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

Courtside: Stakic Trial

By Neil Arun in The Hague (TU 306, 24-28 March 2003)
By IWPR

Slobodan Kuruzovic was head of Trnopolje camp, the location for perhaps the war's most famous photograph - one showing starving Muslims peering through barbed wire.


But far from presiding over death, torture and starvation, Kuruzovic insisted Muslims enjoyed their stay.


In fact, he told judges, when he closed the camp many wanted to remain - seeing Trnopolje as a refuge from war.


"There was no starvation there, no illnesses. It was a home for civilians fleeing the crossfire," he said.


UN reports and survivor testimony give a different picture, accusing the Bosnian Serbs of brutalising inmates in the camp.


Kuruzovic was giving evidence at the trial of Dr Milomir Stakic, the former chief of the town of Prijedor.


Dr Stakic is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war, during the ethnic cleansing and repression in Prijedor, north-eastern Bosnia in 1992.


He has pleaded not guilty, insisting he had no control over Bosnian Serb security forces.


Kuruzovic, a former headmaster, said he ran the camp not as a prison but as a rescue centre for local people frightened by war.


"They were fleeing the area to avoid getting killed," he said. "They were not incarcerated there. It was a refuge."


He said the Red Cross often visited, and that when the camp was later closed "there were three hundred people who did not want to leave".


But, ever the watchful schoolmaster, he had urged them politely to do so, "I asked those from the town to go back to their families."


Controversy has dogged his testimony: originally Kuruzovic had agreed to appear to give evidence in defence of Stakic.


But later he changed his mind, and for the past week has presented his testimony as a guest of the court.


Asked by the judges to explain how he ended up in control of the camp, Kuruzovic said he had been given the job in recognition of his "finer qualities" - presumably because of his good record as a headmaster.


"Six or seven thousand people passed through the centre," said Kuruzovic. "People came to the centre voluntarily. They were fleeing the violence."


"From Trnopolje, some went back to their homes in Prijedor, others went on to Karlovac, some were taken out of the country by the UNHCR. The Red Cross can tell you what happened to the rest," Kuruzovic said.


UN investigators have compiled evidence from former inmates at the camp, who claim they were regularly beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted by guards.


Kuruzovic bristled at suggestions there was mistreatment, at one point telling the prosecutor, "You promised you would not use the word 'camp'".


Instead, he said, Trnopolje was a "reception centre".


Prosecutors asked the witness if he had ever seen Dr Stakic visit the camp.


"I don't recall", replied Kurozovic.


"Do you know you why he didn't go to Trnopolje, when there were thousands of people from his city, Prijedor, living there?" said the prosecutor.


"Maybe you should ask Dr Stakic that question," he said.


The picture of the starving inmates was part of TV footage shot by a British ITN crew in the summer of 1992.


Its release prompted the UN to begin a series of meetings that ended with a resolution setting up the present Hague war crimes tribunal in May 1993.


Neil Arun is an IWPR contributor.


More IWPR's Global Voices