Bosnian Genocide Survivor of the Karakaj Massacre: "Up to 700 Killed"
Photo: Bosnian workers carry a body bag of human remains as forensic experts of the International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, inspect human remains at a mass-grave site in the village of Karakaj near the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik, Sunday, May 25, 2008.
24 June 1992.
By Dan Stets
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — When the Serbian guards started shooting, Fedhija Hasanovic was so terrified that he fell to the floor. The impulse saved his life. Fourteen of the 16 Bosnian [Bosnian Muslim] men in the room with him died instantly. The 15th, wounded in the stomach, took a bit longer.
Hasanovic, who managed to crawl away over the corpses of his neighbors, is one of a few known survivors of a death camp run by Serbs in a village called Karakaj in northeastern Bosnia near the town of Zvornik.
Serbian fighters herded about 700 Bosnian Muslim men into the technical school in Karakaj on June 1, 1992; when Hasanovic escaped on Jun e8, at least 400 of them were dead. He suspects that Serbian guards have since then killed the remaining 300.
“They are animals who were laughing as they were killing. They didn’t care what they were doing,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
The executions at Karakaj were not isolated incidents but part of what human rights activists say is a systematic effort by Serbs to ethnically “cleanse” eastern Bosnia by driving out or exterminating those who predominate in the region, some ethnic Croats, but mostly Muslim Slavs (Bosniaks).
“We are sure that 40,000 people have been murdered along the River Drina and that another 70,000 are in concentration camps,” said Zlatko Hurtic, a Bosniak lawyer who represents five Sarajevo-based humanitarian and peace organizations that have produced a survey of atrocity allegations from eastern Bosnia.
According to Hurtic, Serbs have also been victims: As Bosniak and Croatian forces retake Serbian-controlled areas or take Serbian prisoners, they reportedly take brutal retribution. His coalition, he says, has launched a campaign called “Save Humanity,” which is equally concerned about human rights abuses in all parts of Bosnia, against Croats, Bosniaks or Serbs.
The latest official death toll in the 11-week-old Bosnian war is more than 7,200 with an additional 30,000 people missing. But this tally includes only those whose bodies have been recovered and whose deaths were officially registered.
Before the war, the population of eastern Bosnia, which adjoins Serbia, was 60 percent Bosniak and 30 percent Serbian, with the rest a mixture of other ethnic groups. Now, human rights groups estimate, 70 percent of the Bosniaks are dead, on the run or in concentration camps. The war so far has created 1.35 million refugees.
Most of Bosnia (Hurtic estimates 85 percent) is now in the hands of the Serbs. What has happened there must be pieced together from the accounts of survivors and refugees.
We have a situation here like in World War II under the Nazis — massive killings, concentration camps and torture,” Hurtic said.
The survivors’ stories include accounts of rape, looting and robbery, of throats being cut and Muslim villages burned. The Orthodox Serbs, whose territory was occupied by Muslim Turks for centuries, now seem to be taking historical revenge for past grievances. There are reports of Muslims being tortured by having the Serbian emblem carved in their flesh and Muslim bodies found with small wooden crosses on top of them.
“Save Humanity” would like internationally respected human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch, to come in and check its findings.
The five groups in the coalition are the Red Cross of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Sarajevo Center of Antiwar Activities, the United Nations Association for Bosnia and Herzegoina, Esperanto of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Youth Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Hurtic is the general secretary of the United Nations Association, a group that promotes the ideals and principles of the United Nations but is not a U.N. organ.
Some of the eastern Bosnian violence has been carried out by terrorist groups from Serbia, particularly the “Tigers” of Zeljko Raznjatovic, known as Arkan. But much of it is more frighteningly banal, the cruelty of neighbor to neighbor.
The coalition has collected written testimony from more than 120 witnesses. All signed their accounts, saying they were willing to give their statement “before any international organization or court if necessary.”
Twenty reports on a number of separate incidents have been released; the others are being withheld until they are needed for prosecutions because the witnesses are afraid of reprisals or have relatives in Serbian-held regions.
Hasanovic is one of the 20 witnesses to go public. He is now in a hospital in Tuzla recovering from a gunshot would he received during his flight from Karakaj. He was interviewed by telephone; three other witnesses were interviewed in person in Sarajevo.
All seemed credible, and their oral stories confirmed and expanded upon the details given in their written statements.
Assessing witnesses’ accounts of purported atrocities is tricky in this part of the world, where all sides have been suspected of exaggerating for propaganda purposes. But it is clear that there will be many more horror to try to document before this tragiv war ends.
Hasanovic, a 34-year-old construction worker, said his story, of the death camp at Karakaj, began when 700 Bosnian Muslims from this region were tricked into surrendering to Serbian authorities. All of them residents of Muslim villages near Zvornik, they were told to report to the district center in Klisa so they could be traded for Serbs in Bosniak-held areas.
Instead, they were herded into a large room at the technical school in Karakaj where they were systematically tortured and then executed.
Twenty people died either of suffocation or of heart attacks in the first few days, Hasanovic said. About 120 men were taken to another large room where their throats were cut or they were beaten to death.
Each day after that, guards would select a small group of prisoners who were supposedly to be traded for Bosniak-held Serbs. “But as soon as they would take out those people, we could hear rifle fire, screams and cries,” Hasanovic recalled.
The Karakaj guards were Serbs from the same villages as the Bosniaks, he said; the Bosniaks were chosen for execution by Serbs who knew them. Before they were shot, they were interrogated to find out who had guns and valuables.
On the eight day of captivity, 64 men, including Hasanovic, were placed in a four-room house, 16 to a room. Several guards with automatic weapons were in Hasanovic’s room.
“Then one guy in an army uniform told us to line up against the wall, and he began to shoot,” Hasanovic said. Instantly, he fell and lay still.
He could hear the screams and moans of the others. They were saying, “Please kill me,” but the officer in charge said they should be left to suffer. The Serbs then drove off to get another group of Bosniaks to execute.
Hasanovic said he waited 15 or 20 minutes before crawling over the bodies and escaping intot he countryside.
It took him four days to reach the Bosniak-held village of Zaseok.
“I thought I would never see anybody again,” he said. “I was just trying to stay alive so that I could tell the story of what happened.”
Along the way, he ate fruit to survive. On the third day, while picking cherries, he was shot in the right hip by a Serbian soldier.
Once back in the hands of the Bosniaks, he was taken to the hospital in Tuzla for recovery. There he spends much time thinking of revenge. He plans to join the Bosniak territorial defense forces who will try to retake the Zvornik area.
“I think I could kill the men who did this to me,” Hasanovic said. “They are monsters, animals.”