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Former Prisoners Allege Wholesale Serb Atrocities

By Mary Battiata
The Washington Post

KARLOVAC, Croatia

The former prisoner, a slightly built Slavic Muslim plumber with dark bloodshot eyes, would not give his name, but his face became slick with sweat as he began talking about the 75 days he spent at the Serb-run Omarska detention camp in northwestern Bosnia.

"The guards made us go out behind a small shed where there was a truck and a bulldozer," he said. "We saw the bodies, and then we understood everything."

"There were 26 bodies. Some had half their heads missing; others were missing eyes. They told us to put the bodies on the bulldozer, but it was hard to walk; we were stepping on human brains. Then they took us to a field and made us pick up two more bodies. When we were done, the guard cocked his machine gun and said, `Do you want to be next?'

"We didn't say anything; there was never any use to say anything. He looked at us, and, as if he was being merciful, he said, `Okay, go wash.' My jeans were full of blood. I couldn't clean them."

The plumber told his story at the makeshift barracks here where more than 1,500 former inmates of Serb prison camps in Bosnia are being held under U.N. auspices until asylum can be found for them. Most of them had spent time in several Serb camps before being released to the Red Cross last Thursday and brought here in a convoy of 31 buses. They were the first large group of prisoners released under terms of an accord among Bosnia's three warring factions and the first able to speak freely about their experiences.

Their accounts describe a hellish gulag archipelago across Serb-held Bosnia territory where beatings, torture and execution have been daily occurrences. Although their stories could not be independently verified, they provide some of the most detailed testimony yet to support widespread charges that Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia have engaged in wholesale atrocities against camp inmates _ most of them men of military age imprisoned to prevent armed resistance against Serb militia forces.

The camps, one former prisoner said, are places where a Serb guard "will kill you for your wristwatch," and where prisoners forced to gather up the dead cannot keep their balance on ground slick with human gore. Since the men arrived here last week, the barracks have been the scene of tearful reunions with family members, but they also have resounded with the grief-stricken cries of relatives who had just learned that their sons, husbands or fathers did not survive the camps.

One alleged instance of mass murder occured at the Serb-run Keraterm prison camp in northwestern Bosnia on the night of July 24, according to a Muslim locksmith who said he was in the room that night. Just after dark, he said, Serb guards with automatic weapons systematically killed scores of Muslim men who were locked inside a cramped, stifling enclosure known as Room 3.

Serbs positioned just outside the room fired burst after burst through the thin metal door, as other guards working within the room heaved each prisoner in turn up against the inside of the door. "It was dark. (The guards) were cursing and walking on us, sitting on (our) heads and strangling anyone who moved," the locksmith said.

As many as 160 men in the room died that night, according to the locksmith and three other Muslims who were imprisoned in the adjacent room. They said another 50 prisoners were killed the next morning when a fresh shift of Serb guards entered Room 3 to search for survivors. Ten more prisoners disappeared and never returned, they said, after they were forced to load the corpses onto a truck and leave the camp with them.

The killing continued the next night against an outside wall, and on many nights after that, the locksmith said. "In the morning, they would collect the remains in a wheelbarrow _ brains, blood, pieces of flesh."

At both Omarska and Keraterm, up to 400 prisoners were jammed together in stifling rooms, and beatings were a daily occurrence, released prisoners here said. At Keraterm, they said, the beatings were carried out at various times by Serb military police, unidentified men dressed in camouflage uniforms and Serb civilians who came from nearby villages to participate in the violence. "They would beat us for about a half-hour, until you started to bleed. They gave us broken ribs, broken hands. They were cutting off ears and noses," said a 24-year-old man from near the north Bosnian city of Prijedor.

At Omarska, some said, the beatings began at lunch, a foul rice dish served in a building adjacent to the one in which the prisoners were held. After being ordered to bolt their food in two or three minutes, the prisoners said, they were forced to return to the prison barracks through a gantlet of guards who beat them with thick wooden bats, metal pipes and wire hoses. One guard, they said, a man nicknamed "Prevara," used a mountaineer's axe to bash the prisoners as they passed.

At both Omarska and Keraterm, Muslim men who had been policemen were targeted for special abuse, and many were shot dead immediately on their arrival at the camps, released prisoners here said. One young man, Emsoud Bahonic, a grocery store owner and part-time policeman, was beaten for six days until his arms and legs were broken and paralyzed, according an uncle who said he was with Bahonic at Omarska. He died soon after, the uncle said.

At the same camp, two young Muslim men, Emir Karabasic and Jasmin Hrnic, a reserve policeman and a civilian, were taken to a basement room below the prisoners' quarters and savagely abused, according to a former prisoner. First, he said, the two men were hung from a auto-repair crane and severely beaten, then taken down and forced to perform degrading sexual acts on each other. Both men were then castrated and died soon afterward, the prisoner said.

"The screaming was terrible," said another man who was being held directly above the basement room and who said he later spoke with prisoners who had been forced by guards to witness the abuse of the two Muslims.

At Keraterm, housed in an abandoned ceramics factory near Prijedor, some former prisoners reported seeing 25 half-naked men being beaten, including the former Muslim mayor of Prijedor, Muhamed Celajic. They said he did not survive.