by Gordan Malic
In July 1993 university professor Fahrudin Rizvanbegovic was arrested as a civilian in his home town of Stolac and sent to the HVO 'collection centre' at Dretelj. He spent six months altogether in the camps at Dretelj and Ljubuski witnessing brutal interrogations, starvation and murder. The inmates included thirteen-year-old children and men of seventy. The children could be seen gradually changing their physiognomy, acquiring the faces we have seen on photographs from Dachau, Kolima and Omarska. After his release, Professor Rizvanbegovic spent some time in Zagreb, then went to Sarajevo. He is now minister of education in the government of the Federation of Bosnia- Herzegovina.
He estimates that during that summer, on the territory of the 'Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosna', about twenty thousand Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) passed through the 'collection centres' at Gabela, Dretelj, Ljubuski, the Mostar Helidrom, Otoka near Vitine, Kocerina, Posusje, Duvno, Sujica, Bijelo Polje and Siroki Brijeg. In some of these prisoners were brutally tortured and killed: dozens of Bosniaks undoubtedly died simply as a result of torture. Not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice. The camp managers have since been moved to new duties, and the 'collection centres' closed down or returned to their former functions.
The notorious camps in Dretelj and Gabela were only half an hour's drive from the Croatian border, just off the main road. Yet not a single Croatian official, journalist, Catholic cleric or Red Cross representative ever went to them. In August 1993 members of the Croatian Helsinki Watch did try to visit the camps, but they were prevented. It was only the international press that started to write about them.
One journalist who wrote about them at that time was Pulitzer Prize winner Roy Gutman. 'Only a year ago the Croats and the Muslims fought against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army. Now they are stuck in an agony, fighting what has become a general civil war. Mostar is the biggest prize. The Old City is the target of aimless shelling, reminiscent of Vukovar ... in comparison with east Mostar, even Sarajevo appears intact. Each day at least two or three people die from hunger or sickness. Hundreds of gun shells fired from west Mostar hit day and night the predominantly Muslim Old City, killing daily about eight people and wounding another thirty.' Gutman called the Croat- Muslim war a 'war within the war', ascribing it to causes which he heard from the HVO commander Slobodan Praljak. General Praljak had no hesitation in defining the war in terms of Lebensraum, the very German word used by the Nazis to justify their expansion into Eastern Europe. 'The Croat leaders (under the signature of the then minister of defence Bozo Rajic) demanded military control over the three "Croat" provinces in the Vance-Owen plan, including Mostar. Insisting on an ethnically pure state to be called Herzeg-Bosna, the Croats started to stop convoys and on 9 May the siege of Mostar began', wrote Gutman.
General Praljak (who was probably the greatest demagogue and adventurer of the anti- Muslim debacle, and the destroyer of the famous Old Bridge in Mostar) has since stated: 'in the same situation I would have repeated the war a hundred times'. When I heard this, I was reminded of a conversation I had at the time with the Mostar HVO commander Jadranko Topic. The war in Mostar was still going on. Along with the coffee and cigarettes, he offered his overall view of the problem: 'I do not deny that the Muslims have as much right to Mostar as the Serbs or us. The only question is who is stronger in asserting that right.' Behind this simple explanation, devoid of sarcasm, his gaze was that of a man at peace with himself. A few months earlier, dressed in his HVO uniform, he had walked with a loudspeaker through the Old City inviting the Bosniaks to surrender by hanging white sheets on their houses. Then the HVO artillery barrage launched what was to be one of the most bloody of the local wars within the Bosnian conflict.
Even before this had come the sudden mass arrest of Muslim soldiers serving in the HVO, in the municipality of Stolac. The commander of the HVO's Bosniak unit 'Bregava' was imprisoned in the Capljina barracks, where he was soon joined by the members of the SDA executive committee for Stolac, the officers of the humanitarian society 'Merhamet', and the most prominent members of the local Islamic Community. 'Ethnic cleansing' had begun. It was completed during the first five days of August. Out of more than 8,000 Stolac Bosniaks (forming over 80% of the urban population), only a few families were left, saved mainly thanks to mixed marriages, business connections or other kinds of obligations (as, for example, when the Mostar bishop Peril protected an old Muslim family which, fifty years before, had saved Bishop Peric's family from persecution by the Partisans).
Crimes in the Municipality of Stolac 1992-94, recently published by the authorities in east Mostar and immediately denounced by their counterparts in west Mostar as 'a flagrant infringement of the Dayton Agreement', presents the chronology of the war neatly and meticulously. The book cites, in relation to what happened in Stolac, a long list of local politicians, headed by Mate Boban, Pero Markovic, Ivan Bender and Jadranko Prlic. The names of HVO officers figure there too, beginning with Slobodan Praljak; Stolac police officers Valentin Coric and Pero Raguza; president of the local HDZ Andelko Markovic; commanders of the local HVO Bozo Pavlovic and Veselko Raguz. Charges are levelled also against HVO units such as the 'Knez Domagoj' brigade, against the HVO from western Herzegovina (Neum and Capljina) and against many smaller groups such as the 'Bozanovi', for being 'responsible for the murder of civilians'. The book also accuses Croatian President Tudjman, government ministers Susak and Jarnjak, General Bobetko and former Prime Minister Valentic.
Not all the statements found in this book can be described as wholly objective, but the occasional exaggeration does not call into question all the other facts the book contains. It is clear why the reactions to the book in 'Herzeg-Bosna' have omitted any mention of the evidence it contains. Most of this refers to the experiences of Bosniak camp prisoners. A good number of prisoners from Stolac, arrested on 13 July 1993, were locked up in the camps in Dretelj and Gabela, while their property was systematically looted and burned.
In Stolac, all Muslim cultural monuments and other buildings with a recognizable Muslim identity (which formed a good part of the town) were burned down and destroyed, beginning with the four mosques of which the oldest - the Imperial Mosque - was built in 1519. The old Stolac 'Tepa Square' was burnt down and destroyed: the ground was subsequently cleared and now awaits the building of 'Ante Starcevic Square', as part of an urban renewal project. The Muslim graveyard, located behind Tepa, which alone survived intact the first days of the HVO regime, was destroyed after Dayton along with the few remaining Bosniak buildings. It too awaits a new Croat re-design.
The HVO continues to reject the charge of an organized urbicide, arguing that the destruction was due to the violence of fighting. This is negated by the evidence of wholesale destruction of Bosniak buildings visible from the mouth of the River Neretva all the way to Jablanica. Feral Tribune is in possession of documents proving that the destruction of the mosques and looting of Muslim houses in the Jablanica municipality was done systematically and by order of the HVO command. One of the documents bears the signature of Marko Rozic, who - as head of Jablanica's defence force - executed an order that came from above to destroy the two Jablanica mosques and to loot and burn Muslim property. Marko Rozic now works within the Herzeg-Bosna structure as a senior official for humanitarian issues.
As for the establishment of the 'collection centres', it is more difficult here to establish the chain of command, because the highest authorities did not leave written evidence. According to Crimes in the Municipality of Stolac, 1559 Bosniak men and 49 women and old people from Stolac were imprisoned in camps run by the HVO between April 1993 and April 1994. 19 died there. Other prisoners came from the Mostar and Jablanica areas. After their release, the inmates were prohibited from returning to their homes and their land. Some of them were sent to Croatia - to the 'collection centre' on the island of Korcula - and then on to third countries. Of the total inhabitants of the municipality of Stolac, 1,916 were deported in this way from Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina territory.
The Dretelj camp consisted of 6 or 7 storage sheds and two concrete tunnels, plus two isolation cells. 450-700 people were cramped into the 200 square metres of each shed. In the summer months the temperature within them rose at times to 50 C. The situation was even worse in the tunnels, whose metal doors were always kept shut. In the Gabelica camp, former JNA ammunition storage rooms were used. The camp was made up of four storage sheds and three isolation cells. The prison manager was Boko Previsic, a certified psychopath. At the start of October, Previsic murdered before witnesses a prisoner called Mustafa Obradovic for smuggling food remains to the prisoners.
After insisting that his anonymity be protected, a former Gabelica camp guard - an educated man from a neighbouring village, who was drafted to this duty - told me about numerous maltreatments and murders which HVO members had committed against the imprisoned Bosniaks. The camp was visited frequently at night by members of elite HVO units from western Herzegovina, who were said to be under the direct command of Mate Boban and Tuta Naletilic. This witness stated also: 'They would make me open the shed door and then they would turn fire-hoses on the prisoners. They would bring some of them out and beat them. Sometimes they fired at the crowd, killing some of them. Every day we would force the Muslims to sing Croat marching and Ustasha songs, or lecture them on the dangers of "Alija's Fundamentalism".' The prisoners had to relieve themselves inside the sheds, and the thirst forced many to drink their own urine. It seems quite unbelievable that most Croatian politicians learnt of the existence of these camps and torture chambers from the foreign press.
In conversation with Stipe Mesic, we learnt that Tudjman's view of the matter was that 'others have such camps as well.' Tudjman rightly describes them as camps rather than 'collection centres'. By all accepted civilizational standards, and also according to the Geneva Convention, the Herzegovina camps were concentration camps. Yet nobody responsible for them has been called to account, or sent to The Hague Tribunal. The small booklet about the crimes in Stolac - so irritating for many Croat politicians - is exceptional in this regard, and also in that it does not hesitate to name the relevant Croatian leaders. To what extent this step is based on a realistic assessment of what is possible, and to what extent it simply satisfies the needs of the abused Bosniaks for facts to be recorded, can best be left to dialecticians of the Slobodan Praljak type.
First published in Feral Tribune, Split, 29.4.1996.