Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The entrance gate to the Dachau camp with its infamous slogan. (Photo: Ajdin Kamber/IWPR)
As I packed for a trip to Dachau, where I was travelling with a group of survivors of the Bosnian 1992-95 war, I wondered what to bring with me. I had my video and photo cameras, several notebooks, a ticket and a passport. But while I was making the last check, to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything important, it suddenly occurred to me that the thing I needed most could not be packed in a suitcase.
I needed courage. The courage to face these people, to hear their stories and to see one of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II. The group of people I was with consisted of six former detainees of Serb-held prison camps near Prijedor, northern Bosnia, and several survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
I first learned about Dachau in a history class, in the midst of the Bosnian war. I was a 14-year-old boy then, living in my hometown of Livno in south-western Bosnia. Dachau’s name stuck in my memory, but I didn’t remember much else. The memories of those history lessons were pushed aside by the war that was happening in front of my own eyes at the time.
Preparing for this trip, I searched the internet and found some grueling photos from Dachau that made me feel sick. The pictures showed mutilated, emaciated corpses, a crematorium, German officers at the camp whose sinister look sent shivers down my spine; prisoners with terrified expressions on their faces. I saw dozens of these photos, but nothing prepared me for the actual visit to the place where unthinkable crimes had happened.
The small town of Dachau will always be marked on world maps because it was the first Nazi camp and became a prototype for others built later. Unlike Auschwitz, Dachau was not an extermination camp, but primarily served as a camp for the imprisonment of political opponents and war prisoners. However, tens of thousands lost their lives here, due to disease, starvation, exhaustion, medical experimentation, executions and torture.
Today, a memorial centre stands in Dachau as a monument to all innocent victims and as a warning that man is capable of committing monstrous atrocities against other human beings.
As I stood in the central part of the former concentration camp, I tried to imagine the life of the prisoners back then, in this place of immense suffering and horror. The expanse of the camp is huge, almost the size of a small town, within which there were dozens of barracks. In these barracks, there are wooden bunk beds on three levels, so short and narrow that it is almost impossible to imagine how anyone could sleep on them. The sanitary conditions must have been terrible. We passed by a barbed wire fence of the camp that used to be electrocuted. As we walked along, I heard stories about prisoners throwing themselves on the fence to kill themselves and end their suffering.
The scariest parts of the camp for me were the gas chambers and crematorium. The layout of the rooms, the well-connected space and the fake showering area were all designed to kill human beings and dispose of their bodies. There is no proof that the prisoners were executed in the Dachau gas chambers but the very existence of such a place is enough to upset a person.
What struck me during the tour of the Dachau was the amount of time it took for this place to be turned into a proper memorial centre – a full 20 years. Also, before coming here, I had not been aware of the fact that the inhabitants of nearby Dachau town had themselves been struggling to accept the horrifying past ever since the end of the war. The street leading to the memorial centre still bears the name of the concentration camp, but the houses and apartment buildings located there have plates on them with the name of the street opposite - as if their inhabitants can’t bear to have the notorious name as their postal address. I then realised that facing and accepting one’s past is indeed a very slow process, not just in Bosnia, but everywhere.
One of the reasons why the group of Bosnians visited this camp was to meet the Dachau survivors and to learn from the experience of others how to mark their own places of mass suffering.
After the tour of the Dachau memorial centre, a visibly-shaken survivor of a Serb-held prison camp in Prijedor area, Edin Ramulic, described to me the horrors he had gone through while he was in detention and the brutal torture he had witnessed.
“You have to understand that the goal of the prison guards was not to kill the prisoners, but to torture and humiliate them as much as possible,” he said. “They treated us not as human beings, but as parasites, which had to be crushed and spat on. That was something I could never understand, that hatred and desire to humiliate. How could one ever understand what drove a Serb prison guard to order one prisoner to bite off his own brother's testicles?”
It was only then that I started to truly understand the horrors of the war in Bosnia.
Another man from our group, Muhizin Omerovic, a Bosniak who survived the fall of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, described his ordeal to me. When Serb forces took over Srebrenica, they captured and executed around 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. Those who managed to escape walked for weeks through the woods and minefields and were exposed to constant enemy fire before they reached free territory. Omerovic and his group had no food and were on the verge of starvation when after ten days of walking they finally stumbled upon an empty house, in which they found some flour and made bread. That was the first proper food they ate in those ten days.
“I will never forget the taste of that bread, its smell, its softness, its warmth. I don’t think I’ll ever eat anything that good in my whole life,” Omerovic told me.
But despite all the horrors they went through, the Bosnian group maintained a remarkable sense of humour throughout this trip, often making jokes at their own expense, even when they recalled events from the war.
It then occurred to me that it was this characteristic Bosnian humour that kept people sane - it helped them survive. I was amazed at the strength of their spirit and their ability to focus on the future, without forgetting the past. In my view, this was true courage.
When I came to pack my bags again, this time for the trip back to Bosnia, I felt as if some of the courage of my companions had passed on to me and I felt stronger than before I came to Dachau. I was grateful to these people and to the Dachau survivors for a history lesson I’ll never forget.
Ajdin Kamber is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
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