Interview with Ed Vulliamy, the British journalist who reported on Serbian concentration camps in Northwest Bosnia. Radio KWMU, St. Louis, November 20, 2007 (audio)


Empty Villages and Crowded Grave Yards

Preserving Memory in “Ethnically Cleansed” Prijedor

by Patrick McCarthy

July 2007




                                                                                  Šehidsko Mezarje / Martyr’s Cemetery – Outside of Kozarac (2007)


Sve što ste pamti nestaje


A što se zapiše ostaje


Everything remembered is lost


But that which is written remains


Tablet on a future memorial site in the town center of Kozarac



On the surface, daily life in the Bosnian city of Prijedor looks deceptively normal.

Morning commuters head to work in the busy city center of this medium-sized town of just over 100,000. Construction workers repair roads and replace sewer lines. Bored teenagers meander up one side of the city’s main boulevard and then back down the other. Cafes are full of people drinking small cups of strong Bosnian coffee. The large iron ore mine just outside of town has resumed regular production.


Today, there is little trace of what happened in Prijedor fifteen years ago, when a genocidal project for an “ethnically cleansed” Bosnia-Herzegovina resulted in the murder and forced expulsion of more than 40,000 of the town’s non-Serb population. During the long, hot summer of 1992, thousands of Prijedor’s Muslim and Catholic citizens were herded into concentration camps and killing centers where they were subjected to unspeakable acts of cruelty and human degradation.


Beginning in April, 1992, Prijedor’s lawyers, doctors, government officials, and business people – the educated elite who provide the human infrastructure needed for a society to function effectively – were rounded up from prepared lists.


Coordinated with military units, a self-proclaimed Serb government took power by force and established a “Crisis Committee of the Serbian District of Prijedor.”


Left and above – Prijedor Today (2007)


The city’s democratically elected mayor Muhamed Ćehajić was summarily ousted and sent to the Omarska concentration camp – housed in the iron ore mine on the outskirts of town – where he was killed along with other prominent citizens of Prijedor.  


According to a 2002 indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia:


“…during the early morning hours of 30 April 1992, Bosnian Serb police and army forces seized physical control of the town of Prijedor. Following the forcible take-over of Prijedor, the Crisis Staff imposed severe restrictions on all aspects of life for non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, including movement and employment. According to the Indictment, Bosnian Serb authorities in the Prijedor municipality unlawfully segregated, detained and confined more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats and other non-Serbs from the Prijedor area in the Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm camps between May and August 1992.”



The efficiency and speed of the displacement of Prijedor’s non-Serb population only deepened the collective sense of shock and disbelief that engulfed the city. Serb military units, backed with heavy weapons, systematically attacked Prijedor’s surrounding towns and villages, capturing or killing the civilian population while looting their possessions and destroying their homes. With particular zeal, mosques and Catholic churches in each location were ransacked, damaged, or, in many cases, simply leveled to the ground.

Downed minaret from the mosque in the village of Kevljani

More than a decade after its dismembering as a multi-ethnic city, we arrive in Prijedor to gather the remnants of private and public memory for a fall exhibit at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum called Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide. The exhibit features the wartime experiences of those who are part of the worldwide Prijedor diaspora now living in St. Louis, Missouri among more than 50,000 refugees from all parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the largest such concentrations of any city in the world. 


Amir Karadžić, Director of the St. Louis-based Union of Citizens of the Municipality of Prijedor, heads our small research delegation that includes Dr. Benjamin Moore, chairman of the English Department at Fontbonne University, who team-taught a course this year with his colleague Dr. Jack Luzkow called, The Bosnian Immigration: Narrative, Memory, and Identity. With their students, Ben and Jack are conducting video interviews with Prijedor survivors in St. Louis.  Rounding out our research group as guide and driver is Amir’s relative Fikret Dupanović, a former army helicopter pilot who lives in Bihac with his wife and two daughters.


Remembering Prijedor


We have come to Prijedor to talk with survivors, to document their wartime experiences, and to look below the surface of normalcy in the place that was once the epicenter of genocidal violence in Bosnia.


We meet and interview Dr. Minka Ćehajić, the wife of the former mayor of Prijedor, Muhamed Ćehajić, who was killed in the Omarska camp. Now a retired pediatrician, Dr. Ćehajić describes her efforts to contact her imprisoned husband through former hospital colleagues who made up the wartime leadership of the Serb Crisis Committee.



In nearby Kozarac, we talk with Muhedin Šarić, principal of the high school and author of an account of his time in the Kereterm camp. From his office, he quietly recounts the obliteration of Kozarac and his own imprisonment.

Poet and writer Rezak Hukanović, whose memoir Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia provides a compelling personal account of life inside the Omarska and Manjaca camps, offers us his views on the future of Prijedor still in the hands of its “ethnic cleansers.”


To gain perspective on the experience of Bosnian Catholics, we travel to Banja Luka to interview Bishop Franjo Komarica who was placed under house arrest during the war and routinely threatened with violence. Ninety of ninety-five churches in his diocese were damaged or destroyed during the war.

Muharem Murselović, an ex-inmate at Omarska and successful local business owner before the war, details his experiences in the reconstituted governance of Prijedor and his efforts to reestablish a nonsectarian political culture in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We also visit the network of former concentration camps and their natural counterparts of mass graves, makeshift morgues, and cemeteries.


What emerges from these encounters is a multi-layered reality of extraordinary courage and quiet dignity among those who survived the horrors of Prijedor and, at the same time, a profound sense of obstinate denial on the part of those who drove them from their homes.


 Preserving Memory


The 1992-1995 Bosnian war claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced nearly half of the country’s people as refugees, and destroyed both the infrastructure – homes, buildings, factories, hospitals, schools, museums, and libraries – and a way of life that had existed for centuries.  


How the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is remembered will in large part define the future course of events here.  In “ethnically cleansed” northwest Bosnia there are few formal indications of the organized campaign of genocidal violence that was calculated to permanently displace the area’s non-Serb community.


What is included in the public record – and, more importantly, what is omitted – will help to shape perceptions about these events. For now, Prijedor’s network of former concentration camps symbolizes the deep state of denial about the recent past.




                 Prisoners at Trnopolje, 1992 - © Ron Haviv

In Trnopolje, where images broadcast around the world of emaciated prisoners aroused the conscience and indignation of the outside world, there is no marker on the former school building where human beings were herded like livestock under conditions of extreme deprivation. The only monument there today is to Serbian war dead.

                                                                                                                                     Trnopolje Today (2007)




                                    Kereterm Factory (2007)

At the infamous Kereterm ceramics factory, where hundreds were brutally tortured and killed, a small stone tablet at the corner of the parking lot provides the only notice of the horrific crimes committed here.



           Parking lot marker at Kereterm (2007)






                                                      Omarska (2007)


The Omarska mining complex, the location of ultimate cruelty in the network of concentration camps in the Prijedor region, is now back in business with plans on hold for a memorial complex because of contested views on the nature and scope of remembering the terrible events of the summer of 1992.


Omarksa (2007)



For the moment, Omarska’s new owners – the Mittal Steel Group, the world’s largest and richest steel conglomerate – have decided that business needs outweigh historical necessity.


There is a strong feeling of betrayal that almost all Bosnians feel about the way they were treated during the war. From within, they experienced cruelty and barbaric violence. From without, the inaction and indifference of the wider world compounded a sense of isolation and abandonment. In each instance, they felt powerless to alter the outcome.


I ask Dr. Minka Ćehajić, wife of the murdered mayor of Prijedor, if anyone has ever apologized for what was done to her husband. “Some have indicated their remorse in indirect ways, but specifically no, no one has.” 

Dr. Ćehajić at her husband’s grave (2007)



During the summer of 1992, our government and others equivocated about whether events in Prijedor constituted genocide, undermining a will to act and reducing a sense of urgency to respond. The consequences of our failure are now memorialized in Prijedor’s empty villages and crowded grave yards.





Photographs are not allowed in the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) facility in Sanski Most. More than five hundred bodies are housed here after being recovered from mass grave sites around Prijedor. In two large sheds that sit side-by-side, human remains are neatly arranged on the cement floor and stacked on shelves around the perimeter of the building. 


Hundreds of skeletons sit atop large, white plastic ‘body bags’ along with clothing and other personal items found with the recovered remains. If known, the names of victims are recorded on individual white sheets of paper that accompany the bodies, showing the location and date on which the person was exhumed. We pass by several bodies that show bullet entry and exit wounds through their skulls.


Carefully placed at the feet of each skeleton are pieces of pants, shirts, socks, and underwear – clues to the identity of their owners. An occasional handmade sock or other brightly colored personal item stands out in stark contrast to the grim panorama of death.


Just up the road, many of the creators of this contemporary killing field – those who issued the orders and pulled the triggers – occupy positions of authority in government offices or sip coffee in outdoor cafes.


Patrick McCarthy, Rezak Hukanović, Amir Karadžić, and Fikret Dupanović outside the ICMP facility (2007)


We visit the ICMP facility with Rezak Hukanović. After reviewing the staggering number of bodies in the warehouse mortuary, Rezak quietly said, “Let’s go.” We exit the building into the bright sunlight of early afternoon. I realize we have just seen the true memorial to what occurred in Prijedor.   




“Dying was easy in Omarska, and living was hard.”  - Rezak Hukanović


Omarska has been called ground zero in the wartime atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Through its gates Prijedor’s non-Serb elite and ordinary citizens entered an inferno of violence with no return.  


How should one describe Omarksa? Many refer to it as a concentration camp, and it was, though not on the order of an Auschwitz or Buchenwald. Killing Center? Rape Camp? Torture Chamber? Omarska was all of these and more. 


What went on in this place almost defies description or imagination: brutality for sport and sadistic cruelty for entertainment. In one instance, Omarska inmates were forced to bite off the testicles of other prisoners.


The 2002 Hague Tribunal provides factual summary to Omarska and Keretem this way:


“Severe beatings, killings as well as other forms of physical and psychological abuse, including sexual assault, are alleged to have been commonplace at the Omarska and Keraterm camps. In addition, Omarska and Keraterm camps also operated in a manner designed to discriminate and subjugate the non-Serbs by inhumane acts and cruel treatment.” 


Access to the Omarska facility can be arranged, but our contact explains that no photographs are possible and we would have to promise not to write anything about our visit. We decline the offer of a censored and sanitized visit, and decide instead to take our chances with photographs outside the gates. As we drive down the road to Omarska, passing by intact, neatly kept homes and Orthodox churches, I wonder about those for whom fifteen years ago this trip was their last on earth.




 On the road to Omarska (2007)

If no physical record exists and survivor and eye witness accounts are discredited, history can be erased or re-written. Fabricated accounts of Omarska as a ‘collection center’ can be used to prop up the counterfeit claims of historical revisionists. Even as the camp was hastily shut down after its exposure, attempts were made to remove the physical evidence of the acts of barbarism routinely carried out there. If such efforts are successful, Omarska’s victims will have died a second death.



“…As for the present, is it too late to expect true reconciliation, in Bosnia and more specifically in Prijedor, between former adversaries and enemies, and above all between their children? People have a right to hope, they are worthy of it just as they have a duty to the painful truth of memory."                                                                                          

- Elie Wiesel, from the preface to Raw Memory: Prijedor,    Laboratory of Ethnic Cleansing (2005)

The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, brokered by the United States, created two entities within a divided Bosnia-Herzegovina. The first, the Bosnian Federation, occupying just over half of the geographic territory of the former Yugoslav Republic, is centered in the capital city of Sarajevo and is made up primarily of the country’s Muslims and Catholics.


The second entity, the Serbian Republic, is comprised of the remaining sections of the country, a patchwork of territories mainly seized by force. This entity includes towns synonymous with the genocidal project of a Greater Serbia: Prijedor and the surrounding region, Banja Luka (the capital of Republika Srpska), Kozarac as well as the former UN ‘safe areas’ of Srebrenica and Žepa, whose Muslim males were liquidated in just a mater of days in July, 1995.


The existence of separate entities within a sovereign state poses a basic political contradiction that ultimately stands in the way of coming to terms with what happened in Prijedor and other parts of the so-called ‘Serbian Republic.’ The fact itself of a Serb mini-state provides a structure of legitimacy to the territorial acquisition of the half of Bosnia that was “ethically cleansed” of its non-Serb citizens.


Meanwhile, many of those who participated in ethnic bloodletting in these places are still in positions of power and authority. To draw an imperfect historical parallel, it would be as if, in 1945, Nazis had been left in charge of those parts of Germany from which Jews had been expelled and murdered.  


In the end, the story of what happened in Prijedor is not a simple, black and white narrative of pure evil. Some Serbs risked their own lives to help their Muslim and Catholic friends. Even a few guards at Omarska assisted inmates with humane treatment and extra rations of food. These brave acts, though minority examples, were not only life-sustaining, they affirm a commitment to a shared humanity on which a decent future can be built.



The future will be determined by one of two ideas about Bosnia.


Bosnian students in Bihac (2007)

The first idea is that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country and culture that belongs to all Bosnians, regardless of religion or ethnicity.  More than a disconnected assemblage of Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian society by this account is made up of a whole that is greater than the

simple sum of its parts.


The natural political and social framework for adherents to this unified view is pluralistic and tolerant – with respect for both majority opinion and minority rights. As a matter of dominant ethos and historical reality, Bosnians have, in fact, shared a way of life over a period of centuries in their culture, customs, and society.


                        Internet Café, Sanski Most (2007)


In contrast, the other idea of Bosnia begins (and ends) with a narrowly constructed individual identity that extends outward to claim a “nation” among like-minded co-religionists. In this scheme of things, all Bosnian Serbs, for example, are joined together in a common national identity with other Orthodox Christians of the region, regardless of where they live. Likewise, Bosnian Croats form a “nation” with the area’s other Roman Catholics, also across territorial boundary lines.   


          Sana River, near Prijedor (2007)


Bosnian Muslims, inherently at a disadvantage in this dangerous game of religious roulette, cannot reference a second country such as Serbia or Croatia for a wider affiliation. Nonetheless some claim “Bosniak” fraternity with Muslims in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.


In the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, these two ideas and their followers were at war with one another. To a degree, the first, more inclusive idea can encompass the other, though the reverse is not true.


Metaphorically and literally, the second, more “tribal” impulse is primitive and dysfunctional. In the extreme, ethno-religious nationalism engenders conflict and violence. Separation (by force if needed) is its logical consequence.  


Despite our many shortcomings, part of the underappreciated success of our own multi-cultural society is that we generally subsume our other ethnic or religious identities under a single banner as “Americans.” For Bosnians, renewing a similar sense of civic nationalism – as equal citizens of a common state – would supersede (though not erase) individual affiliation as Serb, Muslim, or Croat.  


In all divided cultures, the failure to realize a more inclusive idea of a common life and a shared future is not a problem of memory but of imagination.


The Bosnian future belongs to those who will find both a basis for unity and accountability for the crimes of the past. Even though they all suffered greatly, we did not hear a single bad word about the Serbian people from any of those we interviewed.


Today, a basic question resonates with special relevance throughout our world: Can we really exist apart from one another?  


The responses we enact in our own communities – and in “faraway places” like Prijedor – will determine the kind of people we are and the type of world in which we will live.


Patrick McCarthy is project advisor to the exhibit Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide, scheduled to open in November, 2007 at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.


McCarthy has worked with the Bosnian community in St. Louis since 1993. He traveled to wartime Sarajevo in 1994, founding that year the St. Louis Bosnian Student Project, which located scholarship placements for Bosnian students fleeing war zones.


With photographer Tom Maday, McCarthy co-authored After the Fall: Srebrenica Survivors in St. Louis (2000) that served as a companion volume to a year-long exhibit at the Missouri History Museum on Bosnian refugees in St. Louis.


McCarthy is Director of the Medical Center Library at Saint Louis University, and can be reached by e-mail at:


The author at a mass grave site near Prijedor



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