Mark Danner

The Horrors of a Camp Called Omarska

To the hundreds of millions who first beheld them on their television screens that August day in 1992, the faces staring out from behind barbed wire seemed powerfully familiar.

From Frontline‘s “The World’s Most Wanted Man(a documentary on Radovan Karadzic)

To the hundreds of millions who first beheld them on their television screens that August day in 1992, the faces staring out from behind barbed wire seemed powerfully familiar.[1] Sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed, their skulls shaved, their bodies wasted and frail, they did not seem men at all but living archetypes, their faces stylized masks of tragedy. One had thought such faces consigned to the century’s horde of images-the emaciated figures of the 1940s shuffling about in filthy striped uniforms, the bulldozers pushing into dark ditches great masses of lank white bodies. Yet here, a mere half century later, in 1992, came these gaunt beings, clinging to life in Omarska and Trnopolje and the other camps run by Serbs in northern Bosnia, and now displayed before the eyes of the world like fantastic, rediscovered beasts.

The Germans, creators of millions of such living dead, had christened them Muselmanner-Musulmen, Muslims. At Auschwitz, wrote Primo Levi,


the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead in them…. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.[2]

In Omarska as in Auschwitz the masters created these walking corpses from healthy men by employing simple methods: withhold all but the barest nourishment, forcing the prisoners’ bodies to waste away; impose upon them a ceaseless terror by subjecting them to unremitting physical cruelty; immerse them in degradation and death and decay, destroying all hope and obliterating the will to live.

“We won’t waste our bullets on them,” a guard at Omarska, which the Serbs set up in a former open-pit iron mine, told a United Nations representative in mid-1992. “They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals.”[3]


On August 5, 1992, Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, the first newspaperman admitted into Omarska, stood in the camp’s “canteen” and watched, stupefied, as thirty emaciated men stumbled out into the yard, squinting at the sunlight:


…A group of prisoners…have just emerged from a door in the side of a large rust-colored metal shed. [T]hey run in single file across the courtyard…. Above them in an observation post is the watchful eye, hidden behind reflective sunglasses, of a beefy guard who follows their weary canter with the barrel of his heavy machine gun.

Their…heads [are] newly shaven, their clothes baggy over their skeletal bodies. Some are barely able to move. In the canteen,… they line up in obedient and submissive silence and collect…a meager, watery portion of beans….


They are given precisely three minutes to run from the shed, wait for the food and gulp it down, and run back to the shed. “Whoever didn’t make it would get beaten or killed,” a prisoner identified only as Mirsad told Helsinki Watch investigators. “The stew we were given was boiling hot…so we all had ‘inside burns.’ The inside of my mouth was peeling.”[4]

Vulliamy and his colleagues stand and gaze at the creatures struggling to wolf down the rations:


…[T]he bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced. Their skin is putrefied, the complexions…have corroded. [They] are alive but decomposed, debased, degraded, and utterly subservient, and yet they fix their huge hollow eyes on us with [what] looks like blades of knives.

It is an extraordinary confrontation, this mutual stare: Vulliamy and his colleagues are reporting from inside a working concentration camp. All the while, though, Serb guards in combat fatigues, cradling AK-47s and bearing great military knives sheathed at their hips, trudge heavily about the room, their eyes glaring above their beards.

Vulliamy moves forward to speak to a “young man, emaciated, sunken-eyed and attacking his watery bean stew like a famished dog, his spindly hands shaking,” but the fellow stops him: “I do not want to tell any lies,” he says, “but I cannot tell the truth.” It is an eloquent comment: most of these Muselm Anner prove “too terrified to talk, bowing their heads and excusing themselves by casting a glance at the pacing soldiers, or else they just stare, opaque, spiritless, and terrified.”

The reporters ask to see the hospital and receive a curt refusal. Nor may they look inside that white building-the White House, the prisoners call it-or the great “rust-colored shed” from which the men had come, squinting at the August sun.

Later, survivors describe the shed as “a vast human hen coop, in which thousands of men were crammed for twenty-four hours a day…, living in their own filth and, in many cases, dying from asphyxiation.” So tightly were prisoners packed together in the stifling, airless heat, “Sakib R.” tells Vulliamy, that lying down was impossible and some lost consciousness standing up, collapsing one against another.


I [counted] seven hundred that I could actually see [around me]. A lot of people went mad…: when they went insane, shuddering and screaming, they were taken out and shot.

Though guards at Omarska and other camps shot many prisoners, this was by no means the preferred method. If Auschwitz’s killing tended to be mechanized and bureaucratized, Omarska’s was emotional and personal, for it depended on the simple, intimate act of beating. “They beat us with clubs, bats, hoses, rifle butts,” one survivor told a Helsinki Watch interviewer. “Their favorite was a thick rubber hose with metal on both ends.” They beat us, said another, “with braided cable wires” and with pipes “filled with lead.”

Next to the automatic rifle, next even to the knife (which was freely used at Omarska), the club or the pipe is exhausting, time-consuming, inefficient. Yet the guards made it productive. A female prisoner identified only as “J” told Helsinki Watch investigators:


We saw corpses piled one on top of another…. The bodies eventually were gathered with a forklift and put onto trucks-usually two large trucks and a third, smaller truck. The trucks first would unload containers of food, and then the bodies would be loaded [on]…. This happened almost every day-sometimes there [were]…twenty or thirty-but usually there were more. Most of the deaths occurred as a result of beatings.[5]

One survivor interviewed by United Nations investigators estimated that “on many occasions, twenty to forty prisoners were killed at night by ‘knife, hammer, and burning.’ He stated that he had witnessed the killing of one prisoner by seven guards who poured petrol on him, set him on fire, and struck him upon the head with a hammer.” All prisoners were beaten, but according to the UN investigators, guards in all the camps meted out especially savage treatment “to intellectuals, politicians, police, and the wealthy.”[6] When four guards summoned the president of the local Croatian Democratic Union, Silvije Saric, along with Professor Puskar from nearby Prijedor, for “interrogation,” the female prisoner testified,


I heard beating and yelling…. At times it sounded as if wood were being shattered, but those were bones that were being broken.

…When they opened the door …, they started yelling at us, “Ustasa slut, see what we do to them!” …I saw two piles of blood and flesh in the corner. The two men were so horribly beaten that they no longer had the form of human beings.[7]


Apart from obvious differences in scale and ambition, it is the Serbs’ reliance on this laborious kind of murder that most strikingly distinguishes the workings of their camps from those of the German death factories. At many of the latter, healthy arrivals would work as slaves until they were reduced to being Muselm Anner; death came when camp bureaucrats judged them no longer fit to provide any useful service to the Reich. The gas chambers-routinized, intentionally impersonal means of killing-had evolved partly out of a concern for the effect that committing mass murder would have on troops, even on men specially trained to do it. As Raul Hilberg observed,


The Germans employed the phrase Seelenbelastung (“burdening of the soul”) with reference to machine-gun fire…directed at men, women, and children in prepared ditches. After all, the men that were firing these weapons were themselves fathers. How could they do this day after day? It was then that the technicians developed a gas van designed to lessen the suffering of the perpetrator.[8]

And even within the camps themselves, SS officers worried that violence and sadism would demoralize and corrupt their elite troops. “The SS leaders,” Wolfgang Sofsky writes,


were indifferent to the suffering of the victims, but not to the morale of their men. Their attention was aroused…by the sadistic excesses of individual tormenters. As a countermeasure, camp brothels were set up, and the task of punishment was delegated to specially selected prisoners. The leadership also transferred certain thugs whose behavior had become intolerable. [Emphasis added.][9]

At Omarska such men would have been cherished; the out-and-out passion with which a guard administered beatings and devised tortures could greatly bolster his prestige. Acts of flamboyant violence, publicly performed, made of some men celebrities of sadism. In his memoir The Tenth Circle of Hell, Rezak Hukanovic-a Muslim who was a journalist in Prijedor before he was taken to Omarska-describes how guards responded when a prisoner rejected the order to strip and stood immobile amid the cowering naked inmates:


The guard…fired several shots in the air. The man stood stubbornly in place without making the slightest movement. While bluish smoke still rose from the rifle barrel, the guard struck the clothed man in the middle of the head with the rifle butt, once and then again, until the man fell. Then the guard…moved his hand to his belt. A knife flashed in his hand, a long army knife.

He bent down, grabbing hold of the poor guy’s hair…. Another guard joined in, continuously cursing. He, too, had a flashing knife in his hand…. The guards [used] them to tear away the man’s clothes. After only a few seconds, they stood up, their own clothes covered with blood….

…The poor man stood up a little, or rather tried to, letting out excruciating screams. He was covered with blood. One guard took a water hose from a nearby hydrant and directed a strong jet at [him]. A mixture of blood and water flowed down his…gaunt, naked body as he bent down repeatedly, like a wounded Cyclops…; his cries were of someone driven to insanity by pain. And then Djemo and everyone else saw clearly what had happened: the guards had cut off the man’s sexual organ and half of his behind.


Hukanovic’s memoir (in which he writes about himself in the third person as Djemo) and the testimony of other former prisoners overflow with such horror. Reading them, one feels enervated, and also bewildered: What accounts for such unquenchable blood-lust? This is a large subject, to which I shall return; but part of the answer may have to do with the elaborate ideology that stands behind Serb objectives in the war. In order to achieve a “Greater Serbia,” which will at last bring together all Serbs in one land, they feel they must “cleanse” what is “their” land of outsiders. Founding-or rather reestablishing-“Greater Serbia” is critical not only because it satisfies an ancient historical claim but because Serbs must protect themselves from the “genocide” others even now are planning for them.

In this thinking, such genocide has already begun-in Croatia, in Kosovo, in Bosnia itself: anywhere Serbs live but lack political dominance. As many writers, including Michael Sells and, especially, Tim Judah, point out, such ideas of vulnerability and betrayal can be traced far back in Serbia’s past, and President Slobodan Milosevic, with his control of state radio and television, exploited them brilliantly, building popular hatred by instilling in Serbs a visceral fear and paranoia.

Administering a beating is a deeply personal affirmation of power: with your own hands you seize your enemy-supposedly a mortally threatening enemy, now rendered passive and powerless-and slowly, methodically reduce him from human to nonhuman. Each night at Omarska and other camps guards called prisoners out by name and enacted this atrocity. Some of their enemies they beat to death, dumping their corpses on the tarmac for the forklift driver to find the next morning. Others they beat until the victim still barely clung to life; if he did not die, the guards would wait a week or so and beat him again.

For the Serbs it was a repeated exercise in triumph, in satisfying and vanquishing an accumulated paranoia. As Hukanovic makes clear in his account of the first time his name was called out, this torture is exceedingly, undeniably intimate-not simply because force is administered by hand but also because it comes very often from someone you know:


“In front of me,” the [bearded, red-faced] guard ordered, pointing to the White House…. He ranted and raved, cursing and occasionally pounding Djemo on the back with his truncheon….

…The next second, something heavy was let loose from above, from the sky, and knocked Djemo over the head. He fell.

…Half conscious, sensing that he had to fight to survive, he wiped the blood from his eyes and forehead and raised his head. He saw four creatures, completely drunk, like a pack of starving wolves, with clubs in their hands and unadorned hatred in their eyes. Among them was the frenzied leader, Zoran Zigic, the infamous Ziga…. He was said to have killed over two hundred people, including many children, in the “cleansing” operations around Prijedor…. Scrawny and long-legged, with a big black scar on his face, Ziga seemed like an ancient devil come to visit a time as cruel as his own….

“Now then, let me show you how Ziga does it,” he said, ordering Djemo to kneel down in the corner by the radiator, “on all fours, just like a dog.” The maniac grinned. Djemo knelt down and leaned forward on his hands, feeling humiliated and as helpless as a newborn….


Ziga began hitting Hukanovic on his back and head with a club that had a metal ball on the end. Hukanovic curled up trying to protect his head. Zigic kept hitting him, steadily, methodically, cursing all the while.


The drops of blood on the tiles under Djemo’s head [became] denser and denser until they formed a thick, dark red puddle. Ziga kept at it; he stopped only every now and then…to fan himself, waving his shirt tail in front of his contorted face.

At some point a man in fatigues appeared…. It was Saponja, a member of the famous Bosna-montaza soccer club from Prijedor; Djemo had once known him quite well…. “Well, well, my old pal Djemo. While I was fighting…, you were pouring down the cold ones in Prijedor.” He kicked Djemo right in the face with his combat boot. Then he kicked him again in the chest, so badly that Djemo felt like his ribs had been shattered…Ziga laughed like a maniac…and started hitting Djemo again with his weird club….

Djemo received another, even stronger kick to the face. He clutched himself in pain, bent a little to one side, and collapsed, his head sinking into the now-sizable pool of blood beneath him. Ziga grabbed him by the hair…and looked into Djemo’s completely disfigured face: “Get up, you scum….”


Then Ziga and the other guards forced Djemo to smear his bloody face in a filthy puddle of water.


…”The boys have been eating strawberries and got themselves a little red,” said Ziga, laughing like a madman…. Another prisoner, Slavko Ecimovic,…was kneeling, all curled up, by the radiator. When he lifted his head, where his face should have been was nothing but the bloody, spongy tissue under the skin that had just been ripped off.

Instead of eyes, two hollow sockets were filled with black, coagulated blood. “You’ll all end up like this, you and your families,” Ziga said. “We killed his father and mother. And his wife. We’ll get his kids. And yours, we’ll kill you all.” And with a wide swing of his leg, he kicked Djemo right in the face….


In early April 1992, little more than a week after officers of the newly christened Bosnian Serb Army launched their campaign of limited conquest in Bosnia, officials in Washington began receiving reports of atrocities, among them mass executions, beatings, mutilations, and rape. Jon Western, at the State Department, then working on human rights in Bosnia, recalls that


many of these atrocities looked an awful lot like what we had heard and read about during World War II-the Balkans historically produce a lot of disinformation-and we were trained to look at them critically and decipher what was real. But as reports continued to come in…, it became apparent that they weren’t just propaganda.

In fact, we were getting reports from a number of sources: eyewitnesses who had been incarcerated in concentration camps begin filtering out in summer 1992 and began giving accounts of atrocities that we could cross-reference with those from other eyewitnesses….[10]


As the Serbs prosecuted their “lightning campaign”-the Bosnian Serb Army of eighty thousand men, which had come fully equipped from the Yugoslav National Army, conquered 60 percent of Bosnian territory in scarcely six weeks-State Department officials compiled testimony of increasingly shocking and gruesome atrocities. Jon Western recalls that children were “systematically raped”:


There was one account that affected me: a young girl was raped repeatedly by Serb paramilitary units. Her parents were restrained behind a fence and she was raped repeatedly and they left her in a pool of blood and over the course of a couple of days she finally died, and her parents were not able to tend to her; they were restrained behind a fence. When we first heard this story, it seemed very hard to believe but we heard it from a number of eyewitnesses …and it became apparent there was validity to it.

Western and his colleagues were struck not only by the cruelty of these abuses but by their systematic nature; they very rapidly came to understand that though the Serb soldiers and, especially, the “paramilitary” troops responsible for “mopping up” were committing wildly sadistic acts of brutality, often under the influence of alcohol, their officers were making rational, systematic use of terror as a method of war. Rather than being a regrettable but unavoidable concomitant of combat, rapes and mass executions and mutilations here served as an essential part of it.

The Serbs fought not only to conquer territory but to “clear” it of all traces of their Muslim or Croat enemies; or, as the notorious Serb phrase has it, to “ethnically cleanse” what they believed to be “their” land. Of course making use of terror in such a way is probably as old-and as widespread-as warfare itself:


Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind-such were the means which were employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery, with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians.

This account is drawn from the Carnegie Endowment’s Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Cause and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, published in 1914.[11] Substitute the word “Muslims” for “Albanians” and the sentence could have been composed in spring or summer of 1992. Not only was the technique of “ethnic cleansing” identical, its purpose-“the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions”-was clear to all.

The motive force driving Serbs to fight to achieve a “Greater Serbia”- or “all Serbs in one country”- depends however on a fortuitous conjunction of factors: a set of powerful historical legends combined in a cherished nationalist myth; the advent of economic hardship and the uncertainty brought on by the end of the cold war; and the rise of an ambitious, talented, and ruthless politician.

On the nationalist myth in particular Tim Judah writes splendidly, briefly describing the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, and discussing its transformation into the founding epic of the Serbian “exile.” The story he tells does much to explain both the Serb obsession with the treachery of outsiders and their quasi-religious faith in the eventual founding, or rather reestablishment, of the Serbian state.

It was at Kosovo that King Lazar and his Serb knights rode boldly out to take the field against the Turks under Sultan Murad and defend Europe against the infidel. The Serbs lost this battle-although, as Judah shows, the evidence for this is ambiguous, as it is for much of the story; they later came to blame the defeat on the (probably imaginary) treachery of Vuk Brankovic, one of Lazar’s favorite knights. As Petar Petrovic-Njegos, prince-bishop of Montenegro, wrote in his 1847 epic The Mountain Wreath:


Our Serbia chiefs, most miserable cowards, The Serbian stock did heinously betray. Thou, Brankovic, of stock despicable, Should one serve so his fatherland, Thus much is honesty esteem’d.

Judah argues that the “myth of treachery was needed as a way to explain the fall of the medieval state, and it has powerful seeds of self-replications contained within it,” which have sprouted into an obsession with betrayal. (During the 1991-1995 war, Judah notes, with “monotonous regularity losses were always put down to secret deals-and treachery.”)

In the last supper the night before the battle, Brankovic plays Judas to Lazar’s Christ; in causing the Serbs to lose the battle, and thus their country, to the Turks, Brankovic’s betrayal made way for the crucifixion of the Serb homeland itself. But, as Judah writes, Lazar’s

“idea that it is better to fight honourably and die than to live as slaves” not only “provided for Serbs an explanation for their oppression by the Ottomans,”

it also identified the whole nation with the central guiding raison d’etre of Christianity: resurrection. In other words Lazar opted for the empire of heaven, that is to say truth and justice, so that the state would one day be resurrected. An earthly kingdom was rejected in favor of nobler ideals-victim hood and sacrifice-and this choice is to be compared with the temptations of Christ.

As Jesus would be resurrected so Lazar would be: and so, as well, would Serbia. This becomes a holy certainty, premised on the Serbs’ heroism and their sacrifice in losing to the Turks. “That is what people mean when they talk about the Serbs as a ‘heavenly people,'” Zarko Korac, a psychology professor at Belgrade University, tells Judah.


In this way the Serbs identify themselves with the Jews. As victims, yes, but also with the idea of “sacred soil.” The Jews said “Next year in Jerusalem” and after 2000 years they recreated their state. The message is: “We are victims, but we are going to survive.”

Milosevic himself exploits this powerful ideological view of history-Professor Korac believes that for most Serbs “it is not a metaphor, it is primordial”-as a motivating force; but he has not let it limit his own tactical flexibility. Judah rightly emphasizes that Milosevic plainly did not always believe armed conquest and ethnic cleansing central to carrying out his project in Bosnia, for example. Well before the Bosnians declared independence and war broke out in the spring of 1992, Milosevic tried hard to woo Bosnia into remaining in what was left of the Federation-which, of course, Slovenia and Croatia having seceded (and the Serbs of the Krajina now “liberated” from Croatia and loosely tied to Serbia), was now politically dominated by the Serbs.

The Bosnians referred to Milosevic’s planned state derisively as “Serboslavia” and it is no wonder they wanted no part of it; but the Serb leader’s tenacious attempts to persuade the Bosnians not to follow the Slovenians and Croatians in seceding show him to be much more a ruthless political tactician than an ideologue, a distinction he would confirm by his behavior four years later when he abandoned to the “ethnic cleansing” of the Croatian army the very Krajina Serbs his National Army made such a show of “liberating” in 1991.

In the event, though, and not surprisingly, Bosnia would not be wooed. Although its inexperienced leader, Alija Itzetbegovic, understood the danger of declaring independence-his nascent state, a third of whose people were Serb, might instantly collapse in war-his desperate proposals (offered jointly with the Macedonian president) to make of Yugoslavia a loose confederation were hardly of interest to Serbia, Croatia, or Slovenia. Slovenia, a small, prosperous republic with few Serbs and therefore of no real importance to Milosevic, was determined to secede, and once the Slovenes departed, the Croats were bound to follow (in fact, both republics seceded from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991).

This left the Bosnians with a stark choice: either passively sink into a reconfigured Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic and the Serbs, or declare independence and pray that the world would recognize the new country and somehow protect it from the onslaught to come. Itzetbegovic chose the latter, imploring the “international community” to recognize his new country and to send United Nations monitors to patrol its territory and prevent the war he knew would come. After a referendum on independence was duly held in February 1992 (which the Bosnian Serbs boycotted), the “international community” in early April recognized Bosnia as a sovereign state, and gave it a seat at the United Nations. But sending troops to protect the new state, even lightly armed “monitors,” was a different matter. According to John Fox, a regional official on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff at the time,


The French came to the [Bush] administration at very senior levels…once in the early phase of Belgrade’s attack on Croatia, and at least once well before the military campaign against Bosnia, and they made a proposal to join with the United States, and other willing states, to put preventive peace-keepers on the ground across Bosnia-to support the legitimate elected government of Bosnia, to stabilize and prevent the outbreak of conflict, and to see Bosnia through that transition process to becoming a new independent state.[12]

One might consider the proposal to dispatch peacekeeping troops as either a relatively inexpensive way to prevent what seemed an inevitable and possibly horrendous war, or as a risky initiative that would involve Americans in a situation that didn’t have a clear “exit strategy.” In any case, Fox says, “the French never got a very clear answer.” His office, the Policy Planning Staff, had proposed that the Americans join the French; but “that proposal was not accepted.”

Itzetbegovic would be given no “peace keepers”; but after all he had international recognition. The Serbs were not impressed. “Milosevic couldn’t care less if Bosnia was recognized,” a laughing Dr. Karadzic later told a television interviewer. “He said, ‘Caligula proclaimed his horse a senator but the horse never took his seat. Itzetbegovic may get recognition but he’ll never have a state.'” Karadzic, the self-proclaimed leader of the Bosnian Serbs, now declared, in a famous speech during the waning days of the integral Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, “I warn you, you’ll drag Bosnia down to hell. You Muslims aren’t ready for war-you’ll face extinction.”[13]

He was right. By the time Cyrus Vance, the United Nations negotiator, concluded the ceasefire in Croatia on January 2, 1992, thousands of Serb troops were heading for Bosnia in their tanks and armored personnel carriers. On May 5, all soldiers and officers of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) who came from Bosnia were taken out of the main force, complete with their equipment, and officially became a “Bosnian Serb Army” of more than eighty thousand fully trained men. Over the objections of the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, the Serb forces took up strategic positions around the country, clearly preparing for war. Jerko Doko, then Bosnia’s minister of defense, explained in testimony at The Hague that


this could be seen by the deployment of units; the control of roads by the JNA; the relocation of artillery on hill tops around all the major cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina; their collaboration with extremist forces of the [Bosnian Serbian Democratic Party], arming them and assisting the arming of them.

But Belgrade retained control. “We promised to pay all their costs,” said Borislav Jovic, then a close aide of Milosevic’s. It was not, he said, as if the Bosnian Serbs had their own state budget to draw on. “They couldn’t even pay their officers.” Doko remembers the National Army commander, General Blagoje Adzic, visiting troops near Banja Luka and Tuzla toward the end of March 1992 in order to check their preparedness for the coming combat operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As for the Bosnians, they were, as Karadzic said, unprepared for war. “Before the fighting,” David Rieff writes in Slaughterhouse, “Alija Itzetbegovic insisted there could be no war because one side-his own-would not fight. To have imagined that carnage could have been averted for this reason was only one of the many culpably naive assumptions the Bosnian presidency made.”

The Serb leaders, on the other hand, could not have been more prepared. During the last few years a group of selected senior officers had secretly developed a military strategy to guide the “Bosnia Serb Army” in its campaign to seize control of most of Bosnia. The objectives were in turn based on ideological claims of Serb vulnerability, Serb suffering, and Serb destiny that virtually every Serb who read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or watched television would by now know by heart.

The center of the ideology remained, as it had for six centuries, the redemption of the defeat at Kosovo. In 1889, on the 500th anniversary of the battle, Serbia’s foreign minister declared that the Serbs had “continued the battle in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they tried to recover their freedom through countless uprisings.” As Judah notes, Milosevic himself would make use of this occasion a century later to invoke “Lazar’s ghost” to come to the Serbs’ aid.

By this time, Milosevic was making use of an ideological program, drawn up by Serbian intellectuals, that came to be called “the Memorandum,” a kind of quasi-sociological rendition of the Lazar legend. In September 1986, extracts from this document, which was drafted by sixteen eminent economists, scientists, and historians in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences at the suggestion of the prominent novelist and nationalist Dobrica Cosic, had been leaked to the Belgrade press, and (in Judah’s phrase) shook “the whole of Yugoslavia” with “a political earthquake.”

In the key section entitled “Position of Serbia and the Serbian People,” the writers launch a vigorous, bitter attack on what they call the “Weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia” policy implicit in the “injustices” of Tito’s 1974 constitution (which in effect “divided Serbia in three,” by making Vojvodina and Kosovo autonomous provinces; though on Serbia’s territory, they both retained a right to vote in national government institutions).

The Serb exodus from the province of Kosovo-which, as Judah shows, has amounted only to a relative decrease of population with respect to the Albanians-the writers repeatedly describe as “the genocide in Kosovo.” The shift in population in Kosovo-which results from “a physical, moral and psychological reign of terror”-together with the economic and legal “hardships” all Serbs suffer daily, “are not only threatening the Serbian people but also the stability of Yugoslavia as a whole.”

In the Federation’s “general process of disintegration,” the academicians wrote, the Serbs “have been hit hardest” and in fact the country’s difficulties are “directed towards the total breaking up of the national unity among the Serbian people.” Observing that 24 percent of all Serbs live outside the Serbian Republic and more than 40 percent outside of so-called “inner Serbia,” the writers declare:


A nation which after a long and bloody struggle regained its own state, which fought for and achieved a civil democracy, and which in the last two wars lost 2.5 million of its members, has lived to see the day when a Party committee of apparatchiks decrees that…it alone is not allowed to have its own state. A worse historical defeat in peacetime cannot be imagined.[14]

The roots of Milosevic’s, and Karadzic’s, ideological campaigns are all here: the near-hysterical sense of historical grievance and betrayal, the resentment over Serbia’s “inferior political position,” the heightened rhetoric about the “genocide” of the Serbs-a term used to describe the exile of Serbs from their rightful lands but that evokes darker suspicions of the true intentions of Serbia’s betrayers.

To combat these injustices Serbs are obliged to seize their fate in their own hands and achieve the long-awaited resurrection of King Lazar: “the territorial unity of the Serbian people.” They must act not only to ensure their survival but to lay claim at last to an ancient birthright: “the establishment,” the Memorandum says, “of the full national integrity of the Serbian people, regardless of which republic or province it inhabits, is its historic and democratic right.”

Dominating the newspapers, television, and radio from the late Eighties onward, Milosevic and the other purveyors of this ideology brilliantly exploited the insecurities and fears of a people caught in a maelstrom of economic decline and political change. In the Serbian press all Muslims became “Islamic fundamentalists,” all Croats “Ustase.” As Norman Cigar writes in a chapter of his Genocide in Bosnia entitled “Paving the Way to Genocide,” well before the actual breakup of Yugoslavia, “influential figures in Serbia had begun to shape a stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior and a threat to all that the Serbs held dear.”

Such propaganda, fed incessantly to a people who in many cases had been prepared for it by their own cherished historical myths, served to transform neighbors into “the other”-outsiders, aliens. And Milosevic did not find it difficult, in the bewildering world of nascent popular politics, to portray a relatively new phenomenon for Yugoslavs-the legitimate political opponent-as a mortal threat. By “isolating the entire Muslim community,” writes Cigar, such propaganda would ensure that “any steps…taken against Muslims in pursuit of Belgrade’s political goals would acquire legitimacy and popular support.”

Such “steps” were even then being prepared. During the late 1980s a small group of officers (among them, then Colonel Ratko Mladic) who called themselves the “military line” had begun meeting secretly with members of Serbia’s secret police.

By 1990, or perhaps a bit earlier-the timing here is a matter of controversy-the officers had drafted what they called the “RAM plan” which set out schemes for the military conquest of “Serb lands” in Croatia and Bosnia. The plan was called RAM, or “FRAME”-it is not known what the individual letters stand for-because it makes clear the boundaries, or frame, within which the new Serbian-dominated lands will be established. As Jerko Doko, the former Bosnian minister of defense, describes it in his Hague testimony:


The substance of the plan was to create a greater Serbia. That RAM was to follow the lines of Virovitica, Karlovac, Karlobag, which we saw confirmed in reality later on with the decision on the withdrawal of the JNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army, from Slovenia and partly from Croatia to those positions.[15]

In their plan, the officers described how artillery, ammunition, and other military equipment would be stored in strategic locations in Croatia and then in Bosnia, and how, with the help of the Secret Police, local Serbian activists would be armed and trained, thereby creating “shadow” police forces and paramilitary units in the towns of the Croatian Krajina and throughout Bosnia. And, as early as July 1990, this is precisely what the Army began to do. In the area of Foca, according to Doko,


The JNA had distributed among the Serb voluntary units about 51,000 pieces of firearms and [among] SDS members, about 23,000…, [the Army] also gave them armoured vehicles, about 400 heavy artillery pieces, 800 mortars….

The leaders of the Bosnian Serb Army would be able to depend upon this “parallel power structure” of dedicated, often fanatical, and now well-armed men to support their troops as they carried out their campaign to conquer Bosnia. For “to conquer” here does not mean simply to subdue. In Bosnia people of different religions tended to be well mixed together; many cities in the Drina Valley, for example, adjacent to the border of Serbia itself, contained large numbers of Muslims.

The officers confronted, then, both a demographic and a strategic challenge. They must create a new state whose contiguous territory bordered the Serbian motherland-and which held most of the “liberated” Serbs. “The fact that Muslims are the majority,” Karadzic said, “makes no difference. They won’t decide our fate. That is our right.” Serb lands were Serb lands, regardless of who happened to live there.

And thus came into use “ethnic cleansing,” an ancient and brutally effective technique of war christened by the Serbs with a modern, hygienic name. In city after city, town after town, in the spring and summer of 1992, the Bosnian Serb Army and its commandos and paramilitary units launched their attacks in precisely the same pattern. It was clear these operations of conquest and cleansing were minutely, and centrally, planned. According to Vladimir Srebov, a former Serbian Democratic Party leader who read the “RAM Plan,” the officers stipulated a vast program of ethnic cleansing the aim of which “was to destroy Bosnia economically and completely exterminate the Muslim people.” As Srebov later told an interviewer:


The plan…envisaged a division of Bosnia into two spheres of interest, leading to the creation of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia. The Muslims were to be subjected to a final solution: more than 50 percent of them were to be killed, a smaller part was to be converted to Orthodoxy, while an even smaller…part-people with money-were to be allowed to buy their lives and leave, probably, through Serbia, for Turkey. The aim was to cleanse Bosnia-Herzegovina completely of the Muslim nation.[16]

This plan was not fully accomplished, although it is astonishing to think that it might have been. With some exceptions, when the Serbs launched their campaign on March 27, 1992, they chose as their first objective to seize those parts of Bosnia closest to Serbia and to the (now Serbian-controlled) Krajina, regardless of who lived there. Within six weeks they controlled 60 percent of the country, and though they would later increase their gains, occupying, at their strongest, some 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory-Serbs made up slightly less than a third of Bosnians-and though the fighting and shelling and skirmishing would go on, the front lines would not change dramatically during the next three years of the war.

When the Serb gunners began shelling cities and towns in Bosnia, the pattern of “cleansing” emerged immediately. Army units would form a perimeter around a town, setting up roadblocks. Messages were sent inviting all Serb residents to depart. Then the artillerymen would begin their work, shelling the town with heavy and light guns; if defenders fired back, the Serb bombardment might last many days, destroying the town and killing most of those in it; if there was no resistance, the heavy guns might stop in a day or two. Once the town was considered sufficiently “softened up,” the paramilitary shock troops would storm in, and the terror would begin.

Like the camp guards-whom they visited when they could in order to take part in torturing prisoners-the paramilitary troops had one responsibility: to administer terror. After a town had been subdued by artillery fire the paramilitaries “mopped up.” Many bore on their person all the iconography of World War II “Chetnik” nationalists: bandoliers across their chests and huge combat knives on their belts; fur hats with symbols of skull and crossbones; black flags, also with skull and crossbones; and the full beard, which, as Ivo Banac says, “in the peasant culture of Serbia is a sign of mourning; somebody dies, one does not shave. This was something that happened in times of war….”[17]

Often the paramilitary troops would arrive at a newly conquered town with lists of influential residents who were to be executed; just as often they simply shot, or stabbed, or mutilated, or raped any resident whom they managed to find. These killers, many of whom were criminals who had been released from prison to “reform themselves” at the front, were attracted to the job by their virulent nationalist beliefs, by simple sadism, and by greed. Looting Muslim houses made many of them rich.

Many of the sadistic, high-living, and colorful paramilitary leaders became celebrities in Serbia. Zeljko Raznatovic, for example, known as Arkan (everyone knew his Serb Volunteer Guard, by far the strongest and best armed of the paramilitaries, as Arkan’s Tigers), was a famous criminal-a bank robber by profession who was thought to be wanted in several European countries, in several of which he had been imprisoned and escaped.

Judah speculates that Arkan’s legendary prison escapes have owed much to his longstanding contacts with agents of an espionage network run out of the Yugoslav Secretariat for Internal Affairs, for whom he reputedly worked as an assassin abroad. (His day job was running a pastry shop.) Having lately married a Serbian pop singer in a huge wedding, Arkan now is a member of the Yugoslav parliament.

Despite their flamboyance and seeming independence, Arkan’s Tigers and the other paramilitaries-Vojislav Seslj’s Chetniks, the White Eagles, the Yellow Ants (the name is a testament to their prowess at looting)-were creatures of the Serbian state. As Milos Vasic, an expert on the Yugoslav military, writes, “They were all organized with the consent of Milosevic’s secret police and armed, commanded, and controlled by its officers.”

Though it is unclear how specifically the officers described actual tactics in the RAM Plan, the similarity of atrocities committed in town after town lends credence to Beverly Allen’s assertion, in Rape Warfare, that they debated in detail the most effective means of terror. Allen quotes one document, “a variation of the RAM Plan, written by the army’s special services, including…experts in psychological warfare,” that offers a chilling sociological rationale for the tactics of ethnic cleansing:


Our analysis of the behavior of the Muslim communities demonstrates that the morale, will, and bellicose nature of their groups can be undermined only if we aim our action at the point where the religious and social structure is most fragile. We refer to the women, especially adolescents, and to the children. Decisive intervention on these social figures would spread confusion…, thus causing first of all fear and then panic, leading to a probable retreat from the territories involved in war activity.

This is why Vasic calls the paramilitaries the “psychological weapon in ethnic cleansing.” The men knew that they must be brutal enough, and inventive enough in their cruelty, that stories of their terror would quickly spread and in the next village, says Vasic, “no one would wait for them to come.” He estimates that the paramilitaries consisted on average of “80 percent common criminals and 20 percent fanatical nationalists.”[18]

Jose Maria Mendiluce, an official of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who happened to pass through Zvornik on April 9, was watching the paramilitaries “mopping up” the town, when he suddenly realized that “the Belgrade media had been writing about how there was a plot to kill all Serbs in Zvornik…. This maneuver always precedes the killing of Muslims.” As Michael Sells, who includes this quotation in his The Bridge Betrayed, comments,


The national mythology, hatred and unfounded charges of actual genocide in Kosovo and imminent genocide in Bosnia had shaped into a code: the charge of genocide became a signal to begin genocide.

Army gunners-some of them positioned across the Drina in Serbia itself-targeted Zvornik and drove its few, lightly armed defenders out in a matter of hours. Then Vojislav Seslj and his Chetnik paramilitaries moved in.

Mendiluce watched as the soldiers and the paramilitaries did their work:


I saw lorries full of corpses. Soldiers were dumping dead women, children and old people onto lorries. I saw four or five lorries full of corpses. On one bend, my jeep skidded on the blood.[19]

United Nations investigators say Seslj briefed his Chetniks in a local hotel, reading out a list of the names of local Muslims who were to be killed. “Milosevic was in total control,” Seslj later told an interviewer, “and the operation was planned…in Belgrade.”


The Bosnian Serbs did take part. But the best combat units came from Serbia. These were special police commandos called Red Berets. They’re from the Secret Service of Serbia. My forces took part, as did others. We planned the operation very carefully, and everything went exactly according to plan.26

According to the United Nations, some two thousand people from Zvornik remain unaccounted for. As for the other 47,000 Muslims, they were expelled, many of them forced onto the roads with only what they wore. Zvornik, which had a thriving community of Muslims for half a millennium, now has none.

Sometimes the cleansing was carried out more gradually. Early in 1992, members of a small paramilitary group seized control of Prijedor’s television transmitter, thus ensuring that the town received only programs from Belgrade-programs which, UN investigators wrote, “insinuated that non-Serbs wanted war and threatened the Serbs.” Soon Yugoslav National Army troops, fresh from the Croatia war, began arriving in the Prijedor area. The Army officers demanded that Prijedor’s leaders permit their troops to take up positions around the city, from which they could control all roads to, and exits from, the district.


It was an ultimatum. The legitimate authorities were invited for a guided sightseeing tour of two Croatian villages…which had been destroyed and left uninhabited. The message was that if the ultimatum was not [accepted], the fate of Prijedor would be the same. … The ultimatum was accepted.27

With Bosnian Serb troops guarding all roads, Prijedor became isolated. The Serbs closed down the bus service. They required that people have permits to visit even nearby villages. They imposed a curfew. The telephones were often not working.

On April 30, in a swift, well-executed coup d’etat, local Serbs seized control of Prijedor itself. According to the United Nations investigators, the Serbs had been preparing to seize power for at least six months, arming themselves with weapons secretly supplied by the Army and developing their own clandestine “parallel” administrations, including a “shadow” police force with its own secret service.

Non-Serbs now began to lose their jobs. Policemen and public officials were the first to be dismissed, but the purge went on until even many manual workers had been fired. The “shadow” administrations already long prepared by the Serbs simply took over the empty offices.

The new Serb policemen, often accompanied by paramilitaries, began to pay visits throughout Prijedor, pounding on the doors of all non-Serbs who held licenses to own firearms and demanding they turn them in.


…The non-Serbs in reality [had become] outlaws. At times, non-Serbs were instructed to wear white armbands to identify themselves.

Finally, near the end of May, the local press-newspapers, radio, and television-began to broadcast a more hysterical version of Belgrade’s propaganda, claiming that dangerous Muslim extremists were hiding around and within Prijedor, preparing to seize the town and commit genocide against the Serbs.

By now it had become quite clear what this accusation heralded. Those few Muslims and Croats who still had weapons decided to move first. As the UN investigators describe it:


On 30 May 1992, a group of probably less than 150 armed non-Serbs had made their way to the Old Town in Prijedor to regain control of the town…. They were defeated, and the Old Town was razed. In the central parts of Prijedor…, all non-Serbs were forced to leave their houses as Serbian military, paramilitary, police and civilians advanced street by street with tanks and lighter arms. The non-Serbs had been instructed over the radio to hang a white piece of cloth on their home to signal surrender.

According to the UN Report, “Hundreds, possibly thousands were killed…frequently after maltreatment.” Those who survived were divided into two groups: women, children, and the very old were often simply expelled; as for the men, thousands were sent to Keraterm and Omarska, the two nearest concentration camps. Although the fighting on May 30 began a general exodus of non-Serbs-the Muslim population dropped from nearly fifty thousand in 1991 to barely 6,000 in 1993-it very quickly became clear that the Serbs were targeting for actual deportation the elite of the city: political leaders, judges, policemen, academics and intellectuals, officials who had worked in the public administration, important business people, and artists. And, after the burning of the old town, any “other important traces of Muslim and Croatian culture and religion-mosques and Catholic churches included-were destroyed.”

On the morning of May 30, 1992, two heavily armed soldiers came to his door and summoned him and, within hours, Rezak Hukanovic, a forty-three-year-old father of two, broadcaster, journalist, and poet, found himself packed into a bus with scores of other frightened men, bent over, his head between his knees, peering out of the corner of his eye at the tongues of flame rising from the Old City of Prijedor. He was on his way to Omarska.


Books referred to in this article:

By Roy Gutman
180 pages, (out of print)
published by Macmillan

By Ed Vulliamy
370 pages, (out of print)
published by Simon and Schuster

By Rezak Hukanovic and with a Foreword by Elie Wiesel
164 pages, $20.00 (hardcover)
published by New Republic/Basic Books

By Warren P. Strobel
275 pages, $29.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (paperback)
published by United States Institute of Peace

By Tim Judah
350 pages, $30.00 (hardcover)
published by Yale University Press

By Beverly Allen 180 pages, $19.95 (hardcover)
published by University of Minnesota Press

By Michael A. Sells
244 pages, $19.95 (hardcover)
published by University of California Press

“Yugoslavia: 1989-1996”
edited by Jeremy R. Azrael, and Emil A. Pagin
217 pages, $15.00 (paperback)
published by Rand

edited by Stjepan G. Mestrovic 259 pages, $34.95 (hardcover)
published by Texas A&M University Press

By Thomas Cushman and Stjepan G. Mestrovic
412 pages, $18.95 (paperback)
published by New York University Press

By Norman Cigar
247 pages, $29.95 (hardcover)
published by Texas A&M University Press

By David Rieff 274 pages, $12.00 (paperback)
published by Touchstone


[1]Roy Gutman of Newsday broke the story of the camps in his article on August 2, 1992; see his collection, A Witness to Genocide (Macmillan, 1993). But it was not until August 6, when Britain’s International Television News (ITN) broadcast the first television pictures from the camps, that President Bush found himself forced to defend his “standoffish” policy toward the former Yugoslavia. See the first article in this series, “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997.

[2]Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 90. Perhaps it was this apparent absence of mortal fear, recalling the “supposed fatalism” of the Muslims, that led the SS men to coin the nickname Musulmen; or it may have been the “swaying motions of the upper part of the body,” brought on by severe muscle atrophy, which the Germans thought echoed “Islamic prayer rituals.” See Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, translated by William Templer (1993; reprinted in translation by Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 329, note 5.

[3]Quoted in Gutman, Witness to Genocide, p. 47.

[4]See “Omarska Detention Camp,” War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Volume II (Helsinki Watch, 1993), p. 108.

[5]“J.” worked in the kitchen at Omarska. See War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Volume II, p. 103, and, for the earlier quotations about the beatings, p. 101.

[6]Final Report of the United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780, 1992 (United Nations, 1994), Annexes, pp. 48-49.

[7]See War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Volume II, pp. 110-111.

[8]See Raul Hilberg, “The Anatomy of the Holocaust,” in Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, editors, The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide (Kraus International, 1980), pp. 90-91.

[9]See Sofsky, The Order of Terror, p. 115.

[10]Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” January 1994.

[11]Republished as The Other Balkan Wars: A 1913 Carnegie Endowment Inquiry in Retrospect with a New Introduction and Reflections on the Present Conflict by George F. Kennan (Carnegie Endowment, 1993), p. 151.

[12]Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” January 1994.

[13] See “The Gates of Hell,” Program Four (UK TX version) in The Death of Yugoslavia, Brian Lapping and Associates; Laura Silber, consultant.

[14]See “The SANU ‘Memorandum,'” in Boze Covic, editor, Roots of Serbian Aggression: Debates Documents Cartographic Review (Centar Za Strane Jezeke Vodnikova, Zagreb, 1991).

[15]Testimony of Jerko Doko, The Prosecutor v. Tadic, case IT-94-I-T, June 6, 1996, pp. 1359-1361, in “Testimony Offered to the International Commission for the Former Yugoslavia,” The Hague, June 6, 1996.

[16]See Adil Kulenovic, “Interview with Vladimir Srebov,” Vreme (Belgrade), October 30, 1995.

[17] See Rabia Ali, “Separating History from Myth: An Interview With Ivo Banac,” in Rabia Ali and Lawrence Lifschultz, editors, Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan War (Stony Creek, Connecticut: Pamphleteer’s Press, 1993), p. 158.

[18]See Milos Vasic, “The Yugoslav Army and the Post-Yugoslav Armies,” in D.A. Dyker and I. Vejvoda, editors, Yugoslavia and After: A Study in Fragmentation, Despair and Rebirth (Longman, 1996), p. 134.

[19] See “The Gates of Hell,” Program Four in The Death of Yugoslavia.

[20]See “The Gates of Hell,” Program Four in The Death of Yugoslavia.

[21] See United Nations Report, Annex V, “The Prijedor Report,” paragraphs 6-13, 16, 19-20.