BRATTLEBORO -- As a former justice in a war-crimes court, Patricia Whalen has heard gruesome testimony about genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The Putney resident visited mass graves under the protection of armed guards, and she has heard the anguished stories of victims who were raped and tortured and lost loved ones.

But one of her most vivid memories was of the day that she sat near -- and did her best to maintain eye contact with -- a defiant Ratko Mladic, a former Bosnian Serb Army chief of staff accused of engineering the deaths of thousands.

"I realized that the only thing I could do was not look down," she recalled Tuesday during a speech at Brattleboro Union High School. "I have to say that it was one of the most chilling experiences that I had."

Whalen is a former judge -- and now an adviser -- for a Bosnian court tasked with trying some of those who have been accused of genocide in connection with an "ethnic cleansing" campaign during the Bosnian War, which stretched from 1992 to 1995.

Serbia -- under the leadership of President Slobodan Milosevic -- and ethnic Bosnian Serbs sought to eliminate Bosnian Muslims, who were driven into concentration camps, tortured and murdered.

About 100,000 died. A Serbian siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history.

An International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia was established at The Hague to hear war-crimes cases from the conflict. Whalen served on a different judicial body -- the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"The court of Bosnia-Herzegovina was an effort to do something that had not been done ever before," Whalen said. "And that was actually to try war criminals in the territory in which the conflict took place."

The court began hearing cases in 2005.

Whalen was a Vermonter who, according to her Vermont Law School biography, had been summoned in 2002 to help draft The Hague Maintenance Convention -- an international treaty on child support.

Patricia Whalen, Judge on the International Criminal Tribunal - Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Sarajevo, Bosnia spoke to BUHS students on Tuesday morning.(Kayla
Patricia Whalen, Judge on the International Criminal Tribunal - Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Sarajevo, Bosnia spoke to BUHS students on Tuesday morning. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

That led to her selection as a war-crimes justice in 2007. She served in that capacity through 2012, when international judges were removed from the court so that it could become a purely national court.

In those five-plus years, Whalen gained much knowledge of the horror of genocide. Speaking on Tuesday to students of BUHS teacher Bill Holiday, who has traveled to Bosnia, Whalen gave a virtual tour -- through photos and narrative -- of a high-security courtroom set up to try men accused of unthinkable crimes.

The court includes bulletproof glass as well as protected space for "vulnerable witnesses."

"Those might be women who have been raped or folks that have been subjected to just unbelievable torture," Whalen said. "And they are too afraid to actually come into the courtroom itself. So there is a secure place in the courthouse that they can testify from."

There also is protection afforded to some members of the military who choose to bring to light the crimes of their cohorts and superiors.

"For a man to come forward and testify against other members of his unit really places him at great risk. But it's that type of evidence that often is how these cases progress," Whalen said.

"I find them to be very brave because, often, they can't go back and live in their communities, even with all the protection we can give them," she added. "Because (the accused) always knows who's testifying."

The cases were lengthy and painstakingly detailed. Prosecution of Bosnian Serb army official Milorad Trbic, convicted of genocide, produced more than 3,000 exhibits and 60,000 pages of transcripts, Whalen said.

The thick court decision, which Whalen authored and passed around during Tuesday's presentation, "took us about four months to write," she said.

Trials also included visits to execution sites and mass graves. She told of convoys traveling to sites associated with the massacre of about 8,000 men and boys in July 1995 at Srebrenica.

Even 13 years later, "It was still very stressful to go and take these views in the territory in which the crime happened, because people who were present at the time are still present there. And not much has changed," Whalen said.

"Also, we had the accused with us, and it was very dangerous taking the accused out," she said. "We were always afraid of retribution. So we had to keep the accused safe, as well as the people involved in the court."

On the morning of her first such visit, Whalen was alarmed by the appearance of masked governmental law-enforcement agents armed with guns and knives.

She demanded that the security guards show their faces so that it could be confirmed that none were impostors.

"It since then became the ‘Judge Whalen test,' so now, they've actually incorporated that into their security," she said with a laugh.

Whalen showed students pictures from the area illustrating that signs of the war's devastation are simultaneously hidden and in plain view.

For example, Whalen said bombed-out, vacant homes are common.

"Most of the houses have not been repaired since the war," she said.

But she also showed photos of a Srebrenica warehouse where 1,000 were killed.

"The interesting thing about it today is, it's still used as an agricultural warehouse," Whalen said. "And there is no sign or memorial there. If you were to visit that today, you couldn't be there for more than 10 minutes without the police showing up, asking you why you were there."

Mass graves are still being discovered, she said. Whalen praised the work of experts who have identified victims through DNA matches with survivors.

"They went around and took everybody's DNA who would possibly have a relative at Srebrenica," Whalen said. "In St. Louis, they did a blood draw because the United States took so many refugees."

Likewise, the work of the court continues even after international judges departed.

Whalen said the concept of an independent, national court is a good one but is being undermined by security threats.

"Because the country is unstable, the political factors are working against the independence of the court and the security of the court," she said. "One of the roles I play when I go back (to Sarajevo) is trying to get the international community to stand behind the court."

She has seen, however, signs of hope. Whalen told the story of her driver, a Muslim who lost numerous loved ones in the war.

One day, she said, the man told her he could not pick her up. There had been a blizzard, he explained, and NATO was looking for locals who would help Serbs stranded on a mountain.

The driver and his cousin, in spite of the past atrocities perpetrated by Serbs, said they would go.

"I said, 'Is this hard for you? Do you have to do this? Isn't there someone else who could do this?'" Whalen recalled. "And he said, 'No, I must do it.' He said, 'I'm Muslim, I must go. They are hungry.'"

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.