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International Judge Brings Home Lessons From War Crimes Court

Susan Keese
Patricia Whalen speaks to the senior social studies seminar at Brattleboro Union High School.

A retired Vermont family court magistrate returned recently after serving as a justice on an international war crimes court in Sarajevo.

As an international judge, Patricia Whalen spent six years listening to the stories and weighing the legacy of the war that devastated the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Whelan's final term on the International War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina ended in December. Now that she’s back home in Westminster West, Whalen has been sharing her own stories. She’s teaching a class at Keene State College on Genocide and International Law, and giving talks around the region about her work.

On this day she’s showing slides to a social studies class at Brattleboro Union High School.

The first slide shows Sarajevo at night. It was taken from the place where the shelling of Sarajevo took place, Whalen tells the class.  She reminds them that the siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces was the longest siege in modern history. The city saw 44 months of shelling and deprivation before the war was ended with an uneasy peace agreement in 1995.

"They say that at the end of the war there wasn't a window left in Sarajevo," Whalen says.

The next slide shows the stucco-clad apartment building where Whalen lived while she was in Sarajevo.

"You can see how it’s pock-marked from shells and gun shots," Whalen says. "It's still like that today."

Next she shows the class the court where she sat on a panel of Bosnian and international judges. Its a modern facility, set up by the United Nations and equipped with secure areas for protected witnesses and controversial defendants.

Whelan explains that protected witnesses might be people who are considered vulnerable witnesses. "Those might be women who have been raped or folks that have been subjected to unbelievable torture," Whalen says.

Also protected were members of the military who had witnessed atrocities in their own ranks and spoke at great risk. Whalen says the court would only have heard part of the story if they hadn't stepped up.

One of the trials Whalen took part in was case of Milorad Trbic, a Serb military officer. At then end of a trial that took two years, Trbic was found guilty of genocide for his role in planning the execution of thousands of Bosnian Muslims who were fleeing Srebernica in 1995.

The court also made field trips to examine the places where war crimes had been described.  Whalen shows a caravan of cars and vehicles under heavy police protection.

"This shows us going on a view,"  she says. "We were going to some of the execution sites and mass graves in Srebernica."

The site was in the Republic of Serbia. It’s one of three ethnic divisions set up in the 1995 accords. More than a dozen years after the war, Whalen says people on her team were uncomfortable in Serb territory — a sign that not enough has changed, she adds.

The next slide shows a school where people were detained and taken to be executed. Whalen says her team interviewed a woman who lived near the school when the killings occurred.

"She testified that she saw nothing," Whalen recalls. "Between 750 and 1000 men at a time were loaded onto trucks," she says. "And they were taken to a very short field and executed, so you can imagine the noise, the commotion that took place. Also they were kept in the school without food or water for at least 24 hours."

Whalen says it was important to document the facts because so many people had their own versions of the war.  She says many of the people who testified had waited a long time to tell their stories.

"I think it’s important to allow and give people the space to do that," she says.

Whalen says her years as a family court magistrate prepared her in many ways for her work in Bosnia Herzegovina.

"You’re exposed to good people who once loved each other who now cant stand each other and in some cases, commit unspeakable harm to each other," Whalen says. "And war is just a magnification of that.

The ethnic groups that clashed so bitterly in the Bosnian war had once been neighbors who lived together peacefully. "They weren't that different from us," Whalen says.

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