The Horrors of a Camp Called Omarska and The  Serb Strategy

This is excerpted from Danner's long article, "America and the Bosnia Genocide," The New York Review of Books, 12/4/97. Danner, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of The Massacre at El Mozote. His nine-part series of articles on the wars in the former Yugoslavia (see links below) will be collected in a book in early 1999.

To the hundreds of millions who first beheld them on their television screens that August day in 1992, the faces staring out from behind barbed wire seemed powerfully familiar.1 Sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed, their skulls shaved, their bodies wasted and frail, they did not seem men at all but living archetypes, their faces stylized masks of tragedy. One had thought such faces consigned to the century's horde of images-the emaciated figures of the 1940s shuffling about in filthy striped uniforms, the bulldozers pushing into dark ditches great masses of lank white bodies. Yet here, a mere half century later, in 1992, came these gaunt beings, clinging to life in Omarska and Trnopolje and the other camps run by Serbs in northern Bosnia, and now displayed before the eyes of the world like fantastic, rediscovered beasts.

The Germans, creators of millions of such living dead, had christened them Muselmanner-Musulmen, Muslims. At Auschwitz, wrote Primo Levi,

the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass...of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead in them.... One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.2

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," a guard at Omarska, which the Serbs set up in a former open-pit iron mine, told a United Nations representative in mid-1992. "They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals."3

On August 5, 1992, Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, the first newspaperman admitted into Omarska, stood in the camp's "canteen" and watched, stupefied, as thirty emaciated men stumbled out into the yard, squinting at the sunlight:

...A group of prisoners...have just emerged from a door in the side of a large rust-colored metal shed. [T]hey run in single file across the courtyard.... Above them in an observation post is the watchful eye, hidden behind reflective sunglasses, of a beefy guard who follows their weary canter with the barrel of his heavy machine gun.

Their...heads [are] newly shaven, their clothes baggy over their skeletal bodies. Some are barely able to move. In the canteen,... they line up in obedient and submissive silence and collect...a meager, watery portion of beans....

They are given precisely three minutes to run from the shed, wait for the food and gulp it down, and run back to the shed. "Whoever didn't make it would get beaten or killed," a prisoner identified only as Mirsad told Helsinki Watch investigators. "The stew we were given was boiling we all had 'inside burns.' The inside of my mouth was peeling."4

Vulliamy and his colleagues stand and gaze at the creatures struggling to wolf down the rations:

...[T]he bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced. Their skin is putrefied, the complexions...have corroded. [They] are alive but decomposed, debased, degraded, and utterly subservient, and yet they fix their huge hollow eyes on us with [what] looks like blades of knives.

It is an extraordinary confrontation, this mutual stare: Vulliamy and his colleagues are reporting from inside a working concentration camp. All the while, though, Serb guards in combat fatigues, cradling AK-47s and bearing great military knives sheathed at their hips, trudge heavily about the room, their eyes glaring above their beards.

Vulliamy moves forward to speak to a "young man, emaciated, sunken-eyed and attacking his watery bean stew like a famished dog, his spindly hands shaking," but the fellow stops him: "I do not want to tell any lies," he says, "but I cannot tell the truth." It is an eloquent comment: most of these Muselm Anner prove "too terrified to talk, bowing their heads and excusing themselves by casting a glance at the pacing soldiers, or else they just stare, opaque, spiritless, and terrified."

The reporters ask to see the hospital and receive a curt refusal. Nor may they look inside that white building-the White House, the prisoners call it-or the great "rust-colored shed" from which the men had come, squinting at the August sun.

Later, survivors describe the shed as "a vast human hen coop, in which thousands of men were crammed for twenty-four hours a day..., living in their own filth and, in many cases, dying from asphyxiation." So tightly were prisoners packed together in the stifling, airless heat, "Sakib R." tells Vulliamy, that lying down was impossible and some lost consciousness standing up, collapsing one against another.

I [counted] seven hundred that I could actually see [around me]. A lot of people went mad...: when they went insane, shuddering and screaming, they were taken out and shot.

Though guards at Omarska and other camps shot many prisoners, this was by no means the preferred method. If Auschwitz's killing tended to be mechanized and bureaucratized, Omarska's was emotional and personal, for it depended on the simple, intimate act of beating. "They beat us with clubs, bats, hoses, rifle butts," one survivor told a Helsinki Watch interviewer. "Their favorite was a thick rubber hose with metal on both ends." They beat us, said another, "with braided cable wires" and with pipes "filled with lead."

Next to the automatic rifle, next even to the knife (which was freely used at Omarska), the club or the pipe is exhausting, time-consuming, inefficient. Yet the guards made it productive. A female prisoner identified only as "J" told Helsinki Watch investigators:

We saw corpses piled one on top of another.... The bodies eventually were gathered with a forklift and put onto trucks-usually two large trucks and a third, smaller truck. The trucks first would unload containers of food, and then the bodies would be loaded [on].... This happened almost every day-sometimes there [were]...twenty or thirty-but usually there were more. Most of the deaths occurred as a result of beatings.5

One survivor interviewed by United Nations investigators estimated that "on many occasions, twenty to forty prisoners were killed at night by 'knife, hammer, and burning.' He stated that he had witnessed the killing of one prisoner by seven guards who poured petrol on him, set him on fire, and struck him upon the head with a hammer." All prisoners were beaten, but according to the UN investigators, guards in all the camps meted out especially savage treatment "to intellectuals, politicians, police, and the wealthy."6 When four guards summoned the president of the local Croatian Democratic Union, Silvije Saric, along with Professor Puskar from nearby Prijedor, for "interrogation," the female prisoner testified,

I heard beating and yelling.... At times it sounded as if wood were being shattered, but those were bones that were being broken.

...When they opened the door ..., they started yelling at us, "Ustasa slut, see what we do to them!" ...I saw two piles of blood and flesh in the corner. The two men were so horribly beaten that they no longer had the form of human beings.7

Apart from obvious differences in scale and ambition, it is the Serbs' reliance on this laborious kind of murder that most strikingly distinguishes the workings of their camps from those of the German death factories. At many of the latter, healthy arrivals would work as slaves until they were reduced to being Muselm Anner; death came when camp bureaucrats judged them no longer fit to provide any useful service to the Reich. The gas chambers-routinized, intentionally impersonal means of killing-had evolved partly out of a concern for the effect that committing mass murder would have on troops, even on men specially trained to do it. As Raul Hilberg observed,

The Germans employed the phrase Seelenbelastung ("burdening of the soul") with reference to machine-gun fire...directed at men, women, and children in prepared ditches. After all, the men that were firing these weapons were themselves fathers. How could they do this day after day? It was then that the technicians developed a gas van designed to lessen the suffering of the perpetrator.8

And even within the camps themselves, SS officers worried that violence and sadism would demoralize and corrupt their elite troops. "The SS leaders," Wolfgang Sofsky writes,

were indifferent to the suffering of the victims, but not to the morale of their men. Their attention was the sadistic excesses of individual tormenters. As a countermeasure, camp brothels were set up, and the task of punishment was delegated to specially selected prisoners. The leadership also transferred certain thugs whose behavior had become intolerable. [Emphasis added.9

At Omarska such men would have been cherished; the out-and-out passion with which a guard administered beatings and devised tortures could greatly bolster his prestige. Acts of flamboyant violence, publicly performed, made of some men celebrities of sadism. In his memoir The Tenth Circle of Hell, Rezak Hukanovic-a Muslim who was a journalist in Prijedor before he was taken to Omarska-describes how guards responded when a prisoner rejected the order to strip and stood immobile amid the cowering naked inmates:

The guard...fired several shots in the air. The man stood stubbornly in place without making the slightest movement. While bluish smoke still rose from the rifle barrel, the guard struck the clothed man in the middle of the head with the rifle butt, once and then again, until the man fell. Then the guard...moved his hand to his belt. A knife flashed in his hand, a long army knife.

He bent down, grabbing hold of the poor guy's hair.... Another guard joined in, continuously cursing. He, too, had a flashing knife in his hand.... The guards [used] them to tear away the man's clothes. After only a few seconds, they stood up, their own clothes covered with blood....

...The poor man stood up a little, or rather tried to, letting out excruciating screams. He was covered with blood. One guard took a water hose from a nearby hydrant and directed a strong jet at [him]. A mixture of blood and water flowed down his...gaunt, naked body as he bent down repeatedly, like a wounded Cyclops...; his cries were of someone driven to insanity by pain. And then Djemo and everyone else saw clearly what had happened: the guards had cut off the man's sexual organ and half of his behind.

Hukanovic's memoir (in which he writes about himself in the third person as Djemo) and the testimony of other former prisoners overflow with such horror. Reading them, one feels enervated, and also bewildered: What accounts for such unquenchable blood-lust? This is a large subject, to which I shall return; but part of the answer may have to do with the elaborate ideology that stands behind Serb objectives in the war. In order to achieve a "Greater Serbia," which will at last bring together all Serbs in one land, they feel they must "cleanse" what is "their" land of outsiders. Founding-or rather reestablishing-"Greater Serbia" is critical not only because it satisfies an ancient historical claim but because Serbs must protect themselves from the "genocide" others even now are planning for them.

In this thinking, such genocide has already begun-in Croatia, in Kosovo, in Bosnia itself: anywhere Serbs live but lack political dominance. As many writers, including Michael Sells and, especially, Tim Judah, point out, such ideas of vulnerability and betrayal can be traced far back in Serbia's past, and President Slobodan Milosevic, with his control of state radio and television, exploited them brilliantly, building popular hatred by instilling in Serbs a visceral fear and paranoia.

Administering a beating is a deeply personal affirmation of power: with your own hands you seize your enemy-supposedly a mortally threatening enemy, now rendered passive and powerless-and slowly, methodically reduce him from human to nonhuman. Each night at Omarska and other camps guards called prisoners out by name and enacted this atrocity. Some of their enemies they beat to death, dumping their corpses on the tarmac for the forklift driver to find the next morning. Others they beat until the victim still barely clung to life; if he did not die, the guards would wait a week or so and beat him again.

For the Serbs it was a repeated exercise in triumph, in satisfying and vanquishing an accumulated paranoia. As Hukanovic makes clear in his account of the first time his name was called out, this torture is exceedingly, undeniably intimate-not simply because force is administered by hand but also because it comes very often from someone you know:

"In front of me," the [bearded, red-faced] guard ordered, pointing to the White House.... He ranted and raved, cursing and occasionally pounding Djemo on the back with his truncheon....

...The next second, something heavy was let loose from above, from the sky, and knocked Djemo over the head. He fell.

...Half conscious, sensing that he had to fight to survive, he wiped the blood from his eyes and forehead and raised his head. He saw four creatures, completely drunk, like a pack of starving wolves, with clubs in their hands and unadorned hatred in their eyes. Among them was the frenzied leader, Zoran Zigic, the infamous Ziga.... He was said to have killed over two hundred people, including many children, in the "cleansing" operations around Prijedor.... Scrawny and long-legged, with a big black scar on his face, Ziga seemed like an ancient devil come to visit a time as cruel as his own....

"Now then, let me show you how Ziga does it," he said, ordering Djemo to kneel down in the corner by the radiator, "on all fours, just like a dog." The maniac grinned. Djemo knelt down and leaned forward on his hands, feeling humiliated and as helpless as a newborn....

Ziga began hitting Hukanovic on his back and head with a club that had a metal ball on the end. Hukanovic curled up trying to protect his head. Zigic kept hitting him, steadily, methodically, cursing all the while.

The drops of blood on the tiles under Djemo's head [became] denser and denser until they formed a thick, dark red puddle. Ziga kept at it; he stopped only every now and fan himself, waving his shirt tail in front of his contorted face.

At some point a man in fatigues appeared.... It was Saponja, a member of the famous Bosna-montaza soccer club from Prijedor; Djemo had once known him quite well.... "Well, well, my old pal Djemo. While I was fighting..., you were pouring down the cold ones in Prijedor." He kicked Djemo right in the face with his combat boot. Then he kicked him again in the chest, so badly that Djemo felt like his ribs had been shattered...Ziga laughed like a maniac...and started hitting Djemo again with his weird club....

Djemo received another, even stronger kick to the face. He clutched himself in pain, bent a little to one side, and collapsed, his head sinking into the now-sizable pool of blood beneath him. Ziga grabbed him by the hair...and looked into Djemo's completely disfigured face: "Get up, you scum...."

Then Ziga and the other guards forced Djemo to smear his bloody face in a filthy puddle of water.

..."The boys have been eating strawberries and got themselves a little red," said Ziga, laughing like a madman.... Another prisoner, Slavko Ecimovic,...was kneeling, all curled up, by the radiator. When he lifted his head, where his face should have been was nothing but the bloody, spongy tissue under the skin that had just been ripped off.

Instead of eyes, two hollow sockets were filled with black, coagulated blood. "You'll all end up like this, you and your families," Ziga said. "We killed his father and mother. And his wife. We'll get his kids. And yours, we'll kill you all." And with a wide swing of his leg, he kicked Djemo right in the face....



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