A MUGGY stench of sweat and human waste hangs like an invisible curtain throughout the cavernous concrete bunker set deep into a rocky hillside.
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.
As part of Zagreb's apparent damage-control effort, the International Red Cross was permitted into Dretelj on Monday for the first time.
The foreign correspondents were allowed in a day later. The Monitor was the only US newspaper represented.
Many inmates were too petrified to speak, with a pistol-toting Sakota - who conducted the tour - ordering that interviews be held only in Serbo-Croatian through a translator.
But, numerous inmates spoke on the basis of anonymity. Several managed conversations in English and German while Mr. Sakota's attention was elsewhere. Others spoke openly in front of him.
They confirmed that abuses and appalling conditions had prevailed until the arrival of Sakota, who they agreed brought improvements that included regular meals and better hygiene.
``There were many tortures. Some people were wounded. Some people were killed,'' says a young man. ``There were beatings every day.''
Several inmates asserted that some abuses still persisted, and that about 120 men had been hidden just before the Red Cross arrived because they were so thin from malnutrition.
Inmates contended that up to five prisoners had been killed.
At least two were shot dead just after the camp opened, they say, when intoxicated HVO guards fired on several occasions over a three-day period through the closed metal doors of the storage bunkers as hundreds of terrified men crouched in the darkness. As many as 12 prisoners were wounded, they said.
``Bullets flew all around,'' one inmate recounts, pointing to unmistakable bullet holes in a wall. ``One man had bullets in his legs for five days before they gave him any help.''
Inmates said that their first weeks were the worst.
They were forced to sing Croatian nationalist songs, and food and water were withheld during the three days the shootings occurred, they said.
Otherwise, small quantities of food and water were provided only once a day. The bunker doors were shut for days at a time; the lack of ventilation at the height of the summer and pitch-dark fueled their suffering, inmates say.
``The door was always closed. Now it is always open,'' a detainee says, referring to one of Sakota's improvements. ``Once, for about 15 days, we were kept in total darkness.''
Some inmates became so desperate from dehydration that they were compelled to drink their own urine, prisoners said.
Sanitation was also allegedly non-existent.
Detainees said that before Sakota's arrival, they were not allowed outside to go to the bathroom.
Although a crude health clinic was set up in a small garage, few medicines were given to three Muslim Slav doctors for treating wounds and illnesses.
Some 20 inmates lay two to a filthy mattress, many clearly badly malnourished. One lay with his eyes closed, too weak to sit up.
``The greatest problem right now is the lack of nutrition and the problems that come with it,'' says Dr. Hasan Redzic, a resident of nearby Stolac who was imprisoned two months ago. Conditions had been worse
Sakota confirmed that conditions were dismal before his arrival.
``I saw that the men here were deprived both physically and mentally and they had a lot of fear in them,'' he said.
He said that Bosnian Croat authorities, struggling to feed and house thousands of Bosnian Croat refugees from central Bosnia, wanted to close Dretelj and other camps before the winter.
Negotiations on prisoner exchanges are under way with the Bosnian Army, he said.