Witness to Genocide
Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia's War
The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia
Late-Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media's Influence on Peace Operations
The Serbs: History, Myth and the Resurrection of Yugoslavia
Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia
The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia
This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia
Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of Ethnic Cleansing
Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.