An act of war

A small theatre group in North-west London has set out to succeed where a War Crime tribunal failed: to show up the failure of the West to prevent the horror of Srebrenica. By Paul Mitchell
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History has a cruel way of burning insignificant place-names into our common consciousness: Guernica; Mai Lai; Srebrenica. For a brief moment in 1993, Srebrenica was a symbol that we would not allow the strong to bully the weak. In the name of the United Nations, General Philippe Morillon promised Srebrenica's 40,000 Muslim refugees that they would be protected from the Bosnian Serbs who encircled them. The international community had finally stood up for what was right. But two years later, the UN and Nato stood by and watched as General Ratko Mladic led his Bosnian Serb Army into Srebrenica, separated the men from the women, and organised a slaughter of perhaps 8,000 unarmed civilians. The UN, finally discredited, could only promise that some day the guilty would be brought to justice, much as the Nazis had been brought to book at Nuremberg in 1946.

Last May, Judge Richard Goldstone, the Chief Prosecutor for the UN's Bosnian War Crimes tribunal, took the trip to Kilburn to see Nuremberg, the Tricycle Theatre's acclaimed dramatisation of the Nazi war crimes trials. Impressed, Goldstone invited the play's director, Nicolas Kent, to a show of his own: the upcoming hearings in the Hague on the indictments for genocide against the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic. For the first time, the public would be able to hear the evidence, including witness testimony, of Karadzic's and Mladic's role in the siege and shelling of Sarajevo, ethnic cleansing, hostage- taking and, above all, the Srebrenica massacre. "Tickets will be like gold dust," Goldstone promised. He was wrong. Over the 10 days of hearings in July, the public galleries were never full. Despite extensive coverage by CNN in Europe and Court TV in the United States, the event singularly failed to capture the public imagination, especially here in Britain.

Yet Kent himself was hooked. He arrived as the prosecutors moved their presentation towards Srebrenica, the dramatic climax of the hearings. They began by calling a French policeman, Jean Rene Ruez, who was attached to the tribunal. Asked if he had uncovered evidence that General Mladic had been in Srebrenica when the Bosnian Serb Army were carrying out the massacres, Ruez brought out a large map of the area and proceeded to place a black sticky dot against every location in which Mladic had been sighted over the crucial days. "That was pure drama," says Kent, "and it was obviously done for dramatic reasons." That night, he rang London and began organising the Tricycle for a new production, based on the Karadzic-Mladic hearings.

The one-act Srebrenica is the result. Like Nuremberg and the Tricycle's earlier Not the Truth (based on transcripts of the Scott Inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq scandal), Srebrenica is courtroom drama at its purest. All the action takes place within the hi-tech tribunal chamber, faithfully re-created on stage, except that the theatre audience isn't separated from the action by bullet-proof glass as they are in the Hague. The characters are real, their speeches made up of selected verbatim extracts from the trial transcripts.

In a brisk 65 minutes, the action is told from four points of view: Ruez, the French policeman who tried to piece together the story afterwards; the pompous commander of UN forces in Srebrenica, the Dutch Colonel Karramans; a young Dutch corporal who passively watched the rampaging Serbs murder Muslims in front of him; and, finally, the tribunal's star witness, Drazen Erdemovic, a soldier in the Bosnian Serb Army who has pleaded guilty to killing unarmed civilians in Srebrenica.

As at the hearings themselves, Srebrenica rises and falls on Erdemovic's testimony. A young Croat who served in all three of Bosnia's armies (Muslim, Croat and Serb), he ended up an unwilling executioner in the killing fields outside Srebrenica. When the first of 20 bus-loads of unarmed Muslim men were brought before his firing squad, he complained that they had done nothing to him and should not be shot. He was told to follow orders or join the doomed prisoners.

In a remarkable performance, Jay Simpson perfectly captures Erdemovic: he hyperventilates, one leg shakes uncontrollably. He seems to be on the edge of tears throughout his testimony. When the Egyptian Judge Riad asks him, quite gently, how many people he personally killed in Srebrenica, Erdemovic sobs that he doesn't know and, quite frankly, would rather not know. He is testifying, he says, because, at the age of 26, he knows his life is ruined. "Because my fate and the fate of those people was decided by somebody higher." At the real hearings, Erdemovic at that point did finally break into tears, but the actor Simpson holds back. Director Nicolas Kent admits this was a conscious decision. "I watched Erdemovic from the gallery in the Hague and was close to tears. It's a 'there but for the grace of God go I' situation - what would any of us do when confronted with the choice of killing or being killed? I am completely sure he was sincere. I didn't want in any way to betray that sincerity."

In distilling 10 days down to an hour, much is lost. The most telling testimony against Mladic, that of an elderly Muslim farmer who saw him at the killing fields, is left out. So too is the farcical appearance of Karadzic's legal team from Los Angeles, who suddenly arrived, demanded access to the prosecution's papers, and were told to go home until their client chose to come to the Hague himself. More significantly, the Tricycle's small budget doesn't stretch to finding a way to show the mass of photographic and video evidence that was used by the tribunal. At the Hague, the trial chamber was shown a vast amount of footage of General Mladic in Srebrenica, shots of his soldiers separating Muslim men from their wives, mothers and children, and chilling photos of mass graves, both from American spy satellites and, later, from the forensic teams that have begun to exhume them. Dr Karadzic and his followers can no longer credibly protest that no massacres took place when confronted with the sight of dozens of decaying bodies, all shot through the skull, their hands still tied together with rusting wire.

Srebrenica captures the dramatic heart of the case put forward by the prosecution at the Hague Tribunal. But for the status of the Tribunal itself, the Karadzic-Mladic hearings were a serious setback. For over a year before the hearings, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic had simply refused to recognise the authority of the Hague Tribunal and surrender to face trial. There was, and is, a force available to arrest them, the 60,000 Nato troops deployed in Bosnia as part of the peace agreement. But Nato has refused to hunt the two men down.

The Karadzic-Mladic hearings were designed to raise public pressure on the Nato countries to act. They failed. So why has a small theatre company in North-west London felt the need to try to re-create the proceedings? As Nicolas Kent remarks: "It's not just because of the tribunal's failure, it's because of a failure of the West as a whole that we're doing this play"n

'Srebrenica' is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (booking: 0171-328 1000) to 26 Oct. The writer was producer / director of the Bafta-winning BBC documentary 'The Death of Yugoslavia', and ran the live broadcasts of the Hague Tribunal for the EU's Europe by Satellite service for the television charity Internews