly they never expected to end up in the court. Sometimes they must feel as if they are in a movie.


This case has been going on for almost a year now, and if you are in the courtroom for the first time, as I am, it is not easy to follow. This is not because of the subject, but because of the method. A witness is questioned in minute details, and it is easy to get lost if you don't concentrate. Very often, procedural questions need to be clarified, making it only more difficult.


One judge is now questioning a protected witness for the defence. He sits behind plastic blinds, where he cannot be seen. On the TV screen, his face is distorted. The witness was a guard at Omarska, and he was there at the time of the massacre in a room number 3, where on the night of July 24, 1992, more than a hundred prisoners were killed.


The examination proceeds like this:


Judge: Did you ever enter the room with prisoners?


Witness: No.


Judge: Were you near the entrance to that room? How do you know the diameter of a barrel in front of room number 1?


Witness: The doors were open, you could see inside.


Judge: The barrel was inside or outside?


Witness: It was out.


Judge : How do you know that the diameter was 30 centimetres?


Witness: I estimated it.


I follow this for some time, not clear why the location of the barrel is so important but trusting the judge that it is. But I catch myself getting increasingly bored. I look at the accused. Zigic is trying hard to concentrate - after all, this is witness for his defence. But I can tell by the expression on his face that he is not listening carefully. I can see that his eyes, too, are wandering around the courtroom like mine. Kos is looking towards a ceiling. It looks like Prcac is devoting his attention to a woman whose job is to write down every word, maybe because of her lively dress with flowers. One of the lawyers is discreetly yawning.


The examination is long, careful and exhausting. I admire the evident concentration of the judges, while I myself feel I could fall asleep at any moment. Now, after some time in the courtroom, I understand why it is empty. Because the proceedings, not just in this case but all of them, are painstakingly slow and boring. This is exactly as it should be. A trial is not a show for the public. It does not need to be interesting or entertaining. It is a serious thing, justice is in question, human lives are at stake, and there is nothing spectacular in proving someone's guilt or innocence.


I realise that we are all poisoned by trials in television series and Hollywood movies, with quick exchanges of arguments between good-looking lawyers in expensive suits. In The Hague there is no drama, not in the Hollywood sense. The drama here is that everything really happened - real deaths, real victims, real murderers. The drama is that there is no escape from reality.


I am looking at my watch again. Only an hour has passed and it feels like an eternity to me. As if time has a different quality in this courtroom, as if it is passing slower than outside, in the streets of The Hague. Perhaps it does?


I try to focus again. The guard is trying to defend Zigic. He said that the killing happened because prisoners tried to escape and were shot while running away. But, asks the judge, why the blood in the room, on the walls?


Blood on the walls? Suddenly I see that picture in front of my eyes. I realise what the judge is talking about. The death of 120 prisoners is no longer an abstraction, no longer merely words. At that moment, the tedious, precise interrogation takes on another meaning. When, at the end of that day in the court, I take another long look at the defendants, they appear different to me. I see what I did not see before, their faces overlapping with a vivid picture of that room with walls splashed with blood.


Slavenka Drakulic is an IWPR special correspondent focusing on justice and war crimes. Her most recent novel, about mass rape in Bosnia, "As If I Am Not There", is published by Abacus.