How Jenki was uncovered - interview
by Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen is one of the most respected American journalists, and author of Hearts Grown Brutal (1998). His war reports from Bosnia were among the best sources of information for the wider American public as well as for officials of state. Cohen has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and has twice received the highest recognition from the Association of American Foreign Correspondents. In the summer of 1992 he succeeded in visiting Vlasenica, where he discovered the Suica concentration camp - one of the most terrible torture chambers for Bosniaks. Thanks to Cohen's discoveries the Hague Tribunal handed out its first indictment - against the recently arrested Dragan Nikolic Jenki. In an interview with our reporter, Cohen describes his discoveries and analyses the meaning of the existence of Serb concentration camps.
How Jenki was Uncovered
- an interview with Roger Cohen
Unlike Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm, the Suica camp near Vlasenica is almost unknown. The name of the camp and its commander Dragan Nikolic were mostly known only to the survivors and relatives of the victims. How was that possible and how did you find out about Suica?
I think it is by complete chance that the Serb camps in the north-west and west of Bosnia became better known than those in eastern Bosnia. The essentials of the genocide that occurred in the different parts of the country were everywhere the same. The conditions in Omarska, the method of torture and murder of Bosniaks, did not differ from those in camps such as Suica. As it happened, Western journalists in the summer of 1992 succeeded first in reaching the camps in the vicinity of Prijedor. But unlike the camps in north-west Bosnia, Suica was never uncovered, above all because it was in an area that bordered on Serbia proper, and access to those regions was much more difficult and better guarded. The man who took me aboard his car and drove me across part of eastern Bosnia told me how he was well acquainted with Pero Popovic, who had been a guard at Suica and been devastated by what he saw in the camp, as well as in other places in eastern Bosnia, where between April and October 1992 the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing took place. In that way I then met Popovic, who told me of what he had seen and knew. I compared his testimony to the statements of people who had survived Suica and established that it was entirely authentic. Popovic was prepared to repeat his story before US government officials. I enabled him to make that contact. His testimony was used as one of the strongest bases of the prosecution when on 7 November 1994 the Hague Tribunal issued its first indictment - against Dragan Nikolic, the commander of the Serb camp of Suica.
What was the purpose of that camp ? In your book Hearts Grown Brutal you state that from the start everything was very clear to all the guards there.
There is no doubt that every guard in the camp was fully aware of the purpose of the place. The camp came into being in order to facilitate the elimination of the Bosniak population of Vlasenica. The national structure of that town before the war was typical for eastern Bosnia: half or slightly more of the population was Bosniak. In the town itself lived about 10,000 Bosniaks whom it was necessary to expel, and the camp served as a transitional solution, in other words as a provisional collection centre. As in other places of similar character, in Suica the same things occurred. Women and children were held separately. There was rape, although I could not say whether it was a question of systematic violence or occasional occurrences. After a certain period the women and children were packed into buses and transported to the demarcation line between the Serb and Bosnian sides, where they were left. The men were held in unbelievably difficult conditions. Without any provisions for hygiene, totally without food and with frequent nightly beatings and executions. On the basis of what I know, Dragan Nikolic distinguished himself particularly in the torture and execution of tens of camp inmates. Therefore, as part of a network of similar Serb camps, Suica had a very clear purpose and served as the means for the elimination of the Bosniak population in that part of Bosnia. From June to October 1992 almost the entire Bosniak population of Vlasenica was taken to Suica, and subsequently sent on to territory under the control of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is no doubt that hundreds of people were killed in the process.
Searching for the victims and following the trail shown you by those closest to them, you succeeded in 1994 in entering Vlasenica. What did you find there ?
The atmosphere in that town was ghostly and totally surreal. As in other parts of Bosnia cleansed of Bosniaks, it seemed to me that in Vlasenica the local Serbs were suddenly surprised by what they had done. Many endeavoured to expel the very memories of their sometime neighbours and what had happened to them. The then president of the municipality told me how before the war the Serbs were threatened by the Bosniaks and how an exchange of population was then carried out. Because of that, he said, in Vlasenica there were no longer any Bosniaks. When he had let his guard down somewhat, he recognised that a camp had existed at Suica where Bosniaks from Vlasenica had provisionally been held while awaiting the exchange. When I began to question him about the camp, he suddenly retreated and began to repeat that he knew nothing of what had taken place there. Others whom I asked about Suica replied in the same way. Nobody remembered anything, although only two years had gone by since Suica was closed. To the question of where the Bosniaks were, I always received the same reply: they had voluntarily left for territory under the control of the government in Sarajevo. Every mention of the camp, forced deportation, torture, rape or murder was always rejected with the same fervency. I had the impression that the propaganda had so scrambled the senses of those people that they had begun genuinely to believe that, due to some strange and unexplained desire, 20,000 Vlasenica Bosniaks had one day simply gathered together their possessions and left the town forever. It was completely impossible to bring anyone actually to confront reality and recognize the essence of what the Serbs had done to the Bosniaks.
The events of which you have spoken took place in the first six months of the war, far from the eyes of the international public, which experienced the tragedy of Bosnia in the form of the siege of Sarajevo. It was a question, however, of a key phase of the war.
Entirely serious analysts maintained at the time that the siege of Sarajevo and the ceaseless bombardment of the capital city were, in terms of propaganda and strategy, the greatest mistake of the Serbs, since they turned world public opinion wholly against them and achieved nothing in return. That evaluation partly holds. On the other hand, by focussing the eyes of the world on the siege of Sarajevo they diverted attention from the essence of the Serb military effort in Bosnia, which was the achievement of an ethnically cleansed territory in an area that encompassed a full 70% of the state territory - from Sanski Most, through Prijedor and Zvornik to Vlasenica and Trebinje. That campaign was ferocious and merciless across the entire territory, and for that reason exactly the same things occurred at Omarska and at Suica. All this took place at a time when the world was being horrified by the siege and shelling of Sarajevo, when the pain of Sarajevo was a symbol of the suffering of Bosnia. It became clear in the end that the siege and shelling were intended to divert attention from what in that phase of the war was taking place in other parts of Bosnia. The essence of what was happening outside Sarajevo was made apparent only in August 1992, when the journalists Roy Gutman of Newsday, Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian and a team of British ITN television reporters uncovered the Serb camps of north-west Bosnia and alerted the world public to what was going on in them. However, since already in May the representatives of all international organisations and even the Red Cross had left Bosnia, the Serbs were able regardless of the revelations to continue to maintain the concentration camps, including Suica. No international representative ever succeeded in entering that camp; it was not even known that it existed. Suica was not on the list of camps compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross. This meant that the survivors, women and children, who reached Germany, say, were not entitled to the aid provided to other former camp inmates, because the humanitarian providers over there could not find Suica on the official list of Serb camps in Bosnia. The Red Cross never formally registered that camp and the Serbs succeeded in keeping away from Suica anyone who could have revealed its existence. Not without reason, of course. On the basis of what I know, that was one of the worst camps in Bosnia and the trial in the Hague of Dragan Nikolic will eventually reveal part of what took place there.
Did you believe that the first person indicted by the Hague would ever face justice ?
To be honest, I did not. A lot of time has passed since 1994 when the Hague Tribunal issued its first indictment, that against Dragan Nikolic. In the meantime, the attention of the international public has turned above all toward Kosovo. I knew that the prosecution was interested in that case, because they contacted me on account of two texts about Suica and Nikolic that I had written at the time for The New York Times, and I wrote about it also in my book Heart Grown Brutal. However, to be completely honest, I lost all hope that Nikolic would ever be arrested. At the same time, however much it is easier for me knowing that he is now at the Hague, I still cannot get over the fact that those whose trial would show that justice in Bosnia has in some sense been served are not there. I am referring, of course, to Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Do you believe that the trial of Nikolic could prove judicially that the chain of command and the system of coordinating ethnic cleansing in Bosnia began in Belgrade? The Hague's indictment of Slobodan Miloevic does not so far include any statement charging him with crimes committed in Bosnia.
The plan for the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia was not drawn up in Pale. The conception was born in Belgrade. That same Belgrade from which Arkan reached Bijeljina and Zvornik and from which Dragan Nikolic received payment for his work in Suica. The campaign of ethnic cleansing was drawn up in Belgrade and from there it was financed. If Nikolic is prepared to speak before the Tribunal we could perhaps hear how everything that we know so much about worked in practice, something of which the chief protagonists do not wish to speak. All paths, of course, lead to the man who still insists that the state of which he is head be called Yugoslavia, although that construction has nothing in common with the country that was once so named. I hope that one of the Hague trials will provide a concrete example of how that chain of command functioned - from Miloevic downward. I hope also that the indictment of Miloevic will be extended to crimes in Bosnia. However, it seems to me that the series of murders in Belgrade of which Arkan was a victim is in part motivated by a desire to eliminate people who could testify as to how genocide was enacted in the events in Bosnia of April to October 1992. After the fall of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, many observers wrote about how it only then became clear what the Bosnian Serbs were capable of. It is forgotten, however, that this was readily apparent already in 1992, on the territory from Prijedor to Trebinje. Memories are unfortunately short and some things are already beginning to be forgotten. The unambiguous public presentation by individuals of how the campaign of ethnic cleansing was carried out is still essential, and the best way to achieve this is to bring Miloevic, Karadzic and Mladic to the Hague.
You have received the highest recognition in American journalism for your war reports from Bosnia. Your book about the Bosnian war, Hearts Grown Brutal: the story of Sarajevo is already in its third edition and is deemed one of the best on the subject. How difficult was it for you, as a foreigner who had come to Bosnia for the first time, to realise the extent and purpose of the violence of which you have written ?
It was an extremely difficult and terrifying experience. I can no longer remember how many times, in all parts of Bosnia, I came upon some place full of women filled with deep sadness. The goal of the Serbs in Bosnia was psychological destruction of a nation. It was necessary to destroy every trace of the existence of the Bosniaks. To achieve that, it was necessary to dehumanise and degrade the victims, to destroy them psychologically and turn them into nothing. I employed in my book the words of the Italian writer Primo Levi, who writing about his experiences in Auschwitz spoke of useless violence. It was not enough simply to destroy somebody, therefore; the victims had to be humiliated, tortured in the most bestial manner and killed slowly, with as much unbearable suffering as possible. When you meet one such case, you endeavour to explain it and move on. The stories repeated themselves. They came from different places - from Omarska, Trnopolje, Brcko, Zvornik, Suica - but they were all the same and bore testimony to the systematic dehumanisation of people who happened to be Muslims and who for that reason had to disappear. Personally and professionally it was particularly difficult for me to face up to that and write about it.
This interview has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 12 May 2000