Prisoners Describe Life Inside Detention Camp
After delay, previously unknown Klis camp is opened to Red Cross and journalists. BEYOND THE GATE
KLIS, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — HASIB VERKATBEGOVIC, a graying, toothless 52-year-old, is hardly military material.
But the reed-thin peasant has been confined for almost three months with more than 1,290 other Muslim Slavs in a makeshift prisoner of war camp set up by Serbian forces on a state-owned farm in this isolated corner of strife-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most prisoners here are "potential soldiers," says Maj. Jovica Simic, of the so-called Serbian army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This army is made up largely of Serbs from Bosnia, who were members of the former Yugoslav Army.
Like Mr. Verkatbegovic, most of the inmates are civilians swept up in Serbian "ethnic cleansing," which has driven hundreds of thousands of Muslim Slavs and Croats from huge swatches of territory across the republic.
International human-rights organizations contend that all the warring factions have imprisoned civilians in camps like Klis in violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention. They are held either for exchanges or simply to prevent them from returning home.
But human-rights monitors agree that the scale of the Serbian detentions, deportations, house-burnings, and other terror tactics aimed at creating ethnically "pure" regions dwarfs those of the Muslim Slavs and Croats.
On May 31, Verkatbegovic says, Serbs entered his village, Papraca, located near Vlasenica, a predominantly Muslim Slav town overrun by Yugoslav Army-armed Serbian forces early in their more than four-month-old offensive in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"We were told by loudspeaker to leave our homes immediately and gather in the middle of Vlasenica. All of the inhabitants. Also woman and children. Only Muslims," he says. Families separated
"The women and children were taken away by bus, we don't know where," he says, sitting on a filthy mattress next to his 54-year-old brother, Rahib.
Since then, he says struggling to choke back tears, he has heard nothing of his wife, three children and 84-year-old mother.
Another Vlasenica resident, who gave his name only as Sead, a 23-year-old laborer, says: "I am here with my brother and my father. My mother and my two sisters are refugees."
The Klis camp consists of two poorly ventilated, ill-lit farm warehouses.
One measures about 1,000-square meters and holds about 1,000 inmates who sit and sleep crushed side-to-side on regimented rows of blanket-covered bales of straw amid a thick, cloying stench of human sweat.
The second, slightly smaller warehouse contains the remaining prisoners. They have been provided with stained mattresses and are afforded the privilege of watching television.
Most have only the clothes in which they were arrested. Camp conditions
"The conditions of people here are much better than I can say about the condition of our soldiers on the front," says Major Simic.
The camp was unknown even to the Bosnian government in Sarajevo until last week, when Serbian military officials confirmed tales of its existence to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
But an ICRC team probing reports of mistreatment, torture, and killings in detention centers were forced to wait a week before entering the camp, giving jailers time to prepare their prisoners and make any improvements they deemed necessary.
For that reason, the first two Western journalists admitted to the facility were unable to ascertain what conditions were like before the ICRC sought access to the compound, which is set amid miles of lush cornfields north of the town of Bijeljina.
During the two-hour tour Wednesday, only one prisoner spoke without solicitation. And, as he claimed that conditions were "good," several behind him stared at this reporter as they slowly shook their heads and rolled their eyes in a warning that he should not be believed.
Groups of prisoners were seen waiting to use latrines set up in dusty, fenced-in yards in the rear of the two warehouses. Others washed or shaved at spigots or were escorted singly into the camp doctor's office.
Serbian guards with machineguns kept watch from two small towers just outside the fences.
Answering questions in subdued tones and frequently glancing at Serbian officers standing nearby, inmates insisted that they have been well fed.
Many, however, were clearly emaciated, their skin stretched drum-tight around arms and skulls, their eyes sunk deeply into shadow-rimmed sockets.
Prisoners vehemently denied that they had been abused or beaten. Several, however, were seen limping, supported by friends, while others sported freshly bandaged wounds.
Inmates and Serbian officers say there had been no deaths in the camp. But Muslim Slav residents of Bijeljina contended they knew of the death of at least one man, albeit by natural causes.
There was, however, ample proof that the Serbian soldiers running the camp are violating the Geneva Convention, a copy of which they have, according to Simic.
Among other things, he admitted that inmates are "required" to work without pay in nearby fields to replace Serbs sent to the front.
And he confirmed that the inmates included civilians, saying the majority were being held as "potential soldiers."
"The rest of them were caught in fighting zones and they were taken for their personal protection," he says. "After the fighting is over, they will be released."
He hastened to say some inmates were "fighters and people who committed crimes. They took part in mass killings and massacres and rapes of girls under 18. They also mutilated dead bodies."
"There is a procedure of interrogations and investigations and they will probably go to trial because it is impossible to forget such crimes," Simic added.
Among the inmates are about 40 young Muslim Slavs who had been stationed in neighboring Serbia as conscripts in the Yugoslav Army when the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina erupted.
Discharged and told to return home, they were arrested by Serbian soldiers just after crossing the Bosnian border.
"I was taken off the bus on June 2," says Majid Music, like other former Yugoslav Army draftees still in his uniform. "We are Muslims, but we were not allowed to go to our homes."
Music says that his family has no knowledge of his whereabouts.
He celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday.