Thursday, December 02, 2004


The pictures and descriptions of the concentration camp at Omarska that were revealed to the world in 1992 played a major role in the decision of the United Nations Security Council a year later to create the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Television images broadcast in August 1992 of gaunt, half-naked men crowded behind barbed wire were eerily reminiscent of scenes encountered during the liberation of the Nazi death camps a generation earlier.

Ed Vulliamy, a reporter for the Guardian who visited Omarska in August 1992, wrote, "The internees are horribly thin, raw-boned. Some are almost cadaverous, with skin like parchment folded around their arms. Their faces are lantern-jawed, and their eyes are haunted by the empty stare of the prisoner who does not know what will happen to him next." When the PBS program Frontline profiled Radovan Karadzic in a documentary entitled "The World's Most Wanted Man" in 1998, much of the focus was on the Omarska death camp. (Mark Danner's article for The New York Review of Books entitled "The Horrors of a Camp Called Omarska" provides a thorough, but disturbing, overview of what we know about Omarska.)

On November 2, 2001, five defendants were convicted by the ICTY of war crimes and crimes against humanity for acts performed at Omarska. The findings of fact in the judgment of the court are often revolting, as in the following description:

Witness Y described having to collect dead bodies from inside the white house and the red house and load them onto a truck. In the white house, the witness discovered "very big stains in that room. Almost all of the floor was covered in very dark stains, bloodstains. And on the radiator, I noticed some hair, parts of the head , brains, pieces of skull .… [A body in the room] was stiff. The joints around the elbows and in the area of the ankles were cut, and the throat was cut almost to the middle". A pile of bodies lay outside the red house, and "the dead bodies were still warm; the skulls were fractured; their jaws were fractured; there were bodies with throats slit".

Omarska was the site of iron ore mines. Now, the United Kingdom's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal, has purchased the old mines in order to return them to production. Survivors of the Omarska camp and relatives of those who perished there are urging Mittal to insure that the memory of what happened in Omarska is preserved in an appropriate way.

Mittal's partner in the joint venture, however, is the government of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian enclave within Bosnia. The Serbs are not eager to acknowledge the existence of a concentration camp that was run by Serbs. (For an example of historical revisionism from a Serbian perspective, see this site.) As a result, Mittal finds his mining venture caught in the middle of a dispute about the past.