Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Courtside: Brdjanin Trial
Ashdown, who made many visits to the region during the wars, said Trnopolje was "one of the worst things" he saw in the Balkans.
At Trnopolje, he said, "The elderly, the sick and wounded, women and children were all gathered at a school playground without water or adequate sanitary facilities. They were without hope, without future, desperate, most of them lost their dignity."
The former head of Britain’s Liberal Democrat party was making his third witness appearance at a war crimes trial – previously he has given evidence at the trials of Blaskic and Milosevic.
Brdjanin, former president of the SDS crisis staff for the so-called Autonomous Region of Krajina, ARK, is accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Ashdown visited the camps on August 10 and 11, 1992, after being invited by former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to see “the Serbian side of the story” there, some days after western journalists had made the existence of the camps public.
He was not taken to Omarska and Keraterm, the two most notorious camps, which were emptied soon after the press visit. Instead, he was brought to Manjaca, near Banja Luka, and Trnopolje close to Prijedor.
Most of the detainees from Omarska and Keraterm had been transferred to these camps.
”I had seen photographs from Omarska and Keraterm - camps whose purpose was extermination, both direct and by breaking of the spirit through brutality and horror. Something unseen from the days of the Second World War," Ashdown told the court.
From what he was able to see he concluded that Manjaca and Trnopolje could not be considered as concentration or extermination camps. However, this did not make them more acceptable, he said.
Detainees at Manjaca, who slept on the floors of the overcrowded stables, told him that conditions were tough, and that there was not enough food or medicine.
But they said it was better than Omarska or Keraterm because the killings and torture had stopped.
The Serb authorities were under international pressure as the camps were the biggest news story of the time, Ashdown explained. He said he formed the impression that improvements had been attempted either at the time of his visit, or immediately before it.
"I don't believe in all my life I've done a better day of work than I did in Manjaca,” he said. “Conversations I had with the prisoners subsequently led me to believe that on that day lives were saved because conditions improved,” he said.
Compared to relative order of Manjaca, in Trnopolje he saw complete chaos. Ashdown heard that during the night detainees were mistreated by Serb extremists, and that women had been raped.
Serb authorities referred to the detainees in the camps as prisoners of war, but the High Representative said he saw only civilians.
Ashdown later described what he saw in a letter he wrote to Karadzic, which was copied to the then British prime minister John Major, UNPROFOR commander Satish Nambiar and International Committee of the Red Cross president Cornelio Sommaruga.
The High Representative’s goal was both to shame the Serbs into improving conditions, and to put pressure on them to release prisoners and allow Red Cross visits, he said.
But he said one crime still haunted him - the killing of 200 prisoners who were shot and thrown over a cliff.
“In respect of Trnopolje I have to say that I feel haunted by the thought that somehow we could have done more. The loss of lives of the people who were thrown over the cliffs a few days later may have been prevented,” said Ashdown.
The next witness called was a survivor from the cliff killing. Emsud Garibovic was one of 12 men who survived the execution by Bosnian Serbs.
He said more than 200 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were being transported across Mount Vlasic, Central Bosnia, from Trnopolje to Bosniak-controlled territory. Then the Serbs separated the men from women, children and the elderly.
Two buses of male detainees were then driven to a cliff at Koricanske Stijene. The men were addressed by a Serb man in a red beret, who told them, "You are going to be exchanged - the living for the living, the dead for...you know."
He then claimed the prisoners were lined up on the cliff edge, shot one by one, and then pushed into the abyss.
Garibovic survived because he was not hit, and was doubly lucky in that he fell on a section of the slope that was less steep.
"Massacred people were falling over me, the dead and the half-dead,” he told the court. “My friend Bahrija and I managed to reach the forest. From there we were listening to moans and cries of the people lying at the bottom of the cliff."
He and his friend were later captured by Bosnian Serb soldiers. After they told their story to Serb police, they were taken to hospital in Banja Luka and later released.
The fact that they were helped by their captors was used by defence lawyer John Ackerman to argue that the massacre was neither ordered nor condoned by the highest authority - Brdjanin's crisis staff.
Darko Mrdja, commander of special police in Prijedor, has been accused of being the man in the red beret who ordered the Koricanske Stijene crime. He is currently in The Hague detention unit.
Vjera Bogati is an IWPR correspondent in The Hague and a journalist with SENSE news agency.
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