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

Former Captives Reveal Conditions at HVO Prisons

Witnesses testify about regular abuse of Muslim detainees by Croat prison guards.
By Simon Jennings
A former prisoner at the Gabela prison camp this week told the Hague tribunal that guards stubbed out cigarettes on the bodies of Bosnian Muslims, beat them and deprived them of food and water during their incarceration in 1993.

The witness – who appeared in court under protective measures – was testifying against Jadranko Prlic and five other former leaders of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, and the self-proclaimed Croatian Union of Herceg-Bosna. The men are charged with the abuse and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and other non-Croats in western Bosnia between 1991 and 1994.

He said he evaded arrests of military-aged men on July 3 in the village of Borojevici near Stolac by hiding in the woods with a group of men “in the hope that everything would be over soon”.

On September 25, however, they were surrounded by HVO police and taken to the Kostana hospital in Stolac, a military police facility. There, they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse before being transferred to the Gabela prison camp, he said.

The witness explained he could not remember his arrival at Gabela on October 2 because he had been beaten unconscious at the hospital. He said one prisoner was beaten so hard at both the hospital and the Gabela prison that he died.

The witness said a man named Marinko Maric also attacked him at Gabela. “He was kicking me like I was a football, including on the head,” he told the tribunal.

He said prisoners at Gabela did not receive food or water for long periods. Bosko Previsic, the commander of the prison, shot one man caught hiding a loaf of bread “dead on the spot”. “People drank urine once it had gone cold,” he said. “I was skin and bone. I looked skeletal.”

On December 15, the witness was transferred to the Heliodrom prison camp which he described as “a hotel” compared to Gabela.

Another witness, Ismet Poljarevic from Sovici, told the tribunal what he saw on April 17 the day HVO soldiers attacked the village. He said members of the HVO were “rallying the Muslims and searching the village and houses”. He said he also saw members of both the HVO and the Croatian army carrying out attacks on civilians in the village.

He surrendered to the HVO on April 17 and was taken to the Ljubuski prison camp, where inmates included many young and elderly. There he met Muslim drivers who had been detained for delivering food to the civilian population. According to Poljarevic, conditions at Ljubuski were very bad although he himself was not beaten. Poljarevic said that more than 30 prisoners were “crammed into a room” that was so small that “we were one on top of each other”. There were only 10 blankets between 30 prisoners.

Prisoners at Ljubuski, including the witness, also had to carry out forced labour on private estates and on the front line. Poljarevic confirmed that fellow prisoners died while working on the front line in Mostar.

On May 17, Poljarevic was transferred to a Mechanical Engineering College in the municipality of Mostar where he said he “experienced the worst three days of my life”. He was beaten day and night for three days by HVO military police for not accepting a position as an HVO driver.

Sejfo Kaimovic, a cleric from Recica in Capljina district, also gave testimony about the burning of his house and mosque in mid-July. “It was simply torched,” he said.

Kaimovic also said he saw two other mosques in the region set on fire. When asked who controlled the area the witness responded, “HVO, without a doubt. This was all done systematically.”

Describing the Gabela prison where he was held, he said that prisoners received one meal a day and hardly any water. He said he now suffers kidney problems, a long-term consequence of the treatment at Gabela.

He told the court that prison commander Bosko Previsic “was fully aware of the situation”, as he entered the hangers where they were imprisoned almost every day.

The trial will continue after the New Year break.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in London.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.