Hard Time in Serb-run Concentration Camps in Bosnia
(To mark August 30, International Day of the Disappeared)
By Irena Antic
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
Helsinki Charter No. 153-154.
Curiosity and the need to face his demons brought Edvin, today a 22-year-old, to one of the most infamous concentration camps in Brcko. In 1992, hundreds of local Bosniaks and Croats were cruelly tortured, humiliated and killed in this place. Most of them have never been found. He faced the Luka camp and the Sava River – the waters of which were the resting place for so many innocent people – in the twilight veiling his pain for his tortured father who had waited here for the death to come for him 19 years ago.
Edvin had not turned three in early May 1992 when the bloody feast begun in Brcko. He has no memory of columns of refugees and collective fear. He has no memory of his mother’s anxiety for his and his elder sister Dijana’s lives. He has no memory of hunger, he recalls not atrocities and shadows of death hovering over the town.He cannot recall his father’s face, has no memory of his father’s last hug. All he remembers from his early childhood is the feeling of growing up fatherless, and all he has are the stories and memories he had listened to from his mother and his sister.
Edvin’s father was a prisoner in Luka, Brezovo Polje and Batkovic concentration camps. He was killed in the latter in October 1992.
He has no memory of him alive and has not yet tracked down his body.
As years went by his father’s death was more and more on his mind. He began searching for the truth eager to find his father’s bodily remnants. Testimonies by some survived prisoners of Luka and Batkovic indicated that his father, Edhem Cudic, died a terrible death. Prisoners of the Luka camp were tortured beyond human imagination: they were left to die of hunger, they were beaten, they were mutilated alive. Then they torched their bodies on tires and shipped them to the local animal shelter, which, according to some witnesses, worked round the clock in those first days of May 1992. In mornings refrigerator trucks were shipping bodies from Luka to the premises of the “Interplet” company in Brcko. Cries of the prisoners of Luka resounded as far as in Gunja, in neighboring Croatia.
Ex-commander of the Luka camp, Goran Jelisic, confessed before ICTY that he had killed more than 200 people. He used to boast at the time he was a master of death and life in Brcko that he had set himself a task of killing that many people. His right hand was Monika Simeunovic, underage at the time. Jelisic – “Serb Adolf” as he called himself – had a specific style of killing: a bullet in the back of one’s head. Victims found in the Gorice mass grave in Brcko in 2007 had been mostly killed that way. The number of corpses /277/ detected in this mass grave is by far smaller than the number of Brcko residents on the list of the disappeared.
When the great majority of prisoners of the Luka camp were killed those still alive were forced to remove all the traces of the crime: to whitewash and clean up the camp. And then they were transported to the Batkovic camp. Edhem Cudic was among them. Back in Luka, he had turned down his last chance to survive – a helping hand from his Serb neighbor. He had told him he would not leave his people. Once in the Batkovic camp, Edhem and other prisoners worked at the farms of local Serbs and served the troops. They were tortured all the time. Just before they killed him Cudic told a fellow prisoner, Nermin Suljagic – a witness for ICTY prosecution later on – that he had loaded corpses onto refrigerator trucks back in Luka. On one night only he loaded 60 corpses, he told him. On October 13, 1992 – the very day he was supposed to be exchanged – they killed him in early morning. His exchange was scheduled for noon. No wonder they killed him: he had witnesses so many deaths, so much blood, and could have testified…
All his family wants for the past 19 years is to find his body and bury it with dignity. That would make life more bearable for them, says Edvin. The thoughts about his father’s suffering haunt him. Betrayal by their neighbors – family friends once – haunts him. They all now his fellow citizens, he runs into them almost daily. They might have saved his father’s life and that of so many innocent people. Their silence about the whereabouts of their bodily remnants tortures him the most. So the crime against the death continues the same as torture of those alive trying to track down the killed. The story about the search for Edhem Cudic’s bodily remnants is one of hundreds one could hear in Brcko: one of thousand similar stories, told or untold, in almost all the towns in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Graves of Bosniaks are scattered throughout the entire territory of Podrinje. And of Prijedor, too. The Drina River is their biggest grave.
The story about the disappeared is a never-ending story. After the 1990s wars in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia some 40,000 people were missing and out of this number 30,000 were from Bosnia. Nineteen years after the aggression and the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina some 10,000 persons are still missing. DNA analyses in the laboratories of the International Commission for Missing Persons considerably facilitated the painful, demanding and long-term process of victims’ exhumation and identification. Sometimes there was no one alive to report the missing. And so, unfortunately, no one will ever identify them given that sometimes whole families disappeared in massacres. Their bodies, if ever found, will be identified as John or Jane Doe. After mass murders and ethnic cleansing tens and tens of bodies were swallowed by water or fire.
The name of every missing person is a story in itself, a chapter of the bleak history book of Bosnia at the end of 21st century. Going through its pages one faces the tragedy, suffering and death of so many people in a relatively small area crisscross by rivers of blood of innocent people who are still missing. This story, too, is only one chapter of the huge Bosnian book of the missing.
Bodily remnants of the civilians burned alive at two locations in Visegrad in 1992 have not been tracked down to this very day. Not a single voice of good will would help the search. The whole terrain has been searched thoroughly but in vain.
For these crimes Milan Lukic has been sentenced to life by ICTY. Sredoje Lukic has been sentence to 30-year imprisonment. Mitar Vasiljevic who was also on trial was acquitted.
On June 14, 1992 more than 70 civilians – mostly of the Kurspahic family – were locked in Meho Aljic’s house in the Pioneer Street in Visegrad and then the house was set on fire. Bombs were thrown into the house in flames. Twenty children, forty women and several old men were burnt to death. Only nine of them managed to escape. “We were brought in from the village of Koritnik. The moment we stepped into the house they set it on fire. I was the last in the line of people but the first to reach the window and smash it. My 14-year-old son pushed me through and I fell down on some wires. They he jumped out as well. A mother managed to throw down her child but she herself burnt alive. While on the run we followed this creek and spent nights in it. Bushes provided us the hiding place. The entire first night we heard people crying and calling for help. No one could have helped them,” says one of the women who survived the hell.
Senad Kurspahic has been hiding from the savage Serb troops for days. Together with other men he was spending days in the woods and went back to the town at nightfall. He hadn’t seen his loved ones taken away but learned soon they were burnt alive in the Pioneer Street.
“My mother, my sister, my wife and my two-day-old baby were burnt alive here. The baby has not been named yet. While war criminals walk the streets freely we suffer for not knowing the whereabouts of their bones,” he says.
Ramo Kurspahic lost in the fire his father, mother, sister-in-law and three of his brother’s children – ages 12, 10 and 8. “I have no one from my family left now. It’s hard for me to see this place of crime,” he tells.
Ilija Gavrilovic, still an active police officer, and Radomir Susnjar, presently in France, were accomplices in this horrible crime. Once again this June 14 families of the victims left flowers and photos of their loved ones on the remains of the house in the Pioneer Street. Their once neighbors, the same as they did 19 years ago, were just watching them from their windows, saying not a word about the crime…
June 27, 1992 witnessed a similar scenario. Early in the morning of that day flames were still swallowing the bodies of Bosniaks burnt alive, of women, children and old men in a house in the Bikavac neighborhood. Mijesira Memisavic was the first at the crime scene. “It was awful, bodies were burning like logs, bones and clothes were still smoking. Where are all these bodies now?”
Zehra Turjacanin’s mother, two sisters and their two underage children, sister-in-law and her young son were among 70 people burnt alive in Bikavac. She herself managed to escape through a smashed window, her hair in fire and her whole body in burns.
“I jumped down this window. I still cannot remember how,” Zehra told a TV crew only a few days after her escape to the free territory. Until she took a stand in ICTY in the trial of Milan Lukic, her brother’s schoolmate, Zehra refrained from showing her face in public. Her testimony – as the only one who survived the Bikavac stake – was among the most distressing ever heard in the courtroom.
The house burnt up and someone cleared up its remnants long ago.
No one would tell the whereabouts of bodies. The Sekulic family still living next door says nothing…
Five-year-old Elma, her 12-month-old brother Ensar, their mother and granny were swallowed by flames. On this anniversary of their murder father Esad once again dug the ground with his bare hands – in vain. Nothing was left of his children and others. The same thoughts have been haunting him for nineteen years.
“No one will ever know the pain they went through before they died. All I wish is to bury them properly, to know where are their graves, now that I have nothing else left. I have no photos of them. I can hardly remember how my baby son looked like.”
Many victims whose bodies are still searched for were imprisoned in the camp. No one will ever be able to determine the exact number of prisoners in Omarska, Trnopolje, Keraterm, Manjaca, Foca and others because prisoners had been brought their either in groups or individually. In the same way many were taken away never to return.
Hundreds of girls – some of which were not even eleven – and women, including those well over 70, were imprisoned and raped in a sports center in Foca. Some of them disappeared without a trace. Others were taken to the hospital in Foca, tortured and then, while in late pregnancy exchanged for Serb prisoners. Numbers of women imprisoned in a hotel in Miljevica, in Karaman’s house in Foca, in Vilina Vlas and in Visegrad were tortured and then killed…
Several thousands of prisoners went through the Foca prison. About 400 Bosniaks were killed inside the prison walls. Visibly pained Hasa Altoka speaks of her family’s tragedy.
“Three of my brothers and a small cousin were killed in that dungeon. They were taken away in April 1992 together with their neighbors. They were told that they were going to pick plums. They’ve never come back. Bodily remnants of two brothers were found many years later. I also lost two sisters-in-law. Eight underage children were orphaned,” she tells her story.
Zehra Murguz’s husband was taken to the Foca prison on April 17, 1992. He was killed and his body has never been found. “My husband’s mother, father and sister were killed before my eyes. They were killed by our next-door neighbor, raised by father-in-law. To this very day that man freely walks in Foca.”
After months-long torture in the prison some prisoners were taken in groups to the locations for mass executions. So, on August 21, 1992, Bosniak and Croatian prisoners of Trnopolje and Omarska camps were separated from others in the convoy with 1,200 people and shot. At Mt. Vlasic 250 people were shot. Only nine survived.
“They took us to the edge of a cliff. I saw dead bodies below.I couldn’t count how many. Dragan Mrdja said, ‘Get down to your knees and give over your watches, money, gold, you will need them no more.’ I threw myself over the cliff. I fell on a bush and stayed there till dark. I hang on my bare hands. In the nightfall I began pushing myself up slowly,” says the survivor.
Other bodies were thrown down the cliff. Only 60 of the killed have been tracked down so far. Someone must have removed the rest, buried them nearby and then moved to a secondary mass grave. Darko Mrdja, commander of the special unit of the Prijedor police, was sentenced to this crime by ICTY. The Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina has put another 14 persons on trial. None of them has said a word about the whereabouts of mass graves. Naila Bajric from Prijedor still waits for the news about her husband and 21-old son.
“When Darko Mrdja took out my son, my husband said to him, ‘What are you doing, neighbor! That’s my son!’ Mrdja replied, ‘Then come with him you too.’ And they shot them both in the back,” tells Naila.
ITCY investigators, the Institute for the Disappeared and entity commissions, with the support of ICMP, have exhumed over 500 individual and mass graves – primary, secondary and tertiary – in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past 19 years. Often bodily remnants of one person were found in as many as four, five or more graves. Many families have buried only several tiny bones of their dearest. For this reason, others still do not want to bury theirs. Both groups hope some new mass grave would reveal the missing parts. They are ready to go through that agony once again. According to merciless statistics, for instance, bodily remnants of 613 victims of the Srebrenica genocide, buried this year, have been found in as many as 70 locations – some of these graves were exhumed 16 years ago, some just a year ago. One victim in nine was underage. Estimates say that Bosnian soil still hides hundreds of graves, some of which covered by layers of trash, like the exhumed tertiary grave Zalazje, near Srebrenica, with Bosniaks killed in the genocide of July 1995.
After slaughters and ethnic cleansing Serb troops have dug many mass graves at the lands owned by the expelled and killed Bosniaks. For them, that was forever a “liberated” territory. Some returnees have themselves tracked down mass graves. One of many in the village of Kamenica, near Zvornik, was found by a couple of returnees: they realized there must be a mass grave down when they saw dirty and reddish water in the spring no far from their house.
Visegrad, Foca, Prijedor, Sanski Most and all the villages along the left bank of the Sana River where some 3,000 Bosniaks and Croats were killed in couple of days only in the spring of 1992, are still in place. But these are not the same places any more. Their souls have been killed. They lost two-three thousand of their citizens. Shadows of the killed are hovering over these towns.
Today, their former neighbors wash their hands of the crime. Years ago they were watching suffering and death. Today they pretend to have seen nothing. Years ago they were listening to cries for help. Today they pretend to have heard nothing. They turn away their heads from the agony of those still searching for members of their families. They seem not to miss their once neighbors. And that’s how they live throughout the war. They ploughed, they sowed, and unavoidable run into human bones, sculls, clothing.No, they know nothing about it. They simply closed their eyes to such spectacles, feeling no shame, duty or responsibility…
Generally, no plaques or memorials of any kind are in place in the towns from which thousands of people have been expelled or in locations of mass crimes and mass graves. The survived and families of the killed visit these crime scenes at anniversaries. They put flowers and wreaths that usually disappear once they are one. The police escort them. As if they, tortured and in pain as they are, pose any high security risk. Curious faces, malicious looks, insults and curses also escort them. Why is it so? Because people in these places either still glorify crimes or are cowards who would never point a finger at those involved in the crimes. Persons with bloody track records in the war and locations hundreds of the killed in the genocide are still only whispered about.
This August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, was marked in Brcko at regional level. The list of the names of those killed and never found is a long, long one, and the families of these innocent victims will find their peace only when the bodily remnants of their dearest are found and properly buried, message those at the memorial. All the families of the disappeared understand one another the best and share the same goal. Therefore, the search for the disappeared must be beyond any personal, political, ethnic or religious barrier, they said. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Law on the Disappeared is poorly implemented, they added appealing to the duty-bound authorities to help them and facilitate their search. Unfortunately, harsh statements, acts and tensions mostly orchestrated by a part of Republika Srpska’ non-governmental sector under Dodik’s control once again made the backdrop of the memorial. For years they have been undermining resolution of this major issue and the work of the Institute for the Missing Persons.