Illusory Serb Prison Camp Materializes; Hundreds Held at Bosnian Facility That Militia Said Did Not Exist

The Washington Post
August 27, 1992

BATKOVIC, Bosnia – More than 1,500 Slavic Muslims are crammed into two fetid livestock sheds here, crouching silently amid the stench of filth and fear in a prison camp that Serb security forces swore did not exist.

Under the gaze of armed Serb guards, the prisoners shuffle one by one to a lunch of bread and bean soup, their heads bowed low, their hands clasped behind their backs as though pinned by invisible handcuffs.

The inmates — all men of military age, all rail thin — do not look up at the summer sky or at the barbed wire surrounding the cattle sheds, and they shy away fearfully from two visiting journalists.

“Please don’t ask me questions,” one of them pleaded.

The Batkovic camp, jerry-built on a farm cooperative in the far northeastern corner of Bosnia, is the latest Serb-run detention site to be opened to journalists and human rights groups. Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia’s five-month-old factional war are believed to operate scores of such camps, but only a few have been opened to inspection — and only in response to international pressure.

Two weeks ago, two Western journalists pursuing rumors of a clandestine prison camp here were turned away from a rural road leading to Batkovic by armed Serbs at a roadblock. There is no camp, the Serbs said, waving their guns. When the reporters tried to reach Batkovic by another road, they were taken into custody at gunpoint, hauled before the local Serb militia commander, lectured on Serb history and warned never to come back. “There is no camp at Batkovic,” the commander said.

A few days later, Red Cross investigators following the same rumors spent several days at the “un-camp,” and journalists are now being allowed in as well. But local Serb authorities and camp guards continue to insist that this really is not a prison. They call it a “collection center” created mainly to house and protect non-Serb civilians whose home towns and villages had been caught up in the bloody warfare among Bosnia’s Serb, Croat and Slavic Muslim factions.

“It is necessary for humanitarian purposes to protect these people,” said Maj. Jovica Savic, a top camp official. “Since they did not want to take part in fighting, they were in danger of being killed by their own people.” U.N. human rights officials have disputed such contentions in the past, saying that most of the men in Serb-run detention camps are being held to prevent them from joining opposing militia forces.

Savic said the men here — most of them Muslims — get three good meals a day, eating the same food as Serb guards. They also are free to make visits to the nearby city of Bijeljina, he said, and they work voluntarily in nearby farm fields because they want the exercise. “Most of them are here as though they are on a picnic,” Savic said.

Savic refused to permit journalists to bring cameras or tape recorders into the camp, and a guard hovered just a few feet away whenever a reporter tried to question one of the “picnickers.” The interviews were fleeting, a few whispered words here and there. Most of the prisoners said they were civilians plucked from their homes by force, then they fell silent. Flashes of disbelief came across their faces when asked if they were free to leave the camp, as Savic had said. One simply nodded toward the barbed wire fence.

Most of the men have clearly lost a lot of weight, but they are not emaciated as were many at the notorious Omarska camp, where former inmates say prisoners were tortured and murdered by Serbs. Television footage of skeletal Muslim and Croat inmates at Omarska triggered demands from the international community that detention camps operated by all sides in the Bosnian conflict be opened to inspection.

Prisoners here do seem to have trouble getting enough to eat, even with foreign journalsits looking on, and one of them was rapped on the knuckles today as he tried to get an extra spoonful of soup.

Some latrines and water faucets have been installed in a gravel exercise yard, but they are shiny new, apparently set up in the last week or so. Inmates are housed in two 30-by-60-yard sheds that are suffocatingly hot and smell of cattle manure. They sleep side by side on thin bales of hay covered with cloth. There is no room to roll over.

Although the camp is filled with prisoners, there is little noise here aside from the crunching of feet on gravel and the clattering of spoons on bowls being scoured for every morsel. Savic said the inmates — or “collection center” residents — were quiet because of their “surprise” at the presence of journalists.

But why, he was asked, do they walk with their heads bowed low and their hands clasped uncomfortably behind their backs? “It is a custom among Bosnian people,” 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.