Judith Armatta

Excerpt from the Book

Lest our Grandchildren Forget

[Excerpted from Chapter 10: Concentration Camps and Safe Areas]

Two camp survivors testified back to back on 2 and 3 December 2003. Ahmet Zulic described how difficult the experience of testifying is for survivors: “I tried to be as brief as possible and avoid pain as much as possible because you're taking me through the same pain, I have to relive the experience. It is my duty [to testify].” He continued, "I can't be 100% correct because it is very difficult when 10-11 years have elapsed. . . . Because a person who goes through something like this loses his concentration quite quickly and starts trembling. . . .”

Zulic and Tihic were arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to unimaginable cruelties. Their testimonies highlight conscious and unconscious survival skills that people employ to deal with extreme situations. These skills -- amnesia or selective memory, loss of concentration, dissociation from their surroundings, and numbness, to name a few – can help a person to cope with the trauma, but they can cause problems in a courtroom. It is the court's job, with assistance from the prosecutor, to sort out the truth under these circumstances -- and, as important, to protect survivor witnesses from being re-traumatized to the extent possible.

Both men described relatively normal relationships among people of different ethnic groups in their communities before the war. Tihic denied Milošević's suggestion that the war began when Bosniaks made the decision to leave Yugoslavia: "No. When the JNA got involved is when the aggression mounted. Serbs, Muslims, Croats wouldn't have waged war against each other without outside interference. We, as neighbors, would not fight each other."

Photo of Sarajevo, with minaret and graves in foreground, photo by author. Sulejman Tihic was the Muslim representative on the tripartite Bosnian presidency when he testified against Milošević. At the time leading up to his detention he was president of the Bosnian Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in Bosanski Samac. Tihic testified about the arrival of the Red Berets in his village by Yugoslav Army helicopter about ten to fifteen days before their attack on Bosanski Samac on 17 April 1992. The Red Berets beat local Serbs who fraternized with local Croats. They cut men's hair they considered too long and molested women. They were "masters of the war, masters of life and death," Tihic said. Shortly after the Red Berets arrived he and other prominent Muslims were arrested. The detainees were interrogated and "so badly beaten that the local [police] commander for Bosanski Samac called the JNA and asked them to pull us all out or we would die from the beatings." But the army was afraid of the Red Berets, according to the witness. After more interrogations and beatings in Bijeljina, Tihic was blindfolded, handcuffed, tied together with eight other prisoners, and placed in an army helicopter. An army major and one of Arkan's men guarded them. The latter wanted to throw them out of the helicopter, but the major prevented it.

In Batajnica young JNA troops guarded the prisoners. One Serb guard, Aca Ilic, befriended them, brought them beer and biscuits, and would not allow them to be beaten when he was on duty. In late May Ilic told the witness that he had volunteered to go to the front, for which JNA reservists received a bonus. This occurred after the JNA had agreed to withdraw from Bosnia, evidencing its continued assistance to local Serb forces. Tihic experienced one more Serbian concentration camp, this one at Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia. Near the end of August 1992, he was released in a prisoner exchange.

Tihic underwent a grueling cross-examination by Milošević. After a series of questions about various acts of sabotage allegedly carried out against Bosnian Serbs, most of which the witness knew little or nothing about, Milošević began arguing with him over his testimony. "You say you were beaten and mistreated by the JNA," Milošević; taunted. "It sounds very improbable to me." Judge May interrupted to give Tihic an opportunity to answer the accusation. "Yes. I was beaten by members of the JNA. Mr. Milošević, I found that improbable, too, that children, soldiers were beating me because my name was Sulejman."

Ahmet Zulic was arrested on 18 June 1992 in Sanski Most and taken to a factory where about ninety men were detained in hot, overcrowded conditions. They were regularly beaten. Four days later, he and about twenty men were driven to Kriva Sesta. In the presence of Yugoslav army soldiers and the local SDS president, he was handed a hoe and told to start digging his grave. As he faced the freshly dug grave, he saw Serb soldiers slitting the throats of other prisoners. A knife was drawn across his throat, causing it to bleed. Then a pistol was put into his mouth and another at his temple. When the pistol was withdrawn, it broke his front teeth. A shot was fired through his hair, but his life was spared through the intervention of one of his captors. Two other men also survived.

Muslim (dome on top) and Serb (wings of a dove) Gravestones in a cemetery in Sarajevo near the old Olympic Stadium, photo by author

On 7 July the witness was transported to the Serbian detention camp at Manjaca. He was severely beaten before being put in a stiflingly hot truck for transport. There was no water; people were crying for help, Zulic testified. An eighteen-year-old boy died in his lap. When the truck arrived eighteen to twenty bodies were lying motionless in it. Some showed signs of life but were left to die because the camp commander did not want to deal with them. At Manjaca, Zulic was beaten to unconsciousness, denied adequate food (he lost seventy-seven pounds during his stay), witnessed two murders, and suffered broken ribs and injuries to his head. He was released in late November 1992.

Though he was not as harsh with Zulic as he had been with Tihic, Milošević focused on differences between Zulic’s statements and his diary. Zulic's response was telling: “I wrote on the first page, ‘Lest Our Grandchildren Forget.’ Many things I didn't write because I didn't want my grandchildren to know everything that had happened to me. There would be more hatred in their hearts."

The witnesses did not leave a tidy record for the Court to review. Their accounts were a bit messy, sometimes contradictory or incomplete, one lied under duress, the other omitted information to protect people. Theirs was the testimony of survivors of horrible crimes, committed over lengthy periods when they were totally helpless and dependent on their torturers for life itself. That they survived was a miracle. That they came to testify before the Tribunal and the world public about their experiences was courageous. One hoped that the experience was not seriously retraumatizing but provided some measure of healing. Like Gusalic before them, both witnesses gave firsthand evidence of the extensive detention camp system that reached into Serbia, showing Serbian involvement in crimes in Bosnia. It was a significant achievement.

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