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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Bosnian Genocide: Unseen Brutality Since Nazi-era

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: March 6, 2011  

By Daniel Koffman
Excerpt from “This Time we Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia”, edited by Thomas Cushman and Stjepan G. Mestrovic

Jose Maria Mendiluce, career official with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), arrived in the east Bosnian town of Zvornik just as it was overrun by the notorious Serb irregular unit called the White Eagles. He recounds,

“I saw kids put under the threads of tanks, placed under there by grown men, and then run over by other grown men. … Everywhere people were shooting. The fighters were moving through the town, systematically killing all the Muslims they could get their hands on.”(5)

Mendiluce further comments,

“These people had a coherent strategy. The whole point was to inflict as much terror on the civilian population as possible, to destroy as much property as possible, and to target as much of the violence as possible against women and kids. After the irregulars had done their work, the established authorities — the JNA [the federal army of the former Yugoslavia which since the breakup has been in the service of Milosevic of Serbia] or Karadzic’s forces, or the local police — would come in, ostensibly to restore order. But of course, that would mean that the ethnic cleansing of that particular place had been successful, and the White Eagles could move on.”

This seems to have been the scenario in dozens if not hundreds of Bosnian towns and villages. The Amnesty International report of October 1992 entitled Bosnia-Herzegovina: Gross Abuses of Basic Human Rights describes similar events in Bosanski Novi, Blagaj, Modrica, Doboj, and others. In Zaklopaca, near Vlasenica, according to the same Amnesty International report, eighty-three Bosniaks, including men, women, and children, were massacred by uniformed Serbs, as described by surviving eyewitnesses. As early as April 1 and 2, 1992, before the United States had recognized Bosnia (sometimes cites as a “cause” of the war), Serbian paramilitaries under the command of Zeljko Raznatovic, the notorious “Arkan” who in 1993 scored a significant success in Serbia’s parliamentary elections, killed twenty-seven mainly Bosniak civilians in Bijeljina, registering the first of what was to be a long campaign of such massacres. Amnesty’s news release of January 21, 1993, describes eyewitness reports from the town of Bosanski Petrovac of the “descent of the town from tension to terror,” as Serbian paramilitaries seized control of the town, shooting and abducting Muslims at will; the terror ended only with the final exodus of the few thousand surviving Bosniak residents. Roy Gutman, cowinner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches to Newsday from the war zone, describes similar events in many other Bosnian cities.(6) In villages such as Liplje, according to Melika Kreitmayer, chief gynecologist of a rape investigation at Tuzla Hospital Gynecological Institute, “practically every woman in the village was raped.”(7) One can easily multiply these reports from dozens of other villages.(8)

As former Pentagon analyst Norman Cigar has shown in the most detailed analysis so far of Serbian ethnic cleansing, the operational procedure tended to follow a systematic pattern, despite variations, which relied on a “symbiotic relationship” between heavily armed Serbian forces and more lightly armed militias. The former would first take control of an area, thereby creating a “safe environment in which the more lightly armed Serbian militias and local Serbian activists were able to engage in ethnic cleansing. Often, Serbian militia units were attached directly to regular Army units for this specific purpose.”(9) As Cigar points out, this recalls the procedure implemented by the Nazis, according to which “heavily armed Wehrmacht combat forces [would secure] … an area, thereby enabling lighter forces [made up of Einsatzgruppen and locally raised auxiliaries] to operate with relative impunity.”(10) The early stages of ethnic cleansing relied primarily on mass terror against the civilian population. Later, Serbian authorities found it more convenient to employ other methods: “The restriction on food and fuel supplies, in particular, became a key tool to pressure the civilian population, with the reduction of food supplies to near-starvation levels.”(11) This would typically proceed in tandem with the arrest and execution of the educated Bosniak elite and community leaders. Thus “in the Kozarac area of northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina, prominent local Muslims were identified, separated, arrested, and earmarked for elimination according to preapred lists.” Religious leaders were particularly targeted: “Thus in Bratunac the local Muslim cleric reportedly was tortured in front of the townfolk, who had been rounded up in the soccer stadium, was ordered to make the sign of the cross, had beer forced down his throat, and then was executed.”(12) Elsewhere children of Muslim clerics were impaled on spikes in front of their parents and townspeople.(13)

It has now been clearly established that some detention camps could aptly be described as death camps. The Omarska camp was located in a large mining complex. As Gutman describes it,

“According to former detainees, the killing went on almost everywhere: Inside the huge hangarlike building that houses earth-moving equipment, armed guards ordered excruciating tortures at gunpoint, sometimes forcing one prisoner to castrate another. The tarmac outside was an open-air prison where 500 to 1000 men had to lie on their bellies from dawn to dusk. Thousands more packed the offices, workshops and storage rooms … All were on starvation diets. The most feared locations were small outbuildings some distance from the main facilities: the ‘Red House,’ from which no prisoner returned alive, and the ‘White House,’ which contained a torture chamber where guards beat prisoners for days until they succumbed.”(14)

Prisoners reported having to remove sometimes five or ten, sometimes as many as thirty or forty corpses daily in a small yellow pickup. The U.S. embassy in Zagreb investigated the massive atrocities at Omarska for a special UN war crimes panel. A top embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked, “The Nazis had nothing on these guys. I’ve seen reports of individual acts of barbarity of a kind that hasn’t come up in State Department cable traffic in 20 years.”(15) Atrocities ranged from decapitating prisoners with chain saws to forcing one prisoner to bite off the testicles of another. This latter atrocity resurfaces in other parts of Bosnia: David Rieff quotes a UNHCR official as willing to “stake his reputation” on the truthfulness of testimony taken from a Bosniak in Bosanski Petrovac in western Bosnia, that he was forced by his Serb captors to bite off the penis of a fellow Bosniak.(16) In another incident at Omarska a prisoner died of massive blood loss after his testicles were tied by wire to a motorcycle that took off at high speed. Another was burned alive after being doused with gasoline. Prisoners were beaten to death daily, or had their heads smashed against radiators. “You’d see pieces of flesh or brain there the next day,” related one survivor.(17)

Omarska was only one of several such camps run by Serbs in Bosnia. The Keraterm tile factory near Prijedor, where grisly accounts of mass slaughter exceed those at Omarska, and Trnopolje, Brcko, and Manjaca were among the worst. At Brcko, nine-tenths of the inmates were eventually killed. After that, camp guards turned on the remaining townspeople who had not been captured. According to one of the few survivors of the town, prisoners were forced to drive the bodies to an animal feed plant, where they were apparently cremated for animal feed. During the cremations “the air in Brcko would stink so badly you couldn’t open the window,” reported a traffic engineer, one of the town’s few survivors.(18) The Helsinki Watch report of August 1992 entitled War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina cites a special UN memorandum as listing other Serb-run camps in Bihac, Cazin, Velika Kladusa, and Bosanska Dubica. The Manjaca camp in particular continued to run for many months while all attempts at inspection by international representatives, including former Polish prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who visited the area on behalf of the United Nations, were denied. Elie Wiesel was finally invited to visit the camp by Serbian authorities attempting to counter international reports. Somewhat later the prison was closed down in a highly publicized gesture by Serbian political leaders, including Radovan Karadzic, and the prisoners were said to have been handed over to the Red Cross. Wiesel himself, however, was soon writing in the New York Times,

“But last month there came terrible news: not all the prisoners had been freed. Some 500 remained unaccounted for. Most disturbing to me was that many of those I had interviewed had been singled out for special punishment and transferred to an even worse camp, Batkovic. The very men were came to help were hurt in the process, an action of deceit that poses a morally painful dilemma: how can humanitarian efforts be continued if the victims end up paying the price?”(19)

(5) Quoted in David Rieff, “Original Virtue, Original Sin,” New Yorker, November 23, 1992, 82-88.
(6) For instance, Gutman, Witness to Genocide, notes atrocities in Kozluk (20-22), Kljuc (31), Sanica Gornja (31), Kozarac (37, 41), Bosanski Novi (38), Brezovo Polje (68), Novo Selo (78), Bratunac (78), Prijedor (38, 44, 109 ff.), Skender Vakuf (85, 86), Biscani, Zecovi, Carakovo, Sredeci (sites of mass slaughters, 86), Visegrad (21, 24), and others.
(7) Ibid.
(8) For instance, see the two books published by Helsinki Watch, War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2 vols. (New York, 1992, 1993).
(9) Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing” (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 53, 55.
(10) Ibid., 55
(11) Ibid., 58.
(12) Ibid., 59. Cigar cites the U.S. Department of State, Submission, second submission (OCtober 1992).
(13) Gutman, Witness to Genocide, 41.
(14) Ibid., 90.
(15) Ibid., 93.
(16) David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 87.
(17) Ibid., 96.
(18) Gutman, Witness to Genocide, 50.
(19) February 25, 1993.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada