‘A nightmare, and it gets worse’ / Prisoners’ eyes reflect the terror in Bosnia

USA Today
August 14, 1992, Friday, Final Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 11A
LENGTH: 935 words
DATELINE: SANSKI MOST, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Terror has sealed the lips of the men held in captivity at the nearby Splonum detention camp, but it shouts out through their eyes.

None of the 175 or so men held captive dare to look up at visitors. That could mean a beating later, they whisper quickly. That could mean an immediate trial and conviction as a ”war criminal,” they say. Or it could mean they will be shipped somewhere else, where captivity is synonymous with torture and execution.

”There are other camps around here,” says Hammed Gagic, 42, a truck driver who lived just 10 kilometers from Splonum. Gagic has been here 20 days and has seen former neighbors taken away.

The Serbian-run detention center houses captives whose only crimes, they say in frightened interviews, are that they’re Muslim or ethnic Croatian. The camp is one of dozens that international organizations are trying to find and inspect. Charges of brutality, torture and murder abound.

But here in northwest Bosnia, where mountains are steep and roads unpaved, there is a macabre shell game going on, with prison camps being closed and others opened, as battered and frantic civilians are shuffled from one to another.

The Red Cross says the camps are ”overflowing with innocent and terrorized civilians” as part of ”systematic brutality.”

But terror’s boundaries go beyond the camps. It stalks all the towns in the area that lie outside the eye of international groups and reporters’ cameras.

Northwest Bosnia is an area laden with detention camps and ethnic ghettos patrolled by heavily armed, drunken soldiers and policemen, where civilians recount chilling nighttime knocks on doors.

”People are scared. It’s like a nightmare. And it gets worse once one community flees. Then the security and safety that you have in numbers decreases,” says Peter Kessler of the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In this camp, guards stroll about, waving automatic weapons in every response. Any gesture by the prisoners, any gaze up, is greeted by the immediate arrival of a soldier.

There is little talking by those in detention in this one-time machine shop. The silence is broken by music that blares from loudspeakers across the top of the camp.

”You can see, these people are well,” says Mirco, a policeman who insists on accompanying visitors and using only one name. ”They can even go outside to smoke.”

When a soldier is nearby, a prisoner will only mumble dobro, meaning “good.” But the minute the soldier’s attention turns elsewhere, and the question is “Have you been beaten?” the prisoners say da as they point to parts of the body where the blows landed.

In this camp, there were about 175 men, ranging from their mid-20s to over 60. The facility is about 120 yards long and 30 yards wide.

Prisoners are stretched out in three rows, sitting on small wooden pallets, each covered with a blanket. Extra clothes hang from the wall and a few dishes and other utensils are scattered about.

The place appears clean. Prisoners are escorted out back for toilet use in the field. Most men have the beginnings of beards; none wore belts.

Their food comes from families who live nearby. They line up at dusk, bringing water in bottles, juice, bread, fresh tomatoes and meat sandwiches.

”Some people here will go back to their houses. Some people will go fight against the enemy. Others will be tried,” Mirco says of those being kept here. The guards say all the men are Muslim and Croatian soldiers. Those prisoners who talk say they are farmers, laborers or unemployed – but not fighters.

”I am not a soldier,” Gagic says. ”I am a truck driver.”

”Tell the truth,” says a soldier who hurries over. ”Tell them you were in the army.”

”Yes, I was in the army. I was in the JNA,” Gagic says, meaning the old Yugoslavian army.

Serbian forces in Bosnia have begun emptying and dismantling some of the more brutal detention camps as international pressure to open them intensfies.

In the area around Sanski Most, 11,000 Muslims now are waiting to get out, some of the 28,000 who have signed letters to the United Nations asking for safe passage out of Serb-controlled areas.

It would be the largest single example of ”ethnic cleansing” since Bosnia voted for independence on Feb. 29.

So far, about 600,000 people have fled Bosnia, most of them coming from the 1.9 million Muslims living here before the war began.

Only two northwest areas – the Muslim cities of Tuzla to the east and Bihac to the west – keep Serbian fighters from linking up in a line from Belgrade across to Banja Luka, Bosnia’s second-largest city.

Houses fly white flags, a signal they will not fire on ethnic Serbian troops in the hope their homes will not be pulverized by weapons fire.

Suszana Camber, a Muslim in Sanski Most, signed a paper asking the United Nations for protection and transportation out. ”I am scared,” she says as her boy, Denij, 3, hugs her leg. ”I heard (foreigners) were in town and I hope you can help.”

Soon a soldier comes and Camber scurries away.

Adds Bochta, who does not want to give her last name: ”Half of us here want to go; the other half has left. I want to go to Germany.”

Her voice gets higher, her words accelerate and her body trembles as her story unfolds. She says Muslims put white flags out to avoid being targeted, but that did not help those walking alone on streets.

As she speaks, a soldier waving an automatic weapon comes near. Bochta says loudly, ”Everything here is fine.”