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Muslims Abused in Prison Camp

UN officials say they have no doubt that prison camps at Dretelj and elsewhere are part of a drive by Bosnian Croat forces to cleanse Muslim Slavs from western Herzegovina

By Jonathan S. LandaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1993


A MUGGY stench of sweat and human waste hangs like an invisible curtain throughout the cavernous concrete bunker set deep into a rocky hillside.

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Crushed side-by-side in the almost-dark, hundreds of hollow-eyed, rail-thin men in filthy clothes sit or lie on blankets and pieces of cardboard laid in rows on the concrete floor.

Skin drum-tight over haggard faces, they wait, petrified of losing their lives before regaining their freedom through a prisoner exchange or a letter guaranteeing acceptance by a foreign country.

``I am just afraid they might take me out one night,'' whispers a wild-eyed man, whipping a finger across his throat.

Some 1,400 Bosnian Muslim men have been shut up since early June in four warehouses and two underground storage bunkers at Dretelj, a former Yugoslav Army fuel depot that was turned into a prison by the Croatian Defense Council, or HVO, the Zagreb-backed militia of the self-declared Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna.

Located near Caplinja in the rugged Bosnian Croat heartland of western Herzegovina, Dretelj is the focus of charges of serious abuses, including beatings, murders, torture, malnutrition, and foul hygienic conditions, raised this week by United Nations officials.

The allegations were confirmed by inmates interviewed on Tuesday by the first four foreign reporters permitted into Dretelj.

``They did everything to us here,'' says one detainee.

UN officials heard of the abuses from former inmates freed last week and then herded naked across the front-lines near the Bosnian Army-held town of Jablanica by HVO troops firing guns. Abuses on all sides

The case highlights the persistent mistreatment of prisoners by Bosnia-Herzegovina's warring factions more than a year after the worldwide horror over executions and torture of hundreds of Muslim Slavs reportedly committed in Bosnian-Serb-run camps.

The alleged abuses at Dretelj, one of three major HVO-run makeshift prisons near the beleaguered southern city of Mostar, did not come near the level of brutality attributed to the Bosnian Serbs.

But UN officials say there is no doubt that Dretelj and the other camps are part of a drive to cleanse Muslim Slavs from western Herzegovina, and the HVO is encouraged by the internationally backed proposal to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina along ethnic lines.

A vast majority of inmates at Dretelj are from the immediate region. Ironically, most fought the Bosnian Serbs as HVO members before being disarmed and imprisoned as ``security threats'' by their erstwhile Bosnian Croat brothers-in-arms.

Their families have been expelled to Jablanica or driven across the Neretva River into Bosnian Army-held eastern Mostar, where some 70,000 people are now trapped, Western aid workers said.

Other Dretelj inmates were swept up by HVO ethnic cleansing sweeps from Bosnian Croat-held western Mostar as recently as Monday.

``This is my second day here,'' says Alija Demrovic. ``They took us from our homes and separated the men. Where my wife and child are, I don't know.'' Damage control

The potentially damaging situation apparently panicked Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the HVO's main patron, into directing Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban to ensure human rights standards.

President Tudjman's office delivered a similar directive by telephone to Tomo Sakota, a former tobacco company salesman appointed as Dretelj's commandant six weeks ago.