Selective Memory

Katarina Panic Prijedor, Sarajevo and Belfast

Bosnia’s post-war divisions are played out in the fight to build memorials at the sites of notorious wartime prisons.

The convoy of cars heads to its destination in a haze of dust. The license plates are from all over Europe – Norway, Switzerland, Germany and Slovenia. It has been a long road to the iron mine at Omarska.

The visitors are mostly Bosnian refugees and their descendants, returning to mark the day when a notorious wartime detention camp was closed down.

Between 3,000 and 6,000 people are estimated to have been held at Omarska in the summer of 1992.

The commemoration ceremony at Omarska takes place in the absence of a permanent memorial.

The camp was run by Bosnian Serb forces, who had seized power in the area. Their captives were mostly local Bosniaks and Croats, regarded as distinct from the Serbs because of their ethnicity and their faith.

Hundreds of the prisoners who passed through Omarska would die or remain unaccounted for. Years later, the survivors would speak at the war crimes court in The Hague, revealing the torture, rapes, starvation, mutilation and arbitrary beatings that characterised prison life.

These atrocities date to the early days of the break-up of Yugoslavia, in what was to become the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II.Former prisoners and activists speak of Omarska as a contemporary concentration camp. Its inmates were overwhelmingly civilians – the victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign, rather than captured combatants.

Yet Omarska rarely reflects on its dark past. The visitors attending the official commemoration on August 6, 2013, would not have been admitted to the site on most other days of the year. And even if they were, they would see no trace of the horrors of 1992. There is no memorial at Omarska to the people who suffered there.

“It hurts,” says Edin Okanovic, whose father was killed at the camp. “Only the Serbs have memorials in my hometown. We, Bosniaks, are discriminated against. It looks as if nothing ever happened to us.”

Survivors from Omarska have been campaigning for the construction of a permanent memorial at the iron mine. But the local government, controlled by Bosnian Serbs, has rejected their demands.

The dispute has prompted criticism of the representatives of the European institutions, which – along with the United States – oversaw the implementation of the peace deal in Bosnia. It has also prompted criticism of the international steel giant, ArcelorMittal, which currently operates the mine at Omarska.

Both the firm – and the foreign officials – have said they want the issue resolved. Both also say that the responsibility for reaching an agreement ultimately lies with the Bosnians.

The result is a deadlock over the demands for a memorial that reflects the divisive legacy of the war itself.

The conflict in Bosnia ended with a de facto partition of the country into two highly autonomous sections – a Bosnian-Serb entity and a Bosniak-Croat section.

Each side has honoured its dead with memorials on the territory that it controls. Each side has rejected its wartime foes’ demands for memorials – typically on the sites of former detention centres.

Balloons and speeches

The Omarska mine lies some 20 kilometres from Prijedor, the region’s administrative centre which was once home to a thriving Bosniak Muslim community.

At the commemoration in August, Roma gypsy beggars gather at the gates of the mine, as they once gathered at the gates of Prijedor’s mosques.

The police estimate that some 500 people are attending this year’s ceremony. The visitors leave their vehicles and walk down a gravel path towards the site, which is dominated by a vast rust-coloured shed, known as the hangar. Thousands of prisoners were held here in 1992, cooped up in the summer heat.

The visitors’ first stop is a white barn-like structure. The building was used as a makeshift torture chamber by the guards. At the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, survivors described seeing heaps of corpses in front of the so-called “white house”.

For today’s commemoration, the room has been filled with white helium balloons. The balloons are attached by string to paper tags, listing the names of the victims of Omarska.

The remains of prisoners murdered at Omarska are still being recovered from mass graves.

The visitors move through the building as if treading on eggshells. They gently inspect the tags, occasionally calling out to each other when they see a name that they recognise.

Outside the “white house”, the sun is high. The crowd sticks close to the shade of the buildings. Some carry parasols to guard against the summer heat. Others are fanning themselves. The younger visitors take pictures with their smartphones and tablets. The older women weep into their headscarves.

In 1992, the prisoners were interrogated in the upper floor of the canteen building, where the mine workers now receive their meals. Today, a guard stands at the top of the staircase leading upstairs. Alone in the corridor behind him stands a woman, weeping uncontrollably.

At 11 am, the crowd assembles in the yard for the official part of the commemoration. The loudspeakers carry the sound of a male voice, calling out the names of the former prisoners.

A former detainee, talking to another man, pauses in mid-conversation. “They just mentioned my brother’s name,” he says.

Diplomats representing the European Union and the US address the gathering.

“While we cannot undo the wrongs of the past, we can make concerted efforts towards ensuring reconciliation and closure,” says Nicholas Hill, the deputy chief-of-mission from the US embassy in Sarajevo.

The white helium balloons are released into the air. The crowd begins to disperse.

Journalists surround the American diplomat. A man grabs my hand and says: “Ask him why they don’t help us build a memorial here. Tell him that we don’t trust them anymore. Not only us former inmates, but ordinary people too – we don’t like them anymore.”

The question is translated for Mr Hill. “I can certainly understand their sentiments,” he replies. “We will be discussing this issue with a number of people.”

International pressure

The campaigners for a memorial at Omarska have tried to enlist the support of ArcelorMittal and the “international community” – the European and American officials that have often acted as mediators in post-war Bosnia.

They have been disappointed by the response.

“Both the international community and ArcelorMittal seem to be neutral,” says Mirsad Duratovic, a former prisoner at Omarska whose father and brother were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. “In the Omarska case, being neutral... means taking a side. It means taking the side of a war crime.”

The international officials insist they are doing everything in their power to settle the matter. Mary Ann Hennessey, the head of the Council of Europe’s office in Bosnia, says her institution’s reach is limited – it cannot “force anything”.

Valentin Inzko, the High Representative for Bosnia and the most senior foreign official in the country, told BIRN he would continue to urge the local mayor in Prijedor to seek a resolution to the dispute.

“The onus is on politicians to take responsibility for reconciling the people of this country to the past,” he says.

He also criticised the Bosnian Serb leadership: “The mayor’s role in mediating a solution has not been made easier by the provocative rhetoric that has for years now come from the highest levels in the RS [the Bosnian Serb entity].”

Meanwhile, ArcelorMittal says it supports any settlement of the dispute that has the agreement of all parties. However, the firm insists it cannot by itself give the go-ahead for the construction of a memorial at Omarska.

“Permission for memorials can only be given by the local authorities and the question is solely for them to decide,” said the firm, in an emailed response to BIRN.

The mayor of Prijedor, Marko Pavic, did not respond to BIRN’s calls for comment.

The Viktor Bubanj building in Sarajevo housed prisoners during the war – and now hosts war-crimes trials.

Former Bosnian Serb detainees have argued that a memorial at Omarska cannot be built until a similar structure is erected at the Viktor Bubanj building in Sarajevo, where the Bosniaks kept their prisoners.

The building now serves as a courthouse, occasionally playing host to war crimes trials. The men who were held here in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions believe that their detention was itself a war crime. The jailers have been accused of beating the inmates and using them as forced labour.

The building is a short drive from the centre of the city, with a pinkish-orange façade that would be more suited to a student dormitory than a state institution. There is no sign here that this was once a place of suffering.

Dusan Sehovac, the head of an association of Sarajevo Serbs, says that calls for a memorial at the site are invariably met with counter-claims of war crimes committed by the Serbs.

Nebojsa Savic, a former policeman who was imprisoned at the building, says both sides should be permitted to mark their suffering. “No one can build a memorial in Omarska if I am not allowed to do the same in Sarajevo,” he says. “Yes, it sounds like the old times – but some reciprocity is necessary.”

Lost in The Maze

Bosnia’s campaigns for memorials to prisoners can seem like another casualty of a post-war settlement that has preserved wartime divisions.

However, it may be unrealistic to expect such campaigns to succeed – even where the political system is in somewhat better shape.

In Northern Ireland, a high-profile scheme for the redevelopment of the notorious Maze prison has also run into trouble.

The prison was built by the British government in 1971, as discontent among the Catholic minority escalated into a violent uprising, led by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Over the next three decades, The Maze would house prisoners from both the IRA and a variety of loyalist paramilitary groups, who drew their members from the Protestant majority.

Loyalists and republicans are divided over plans for the former Maze prison, outside Belfast.

The prison was shut down in 2000, following a ceasefire and a peace deal that brought the IRA’s political wing into a power-sharing agreement.

The campaign for a “peace and reconciliation centre” at the site originally had the backing of politicians from both sides – the Protestant loyalists and the Catholic republicans. Advocates for the new development argued that it would help the local economy recover from decades of conflict.

In February 2012, the proposal even secured the approval of the EU, which pledged £18m (€21m) towards the £300m (€350.35) scheme.

In August this year, however, leading loyalist politicians withdrew their support for the redevelopment of The Maze. The offer of European funds was also withdrawn soon afterwards.

For the time being, the plan for a peace centre at the former prison seems to have hit a brick wall.

The struggle to push through the scheme reflects divisions that have persisted despite the power-sharing agreement.

Hardliners on the Protestant side feared that the new centre would be treated by Catholics as a memorial to the former IRA members who had been held there.

Most prominent among these was Bobby Sands, the leader of a group of men who died at the prison after going on hunger strike. Sands and his comrades are regarded as martyrs by the Republicans.

Noel Large, a former loyalist gunman, says it was no coincidence that the new development had been planned for “the ground where Bobby Sands died”.

“Both you and I know that it would be a memorial to hunger strikers,” he told me, when we met in Belfast earlier this year.

Large too was jailed at The Maze, spending 16 years there. “I was a bad boy,” he says, when asked about his past. He believes no group should be allowed to lay claim to the legacy of the prison.

Former republican prisoner Padraic McCotter appears to confirm Large’s fears. He dismisses the idea of a centre for reconciliation, arguing that any future structure at The Maze must commemorate the men it held.

“If people want to build a centre for reconciliation, there are many derelict buildings in Belfast they can use,” he says.

“Badge of victimhood”

Near Omarska is Keraterm, site of another wartime detention camp operated by Bosnian Serb forces.

At least 1,000 people were kept in appalling conditions here. As at Omarska, the majority of the prisoners were Bosniaks, along with some ethnic Croats. 

On a single night in July 1992, more than 100 inmates were shot dead at the camp – an event referred to at The Hague tribunal as the “Room Three massacre”.

Before the war, the detention camp had been a ceramics factory. When I visited the site in late July, the factory was gone but the site was still in use.

The premises had been divided into smaller units, occupied by private companies dealing in flooring and doorframes.

On a grass verge by the road lay the humblest of memorials – a white stone marked with an inscription that said the “innocent citizens” of Prijedor had been imprisoned at this site.

A dog barked. The wind blew. The sound of welding came from a workshop. A woman with no teeth walked over to us, smoking a cigarette. She asked if we had permission to take photographs. We told her we were journalists. She took a picture of us with her phone.

Noel Large is concerned that The Maze could become a shrine to republican hunger strikers.

On the outskirts of Prijedor lies the village of Trnopolje. In 1992, a makeshift prison housed between 4,000 and 7,000 inmates here, most of them Bosniak Muslims who had been forced from their homes.

The prisoners were poorly fed and subjected to frequent beatings. The existence of the camp was revealed by a team of British journalists. Their reports, backed up by television footage of emaciated inmates, provoked international outrage. The camp was closed down in November 1992.

The former village hall that housed the prisoners is now derelict. An old pool table lies abandoned inside. The name of communist Yugoslavia’s dictator, Josip Broz Tito, can still be made out in a half-obliterated slogan on the wall.

Former prisoners from Trnopolje have asked the local authorities for a memorial at the site. Their request has been refused. The only memorial in town is to local Bosnian Serb soldiers, killed in the war.

The village hall looks onto empty ground, part of which now serves as a football pitch. On the afternoon of my visit, the local team, FK Trnopolje was getting ready for a game. The team’s strip was in blue and yellow – the colours of Bosnia’s post-war flag.

Ervin Blazevic spent two months as a teenage prisoner at Trnopolje. After his release, he became a soldier in the Bosniak army – and even watched over captives of his own.

A stone tablet marks the site of the Keraterm prison, on what is now an industrial estate.

If given the chance to relive his life, he says he would always choose to be a prisoner rather than a guard – because he would have a clearer conscience.

Yet he does not wish to be described as an “ex-detainee”, which he regards it a badge of victimhood. Instead, he would rather be called a peace activist, for his work for a small charity near Prijedor.

Blazevic criticises some commemoration efforts as haphazard – but he also attacks the knee-jerk opposition to memorials.

“I don’t ask my Serb neighbours to build memorials with me. I don’t ask them to be on our side,” he says. “But I also ask them not to stop memorials from being built.”

Blazevic is most critical of the leaders on all sides, whom he says have exploited the memorial issue for political gain.

His disdain for politicians seems to shared by Savic, the Bosnian Serb policeman who was held at the Viktor Bubanj barracks.

Though angered by the lack of a memorial at the building, he says he would never go back there anyway: “I am not going to put flowers there. What I have got, I carry in my soul. I am not ready to politicise this issue. I am not ready to be misused by anyone.”


Katarina Panic is a Prijedor-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.