Being the voice of war criminals.
“I am General Ratko Mladic,” chimes a woman’s voice on June 3, 2011 in the headphones of Dutch Judge Alphons Orie. “I was born on Good Monday, in 1943.” As the former head of the Army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina is introducing himself in his native tongue, the interpreter conveys his words almost simultaneously in English.
The tension is palpable: This is the first day of the trial against the former general, who is considered to be responsible for acts including the genocide in Srebrenica. For years he remained at large as a fugitive, until he was finally caught and transferred to The Hague.
As soon as the judge reads out the indictment against him, Mladic grows agitated, and the volume of the interpreter rises as well. “Mr. Orie, I would like to receive what you have read out just now, these obnoxious charges levelled against me,” says the woman’s voice. “I have never heard such monstrous words before.”
Martina Fryda-Kaurimsky says she really had the sense of doing something important in her role as an interpreter at the ICTY: “To be part of this, and to help document the war crimes that have happened in my country, still gives me fulfillment,” she says. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
Martina Fryda-Kaurimsky (53) smiles, as she remembers. “As an interpreter, you interpret everything said in the courtroom, including things you would never have the courage to say out loud,” she says. “Sometimes you have to curse, be aggressive, direct insults at the judge or the chief prosecutor. You always feel awkward.” On a few occasions Mladic’s conduct was so egregious that Judge Orie had him removed from the courtroom. The fulminating former general was escorted out of court. “The only way to cope is to numb your senses,” Martina says. “Focus on your job: interpreting.”
At the end of 2017 the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) closed its doors, after 161 persons from former Yugoslav states stood trial there over the 24 years of its existence — it was unique in international criminal justice. The judges, prosecutors and defense counsel were from all over the world, and thousands of witnesses testified there. These trials were conducted in three languages simultaneously: the official languages of the tribunal, English and French, as well as the language of Yugoslavia, now diplomatically called B/C/S (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian). Sometimes Albanian or Macedonian were added. Altogether, the interpreters provided about 80,000 days of simultaneous interpretation.
Most of those present in the courtroom are hardly aware of the work by the interpreters. Interpreters prefer to operate behind the scenes and have in most cases never been showcased in the media. “A good interpreter is an invisible interpreter,” Martina explains. “As long as we don’t make mistakes, people forget we are there. But the moment anything goes wrong, there is uproar.”
Almost all of the suspects have criticized the interpretation at some point during their trials, but Vojislav Seselj, the former deputy prime minister of Serbia charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, outdid all the others. “Mr. President, those interpreters of yours lack education,” he muttered with exasperation a few months into his trial, in 2008. He was incensed at the translation of the military term zvanje, which had been interpreted for the courtroom as “rank,” but in his opinion should have been rendered as “title.” “The interpreters working here are making severe and elementary mistakes,” he complained, and a few months later asked the court to remove an interpreter over a similar incident. “Disastrous,” was his assessment of the interpretation.
The tiny interpreter’s booth attached to Courtroom I, the main courtroom of the ICTY has a big window that ensures interpreters have a good overview of all the participants in the trial. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
Martina goes to her interpretation booth, the small alcove adjacent to Courtroom 1, where in addition to Seselj, former political and military leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have stood trial. “To address all subtleties, we compile glossaries as accurately as possible in our section,” she explains, presenting a sheet of paper listing all military ranks and titles from the different armed forces that fought each other in Yugoslavia.
The large windowpane gives Martina and her booth mates a clear view of the judges, prosecutors, suspects and witnesses. A large map of the Balkans is on the floor in the corner. “It used to be on the wall, but we don’t need it there anymore,” she mentions. “By now we know all the places by heart.”
The interpreters work in pairs, switching off every half hour. “Simultaneous interpreters need to be able to listen, interpret and speak, which requires intense concentration skills,” she says. As an interpreter she had been accustomed to summarizing the gist of the speaker’s statement, conveying the meaning. “The tribunal is different: You have to stick as closely as possible to the original text — every word matters. By the end of the day, we are exhausted.”
“In the Balkans we might have been enemies, but in The Hague we tried not to let the war come between us.”
In early 1995 Martina, who in addition to Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian is fluent in English, German and French, was asked by the tribunal to work as an interpreter in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the war was still raging. Srebrenica had not yet been taken by the forces of General Mladic and the tribunal had opened only two years earlier.
“I worked as a freelancer for the international investigators looking for witnesses to the war crimes,” she says. “We worked into the night, travelled from one place to another and listened to the most horrific accounts.” Although she found the work strenuous, she also felt she was doing something important. “I helped them document war crimes. Witnesses were relieved they could share their story with us and hoped it would be put to good use. I felt very responsible.”
After a few years, she was invited by the Tribunal to come and work in The Hague: “I arrived at the first peak in the court trials, in 1999. Everybody was thrilled: The first war criminals were finally standing trial, following years of investigation. Expectations were high, and we had to meet them.”
The penitentiary in Scheveningen, where the suspects were held in custody, was sometimes light-heartedly referred to as the ‘new Yugoslavia’ back then: Serbs, Croats and Bosnians who had been charged lived together in harmony, cooked for each other, watched football together. The same thing happened in the interpretation booth: Ethnicity no longer mattered. “In the Balkans we might have been enemies, but in The Hague we tried not to let the war come between us,” Martina says.
Still, the war in Yugoslavia has permanently affected the lives of most interpreters at the ICTY. “In the period that Sarajevo was under siege by the Bosnian Serbs, I was studying French,” says Elmedina Podrug (54), who came to The Hague in 2002. “On my way to the university, snipers would watch the streets. There was constant shooting, lives were in danger.” To make ends meet, she interpreted for French journalists. This became more difficult when many of the local libraries were pillaged and it became harder to find French books or dictionaries. “But I had a mission: to graduate,” says Elmedina. “That got me through it all.”
“When an expert starts talking, the content tends to be very specific,” Martina Fryda-Kaurimsky says. “For example in the Srebrenica cases, a lot was said about excavators and how they were used. As an interpreter, you have to prepare very well.” Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
When the war ended, the journalists left, and her source of work dried up. She applied to the ICTY: “My father and sister were extremely worried, when they heard that I would be moving to The Hague. Not because I would be in the presence of war criminals but because of the weather. ‘It is so damp and cold there!’ they told me. Still, somebody had to leave: My family needed the money.”
Her new co-workers were impressed when they heard where she had come from: She was the first interpreter from the destroyed city that everybody had seen so often on the news during the war. “‘Sarajevo?’ they asked. ‘What is it like over there?’ They could not even imagine.”
The moment Elmedina arrived in The Hague, she was thrown to the wolves and assigned to interpret in the case against General Stanislav Galic, who was considered to be responsible for the siege of Sarajevo. “During the court hearings I felt a perpetual adrenaline rush,” she remembers. She saw her own neighborhood in the photographs presented by the prosecutors. Some of the witnesses summoned were her personal acquaintances: “I forced myself to focus on the technical aspects of my job — the words and sentences that I had to interpret. That kept me going.” When she got home from work in the evenings, she reflected on everything she had heard during the day.
“Countless questions entered my mind: What would I have done in the place of the witness? What would I have said? I needed answers to those questions to cope, but could not find them at the beginning. I lay awake night after night.”
Elmedina spent her evenings updating her glossaries and examining military structures, pathological analyses and legal regulations — anything to prepare for another day packed with witness examinations and complicated discussions between judges, prosecutors and defense counsel.
"Often they will also assert that the interpretation is not completely accurate and offer to help. That makes me furious, and I want to shout into my microphone."
Occasionally, she became upset at what transpired in the courtroom: “Sometimes a witness would tell blatant lies. Then the prosecutor or defense counsel would keep on probing, until everybody understood that the story was simply not true. In a few cases I could tell earlier, especially when the testimony was about Sarajevo, and I already knew all the details. As an interpreter you feel frustrated at being helpless in those moments, you cannot intervene in the proceedings. All you can do is to keep interpreting and hope that that person will be exposed.”
Interpreters often feel helpless in the courtroom. “Sometimes a prosecutor or member of the defense counsel tries to steer a witness,” says Simonida Stosic (52), who has been working at the tribunal since 2000. ‘So what you really mean to say is…,’ adding whatever suits their purpose. ‘No,’ I think in those cases, ‘that is not at all what he means!’ Often they will also assert that the interpretation is not completely accurate and offer to help. That makes me furious, and I want to shout into my microphone. Luckily, the judges usually catch on after a while.”
Years after leaving her home in Yugoslavia, Simonida Stosic stood face to face with those that had ruined her country. “The stories told by the witnesses made me feel ill,” she says. “I hated the perpetrators that were tried. But if I would keep thinking about the gruesome testimonies, I would go mad. So I just concentrated on my job.” Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
Simonida left Belgrade in 1992. “Our country was being destroyed in front of our very eyes — I was horrified,” she recalls. “People willingly accepted the propaganda. If this is the majority sentiment, I thought to myself, I had better get out of here.” Years later she faced Slobodan Milosevic, after he was transferred to The Hague. “He delivered interminable soliloquies, using his latitude at the tribunal to continue his propaganda.”
In the beginning she and her co-workers felt strange interpreting the voice of their own president, who had destroyed so many lives. Meanwhile, like so many other defendants on trial, he increasingly seemed like a frail old man. “During the proceedings he would occasionally give us interpreters a friendly wave and make kind remarks about us. I consistently ignored those. I will never forget what he did.”
Still, she found other trials more distressing than that of Milosevic. “One of the first cases at which I interpreted — that was in 2000 — was about the ‘rape camps’ in Foca in Bosnia,” she recalls. “When I heard what these suspects were capable of, I was speechless. For months I felt awful.”
As an interpreter, she tries to maintain professional reserve. “But when you listen to those witnesses day after day, those women who were completely broken in every sense, you simply can’t do that. Working as interpreters, we have all been damaged to some extent.”
To come to terms with this misery, some of her co-workers like to have a drink together after work. Simonida prefers a brisk walk outdoors. “The Hague is a lovely city,” she says. “I enjoy the ambience of peace and tranquility here, the safety. You cannot imagine this sense if you have never experienced war.”
With the ICTY now having closed its doors, many of the interpreters will stay on in the Hague to work at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, which has taken on many of the functions of both the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
Despite all the atrocities, the interpreters sometimes have fun together. “Maybe even because of the atrocities,” Simonida muses. “Now and then, we simply need to unwind.” It may happen right when the tension rises, or at a moment of intense concentration. “When your booth partner mistranslates a word, basically saying the opposite, or when a farmer from some remote village mumbles in an obscure dialect that is almost impossible for us to understand. At those moments we turn our backs to each other to avoid eye contact, as a laughing fit in the interpretation booth is the worst thing that can hit you during a serious case.”
With the end of the tribunal, most interpreters have now left The Hague for Brussels to work at the European institutions, have joined other international organizations or have returned to their home countries. Like Martina and Elmedina, Simonida has stayed in The Hague to work for the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), the successor to the ICTY.
She is satisfied with her work there. “Of course I do not agree with all the decisions, and some mistakes were made,” she elaborates. “But imagine if the tribunal had never been set up: The leaders from the past might still be in power.”
But she rarely shares this sense of pride when at home in Serbia: This holds true for many of her co-workers from former Yugoslav states. “In Belgrade they harshly condemn the tribunal,” she explains. “They consider the proceedings to be show trials, do not believe that the judges and prosecutors are independent and are shocked that hardly any Croats or Bosnian Muslims are sentenced, even though they also committed heinous acts. Some even think that defendants such as Milosevic did not die of natural causes in their cell. They believe everything in the local media; that depresses me a bit at times.”
In Belgrade, Simonida hardly ever reveals that she has been working for the tribunal — she knows better. “I give my daughter the same advice: ‘Don’t babble too much about our life in The Hague.’”K
Feature image: Martino Lombezzi.
This article was originally written in Dutch. It was translated to English by Lee Mitzman.