Middle Managers of Genocide
by Ed Vulliamy
Almost four years ago, a television reporter and I stumbled into a place that
bewildered and outraged the world. Omarska was a concentration camp in
northwestern Bosnia, run by Serbs and dedicated to the humiliation and murder of
Bosnian Muslims and Croats. It seemed unbelievable that a network of such camps
- with their echo of the Third Reich - could have existed in the heart of Europe, hidden from view for three months while thousands were slaughtered and
those who remained were kept skeletal, bloodied by torture and living in abject,
Now, with Bosnia's guns at least temporarily silenced, comes the bitter reckoning. On 7 May 1996, one of Omarska's most notorious guards, the alleged torturer
and killer Dusko Tadic, took his place in the dock at the war crimes tribunal in
The Hague, standing where no man has stood since Goering and Hess, charged with
crimes against humanity (I am obliged to testify at the trial as a witness for
the prosecution). But the reckoning is more than a judicial matter. It is an attempt to try to understand the most ferocious carnage to blight Europe in fifty
years. To understand the war, I had to return to the iron-ore mine that housed
the accursed concentration camp.
In 1992 it took five putrid summer days to argue our way into the camp. But now
the road is empty at the turnoff for Omarska. Flakes of snow, which mute all
sound and drape the mine in virgin white, have overlaid what happened here. It
is seven below zero, but our shivers are not from the cold. Children play with
sleds in the yard behind the gate. A couple of stray mongrels now frolic in and
out of the jaws of a hydraulic door.
In 1992 this tarmac was a killing yard, the bodies loaded onto trucks by bulldozer. Omarska was a place where cruelty and mass murder had become a form of
recreation. The guards were often drunk and singing while they tortured. A prisoner called Fikret Harambasic was castrated by one of his fellow inmates before
being beaten toÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌà death. One inmate was made to bark like a dog and lap at a puddle of motor oil, while a guard and his mates from the village jumped up and
down on his back until he was dead. The guards would make videos of this butchery for their home entertainment. But the most extraordinary hallmark of the
carnage was its grotesque intimacy. People knew their torturers, and had often
grown up alongside them.
The mine installations have become emblems of evil: rusty boxcars sit along the
railway tracks leading out of the complex. In 1992, this rolling stock was
loaded with Bosnian deportees. Spidery iron tentacles, conveyor belts and limbs
of machinery link one shed to another, silent and skeletal like the inmates who
were packed inside.
Nothing happened here
Now, three sentries stop us. Two of these lads are from the village of Omarska
itself, and had worked at the mine. "Nothing happened here", asserts a bright-eyed 28-year-old who was employed as a mine technician and has stayed on with
the security staff, now in military uniform. Iron ore was processed here, he
says, up until the end of 1992. "So how can it have been any kind of camp in August that year? We are from Omarska, we would have known". He elaborates: "They
came here recently, the Americans, looking for mass graves, but they didn't find
any. There are no mass graves here. There was no camp - ever".
The technician's friend and co-sentry is only 24, from the village but "too
young to have worked at the mine". He says: "I blame the journalists. The Muslims paid the media, and the television pictures were forged". There is a fascination with deception. "Anyone could do that", says the 28-year-old.
We ask them their names. The answer from the technician, suddenly harsh, is unexpected. "We had a nice chat, but names are a secret. The Muslims know me and I
know them. But they have to produce evidence of what I did. These days, they can
just come up to you in the street and take you to The Hague. That's how they
"Did you know Dusko Tadic?", I ask. They shrug and mumble. "Not well. He had a
nice cafe in Kozarac. There was no camp here...."
At the briefing in August 1992 at the Prijedor town hall, from where Omarska was
administered, the authorities insisted that there was no camp, only an "investigation centre". (It was in the town hall that I briefly met Tadic that year.)
The figure responsible for day-to-day administration of the camp was Milan Kovacevic, a man with a swashbuckle moustache and a "US Marines" T-shirt. He decreed then that there was nothing the world could teach Serbs about concentration camps, since he had been raised in one - Jasenovac - where the Croatian
collaborationist regime imprisoned and killed thousands of Serbs and Jews and
Croatian dissidents between 1941 and 1945. After our discovery of Omarska, the
media circus descended and the camp was assigned the task of explaining to the
world's cameras what an "investigation centre" is.
In 1992 Kovacevic's eyes were fiery with enthusiasm for what he called "a great
moment in the history of the Serbs". They are still fiery now, but from some
other emotion. He has a taste for homemade plum brandy, and he extracts some
from his cupboard at 9 a.m. It has been a good year for plums, he explains, but
the jam factories are all shut. Shame to let the fruit go to waste.
Moment of madness
Kovacevic is also a medical man, now director of the town hospital of Prijedor.
Despite growing up "to learn that all Germans were killers", he elected to go to
Germany to study anaesthesiology. He is still a proud nationalist who "wanted to
make this a Serb land, without Muslims". But his certainty about the ends conceals doubt about the means. What about burning the Muslim houses along the
road? Was that necessary, or a moment of madness?
Kovacevic proceeds cautiously, acÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàcompanied by a second glass of brandy: "Both
things. A necessary fight and a moment of madness. The houses were burned at the
beginning, when people were losing control. People weren't behaving normally."
This comes as a surprise. Was it all a terrible mistake? "To be sure, it was all
a terrible mistake". A third glass, and suddenly, unprompted: "We knew very well
what happened at Auschwitz or Dachau, and we knew very well how it started and
how it was done. What we did was the same as Auschwitz or Dachau, but it was a
mistake. It was planned to have been a camp, but not a concentration camp".
Usually it is only "enemies of the Serb people" who invoke Auschwitz when talking about Omarska. But the anaesthetist ploughs boldly on. He has never had this
conversation before, he says. In fact, no one in Bosnia has had this conversation before. "Omarska", he continues, "was planned as a camp, but was turned
into something else because of this loss of control. I cannot explain the loss
of control. You could call it collective madness".
Another glass of brandy to steel the spirit, and for reasons not hard to guess
his childhood in Jasenovac comes to mind. "Six hundred thousand were killed in
Jasenovac", he muses. "I was taken there as a baby, by my aunt. My mother was in
the mountains, hiding. We remember everything. History is made that way". But
Jasenovac was run by Croats; why did the Serbs turn on the Muslims? Kovacevic
straightens himself. "There is a direct connection between what happened to the
Muslims in our camps and the fact that there had been some Muslim soldiers in
the pro-Nazi Croatia. They committed war crimes, and now it is the other way
In Omarska, he says, "there were not more than 100 killed, whereas Jasenovac was
a killing factory". Only 100 killed at Omarska? He blushes. "I said there were
100 killed, not 100 who died". Then Kovacevic loses his way and throws off caution: "Oh, I don't know how many were killed in there. God knows, it's a wind
tunnel, this part of the world, a hurricane blowing to and fro..."
By now the cheaply panelled room is steaming with the exhaled fumes of fast-disappearing cigarettes, a fifth glass and talk of death. So, Doctor, who planned
this madness? "It all looks very well planned, if your view is from New York",
he says. He edges forward on his low chair, as if to whisper some personal advice. "But here, when everything is burning, and breaking apart inside people's
heads - this was something for the psychiatrists. These people should all have
been taken to psychiatrists, but there weren't enough at the time".
I don't sleep so well
In 1992, Kovacevic did not hide his role in operating the camp, but now The
Hague is becoming serious. Were you part of this insanity, Doctor? "If someone
acquitted me, saying that I was not part of that collective madness, then I
would admit that this was not true . . . If things go wrong in the hospital,
then I am guilty. If you have to do things by killing people, well - that is my
personal secret. Now my hair is white. I don't sleep so well".
Kovacevic's boss was the mayor of Prijedor, Milomir Stakic. I remember him barking in 1992 about an armed Islamic conspiracy against the Serbs, coordinated by
the United States. At that time he was the man with the authority to grant or
refuse access to Omarska. When I meet Stakic again, I find out he is also a
medical man, director of the daycare health centre in Prijedor, not too far from
Omarska. His specialization in neuropsychiatry was interrupted by war and
political office. Dr Stakic introduces a fellow with a menacing air, Viktor
Kondic, whom he calls his deputy at the health clinic.
Stakic swivels back and forth in his chair as he speaks. "As a doctor", he says,
"I saw many wounded and mutilated people. The question was: do the Serbs stay onÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌà
their knees, or go back to Jasenovac a second time?" If there was a threat to
the Serbs, was the reaction perhaps a little too much. "No", he snaps. What
about Omarska? Kondic intervenes quickly and disagreeably: "Omarska was a mine.
An iron-ore mine. That is all". The reports, the television pictures? Dr Stakic
clarifies:"They were pictures of Serbs in Muslim camps. There were no prisoners
Then comes an immediate negation: "Omarska was for Muslims with illegal weapons.
Omarska was not a hotel" - he manages his only smile, and it is not an agreeable
one - "but Omarska was not a concentration camp".
"The Serbs go to extremes only when their freedom is threatened", says Stakic,
suddenly and oddly. "Unfortunately", chimes in Kondic, who now describes himself
as a "lawyer" (we later find out he is a secret policeman) and whose eyes roll
skyward, "we learned to defend our freedom in concentration camps". There ensues
a long and tortuous conversation not about Omarska but about Jasenovac. The wintry night has fallen, the streets outside are still, Prijedor is wrapped in fog.
Within there is a laden silence, until Stakic volunteers a strange remark: "It
is very brave of you to be sitting here like this with us, so late in the
The journey to Omarska in 1992 began and ended in the Serbian capital Belgrade.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed by a senior middle manager of the self-proclaimed
Serb Republic in Bosnia-Herzegovina, professor Nikola Koljevic. He was to supervise our access to Omarska.
A specialist on Shakespeare, the impish Koljevic has seduced many Westerners
with his ample quoting of the Bard and command of English. The day after we finally found the camps, his invitation to tea and cakes at a smart hotel back in
Belgrade was irresistible. "So you found them", he said sardonically. "Congratulations!" And then, in a piquant voice that evoked his favourite Shakespearean
character Iago, he embarked on a doubleüedged reproach: "It took you a long time
to find them, didn't it? Three months! And so near to Venice! All you people
could think about was poor, sophisticated Sarajevo. Ha-ha!" And then, with a
chill in his voice: "None of you ever had your holidays at Omarska, did you? No
Olympic Games in Prijedor!"'
Digging up the bones
I find him again, in wintry Banja Luka. In 1996 Koljevic walks over to the window and stares down at the people trudging through the slush. This miserable
place has achieved what it wanted. It has "won' its war: every Muslim gone,
every mosque disappeared without a trace. Koljevic, transfixed, loses his flow
and begins to talk to himself. "Bones", he mutters. "Bones, we were digging up
the bones". His eyes widen unpleasantly: he appears hypnotized, his imagination
ambushed. "The bones of our dead from 1941. We dug them up to give them proper
burial on Serbian land... We found shoes. Children's shoes. How much more alive
a shoe is than bones..." (This was a macabre prologue to the war, in the late
eighties: a Serb cult of exhuming their World War II dead.) Then the professor
suddenly comes to his senses. "Er... I'm just trying to illustrate the psychology". Finally, I feel, we are approaching an answer to the question: how did
What the Serbs have done is to project their own obsessive and disastrous
"racial memory" (Koljevic's term) onto their perceived enemies. The Serbs'
inimitable cult of the victim demanded that they create victims. Their experience of concentration camps demanded that they create concentration camps. They
lie and manipulate, but insist on a conspiracy of lies and manipulation against
them. When they look into the mirror, they see someone they must call their enemy, so as not to see themselves. When they look at history, they must contort
it, lest they see what thÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàey do. They must rewrite the history they defile.
And then there is the psychodrama of the restless dead, of professor Koljevic's
bones. The Serbs exhumed the bones of their own dead from World War II, only to
bury their enemies in mass graves. Now they exhume those victims and move them
away from the glare of the Hague investigations, meanwhile disinterring their
own relatives for reburial on "erbian soil. The joke is that the only people
enjoying freedom of movement under the Dayton plan are the dead.
Professor Koljevic is fascinated by victims and masters. "The basic problem with
the Muslims", he says, "is their problem with equality. Psychologically,
historically, they are either masters or servants. Now they want to be masters
again". It is a description not of the Muslims, but of the Serbs. By way of
farewell, the professor produces his current reading: Daniel Boorstin's The Image. He reads aloud from the foreword: "This book is about our art of
self-deception. How we hide reality from ourselves". For the perpetrators of
Bosnia's carnage, the reckoning is an opportunity to confront what they have
done and exorcise it - much as the Germans did out of the ashes of the Third Reich. But, undefeated, the Serbs choose to "hide reality from themselves". They
think they were right, and they can think it again.
Thousands of miles away this spring, a book is published - Daniel Golhagen's
Hitler's Willing Executioners - positing the terrifying notion that it was a
whole society that unleashed the Nazi Holocaust, not an elite that poisoned the
minds of an otherwise innocent people. We had the same argument here, over and
over again: can such a whirlwind of violence be dictated by an elite that dupes
an otherwise kindly, boozy folk?
Here at the village of Omarska, in the shadow of an accursed mine, everyone knew
and nobody objected. There are soldiers and pretty girls sipping coffee at the
Wiski Bar, where the main street meets the railway siding that runs into the
mine. For four months, as they freebooted around the scrappy streets, these people were yards away from the screaming and the mutilation. They would have
watched the "ethnic cleansing" convoys pass, out on the road to nowhere. I was
part of such a convoy of 1,600 wretched Bosnian Muslim deportees myself; we were
herded over the mountains at gunpoint, through a terrifying gauntlet of hatred
and spitting, or else cold nonchalance, from the Serbs who beheld us from the
The people in Omarska's Wiski Bar, listening to Madonna on the jukebox, would
have watched the trucks enter camp Omarska full of people, only to come out
empty. Perhaps they spat then too. But now, in the frozen village, we are told:
`There was no camp here - ever.'
Meanwhile the outside world, as professor Koljevic rightly mocked, failed to uncover Omarska, "so near to Venice". The media and the politicians cared for a
few days, once Omarska was forced into the spotlight. But then the world did as
little as possible about it. Now, a few bloody years later, NATO's commanding
admiral, Leighton Smith, is breaking through to Omarska, leading platoons of
writers from glossy magazines and experts from the human-rights industry in
search of buried bones. When there was everything to be done, we pretended to
know nothing. Today, when there is so little left to do, we want to know everything. Such is the dark triumph of the middle managers of genocide.
This article was published in The Nation, Washington, on 10 June 1996.