The importance of convicting this elderly man of murder

It is a romantic fallacy that the mass murderer is haunted by the faces of his victims
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The Independent Culture
TWO DEATHS out of 6 million. A tiny sliver of a great evil. Two ordinary Jewish women who one morning half a century ago found themselves staring into the eyes of Anthony Sawoniuk. They would hardly have hoped for mercy. Too many of their kind had gone to death in the previous few weeks. When the Nazis arrived, the Jews of Domachevo would have known what to expect. What the poet Paul Celan called "death the master from Germany" reigned supreme in the remote fastnesses of Belarus.

Of these two vanished women we know little. The Holocaust obliterated their lives from memory; it uncreated them. What kind of people were they? Were they kind or selfish, were they practically minded or dreamers? Did they harbour big ambitions or were they, as we must suppose, creatures of the small horizon, living out their lives in an impoverished backwater of the Soviet Union. They might so easily have gone unremembered, those two lives extinguished in an East European forest, a patch of ground already stuffed with the dead.

That is the nature of genocide: destroy the group, deny the humanity of the individual. Kill as you would kill mice or rats. Does a rat or a mouse have a face, much less a heart or soul? Of course not. So slaughter these verminous Jews. Kill without mercy until there is not one left. And when they are gone and there is no one left to tell the story, you will be safe from any accounting for your deeds.

I am sure that is what Anthony Sawoniuk believed. For was he not but a little cog in a great murder machine, just one finger on the trigger, one fist raised among an army of millions? In a world of death, who could have singled him out as any more guilty then the next man? I wonder whether he even remembered the faces of those two women. It is a romantic fallacy, I believe, that the mass murderer is haunted by the faces of his victims. I have known a few of these monsters and they are rarely haunted.

And for Sawoniuk, a veteran killer, there was the simple mathematical question of how many faces you could remember when you had seen so many go to their deaths. After so many terrified, doomed people had passed before him, was it likely that he would retain memory of the two women whose lives he stole in the forest of Domachevo? That would surely be asking too much. But, alas for Sawoniuk, there were people who remembered his face, people who had witnessed his individual contribution to the Holocaust. And five decades later, in a courtroom in London, the humanity, the individuality of two dead Jews from a small town in Belarus was finally acknowledged.

I heard the news on a car radio in London and cheered. In the running order, the story came ahead of news about the latest expulsions of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. More stories of burned villages, men being led away, railway cars crammed with terrified refugees whose identity documents had been seized and destroyed. It was news to make one feel helpless, news to induce anger.

But somehow the Sawoniuk verdict helped to ease those emotions; 50 years on, a man who terrorised the innocent, a man who believed he would never be called to account, was sitting in the dock and hearing that he would spend the rest of his life in jail. And I wished just then that Milosevic and Arkan and the rest of the masters of terror in Yugoslavia might have glimpsed that courtroom scene. For if they did, they might have felt a chill.

I say "might", because we are dealing here with men who seem to show little concern for the possibility that they may some day face justice for their crimes. The fudging and dodging and weakness that they have experienced in their dealings with the West will doubtless have encouraged them to regard any threat of prosecution by a war crimes tribunal as nothing more than hot air.

They will reason, with some sound historical evidence, that the only reason Sawoniuk faced justice is that he was the soldier of a defeated regime. Had the Nazis triumphed, the old monster would likely be polishing his medals in Belarus. They may also take comfort from the fact that Radovan Karadzic and Radko Mladic are still at large, with the great crime of Srebrenica unpunished. I think in the long term they will be proved wrong. There will be a court and there will be justice. I have no evidence to prove that this will be so, simply the sense that the Western powers have passed a point of no return, which will end with Milosevic being called to account.

Seeing justice done is the central aim of the war crimes prosecutor. But there is a parallel duty of equal importance. It is to place on the record of our human history the truth of what happened under the Nazis and Stalin and Pol Pot and the Hutu extremists, and what is happening now in Kosovo. When the prosecutor stands up in court he begins the process of writing a real history, free from the lies of the propagandists or the simplifications of the media. It is a history that can be challenged in court, and at times the law will rule certain truths as inadmissible or even unprovable. But that is the law, and though we may not like it, though we may feel it denies us "full justice" or "full truth", it is still our best recourse.

If you want to understand the beauty of the law, think of those old voices in a London courtroom describing the crimes of Sawoniuk. They were voices that spoke from half a century ago, but they had not forgotten. And they reminded us that the law is about witness: it is there to say, these things happened and we do not deny them. These things happened, and our collective memory must accommodate them.

We may have waited too long to act in Yugoslavia, and now we are shamed by the terrible images that now fill our television screens. But there is at least an impulse to act in support of those who are victimised by very reason of their ethnic background. And that impulse, which now drives Mr Blair, is rooted in the knowledge of what happened when we failed to stop dictators in the past.

The crimes described at Nuremberg, the litany of horrors emerging in the Rwandan genocide trials, the immense body of evidence now collected on Stalin's terror, are part of a great block of uncomfortable truths that cannot be washed away. They are the warning we cannot ignore.

In Stalin's case the courts tried people under bad laws without even the pretence of justice. They were an example of the way the law can be subverted and put to evil use. But they also serve as an important lesson to us; when we try the likes of Sawoniuk, and if we ever get round to trying Milosevic or Arkan, we make sure the evidence is sound and the witnesses are credible. If that occasionally means releasing men we know to be guilty, so be it. As I mentioned above, what matters is memory, being able to produce reliable witnesses who can say: "I was there and this is what happened."

I am reminded of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova describing a visit to a prison in Leningrad where her son was detained during the years of Stalin's Terror. People were disappearing and being executed and it seemed as if there would be no one to bear witness to the truth. An old woman recognised the writer and asked her if she could at some future time describe what was happening. Akhmatova answered that she could. "Then," remembered Akhmatova, "something like a smile crossed what had once been her face." There may yet be smiles for the terrorised people of Kosovo.

The writer is a BBC News special correspondent

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