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19 April 2006
My story

«You can't forget. It's impossible»

Muhamed H. spent two years and two months in five detention camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war. In his testimony for Justice Report, he talks about life as a camp inmate, good and bad guards, and how he survived.
DOBOJ AND STARA GRADIŠKA
I was detained in Doboj on May 10, 1992. They took all of us – women and children, old and young. I stayed in the detention camp in Doboj for around 15 days.

It all seemed impossible to me. I could not believe that it was happening! Yesterday you're sitting at a café with your friends, today you are in a detention camp. At night you go to sleep, you dream. In the morning you wake up– detention camp.

They took me to Stara Gradiska from the detention camp in Doboj. I was therefor about two or three days. One day they came and asked who wanted to go to Manjaca. They told us that we would be fine there, that we would have food. I said that I would go.

I thought, since I'm already here, I don't care where they take me. Either way there is no chance that I will stay alive.

MANJACA
Sixty-three of us "volunteers" came to Manjaca. We were the working platoon and the first group to arrive in the area. We built that detention camp, erected the fence and set everything up. We didn't even know that we were building a detention camp. The more we worked, the more aware we became of whatit was. Slowly we realised what was going on.

We could not believe ourselves. I would wake up in the morning and look at those people sleeping on the floor. I would see a guard. I would see his gun. I figured: "I guess I didn't wake up yet. I'm still sleeping. "But then you go out and you see that you really are in a detention camp.

They didn't torture me much. The 63 of us were brought in first so we had some privileges and they really didn't beat us so much. Not as much as the others.

There were only men in Manjaca, mostly Muslims, some Croats and I think there was one Serb. There were a few thousand of us. It was a real detention camp. Like we used to watch in the movies about the Second World War. Well, this was even worse for us.

For example, every seven days there was a roll call. Everybody had to go through a corridor formed by soldiers. They held wooden bats, nightsticks, electric cables. When someone is called on, you have to go through this line of them and they beat you. When a member of the working platoon came up, the soldiers were told to not beat us. But sometimes the first two or three of them don't realise, and they hit us.

Manjaca was a tough detention camp. There was no food so when some would arrive on occasions all kinds of things happened. For example, when bread was delivered, one loaf was to be divided among 40 people.

We had to unload it and you can't help but cut off a piece of bread. SometimesI thought I would take a piece of bread even if it killed me. And if you got caught doing this, well. You can't even look at what they do to those who were caught.

Animals had more rights there than we did. That's what the warden told us. There was a big cattle farm close to us. They treated us like cattle.The warden would say to us that every small sheep is worth more than ten of us. And it really was like that.

We had a rule there: hands on your back, head down. You may not look up and may not spread your hands. We were all bald. You are not even allowed to speak until asked something.

The Red Cross registered me after three and half months in Manjaca. They said that they would try to deliver any messages we wanted to write to family or friends. I had sisters, one in Zenica and one in Sarajevo, and I did not know what was happening to them.

I had no idea what was going on outside the camp. I thought that the Serbs had taken over everything - that all was on fire, that all was destroyed. That there is nobody left and that nothing is like it used to be. But still, I decided to try.

After a month I received a message from my sister from Sarajevo. She was alive. She had been wounded in her apartment, but she was still alive. It was then that I got some kind of hope that not everything was destroyed and that not everyone had been killed.

BATKOVICI – BIJELJINA
I remember as if it happened today. One day they came to Manjaca and took us to the detention camp Batkovici in Bijeljina. They took 500 of us to that camp and let the remaining few thousand people go. I was only a few nights in Batkovici.

KULA – SARAJEVO
Then they transferred us to Kula sometime between December 15 and 17, 1992. I stayed in Kula until mid 1994 - 16 months of my life. I cannot say how many of us were detained there because there were a lot of transfers. Sometimes there were 15 of us, sometimes 60, sometimes more.

Kula was close to the front line. The majority of those in Kula were wounded, and many were killed. People were getting killed there all the time. That made Kula the worst of all camps.

The first six months we slept on the floor with only a blanket. There was no heating. We had one restroom and could not go out when we wanted to. There were two meals per day, usually the leftovers from the police in Kula. Our lunch consisted of some beans in which they would add some water.

You get used to it as time goes by. I got used to Kula as well. That is howlife is and you simply live on, as if everything was normal.

We had to work at the frontline around Sarajevo, digging trenches. I've been through every trench around Sarajevo. We dug every day, even at night. For example, in Grbavica by the stadium, we dug at night. Wherever we went, we sawdead or injured men.

We had to do all kind of things. For example, we were used as a human shield at the frontline at Zlatiste. That is how Samir Besic and Mustafa, I think his surname was Hurić, were killed.

Sometimes it was fine working on the frontline. In some places they would give us food and would not beat us, depending on where we went. Eventually we figured out which points were good to be working at. For example, it was great to go to Trebevic. There was a commander* there who would not let them touch us.

The first day the six of us came to work on Trebevic, the commander said: "Nobody may touch these people. They are prisoners." He told us that we could eat as much as we want and that when the shooting started we should run and hide. He really took care of us and even gave us cigarettes.

But I have bad memories about a policeman and a warden in Kula. Policeman A*was a guard who came to Kula in mid-1993. I did not see him kill anybody but he was cruel.

When he took us to lunch, he always hit somebody, cursed us and insulted us. I remember once when he and another policeman came into our room at night, at alate hour, and they took us all out into the hallway. They really tortured us.I don't know what was the reason for their behaviour. Perhaps they were drunk?

It was also not easy for us when Policeman A took us to "work". He never missed a chance to hit a person when he was passing them by. He constantly insulted us. I used to think that I'd rather he hits me than insults me in such a way. He simply beat us. It was enough for him that we were Muslim.

One time Policeman A took us to work at Rogoj to fix some long distance powerlines. There were people from the electric company with us. We met some shepherd who said that people should not go close to the power lines because there were mines there. The soldiers did not pay attention to that. We had to go through while they watched from the side from a truck, about fifty metres away. We took the tools and walked towards the pole.

I don't know who was the first to step on a mine. Either way, one man was killed. I think his name was Jasko. I was wounded in the leg and I still have shrapnel. I succeeded in coming back to the truck by myself. I saw that mytrousers had holes and that I was covered in blood. Others who were not wounded had to take out those who were killed or wounded.

They took us to the hospital in Kasindol. There they bandaged my leg a little, took out the shrapnel that stuck out by hand, and returned me to Kula. Three men stayed in the hospital. Later we learned that they died.

Warden B* was also guilty of many things. At times he would almost be selling us to other soldiers. For example, when a unit asked for a platoon of detainees, he asked for something in exchange before selecting a group for the army to take away as a work group, sometimes for one or two months at a time.He personally did not beat anyone, but he knew everything that was going on.

RUDO:
One day in 1994, soldiers came to Kula and took a few of us out. We climbed upon a truck but did not even ask where we were going. It was normal for us to be constantly taken somewhere. They just came, at any time of day or night, and took us. Nobody said anything and we didn't ask.

After some time, they brought us to a big hall and told us to go down to the basement. We were in Rudo. We figured some sort of exchange was going on because they took some people out and brought us in. They told us to lie down on the floor, and we did.

When I think about it today, it wasn't so bad in Rudo. The warden would not let anybody beat us. There was no front line. There was no shooting.

I don't even know how I survived all that. It just simply happened that way. Atthe beginning you just want to survive, until you realise where you are. Then you get used to it and you think there is no way you will survive.

All you wish is to be less hungry; to be beaten as little as possible. So it goes on, day in day out. You get used to even the murders. After two years and two months, I didn't care about anything.

EXCHANGE
It helped us to think about exchanges. One of us would make up a date and tell the others, for example, that there would be an exchange soon. We make up a place and everything, as if it will happen. And we all wait. And hope.

On July 11, 1994, I really was exchanged. They came for me that day. I did not know where I was going. I was in Rudo and they said they would take us to Kula. I thought: "Good, I know everything there." I was only afraid of being taken to Serbia. That was the worst fear.

Then they picked 15 of us out and told us that we are going to be exchanged. But it meant nothing to me. They brought a minibus and took us toward Grbavica, onto the bridge. I saw the bunkers there and the police and said to myself, this is not going to happen. The exchange won't be successful.

Then I saw a man in a uniform with lilies. I figured it was one of them who masked himself. But he came in our bus and said: "Don't be afraid, you will be exchanged." I still did not believe it. They called on us, one by one, and searched us.

Then my name was called out and I started walking across the bridge.

I saw journalists on the other side of the bridge. Then I saw my sister and brother-in-law. I could not believe that across the bridge was freedom.

FREEDOM
The trams were working in Sarajevo at that time. My sister said that we should take the tram to go home but I told her that I didn't want to, that I wanted to walk freely now when nobody is walking beside me.

For two years and two months there was always somebody beside me, somebody with a gun. I wanted to see how it felt towalk freely. But I felt nothing.

After that I think that I spent all my time just sitting in the apartment and looking out of the window. I couldn't think of what I could do outside. I was so used to the detention camp that freedom was strange to me.

When the war ended I did not find a permanent job. I'm not the same anymore. Little things bother me now. I get nervous quickly. Sometimes, even today, I can just look out the window for five days.

When there is something on TV about the war, I remember. Not only when I see the detention camp. When I see women from Srebrenica, I remember. Right now I'm talking to you about it, and I will probably dream it tonight. When I dreama bout the past I think that my freedom is just an illusion - that I am still ina detention camp. You can't forget. It is impossible.

Now I have the status of a camp inmate. But sometimes I am embarrassed to show it. I feel like they are looking at me as if I were a coward, a traitor. I do not have any compensation. I'm not asking for anything. There was a war, someone was killed, someone left, and I was detained.

I can't return to Doboj. Some people can, but not I. It is not that I hate theSerbs. Not all Serbs are guilty for what happened. There are all kinds of people. There were people whom I met while I was in the detention camp, who helped me. They were humane. On the other side, among those who detained me there were those whom I knew from before the war. And I can't live with them any longer.

It is not easy here either. I could have gone abroad when the internationals were taking in camp inmates. But I refused then, and I still don't want to go.I can't start from the beginning now.

JUSTICE
The war crimes courts are slow. But it is enough for me that these events are talked about in the media for now. That someone says what they did. Maybe his mother is asking him: "My son, what did you do there?" Or his children are asking him: "Dad, what did you do?" That is enough for me.

I am not a nationalist. There were also Serbs who helped us. I learnt that every person is an individual. Not all Serbs are the same, and not all Muslimsare the same. Maybe Policeman A* could not understand that he shouldn't beat me just because I am a Muslim.

I don't look at the world the way he does. I can't think now that I should be at all Serbs the way they beat me at the detention camp. There are other mechanisms in place to find these individuals and to resolve the past.


* The names of Bosnian Serb soldiers mentionedin this story are known and recorded by BIRN Justice Report.

Muhamed H is a pseudonym of a former camp inmate who spent more than two years in detention in Doboj, Stara Gradiska, Manjaca, Kula and Rudo. His story was recorded by Nidžara Ahmetašević, editorof Justice Report. [email protected]

BIRN would like to introduce a regular"FOR THE RECORD" column in Justice Report. If you would like to tellyour story, please write to BIRN BiH director, Nerma Jelacic [email protected]
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