Muslims Tell of “Gladiator” Punishments

The Washington Post
November 3, 1992

KARLOVAC, Croatia – It started off, Ibrahim recalled, as the usual nighttime brutality, but it ended up as a beating to end all beatings.

Ibrahim, a Slavic Muslim who was freed after being held for two months at a Bosnian Serb prison camp, took a short, nervous puff from a cigarette and began a narrative that plunged him back into a world of surreal violence. His gravelly voice halted at times, as though his words were being choked by his emotions.

“After beating us for a while, the guards got tired. They decided it would be a good idea to have the prisoners fight each other. A guard singled out me and another prisoner. He told the other prisoner to stand still and he told me to punch the prisoner as hard as possible in the face.

“I did it. But the guard said I wasn’t doing it hard enough, and so he hit me in the back of my head with the butt of his gun. He kept hitting me until I was covered in blood. And then he took another prisoner out of the line and told him to hit me.”

For two hours, according to Ibrahim, the Bosnian Serb guards at the Omarska camp ordered scores of Muslim prisoners to fight each other. It was gladiator time, and it amused the guards no end. They were laughing, Ibrahim said. But whenever a prisoner was spotted pulling a punch, one of the guards stepped in and angrily hit the laggard with a rifle butt.

According to a Western diplomat who has interviewed dozens of released prisoners for possible war-crimes trials, such instances were common. “Prisoners were forced to beat each other under force of death,” he said. “It was often a plaything between the guards. It was like a Roman coliseum. You have to hit the other guy as hard as you can if you want to stay alive.”

The accounts have come from several Bosnian Serb camps, with the largest number emanating from Omarska, near the town of Prijedor. The Serbs shut the camp in late August, after reporters began writing about atrocities taking place there. Since then, more detailed descriptions of the Serb gulag in northern Bosnia have emerged, exposing a pattern of brutality.

Along with reports of mass killings have come accounts of daily and violent humiliations directed at prisoners — not simply as punishment, but for the amusement of prison guards. Diplomats, human-rights investigators and journalists are culling this new information from 1,500 Muslims who were freed from the camps last month and are resting in this Croatian city.

The Muslims said they were routinely forced to sing Serbian patriotic songs, ones that extolled the virtue and heroism of Serb fighters or the Serb nation. The guards reportedly ordered the prisoners to sing louder and louder, longer and longer, until the Muslims nearly fainted from exhaustion.

“There’s a lot of singing in Bosnia,” said the Western diplomat.

E.G., a Muslim who asked to be identified by his initials, recounted a characteristic ordeal. He was held for nearly three weeks with six other Muslims in a room at Paprikovac hospital in the Serb-held north Bosnian city of Banja Luka. He said the guards allowed local policemen or Serb soldiers recovering in nearby wards to beat them.

“Their preferred method was to make us lie down on the hospital beds and they would hit us in the kidneys with batons,” said E.G., who has a fresh scar running from his lip to his nose and scars on the back of his left hand and right knee.

The seven Muslims were held in an out-of-the-way room with a glass partition through which, zoo-like, the guards and their friends could watch them. E.G. said the guards would place a Serbian Orthodox cross against the glass partition and order the Muslims to kiss it. They were instructed to eat their food with their hands “so the people watching us would have something to laugh at,” E.G. 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.