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Source: The Washington Post Magazine, September 25, 1994

Refik "Mara" Saric captured in Danish refugee camp

(Excerpts from In the Shadow of the Holocaust)

In the moments before mob violence, the air around a riot site fills with a kind of static charge, as if collective human feeling has reached a critical mass and been transformed into a physical property. By midnight on January 27 such a charge was coursing through a former psychiatric hospital in Austrup in eastern Denmark. A crowd had formed. Disembodied voices cried out for murder. A family of four, the objects of this fury, cowered in a locked office.

They had arrived in the half-light of a North European winter's afternoon. They were refugees--grateful, bitter, exhausted. At the Copenhagen airport they had boarded a bus with 109 others fleeing what is left of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The family--Refik "Mara" Saric, his wife, Marina, and two very young children--called themselves Croatians, which turned out to be partially true, or true in a manner of speaking. Anyway, their Danish hosts were not much interested in ethnic or religious identities. Studiously impartial, the Danes preferred to see all Bosnian victims as equal. To classify or separate refugees by ethnic identity was to endorse the evils of "ethnic cleansing." Bosnia might no longer be peaceful and pluralist, but Denmark was, and would be, insistently.

The Danish Red Cross had converted the former Austrup insane asylum into a refugee transit camp. Hundreds of Balkan families slept side by side and jostled over communal bathrooms within its walls. Most were Bosnian Muslims, bearers of the brunt of their war's atrocities and degradations. Dozens, perhaps as many as 120, were recent survivors of Croatian-run wartime detention camps. In these camps terrible brutalities--murder, starvation, torture--had transpired.

In one called Dretelj, prisoners were stripped naked and dragged on their backs across steaming asphalt, survivors recalled. Many were beaten repeatedly and some died of the blows, the survivors said. Others were left to rot in an underground bunker where temperatures rose above 100 degrees. The lone meal every day was a thin hunk of bread and a cup of soup. it had to be swallowed in a minute or less; those slow to eat were beaten by a cruel, stick-wielding camp guard, a savage who participated in much of the depraved violence that made Dretelj so unbearable.

This camp guard's name was Mara Saric.

Or so the former prisoners insisted. None of the Dretelj survivors at Austrup that January night had any doubt. The rumors started almost immediately: He was here. It was unbelievable. Furious whispers swept through the corridors. Phone calls went out to other refugee camps. Former Dretelj prisoners settled elsewhere in Denmark climbed into cars for the drive to Austrup--if Mara Saric was here, really here, they would kill him with their own hands.

In the corridors, as night descended, groups of Muslim men huddled in discussion. What should they do? Attack him? Call in the Danish police?

Mara Saric fetched a tray of sandwiches and sodas from the hospital cafeteria. He sat down with his wife and children. After dinner, the children fell asleep on his lap. But Mara and his wife knew something was amiss. Refugees claiming to be sympathetic approached and whispered warnings.

Frightened, Marina began to question her husband. She knew he had been at Dretelj. What had happened in that camp? Why were these people so angry?

"Marina, I didn't do anything," he replied. '"'I don't know what this is about."

Still, the anger in the corridors spread. Panicked Red Cross officials ushered the Saric family into an office, locked the door and called the police. But the police were too few at first. A crowd of refugees closed in. They shouted and banged on the doors until Marina thought the office walls were about to collapse.

"Mara! You Croatian Ustashe!" voices from the mob cried, using the term for the Balkan Nazi collaborators during World War II. "We're going to kill you!"

And to his wife, "For you, Ustashe woman--we're going to find you!"

Their daughter, age 5, woke and began to cry. The banging and threats continued. Squads of Danish riot police finally arrived. They brought dogs to control the crowd. They pushed through the refugees and formed a human corridor of policemen in riot gear leading from the Red Cross office out of the asylum to a pair of waiting police cars. When the police were ready, the Saric family walked the gantlet. Shoes, bananas and pails of garbage hailed down from Muslim refugees who leaned from windows on the upper floors. Marina Saric could barely walk; she thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. Her husband lifted their 3-year-old son above his head to discourage lethal attacks from above. They climbed into police cars and were driven off into the night.

Today Mara Saric is one of exactly four people in jail in Western Europe for the alleged commision of war crimes in Bosnia. Saric denies the charges. "I was a convict like they were, I am innocent," he writes from a Copenhagen prison. His trial is scheduled to begin in November. Saric has been accused under a Danish law, never before enforced, that was enacted after World War II as the continent attempted to enshrine in legal codes the post-Holocaust rallying cry, "Never again."

...It is safe to presume that Mara Saric thought about none of this when he disembarked from his refugee bus that night in Austrup. He and his family had described themselves as victims of Bosnian atrocities and had been quickly resettled in Denmark by the Red Cross.

The Danish prosecutor who has painstakingly built the case against him concedes that however heinous the crimes he is charged with, Saric is a little fish in a large and poisonous Balkan sea. Yet for those seeking formal, legal justice for Bosnia's war criminals, "you could have the point of view that they have to start somewhere," the prosecutor says.