Thirty-three minutes before sunrise one April morning, a man in black tactical gear slammed a battering ram through a cheap plywood door at a run-down Beaverton apartment complex, 50 feet from the Tualatin Valley Highway. He and a half-dozen armed officers poured into the second-floor apartment, screaming for anyone inside to come out, palms open, hands up. A woman named Sammy Yetisen emerged, as did her father and her son, a grade-schooler.
Down the street, in an unmarked car, sat the man who’d spent months studying Yetisen. Ted Weimann, a Portland-based investigator for the Department of Homeland Security, had woven the details of this woman’s life, behavior, and movements into his own routine—his morning gym workout, the books on tape he consumed while watching her house.
Agents led Yetisen to the car. Weimann had planned it this way: after the noisy chaos of the extraction, he would stage his own first encounter with Yetisen in a quiet, even consoling environment. They drove in silence, 25 minutes through the predawn streets, to a squat, off-white brick building in Southwest Portland. They walked in silence through double glass doors, past a metal detector, to a dimly lit room with a table and two chairs.
Weimann told Yetisen to sit. She was 39 years old, with a nest of tangled black hair framing heavy-lidded, drowsy eyes and a soft chin. He pulled his chair in close. From a manila folder, he produced a grainy black-and-white photograph of a young woman holding an automatic rifle.
This is you, he said. And this is your gun. You named it Rose.
Ted Weimann—49 years old in 2011, when his team arrested Sammy Yetisen—worked as a part of the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, a little-known outfit within the federal Department of Homeland Security. Vast, rootless, with so many churning cities and faceless suburbs, the US will always attract people on the run. Weimann and his colleagues faced the task of separating malefactors from those who come here for legitimate reasons.
“We’re quite sure a lot of human rights violators live in the US,” says a federal Department of Justice official not authorized to speak on the record, noting that former victims live here, too. “When refugees seek a new life here, they deserve to be free of a security threat. We want to be seen as a place where they can find freedom.”
It is a challenging, often frustrating gig. While the team’s targets are suspected of major political and military crimes, their alleged actions are often decades old, potential witnesses often dead. In the event of an arrest, the US usually finds it simplest to extradite suspects for immigration violations and let their home country deal with them.
All the same, Weimann is part of a storied law-enforcement tradition. The federal Office of Special Investigations (OSI) chased fugitive Nazis from 1979 to 2010; on that front, time is resolving what detective work could not. (A scattering of suspected Auschwitz guards arrested early this year were all in their late 80s or 90s.) Dying Nazis don’t make for compelling budget requests, so Weimann’s office, a successor of sorts to OSI, generally focuses on the period between Vietnam and 9/11, a grim litany of child soldiers in Africa, Guatemalan death squads, and kidnappings in Colombia.
Bosnia stands out as a special case. An estimated 100,000 people died in conflicts that erupted as
Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of Bosnians moved to the US—more than 1,400 settled in the Portland area in 1996 alone. In the US, divisions blur, making war criminals elusive.
“Unlike Nazis, who tended to avoid Jewish diaspora communities, these people do live in the same neighborhoods as people they’ve tortured,” says the Justice Department official.
As he sat in that room in the nondescript Immigration and Customs Enforcement building with Sammy Yetisen, Weimann believed he was looking at one player in Bosnia’s bloody story. Over his 24 years with the department, he had tackled all manner of immigration fraud, gunrunning, and drug trafficking. His work had helped make him adept at procuring the most essential piece of evidence in any investigation into long-ago, faraway offenses: the confession.
You could trace what happened in Bosnia back to 1914, when a Serbian separatist assassinated an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, triggering World War I. And you could go back even further, into the complicated mosaic of ethnicity and religion that briefly held together as Yugoslavia. But for present purposes, Sammy Yetisen’s story begins on April 16, 1993, in a small village called Trusina.
The new Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by a fragile coalition of Croatians and Bosniak Muslims, had been fighting Serbian forces since 1991. As the conflict dragged on, relations between Croats and Muslims deteriorated. One spring morning in Trusina, the rickety alliance shattered.
The Zulfikar Special Purposes Detachment included the toughest commandos in the Bosniak Muslim forces. Rumor had it that they took orders straight from President Alija Izetbegovi?. They stalked contested cities and towns, sometimes wearing no uniform insignia. Unusually, their ranks included a woman: they called her Zolja, which roughly translates to “wasp.”
At about 6 a.m. on April 16, the Zulfikar unit moved to occupy Trusina, a tiny but strategically important village in the foothills of the Ore Mountains, split between Croats and Muslims. (This account is based on testimony of former unit soldiers, transcribed by prosecutors in Bosnia.) One soldier in the unit remembered hearing a comrade say: “We should not leave a single hen alive.”
The troops soon rounded up four uniformed Croatian soldiers and about a dozen civilian men and lined them up against a wall. Just then, word arrived that a popular officer, known as Samko, had been shot by Croatian forces and was bleeding badly. Samko was Zolja’s boyfriend.
A unit member testified that, a moment later, he heard a rifle cocked. “Fire squad, attention!” one officer shouted. “Shoot! Fire!” The line of men crumpled. According to multiple witnesses within the unit, Zolja then pulled a pistol, walked to the fallen men showing signs of life, and shot them each in the head. A rampage ensued. Within about 90 minutes, 22 people, including at least 17 civilians, were killed.
The woman who operated under the nom de guerre Zolja allegedly participated in other incidents war crimes investigators would pursue, notably the kidnapping and execution of Italian aid workers. Then she
disappeared. By the time the US-mediated Dayton Accords established a tenuous peace in 1994, Trusina was just one of many atrocities. It was not, however, forgotten.