Serbian atrocities, fierce winter put Bosnia in peril Butchery at camp leaves 1,000 dead, eyewitnesses say

October 20, 1992|By Roy Gutman | Roy Gutman,Newsday

OMARSKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The vast mining complex here, with its open pits and ore processing system, looks like anything but a concentration camp.

The nondescript buildings in their barren frontier landscape have been cleaned up, and there is no trace of the blood reputedly spilled here.

But during the last month, dozens of eyewitnesses have provided compelling evidence of murder and torture on a wide scale at this complex, where the Serbs who conquered much of Bosnia brought several thousand Muslims and Croats.

Inside the huge hangarlike building that houses earth-moving equipment, armed guards ordered tortures at gunpoint. The paved area outside was an open-air prison, where 500 to 1,000 men had to lie on their bellies from dawn to dusk.

Thousands more packed the offices, workshops and storage rooms in the hangar and a glass-and-brick administration building. All were on starvation diets.

The two most-feared locations were small outbuildings some distance from the main facilities: the "Red House," from which no prisoner returned alive; and the "White House," a torture chamber where guards beat prisoners for days until they succumbed.

Unlike Nazi concentration camps, Omarska kept no real records, making it difficult to determine exactly how many died.

Newsday first reported mass murders at Omarska and other camps on Aug. 2. Five days later, as television pictures of emaciated prisoners were aired worldwide, Serbian authorities closed the camp and dispersed the prisoners. But not until hundreds of survivors aided by the International Red Cross reached the West in the last few weeks was it possible to draw up a detailed account.

A monthlong investigation that included extensive interviews with officials who said they were responsible for Omarska and with dozens of former detainees in Croatia, Britain and Bosnia itself, produced these main conclusions:

* Eyewitness accounts of detainees indicate that well over 1,000 people were killed at Omarska, and thousands more might have died from beatings, executions, disease or starvation had the camp not been closed.

* A large number of detainees, possibly as many as 1,000, seem to have disappeared when the camp was closed.

* All but a few detainees were civilians, mostly draft-age Muslim or Croat men, but there were many men under 18 or over 60, and a small number of women.

Sleeping with death

The estimate of the death toll of more than 1,000 is based on the eyewitness accounts of daily killings by three former detainees who spoke in separate interviews. It does not reflect other, possibly duplicating, first-person reports of mass executions or disappearances; if it did, the toll could easily be twice as high.

Three Bosnian journalists who were detained at Omarska and are now being held in another camp estimated the death toll of 1,200 or more. And International Red Cross officials said at least 2,000 people who went to Omarska are unaccounted for.

Nine hundred miles from here, outside London, Edin Elkaz lies awake nights, his head filled with the screams of the men being tortured in the room next door at the White House. During one month at the camp, the 21-year-old said, he witnessed some of the killings and the removal of bodies the next day. The guards, he said, slaughtered five to 10 men a night, up to 30 on some nights.

Others are unwilling have their full names published.

E. L., a 26-year-old Muslim, spent two months here and said he helped load between five and 10 corpses daily from the White House into a small yellow pickup truck that removed them to an unknown grave. Like many of those interviewed, he asked that his full name not be used.

And N. J., a 23-year-old Muslim, said he kept a count each night for the final 20 nights of inmates marched to the Red House. Some days there were as few as 17, on others as many as 42. None ever returned.

Interviews with these three detainees, who are among 68 taken to Britain to recover from beatings and shootings, and from several hundred who recently arrived in Karlovac, western Croatia, provide chilling amplification of the original reports of atrocities at the camps in Bosnia.

After conducting its own interviews recently with about 40 former detainees in Karlovac for submission to a special United Nations war crimes panel, the U.S. Embassy in Zagreb has concluded there were

massive atrocities at Omarska and other camps and in the surrounding towns, said John Zerolis, an embassy official.

"The Nazis had nothing on these guys. I've seen reports of individual acts of barbarity of a kind that haven't come up in State Department cable traffic in 20 years," said another top official at the U.S. embassy, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Extensive interviews with prisoners indicate that at least 2,500 to 3,000 detainees were held in Omarska at any one point. International Red Cross officials estimate that up to 5,000 prisoners were taken to Omarska altogether.

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