A chilling smile from my torturer
by Jadranka Cigelj
Jadranka Cigelj, 54, is a Bosnian Croat, lawyer and political and human-rights activist, who in June 1992 was imprisoned for almost two months in the north-west Bosnian Serb camp of Omarska, the most notorious of the camps in the Bosnian war. An estimated 3,000 men, mostly Bosnian Muslims, were murdered in Omarska, whose commander, Željko Mejakić, has been indicted for war crimes by the tribunal in The Hague but remains at large. Ms Cigelj was one of 37 women incarcerated at Omarska, five of whom were killed. She now lives in Zagreb.
Looking thinner than before, slightly stooped, his hair almost completely white, he ambles into the courtroom, my torturer. He stifles a yawn which I see as a sign of insecurity. Through the bulletproof glass panel that separates the courtroom from the gallery, Slobodan Milošević surveys his audience. He frowns slightly, apparently disappointed that there are only seven of us on the other side of the glass. His eyes suddenly return to meet mine and he smiles. A flicker of recognition. My imagination must be playing games, because we've never met. Apart from the television, this is the first time I've cast eyes on Milošević. But his memory, like his chutzpah, appears strong and indestructible. Then I remember that he has a TV set in his Dutch prison cell. Perhaps he's seen me on CNN. My mind wanders back a decade to my 55 days in the Serb camps of north-west Bosnia. We didn't have TV sets. I was one of 37 women held in the disused mine of Omarska where thousands were murdered outside my hometown of Prijedor. I was taken there on 14 June 1992. I was raped the first day and repeatedly for the next eight weeks.
In his comfortable Dutch cell, Milošević is well-fed, phones home, reads books. We were beaten, tortured, starved, and raped, me and the 17 other women with whom I shared Room 102 in Omarska. We had to clean someone's blood from the floor every night before we could lie down in the dark to listen to the footsteps bringing terror and pain, waiting to see if they stopped at our door. Those days of physical and psychological torture are now in a distant past. They come back only as nauseating memories, bringing not hatred, but disgust and contempt. But the memories come flooding back now because I've come to The Hague to watch Milošević, driven by a desire to see who he really is, what this monster is really made of.
Looking through the glass screen, I am suddenly looking not at Milošević but through the dirty window of the camp canteen at the ‘White House’. The window separated us from the grassy patch by the White House, but not from the stench of the corpses dumped there after the nocturnal killing sprees of Milošević's followers. We women sat at the window with lowered faces, our eyes riveted on the bodies. From a distance of around 30 metres we would try to recognise the victims by their clothes, the poor men whose screams of pain we had listened to all night long. As we did the washing up in the camp kitchen, we counted the plates to try to work out how many men had disappeared.
I stare at Milošević's face through the glass dividing us, looking for the slightest trace of human remorse, shame, or unease. I'm no longer afraid, but I'm worn down by a single question: does Milošević bear the burden of guilt? In the camps we were punished and as a result we searched for our own guilt. We would analyse our every word, thought and deed to see if we could understand why our torturers believed we were criminals. Now I want to know whether Milošević also feels the same way.
I chase the memories away and try to concentrate on the proceedings. The court is being played the tape of an intercepted phone conversation between Milošević and Radovan Karadžić from September 1991, six months before the war in Bosnia, in which they discuss setting up a Bosnian Serb army and police corps. I want to scream out the names of the five women murdered in Omarska by the guards following the orders of these two. Another recording has Milošević discussing the military operations in Pakrac and Petrinja in Croatia, with Milošević giving the orders which are carried out by General Uzelac of the Yugoslav army. I find myself holding my breath, not because of what is revealed by the talking, but because of the fact that somebody recorded and saved these conversations and then let the war and the killing carry on.
The prosecutor lists the evidence, giving the various taped conversations different numbers: 9, 11, 13, 15, 21. Milošević yawns again, demonstrating how endlessly bored he is, while neatly stacking the papers in front of him and throwing glances at us, his small audience. Suddenly, he stirs and states: ‘Please! The numbers for the written materials are confusing and I want this correction of the numbers entered in the record.’ He is mocking them. The smile of contempt, the frequent yawning, the displays of boredom shower disdain not only on the judges, the protected witnesses, the audience, but on the whole world. It was 15 years ago in Kosovo that he announced the Serbs had ‘new battles ahead of us’, and here he is now, still playing the role of the saviour, mocking the world, and tilting at windmills.
During the break, I chain-smoke and think about guilt and responsibility. I'm impatient for the proceedings to resume and return to stand in front of the glass wall, paralysed by another smile bestowed upon me by Slobodan Milošević. The recordings continue and as I listen nausea rises, borne by the realization that here we are, the survivors, being paraded in front of him, and yet we mean nothing at all to this evil genius.
I eagerly awaited this chance to see Milošević in The Hague. I passed through the security controls, thinking less and less about why I accepted this project, and more and more intrigued about seeing the man whose monstrous idea of a ‘Greater Serbia’ I can feel in my aching bones every time there is a change in the weather.
And then, a disappointment. The session is delayed until further notice because, allegedly, the main actor's health prevents him from taking part in the trial. I go home thinking about my own health, and that of thousands of people killed and buried all over Bosnia and Croatia. I can smell the scorched earth, I can hear the screams of people dying to the accompaniment of the national songs the Serbs played on the stereo as they tortured them, I can see the nights we would lie in Room 102 worrying whether we would be taken out of the cell by a Serb guard. We never talked about the rape. It was an unwritten rule among the women, for to talk about it would have destroyed our morale.
I hold my book, entitled Room 102, in my hands, its 432 pages describing my detention in Omarska. It makes me think of the thousands of dead. And then I think of this man called Slobodan. How ironic his name is. It is derived from the word for ‘freedom’.
This article was published in The Guardian (London), 17 December 2002