Excerpt Three: Visiting the Camps

(This chronicles my visit to several Serb prison camps.)

I never thought that one day I would talk to a skeleton. That’s what I did at Trnopolje. I walked through the gates and couldn’t quite believe what I saw. There, right in front of me, were men who looked like survivors of Auschwitz. I remember thinking that they walked surprisingly well for people without muscle or flesh. I was surprised at the mere fact that they could still talk. Imagine, talking skeletons! As I spoke to one of them, I looked at his arm and realized that I could grab hold of it and snap it into two pieces like a brittle twig. I could do the same with his legs. I saw dozens of other walking skeletons of that sort. I could break all of their arms, all of their legs. Snap. Snap. Snap.

We were given 15 minutes to wander around, and technically speaking, we were free to talk with whomever we wished. But guards with Kalashnikov assault rifles and Ray-Ban sunglasses sauntered through the grounds, and I could talk for no more than a minute or so before one of them would creep up behind me and start listening to the conversation. A few guards had slung their rifles across their backs and started snapping pictures of us as we talked with prisoners. They were not subtle; they were in charge, and they wanted us to know it. If there’s one thing that all bullies have in common, it’s the fact that they want you to know they are bullies. One skeletal prisoner had just enough time to unbutton his shirt, showing off a mutilated chest with a few dozen fresh scars from God-knows-what torture, before a look of horror came over his face. He was staring, like a deer caught in a car’s headlights, at a spot just above the top of my head. I looked around. A guard stood behind me.

I walked on. A prisoner tugged at my sleeve. Follow me. I followed, trying to pretend as though I wasn’t following. He led me to the side of the school building and, after glancing around, darted through a door. I followed. Where was he taking me? Why? I feared not only the trouble that I might be getting into, but the trouble that he might be getting into. The door closed behind me. The room was small, dark. My eyes took a moment to adjust. People were whispering beside me. I looked at the floor. Two bodies on the ground. Corpses? Not yet. I was in the infirmary, the sorriest infirmary you could imagine. No medicine, no beds. I was not supposed to be there.

The doctor, also a prisoner, motioned for me to crouch down so that guards could not see me through the window. He began peeling off a filthy bandage from the leg of one of the two men. Puss oozed out. The man had an infected hole the size of a baseball just under his knee. A bone-crushing blow from a rifle butt. In a few days, the leg would turn gangrenous, and the man would die. The doctor whispered his explanations to Vlatka, my interpreter, who whispered them to me. I handed my notebook and pen to her. Ask the questions, write down the answers, I told her, we don’t have time for translation. Vlatka had worked for me and other journalists long enough to know the right questions. She was the best.

I looked at the other body, barely alive. The man seemed to be in his late thirties or early forties. It was hard to tell. His face was cut and bruised, colored black and red, and swollen, as though I was looking at the kind of grossly expanded reflection you get from a trick mirror at a circus. I looked at his naked torso–more bruises, more swelling, more open wounds. He didn’t move, and I doubted that he was still alive. I didn’t need to ask questions about what had happened to this poor man, or what was going to happen to him. His agony would be over soon, for if his wounds didn’t finish him off in the next twenty-four hours, then the guards would. As I learned later, guards routinely killed prisoners who could not recover quickly from the beatings. Prisoners who could neither talk nor walk were of no use.

We slipped out after a few minutes, Vlatka first, me a few seconds later. An eighteen-year-old youth came up to us. He had just arrived at Trnopolje after two months at Omarska, the worst camp of all. His skin was stretched like a transparent scarf over his ribs and shoulder bones. “It was horrible,” he whispered. “Just look at me. For beatings, the guards used hands, bars, whips, belts, chains, anything. A normal person cannot imagine the methods they used. I am sorry to say that it was good when new prisoners came. The guards beat them instead of us.”

I slipped into his hand a sandwich from my shoulder bag. It was a ham sandwich. “I’m sorry, it’s all I have,” I said. “Will you eat it?”

He stared at me, as though I was a naked fool. Of course he would eat it. It was food. Allah would look the other way as he devoured the forbidden pork.

I approached another skeleton, this one too afraid to talk, turning away after whispering a single word, “Dachau.”

It was time to go. The guards started rounding up the journalists. I forget my parting words as I broke off my conversation with the last prisoner. What do you say in a situation like that? See you later? Good luck? You are leaving the condemned, the half-dead, and the fact that you spoke to them probably puts them into greater peril than they already were. You had a good breakfast that morning, a couple of eggs, some toast, lots of jam. He had half a slice of stale bread, if he was lucky. Your money belt contains five thousand dollars, and there is always more where it came from. He has nothing. You have an American passport that allows you to walk into the camp and walk out unmolested. He has no passport, only two eyes that watch you perform this miracle of getting out alive. You have a home somewhere that has not been dynamited. You have a girlfriend who has not been raped. You have a father who has not been killed in front of your eyes.

Whenever I returned to a normal place after an assignment in Bosnia friends would ask me what it was like to suddenly leave a war zone and then be in a place where bombs are not falling. I would say that it was no big deal, which was the truth. Going from Sarajevo to London in a day is a piece of cake in psychological terms. I would feel relief, splendid relief. It didn’t compare to the experience of mixing with death camp inmates and then walking away, a free man with a future. The misery of Bosnia is not half a world away at places like a prison camp; it is staring right at you, less than a foot away, watching you as you get into a van and drive away, and it notices that you don’t look back.

The next stop was Omarska. I was to have the privilege, if you can call it that, of meeting some of the worst torturers of the twentieth century. During its heyday, Omarska was ground zero of atrocities. The existence of the camp and of the horrors there had become known a few days before we arrived. As a result, the Serbs had begun playing a shell game: most prisoners were shipped off to other locations or executed, the camp was cleaned up, food rations were improved for those left behind, and then foreign journalists were ushered in.

When we pulled up to the camp gates, no more than 250 prisoners remained of the thousands who had been there, and those on display were recent arrivals, not yet emaciated or bloodied. They were kept there for the benefit of journalists like myself, so that we would report to the outside world that the camp was small and conditions tolerable. Omarska was a changed place, and it was going out of business, but one thing was unaltered, the terror in the prisoners’ eyes. They had plenty of reason to be afraid.

Every imaginable degradation had been played out at Omarska during the previous months. It was not a death camp on the order of Auschwitz. There was no gas chamber to which the prisoners were marched off every day. What happened at Omarska was dirtier, messier. The death toll never approached Nazi levels but the brutality was comparable or, in some cases, superior, if that word can be used. The Nazis were interested in killing as many Jews as possible, and doing it as quickly as possible. The Serbs, however, wanted to interrogate their Bosnian prisoners, have sadistic fun by torturing them in the cruelest of ways and then kill them with whatever implement was most convenient, perhaps a gun, perhaps a knife or scissors, perhaps a pair of strong hands wrapped around an emaciated neck. If the Germans had used the same approach, they would have needed decades to kill 6 million Jews.

A group of about fifty prisoners were washing themselves at an open spigot at a side of the building. They were surrounded by guards with sub-machine guns. It is a neutral term, “guards,” and it implies a certain amount of discipline, a sense that the camp had rules, and that these men whom we call “guards” enforced the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were no rules at Omarska except for one: the guards were omnipotent. It might be accurate therefore to refer to them as gods rather than guards. They could kill as they please, pardon as they please, rape as they please. Their subjects, the prisoners, prayed to them for forgiveness, for a favor, for life.

We were marched into the building and up a dark stairwell to the second floor. Into that room, we were told by Simo Drljaca, the local police chief who motioned us toward a door at the end of the hallway. We went. It was a stuffy office, with stacks of papers in the corners, a few books in a shelf, a table, chairs, a desk. A calendar hung behind the desk. It showed a half-nude woman who had a pair of huge breasts. The camp’s “chief investigator” was sitting behind the desk.

The session was forgettable, and so I have forgotten much of it, even the face of the “chief investigator.” This man, like dozens of other war criminals whom I interviewed during my time in Bosnia, was not going to pour his heart out to us. He said the prisoners were interrogated to learn what role they played in the “Islamic insurrection,” and that they were released if the investigators decided they played no role. The ones who were involved in the fabled insurrection were transferred to “other facilities” for trial. Torture? He laughed. Of course not.

“Interrogation is being done in the same way as it is done in America and England,” he said.

What I find most remarkable about the session is that I cannot recall the chief investigator’s face. It is a total blank, gone from my memory, or sealed in a corner I cannot reach, no matter how long and hard I think about Omarska, no matter how firmly I close my eyes and try to recall. It is as though my subconscious is playing a trick on me, perhaps trying to send me a message, that the man’s identity is not important, he is just another human being, faceless, he is you, he is my friend, he is me.

It was show time. We were led downstairs to the cafeteria, a small one of the institutional, stainless steel variety. Bean soup was being served. Inmates were shepherded into the room in groups of two dozen, heads bent down in supplication, shuffling one after another, hunched over. They knew the drill. After getting their lunchtime soup and piece of bread–the only meal of the day–they shuffled to the few tables and spooned the muck into their mouths as quickly as possible. They had about a minute or two before one of the guards said a word and they jumped out of their chairs, shuffling to the exit and handing their bowls and spoons to the next group. There was none of the dawdling or yawning that you would see at normal prisons. There was only fear and power, awesome power.

We were allowed to meander around the room and ask questions. It was another act of humiliation for the prisoners and, this time, for the journalists, too. Perhaps that’s why it was done. The guards were never more than a few feet away, and there was no outdoor breeze to carry a prisoner’s words out of snooping range. It was the sort of room in which the scraping of a spoon against a bowl was heard by everyone. I bent over to a few prisoners and asked questions, but I never got a real response. They bowed their heads farther down, noses virtually in the bowls. This was a place where words, any words, could kill them.

“Please, don’t ask me questions,” one of them begged in a whisper.

I was playing the game according to the rules of the jailers. The visit of journalists was just another form of torture. I tried to turn the tables a bit, to interview one of the guards. I settled on a massive oaf who, like the other guards, was in need of a shave. His height seemed somewhere between six and seven feet. Dressed in a dark combat outfit, he had the physique of a steroid-pumped linebacker and was packing enough weapons to arm a platoon: a pistol on either hip, a compact AK-47 assault rifle hanging by a strap from his right shoulder and a foot-long bowie knife dangling from his belt. His hands were covered to the knuckles by black leather gloves. He wore reflector sunglasses. We were indoors.

I tipped my head toward the skies and tried to soften him up. The only thing we seemed to have in common is that we were sweating a lot. “Hot in here, isn’t it?” I suggested. He peered down at me for a second or two. He didn’t respond. I tried again. “How long have you worked here?” No response. The interview was going nowhere. Vlatka gave me a look that said, Forget about it. I gave it one last try. “Is it true that you torture the prisoners?”

I had gotten his attention. He glanced down at me, and his lips arched into the kind of thin smile that fails to make you smile in return. “Why would we want to beat them?” he said.

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