Witness Recalls Persecution of Herceg Bosna Muslims

University professor speaks of imposition of Croat culture and mass detention of Muslim civilians.

Witness Recalls Persecution of Herceg Bosna Muslims

University professor speaks of imposition of Croat culture and mass detention of Muslim civilians.

Croat culture was imposed and Muslims were detained in their thousands in the Herceg Bosna region during the war in Bosnia, according to an academic from the area who testified at the Hague tribunal trial of six local Croat officials this week.

Professor Fahrudin Rizvanbegovic, himself a Muslim from Stolac near the town of Mostar, recalled windows adorned with photographs of Ante Pavelic, the leader of the fascist regime installed in Croatia by the Nazis during the Second World War. Pro-fascist songs and the chequered Croat coat-of-arms also became common in the area, he said.

After protesting against what he saw going on around him, the witness was placed under house arrest. Later, he was held along with thousands of other Muslims in camps run by the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, which was responsible for civilian and military affairs in Herceg Bosna during the war.

At these facilities, he said, food was scarce and inmates were routinely beaten and humiliated.

As senior officials within the HVO, the six accused in the present case – Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic – are accused of playing key roles in the persecution of non-Croats.

They each face 26 counts of crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva conventions and violations of the laws and customs of war.

Rizvanbegovic recalled his role in agitating against the new Croat-dominated order which took shape in the Mostar region during the war. It wasn’t long before he was placed under house arrest. Then, early one morning in July 1993, he was visited by military police and only had time to put on jeans, trainers and a t-shirt before being taken to the Dretelj detention camp – one of a number of facilities which feature in the indictment against the six men.

Once there, the witness said he was held in a building with a cement floor, where detainees were packed in so tightly that the only way all of them could lie down was if they were all on their sides. “If we wanted to turn onto our other side, all of us had to turn at the same time,” he told the court.

Food was limited to one meal a day, made up of a small amount of bread and a broth which he described as water “with a bit of pasta or a couple of beans in it”.

Besides Muslim members of the HVO and men over the age of 65, the camp population also included children. “They grew thinner from day to day,” the witness said, describing the effects of malnutrition on these younger detainees. “Their eyes grew larger, their ears grew larger, everything else grew smaller.”

One of the most humiliating aspects of life in detention, he recalled, was being forced to urinate and defecate into bags and bottles and then, after nightfall, dispose of them through the broken windows of the building in which they were being held.

But the degradation did not end there. In the morning, guards would appear with the camp commander at the door of the building. He would raise a finger and the inmates would have to join together in singing pro-fascist and anti-Muslim anthems.

The witness remembered another occasion, one mealtime when a guard demanded to know what he was carrying in his hand. He replied that it was a piece of bread. Rebuking him for using the Bosnian word for bread rather than the Croatian equivalent, the guard knocked him to the floor with his rifle. Holding him at gunpoint, he then made him stare at the sun until he could no longer see.

Rizvanbegovic recalled hearing the cries of others on the receiving end of physical abuse and described one prisoner who was so badly beaten that his lips were bloated, his eyes were no longer visible and his neck was wider than his head.

The witness also testified about a trip to the camp by a delegation which included Prlic, who was president of the HVO during the war.

“They saw what we looked like,” he said of the members of Prlic’s party. “One glance was sufficient to know exactly what was going on there.”

During his stay in Dretelj, Rizvanbegovic said he was shown a list of 64 people including himself and other intellectuals, who were apparently not to be released. All of those on the list, he said, later ended up in another prison facility in Ljubuski, near the Croatian border.

His own transfer to Ljubuski, he thought, came on September 23, when the Dretelj camp was being shut down. Once there, he was held in a dark solitary confinement cell for what he thought must have been days, before being transferred to a room where he and other detainees had the luxury of mattresses to cover the concrete floor.

At Ljubuski, the abuse continued. Rizvanbegovic described an incident when a man entered his solitary confinement cell and started yelling at him, before shoving his pistol so deep into his mouth that he vomited. As the man tugged the pistol back out of his mouth, he broke two of his teeth. Noticing that some vomit had landed on his shoes, Rizvanbegovic’s assailant then smacked him in the face with the weapon, breaking more of his teeth.

Another prisoner, who used to be a pilot and had served in the Sarajevo-run Army of Bosnia and Hercegovina, also came in for “endless” humiliation. Forced to put his arms up like wings and “fly” around, he would eventually collapse with exhaustion. At that point the guards would set upon him, kicking him in the face.

On a handful of occasions when he was interrogated in Ljubuski, Rizvanbegovic said the questions were “almost totally insignificant”. When he asked what he was accused of, his interrogator replied, “destroying the constitutional order of Herceg Bosna”.

The witness was eventually freed in December 1993, after family and friends – including a number of Croats – campaigned on his behalf.

The judges also heard evidence this week from a protected witness who was barely a teenager when the war was raging in Bosnia. He recalled seeing Croat troops laughing while buildings were set on fire in Stolac. And he described how the HVO drove out the town’s Muslim population in 1993.

Later in the week, the prosecution called Seid Smajkic, the most senior Muslim cleric in the Mostar area. Smajkic spoke of how the HVO came to power in Mostar in a “military putsch” and went on to expel thousands of Muslims from their homes.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.
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