We Must Fight for the Memory of Bosnia's Camps
Author: Ed Vulliamy, Prijedor
Uploaded: Friday, 17 September, 2004
Report in IWPR's Balkan Crisis Report by Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy on his first return visit to the camps run by Karadzic's forces in occupied parts of Bosnia that he and ITN revealed to the world 12 years ago.
‘My friends, we are here to mark, in a modest way, what happened in this
place,’ said Muharem Murselovic, a Bosniak political leader from Prijedor,
his voice laden with gravity.
We are standing on accursed terrain and at a place to which I never expected
to return. Nor did many in Murselovic’s audience, for different reasons.
This was the site of the Omarska concentration camp, the location for an
orgy of killing, mutilation, beating and rape for some four months during
the summer of 1992.
They move tentatively on this day of commemoration - August 6, the
anniversary of the camp’s closure - among the desolate, rust-coloured
industrial buildings, haunted by what happened within them.
Nusreta Sivac, a survivor, places a flower on each space of floor where her
dead friends once slept in the quarters for the women who used to ‘serve
food and clean the walls of the torture rooms, covered with blood’, as she
says. They were quarters just across a hallway from the now-empty office
where, like them, she was violated, night after night. She passes the window
from which she watched the wholesale slaughter of men on the tarmac below,
day in, day out.
Satko Mujagic knows that tarmac well: his two-year-old daughter now plays
with a ball on the very spot where he had been too weak to line up for his
ration of bread because of dysentery. He had to be supported by his father.
Later, the child picks a daisy. ‘You do this where your father lay
bleeding,’ one of the party said. ‘Being here gives me the feeling of
understanding nothing,’ Satko said. ‘The violence here has nothing to do
with anything, not even war. It is unfathomable.’
Sehiba Jakupovic, a young woman whose face is contorted with grief, stares
around the rooms in a building called the White House, from which few
emerged alive; her husband Alem was among those who perished. ‘I have a
12-year-old now,’ she said quietly, ‘Just a baby at the time.’
I have a stake in all this, for the closure of Omarska followed the putrid
afternoon of August 5 1992 when I and a crew from ITN had the accursed
honour of finding a way into this place.
We saw little that day, but enough: men emerging from a hangar, in various
states of decay - some skeletal, heads shaven - and drilled across a yard,
under the watchful eye of a machinegun post, into a canteen where they
wolfed down watery bean stew like famished dogs, skin folded like parchment
over their bones. ‘I do not want to tell any lies,’ said one man, ‘but I
cannot tell the truth.’
Omarska has haunted me ever since. I kept meeting survivors or relatives of
the dead: in trenches during what was left of the war, across the diaspora
and in The Hague where they (and I) came to bear witness.
It is strange, indeed traumatic, to stand again in that now-empty camp
canteen and to walk that stretch of tarmac, across which they had been
drilled, and which was later to be revealed to be a killing ground.
It is disturbing to wander through these dread buildings – that vast hangar,
especially, where inmates were held and beaten and from whence they were
called to their death. These buildings were forbidden us that day in 1992.
Our paths were blocked by gun-toting guards and the camp commander himself,
Zeljko Meakic, now awaiting trial in The Hague.
Then there is the so-called Red House, where we now know they slit
prisoners’ throats. It is uncanny, in this same summer heat, to walk within
these heinous walls, among tyres and mechanical diggers now stored here, and
to try and call to mind the screams these people heard every day, the
There is an urgent question hanging over us as we gather here at Omarska, a
burning uncertainty. What is to happen to this site upon which we stand? For
how long will these good people be able to exercise their right to visit,
meditate, pay homage and remember in the roaring silence? For how long will
they have to go through the humiliation of needing permission from
authorities who deny the existence of the camp in order to contemplate what
happened to them and their loved ones?
This is a publicly-owned iron ore mine, due to be sold by the Bosnian Serb
authorities who are only too anxious to cover up what happened here. A
British steel company, LMN-ISPAT is already interested in parts of the
Omarska mine, though at the time of writing plans for the actual site of the
concentration camp are unknown.
There exists, then, the terrible possibility that Omarska as physical
history will disappear, that the rooms in which women were serially raped
will become administrative offices, and that the canteen where men lined up
for bowls of watery soup will become a place to serve employees’ fast food.
It is possible that the area of tarmac upon which men were slaughtered will
become a car park for glistening new Skodas; that the hangar in which
prisoners were crammed and from which they were called to their death will
return to its old use as a storage space for industrial plant; and that the
Red House and the White House, where men were slashed, shot and beaten to
death, will be demolished, or used as site offices or as sheds for machine
This, in its way, is sacred ground here at Omarska and it must remain so. To
preserve it is an urgent task for the sake of the past, present and future.