Death Whispers at Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia
Death Whispers: Frightened Bosnian Muslim War Prisoners Voice Horror Behind the Pictures
By Peter Maass
16 August 1992.
OMARSKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — When the camp guards looked in another direction, the prisoners at the Serb-run detention camp here broke into nervous whispers.
“There is 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 Muslims [Bosniaks] imprisoned here emphasized that they believe Serb authorities are turning Omarska into a Potemkin village. Over the past week, all but 175 of Omarska’s several thousand inmates have been transferred to other facilities. 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 through the air.
Journalists enter camps
Since Aug. 6, the ethnic Serb authorities in Bosnia, who have taken control of two-thirds of the former Yugoslav republic during four months of fighting over its independence, have permitted a handful of foreign journalists to visit several of the dozens of detention camps, in which Muslim prisoners have described being abused and tortured. Some told of executions. None of the visitors has actually witnessed abuses taking place, but television pictures of emaciated prisoners and testimony by former prisoners 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 – whether just a jail cell or an entire sports stadium.
According to Serb authorities, 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 Croatia border fear that some Omarska inmates have been shipped to still-secret camps elsewhere, or simply executed.
Residents of the nearby town of Banja Luka said they watched in horror as heavily guarded bus convoys from Omarska carrying prisoners with shaved heads passed by on their way to Manjaca, to the south. Several of the witnesses said they saw prisoners holding up three fingers – the nationalist symbol for Serbia – apparently as an act of humiliation instructed by their ethnic Serb guards.
The Muslim-led government of Bosnia has accused the ethnic Serbs of running nearly 100 “concentration camps” and holding about 70,000 prisoners.
Tales of horror
Trnopolje, located only a few miles from Omarska, also was opened to journalists last 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 dead 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 toilets 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 his skin was stretched like a transparent scarf over his ribs and shoulder bones.
The youth said his first beating took place 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 walls – and 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 the beatings took place irregularly, though the guards had a preference for coming at midnight.
When Trnopolje guards were not looking, several inmates brought this reporter 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 bandage made from tissue paper on one man’s limb was peeled off to show a softball-size hole. There was no skin – just crushed bone and infected tissue. The detainees said the Trnopolje guards have not given them antibiotics or disinfectants, and the man’s wound is festering.
The other 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 police official filmed the interviews from a distance while guards looked on and, from time to time, approached the inmates, ending the interviews. A photographer in military fatigues took pictures.
At one point, a prisoner pulled off his shirt to show this reporter about a dozen small, fresh scars on his chest. The scars were thin and straight, as though the skin had been slashed with a razor blade. Suddenly, before the prisoner had time to explain the scars, a look of horror came over his face.
A guard was standing behind this reporter. 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 is located inside 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.
Paradoxically, the journalists’ visit to the supposedly improved camp at Omarska 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.