In the same year of the 50th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, not so far from there, thousands of people were still captive in prison camps in the Balkans.
When I think of the nineties it’s all about colorful clothes, great cartoons, amazing movies, and nostalgic music. It brings us back to our great childhood, or for the previous generation, their wonderful teenage years, and for those who weren’t born at the time, just a very close and popular series of trends and icons that are impossible not to feel attached to. It would be strange for us to think about non-mainstream political events that happened during the decade. I mean, I remember certain episodes that were all over the news, like the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal, hearing about the Gulf War, and so on, but others that happened in other spots of the world passed inadvertently in my head, either because they weren’t as streamed as others, or simply because I had no idea these places existed.
To put it simply, most of the conflicts happening at the time were a consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia used to be considered a whole country by the rest of the world. However, it was terribly divided by different cultures and traditions, religion, and language. After the Cold War, the Yugoslavian Communist Party lost a lot of power and followers, who started believing in a more nationalistic and separatist political system that allowed each group to have their independence. With the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992, Slovenia and Croatia got their independence, but for Bosnia the story was quite different.
The group belonging to the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum for their independence. However, the representatives of the Bosnian Serbs (in other words, the power groups) rejected it, claiming it was an illegal bill. Anyhow, the referendum got an international recognition and thus they continued with their movement. This group was religiously formed by Muslims (called Bosniaks, and which were a majority), Orthodox (Serbs), and Catholics (Croats that were still in the territory). War thus started between the Bosnian Serbs (supported by the Yugoslav Army, that later became the Army of Republika Srpska) and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war that took place in an important part of the Bosnian territory not only involved military confrontation, but the death of many civilians and a cruel ethnic cleansing that took place during the three years of the war.
Although the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (a branch created by the United Nations in 1993) and the International Court of Justice have declared that from all the ethnic cleansing that took place all over the territory, only the Srebrenica massacre counts as a genocide in the formal definition of the term, the horrors and cruelties that thousands of people endured during this three-year conflict have no excuse. Among the many injustices happening, Prison camps were created to imprison, torture, and even kill prisoners, especially Muslim Bosniaks. One of these was the Trnopolje Camp, where Dr. Idriz Merdžanić, one of the main witnesses and survivors, was sent after Serb forces attacked his hometown of Prijedor (northern part of Bosnia).
Some of the main methods for their cleansing were deportation, imprisonment, rape, torture, beating, inhumane treatment, plunder of personal property, psychological abuse, and of course, murder. These acts were witnessed by thousands of people who, like Merdžanić, one day became the targets of hatred and division. As he explains, the Serb forces first took women and children to the camp. They were transported like cattle on trucks while most men were killed right away, deported, or imprisoned as well.
Merdžanić was one of the lucky ones –if we could talk about luck–, as he was immediately sent to the camp just because he was a doctor. His job was basically prolonging the lives of other prisoners that had been beaten, tortured, or raped so that they didn’t pile up on their premises, especially because the conflict was getting more international acknowledgment, and they didn’t want to face an international court. Knowing he had to do something, Merdžanić started secretly taking photographs of his patients, even when this could mean being caught and killed. He would conceal his camera behind the poor medical equipment he had, so when the British Independent Television News got access to the camp (after months of politically pushing the Serb authorities to allow them inside the premises they assured were a refugee camp) Merdžanić gave them the evidence to prove the monstrosities that had been taking place there.
According to the doctor, they not only had to endure the abuses, but the medical equipment the Serbian Red Cross had available for the inmates only consisted of chemicals to kill bugs and lice. There wasn’t any real medicine for infections or any possible disease that could spread among the huddled camp. When the camp directors, found out the TV crew was visiting the camp, they removed the most damaged and sick prisoners from the premises, the medical supplies were exchanged for real medicine, and the wire that surrounded the camp was removed. It was at this moment where most people were deliberately killed to erase all trace of the horrors they had been doing there and only left some of the strongest prisoners to verify their cover of this being a refugee camp. Fortunately, Merdžanić and other survivors weren’t going to allow them to get away with their cruelty, so thanks to his photographic evidence and those of the international media, the truth of these camps was exposed.
There are many episodes in history that mainstream books or news don’t deal with so openly. Here are other stories of how when, given the chance, human beings can turn into real monsters:
Photos from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) archive.