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

infernal violence.

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.


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