Inside the United Nations Detention Unit

Where Accused War Criminals Build Model Ships and Play Volleyball
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 9 2006 6:17 AM

Inside the United Nations Detention Unit

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Where accused war criminals build model ships and play volleyball.

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Gen. Ante Gotovina 

It started off like any other night out in the Canary Islands. A pair of diners at a four-star hotel on the vacation island of Tenerife ordered their wine and were just settling down for the evening. But what had been shaping up 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 theater? Ante Gotovina, who had been the object of a worldwide NATO manhunt for the last 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 Croatia's bloody Krajina offensive in 1994.

Between the crash and glamour of Gotovina's capture last month and the protracted earnestness of his trial (which may not begin until late 2006) looms a long stretch of downtime. And this raises a serious practical question: Where do you stash an accused war criminal before he goes 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 accused war criminals. Last year, I got to see the whole thing up close when I went along with a small group of tribunal co-workers to meet the warden and tour the facility.

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The detention unit is tucked away behind drab brick walls in a mostly residential part of a Dutch seaside resort called Scheveningen, not far from the rolling sand dunes and winding paths of a nature preserve. 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 squired through a mind-numbing 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-50s 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 U.N. peacekeeper, and his background in the Irish prisons eventually led him to a job designing and running the detention center 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 tune out the cells' ponderous steel doors, the accommodations looked like nothing so much as a string of dorm rooms in a college residence hall: poster-covered walls, well-stocked bookshelves, big wardrobes, homey 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 Super 8. Each floor had a rec room with good-size windows, a tatty little cooking area, a pile of board games, a communal television (usually turned to one of the Serbo-Croat channels that gets piped in from back home in the Balkans), and sometimes even a pingpong 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 neighborly hellos and greeting the warden by name.

It was all startlingly cheery—even homey. 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 program 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 they choose to subscribe to, the prisoners have access to English classes (which boast almost universal attendance), computer workshops, and a range of art instruction from ceramics and painting to more esoteric techniques like 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 tribunal authorities. And evenings are time for gym class, when a roomful of pudgy fiftysomethings rushes around playing volleyball or indoor soccer under the close supervision of a trained 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 just couldn't wrap 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 messing around with the clay that was somewhat lumpily 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 molded iguana hunching sharply out of one side and winding its way around the vase's outer curve. It reminded me, strangely, of something that one of my law-school professors often said about her choice to become a defense lawyer: "I can defend 'those people' because I believe that a person is not defined by the worst thing they've ever done."

I didn't know how to feel. Assuming that the prosecutor's office hasn't suddenly started going to trial with less evidence than we've seen to date, a large number of the men who nodded at our little group as we circumnavigated the jail committed awful crimes. Guilty or not, it's critical that they be treated decently. But seeing that principle put into practice—going from watching BBC video of executions carried out during the Srebrenica massacre to talking to a U.N. 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.

Julian Davis Mortenson teaches constitutional law and international law at Michigan Law School.

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