Away From Guards, Inmates Whisper of Abuse

The Washington Post
August 11, 1992

OMARSKA, Bosnia – When the camp guards looked in another direction, the prisoners at the Serb-run detention camp here broke into nervous whispers.

“There’s no doctor here,” one of them breathed. “As soon as you get sick you are shot.”

A handwritten note was slipped to a journalist. “About 500 people have been killed here with sticks, hammers and knives,” the note said. “Until August 6, there were 2,500 people. We were sleeping on the concrete floor, eating only once a day, in a rush, and we were beaten while we were eating. We have been here for 75 days. Please help us. . . . Once there is no media attention focused on us, it is not known what will happen to us.”

Even more than recounting the abuses they say are taking place, the Slavic Muslims imprisoned here emphasized that they believe local Serb authorities are turning Omarska into a Potemkin village.

In the past week, they said, all but 175 of several thousand inmates once held here were transferred to other facilities, and the ones left behind apparently are for show.

One prisoner said hurriedly that the meat in his lunch of bean soup was added to impress the half-dozen foreign journalists allowed to visit the camp. Mattresses and blankets also are new items, added another, who spoke as the sound of machine-gun fire rattled in the distance.

Since Thursday, Serb militia and security forces who have taken control of two-thirds of Bosnia in four months of factional fighting have permitted a handful of foreign journalists to visit several of the dozens of detention camps in which Muslim prisoners say they have been abused and tortured. Some former inmates have told of executions and of brutal interrogations. No outside visitor has actually witnessed such abuses, but television pictures of emaciated prisoners and testimony by former inmates have shocked the world. In addition, relief officials have received reports that almost every Serb-controlled village and city in Bosnia has a detention center for non-Serbs — whether just a jail cell or two or an entire sports stadium.

According to Serb authorities here, most of Omarska’s inmates were transferred to two better facilities over the past week — a military prison in Manjaca and a “refugee camp” in Trnopolje. But many Muslims in this swath of Serb-controlled territory in northwest Bosnia near the Croatian border say they fear that some Omarska inmates have been shipped to still-secret camps elsewhere, or simply executed.

Residents of the nearby city of Banja Luka said they watched in horror as heavily guarded bus convoys carrying prisoners with shaved heads from Omarska passed by on their way to Manjaca, to the south. Several of the witnesses said they saw prisoners holding up three fingers — the Serb nationalist symbol — apparently as an act of humiliation forced on them by their Serb guards.

The Muslim-led government of Bosnia has accused Serb militia forces of running nearly 100 “concentration camps” that hold about 70,000 prisoners. The Serbs accuse Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat militia forces of imprisoning about 40,000 Serbs in camps of their own. Relief officials treat those accusations as credible but believe the problem is far more severe in Serb-controlled regions of Bosnia.

Trnopolje, situated only a few miles from Omarska, also was opened to journalists on Sunday, and, surprisingly, it was possible to talk relatively freely with some prisoners who had just arrived from Omarska. With guards watching but out of earshot, tales of horror tumbled out.

At least six prisoners said in interviews that they were severely beaten at Omarska and saw executions and piles of bodies. One prisoner said that almost every day he saw about 10 to 15 fresh corpses lying in a field where a truck would eventually pick them up.

The prisoners said many Omarska inmates were held in an open mining pit that had no toilet or protection from the daytime sun and evening chill. One Muslim — frail and with a shaved head — said he was held in the pit for 72 days and able to wash just once.

“It was horrible,” said an 18-year-old youth, running his hands along his torso, where the skin was stretched like a transparent scarf over his ribs and shoulder bones.

The youth said the Serbs beat him often, the first time on the evening he arrived at Omarska. In an interrogation room, he said, he was forced to kneel on the ground and place his hands on the wall, then was pummeled with kicks to his kidneys and rifle-butt blows to the rest of his body.

“For beatings, they used hands, bars, whips, belts, anything,” he said. “A normal person cannot imagine the methods they used. It was very difficult to survive psychologically.”

The prisoners said they were fed meager portions of thin soup once a day at Omarska and that sometimes the water they drank came from a polluted river. They added that beatings took place irregularly but that the guards seemed to have a preference for midnight.

Still, certain moments did provide a respite from their ordeal, some inmates said. “I am sorry to say that it was good when new people came,” the youth said with a sigh. “The guards beat them instead of us.”

When Trnopolje guards were not looking, several inmates took me into the room in a filthy school building where they sleep, crammed next to each other like sardines. Lying on the floor were two men, both with wounds allegedly suffered during beatings at Omarska.

The fetid tissue-paper bandage on one man’s limb was peeled off to reveal a softball-size hole. There was no skin — just crushed bone and infected tissue. The inmates said the Trnopolje guards have given them no antibiotics or disinfectants for the man’s festering wound.

The second man lay motionless on the ground. His lips, nose and eyes were severely bruised and swollen, and there were numerous gashes on his face. He could not speak, and he could barely blink. He looked like a battered corpse.

The Muslim prisoners who spoke out would not give their names. Some voluntarily approached the journalists, but their worried expressions sent a message that they feared punishment for their actions.

A Serb security official filmed the interviews from a distance while guards looked on and, from time to time, approached the inmates, ending the interviews. A Serb photographer in military fatigues took pictures.

At one point, a prisoner pulled off his shirt to show me about a dozen small, fresh scars on his chest. The scars were thin and straight, as though the skin had been slashed with a sharp blade. Suddenly, before the prisoner had time to explain the scars, a look of horror came over his face. A guard was standing behind me; the interview ended.

Trnopolje is described by the Serbs who run it as a refugee camp from which anybody, including the former Omarska prisoners, can leave if they wish. There is no barbed wire around the camp, which consists of a few school buildings, a large yard with open latrines and several thousand unwashed and haggard people, mostly men.

But the detainees do not feel free. They say they cannot leave — that walking away is academic because the surrounding region is heavily militarized.

Omarska is different. It lies within a sprawling mining center and consists of a two-story building in which the remaining 175 prisoners sleep, eat and are interrogated. It is heavily patrolled by well-armed guards in military, police and civilian clothes.

The journalists’ visit there seemed to terrify some prisoners. With guards listening, the inmates appeared unable to speak freely, except in a few stolen moments. When asked questions, they looked fearful and hung their heads low.

One Muslim inmate, lying on a mattress and burning up with fever, almost broke into tears when a television reporter asked if there had been beatings. Guards were standing behind the cameraman two feet away. The prisoner managed to say no and breathed a visible sigh of relief when the camera was turned off.

Manjaca, the new home for about half of those inmates transferred from Omarska, also was visited by journalists Saturday on a tightly escorted tour. They were shown animal stables crammed with several thousand men whom the Manjaca commandant said were Muslim and Croat combatants captured while fighting against Serbs.

The tour of Omarska and Trnopolje was conducted by a Serb security official named Simo Drljaca, who controls the camps and is the police chief of Prijedor, the nearest town. Drljaca flatly denied the charges of mistreatment, torture and executions.

“Interrogation is being done the same way as it is done in America and England,” he said. Asked about the skeletal state of many at Omarska, he said that they were not underfed and do not even look underfed. “They are not skeletons,” he boasted.

A burly Omarska guard, who had a pistol and a large hunting knife strapped to his belt and an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder, smiled when asked about the alleged torture. “Why would we want to beat them?” he said.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.