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

Mejakic Denies Camp Violations Responsibility

While former camp commander knew of crimes, he claims his superiors ordered him “to shut up”.
A Bosnian Serb accused of orchestrating a reign of terror in Omarska prison camp testified this week that although he knew acts of rape and torture were common, he was powerless to stop them.

Zeljko Mejakic is charged, along with three other men, with committing crimes against humanity, murders, beatings and sexual harassment at the Omarska and Keraterm camps in northern Bosnia in 1992. His case was referred from the Hague tribunal to the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber in July 2005.

According to the indictment, Mejakic was chief of security and de facto commander of Omarska Camp and was in command of all three guard shifts and the lives of some 3,000 civilians.

However, testifying in his own defense this week, he denied that he controlled the camp, saying that there were “three groups of investigators that were in charge of questioning and had the authority to order [himself] and the police forces”.

The defendant added that Simo Drljaca, police commander in the town of Prijedor, was in charge of everything. Drljaca was killed in 1997 when resisting international forces sent to detain him.

Mejakić described the harsh conditions endured by detainees.

“The camp was too small for such a large number of people. When I got into the rooms, I saw that they couldn’t lie down because it was so cramped. There was also not enough food. Sometimes it was just a small meal once a day, which is not enough,” he stated.

However, he added that he could do nothing to prevent this as the Serb army investigators were very strict about the prisoners being held in the rooms which they designated.

Mejakic also maintained that he was not in charge of the food, and was even forced to eat the same food as the detainees.

“I had also known that the prisoners were being tortured in many ways. They were being beaten, harassed, their belongings were being stolen,” admitted Mejakic.

“The questioning was worse. In many cases, the prisoners were so badly beaten during the questioning that they didn’t survive.”

According to Mejakić, he did his best to try and stop all of this, and wrote daily reports to Drljaca.

Defence lawyer Milovan Simic presented the court with several reports that had been signed by Mejakic, which detailed murders, rapes and beatings committed by soldiers.

The defendant admitted that there were women and underage children in the Omarska camp, and that he “had known about rapes and attempted rapes”, confirming testimony from prosecution witnesses K035 and K040.

He claimed that although he confronted Drljaca about the rapes, he was “told to shut up about it and to hide all the evidence about women in the Omarska camp”.

He had then hidden the women when journalists and representatives of the Red Cross visited.

Mejakic stated that from the middle of July 1992, groups began to leave the camp.

“The largest number of them was transported to the Manjaca and Trnopolje camps. We had no authority in that decision. We received lists with names on who was going where,” claimed Mejakic.

According to his testimony, the first time he heard of the opening of a camp for detainees in Omarska was on May 28, 1992.

“I was told to come to the mine site in Omarska, and bring about 15 police officers with me. Upon my arrival, I was told by Miroslav Kvočka, that he was ordered by military forces to guard a group of Muslim prisoners in the site. And that I should go to the Prijedor police headquarters to try and find out more about what happened,” said Mejakić.

In November 2001, the Hague tribunal sentenced Kvocka to seven years in prison for his role in the capturing and killings of detainees in the Omarska camp.

As Mejakic explained, he was told by Drljaca that the prisoners were in the camp and that they should secure the site.

According to Mejakic, there were not too many people in the camp at first and the Omarska police force easily handled the task.

“However, after May 30, and the attack on Prijedor by Muslim forces, in which 17 Serbs and 30 or 40 Muslims lost their lives, everything changed,” said Mejakic.

“The authorities organised mass arrests of Muslims in order to preserve the peace. In a matter of days, very large groups were brought to the camp for detention and questioning.”

Mejakic maintained that neither he nor anyone from the police took part in the apprehension of detainees, or their questioning.

He also spoke of how he had helped Muslims during their time in the camp and afterwards, including his childhood friend Kerim Mešanovic, who was detained there.

“When I saw him on the list to go to Manjaca, I asked Ranko Mijić, an army official to transfer him to Trnopolje camp. I came to pick him up from Trnopolje and helped him cross the border and into safety,” he said.

Mesanovic testified for the prosecution in 2007, and spoke of the help he received from the defendant.

During the direct examination of Mejakic, his attorney Simic asked him why he didn’t stop any of the horrible things that were happening if he knew people like Mesanovic were innocent.

“It was very difficult at that time. It was a huge risk to take. I wasn’t in charge, and who knows what would have happened if I tried, maybe more people would have been killed,” he said.

At the end, Mejakic explained that the Omarska police department documentation about this whole period was destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces “during 1992 and 1996 on Simo Drljaca’s orders”.

The cross examination of Mejakić will begin on February 4.

Denis Dzidic is an IWPR journalist in Sarajevo.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?