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Investigating international war crimes is more than just a career: it is a calling. For 13 years, I have repeatedly been exposed to the most savage of atrocities committed during wars. I am a first-hand witness to just how tragically deep the depravity of humankind can sink. My quest for justice has morphed into a quest for peace for the victims of war.
When you live the life of an international war crimes investigator, you realize what it means to go home to a bed you can sleep in. What it means to have a hot shower with clean water; a lamp that will turn on with the flick of a switch and air you can breathe without wondering if it will kill you. You feel humbled when you realize there are people out there who have none of these things. They live each day with the terrifying realization that it could be their last.
Before I began my position as an Investigator with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, I worked with the Dutch Police Force for 17 years; a quarter of which I acted as team leader and lead investigator on organized crime. As wars raged in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, refugees from the region poured into the Netherlands. Along with them came an increase in organized crime, and I became a national expert on the influx of this type of crime into Western Europe. I was able to develop an intricate understanding of criminals from the former Yugoslavia in terms of their mentality and motivation.
I knew how to effectively interrogate, work with interpreters, and live in hardship conditions; because of this, I was seconded by the Dutch Government to the War Tribunal. Once it was decided in 1998 not to make use of seconded personnel within the Tribunals anymore, I became a proud member of the United Nations.
Getting deployed to war zones is not for the faint of heart. As an investigator, it is my job to work in the field and approach and recruit high level witnesses to war crimes who are willing to go on the record and give statements or evidence that will implicate their own people. It goes without saying this can be difficult. Not only can they be held responsible for their crimes, but their lives can also be on the line due to the information they give us. Their testimony is extremely valuable because it is needed to successfully prosecute war criminals. Somehow, while carrying out investigations in the former Yugoslavia, I was able to recruit 50 insider witnesses.
As difficult as these investigations are, being able to give the victims of these atrocities a sense of justice is critical. Recently I went to a village in Yugoslavia called Stupni Do where I had previously conducted an investigation. The village had been destroyed. Thirty-six people out of the 180 who had lived there had been killed in a murderous attack. The small village had been like a family and the survivors were deeply traumatized. Fortunately, our investigation was able to bring forth justice which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of some of those responsible.
When I went back to Stupni Do, I met an elderly woman whose husband and son had been killed. She thanked me with a gift of a bottle of plum brandy. I wanted to tell her that I did not expect gratitude; the biggest reward was that justice had been served. But I was at a loss for words. It was probably the most meaningful gesture I have ever received.
We opened the bottle of homemade brandy on the spot, and everyone in the village had a sip. I will cherish this memory for the rest of my life.
I do not regret a single second since I made the transition from the Dutch police force to the United Nations. My work is truly the heart and soul of my career. There is something beautiful about working with so many people from so many different cultures. It is more than a career- it is a family.
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