Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

COURTSIDE: Prijedor Genocide Trial

Witnesses speak of deaths in Trnopolje and Omarska
By Mirna Jancic

Protected witness "U" last week testified about alleged crimes he saw committed in Trnopolje detention camp, which was set up in 1992 by Serbian authorities in north-west Bosnia.


The defence of Milomir Stakic, president of the Serb Crisis Staff in Prijedor municipality - who is accused of genocide against non Serbs - claims Trnopolje was set up as an open "shelter" for those with nowhere else to go.


After the Serbs shelled the witness' village of Kamicani on May 24, 1992, soldiers in Yugoslav National Army, JNA, uniforms took the survivors to Trnopolje.


"U" and his family survived unharmed but he claims he witnessed the killing of six men in the camp. The indictment alleges that several hundred non-Serbs were killed before the camp was closed in October 1992.


The protected witness, whose image was electronically distorted, said he saw two policemen enter the camp, approach an Muslim inmate and offer him a cigarette. "U" could not hear their conversation but saw the inmate bring five more men over to the officers. The group moved behind the building with their arms raised above their heads, followed by police. After some 15 minutes "U" heard gunshots and never saw the men again.


"U" told the tribunal that the six men were three pairs of brothers from the village of Forici. He claims that a few days later a group of inmates was chosen to bury the bodies away from the camp.


The following witness, Samir Poljak, was 19-years-old when Serb forces took control of Prijedor, and told how his village of Jakupovici was barricaded and attacked by Serb forces.


The defence insists the JNA was "ambushed" in the village, but Poljak claims that a Serb tank started moving towards their houses, forcing them to flee in fear of attack.


While escaping towards the Croatian border, Poljak and several others were caught by Serb forces and taken to Benkovac where they were detained in toilets for three days, with little food, while some prisoners were taken outside and beaten.


Poljak ended up in Omarska detention camp, which was set up by the local authorities under Stakic. He was detained in a garage with 150 people - two of whom suffocated to death - and endured three days without food. Although he was reunited with his father Zijad after ten days, the older man was later taken away for questioning and never returned.


The witness said life improved for the inmates after the western media visited Omarska, and triggered international outrage over its conditions. The camp was shut down two weeks later and the inmates were moved to Trnopolje or Manjaca camp. Poljak was moved to Manjaca, and later to Batkovici camp until his release in October 1993.


The prosecution's expert witness, Ewa Tabeau of their demographics team, testified that dramatic changes in the composition of the area's population "support the conclusion that ethnic cleansing occurred in Prijedor in 1992-95". According to Tabeau's report, Serbs and Muslims both made up about 43 per cent of the total population in 1991, but by 1997 only one per cent was Muslim, while Serbs rose to 89 per cent.


As for some 2,500 persons reported missing or killed, Tabeau concluded that Muslim and Croat men - especially highly educated ones - "had significantly higher risks of going missing than Serbs". The indictment alleges that the Muslim "leadership" was particularly targeted during the persecution of non-Serbs in the area.


Mirna Jancic is an IWPR assistant editor


More IWPR's Global Voices