Middle Managers of Genocide
By Ed Vulliamy
Almost four years ago, a television reporter and I stumbled into a place that bewildered and outraged the world. Omarska was a concentration camp in northwestern Bosnia run by Bosnian Serbs and dedicated to the humiliation and murder of Muslims and Croats. It seemed unbelievable that a network of such camps -- with their echo of the Third Reich -- could have existed in the heart of Europe, hidden from view for three months while thousands were slaughtered and those who remained were kept skeletal, bloodied by torture and living in abject, desolate terror.
Now, with Bosnia's guns at least temporarily silenced, comes the bitter reckoning. On May 7, one of Omarska's most notorious alleged torturers and killers, Dusko Tadic, took his place in the dock at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, standing where no man has stood since Göring and Hess, charged with crimes against humanity. (I am obliged to testify at the trial as a witness for the prosecution.) But the reckoning is more than a judicial matter. It is an attempt to try to understand the most ferocious carnage to blight Europe in fifty years. To understand the war, I had to return to the iron-ore mine that had housed the accursed concentration camp.
In 1992 it took five putrid summer days to argue our way into the camp. But now the road is empty at the turnoff for Omarska. Flakes of snow, which mute all sound and drape the mine in virgin white, have overlaid what happened here. It is seven below zero, but our shivers are not from the cold. Children play with sleds in the yard behind the gate. A couple of stray mongrels now frolic in and out of the jaw of a hydraulic door.
In 1992, this tarmac was a killing yard, the bodies loaded onto trucks by bulldozer. Omarska was a place where cruelty and mass murder had become a form of recreation. The guards were often drunk and singing while they tortured. A prisoner called Fikret Harambasic was castrated by one of his fellow inmates before being beaten to death. One inmate was made to bark like a dog and lap at a puddle of motor oil while a guard and his mates from the village jumped up and down on his back until he was dead. The guards would make videos of this butchery for their home entertainment. But the most extraordinary hallmark of the carnage was its grotesque intimacy. People knew their torturers, and had often grown up alongside them.
The mine installations have become emblems of evil: Rusty boxcars sit along the railway tracks leading out of the complex. In 1992, this rolling stock was loaded with Muslim deportees. Spidery iron tentacles, conveyor belts and limbs of machinery link one shed to another, silent and skeletal like the inmates that were packed inside.
Now, three sentries stop us. Two of these lads are from the village of Omarska itself, and had worked at the mine. "Nothing happened here," asserts a bright-eyed 28-year-old who was employed as a mine technician and has stayed on with the security staff, now in military uniform. Iron ore was processed here, he says, up until the end of 1992. "So how can it have been any kind of camp in August that year? We are from Omarska, we would have known." He elaborates: "They came here recently, the Americans, looking for mass graves, but they didn't find any. There are no mass graves here. There was no camp -- ever." The technician's friend and co-sentry is only 24, from the village but "too young to have worked at the mine." He says: "I blame the journalists. The Muslims paid the media, and the television pictures were forged." There is a fascination with deception. "Anyone could do that," says the 28-year-old.
We ask them their names. The answer from the technician, suddenly harsh, is unexpected. "We had a nice chat, but names are a secret. The Muslims know me, and I know them. But they have to produce evidence of what I did. These days, they can just come up to you in the street and take you to The Hague. That's how they work."
"Did you know Dusko Tadic?" I ask. They shrug and mumble. "Not well. He had a nice cafe in Kozarac.... There was no camp here...."
At the briefing in August 1992 at the Prijedor town hall, from where Omarska was administered, the authorities insisted that there was no camp, only an "investigation center." (It was in the town hall that I briefly met Tadic that year.) The figure responsible for day-to-day administration of the camp was Milan Kovacevic, a man with a swashbuckling mustache and a "US Marines" T-shirt. He decreed then that there was nothing the world could teach the Serbs about concentration camps, since he had been raised in one -- Jasenovac, where the Croatian Nazi-puppet regime imprisoned and killed thousands of Serbs, Jews and Croatian dissidents between 1941 and 1945. After our discovery of Omarska, the media circus descended and the camp was hastily closed. Kovacevic was assigned the task of explaining to the world's cameras what an "investigation center" is.
In 1992, Kovacevic's eyes were fiery with enthusiasm for what he called "a great moment in the history of the Serbs." They are still fiery now, but from some other emotion. He has a taste for homemade plum brandy, and he extracts some from his cupboard at 9 A.M. It's been a good year for plums, he explains, but the jam factories are all shut. Shame to let the fruit go to waste.
Kovacevic is also a medical man, now director of the town hospital of Prijedor. Despite growing up "to learn that all Germans were killers," he elected to go to Germany to study anesthesiology. He is still a proud nationalist who "wanted to make this a Serb land, without Muslims." But his certainty about the ends conceals doubt about the means. What about burning the Muslim houses along the road? Was that necessary, or a moment of madness? Kovacevic proceeds cautiously, accompanied by a second glass of brandy: "Both things. A necessary fight and a moment of madness. The houses were burned at the beginning, when people were losing control. People weren't behaving normally." This comes as a surprise. Was it all a terrible mistake? "To be sure, it was a terrible mistake." A third glass, and suddenly, unprompted: "We knew very well what happened at Auschwitz and Dachau, and we knew very well how it started and how it was done. What we did was not the same as Auschwitz or Dachau, but it was a mistake. It was planned to have a camp, but not a concentration camp."
Usually it is only "enemies of the Serbian people" who invoke Auschwitz when talking about Omarska. But the anesthetist plows boldly on. He has never had this conversation before, he says. In fact, no one in Bosnia has had this conversation before. "Omarska," he continues, "was planned as a camp, but was turned into something else because of this loss of control. I cannot explain the loss of control. You could call it collective madness."
Another glass of brandy to steel the spirit, and for reasons not hard to guess, his childhood in Jasenovac comes to mind. "Six hundred thousand were killed in Jasenovac," he muses. "I was taken there as a baby, by my aunt. My mother was in the mountains, hiding. We remember everything. History is made that way." But Jasenovac was run by Croats; why did the Serbs turn on the Muslims? Kovacevic straightens himself. "There is a direct connection between what happened to the Muslims in our camps and the fact that there had been some Muslim soldiers in the [pro-Nazi] Greater Croatia. They committed war crimes, and now it is the other way round."
In Omarska, he says, "there were not more than 100 killed, whereas Jasenovac was a killing factory." Only 100 killed at Omarska? He blushes. "I said there were 100 killed, not died." Then Kovacevic loses his way and throws off caution: "Oh, I don't know how many were killed in there; God knows. It's a wind tunnel, this part of the world, a hurricane blowing to and fro...."
By now the cheaply paneled room is steaming with the exhaled fumes of fast-disappearing cigarettes, a fifth glass and talk of death. So, Doctor, who planned this madness? "It all looks very well planned if your view is from New York," he says. He edges forward on his low chair, as if to whisper some personal advice. "But here, when everything is burning, and breaking apart inside people's heads -- this was something for the psychiatrists. These people should all have been taken to the psychiatrist, but there wasn't enough time."
In 1992, Kovacevic did not hide his role in operating the camp, but now The Hague is becoming serious. Were you part of this insanity, Doctor? "If someone acquitted me, saying that I was not part of that collective madness, then I would admit that this was not true.... If things go wrong in the hospital, then I am guilty. If you have to do things by killing people, well -- that is my personal secret. Now my hair is white. I don't sleep so well."
Kovacevic's boss was the mayor of Prijedor, Milomir Stakic. I remember him barking in 1992 about an armed Islamic conspiracy against the Serbs, coordinated by the United States. At the time he was the man with the authority to grant or refuse access to Omarska. When I meet Stakic again, I find out he is also a medical man, director of the daycare health center in Prijedor, not too far from Omarska. His specialization in neuropsychiatry was interrupted by war and political office. Dr. Stakic introduces a fellow with a menacing air, Viktor Kondic, whom he calls his deputy at the health center.
Stakic swivels back and forth in his chair as he speaks. "As a doctor," he says, "I saw many wounded and mutilated people. The question was: Do the Serbs stay on their knees, or go back to Jasenovac a second time?" If there was a threat to the Serbs, was the reaction perhaps a little too much? "No," he snaps. What about Omarska? Kondic intervenes quickly and disagreeably. "Omarska was a mine. An iron-ore mine. That is all." The reports, the television pictures? Dr. Stakic clarifies: "They were pictures of Serbs in Muslim camps. There were no prisoners there."
Then comes an immediate negation: "Omarska was for Muslims with illegal weapons. Omarska was not a hotel" -- he manages his only smile, and it is not an agreeable one -- "but Omarska was not a concentration camp."
"The Serbs go to extremes only when their freedom is threatened," says Stakic, suddenly and oddly. "Unfortunately," chimes in Kondic, who now describes himself as "a lawyer" (we later find out he is a secret policeman) and whose eyes roll skyward, "we learned to defend our freedom in concentration camps." There ensues a long, torturous conversation not about Omarska but about Jasenovac. The wintry night has fallen, the streets outside are still, Prijedor is wrapped in fog.Within there is a leaden silence, until Stakic volunteers a strange remark: "It is very brave of you to be sitting here like this, with us so late in the evening."
The journey to Omarska in 1992 began and ended in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by a senior middle manager of the proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Professor Nikola Koljevic. He was to supervise our access to Omarska.
An expert on Shakespeare, the impish Koljevic has seduced many Westerners with his ample quoting of the Bard and command of English. The day after we finally found the camps, his invitation to tea and cakes at a smart hotel back in Belgrade was irresistible. "So you found them," he said sardonically, "congratulations!" And then, in a piquant voice that evoked his favorite Shakespearean character, Iago, he embarked on a double-edged reproach: "It took you a long time to find them, didn't it? Three months! And so near Venice! All you people could think about was poor, sophisticated Sarajevo. Ha-ha!" And then, with a chill in his voice: "None of you ever had your holidays at Omarska, did you? No Olympic games in Prijedor!"
I find him again, in wintry Banja Luka, in 1996. Koljevic walks over to the window and stares down at the people trudging through the slush. This miserable place has achieved what it wanted; it has "won" its war: every Muslim gone, every mosque disappeared without a trace. Koljevic, transfixed, loses his flow and begins to talk to himself: "Bones," he mutters. "Bones, we were digging up the bones." His eyes widen unpleasantly; he appears hypnotized, his imagination ambushed. "The bones of our dead from 1941. We dug them up to give them proper burial on Serbian land.... We found shoes. Children's shoes. How much more alive a shoe is than bones...." (This was a macabre prologue to the war, in the late eighties: a Serbian cult of exhuming their World War II dead.) Then the professor suddenly comes to his senses. "Er...I'm just trying to illustrate the psychology." Finally, I feel, we are approaching an answer to the question: How did Omarska happen?
What the Serbs have done is to project their own obsessive and disastrous "racial memory" (Koljevic's term) onto their perceived enemies. The Serbs' inimitable cult of the victim demanded that they create victims. Their experience of concentration camps demanded that they create concentration camps. They lie and manipulate, but insist on a conspiracy of lies and manipulation against them. When they look into the mirror they see someone they must call their enemy, so as not to see themselves. When they look at history they must contort it, lest they see what they do. They must rewrite the history they defile.
And then there is the psychodrama of the restless dead, of Professor Koljevic's bones. The Serbs exhumed the bones of their own dead from World War II, only to bury their enemies in mass graves. Now they exhume those victims and move them away from the glare of the Hague investigations, meanwhile disinterring their own relatives for reburial on "Serbian" soil. The joke is that the only people enjoying freedom of movement under the Dayton plan are the dead.
Professor Koljevic is fascinated by victims and masters. "The basic problem with Muslims," he says, "is their problem with equality. Psychologically, historically, they are either masters or servants. Now they want to be masters again." It is a description not of the Muslims but of the Serbs. By way of farewell, the professor produces his current reading, Daniel Boorstin's The Image. He reads aloud from the foreword: "This book is about our art of self-deception. How we hide reality from ourselves." For the perpetrators of Bosnia's carnage, the reckoning is an opportunity to confront what they have done and exorcise it -- much as the Germans did out of the ashes of the Third Reich. But, undefeated, the Serbs choose to "hide reality from themselves." They think they were right, and they can think it again.
Thousands of miles away this spring, a book is published -- Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners -- positing the terrifying notion that it was a whole society that unleashed the Nazi Holocaust, not an elite that poisoned the minds of an otherwise innocent people. We had the same argument here, over and over again: Can such a whirlwind of violence be dictated by an elite that dupes an otherwise kindly, boozy folk?
Here at the village of Omarska, in the shadow of the accursed mine, everyone knew and nobody objected. There are soldiers and pretty girls sipping coffee at the Wiski Bar where the main street meets the railway sidings that run into the mine. For four months, as they freebooted around the scrappy streets, these people were yards away from the screaming and the mutilation. They would have watched the "ethnic cleansing" convoys pass, out on the road to nowhere. I was part of such a convoy of 1,600 wretched Muslim deportees myself; we were herded over the mountains at gunpoint, through a terrifying gantlet of hatred and spitting, or else cold nonchalance, by the Serbs who beheld us from the roadside.
These people in Omarska's Wiski Bar, listening to Madonna on the jukebox, would have watched the trucks enter Camp Omarska full of people, only to come out empty. Perhaps they spat then, too. But now, in the frozen village, we are told, "There was no camp here -- ever."
Meanwhile, the outside world, as Professor Koljevic rightly mocked, failed to uncover Omarska, "so near Venice." The media and the politicians cared for a few days once Omarska was forced into the spotlight, but then the world did as little as possible about it. Now, a few bloody years later, NATO's commanding admiral, Leighton Smith, is breaking through Omarska, leading platoons of writers from glossy magazines and experts from the human rights industry in a search for buried bones. When there was everything to be done, we pretended to know nothing. Today, when there is so little left to do, we want to know everything. Such is the dark triumph of the middle managers of genocide.
Ed Vulliamy, a correspondent for the Guardian of London, won major awards in British journalism for his discovery of the Omarska concentration camp and his coverage of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
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