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BosNet Digest V5 #55 / Feb 06, 1996

From: Dzevat Omeragic <dzevat@EE.MCGILL.CA>

Bosnia-Herzegovina News Directory


  • [01] Omarska: A firsthand account

  • [02] ENI: Banja Luka's Muslim leader says church 'failed to react'

  • [01] Omarska: A firsthand account

    Contributed by: BorPet@AOL.COM


    "This one's loyal," a voice behind him could be heard. "I know him. He worked at the radio station." And then the owner of that voice of salvation came to face him. Djemo didn't know him, but he understood that the few emblems on his epaulets made him the master of the present situation.

    "And do you know which of your neighbors had weapons?" he asked. "Believe me, I don't," said Djemo, addressing only the one with the emblems on his epaulets. "I was never interested in what my neighbors had or didn't have or what they did. I didn't even know a lot of them." He was aware of the absolute hopelessness of his position. "Take him away," replied the commander as he sat down on the edge of the table by the window, sneering at Djemo. He wasn't even beaten by those standing outside, the ones with the clubs. It was as if they had gotten a secret signal.

    At the time, Djemo had no idea that he had passed only the first gate of hell.

    Later they loaded them onto a bus, from which there waved a big Serbian flag mounted on one of the side-mirrors. Three soldiers sat in the front seats facing them. The bus started moving. First they drove straight to the underpass, then right, then left toward the cellulose and paper factory, before turning down the street running along the banks of the Sana River. Djemo looked at the Old City. Tongues of flame rose high above the burning roofs. Dense whorls of smoke gathered into huge black clouds. The Old City, that island surrounded by the Sana and the Berek, looked like an enormous torch. "That's how all your houses will burn," said one of the soldiers.

    Djemo just kept quiet, impotently gritting his teeth and sighing in despair, feeling almost unbearably humiliated. It seemed to him then that he would remember this image of the Old City in flames until his dying day. That part of the city was the source of many sweet memories. He fell in love for the first time right there, on the banks of the Berek, and it was there that he smoked his first cigarette. The dances held on the stage of the open-air theater were unforgettable, not only for the people of Prijedor but for those from other places who came to spend the summer. And swimming at night in the Sana ...

    Memories kept reeling as pressure gripped his throat. And the misery flowed from his eyes. His body felt weighed down by helplessness and humiliation. His hand motioned toward his pocket for a cigarette, but he remembered that his cigarettes had been taken away at the police station.

    Their heads bent down, their eyes bereft of hope, the prisoners lurched forward as the bus led them into the unknown. The Serb soldiers in the front of the bus occasionally greeted passersby with three raised fingers in the traditional Serb salute; they also sang some strange, unintelligible songs. As they passed, a group of villagers in fatigues and muddy boots signaled the bus to stop. They asked the escorting soldiers to hand over the prisoners. "Those are Ustasha," said one, looking over the frightened people in the bus. "They should all be taken care of using the shortcut," he said, holding his hand like a knife across his neck as his face twisted in an eerie grimace of hate. He and his pals were ready to lynch these people on the spot, though they didn't know any of them.

    One of the soldiers mumbled something and ordered the driver to shut the door and drive on. Through the window you could see the wide expanse of the plain at the foot of the Kozara mountains, where the turf of tilled soil reaches its highest elevation. Fertile, plowed land, sown with wheat, extending as far as the eye can see. "Who will harvest it?" wondered Djemo. Abandoned cattle, cows, horses, sheep and newborn lambs grazed in the fields. They wandered around scorched houses, as long spits of flame and pillars of smoke soared high above them. In front of the houses, fresh linen still hung on lines stretched across the courtyards. No one had expected such evil.

    Only in the Balkans can anything happen any time: these were Ivo Andric's words, and they came to Djemo's mind. And it happened, the worst that can happen, right there by this mountain range, where history marches in military step. Here people always started from scratch, after every battle, after every plague. People from around here are tough, but it seems that no one loves their patch of sky, their fields and houses and mountains as much.

    In earlier wars, the locals had fought to defend Krajina from various enemies, but now ... what exactly was happening now? Who were these mighty warriors who fled their farms, leaving behind half-empty beer bottles, to take up their cannons and machine guns? Once, not so long ago, people had made sacrifices, they had gone without food for the greater good; now they were defying the legal authorities to arm what had once been everyone's army, the Yugoslav People's Army, taking refuge in the five-pointed star and in the attribute "People's." And now that army was pounding them with the very same weapons they had acquired to defend themselves from any possible enemy--only the enemy, it turned out, had been living right here, next door or down the street. Until just yesterday they had shared everything, drinking coffee together, going to parties and funerals together, visiting each other, marrying each other, but now ...

    "Where the People's Army marches," the old song goes. Djemo would have added: "... is a land where grass no longer grows." These were strange times. Bosnia trembled as if it had been hit by a powerful earthquake. But an earthquake comes and goes. This thing just kept on going.

    Was this bus trip the beginning of something still worse? What were those beaten people guilty of? And what about the others, staring at the floor of the bus, their eyes filled with fear? The new regime had nothing to blame them for, other than that their very existence was a reminder of the national, historical character of Muslims and Croats. The new authorities destroyed mosques and churches and even dug up graveyards. Such crimes were well organized and harked back to times we thought we'd forgotten. Irrational hatred flowed from the darkest parts of their souls to stare out from the perpetrators' bloodshot eyes. The reaction of others, more numerous, was silence, fearful silence.

    The bus stopped outside the administration building of the iron-ore mine at Omarska, only a few kilometers from the village of the same name. On one side looted cattle grazed in the mowed fields while, across from them, the mining embankments--only days ago they had been busy with workers--lay remote and isolated, seared by the unbearable heat. Two huge buildings stood in the center, separated by a wide asphalt lot with two smaller buildings. The prisoners were ordered to get off the bus with their arms raised over their heads, holding up three fingers on each hand. Two rows of fully armed soldiers opened a path through which they had to walk. Five men were pulled out of the line; the others were taken into one of the big buildings. Among those selected, Djemo recognized Tewfik, a local actor, whom everyone called "Cheapskate." Within minutes a burst of machine-gun fire rang out. "Cheapskate" would never break a leg on stage again.

    With every arriving busload, the room got more and more crowded. Djemo's son arrived, along with his cousins Fadil, Mirsad, Fudo, and Fudo's son Elijan. Djemo counted over twenty buses before dark. The pattern repeated itself the next day. In the course of two days, more than 3,000 inhabitants of Prijedor and its outlying villages were arrested in their homes in these inconceivable raids and brought to the Serb prison at Omarska. Among the prisoners, whose only fault was being Muslim or Croat, were intellectuals, teachers, engineers, police officers, craftsmen. Djemo recognized the mayor of Prijedor, the Honorable Mr. Muhamed Cehajic. How absurd such titles now seemed.

    The first four days they weren't given anything to eat. They slept on a tiled floor. Djemo found a cardboard box, broke it up and put it on the floor for himself and his son to use as a bed. The stale air was hard to breathe and dried out their throats. It was on the fifth day that they were ordered to line up for food. The hunger was unbearable. Everyone swarmed to the door, and they were taken away in groups of thirty. Ari was in the third group, Djemo was way back in the tenth. When Djemo's group came up, they were told there was no more food. They went back to their places, writhing in pain. Later, they were given food once a day. A couple of cabbage leaves with a few beans, covered in tepid water, and a piece of bread that seemed to be made of soapsuds: this was their daily fare. They were given only two minutes to eat their portions. Most of the time they were beaten on their way to and from lunch.

    The route to lunch wound through a narrow corridor that branched off at the end and led to a staircase on the right. Up there, prisoners were interrogated. Back downstairs, on the left, was the miners' canteen, where they ate. The guards poured water on a worn-out patch of glazed cement to make the corridor more slippery. If a prisoner fell, they would pounce on him like famished beasts at the sight of a carcass. Using whips made of thick electric cable, they beat them all the way up the stairs for the inevitable interrogation or simply to finish the job they had already started.

    In the presence of interrogators, inspectors from the Prijedor police station, they struck them with shoes, brass knuckles, iron rods and God knows what else. They wished to force admissions of guilt and signed, trumped-up confessions. Usually they got prisoners to admit that they had taken part in attacks on Prijedor, or carried arms, or been found with lists of Serbs to be liquidated by Muslims. These false accounts were taken as evidence warranting the use of force and torture. The goal was clear: to eliminate any hope of survival in each man.

    A young doctor from Kozarac, Mensur Kusuran, was forced to confess that he had stolen medicine from the clinic where he worked, that he hid the medicine in his cellar and smuggled it to Muslims. Mensur, of course, had no clue as to what any of this was about. He swore that he had never taken a single dose of medicine from the clinic, but to no avail. He was forced to sign a confession that sealed his fate. And then Mensur remembered that his house had no cellar. The interrogators just laughed and told the guard to take him away. Of the many doctors who passed through Omarska, Mensur is the only one known to have survived the horrors of this camp.

    In another case, Eso Mehmedagic, a prominent public figure from Prijedor, was accused of being a sniper. It didn't matter that everyone knew that Eso was afflicted with progressive blindness. He couldn't even walk down the street without help.

    There were about 600 prisoners in the area where Djemo was being held. The space wasn't very big; it had once been the miners' locker room. The youngest inmate was just 14, a boy from the nearby village of Biscani, whose entire family had been killed; the oldest was 74, Uncle Gredelj from Cejrek, another surrounding village. Only a wall separated them from a small garage. It couldn't have been more than about ninety square feet, but it was occupied by 160 people from Kozarac, a small town about ten kilometers from Prijedor with a largely Muslim population. They had put up the longest resistance to the Serbs, so the guards showed them no mercy. These 160 prisoners had been captured somewhere near Benkovac, on Mount Kozara. Most were armed but, unable to mount a stronger resistance, had finally surrendered. Hadn't they heard on the radio that anyone who gave up their weapons would be guaranteed complete safety? They were certainly "safe" in this small space, in their torn clothes, standing barefoot on the concrete floor.

    It was horrifying to listen to their screams, their cries for help. The days were hot, the nights were muggy, as they are in these parts. The men would ask the guards for water. Through a broken window high above their heads, the guards tossed in a plastic water canister every now and then, and these parched throats struggled frantically to get at even a few drops of water, a matter of life and death. Since they fought over the canister, more water was spilled than was drunk; then they would turn the empty canister upside down and shake it above their gaping mouths, hoping for the very last drop.

    The guards snickered and promised more water, but only if they sang chetnik songs. They had to sing. So you heard songs such as this one:

    "You say Serbia's small Liars one and all She's not small at all, Not small at all. Thrice she went To battle, from Topola All the way to Ravna Gora; And everywhere you go The loyal guards Everywhere you go The loyal guards Of our General Draza ... "

    "Oh Alija, oh Alija, If we go to battle It's you I'll kill, You I'll slaughter, Just like Milos once Got rid of Murat ... "

    "See the Turk at her Mosque bowing, her love to Serbs only swearing ... "

    "Louder," the guards would say, "louder, if you want more water." And the chorus of the afflicted rose. "Once more and you'll get water," the guards laughed. "Louder, take it from the top!" The wretched prisoners sang for hours, hoping for at least some relief from the unbearable thirst brought on by the sweltering night.

    They took care of their bodily needs using a plastic bucket by the tin door of the garage. When somebody took a leak, the others gathered around to cup their hands and catch the urine, wetting their chapped lips with it and even drinking it. They slept standing up, because there was no space to lie down. Those next to the wall raised their hands high above their heads, keeping them against the wall; paint ran under their palms from the heat and the moisture, trickling down their arms to create hideous reliefs. Once, for no reason at all, a drunken guard let go a burst of machine-gun fire at the garage door. You could hear screams. Word spread that one prisoner was killed and four seriously wounded. The four were taken somewhere, supposedly to a hospital, but nobody has seen them since.

    One time Djemo caught sight of those miserable prisoners in the garage through the wide door to his room. A group of about ten was chosen from among them and taken out some forty yards in front of the garage. They were ordered to undress completely. The prisoners began removing their worn, ragged clothes and arranging them in a pile as four guards looked on. The guards were completely drunk, as anyone could tell by the way they moved. As the prisoners stripped, bashfully using their hands to try and cover their nakedness, the guards fixed their cynical glares upon them even more intently.

    One big man, over six feet tall, refused to strip. His beard was long, a sign that he had been imprisoned for quite some time. He simply kept quiet, without moving. He stood with his head bent down, mutely watching. One of the guards came up to him, put the barrel of his rifle to the man's neck and said something to him. The man just stood there, without moving a single part of his body. "The poor guy's going to get it; they'll kill him," said someone from behind, one of those who had shared his lot with Djemo. Djemo didn't turn around; he went on looking without making a sound. Through the upper part of the glass door that separated the inmates from the guards, he watched to see what would happen to this defiant figure and to the other men from Kozarac.

    The guard, seeing that the man was steadfast in his intention not to carry out the order, aimed his rifle upwards and fired several shots into the air. Nothing happened. Only some quail in a nearby tree flew away and disappeared from sight. The man stood stubbornly in place without making the slightest movement. While bluish smoke still rose from the barrel, the guard struck the clothed man in the middle of the head with the rifle butt, once and then again, until the man fell. Then the guard handed his rifle to another guard and moved his hand to his belt. A knife flashed in his hand, a long army knife.

    He bent down, grabbing hold of the poor guy's hair with his free hand. Another guard joined in, continuously cursing. He, too, had a flashing knife in his hand. The two remaining guards backed off a little and trained their rifles on the group of inmates, observing their every move. The guards with the knives started using them to tear away the man's clothes. The whole thing lasted several seconds. And when they stood up, their clothes were covered with blood, while the air resounded with a long, loud and painful wail. It sent shivers through all who heard it.

    Never in all his life was Djemo to see a more horrifying sight. The poor man stood up a little, or tried to stand up, continuing to let out the excruciating screams. He had blood all over him. One of the guards took a water hose from a nearby hydrant and directed the strong jet at the poor prisoner. A mixture of blood and water was flowing down his exhausted, gaunt, naked body as he bent down repeatedly, like a wounded Cyclops, raising his arms above his head, then lowering them toward the jet of water to fend it off, while his throat issued forth the sound of someone driven to insanity by pain. And then Djemo saw, he saw what had happened clearly, everybody saw it: they had cut off the man's sexual organ and half of his behind.

    After that Djemo couldn't remember anything. The shocking sight of that horror momentarily numbed his mind. Only later was he told that the poor man, having just succumbed to the torture, was taken to a garbage container, doused with gasoline and burnt. The others were taken back to the garage.

    When the interrogations began, the garage gradually started to empty. Now no more than fifty people were left, living witnesses of incarceration in the infamous garage. A constant fear gripped the inmates' bones, spreading throughout their very bodies. It took great stoicism to endure the contempt and the torture. Days went by, one day like the one before, and each one even more like the one to follow. Hot, humid days followed by rain, then more rain followed by heat and humidity. Frail bodies became frailer. The pale faces bore an expression of immeasurable suffering, of a devastated sense of human dignity. Movement around the already tight space was reduced to a minimum in order to save energy. Lined up along the wall on their cardboard beds in their ragged sweaters and jackets, the men, who looked as if they had been cemented into this darkness, talked less and less. They believed that in this way they were saving energy, forgetting for a moment the offenses that fate had inflicted upon them. They knew that they had to get to the other side of the abyss. Their beards were growing and their unkempt hair was turning gray.

    - --Translated by Ammiel Alcalay, Colleen London and Midhat Ridjanovic

    Postscript: In November, 1992, after six months in the Omarska and Manjaca camps, Rezak Hukanovic was freed in a prisoner exchange. He was taken to Karlovac, in Croatia, where he remained for a month before being sent to Norway through the auspices of the unhcr. His wife and two sons also managed to escape, and the family was reunited in Oslo.

    Hukanovic, however, has adamantly refused to be called a refugee. At the first opportunity, in the summer of 1994, he returned to Bosnia. While his wife and children remain in Oslo, Hukanovic has been trying to find work in his former profession, as a radio announcer and journalist, in the hopes of once again bringing his family home to Bosnia.

    (Copyright 1996, The New Republic)

    Opinions expressed/published on BosNews/BosNet-B do NOT necessarily always reflect the views of (all of the members of) Editorial Board, and/or moderators, nor any of their host institutions.

    Murat Erkocevic <>

    Dzevat Omeragic <>

    Davor Wagner <>

    Nermin Zukic <>

    [02] ENI: Banja Luka's Muslim leader says church 'failed to react'

    Ecumenical News International ENI News Service 5 February 1996

    Banja Luka's Muslim leader says church 'failed to react' ENI-96-0074

    By Jonathan Luxmoore Warsaw, 5 February (ENI)--Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders from Banja Luka in Bosnia have praised "the many Serbs" who tried to help Muslims and Croats during successive waves of ethnic cleansing.

    But the religious leaders said that representatives of the local Orthodox Church had failed to react to atrocities perpetrated in the city during the Bosnian war.

    Banja Luka was a key administrative and military base of the self-declared Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) after the start of the Bosnian war in 1992. Banja Luka is now to remain in Serb control under the provisions of last November's Dayton peace accord.

    According to the UN's former human rights envoy, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who was refused access to the city during seven Balkan missions, Muslims and Roman Catholics were targets of a "terror campaign" of retaliation after the Croatian Army took control of Western Slavonia in May 1995.

    In an interview with Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper last Friday 2 February, the Muslim Chief Imam of Banja Luka, Effendi Halidovic, said the city's 16 mosques had all been blown up, leaving only a small room for daily Muslim prayers.

    The imam told the newspaper that "a very large group of Serbs" would have preferred a change of leadership. "And even in the government there are honest people," he added. "Although many of those who wanted to protect us either couldn't or lacked the courage, there were also many Serbs who secretly helped Muslims."

    The imam said he had held prayers and signed joint appeals with Serbian Orthodox representatives when the Bosnian war started in 1992.

    "But later, when the mosques were smashed and Muslims killed, none of the church hierarchy even sent their condolences," he said, adding that he had remained in Banja Luka throughout the war while Muslim inhabitants were being expelled. He would now try to rebuild his community as refugees returned, he said.

    In a separate interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka, Franjo Komarica, said all but 5000 of the city's 80 000 Roman Catholic inhabitants had been expelled by the Serb occupiers and had not returned.

    "I am certain we have been witnesses to a struggle between good and evil," the bishop said. "But just as the spirit of evil was ever present, so was the spirit of good."

    Bishop Komarica, who was released from house-arrest after the Dayton accord, said he had also tried to maintain contact with Banja Luka's Serbian Orthodox leader, Metropolitan Jefrem.

    "When the war started, he intervened several times, and we even went to various places together in an effort to stop the bloodshed. The Pope knew about this and publicly thanked him," Bishop Komarica said.

    "But the Metropolitan said he was encountering great unpleasantness for maintaining contacts with me. Although he said he didn't care about this, I had the impression he was under great pressure from extremists, people wanting murder. Later, when terrible things happened before his eyes and Catholic churches were destroyed, the Metropolitan didn't react. Perhaps he did somewhere, but I was unaware of it."

    Bishop Komarica said it would be unjust to blame the "Serb nation" for what had happened at Banja Luka, adding that he had often told Serb leaders their people had chosen them "to be politicians, not criminals".

    Ratko Lecic, personal secretary of Patriarch Pavle, leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, told ENI today that officials of the Belgrade Patriarchate were unable to comment on the statements by Bishop Komarica and Effendi Halidovic.

    However a senior Serbian Orthodox priest in Zagreb, Jovan Nikolic, told ENI today that inter-faith relations in Banja Luka had a "specific character", reflecting the psychological pressures of war.

    He added that traditionally stable inter-communal relations in the city had been disrupted by the influx of Serbs from the region's rural villages without experience of cohabitation with Muslims and Croats.

    Metropolitan Jefrem (Milutinovic) had enjoyed close ties with both Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders at the start of the Bosnian war, Nikolic told ENI, and had intervened on several occasions to secure the release of minority pastors.

    During a visit two years ago Patriarch Pavle had condemned the destruction of Banja Luka's mosques as an "unprecedented crime" against Bosnia's history and culture, the priest said.

    "However, the mentality of nationalist leaders like Radovan Karadzic was quite different than that of Banja Luka's original Serb inhabitants," Nikolic said.

    "As local people were outnumbered by new arrivals, a struggle was waged against the coexistence option."

    :: Jean Fischer, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, said after a visit to Banja Luka in December 1995 that there had been many instances of good will between members of the Serb, Croat and Muslim communities in the city.

    "We have all been guilty of using a form of shorthand, blaming all the Serbs or all the members of one community for these actions," Fischer said, referring to violent actions in the city during the Bosnian war. "But the people in these communities themselves disown these actions, which have been carried out by extremists."

    Fischer also pointed out that the situation in Banja Luka presented religious leaders with a dilemma. "As in Northern Ireland, one of the difficulties is that church leaders have to keep credibility with their own people. This makes them more cautious in the way that they act as church leaders." [900 words]

    All articles (c) Ecumenical News International

    Opinions expressed/published on BosNews/BosNet-B do NOT necessarily always reflect the views of (all of the members of) Editorial Board, and/or moderators, nor any of their host institutions.

    Murat Erkocevic <>

    Dzevat Omeragic <>

    Davor Wagner <>

    Nermin Zukic <>

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