Serbian prisoners and broken promises

Elie Wiesel

March 05, 1993|By Elie Wiesel

IN addition to everything else, this tale is about lies, misleading pledges and broken promises.

It began, for me, last summer when I received a letter from President Dobrica Cosic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, inviting me to head a commission of inquiry into the prison camps in his tormented land.

preparation for the mission, representatives of the World Jewish Congress and I met with Mr. Cosic in London during an international conference on Yugoslavia.

At my urging, he appealed to Radovan Karadzic, Bosnia's Serbian leader, to close prison camps in his territory. Mr. Karadzic agreed, and he and Mr. Cosic made the same pledge at the conference.

In November, during a visit to Belgrade and Sarajevo, I asked the two whether the promise had been kept. Their answer was fuzzy. I soon discovered for myself that all camps were still open. I toured one of the most infamous camps, Manjaca, near Banja Luka. In spite of the assurances of the commandant, Bozidar Popovic, that his camp was in good order, we found some 3,000 prisoners (mostly Muslims, some Croatians, one German) living in deplorable conditions: crowded, 600 in a barracks, with no heat and poor clothing; they were lying on the bare ground, pressed against one another, like human shadows.

Permission was granted to speak to about 15 prisoners. It was agreed that they could be chosen by me at random and that I would meet with them in the infirmary without the presence of any official or guard.

I repeatedly asked the commandant for his promise that no harm would come to the men as a result of our meeting. He gave me his word and I wanted to believe him. Belgrade-based foreign correspondents had told me he was "tough but fair."

The prisoners' complained of their isolation from the outside world, the uncertainty of their future, their lack of contact with their families.

Was there more? Probably. Were they afraid? Surely.

Shortly after our visit, that camp was closed "in our honor," as Mr. Karadzic put it in a letter to an Italian journalist. So far so good. Better yet, all the prisoners from Manjaca were said to have been handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But last month there came terrible news: Not all the prisoners had been freed. Some 500 remained unaccounted for.

Most disturbing to me was that many of those I had interviewed had been singled out for special punishment and transferred to an even worse camp, Batkovic.

The very men we came to help were hurt in the process, an action of deceit that poses a morally painful dilemma: How can humanitarian efforts be continued if the victims end up paying the price?

What then can be done to stop the murderous hatred engulfing the Balkans? What can be done to close the prison camps and lift the siege of Sarajevo?

The U.N. Security Council's decision to establish an international war crimes tribunal is sound. But putting it in place will take time. Is immediate intervention the answer?

Yes, but on the highest level.

this point, only an imaginative, spectacular gesture from the international community could be effective.

Let President Clinton initiate a summit conference in Sarajevo itself. Invite all Balkan leaders and the presidents of the five former Yugoslav republics.

The summit leaders could then tell the former Yugoslavs what Jimmy Carter told Anwar el-Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David: that they were not leaving the grounds until an agreement had been reached.

Can it be done? I don't know.

All I know is that, besides everything else, as far as Serbian authorities are concerned, I feel betrayed.

Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

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