The Search for a Secret Prison Camp; Reporters’ Queries Provoke Angry Serb Response

The Washington Post
August 13, 1992

BATKOVIC, Bosnia – Seeking to avert international censure, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has promised relief agencies and journalists free access to Serb-run detention camps here, but the four Serb militiamen had not gotten the message.

They were manning a roadblock a mile or two from the village of Klis in northeastern Bosnia, where local people say that more than 2,000 Slavic Muslim and Croat captives are being held at a clandestine prison camp. They say the camp was set up about two months ago and that its population is growing daily as new prisoners are shipped from other detention camps that have come under international scrutiny.

When two American journalists drove up to the roadblock today, the militiamen refused to let them pass. There was fighting ahead, the Serbs said, not prison camps. They were tense and brusque, and they were not impressed in the slightest when reminded of Karadzic’s pledge to let reporters and relief officials move about freely. They angrily waved their rifles. The journalists turned their car around and left.

What was going on here? There were no sign of fighting ahead. There had been no reports of fighting anywhere in the vicinity. And it seemed odd that the only roadblock for 15 miles around was on a quiet country road supposedly leading to a quiet country village.

What followed over the next few hours left much of the puzzle unsolved, but it suggested that the local people are right, that there is something down that road that the Serb militiamen do not want outsiders to see, and that very likely it is a prison camp.

The episode also lends credence to suspicions among international relief officials and Western diplomats that leaders of the powerful Serb faction in Bosnia’s four-month-old territorial war are playing a shell game with the thousands of Muslim and Croat prisoners they have taken.

The process is simple, diplomats say. Once world attention is focused on a Serb-run detention camp where inhumane conditions or abusive treatment are alleged to have occurred, it is cleaned up, closed down or depopulated. Prisoners are quickly shuffled off to other facilities, away from prying eyes. Last week, an international outcry over alleged brutality in the Serb-run camp at Omarska triggered threats of foreign intervention in the Bosnian conflict; local Serb leaders now say that Omarska is being closed, its prisoners transferred elsewhere.

Back down the road from the Serb barricade, a local resident told the journalists he knew nothing about the fighting the militiamen talked about. But he said he knew a lot about a camp at Klis and claimed to have seen buses carrying prisoners there “frequently.”

The reporters then tried an alternative road to Klis but were overtaken in a matter of minutes by a car from the roadblock carrying several armed Serbs. They waved their guns again, seized passports and press cards and ordered the journalists to drive behind them. They did not say where.

The Serbs stopped first at a roadside cafe, where one made a phone call, presumably to superiors. Another of the Serbs, called “Vojo” by his friends, started yelling at a Muslim man in the cafe. He ordered the man to leave, slapped him in the face several times, jabbed him with the muzzle of his rifle, hit him with a beer bottle and shoved him off his chair. The Muslim left.

The Serbs then led the reporters to local militia headquarters in the nearby city of Bijeljina, a few miles from the border of neighboring Serbia. “They are enemies who were there to commit criminal acts,” Vojo told a militia commander. Then, as he walked away, Vojo whispered to the journalists: “Don’t ever come back again.”

The commander asked the journalists what they were doing out near Klis, said they should not have been there and sat them down to watch an hour-long video about atrocities allegedly committed against Bosnian Serbs by Muslims and Croats. “We don’t have prisons,” the commander said. “I have no reason to lie to you.”

But he refused to grant free passage to Klis, shrugging off Karadzic’s promise of open access. Asked if he was obliged to follow Karadzic’s orders, the commander replied with one word: “No.”

On the streets of Bijeljina, at least a half-dozen other people said they were aware of a detention camp at Klis. None had seen it, but they said they knew people who had, and one said he had seen prisoners working under guard in fields near Klis. They said the existence of the camp is an open secret in this Serb-controlled city, where Muslims allegedly are being arrested and fired from their jobs as part of a continuing Serb campaign to expel non-Serbs from Bosnian territory they occupy with threats, terror and brute force.

One tearful Muslim woman said that a sympathetic guard from the Klis camp had come to her home to tell her that her missing son was being held there. She said she went with some friends to visit the camp two weeks ago but was turned back at the roadblock. “The soldiers told us to never come back,” she said, sobbing. “We didn’t.”

The local people said the camp opened about two months ago and that prisoners there are held in farm sheds that are part of the Klis agricultural cooperative. They said they do not know what conditions are like in the camp, but they fear the worst. Most of the prisoners are Muslim men, they said, a mixture of civilians evicted from their homes and combatants captured in the factional fighting.

Many of the prisoners had been transferred here from camps in nearby Brcko and Luka, the local residents said — sites specified on a list of 92 such Serb facilities that Bosnia’s Muslim-led government has denounced as “concentration camps.” Klis is not on the list. For now, it does not exist.

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.