Comment: We Must Fight for Memory of Bosnia's Camps

On his first return visit to the Serb-run camps that he and ITN revealed to the world 12 years ago, journalist Ed Vulliamy reflects on the lessons that the Serbs have failed to absorb.

Comment: We Must Fight for Memory of Bosnia's Camps

On his first return visit to the Serb-run camps that he and ITN revealed to the world 12 years ago, journalist Ed Vulliamy reflects on the lessons that the Serbs have failed to absorb.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

“My friends, we are here to mark, in a modest way, what happened in this place,” said Muharem Murselovic, a Bosniak political leader from Prijedor, his voice laden with gravity.

We are standing on accursed terrain and at a place to which I never expected to return. Nor did many in Murselovic’s audience, for different reasons. This was the site of the Omarska concentration camp, the location for an orgy of killing, mutilation, beating and rape for some four months during the summer of 1992.

They move tentatively on this day of commemoration - August 6, the anniversary of the camp’s closure - among the desolate, rust-coloured industrial buildings, haunted by what happened within them.

Nusreta Sivac, a survivor, places a flower on each space of floor where her dead friends once slept in the quarters for the women who used to “serve food and clean the walls of the torture rooms, covered with blood”, as she says. They were quarters just across a hallway from the now-empty office where, like them, she was violated, night after night. She passes the window from which she watched the wholesale slaughter of men on the tarmac below, day in, day out.

Satko Mujagic knows that tarmac well: his two-year-old daughter now plays with a ball on the very spot where he had been too weak to line up for his ration of bread because of dysentery. He had to be supported by his father. Later, the child picks a daisy. “You do this where your father lay bleeding,” one of the party said. “Being here gives me the feeling of understanding nothing,” Satko said. “The violence here has nothing to do with anything, not even war. It is unfathomable.”

Sehiba Jakupovic, a young woman whose face is contorted with grief, stares around the rooms in a building called the White House, from which few emerged alive; her husband Alem was among those who perished. “I have a 12-year-old now,” she said quietly, “Just a baby at the time.”

I have a stake in all this, for the closure of Omarska followed the putrid afternoon of August 5 1992 when I and a crew from ITN had the accursed honour of finding a way into this place.

We saw little that day, but enough: men emerging from a hangar, in various states of decay - some skeletal, heads shaven - and drilled across a yard, under the watchful eye of a machinegun post, into a canteen where they wolfed down watery bean stew like famished dogs, skin folded like parchment over their bones. “I do not want to tell any lies,” said one man, “but I cannot tell the truth.”

Omarska has haunted me ever since. I kept meeting survivors or relatives of the dead: in trenches during what was left of the war, across the diaspora and in The Hague where they (and I) came to bear witness.

It is strange, indeed traumatic, to stand again in that now-empty camp canteen and to walk that stretch of tarmac, across which they had been drilled, and which was later to be revealed to be a killing ground.

It is disturbing to wander through these dread buildings – that vast hangar, especially, where inmates were held and beaten and from whence they were called to their death. These buildings were forbidden us that day in 1992. Our paths were blocked by gun-toting guards and the camp commander himself, Zeljko Meakic, now awaiting trial in The Hague.

Then there is the so-called Red House, where we now know they slit prisoners’ throats. It is uncanny, in this same summer heat, to walk within these heinous walls, among tyres and mechanical diggers now stored here, and to try and call to mind the screams these people heard every day, the infernal violence.

There is an urgent question hanging over us as we gather here at Omarska, a burning uncertainty. What is to happen to this site upon which we stand? For how long will these good people be able to exercise their right to visit, meditate, pay homage and remember in the roaring silence? For how long will they have to go through the humiliation of needing permission from authorities who deny the existence of the camp in order to contemplate what happened to them and their loved ones?

This is a publicly-owned iron ore mine, due to be sold by the Bosnian Serb authorities who are only too anxious to cover up what happened here. A British steel company, LMN-ISPAT is already interested in parts of the Omarska mine, though at the time of writing plans for the actual site of the concentration camp are unknown.

There exists, then, the terrible possibility that Omarska as physical history will disappear, that the rooms in which women were serially raped will become administrative offices, and that the canteen where men lined up for bowls of watery soup will become a place to serve employees’ fast food. It is possible that the area of tarmac upon which men were slaughtered will become a car park for glistening new Skodas; that the hangar in which prisoners were crammed and from which they were called to their death will return to its old use as a storage space for industrial plant; and that the Red House and the White House, where men were slashed, shot and beaten to death, will be demolished, or used as site offices or as sheds for machine tools.

This, in its way, is sacred ground here at Omarska and it must remain so. To preserve it is an urgent task for the sake of the past, present and future. For the sake of Bosnia and of history, and for the sake of the descendants of perpetrators and victims alike.

Let no one for one minute compare Omarska to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Such a course is useless and dangerous. No one was more angry than I at headlines such as “Belsen 1992”. They merely played into the hands of those seeking to downplay and even deny what had happened in the Serbian camps.

But the resonance of the discovery of these camps in 1992, which was keenly felt by Holocaust survivors, was inescapable. I consulted the then director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Walter Reich, to ask what the appropriate language might be. Would the word “echoes” be right? “Echoes, loud and clear,” he replied.

Anyone who has been to Auschwitz - that place without colours, the very air laden with evil - knows the experience to be life-changing. It is a place which speaks in its own way of the greatest crime ever committed against humanity and that it is thus sacred to history and to memory. And most will agree that it is not the museum of memorabilia that cuts to the core, but the desolation of Birkenau, left as it was the day the Nazis evacuated on January 19, 1945. It is as though they left minutes ago, but then how long is a minute in places like Auschwitz?

Inasmuch as the attempt to obliterate Bosnia’s Muslims “echoed” the project of the Third Reich, Omarska’s claim to preservation should echo the sanctity of Auschwitz. For what is so starkly impactful about Omarksa now is its emptiness, and the spectral silence that speaks of what happened here. The preservation of the site at Omarska is quintessential to the preservation of that memory.

That is the first and simple part of the argument – for it is about preserving that which is past and sacred, a matter of tribute and sensibility, and above all a matter of memory. But the argument for preserving the site at Birkenau – and for doing the same at Omarska - is not only about commemoration. Far from it.

The second part of the argument is that such sites, and the museums dedicated to the memory of mass murder and genocide, are not only concerned with the past; they live in the present and instruct the future. They are universal.

In a speech opening a conference on genocide in 1998, with Bosnia and Rwanda very much on the agenda, the former chairman of the Holocaust Museum’s Commmittee on Conscience, Thomas Buergenthal, spoke of the role of the Birkenau site, “The walls of this museum echo for all to hear with the voices of millions of men, women and children who died in the Holocaust. They do not only tell their own individual stories and reproach us for not doing enough to save them. They call on us, in their name, in the name of future generations, in the name of humanity, to fight and eradicate genocide.”

The site at Omarska can and must fulfil the same role. It can be made to speak not only for those who fell victim to the Serbian pogrom, but for all victims of similar violence. It can speak to future generations about what happened in the hope that it will never happen again.

In addition to the matters of memory and instruction, there is more urgent business: a third issue to do with truth and the preservation of historical record.

The existence of the Birkenau site is an affirmation. It speaks a truth that no one should ever dare deny. It speaks the truth that this happened to the Jews and others who shared their fate. As such, the site is a final and conclusive retort to the scourge of Holocaust revisionism; a final answer to those – and they do persist, in neo-Nazi nooks and crannies – who question, dilute or obfuscate the unspeakable, unfathomable horrors of the Shoah.

Revisionism over the carnage in Bosnia is rampant and persistent. It has been ever since Thomas Deichmann and his group in London, under the auspices of a circle called “Living Marxism”, claimed the camps found by ITN and myself were fabrications. They adopted the Serbian term “collection centres”, claiming their inmates were there of their own volition.

Deichmann’s charges were ruled by a jury as being in breach of civil law in the London High Court when they were legally challenged by ITN. Successive verdicts in The Hague have rendered them ridiculous as well as poisonous.

One could be forgiven for thinking that once the Bosnian Serb co-president Biljana Plavsic had pleaded guilty to the entire hurricane of violence unleashed on her authority, the revisionists would go to ground. After all, who would know best: they or the woman (and her peers and subordinates) on whose orders the pogrom was carried out?

But no. In Sweden, here they come again, through the pages of a magazine called Ordfront, or Word Front. Last year, it carried an interview with the author Diane Johnstone, about her book Fool's Crusade, which expresses doubts over the number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre; the authencity of the Racak massacre in Kosovo; the use of systematic rape in the war in Bosnia; and the true figure of Bosnian war dead (the official estimate is more than 200,000 - Johnstone claims 50,000). And just as before, members of the chattering classes, unbelievably, have hailed this poison as “outstanding work”, in a letter signed by, among others, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, John Pilger,

There is only one thing to be done in the face of such pernicious and baffling scheming. That is to proclaim and repeat the truth and to demonstrate it conclusively with a preserved site, which those who survived and those left bereaved have recourse to, by way of speaking that truth and keeping it alive as a physical monument to the dead.

The problem is this, however. The denial of what happened in these places dovetails perfectly with the intentions of the Bosnian Serb authorities in Prijedor (and elsewehere). No one more than the perpetrators themselves would love to obliterate – and covert into offices, storage hangars and car parks – the site of mass killing and brutality.

And it so happens that the perpetrators have the backing of those same authorities which own and manage the site of the concentration camp. The Nazis tried to destroy the evidence as they left Birkenau, blowing up the crematoria until their gnarled metal innards were exposed. But the Nazis were being chased out of Poland; no one is chasing the Serbs out of Prijedor. What impetus is there for the Republika Sprska and the municipality of Prijedor to keep a monument to their own unacknowledged crimes?

But it need not rest that way. There are two ways of defying them, and of protecting the sacred site of Omarska – and the ideal result would be a convergence of the two.

One is for the Omarska mine to be bought by a company, which was prepared to make a great gesture to history and memory and consecrate the actual site of the concentration camp within the larger complex as a memorial and/or museum.

The other is for the international community to do something effectual and step in to secure the site, as they did at Potocari, near the site of the Srebrenica massacre. This is the only carnage to have been monumentalised on Serbian-run territory.

It is hard to imagine a more estimable intervention for the Office of the High Representative to endeavour. Ideally, the international presence in Bosnia could work with an investor, offering compensation in return for protection of the site.

During the war, Bosniak life was cheap in the eyes of the international community. It counted for little under the chandeliers and along the corridors of power inhabited by diplomats and politicians. Bosniak life was expendable while world leaders shook the hands of those now wanted for genocide. For the international community to re-affirm that cheapness by letting Omarska go under the auctioneer’s hammer without some guarantee for the site would mark a grotesque continuation of that attitude.

There remains one final, crucial, fourth, matter: a conclusive and compelling argument from among returnees to the Prijedor region for preserving the Omarska site.

A hallmark of the aftermath of Bosnia’s war is the almost complete lack of reckoning on the part of the Bosnian Serbs over what they did. Only one significant defendant, co-president Plavsic, has pleaded guilty at The Hague to everything that happened around here and elsewhere and has appealed for reconciliation.

But around Omarska, the returnees’ narrative falls down a black hole in the perpetrators’ memory. The security guards at the entrance to Omarska mine tell us, “There was no camp here. It was all lies, Muslim lies and forgery by the journalists.”

“There is no remorse,” said camp survivor Nusreta Sivac, “no one has apologised or even admitted what happened. If you talk to the Serbs in Prijedor they will say nothing about camps, or will say they were attacked first. Mostly they say they never heard of the camps. There are 145 mass graves and hundreds of individual graves in this region, and we invite the local authorities to our commemorations, but they never come.”

“Even now,” said the Bosniak political leader in Prijedor, Muharem Murselovic, “the Serbs will not accept that anything happened. I am always in a dilemma – are they crazy, or are they pretending to be crazy?”

No peace can function under such circumstances. Peace and conviviality are conditional upon the perpetrator reckoning with what was done, says Sabahudin Garibovic, a Bosniak returnee to nearby Kozarac and the organiser of the Concentration Camp Survivors Association. “Every time I see a Serb extremist I remind him of what happened in front of their eyes, and in such a way as I hope might change his viewpoint. He has to understand that if this country is to survive, they have to change their mind. Any future together is conditional on them admitting what they did and apologising for it,” she said.

Here is the kernel of the issue. Consider: modern Germany is an advanced democratic country because the Germans by and large confronted what they did, stared at themselves in the mirror and reckoned with what they saw.

They tried to understand not only what happened but why. The monumentalisation of atrocity by the generation to which Gerhardt Schroeder and Joshka Fischer belong has been crucial to that process. Integral to the reckoning and the healing it brought was the preservation of the sites of war crimes, and the attempt to turn commemoration into physical objects, such as the engraved railway tracks at Grunewald station in Berlin, whence the trains ran to Auschwitz. Such monuments are bedrocks of modern German democracy.

The future of a convivial Bosnia, indeed, any hope of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks forging a common future, depends on this reckoning and on the admission of truth implicit in the creation of monuments. At the moment, there is little sign that such a reckoning is at hand.

At Trnopolje, another brutal camp we discovered on August 5, 1992, a monument has been erected - to the fallen Bosnian Serbs. The site of another yet another camp, Kereterm, where 150 men were massacred in a single bloody night, among hundreds of others, is now a car dealership.

With this continuous denial of atrocities there can be no peace. Peace cannot be built on the destruction of physical memory. Nor does it begin with the “forgiving and forgetting” of which the international community bleats. It begins with recognition of what has happened and with reckoning. And reckoning begins with the process of preserving sites and creating monuments. Such action is essential to that peace. It is where the peace begins.

The Bosniak demands for Omarska are typically, infuriatingly, modest. “If there could just be some kind of memorial - maybe that the White House might be fenced off. We know that it would be asking too much to preserve the whole complex,” said Garibovic.

But he is wise when he said, “We just want something to ensure the memory is preserved and in the smallest way to awaken the conscience of the Serbs. That is the really important thing. Because if we don’t awaken that conscience, we might as well forget everything. And that would be the saddest thing of all – to forget what happened and what could happen again tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow.”

Ed Vulliamy is an award-winning journalist with the London-based Observer newspaper.

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