Omarska - Fifteen Years On

Author: Chris Keulemans
Uploaded: Tuesday, 26 June, 2007

Writing in Dani (Sarajevo), Dutch writer and journalist Chris Keulemans reports from the camps set up by Karadzic's Belgrade-backed forces in 1992, and in particular on the ongoing campaign to create a memorial centre at Omarska, on land now owned by Mittal Steel

‘You tried hard to murder a whole people but, remember!, you failed to kill our memory. Our memory continues to be stronger than any evil you have done to us, and will follow you as long as there is even a trace of your existence. Our memory of your crime is our right and our pledge.’

Almedina Dautbašić, 31 March 2003

It is a lovely spring day in Republika Srpska. The cockerels are sounding off. Kasim, a short man with a mild face, shows us the mass grave where the remains of 178 nameless bodies were exhumed eight years ago.

By comparison with the surrounding houses in the village of Kevljani, Kasim lives in a villa. Last month, he confides to us, he was arrested for being in possession of a small van full of cannabis. Just then the postman approaches us, riding a motorcycle on the macadam road. He switches off the motor and slowly extracts Kasim’s mail from his bag. The two men exchange a few words, after which the postman continues on his way. Kasim follows him fixedly with his glance: ‘Huh! He too was one of the guards at Omarska ... when I was imprisoned there.’

‘Today, however, you speak to each other normally?’

‘We pretend that nothing happened. I could pull him off his machine, but then I’d be sent to jail again... for fifteen years. There was no law during the war. It’s different today.’

The Mass Graveyard

He takes us to a field only a few hundred metres away. In 2004 a mass grave was unearthed here containing 456 bodies. At the end of the Bosnian war the Serbs dug up from mines and forests the bodies of their victims buried there, after which they scattered them, often in fragments, across the whole area. Just the word ‘Graveyard’ is inscribed in white letters.

It is here, in the spring of 1992, that ethnic cleansing started. Today, this is the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats were driven from their homes and into camps in Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm. On 5 August 1992 Ed Vulliamy, a journalist with the British Guardian, and an ITN camera team managed to enter these places. The images of barbed wire and the emaciated men behind it went round the world. Within weeks the camps were closed down. Some seven thousand people had been incarcerated in them. Today, fifteen years on, those who survived are engaged in an arduous battle with local [Serb] officials and the largest steelmaker in the world for the opening of a memorial centre at the Omarska camp.

Kasim is taking us along a secret path, a short cut, to the gigantic complex of the Ljubija New Steelworks, a rusted and brown monster from the socialist period. Despite my many emails, I was not allowed access to the place. The deputy manager, Predrag Š orga, told me curtly that it was too risky on account of current reconstruction. Kasim stops a hundred metres from the complex. He dares not go further: ‘If they see us, they’ll call the police.’

The photographer, Zijah Gafić, and his father, a former police commander in the Bosnian army, drive to the pond surrounding the location. Zijah gets out of the car and takes pictures of the White House on the edge of the complex. It is here that prisoners were beaten and maltreated. Few survived. The bodies would be taken out of the building and then loaded onto trucks. The same trucks were used to bring in food for the prisoners. One meal per day per person. When the remaining prisoners were ordered to clean up the White House, the walls were covered with blood. In the car from which I together with Kasim and the translator Elvis watch the House, there is a smell of sweat. They are silently cursing the photographer for these seemingly endless minutes. For his part Zijah moves around the surface of the water seeking a suitable perspective. He finally regains the car and both vehicles speed back across the railway track, back to the peaceful fields.

‘Miserable photos!’, Zijah mutters after we have dropped Kasim. A pond, a white edifice, freshly painted factory buildings. Yet... No one doubts that this visit was important. We had to visit this place and make a record.

A frozen past

Why is it important? It is because existence is immobilised here. In the small towns and fields around Omarska memories clash with denial, tales with silence. Those who are in a state of denial wish to move on, those who remember demand pause and recollection, Many of the Serbs who in 1992 served in the army and the police still live here. They do not need to go back in time. So long as Republika Srpska exists, they feel relatively secure. What they need is a better economy and more jobs. This is their priority. The new prime minister, Milorad Dodik, has been working on it and Republika Srpska is on the mend. To remain fixed in the past is a waste of time. This is the paradox of a country in which criminals and their victims live intertwined with one another. To remain silent and to freeze the past - this is the best way forward. To be constantly talking about the past is to stop time. Yet as long as this is forbidden, as long as the stories are not heard, the future will not come a step closer.

Over the past years an increasing number of surviving Croats and Bosniaks have been returning from abroad. Before the war over twenty thousand people lived in nearby Kozarac. In May 1992 the Serbs surrounded, attacked and torched this small town - and deported its population. According to the municipal deputy, Teufik Kulašić: ‘Seven thousand people are living here today. Of the fourteen mosques which were destroyed, we have rebuilt thirteen.’ The high street of this ancient town is lively again. The Spider disco is bathed day and night in blue light. There is a new basketball pitch in front of a restored school. The whisky in the Piccadilly café tastes good, and the houses have been rebuilt in the same style. There is also an internet café. Kozarac has its own website. With the help of this website, edited by Ervin Blažević, the people of Kozarac scattered all over the world - from Kiev, Amsterdam, Bern and London to North America and Australia - wake up and go to sleep tuned into the chatter of their home town. Kozarac has risen from the ashes within just eight years. But its inhabitants are denied access to the places where their life changed for good in the summer of 1992.

At the parking lot by the former tile factory of Keraterm, in the industrial suburb of the regional capital Prijedor, one can see a plaque between the cars. It states that people died in that place. No numbers are mentioned, no names, nor where they came from. It seems that Max Mayer, the factory man

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