by Felix Blake
Nusreta survived the rape camp, but her torture is unending: rapists and murderers stroll along pleasant, café-lined boulevards, while those who suffered are shunned and intimidated
Nusreta Sivac regards the tranquil scene in this corner of north-western Bosnia. A large, rust-red shed stands amid a cluster of plain red and white buildings. Green fields surround them; the sun shines through scudding clouds. It is quiet, silent for miles around. Yet in this peaceful spot, Nusreta and many like her were held captive for weeks and sometimes months, many were systematically raped while hundreds of her neighbours, friends, relations and colleagues were murdered.
Nusreta stands half a mile away, transfixed by the buildings, refusing to go nearer. She points. ‘That is the white house. The people they took in there did not come out alive.’ The building beside the large red shed ‘is the canteen building where they kept us’. She says of the grassy patch in front of the shed: ‘They made the men run across here. Sometimes they were begging for their lives.’ This is Omarska, the camp where 10 years ago thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats were murdered, tortured and raped by Serb militiamen - some paramilitaries, some members of the regular Bosnian Serb army, some of the Yugoslav national army.
Ten years ago this summer, Nusreta was taken here along with 25 women from her nearby home town of Prijedor. For three months, the women were raped, beaten and tortured. In August, some of the women, including Nusreta, were released. At least five of the group did not escape. Nusreta did not expect to leave Omarska with her life. She was released when Western journalists were due to visit the camp: its commanders did not want them to see the women held there. As she walked barefoot the 12 miles back to Prijedor, she thought the Serbs would stop her and take her and the other women back to the camp. Now, 10 years later, she has returned. ‘The red house over there is where they tortured people. We were glad when they turned the music up in our building so that we couldn't hear the screams.’ An old man potters around the buildings, scattering feed for the grazing animals.
There is no sign or memorial. Omarska lies in the Republika Srpska, the Serb entity that is part of today's Bosnia, a place where all inconvenient history, even genocide, is invisible and denied. On the road between Banja Luka, Republika Srpska's ‘capital’, and Prijedor, Omarska lies anonymously, with no indication it is anything other than an ordinary village with its petrol station, motel and cluster of bars and restaurants around its single crossroads.
In Prijedor itself, once a mixed Muslim, Croat and Serb town (before 1992, Muslims were the largest ethnic group), the only memorials are large cruciform monuments to the Serb ‘liberators’ of Prijedor - those who drove out and murdered its non-Serb inhabitants. And in case the official version of history is not clear enough, the town is adorned with graffiti showing the Serb nationalist symbol of four Cyrillic S's - [usually interpreted today as meaning] Only Unity can Save the Serbs. On a prominent wall in the centre of town, another slogan eulogizes Radovan Karadžić. ‘Karadžić is a Serb hero’, an English translation explains beneath it, just so foreigners get the message too.
Despite its diverse ethnic heritage, Prijedor now lies in the heartland of Serb nationalism. Three of the most notorious camps of the Bosnian war - Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm - were around here. The reason for so many camps in the area is not clear: perhaps because the road through Prijedor connected the formerly Serb-held areas to the west and east, or maybe for simpler reasons: perhaps the local Serbs were willing to help run the camps.
Many of those indicted by the international tribunal at The Hague (including its first convict, Duško Tadić) are from the Prijedor area. But of the 200 who ran the Omarska camp, fewer than 10 have been arrested. These men still live on the land they ‘cleansed’. Nusreta knows them. She recognizes their faces and often knows their names. And as one of the most public survivors and witnesses of Omarska, they know her. Nusreta has testified in trials at The Hague. She has appeared in television documentaries and newspaper articles.
This summer, Nusreta returned to Prijedor to reclaim the apartment that was stolen from her when she was taken to Omarska. The flat was occupied and its contents looted by one of her former colleagues at the Prijedor courthouse where Nusreta worked as a judge. Within hours of her return, someone had scrawled ‘Omarska’ beside the door of the apartment where she was staying. Her husband painted the word out. Within a day, it had reappeared. Nusreta says Serb acquaintances, including former friends, turn their heads when she walks by. She locks her door at night and pulls the shutters down. In Banja Luka, a hand grenade was thrown into the home of another returnee.
The international authorities who oversee the messy partition that is Bosnia since the Dayton agreement say the safety of the returnees is primarily the responsibility of the local police. In Prijedor, this means the Republika Srpska police. These are the men who stood by when Nusreta was taken to Omarska and who have done nothing since to capture her persecutors.
Nato SFOR patrols (some British) are an occasional presence, but it is difficult to see how they can guarantee Nusreta's security or that of other returnees. The threat is personal and vicious - a local Muslim journalist who wrote an account of his experience of Omarska had a bomb placed in his car. But Nusreta believes she has no choice but to be here. She has no home but here, no belongings except her property here which, perversely, she must now buy back from the local authorities even though it was stolen from her. Having survived what she thought was a certain death in Omarska, she feels compelled to broadcast her testimony so those who suffered and died are not forgotten.
Walking along Prijedor's high street, with shoppers bustling by, Nusreta pauses by a kiosk selling tabloids and pornography. She points behind it to a patch of rubbish-strewn wasteland. There stood one of Prijedor's largest mosques, she says, built by the Ottomans hundreds of years ago and demolished by the Serbs. Along the street, a square of neatly-mown grass is all that remains of a Catholic church whose priest was murdered. Of the thousands of Muslims and Croats expelled from Prijedor, there is not a trace.
In Prijedor the exploits of the criminals are celebrated. The schools now commemorate 24 May, the day Omarska's neighbouring camp, Trnopolje, was opened. Rapists and murderers can stroll along Prijedor's cafe-lined boulevards, while their victims are shunned and intimidated. Those who have chosen to bear witness to the crimes must live in fear, isolated and threatened. And back at Omarska, the grass grows and the sheep graze around the peaceful red sheds where now only memory testifies to what happened 10 years ago.
Reprinted from The Independent (London), 23 November 2002