ZAGREB, Croatia -- The first images of emaciated men peering through barbed wire in Serbian detention centers in Bosnia-Herzegovina riveted the world's attention. In the week since, a clearer picture has begun to emerge of the scope of the camps, their conditions and the role they play in the larger Serbian military strategy.
Interviews with officials of international relief agencies and dozens of Bosnians -- some of them still held in the camps, others living as refugees in Croatia -- establish these major points about a conflict that has created Europe's worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II:
* Conditions at the detention camps were described as brutal, but there is little evidence as yet that the Serbs were using them to carry out a policy of mass killing. Witnesses said repeatedly that death was usually more of a random event, resulting from beatings by drunken guards, disease and revenge shootings by Serbian irregulars whose friends had died in combat elsewhere.
* The camps were only one of the instruments of terror, and by no means the most deadly, in the arsenal of "ethnic cleansing," the campaign to drive Muslims and Croats from their homes in large swaths of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
* The Serbian efforts gathered momentum in mid-May after Western aid workers and journalists were temporarily driven out of most of Bosnia by a series of lethal, premeditated attacks. The "ethnic cleansing" operations were largely complete by early July, when Western aid workers returned to the area.
* The existence of the detention centers and the possibility that summary executions were taking place within them were made known to Western governments and aid agencies at least a month before the firstextensive press report on the subject appeared in Newsday Aug.2.
It was only after that report and the first broadcast of film from the camps several days later that President Bush announced that he had ordered U.S. intelligence to use "every asset available" to investigate the conditions at the camps.
The interviews have shed little light on the assertions of the combatants themselves, which are wildly divergent. The Serbian forces who control 70 percent of the country say, for example, that they are holding no more than 8,000 prisoners in a handful of camps, but their beleaguered Bosnian foes say that the number is 105,000 people in 94 locations. Bosnia estimates that 17,000 have died in the camps. Refugee interviews, representing only a fraction of the camps, can account for only a few hundred such deaths.
Although the investigation did not substantiate assertions that the camps had again brought genocide to the heart of Europe, it has turned up ample evidence of mistreatment, beatings and abuse involving thousands of prisoners.
Some have spoken of dozens of inmates being taken away, never to be seen again, and others have told of an incident in which more than 100 prisoners were machine-gunned when they rioted for lack of water.
Those accounts cannot be directly confirmed. But their credibility is bolstered by the consistency of testimony from refugees and prisoners in disparate places who have had no chance to coordinate their stories.
Taken together, the interviews lend credence to a story that Bosnian officials publicly and privately had tried to bring to the world's attention for more than two months.
More damaging evidence may still be hidden, for even as they let Western reporters into the region to visit the camps, Serbian officials were shuttling prisoners out of sight and dismantling the most notorious camps. Moreover, Western reporters and officials international relief agencies have been allowed to visit only four Serbian detention camps in Bosnia; the Bosnian government lists 94 such sites.
Western aid officials say that Croats and Muslims are, to a lesser extent, setting up their own prison camps. As of last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had visited 13 detention centers or prisoner-of-war camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina: 7 Croatian, 4 Serbian, and 2 Muslim.
'Ethnic cleansing' begins
Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically mixed of the six republics that made up Yugoslavia. Slavs whose forebears converted to Islam during the centuries in which Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman Turks constituted the biggest group in Bosnia-Herzegovina, representing 44 percent of the population of 4.5 million, according to the 1991 census.
Serbs were 31 percent of the Bosnian total. Croats, who, like the others, are Slavs and speak Serbo-Croatian but are Roman Catholics, made up 17 percent.
The remainder identified themselves to the census-takers as Yugoslavs, embracing a non-ethnic nationalism that today is all but crushed.
Those groups were interspersed throughout Bosnia, with many towns and villages having no majority ethnic group and many Muslims, Serbs and Croats living literally next door to each other.