By Tom Hundley
31 October 1995.
We Were Treated Worse Than Dogs,’ A Victim Asserts
SANSKI MOST, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As Serb control over large swaths of Bosnian territory recedes, a fresh legacy of crimes and atrocities over the last four years has been laid bare.
Human rights workers only now are gaining access to mass graves uncovered in at least four locations, excavating the burial areas and documenting survivors’ accounts of what happened.
These grim testimonies of massacres, including recent killings of non-Serbs in Sanski Most, inevitably will overshadow what appears to be one of the most pervasive but little-documented of the Serb abuses: the widespread use of forced labor.
Virtually every non-Serb male interviewed during a visit to several towns recently recaptured from the Serbs told of years spent digging trenches, unloading trucks, chopping wood and harvesting crops for the Bosnian Serb military machine.
These men, all of them over age 40 and many in their 60s and 70s, were beaten and abused by their Serb overlords, often overworked to the point of collapse.
“They beat me. They kicked out my teeth. They made me work every day-picking beans, digging potatoes. They destroyed our mosque, and then we had to clear away all the rubble,” said Hussein Kasic, 60, who spent six months in forced labor before fleeing his tiny village of Kulin Vakuf.
“We were treated worse than dogs,” said another 60-year-old Muslim named Hamid, who like many of those interviewed was too afraid to give his full name.
Hamid said he spent the last several months digging trenches for the Serbs near the town of Kljuc. “The only reason I’m alive today is because they didn’t have time to shoot us when they ran away,” he said.
Sanski Most, scene of some of the worst atrocities, is a mostly Bosniak and Croat town that had a prewar population of 50,000. Of the 6,000 non-Serbs who stayed after the Serbs took over in 1992, it appears that almost all of the men were forced to work.
Josip Kaurin’s gaunt, emaciated face bore witness to 3.5 years of hard agriculture work for no pay and one meal a day.
“I didn’t dare refuse. It was the only way to stay alive,” said the 41-year-old Croat father of 11.
Mato Matijevic, a 60-year-old Croat who was a waiter and cook before the war, said he was put in charge of a work brigade that ranged from 30 to 50 men.
“Agriculture work, chopping wood, digging trenches,” he said. “We were not paid at all, not even a cigarette.” But at least the workers were allowed to return to their homes at night, he said.
The situation took a turn for the worse in mid-September when a combined Bosnian-Croatian offensive began to threaten the Serbs in Sanski Most.
The Serbs rounded up all the men in town, forcing them to work by day and cramming them into sheds at night. So tightly packed were the sheds that the men had to sleep standing upright, Matijevic said.
On the day before the town fell, the Serb guards had orders to shoot the prisoners, but their commander “didn’t have the heart,” according to Matijevic. Instead, the prisoners were allowed to make a run for it, he said.
Others in Sanski Most were not so lucky. At a ceramics factory on the other side of town, the Serbs left behind 11 murdered prisoners. At least 100 others were loaded onto buses and taken away. Their fate is not known.
When measured against the growing catalogue of crimes like murder, torture and rape, the idea of forced labor may seem almost benign.
“When you have a war, you have to work,” shrugged Matijevic, noting that he had been “friends” with some of his Serb masters for more than 40 years.
The Serbs justify forced labor as an alternative form of national service for non-Serbs living in Serb-controlled territory.
“We’re at war. All Serbs are mobilized. Since we can’t trust local Bosniaks and Croats to serve in the army, we’ll put them to work. It will be their national service,” said a United Nations official, explaining the Serb rationale.
Given the Bosnian Serbs’ chronic shortage of manpower and the need to mobilize virtually every male Serb, the forced labor performed by non-Serbs was critical to sustaining the war effort over the last four years, the UN official said.
Even Serbs are treated harshly by the regime in Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital. Serb refugees from Croatia are routinely press-ganged into military service or sent to occupy abandoned houses near the front lines.
The issue of forced labor is a “gray area” in terms of human rights and international law, according to Peggy Hicks, a human rights lawyer at UN headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia.
“If you define it as conscription, conscripting people into military service or alternative service is not a human rights violation,” she said.
“But there are two problems here. The government (in Pale) is not a recognized government. And the conditions under which this occurred are not a draft situation. It’s more like persecutory detention than conscription,” Hicks said.
UN investigators and human rights workers just now are beginning their work in former Serb territories that had been off-limits for more than three years. With thousands dead and many thousands more missing, the task is overwhelming. Practical limits on time and resources suggest the victims of forced labor will probably not receive proper redress.
“I don’t think, in the broad scheme of things, there will ever be justice,” Hicks said.