Map Study Trip "Commemorating Wars" in Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Study Trip Commemorating Wars.
The Commemoration of the Second World War and the War of 1992-1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Route and Destinations:

1. Zagreb 8. Jablanica
2. Jasenovac 9. Mostar
3. Donja Gradina 10. Sutjeska
4. Kozara 11. Gorazde
5. Prijedor 12. Srebrenica
6. Banja Luka 13. Sarajevo
7. Sarajevo
Sarajevo 2SrebrenicaGorazdeSutjeskaMostarJablanicaSarajevoBanja LukaPrijedorKozaraDonja GradinaJasenovacZagreb

Prijedor (Kozarac, Omarska, Trnopolje)

Page Contents


During the war from 1992 to 1995, there existed three prison camps in the surroundings of Prijedor, the best known one being Omarska. Nowadays, Omarska embodies the conflicts of memory which split the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although many victims’ associations have been fighting for years now, to this day within the grounds there exists no such thing as a memorial for the victims of this former camp. Today the grounds are owned by a foreign company called Mittal Steel. However, this being a very controversial place, the fronts have shifted. In December 2008 the government of the Republika Srpska granted financial aid to the civil victims’ associations of the camps in the surroundings of Prijedor. In Trnopolje, a neighbouring village, one can find another former camp; yet again, there is not a single sign of commemoration for the victims.

Stefanie Dolvig, Katharina Schalk: From Neighbour to Enemy

Prison camps in the surroundings of Prijedor

Close to Prijedor, a city in the Northeast of Bosnia and Herzegovina, unimaginable things happened in 1992. Schools, ceramic factories, and mines were used to detain and kill people of confessions and nationalities other than Orthodox or Serbian. The following article will focus mainly on the camp in Omarska.

Das „weiße Haus“, der Ort der Folterungen
The „White House“ – The Place of Torture

The site of a former mine in Omarska became the backdrop to gruesome occurrences. Bosnian Serbs used the buildings as a prison camp for “non-Serbian” detainees. Among these detainees were Bosniaks and Croats – women, men as well as children. In the first place, however, the detainees were members of the Bosniak and Croat elite, e.g. doctors, teachers, politicians, priests, lawyers, and police men, but also conscientious objectors. Around 3,000 people were held there between 25 May and 30 August 1992. Some 900 – 1,000 detainees did not survive the ordeal. After the end of the war, two mass graves were found near the camp containing 773 corpses. Until this day, more and more mass graves are found, and a lot of people are still missing relatives. These numbers are only estimates. On our trip we met a survivor of the camp in Omarska and together with him we were able to visit the camp.

Occurrences in the camp of Omarska

The systematic annihilation of the Bosniak elite was the main goal of the camp commanders. 37 women were detained in Omarska, five of which did not survive the camp. They were abused, harassed, beaten up and raped. They had to undergo interrogations but because they often did not know the reasons for their detention, they were unable to answer the questions and therefore became victims of violence. The women were taken out of their environment and lived in anxiety and great uncertainty with respect to their families, because they did not know what had happened to them. Every day they were assigned duties such as the serving of food, washing the dishes and cleaning. While they were fulfilling these duties, they continually had to listen to the desperate screams of the tortured men. Not only the piles of corpses but also the ever decreasing number of dishes to be served became evidence of the atrocities committed there. The food consisted of a dirty soup, and bread which had turned sour.

Der Gang in das „rote Haus“ bedeutete den sicheren Tod.
The Path to the „Red House”. Whoever entered, never returned alive.

Often the men were beaten up so badly with sticks, rifles and chains, that they could not be identified any more. They were kicked, and some of them burned alive. Many of them also died from the consequences of the ordeal. The torture took place in the “White House”, the killings in the “Red House“. Whoever had to enter there, never returned alive.

In Omarska children who were still alive were thrown into blazing ovens and the survivors were kept in suspense. Their eyes were poked out; fingers, noses and ears were cut off, sexual organs were chopped off.1

Hundreds of men were held in small, dark, and clammy rooms, which they were rarely allowed to leave. Faeces, blood, and open wounds caused an unbearable stench. The detainees hardly ever received food or water – many of them only survived, because they drank their own urine.

The detainees were traumatized both by physical and psychological violence. As they often did not have anything to do all day long, they mostly just waited for what would happen next. Since for the most part the officers acted in an arbitrary way, the detainees did not know how to behave in order not to be killed. Most of the time, an unconscious move with the head was enough, to go to the bathroom without permission, to make a wrong statement.

„He ordered me to put both hands on the window sill and to spread them. Then, he took a knife and stuck it into each finger, one after the other.” (Stipo Šošič during an interrogation, because he was unable to answer the questions)2

“The guards forced them, in front of all of us, to bite off their sexual organs; they cut out their eyes and forced them to eat them.”3

1 Šošič, Stipo: Zur Hölle und zurück. In den Lagern der Furcht und des Grauens – Keraterm, Omarska, Manjaća. Köln 1996. p. 46.
2 Ebd., p. 50.
3 Ebd., p. 53.

The Role of the Reporters

Das Lager Trnopolje
The Camp at Trnopolje

The American journalist Roy Gutman travelled to Yugoslavia as a war correspondent after 16 years of absence. When he received news of an alleged case of “ethnic cleansing”, he immediately started enquiries. He spoke to Muslim and Croat authorities in Banja Luka. The Bosnian Red Cross and the chief of police confirmed, that there were deportations of people in trucks taking place. Furthermore, Gutman was granted the permission to visit camp Manjača. He was not allowed to visit Omarska, because in that case his safety could not be ensured. Nevertheless, he wrote articles about Omarska based on testimonies by witnesses.

He was shocked by the reactions of the Western world. The reason for his distress was that there were in fact no reactions at all. Almost around the same time, Ed Vulliamy, a British journalist, received access to the camp at Trnopolje, which had previously been a school.

Radovan Karadžić himself had given permission to him and Penny Marshall to visit the camp. He said they should see for themselves that the conditions there were not that bad. However, he underestimated the minute and detailed work of the Western media.

In this camp, many women and children were abused and raped. This is the place where the famous, albeit manipulated,4 picture was taken which then made its way around the world. It shows a number of emaciated men, among them Fikret Alić reaching out to the reporters with his hands through the barbed wire. Not many of them took the chance to tell the reporters what the real conditions in the camp were like. They were forced to lie or to remain silent. Nonetheless, some were brave enough to talk about the horrible conditions.

After the pictures and articles had been published, Serbian officers killed the men they recognised. Alić was able to flee and hide in women’s clothes until the camp was closed down a month later due to pressure from the UN and the Red Cross.

A doctor later diagnosed that Alić had 6 broken ribs, his lower jaw was broken, all teeth had been knocked out, the nose was broken, he suffered from a base skull fracture and from more than 100 wounds from stabbing, cutting and burns.

Even more shocking is the fact that Alić like many other detainees knew his tormentors. Alić’s torturer, Dušan Tadić, as well as many of the detainees, was from Kozarac, a small village close to Prijedor.

After they had started to close down the camps, the detainees were often taken to Manjača first, also a camp, but with better conditions. Then, they were brought to Karlovac, Croatia, from where many were able to seek refuge in other countries.

„I do not want to tell any lies, but I cannot tell the truth.“ (Džemal Partušić when he was asked about the conditions in camp Omarska by Ed Vulliamy)5

To a question concerning his wounded head, Šerif Velić replied that he had fallen down, that it had happened accidently.

4 The picture showed a number of emaciated men who, so it seemed, were standing behind a barbed wire fence. This, however, was not the case. The commanders had had the fence put there in order to keep the journalists at a distance, so they could not come any closer to the camp. The camp itself was not fenced in.
5 Vulliamy, Ed: „I am waiting. No one has ever said sorry“., 20.05.2010.

Convictions at the ICTY

Some perpetrators from a number of camps have already been convicted for their crimes. They were convicted for the persecution of people due to their political views, their race or confession.

The following were convicted for crimes committed in Omarska:

„I was happier about the rain on my lawn than about the arrest of Karadžić. It’s too little, too late. I have taught myself not to hate, because if I hate, that is yet another burden on my back. I want justice, but not revenge – I just want my soul to be in peace. But I cannot forgive. How can I forgive someone who shows no remorse, like Karadžić and all the little Karadžićs around here who did these things to us? How can I forgive things that were done by people who are proud of doing it, would do it again and do not ask my forgiveness?” (Fikret Alić after the arrest of Radovan Karadžićs) 6

6 Vulliamy, Ed: „I am waiting. No one has ever said sorry“., 20.05.2010.

The situation in Omarska today

Since 2004, the company Mittal Steel has been operating on the mining site where the camp was located. It is possible that there are still corpses on the factory site. As there is no sign of commemoration for the victims, the wish to build a memorial came up. Therefore, it was suggested that the “White House” could be used for this purpose. In 2005, Mittal Steel handed over the matter to “The Soul of Europe”, a British association, whose task is to foster interaction between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Bosnian Serbs deny the existence of the camp and are against the building of a memorial. Some of them were perpetrators themselves.

Also a plan from 2006, to build a Muslim memorial, failed. Afterwards, several attempts to find a solution followed.

The “White House” is empty and could definitely be used as a memorial. Up to this day, there exists no memorial which commemorates the camp in Omarska, because no solution is agreed upon by the local Serbs, the survivors, and the victims’ bereaved.

Sources and Additional Literature

Picture Gallery Prijedor, Kozarac, Omarska, Trnopolje

Today the former prison camp Omarska is once again a factory.

More Pictures ...

Marion Forster, Julia Merl and Birte Richardt: Travel Diary Entry, 24 May 2010

Satko berichtet von den Kriegsereignissen hier vor Ort.By bus we drive from Prijedor to Kozarac and meet Satko in a small café. An unbelievable man. Very open-minded when it comes to his past. Is it good to talk about it? He says, yes, because it also helps him: “In some way it’s healing me to talk about it now.”

Many do not share this opinion.

Together we walk through Kozarac, to “Kuća Mira”, the House of Peace, a house of the women’s association of BiH (Udruženje Žena BiH). Their motto: “I will not raise my child to kill your child!”

At this point in time, I do not yet know what awaits me, that this story will push me to the limit. Bullet holes in the walls. Destroyed and not yet reconstructed houses. It will not be the only time that we are confronted with this sight on our journey.

On 24 May 1992, a Sunday, Kozarac was bombed by the Serbs. Two days later the Bosniaks surrendered, escape to the mountains. On the road to Banja Luka men and women were separated and selected to be sent to three “death camps”: Trnopolje, Keraterm and Omarska.

Das "weiße Haus" - ein Ort der Folter.On 30 May, Satko was taken to Omarska together with his father. Serbs went from door to door, looked at the nameplate, to find out where non-Serbs lived. They rang the bell and took the inhabitants with them – destination: detention camp. Cold shivers run down my spine. I imagine what it must be like to be waiting for this deathly ring. Maybe the people did not even know about it.

What happened was mainly elitocide: Intellectuals, such as lawyers, politicians etc. were arrested, killed. 3,000 – 4,000 people in Omarska. Something to eat only once a day, horrible methods of torture, “shooting and slaughtering was not enough”. People’s bones were broken so they had to walk around like that afterwards. All day the men had to wait in line just to get their food. A dirty plate of soup. But they could never be sure if they got it in the end. Satko calls it “games”. The soldiers played games with them, tortured them. They spilled oil on the floor in order to make the detainees fall when they had to run. You were not allowed to fall down. Then it was over. Then you were beaten to death.

Das "rote Haus" - wer hier reinkam, kam nicht wieder lebend raus.We drive to the factory site of Mittal Steel, a company which bought the terrain where the camp had been situated. Does the current owner know about the former atrocities? For a long time only Serbs were given jobs there.

This is where the “White House” can be found. Satko tells us about all the cruelties which he had to go through. Every morning there were new piles of corpses in front of the windows. We enter the house. Here they tortured, killed people? The walls were full of blood? You can still see it. Even though the walls have been painted, the paint cannot hide the past of these rooms. I fight against the images in my head. Also against the imaginary smell of urine, sweat, and death. Opposite the “White House” is the “Red House”. Whoever was taken there never returned alive. 170-200 people in one room, some died standing upright, just fell down when the doors were opened again. - Satko will never forget the screams. Not just screams of pain, but also desperate screams, knowing that one will die.

Das manipulierte Foto von den Gefangenen.The picture by Ed Vulliamy, taken in 1992, which shows Fikret Alić in Trnopolje behind a fence, made its way around the world. Later, it was discovered that the picture was in fact a manipulation. Satko does not care about this, since they were rescued only because of this picture. In August 1992 the camps were closed down, one after another. The Internationals came. Some men, however, had to remain in the camps and they had to lie: that they get to eat twice a day. Not very credible. Why does a man then only weigh 50 kg? A detainee from Omarska told the reporter: “I don’t want to lie, but I cannot tell the truth!“ On 21 August Omarska was finally closed down. But even on this day three women and two men were killed.

Today, Satko lives in Rotterdam, he works for the EU. In 1999 he was diagnosed with PTSD. He realized he had to do something. For him the therapy is to talk about it. In 2004 he returned to the place where he had grown up for the first time. And today he says was the first time he did not collapse here. Nevertheless, he repeatedly has to fight the tears. His dad was with him in this camp. He cannot come to this place now.

Today is 24 May 2010. It was exactly 18 years ago, when the Serbs attacked the town. A procession takes place starting at the Mosque and going to the graveyard. I do not feel comfortable. Is it okay to take pictures of this procession? These people go to the graveyard to remember their loved ones. We also went there. Satko’s friends are buried there; everyone a victim of war. Currently, they are building a new memorial for the victims, but it is difficult to also turn the “White House” into a place of commemoration.

Denkmal zum Gedenken an die serbischen soldatischen Opfer des KriegesIn contrast to that, provokingly placed in front of the former camp in Trnopolje, we find a memorial dedicated to Serbian soldiers who have become victims of war. It was financed by the community of Prijedor. Understandable, because of the dominantly Serb government, but not just. Logical, because also the soldiers need to be remembered, but not just.
Satko is thrilled by our group. He still cannot believe we are here to take a closer look at the wars and the memories connected to them. “You came all the way from Germany to hear that story. The Serbs right over there have no clue.”

Continue with the Diary ...