Portrait: Michelle Berg

By Rawlson King

“It’s very grueling during the elections. You’re awake all the time. You are dealing with 120 other observers with radios trying to contact you. If there is an emergency you have to deal with distances the size of Ottawa to Montreal.”

Evidently democracy isn’t just an ideal in Bosnia-Herzegovina — it’s a long process.

And that’s why Centretown lawyer Michelle Berg volunteered six months of her life in the once war-torn nation.

Driving around countryside devastated by both emotional and physical shellshock, Berg helped organize the 1998 general elections as an international observer for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Among other things, the organization ensures free and fair elections in post-war Bosnia.

This meant engaging in both the arcane and the extraordinary.

“If the power went out in polling stations we would distribute candles,” remembers Berg. “Any kind of emergency that arose had to be dealt with.”

Her gaze unveils a hardened, yet dedicated, sensibility.

Berg co-founded a Centretown law practice, Pfeiffer and Berg, that specializes in refugee issues after obtaining her law degree at Queen’s University.

The infinitesimal 31-year-old immigration lawyer has also lent her intellectual, technical and legal skills to international organizations overseas.

She went to Zimbabwe in 1992 to teach English as a Second Language for six months.

Her next stop was war-torn Rwanda in 1995, as a human rights monitor for the United Nations.

She then went to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, to work with refugees and to supervise elections there.

Finally, she made several visits to Bosnia over the last two years as a technical overseer of the electoral process, the most recent visit concluding only a month ago.

She cites her main motivation for her volunteer work as seeking to help the most needy as fairly as possible.

Her election work embraces the challenge of being a paragon of neutrality.

“There was a lot of ethnic tension between Bosnian Croats and Muslims because people were returning to vote where they originally came from before they were displaced,” says Berg. “Two explosions previous to the election also caused a stir, but our task was to make sure that the election ran as smoothly as possible.”

This involved ensuring the election could take place despite physical danger and lack of infrastructure, which Berg found to be tiring and trying.

Robert Barry, head of the OSCE mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina, concurs that there were many challenges.
The mission was set up to supervise elections in the region.

“Technically, these elections were very demanding. There were a total of 2.6 million registered voters, spread all over . . . and each able to vote in four and sometimes five different races,” he said.
Despite cultural tension, security constraints and logistical concerns, the elections went smoothly.
Berg’s role with the OSCE in Bosnia included training supervisors to oversee registration and polling stations.

The organization registered candidates, organized local election commissions and trained some 3,000 international supervisors for the election process in and out-of-country.

The main tasks of the OSCE during the electoral contest included registration of new and previously registered voters, who totaled two million within Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly refugees.
Berg’s legal work with refugees helped immensely.

However, she says more than training is required for human rights and electoral work overseas.
Nerves of steel are also a very necessary prerequisite.

In Rwanda, Berg investigated allegations of genocide and the conditions of prisons after the 1994 Hutu uprising against the Tutsis, which resulted in nearly one million deaths.

“The task involved a lot of dead body viewing and was a quite serious threat to life and limb.”

More than 85,000 Hutu men, women and children had been arrested on genocide charges over the past three years and are awaiting trial.

Berg’s role as a neutral UN monitor was to inspect incidents of genocide, as well as the conditions of prisons.

While investigating a village that had been nearly annihilated in a genocide attack, she was detained by Rwandan troops for an hour.

Despite Berg’s boldness and brave gallivanting around the world, she admits being rather reserved.
“I’m actually quite a shy person.”

But this shy person reveals all the qualities needed for someone engaged in human rights work.
According to Ruth Selwin, executive director of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation, human rights’ volunteers need a multitude of skills.

“You need a combination of strong personal skills, respect and the ability to collaborate. You essentially need to be able to take the experience of someone else and add it to your own.”

This is what Berg felt she did.

“I took the strong and proud elements of the Bosnian culture and added them to myself.”

Alluding to J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, Berg emphasizes the reason why she engages in such challenging, and sometimes life-threatening work.

“At the end of the book, the main character stands at the edge of the field and makes the right decision, the right choice,” says Berg.

As the protagonist of her own story, she vows to make the right choice as well.

“You have to confront what’s wrong. You have to stop what you can.”