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Witness: My Weekend At 'The Hague Hilton'

Story & Photos by Damir Sagolj

THE HAGUE -- The road for former Yugoslavia's war criminals ends here, at "The Hague Hilton."

In this section of the international war crimes detention center in Scheveningen, 40 or so accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia live in remarkable harmony and comfort awaiting trial or sentencing.

I am the first journalist ever allowed to report from inside, and as I enter, I have butterflies in my stomach. For as a Bosnian and a photographer, I am a prisoner of my past.

Some of the people detained here were accused of crimes against members of my family. We lived through the siege of Sarajevo. My Muslim relatives -- my grandmother, my uncle, and others -- were forced from their homes by Bosnian Serbs and ended up in Sweden. Croat relatives on my father's side were driven out -- different armies, different turf. Some of my relatives were killed, and later found in mass graves.

Back home in the former Yugoslavia, views of the court, set up with the sole purpose of prosecuting crimes committed during the 1991-2000 conflicts, reflect the divide of a schizophrenic society.

For the nationalists, who regard these people as heroes, this place is a dungeon, but for so many others it's a stopover on what they hope is the road to hell.

The tribunal in July arrested its last wanted fugitive and is expected to wind up operations in 2014, after deciding the fates of inmates like former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, nicknamed "the Butcher of Bosnia," and his onetime political partner, Radovan Karadzic.

The previous day, in the corridors of the tribunal building, I bumped into Karadzic by chance. A brief encounter, our eyes locked, and then he said a hello. I said nothing, my cameras stilled. I thought, even in handcuffs he dwarfs the guards. And then he was gone, escorted to his chair in the courtroom.

I felt no reaction, and that shocked me. My life was in his hands back in the 1990s, when he was in control of the artillery and snipers around Sarajevo.

Good Behavior

In the detention center, he and his fellow detainees are treated well.

As I smoke a cigarette (although I recently quit smoking) on a balcony, I hear the thwack of a strong first-serve on the tennis court below, and then some words in the different dialects of my language. I can't recognize who is playing, but I've heard that Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general accused of war crimes against Serb civilians, is the undisputed tennis champion around here.

Opposite are the solitary cells, rooms with a single mattress on a bare floor and bright yellow walls. David Kennedy, chief of the Detention Unit, says none of the accused from the former Yugoslavia behaves badly enough to end up in solitary.

In fact, for most, life here is good: a gym, art rooms, tennis and basketball courts -- indoor and outdoor.

There is a kitchen, showers, and phone booths between the wings where detainees have their cells. Mobile phones are forbidden, so war crimes suspects have to use calling cards (30 euros a month, courtesy of the UN) if they want to call home. No incoming calls are allowed, no Internet, just letters.

Inside their cells, they can watch programs from home on flat screen TVs, and books and newspapers are delivered regularly. In one empty cell, there's a pornographic sketch on the wall, someone's homosexual fantasy.

In the kitchen, I see a pie ready to be baked, a pack of playing cards, and a receipt for 23 euros for a kilo of Dutch beefsteak and some other food delivered to one of the detainees. The food here is prison food, but special orders are allowed, including a weekly delivery from a Balkan shop.

Cartoons of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and ex-Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi snipped from the newspapers are stuck to the kitchen door.

Something To Be Learned?

There are even parties. Birthdays and religious holidays are celebrated here, as they were under Tito's brotherhood and unity. Men who fought on the basis of religion or ethnicity in the 1990s when they were free now sit down at the same table to celebrate each other's religious festivals.

"They'll cook for the saints days, get the materials in from the Balkans shop, and the whole wing will sit down and celebrate whatever it is," said Kennedy.
Even when they are competing on the football field they don't team up along ethnic lines, and Kennedy says there has not been a single incident of a national or religious nature in all these years.

Is there something to be learned here?

"They get along together because they are in the same circumstances," Kennedy said. "They're facing the same restrictions that custody, being detained, puts on them. They are all living together in the same area, in the same wings. There's no segregation based on ethnic background. And in those circumstances it's best and easiest to get through it if you can get on with your neighbors."