Inside the United Nations Detention Unit

The Bizarro World in Which Slobodan Milosevic Eats Cake With a Bosnian Muslim
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 10 2006 6:57 AM

Inside the United Nations Detention Unit

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The bizarro world in which Slobodan Milosevic eats cake with a Bosnian Muslim.

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Dragoljub Prcac

As warden of the Yugoslavia Tribunal's detention center, 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 defense counsel from sneaking liquor 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 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 a willy-nilly 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?

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Things were different when McFadden first arrived in 1997. The few tribunal inmates spent virtually all their time in solitary lockup, 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 become 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 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. It sounded like the world's strangest post-game film session: "[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 for the Muslim commander's good old college try.

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! Because one has the knowledge the other doesn't have. And that's very common. [In the evenings] a lot of the family members actually go to eat together! So, it's not just a phenomenon within these walls, it actually extends outside."

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Slobodan Milosevic

I was skeptical 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 sheet cake sat on a paper plate in front of him, and he was holding a bite halfway to his mouth on a plastic fork. Right next to him at the low table, also sitting on the hard plastic seat of an elementary-school-style chair, was one of the tribunal's most prominent Bosnian Muslim defendants. And I thought to myself, the Yugoslav people, to the extent 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 high-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.

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