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America and the Bosnia Genocide

Witness to Genocide

by Roy Gutman
Macmillan, 180 pp., (out of print)

Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War

by Ed Vulliamy
Simon and Schuster, 370 pp., (out of print)

The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia

by Rezak Hukanovic, with a Foreword by Elie Wiesel
New Republic/Basic Books, 164 pp., $20.00

Late-Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations

by Warren P. Strobel
United States Institute of Peace, 275 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Serbs: History, Myth and the Resurrection of Yugoslavia

by Tim Judah
Yale University Press, 350 pp., $30.00

Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia

by Beverly Allen
University of Minnesota Press, 180 pp., $19.95

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia

by Michael A. Sells
University of California Press, 244 pp., $19.95

Yugoslavia: 1989-1996”

by Warren Zimmermann. in US and Russian Policymaking with Respect to the Use of Force, edited by Jeremy R. Azrael, by Emil A. Pagin
Rand, 217 pp., $15.00 (paper)

This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia

edited by Thomas Cushman, by Stjepan G. Mestrovic
New York University Press, 412 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of Ethnic Cleansing

by Norman Cigar
Texas A&M University Press, 247 pp., $29.95

Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West

by David Rieff
Touchstone, 274 pp., $12.00 (paper)


To the hundreds of millions who first beheld them on their television screens that August day in 1992, the faces staring out from behind barbed wire seemed powerfully familiar.1 Sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed, their skulls shaved, their bodies wasted and frail, they did not seem men at all but living archetypes, their faces stylized masks of tragedy. One had thought such faces consigned to the century’s horde of images—the emaciated figures of the 1940s shuffling about in filthy striped uniforms, the bulldozers pushing into dark ditches great masses of lank white bodies. Yet here, a mere half century later, in 1992, came these gaunt beings, clinging to life in Omarska and Trnopolje and the other camps run by Serbs in northern Bosnia, and now displayed before the eyes of the world like fantastic, rediscovered beasts.

The Germans, creators of millions of such living dead, had christened them Muselmänner—Musulmen, Muslims. At Auschwitz, wrote Primo Levi,

the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead in them…. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.2

In Omarska as in Auschwitz the masters created these walking corpses from healthy men by employing simple methods: withhold all but the barest nourishment, forcing the prisoners’ bodies to waste away; impose upon them a ceaseless terror by subjecting them to unremitting physical cruelty; immerse them in degradation and death and decay, destroying all hope and obliterating the will to live.

We won’t waste our bullets on them,” a guard at Omarska, which the Serbs set up in a former open-pit iron mine, told a United Nations representative in mid-1992. “They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals.”3

On August 5, 1992, Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, the first newspaperman admitted into Omarska, stood in the camp’s “canteen” and watched, stupefied, as thirty emaciated men stumbled out into the yard, squinting at the sunlight:

…A group of prisoners…have just emerged from a door in the side of a large rust-colored metal shed. [T]hey run in single file across the courtyard…. Above them in an observation post is the watchful eye, hidden behind reflective sunglasses, of a beefy guard who follows their weary canter with the barrel of his heavy machine gun.

Their…heads [are] newly shaven, their clothes baggy over their skeletal bodies. Some are barely able to move. In the canteen,… they line up in obedient and submissive silence and collect…a meager, watery portion of beans….

They are given precisely three minutes to run from the shed, wait for the food and gulp it down, and run back to the shed. “Whoever didn’t make it would get beaten or killed,” a prisoner identified only as Mirsad told Helsinki Watch investigators. “The stew we were given was boiling hot…so we all had ‘inside burns.’ The inside of my mouth was peeling.”4

Vulliamy and his colleagues stand and gaze at the creatures struggling to wolf down the rations:

…[T]he bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced. Their skin is putrefied, the complexions…have corroded. [They] are alive but decomposed, debased, degraded, and utterly subservient, and yet they fix their huge hollow eyes on us with [what] looks like blades of knives.

It is an extraordinary confrontation, this mutual stare: Vulliamy and his colleagues are reporting from inside a working concentration camp. All the while, though, Serb guards in combat fatigues, cradling AK-47s and bearing great military knives sheathed at their hips, trudge heavily about the room, their eyes glaring above their beards.

Vulliamy moves forward to speak to a “young man, emaciated, sunken-eyed and attacking his watery bean stew like a famished dog, his spindly hands shaking,” but the fellow stops him: “I do not want to tell any lies,” he says, “but I cannot tell the truth.” It is an eloquent comment: most of these Muselmänner prove “too terrified to talk, bowing their heads and excusing themselves by casting a glance at the pacing soldiers, or else they just stare, opaque, spiritless, and terrified.”

The reporters ask to see the hospital and receive a curt refusal. Nor may they look inside that white building—the White House, the prisoners call it—or the great “rust-colored shed” from which the men had come, squinting at the August sun.

Later, survivors describe the shed as “a vast human hen coop, in which thousands of men were crammed for twenty-four hours a day…, living in their own filth and, in many cases, dying from asphyxiation.” So tightly were prisoners packed together in the stifling, airless heat, “Sakib R.” tells Vulliamy, that lying down was impossible and some lost consciousness standing up, collapsing one against another.

I [counted] seven hundred that I could actually see [around me]. A lot of people went mad…: when they went insane, shuddering and screaming, they were taken out and shot.

Though guards at Omarska and other camps shot many prisoners, this was by no means the preferred method. If Auschwitz’s killing tended to be mechanized and bureaucratized, Omarska’s was emotional and personal, for it depended on the simple, intimate act of beating. “They beat us with clubs, bats, hoses, rifle butts,” one survivor told a Helsinki Watch interviewer. “Their favorite was a thick rubber hose with metal on both ends.” They beat us, said another, “with braided cable wires” and with pipes “filled with lead.”

Next to the automatic rifle, next even to the knife (which was freely used at Omarska), the club or the pipe is exhausting, time-consuming, inefficient. Yet the guards made it productive. A female prisoner identified only as “J” told Helsinki Watch investigators:

We saw corpses piled one on top of another…. The bodies eventually were gathered with a forklift and put onto trucks—usually two large trucks and a third, smaller truck. The trucks first would unload containers of food, and then the bodies would be loaded [on]…. This happened almost every day—sometimes there [were]…twenty or thirty—but usually there were more. Most of the deaths occurred as a result of beatings.5

One survivor interviewed by United Nations investigators estimated that “on many occasions, twenty to forty prisoners were killed at night by ‘knife, hammer, and burning.’ He stated that he had witnessed the killing of one prisoner by seven guards who poured petrol on him, set him on fire, and struck him upon the head with a hammer.” All prisoners were beaten, but according to the UN investigators, guards in all the camps meted out especially savage treatment “to intellectuals, politicians, police, and the wealthy.”6 When four guards summoned the president of the local Croatian Democratic Union, Silvije Saric, along with Professor Puskar from nearby Prijedor, for “interrogation,” the female prisoner testified,

I heard beating and yelling…. At times it sounded as if wood were being shattered, but those were bones that were being broken.

…When they opened the door …, they started yelling at us, “Ustasa slut, see what we do to them!” …I saw two piles of blood and flesh in the corner. The two men were so horribly beaten that they no longer had the form of human beings.7

Apart from obvious differences in scale and ambition, it is the Serbs’ reliance on this laborious kind of murder that most strikingly distinguishes the workings of their camps from those of the German death factories. At many of the latter, healthy arrivals would work as slaves until they were reduced to being Muselmänner; death came when camp bureaucrats judged them no longer fit to provide any useful service to the Reich. The gas chambers—routinized, intentionally impersonal means of killing—had evolved partly out of a concern for the effect that committing mass murder would have on troops, even on men specially trained to do it. As Raul Hilberg observed,

The Germans employed the phrase Seelenbelastung (“burdening of the soul”) with reference to machine-gun fire…directed at men, women, and children in prepared ditches. After all, the men that were firing these weapons were themselves fathers. How could they do this day after day? It was then that the technicians developed a gas van designed to lessen the suffering of the perpetrator.8

And even within the camps themselves, SS officers worried that violence and sadism would demoralize and corrupt their elite troops. “The SS leaders,” Wolfgang Sofsky writes,

were indifferent to the suffering of the victims, but not to the morale of their men. Their attention was aroused…by the sadistic excesses of individual tormenters. As a countermeasure, camp brothels were set up, and the task of punishment was delegated to specially selected prisoners. The leadership also transferred certain thugs whose behavior had become intolerable. [Emphasis added]9

At Omarska such men would have been cherished; the out-and-out passion with which a guard administered beatings and devised tortures could greatly bolster his prestige. Acts of flamboyant violence, publicly performed, made of some men celebrities of sadism. In his memoir The Tenth Circle of Hell, Rezak Hukanovic—a Muslim who was a journalist in Prijedor before he was taken to Omarska—describes how guards responded when a prisoner rejected the order to strip and stood immobile amid the cowering naked inmates:

The guard…fired several shots in the air. The man stood stubbornly in place without making the slightest movement. While bluish smoke still rose from the rifle barrel, the guard struck the clothed man in the middle of the head with the rifle butt, once and then again, until the man fell. Then the guard…moved his hand to his belt. A knife flashed in his hand, a long army knife.

He bent down, grabbing hold of the poor guy’s hair…. Another guard joined in, continuously cursing. He, too, had a flashing knife in his hand…. The guards [used] them to tear away the man’s clothes. After only a few seconds, they stood up, their own clothes covered with blood….

…The poor man stood up a little, or rather tried to, letting out excruciating screams. He was covered with blood. One guard took a water hose from a nearby hydrant and directed a strong jet at [him]. A mixture of blood and water flowed down his…gaunt, naked body as he bent down repeatedly, like a wounded Cyclops…; his cries were of someone driven to insanity by pain. And then Djemo and everyone else saw clearly what had happened: the guards had cut off the man’s sexual organ and half of his behind.

Hukanovic’s memoir (in which he writes about himself in the third person as Djemo) and the testimony of other former prisoners overflow with such horror. Reading them, one feels enervated, and also bewildered: What accounts for such unquenchable blood-lust? This is a large subject, to which I shall return; but part of the answer may have to do with the elaborate ideology that stands behind Serb objectives in the war. In order to achieve a “Greater Serbia,” which will at last bring together all Serbs in one land, they feel they must “cleanse” what is “their” land of outsiders. Founding—or rather reestablishing—“Greater Serbia” is critical not only because it satisfies an ancient historical claim but because Serbs must protect themselves from the “genocide” others even now are planning for them.

  1. 1

    Roy Gutman of Newsday broke the story of the camps in his article on August 2, 1992; see his collection, A Witness to Genocide (Macmillan, 1993). But it was not until August 6, when Britain’s International Television News (ITN) broadcast the first television pictures from the camps, that President Bush found himself forced to defend his “standoffish” policy toward the former Yugoslavia. See the first article in this series, “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997.

  2. 2

    Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 90. Perhaps it was this apparent absence of mortal fear, recalling the “supposed fatalism” of the Muslims, that led the SS men to coin the nickname Musulmen; or it may have been the “swaying motions of the upper part of the body,” brought on by severe muscle atrophy, which the Germans thought echoed “Islamic prayer rituals.” See Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp, translated by William Templer (1993; reprinted in translation by Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 329, note 5.

  3. 3

    Quoted in Gutman, Witness to Genocide, p. 47.

  4. 4

    See “Omarska Detention Camp,” War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Volume II (Helsinki Watch, 1993), p. 108.

  5. 5

    J.” worked in the kitchen at Omarska. See War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Volume II, p. 103, and, for the earlier quotations about the beatings, p. 101.

  6. 6

    Final Report of the United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780, 1992 (United Nations, 1994), Annexes, pp. 48-49.

  7. 7

    See War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Volume II, pp. 110-111.

  8. 8

    See Raul Hilberg, “The Anatomy of the Holocaust,” in Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton, editors, The Holocaust: Ideology, Bureaucracy, and Genocide (Kraus International, 1980), pp. 90-91.

  9. 9

    See Sofsky, The Order of Terror, p. 115.

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