Kendra Wergin '14 Helps Prosecute Leader of Bosnian Serb Army at The Hague


Kendra Wergin, a rising second-year UVA Law student, is interning at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague.

July 25, 2012

Postcard from Abroad

I started my internship at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia two days before the much-anticipated start of the trial of Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb army. He stands accused of the full gamut of charges: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and is most often associated with the massacre of men and boys at Srebrenica. Today (July 11) is the 17th anniversary of the fall of that U.N.-protected enclave, and many of us at the ICTY took time today to reflect on what the tribunal has achieved since 1995.

I read this morning that for some survivors of the war, this trial feels like too little, too late. Mladic maintains his innocence, and even if (hopefully, when) he is convicted, his frail health and advanced age make it unlikely that he will serve the jail sentence that many feel he deserves. Still, the work I've been privileged to do over the last nine weeks ranks among the most significant and important experiences I've had, both personally and professionally.

The past two weeks have felt particularly challenging but also inspiring. I spent the morning of June 28 in the public gallery of Courtroom 1, sitting about 10 yards away from Radovan Karadzic during the reading of the decision on his motion for summary judgment. As the president of the Bosnian Serbs, he worked closely with General Mladic to plan and order many of the atrocities with which they're both charged. His guilt seems so obvious to nearly everyone that his unexpected acquittal on one of the genocide counts (although the rest of his charges remain) shocked all of us and served as an important reminder that no matter how strong your case seems, you must prepare and present your evidence as if the odds are against you.

That development gave those of us on the Mladic team added incentive to prepare our genocide case thoroughly and strategically. I've spent some time in the last two weeks reviewing our evidence and selecting the pieces that most strongly prove his guilt. Reading through the statements and testimony of victims is often emotionally draining but also motivates me to contribute however I can to a sense of closure and justice for them.

The start of witness testimony three days ago brings that feeling into sharp relief. I feel truly honored to have been the intern assigned to our very first witness, an incredible young man who survived the Serb takeover of his municipality and the massacre of 150 men (including his father and uncle) at the age of only 14. His powerful, sincere testimony on Monday and Tuesday moved many of us to tears, and I am profoundly impressed by the bravery and strength he demonstrated in coming to testify for a third and final time. Spending time with him and hearing him describe how important this was to him made an impression on me that I won't soon forget.

Wergin, Korac
Wergin with Croatian ambassador to the Netherlands Vesela Mrden

Even aside from these tremendous experiences, my day-to-day life as an ICTY intern is simply wonderful. I work with interns who are law students or practicing lawyers from the United States and many other countries. Many come from the former Yugoslavia, and getting to know them has helped me to connect further with my own Croatian heritage and, slowly but surely, to improve my knowledge of the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language (BCS, as it's called at the tribunal). My friendships with my fellow interns, combined with the excellent support and guidance of the staff attorneys, make it a true joy to go to work each day.

While The Hague's beachside cafes and international community offer plenty of fun, I've also taken the chance to travel with other interns, friends and family. I've so far been to Oslo, Copenhagen, southern Portugal, Brussels, and of course Amsterdam, and I will spend most of my remaining weekends in Bucharest, Paris and northern England. Although I love traveling for many reasons, I view these trips as important educational experiences for the work I hope to do in the future as a human rights lawyer. It's essential to build an understanding of different societies and how they affirm or curtail the rights of their citizens. It's also lovely to form relationships, however brief, with people in other countries — it reassures me that despite our differences of ethnicity, nationality, religion, language and everything else, we can still form friendships and appreciate each other. It's an important reminder while prosecuting the people who waged war against their countrymen for precisely these differences.

"Postcards from Abroad" is an occasional series featuring news about students working in foreign countries over the summer.

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