UAC – Law and Science graduate and believer in peace
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness”
-Elie Wiesel – Writer, activist & Holocaust survivor
IT IS GENERALLY AGREED upon that the genocide in Srebrenica, which took the lives of over 8,000 men and boys through purposeful mass executions was the culmination of the war, but the kindling that lead to the genocide was lit elsewhere; on the other side of Bosnia.
On the last day of May 1992, (three years before the genocide in Srebrenica) Serbs, who had taken the region of Prejidor, which acted as a corridor between Serbia and Croatia, instructed all non-serbs to hang white sheets from their windows and wear white arm-bands so that they could be recognised. On the same continent, years previous to this, Jews were also made to identify themselves by wearing a yellow star of David on their clothing. What took place in Bosnia is a recognised step in the ten stages of Genocide: Persecution.
Persecution according to the ten stages of genocide is defined by the identification and separation of groups of people based on their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Members belonging to these groups are then forced to wear identifying symbols and victims are deported into camps or ghettos.
This stage was quickly accelerated into the next and penultimate stage: extermination; which is defined by the drawing up of death lists and mass killings with the belief that murder is not being committed because dehumanisation has successfully taken place (1).
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IN BOSNIA, THE WHITE SHEETS and arm-bands alerted the Serbs as to who to kill or capture and remove from their homes. In some areas, Serb forces lit entire streets on fire, in others they killed the men in the streets and raped the women in their homes. Houses were leveled using heavy machinery, medical clinics were damages and the injured were left to die.
Mass deportation also took place, where armed forces entered houses and separated the men from their mothers, wives, daughters and young sons. What defined a child varied and sometimes boys in their teens were captured with the men. There were also instances where those who surrendered were put on buses and told they would be taken to a place of security, instead their routes diverged and the men and women were sent to different destinations. The males were then taken away to warehouses, schools and hangars, while the women and children were transported to refugee camps or rape hostels and sometimes the women moved from one to the other at the command of the Serb soldiers.
It is estimated that 53,000 people in Bosnia were expelled from their homes; some had to sign ownership of their houses over to the municipality and were told that records of previous possession would be destroyed.
Around 31,000 people were detained in camps, four were opened in and around Prijedor: Omarska, Keraterm, Manjaca and Trnoplje. After Srebrenica, the Omarska camp was the most notorious in the country, where torture and murder was widespread, encouraged and even celebrated.
Journalist Ed Vullaimy remembers “Omarska was a monstrosity: an inferno of murder, torture and rape. It was a stain upon our century” (2).
Keraterm was also used for brutal interrogations, Manjaca was referred to as a ‘prisoner of war’ camp and yet the vast majority of detainees were civilians. The final camp, at Trnoplje held women, children and elderly men but killings and rapes also took place at this site.
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WHITE ARM-BANDS SYMBOLISE so much more than just the identification and separation of serbs and non-serbs, they bear witness to what happened next: to the brutal deaths; the deep, long-lasting physical and mental wounds; the families separated forever and the ones pieced together like a weathered and worn jigsaw puzzle.
Thousands of innocent people were killed in the camps, most in line ups of between five to twenty men without a witness spared to recount the tale, therefore the testimonies are limited, but horrifying nonetheless.
In Prijedor 5200 were killed, of these 256 were women and 102 were children. Victims from the camps say that they were subjected to all kinds of torture – imaginable and unimaginable. The men were subjected to such cruelty that some wished for death, few even implemented it.
Trial Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acknowledged that men were beaten as soon as they entered the camps so they knew from the outset that they were under the Serbs authority. In the buildings men were kept cooped up,sometimes without enough space to sleep. They were not provided with any bedding and some men slept on the pallets they could find, although they provided minimal relief from the concrete ground.
Men were starved and malnourished and their skin sagged and bones poked out abnormally, they were fed every few days and rarely provided with water. The food that they were given lacked nourishment and was sometimes off giving them diarrhea and other digestive problems. To make the starvation more excruciating, there were reports of men being told they only had three minutes to get from the main body of the building to the canteen to eat and return otherwise they would get beaten, except the food that would be served was boiling hot and skin inside their mouths would burn and peel as they quickly and desperately consumed.
The men had nowhere to relieve themselves and so would designate parts of the room for this matter, although those who were injured or infirm soiled themselves where they lay. The men did not have a change of clothes and were not allowed to wash, they soon became infested with lice and the smell of the room became so unbearable that the Serbian soldiers couldn’t enter any longer so they hosed all the victims down.
The men would also spend portions of their days outdoors in all weathers, either under a boiling hot sun, or pouring rain and even snow. The victims were sometimes stripped naked and humiliated in front of one another and anyone at any time could be the recipient of a ferocious unprovoked beating (3).
The men were made to sing patriotic Serbian songs and given impossible tasks to carry out, such as being told to sell a number of cigarettes to inmates who did not have money, at the end of the day the victims would return to the Serbs with their unsold cigarettes and be subjected to a beating for not fulfilling their tasks.
A Bosnian journalist, Rezak Hukanovic, who was detained wrote a book called ‘The tenth circle of hell’ about the time he spent in the Omarska and Manjaca camps, however he wrote his tale in the third person and even gave himself a new name – Djemo, explaining that he couldn’t believe what had happened to him. The only thing that gives the reader hope is knowing from the outset that the author lived to tell his tale. The macabre book makes for uncomfortable reading as ‘Djemo’ details the beatings he saw, heard and endured. Djemo makes comment of an inmate who had pieces of his flesh cut away from his body screaming as if he had been driven insane.
He also makes mention of ‘The white house’ – a room used to interrogate Bosnian men, with the aid of torture devices such as clubs, knives, pipes and even a plank of wood with a nail embedded at the end. Djemo ends the re-telling of his first interrogation with the image of seeing a man sat on the floor, his face turned into an unrecognisable pulp with hollows for eyes containing congealed blood.
When the men were killed they were taken away in trucks and buried. In 2013, 1000 bodies were found in mass graves in Prijedor (4), these were the bodies that had left the camps never to be seen again.
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WHEN IMAGES OF THE CAMPS were released and the international community became aware of them, aid agencies such as the Red Cross visited to regulate the ongoings of the camps on a monthly basis, their attendance became more regular as time wore on and eventually they frequented the camps almost every other day. Due to this the conditions began to slowly improve and it began to dawn on the Serbs the gravity of their actions and subsequent consequences. Angered by being recognised as criminals and killers, the soldiers would release their frustrations on the victims when they could, one instance is when the men were transported to refugee camps, they were piled on without ample seating, being forced to sit on top of one another and spending nights sleeping on the cold bus when they came to their stops. Some men were removed from the buses and handed over to equally frustrated Serb civilians while others were beaten and thrown back on board, some men died on the buses and their corpses continued the journey along with the living.
When the war came to an end Bosnia was split into two districts – Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republic of Serbia. The Serb populous where the genocides took place such as Srebrenica, Prijedor , Foca and Visegrad were higher than other parts of Bosnia and these became part of the Republic of Serbia. The arrangement of these regions have continued to have a long lasting effect in that they allow the final stage of Genocide – ‘Denial’ to remain intact even decades after the genocide took place.
Town mayors and politicians appose the use of the word ‘genocide’ when the killings in Prijedor are discussed and they ban the erection of moments as it taints the image of their town. Bosnian Serbs sometimes strongly appose commemoration events by either holding parties simultaneously or attending to thrown stones and insults.
In 2012, Emir Hodzic stood alone in the Prijedor town square to commemorate the twenty years that had passed since the Prijedor killings. The town mayor had banned any such commemoration and yet Emir stood alone, with a white bag and red rose on the ground in front of him in memory of the women and children killed and a white band wrapped around his arm.
Since Emirs defiant stance, the commemorations have increased in size year upon year and have even taken place in cities around the world.
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A WHITE AND GREEEN CROTCHET flower was given to our delegation to Bosnia last year, it was developed by an organisation that wants to keep the art of crotchet alive, and in 2011 they produced a simple white and green flower in memory of the Srebrenica genocide (6). Now the mothers and widows of Srebrenica make and sell these flowers as a source of income. The white petals are to signify innocence, the green signifies hope and the eleven petals of the flower stand as a reminder of the date the genocide took place – 11th July 1995.
In Bosnia people want to pay their respects to the dead and also remember the sacrifices of the living and it can start with just a simple display of the wearing of a white arm-band.
The commemorations need not be restricted to Bosnia, but can extend to all of Europe and beyond, in an unanimous show of solidarity and therefore I end my post with the quote I started with – “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness”