STANTON, Ky. » Nearly two decades after fleeing her native Croatia, the squat, hardworking woman known as Issabell Basic lived a quiet life in this small town, firing up her Jeep Cherokee each day for the 25-minute commute to her job making Hot Pockets.
She doted on the dog she had bottle-fed as a puppy, was handy at sinking a fence post, and though neighbors never took to her stuffed grape leaves and cabbage, friends loved the cakes she baked each time a birthday rolled around.
Emphysema kept her close to the series of homes she shared with Steve Loman and his wife, Lucy, whom she called "Sis." The Lomans, in turn, describe Basic, 51, as a "big-hearted" person — the kind who would not buy something for herself without first picking up a gift for a friend, but who was also so scarred by the Bosnian conflict that she could not watch war movies and had severed all ties with her native land.
But perhaps there was another reason for the break: The woman known here as Issabell is identified in court papers as Azra Basic, and prosecutors in Bosnia allege that in 1992 she was part of a vicious brigade of Croatian Army soldiers that tortured and killed ethnic Serbians at three detention camps in the early years of the Bosnian war.
Victims and witnesses from the camps, quoted in court documents, say that while wearing a Croatian uniform, twin knives strapped to her belt and a boot, Basic carved crosses into prisoners’ foreheads. They accuse her of slitting one man’s throat and forcing others to drink from the dead man’s wound.
One witness says Basic made him drink gasoline, then set fire to his hands and face. Others say she forced them to crawl — half-naked, a knotted rope in their mouths and a Croatian soldier on their back — across a floor littered with blood and broken glass.
Now, after nearly 20 years, the past 15 spent working odd jobs in New York and Kentucky, Basic now faces extradition to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she would stand trial in district court on charges of war crimes.
"They’ve alleged that she is the woman that did these atrocities; we’re certainly going to contest that," said Patrick Nash, who is representing Basic (pronounced BOSS-ich) in the extradition proceedings. Basic, who is being held at the Fayette County Detention Center in Lexington, declined an interview request through her lawyer.
Though she was first charged in 1993, Basic was not located by Interpol until 2004. The Bosnian government registered a formal extradition request in 2007, but U.S. authorities asked for additional evidence before sending federal marshals to arrest her here last month.
By that time, according to the Lomans, speaking publicly for the first time, Basic had been living with them for five years, most recently sleeping on a twin mattress in the living room of their rambling, three-bedroom home. Over coffees before work, trips to the store, and nights spent in front of the TV, Basic confided the details of her old life to her new American "family."
"It wasn’t like it was a secret or anything," said Steve Loman, a retired truck driver who was arrested at the house with Basic on an unrelated weapons charge.
"The first man she killed, it made her sick," Lucy Loman said. "She came face to face with him. And she had to kill him or be killed. She said it made her sick at her stomach, and then she said, after that it all went down pretty easy — after you kill your first."
The extradition complaint accuses Basic of causing only one death.
The daughter of a ship’s captain, Basic told the Lomans that she and her young son had fled their home when the fighting broke out. She said her son had died of a heart ailment and that she was captured by Serbian fighters, after which she took up arms with the Croatian army, which promised to feed her and give her cigarettes.
Court records contained in the extradition request indicate she married Nedzad Basic in 1994. She later recounted to Lucy Loman how the Red Cross had helped resettle the pair in the United States, after a bomb blast destroyed one of her kidneys and lodged shrapnel in her skull.
Once in this country, she began re-inventing herself. Basic changed her name to Issabell, moved from Rochester to Lexington, Ky., and became a U.S. citizen. Court records indicate that she divorced her husband in 2005.
"Anything she done, it was army connected," said Lucy Loman, who said she believed that her friend was a fundamentally good person whom the horrors of war had forced to make impossible moral choices. The war toughened Basic, Lucy Loman said, but she was loyal and felt deeply for her friends, naming Lucy Loman in her will and buying carpet for a bedroom addition that would have allowed Basic her own room.
"I have no doubt if someone wanted to shoot me, she’d take the bullet," Lucy Loman said.
The Lomans are not alone in this hill-country town of 3,000 when they say that what international courts deem war crimes are in fact rough justice.
"I don’t think she’s guilty of anything but being a human being," said Eli Vires, a neighbor. "They should just let her out of jail and be done with it."
If convicted, Basic would most likely spend the rest of her life in prison. But if she is found not guilty, Lucy Loman said she would welcome her home.
"She’s already been through hell once," Lucy Loman said as she sifted through Issabell’s clothes and pictures. "Why put her through it again?"