This part of The Hague was new to me. The reddish-brown bricks in the road still held the last drops of rain as I peddled towards the cafe where we had agreed to meet. Yellow daffodils, vibrant green grass, and canals bordered the way. Arriving early, I waited at the outdoor table for the Ambassador, sipping my cappuccino.
In preparation for our meeting, I had to look at the pictures. Those pictures out of Syria sting your eyes. Dead. Wasted flesh. Mutilated bodies. Thousands of photographs of death’s variations. They were smuggled out of Syria by a photographer for the government known as “Caesar.” Carefully documented atrocities committed against prisoners in detention by the regime — recorded by the regime itself. Shades of Nazi bookkeeping at Auschwitz. Once again, torture and death as a daily job before going home to supper and the kids.
The Ambassador knows those pictures. He asked that the FBI verify their authenticity. And he concluded those photos were some of the strongest evidence he’s seen of mass atrocities by the government of Bashar al-Assad.
“That is a passion of mine, what is occurring in Syria, I am concerned with the broader issue of fact-finding and documentation in situations where we don’t have a court. You can think so-and-so is guilty, but when you have to prove it, it is a whole other thing.”
Rather than despair, which seemed the obvious answer to the horror of Syria, my evening with the Ambassador was saved by three small tangents.
First, of course, his smile. Wide to the corners, warm with nearly closed eyes, arched brows. And the laugh, almost a giggle really. A little boy caught in a moment of joy.
Then, there was his dad’s gas station. He was the teenage boy with a red rag in hand, checking the dipstick, asking if there was anything else needed, maybe air for the tires? But I bet he was already a little distracted by a different world beyond Cedar Falls, Iowa.
And finally, his legislative races. Two against Chuck Grassley for the U.S. House. Even back in the beginning, Grassley was a dangerous opponent, according to the Ambassador. Already all that down-home lingo and affability. But the Ambassador remembers two young men, polar opposites, both winners of their party’s primaries, sitting outside on top of an old Buick, alone together, shooting the breeze, sharing their doubts, unaware of the real drama yet to come in their futures. A quiet moment before the fickle wind came blowing across the years.
But our conversation that evening always returned to the dead, and the justice for survivors. 800,000 slaughtered in Rwanda. 75,000 murdered in Sierra Leone. And anywhere from 250,000 to 470,000 in Syria. And what are we doing for the victims? And how do we hold the criminals accountable? And should we intervene in current conflicts before it gets even worse? And who has the political will during this crazy time?
See what I mean? Despair.
“Thank you all for coming,” the Ambassador says at the podium. And the couple hundred diplomats and lawyers and judges and international law students all nod back.
Today, the Ambassador, Stephen Rapp, is moderating a discussion in The Hague about reparations for victims of violence around the world. With a broad grasp of the facts, and equally broad grasp of international law, he talks to the group about Africa and Syria and Bosnia and wherever else there are victims. Just another day in his fellowship-in-residence at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. It soon becomes clear to me back in the eighth row, he’s the guy, and everyone in the room knows it.
Okay, hold it. Really? Are you kidding? This kid from Cedar Falls? This unassuming graduate of Drake Law School? A classmate to our own Terry Branstad? Give me a break.
“I was born in Waterloo, Iowa. Came home from the hospital to veterans housing in Cedar Falls. My father was 22 years old working in a gas station in Cedar Falls. My mother worked at Montgomery Ward.”
Beginnings should hint of the future, shouldn’t they? Perhaps the morality of hard-working parents? Or the value of not having a silver spoon in the drawer? Or is it just luck, how the cards fall?
By high school in Cedar Falls, Rapp is deep into debate and politics. He loves them both.
“I entered a Voice of Democracy contest, supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. ‘What Democracy Means to Me,’ or something like that. I won the State in 1967. In March of ’67 I went to Washington and won it nationally.”
Soon he’s off to Harvard for college.
“I went to Washington D.C. in ’70 and worked as an intern for Senator Birch Bayh.”
Okay. Typical college stuff, blah blah blah . . . . And then what?
“I was kidnapped in Washington by three armed men and came close to being killed.”
“I was coming home late at night, and as I parked the car, I was hit in the left side of my face with a gun. Three guys took over the car, pushed down my head, and started hitting me in the back. I had nothing in my wallet. They drove around for a awhile, then stopped by the side of the road, grabbed me by my hair, and I thought they were going to throw me in the ditch and shoot me. Instead they emptied the trunk and threw me in the trunk.”
Hours later, Rapp, still locked in the trunk, had given up hope.
“I figured I was going to die and the question was just how.”
He survived, and remembered his time as a victim.
Rapp was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1972. The next year, he graduated from Drake Law School. Several years later were his two unsuccessful attempts at the U.S. House. He was a defense lawyer in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area for awhile. Then, in 1993, he became the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa. In 2001 he joined the prosecution team at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. By 2007 he was the Chief Prosecutor for the Special Court of Sierra Leone. And, in 2009, President Obama named him Ambassador at Large for War Crimes. Finally, in early 2016, he became a fellow in residence at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, on loan from his job as a Sonia and Harry Blumenthal Distinguished Fellow for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
So we sat over a glass of wine outdoors at our small cafe on Frederikstraat in The Hague. A light rain had fallen earlier, but the sun succeeded in breaking through before the night fell. The ambassador spoke of the horrors in Rwanda, the horrors in Sierra Leone, and the present horrors in Syria. He spoke of victims and bad guys. He spoke of justice. And he told me his story.
We drank our wine.
And at the end of the evening, I said my goodbyes, straddled my old Dutch bike, and slowly peddled home. And I thought of the man as I rode away, of the wide-open smile, of pumping gas at his dad’s gas station, and of the long-ago evening sitting with Grassley on the hood of that Buick, sharing their worries and dreams. Good things.
And the bad things? Mmmm . . . I’m glad that this Iowa boy is on the front line.