Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An incongruous contrast

Have been reading a lot on the Milosevic trial in the aftermath of his sudden, unexpected death. This morning, came across a leader in the Times of India, by Ananya Vajpeyi, which recounts an offbeat first-person account of his trial at The Hague.

From September to November 2004, as the scholar in residence at the Waag Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam, Vajpeyi had the opportunity to attend a few sessions of the trial.

She has been writing on globally important events with an emphasis on the lensman's impressions of them. In this piece, she speaks of the sanitised surroundings she found herself in when she visited the court room. Her frame of reference was Luc Delahaye's 'The Milosevic Trial' [on top].

I realise as soon as I sit down in the gallery for the first time that Delahaye had special permission, not only because ordinarily no photography is permitted, but also because nowhere outside the courtroom can one see Milosevic from the vantage of Delahaye's lens.

I realise also that there is a colour missing from Delahaye's palette: the red of the judges' robes. Blue is for the UN; black, white and red are for justice. I am concerned about the detail and accuracy of my impressions.

For despite the clarity of the scene, the motivation behind the violence that it seeks to discover, punish and atone for is utterly obscure, beyond the scope of eye or camera, hiding in the light on the other side of the transparent glass wall that separates viewers from actors.

Notice the choice of words. Vajpeyi is shocked at the gleaming interiors of a court room that is meant to punish a man accused of mass genocide. The incongruity of the pleasing aesthetics befuddles her.

Milosevic acts supercilious. His appearance is genial and upper class: He could be a German professor of some mildly difficult subject, linguistics perhaps. He belongs in old Europe, in a highbrow profession, snowy haired, well bred and murderous.

He is impeccably dressed. He does not seem unwell at all, nor does it look like he has uncounted killings behind him and a death sentence ahead.

She speaks of a megalomaniac hubris that instantly reminds you of a Saddam Hussein or an Adolf Eichmann:

If contempt of court could be embodied, it sits there in the defendant's seat, refusing to recognise the rule of law. Who are you to judge my innocence or guilt? his body language shouts.

How come my infinite power cannot simply crush you as it did hundreds of thousands of persons in the country I once ruled? At recess he stands up, puts his hands in his pockets, makes a remark — probably a sarcastic one — to the guard, and leaves.

An hour later he re-enters, shuffles over to his seat, resumes his posture of exasperation at the foolishness of those who would dare to make him accountable for his deeds.

The rules that dictate the court's deference to Milosevic's rights are necessary, but infuriating. His victims had no rights. Theirs was the bare life extinguished with impunity.

Finally, she caps her piece with an outpouring of disbelief:

Behind this antiseptic courtroom lies all of the sickening visceral reality of war and genocide, the carnage and suffering unleashed by Serbian supremacist ideology in a multi-ethnic nation.

In the chair to my left behind the glass is the author of unspeakable crimes. Sometimes what is hard to believe is not what you see, but what you don't.


Luc Delahaye's other work

Original report: Butcher of Balkans dead

Unrelated: Magic of photography

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