Staring into the cold eyes of an accused war criminal inside a Rwandan jail was the last scenario in which self-proclaimed computer geek Onyen Yong JD ’93 ever expected to find himself.
But circumstance beat out planning for the young attorney, who was plucked out of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in 2000 and dropped in the middle of a country ravaged by tribal war and stumbling blindly toward democracy. Along with only a handful of other volunteers, Yong was assigned the Herculean task of helping restore a justice system in the fractured land.
“You don’t go to [law] school saying, ‘I want to go to Africa to do this!’” Yong says.
With degrees in both economics and law and a knack for computers, Yong’s career path has never been conventional. It includes everything from stints pumping gas at his family’s Boston-area service station to working as a systems analyst to computer forensics. But it was in 1999 that truly monumental change came into Yong’s life—the year Michael Johnson, former New Hampshire County Attorney, first came knocking.
At the time, Yong was working as a prosecutor and director of information technology under Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin, helping to develop the office’s strategic technology vision. Johnson, meanwhile, was fresh from a trip to The Hague, where he had worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He returned to the United States determined to help more countries establish systems of justice. Johnson had convinced IBM to donate a computer system for this endeavor, but he didn’t have a location in Boston to host a press conference. Johnson reached out to Martin, who in turn enlisted Yong’s help.
Johnson immediately saw promise in Yong's blend of technical and prosecutorial skills.
“He goes, ‘Boy, do I have a job for you!’” says Yong, recalling his conversation with Johnson. “‘Would you like to go to Africa?’ Not believing he was serious, I said, ‘Sure, whatever. Call me when you need me.’”
Yong’s dismissive attitude quickly changed, however, when his phone rang nearly six months later. Johnson was on the other end of the line, telling Yong to get his immunizations. Johnson was going to Rwanda under the auspices of his newly formed nonprofit organization, the International Criminal Justice Resource Center, and he wanted Yong to join him as project director for the Rwandan Genocide Automation Project, establishing a case management system that would be used to track defendants accused of war crimes.
Yong readily agreed—and, luckily for him, he had a supportive boss willing to allow extended leaves of absence for the task. But he had little conception of what the trip might actually entail.
“I thought I was going on an African adventure,” says Yong.
Instead, he arrived to find a country with the smell of death still lingering in the air, a country populated by limbless children, skeletons, bullet-riddled buildings, and execution fields.
“You can read all about it,” says Yong, “but until you see it, you can’t get the full impact.”
The ramshackle Rwandan prisons were overflowing with defendants awaiting trial in a defunct legal system. Holes in the facility gates and a lack of guards betrayed an even more depressing reality.
“No one escaped,” says Yong. “You know why? Where were they going to go?”
This was the fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were murdered by the Hutu Power in a period of about a hundred days. At the time of Yong’s arrival, an estimated 100,000 people were in legal limbo. Many of the country’s judges had been killed in the genocide, and the destroyed courthouses needed rebuilding.
“They have all these people they believe were part of the genocide,” says Yong. “They’re a country basically forming a new government. They didn’t even have a constitution yet. Rwanda was saying, ‘How can we try these people if we don’t even have rules of law?’”
From a technical standpoint, Yong faced tremendous challenges. “They didn’t have anything,” he says, noting that the country needed a soup-to-nuts technological solution to help get its legal system up and running. But he was undeterred. “When you start with nothing, it’s much easier to do it the right way than if you’re trying to change existing culture,” he says.
Yong stayed three weeks in Rwanda, doing everything from visiting prisons to meeting with local officials in order to understand the country’s legal needs. Upon his return to the U.S., Yong wrote an assessment of the country’s technological needs and began outreach to collect funds and supplies. Donations of everything from office equipment to toothpaste poured in, and the money raised allowed Yong to purchase servers and have case management software translated for Rwandan users.
But once home, Yong was afflicted with a bit of cynicism, wondering how people could fret over a Starbucks order when such suffering existed in other parts of the world. So he made a decision.
“The best thing was to go back,” Yong says. “You don’t choose where you are placed in this world. The best I can do is help them. I can’t be them.” Yong returned to Rwanda for a month in May 2001, this time to help Johnson’s organization implement the technology system he had designed.
A “very hectic” scenario awaited Yong. Shipments of equipment and supplies were delayed and nearly lost in customs. With planes arriving in Rwanda only once or twice a week, Yong and his colleagues—Roman Vichr, a technical systems expert, and David Akerson, a war crimes prosecution expert—were “waiting on pins and needles,” Yong recalls. Despite the chaos, everything finally arrived safely, and the group went about setting up the case management system and then training local Rwandans to manage it in the Rwandan Attorney General’s Office.
“Our goal was not to do it ourselves, but to train the locals to do it,” Yong says. “The crowning achievement was training a local worker within 24 hours who then conducted the presentation in Kinyarwanda to the heads of the other state agencies.” Thanks to the work of Yong and his teammates, the system was up and running later that year, logging defendants and tracking the progress of cases resulting from the genocide.
Several years passed, during which time Yong returned to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and became chief of operations. Then, in 2004, Yong’s phone rang again. Once more Johnson was on the other line, and this time he wanted Yong in Sarajevo.
Working with the United Nations and the ICTY in the wake of the Bosnian war, Johnson had become frustrated with the bureaucracy hindering the legal process. He knew the ICTY was likely to prosecute only a few hundred cases resulting from the war, despite the thousands that hung in limbo. In response, Johnson had launched the second iteration of his nonprofit, the Institute for Justice Sector Development (IJSD), and began work to build the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo to handle the overflow from The Hague and to serve as a domestic court to transition war crime cases from the international tribunals. Inspired by the success Yong had experienced training local Rwandans, Johnson wanted Yong to implement another case management system, this time on a far wider scale.
Even though he had recently left the DA’s office to join a friend’s computer forensics start-up company, Yong couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“I was less apprehensive,” Yong says of his decision to go to Sarajevo. “After having gone through that [Rwandan] experience, it made me stronger.”
Again, Yong managed to juggle the responsibilities of his full-time job while taking unpaid leaves to devote time to philanthropy. Over the next two years, Yong took a half-dozen trips to Sarajevo, each lasting a month.
In Sarajevo, Yong found a technological infrastructure far more advanced than that in Rwanda. But the city still bore the scars of war: whereas Yong was shown fields in Rwanda where executions had small taken place, the fields in Sarajevo were too littered with mines to risk exploration.
His professional challenge this time was to train local Bosnians to run the entire justice operation on their own turf, which ran counter to the system in place at the UN.
“This is the first time in which they were actually building the court in the sovereign nation where the conflict occurred,” says Yong, who served as both an IT and judicial consultant on what was known as the War Crimes Chamber Project. “The crimes were committed in Yugoslavia. Why shouldn’t the cases be heard there? The public should be able to see justice in action.”
With an initial budget of only $15 million over five years and a requirement to start trials in the yet-to-be-established chamber within a few months, Yong and his colleagues were both under the gun and going against the grain.
“There were a lot of people wishing that we would fail,” says Yong. But despite the international community’s reservations, Yong and his colleagues persevered. On March 9, 2005, an inauguration ceremony was held to celebrate the opening of the massive facility, which included a courthouse and a jail and today employs hundreds of Bosnian nationals.
Despite taking part in these revolutionary missions, Yong is self-effacing, giving credit to others at every opportunity. “I’m lucky that I have a skill that lends itself to help in these projects,” he says. “But I’m also humble enough to know that what I do is just a part of what is being done by others on a daily basis.”
He credits his time as a student at Suffolk Law for nurturing his public service ambitions.
“When I went to Suffolk, I never wanted to be a civil attorney. I wanted to be in a courtroom. i wanted to be a prosecutor,” he says. “I wanted to perform public service. What greater way to serve the public than on this level internationally? This just takes it to a whole different level.”
Now an assistant district attorney and the director of information technology for the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office under Gerry Leone JD ’89, Yong recently received another call from Johnson, this time from east Timor, where he is working to create an attorney general’s office. Johnson had a familiar message for Yong: “We’re going to need you over here.”
Yong, once again, will answer the call.
Jeannie Greeley is a Boston-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Dung Hoang.
For more information about the Institute for Justice Sector Development, go to www.ijsd.org.
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