The camp where Balkan leaders await their trial

A windswept Dutch resort is the unlikely home of a detention centre built to house the world's most notorious warmongers as they await trial at The Hague. But here, as a rare glimpse behind the walls reveals, sworn enemies are finding a strange kind of peace
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The Independent Online

It started off like any other night out in the Canary Islands. A pair of diners at a four-star hotel in Tenerife ordered their wine and were just settling down for the evening. But what had started as a relaxing holiday outing came to a sudden and unceremonious end when a Spanish special-forces team burst in the room, swarmed the two men's table, and dragged them out the door in handcuffs. The target of this unexpected dinner theatre? Ante Gotovina, who had been the object of a worldwide Nato manhunt for the past four years as one of the Yugoslavia Tribunal's most wanted fugitives. Within days, the former Croatian general was bustled off to The Hague to appear before that court, where he pleaded not guilty to charges that he had unleashed an orgy of savagery on Serb civilians during the bloody Krajina offensive in 1994.

Between the crash and glamour of Gotovina's capture two months ago and the protracted earnestness of his trial (which may not begin until the end of the year) looms a long stretch of downtime. And this raises a serious practical question: where do you hold those accused of war crimes before they go to trial? In Gotovina's case, there's no serious possibility of his being granted pre-trial release; given the forged passports, fake identities and network of hideaways that he came up with during his time as a fugitive, the tribunal is unlikely to take his word that he'll be back in time for trial. Instead, Gotovina will remain where he is now: the United Nations Detention Unit, an extraordinary facility that exists solely for the purpose of housing those accused of war crimes.

The detention unit is tucked away behind drab brick walls in a mostly residential part of the Dutch seaside town of Scheveningen, not far from the rolling sand dunes and winding paths of a nature reserve. Despite the innocuous exterior, the entry point is all business: metal detectors, grim guards and eventually a wave through the doorway that leads into the prison proper. I felt a flicker of anxiety when the first door slammed shut behind us, leaving the group in a small, unmarked room with pale yellow walls and a thick metal door on each end. From there, we were ushered through a series of locked doors, blank hallways, spotless staircases and windowless antechambers until we finally reached the warden's small office, with its window overlooking one of the central courtyards.

Tim McFadden is a former Irish army officer in his mid-fifties who seems to have walked into the job of prison warden straight out of central casting: ruddy cheeks, carefully buffed charm and a buttery brogue that would have you nodding along even if he were reciting the Dutch tax code. He got his start in the prison business during the 1970s, when the Irish army put him in charge of a new military facility created for "politically oriented" prisoners from the various factions of the island's ongoing turmoil. McFadden later moved on to a long stint as a UN peacekeeper, and his background in the Irish prisons eventually led him to a job designing and running the detention centre at the Rwanda Tribunal. When the Yugoslavia Tribunal needed to develop a dedicated space for a detainee population that ballooned from four to 30 during the second half of 1997, he was recruited to The Hague to do it all over again.

McFadden took us for a walk through the cell blocks, which hardly seemed worthy of the name. If you could ignore the cells' ponderous steel doors, the accommodation looked like nothing so much as a college hall of residence: poster-covered walls, well-stocked bookshelves, big wardrobes, quilts spread over the bed, comfortable chairs and spacious desks usually crowned by a laptop. Actually, with radios, coffee machines and full private bathrooms, the cells looked at least as comfortable as your average Travelodge room. Each floor of the building had a recreation room with good-size windows, a tatty little cooking area, a pile of board games, a communal television (usually tuned to one of the Serbo-Croat channels that gets piped in from back home) and sometimes even a table-tennis table or a dartboard. Detainees roam freely around their assigned floor during most of the daytime hours, so as we walked through the corridors, there they were, folding laundry, playing chess, watching television, reading in the rec room or chatting in small groups in the hallway, invariably offering us neighbourly hellos and greeting the warden by name.

It was all startlingly cheery - even homely. When I asked McFadden about this during a later conversation, he spoke at length and with passion about the presumption of innocence and about having to remove some guards who'd come in on loan from the Dutch government when it became clear that they were unable to separate the inmates from the crimes they're accused of. There was genuine empathy in his voice as he talked about the situation almost all the detainees face when they arrive. As he put it, these are older men who have typically never been charged with a crime. Because of their age, and because they are not career criminals, it's extremely difficult for them to adjust to life behind bars in an alien world where everything, from the language of their wardens to the food they eat, is foreign to them. Virtually all of them, he said, suffer major depression after they arrive; some become suicidal.

One of the most practical things McFadden can offer in the face of this transition shock is a full menu of ways to fill up each passing day. As he later put it, in prison "your biggest enemy is time. So, the function of the occupational therapy programme is to fill that time in order to maintain their emotional welfare so that they're not going into crisis. It's very easy to drive them mad from lack of freedom." In an odd aside, he recalled that this hadn't been as much of an issue at the Rwanda Tribunal prison, where the African inmates seemed to him to be "able to switch off certain things within their body and just let the time pass". But for prisoners from "the Western atmosphere", forced inactivity is misery, so they flock to anything that passes the time.

Inmates here certainly don't lack for entertainment options. Besides television, radio and access to any print media to which they choose to subscribe, the prisoners can attend English classes (which boast almost universal attendance), computer workshops, and a range of art instruction from ceramics and painting to more esoteric techniques such as model-ship building. There are comfortable visiting facilities, including rooms reserved for conjugal visits. Weekly religious services are led by Muslim, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests, who are shipped in by the tribunal authorities. And evenings are time for exercise, when a roomful of chubby fiftysomethings rush around playing volleyball or five-a-side football under the close supervision of a physical-education instructor.

Indicted War Criminal Volleyball was a peculiar enough idea, but my sense of cognitive dissonance reached its height in the arts-and-crafts room. I couldn't get my mind around the image of deposed army generals working with the construction paper, plastic-tipped scissors, and pots of glue that were strewn around the Formica tabletops, or working with the clay that was stored on shelves to the side of the room. But that's just what they do: one still-unfired vase was oddly beautiful, with a painstakingly moulded iguana winding its way around the vase's outer curve. It reminded me, strangely, of something that one of my law-school teachers often said about her choice to become a defence lawyer. "I can defend 'those people'," she said, "because I believe that a person is not defined by the worst thing they've ever done."

I didn't know how to feel. A large number of the men who nodded at our little group as we circumnavigated the jail are accused of awful crimes. Guilty or not, it's critical that they be treated decently. But seeing that principle put into practice - going from watching footage of executions carried out during the Srebrenica massacre to talking to a UN employee who sees it as his job to worry in almost fatherly fashion about the comfort of people who are accused of perpetrating them - is morally disorienting. How much decency is necessary? How does McFadden feel when one of the prisoners whose happiness he's been so preoccupied by is convicted of mass murder? Does he wonder if he should have been quite so chatty with the guy in the hallways? I know why he can't let himself ask these questions, but I also wonder whether, in his shoes, I would be able to maintain an inner wall with anything like the discipline he claims.

As warden of the Yugoslavia Tribunal's detention centre, Tim McFadden deals with all kinds of administrative hassles. How do you ferry a dozen prisoners across town every day to and from the tribunal courtrooms? How do you stop the defence counsel from smuggling alcohol to their clients during private legal consultations in the prison? What do you do when you see an inmate's lawyers walking in the front gate at the same time as their client is talking on the privileged phone line, allegedly with the two of them? How do you juggle the judicial segregation orders ("keep Defendant A away from Defendants B and C so they won't collude with or threaten each other") that pile up until they start to look like the old mindbender about getting a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain across the river on a raft?

One thing he doesn't have to worry about, McFadden insists, is the challenge of supervising an ad hoc mixture of Balkan ethnicities in a claustrophobic prison hothouse. Because despite what you might expect, there are no ethnic ghettos here. Croats, Muslims and Serbs all crowd together in an ironic tableau of the kind of ethnic harmony that was so elusive when these men were in power back home. For a first-time visitor, this is bewildering: how can it possibly work?

Things were different when McFadden first arrived in 1997. The few tribunal inmates spent virtually all their time in solitary lock-up, taking even their daily exercise alone in the prison yard. Changing this state of affairs was the new warden's top priority. "I wasn't going to allow it," he says. "That type of segregation is very close to isolation. Isolation in prison parlance is a punishment ... The first day I went there I said, 'Let them out'." But his decision wasn't just about inmate welfare. McFadden remembered all too well his experience at the political prison in Ireland, where prison administrators initially isolated the warring factions in separate units - an arrangement that rapidly became a disaster. "We lost control. We couldn't speak to them. Each faction had a leader we had to work through. The leader said, 'Go on hunger strike,' and everybody went on hunger strike until he said, 'Come off hunger strike.' An individual who didn't even want to be on hunger strike didn't have much choice in that situation because of the pressure on him." Mixing the groups yielded a more tractable population in Ireland, so it stood to reason it might have the same effect in Holland.

While the proposal to mix ethnicities did not go over well with the tribunal administration - McFadden had to threaten resignation to push the changes through - he insists that it has worked almost without a hitch. To his mind, the lack of tension among the ethnic groups is no surprise: "In many, many ways, they're very much culturally interlinked." This can easily be overstated - the devastation of the region didn't come about because of the Yugoslavs' happy sense of unity and brotherhood - but there is something to the argument. Wrenched away from everything they know, these inmates have been dropped in someone else's country, surrounded by someone else's language, and forced to confront the massed resources of a thousand-person tribunal that they believe exists solely to railroad them into guilty verdicts. Under these alienating circumstances, bunking next door to people who share the same language, who enjoy the same food, who have overlapping traditions and pop-culture touchstones, and who share the same enemy in the tribunal's head prosecutor - all of this can overwhelm whatever ideologies seemed so important when Yugoslavia was ablaze with ethnic passion.

McFadden goes on to make a striking point about how the specific and the personal have come to be more relevant to these inmates than the abstract and the ideological. It's the turncoats, he says, who inspire real hatred: the defendants who plead guilty and agree to testify against their co-perpetrators. This strikes a chord as I recall the Serb paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj and something he said during his blustering testimony at the Milosevic trial. When discussing the other prisoners in the detention unit, Seselj's rage and contempt were saved entirely for his fellow Serbs who had proved to be "really rotten" not because of the unarmed prisoners they had killed, but because they had turned on their erstwhile comrades and copped a deal with the tribunal prosecution. When it came to his Kosovar and Bosnian Muslim "enemies", on the other hand, Seselj jovially recounted the war stories he'd swapped with them in the prison common rooms. "[One of them] told me," he said with a gruff laugh, "that there had been an ambush set up [to kill me during a visit to the disputed territory]. But I took another route, and they missed me." His tone of voice lacked even the slightest trace of ill will, conveying instead what was almost affectionate admiration.

What's more, these interethnic bonds appear to go beyond arms-length tolerance within the prison walls: "I have observed lasting friendships and mutual support," McFadden says, "that go outside their interaction within the prison, which cross the ethnic boundaries." It often begins with the shared struggle of the inmates' families to negotiate the difficult path to visit their loved ones in Holland. "If you have a [Muslim] family from a backwater village in the back of beyond in some mountain town in Bosnia, and you say to that woman, 'Uproot and bring two kids and go to The Hague, and then get the train from Schiphol Airport, and then get the No 17 tram ...' then how is she going to know what to do? But someone who's done that before and who may be of Serb origin can say, 'Look, my wife is coming on the same flight and she knows the way.' So, they put the two [wives] together and, you know what? They like one another! So, it's not just a phenomenon within these walls, it actually extends outside."

I was sceptical at first. But then I remembered how, as our small group was walking down one of the prison corridors, we heard the murmur of a small gathering. It turned out to be a cell-block celebration for a prisoner who was being released later that week. As we passed by the open door of the recreation room, McFadden leaned in and told the group that he would drop by for a chat once he'd seen us on our way. I glanced into the room while McFadden was talking, and there, plopped in the middle of about five other inmates, sat Slobodan Milosevic. His hair and casual clothes were rumpled, a piece of cake sat on a paper plate in front of him, and he was holding a bite halfway to his mouth on a plastic fork. Next to him at the low table, also sitting on the hard plastic seat of a primary-school-style chair, was one of the tribunal's most prominent Bosnian Muslim defendants. The Yugoslav people, to the extent that they ever existed at all, have vanished from the face of the earth. But somehow an ersatz version lives on within the walls of this hi-tech jail, where Slobodan Milosevic - the Serb once known as the Butcher of Belgrade - can now share a quiet piece of cake with a Bosnian Muslim at a farewell party for their mutual friend. E

Julian Davis Mortenson spent a year as an associate legal officer in the Office of the President at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia