By Peter W. Van Arsdale
Today there are few visible signs that one of the world’s most ominous post-World War II concentration camps once existed in the hills east of Prijedor. A mid-sized industrial town, Prijedor is located in the extreme north-western portion of the country, within Republika Srpska. Martin Bell, a veteran of the Bosnian civil war, described Prijedor as “the hometown of ethnic cleansing” (1996: 58). As my University of Denver colleague, Todd Waller, learned at about that same time, a number of Serb-instigated atrocities occurred here.
According to ABC News, early one May morning in 1992, residents of Prijedor looked out their windows in shock. One said, through an interpreter:
“A long line of Muslim people were passing under my kitchen window. They were being pushed along by Serbian soldiers. It reminded me of a bad dream. The soldiers were bearded and dirty. They were using guns and machine guns to force old men, women and children down the street. It was a horrible sight.”
Shortly thereafter, during the single day of May 30, it is estimated that more than 1,000 Bosniaks and Croats were killed by Serbs in this city. Also at about this time, in a scene eerily reminiscent of World War II, it was reported by Bosniaks and Croats in the area that they had seen members of their communities packed into railway and cattle cars.
“They saw people’s faces and hands reaching out from within the slats of the cattle cars. They weren’t given water. They weren’t given food. There was (sic) no toilets.”
Roy Gutman of Newsday provided the above quote, and was the first to report on the emerging problem of the Omarska camp. This was on August 2, 1992. Britain’s International Television News (ITN) broadcast the first pictures from the camp on August 6. Ed Vulliamy was the first journalist to be admitted to Omarska, that same week. Helsinki Watch’s human rights investigators arrived at about the same time. As reported by Danner (1997: 55), Vulliamy and his colleagues saw men whose “bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced.”
“In Omarska as in Auschwitz the masters created these walking corpses from healthy men by employing simple methods: withhold all but the barest nourishment, forcing the prisoners’ bodies to waste away; impose upon them a ceaseless terror by subjecting them to unremitting physical cruelty; immerse them in degradation and death and decay, destroying all hope and obliterating the will to live. ‘We won’t waste our bullets on them,’ [said] a guard (p. 55).”
As information began to leak out of Omarska, aided by the fearless reporting of newsmen like Gutman and Vulliamy, it became clear that a concentration camp — in every sense of the word — was fully operative. Following the lead of researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (2000), the term “extermination camp” also could aptly be applied. Bosniaks and Croats from Prijedor and elsewhere in northern Bosnia were being forcibly transported by rail and bus, incarcerated in the harshest of conditions, tortured, raped, and executed. A large shed had been converted into a kind of “human hen coop,” in which hundreds — and possibly thousands — of men (and some women) were jammed. One prisoner told Vulliamy that lying down was impossible owing to the incredibly tight conditions. He said he counted about 700 packed immediately around him: “when they went insane, shuddering and screaming, they were taken out and shot” (Danner 1997: 55).
A Bosnian Muslim journalist got a very different view of Omarska. Rezak Hukanovic was taken there from his home in Prijedor as a prisoner, and after his release months later, wrote the gripping book The Tenth Circle of Hell. He witnessed firsthand that extermination was frequent. Virtually every prisoner was severely abused. One man had his genitals and part of this buttocks cut off; he died almost immediately. So many were brutally killed during the months that Hukanovic was in the camp that he referred to the Serb guards as “killing machines” (1996: 109). Bosnian Croats were not exempted from the guards’ wrath, as many also were tortured and murdered. He recounts one man, tortured and then run through with a sword, who was singled out because his mother was thought to have been associated with the Ustase a half century earlier.
Hukanovic also sheds light on the issue of identity. He believes that some Serbs were whipped to a frenzy by what he terms their “pipe dream of a state (1996: 102). The fiery Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic (whose first name roughly — and ironically — translates to “freedom”) was calling for a massive Serbian resurgence. His proclamations propelled much of the violence as he exacerbated the Bosnian civil war. For the guards at Omarska, the perception of reunifying a discordant place like Bosnia within a larger Serb-dominated state was tantamount to reclaiming the homeland lost six centuries earlier to the Turks on the plains of Kosovo.
The efforts of the International Red Cross, in concert with the United Nations and other organizations, led to the release of several hundred of the Omarska prisoners while the war still was relatively young. Hukanovic was among them. Analyses, although initially timid, of the situation in Bosnia by members of President George Bush’s administration led to consideration of the possibility that true genocide was occurring. Responding to international pressure, the camp was closed shortly thereafter. It is likely that a large number of those released in turn became refugees.
My colleague, psychologist Dennis Kenedy, commented on the unfolding psychiatric horrors of these camps — reflected in the Bosnian refugee clients first entering the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center he and I co-founded –shortly after the war ended (Martin 1996: 8). It was ironic, too, that some of the horrors were promulgated by Bosnian Serb leader Dr. Radovan Karadzic, himself trained as a psychiatrist. When in 1997 I interviewed one of his former colleagues at the hospital in Sarajevo where he once had practiced, she confirmed his idiosyncratic and malevolent disposition. “He mixed politics and psychiatry in the worst way,” she said.
The above excerpt was taken from Peter W. Van Arsdale’s book: “Forced to Flee: Human Rights and Human Wrongs in Refugee Homelands” (2006)