Concentration Camps

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By Ed Vulliamy

The laws governing warfare and conflict make no reference to concentration camps. But for more than a century, concentration camps have been a venue for wholesale war crimes and the symbol of the worst abuses against civilians in wartime.

It was a Spanish general, Valeriano Weyler, who established the first reconcentrados or “concentration centers” in Cuba in his drive to suppress the 1895 rebellion. Britain introduced concentration camps on a massive scale during the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. To deny the Boer guerrillas food and intelligence, Gen. Lord Kitchener ordered the British Army to sweep the Transvaal and Orange River territories of South Africa “clean.” Civilians—women, children, the elderly, and some men of fighting age—were herded from their homes and concentrated in camps along railway lines, with a view to their eventual removal from the territory. The Boers, to whom these camps became a symbol of genocide, called them laagers.

The Nazis developed a vast network of Konzentrationslager, using them at first to hold political prisoners, later slave labor, and finally to annihilate European Jewry and to kill large numbers of Poles, Russians, and Gypsies. Of the nearly 6 million Jews killed under Hitler’s “Final Solution,” 2 million died in Auschwitz, the main extermination center.

No one in the post–World War II generation could have anticipated the reappearance of such camps in Europe. On that August 1992 day when my colleagues and I from the British television network ITN alighted from our vans, it was hard to gauge who was more amazed to see whom. Before us, there was a landscape of human misery that seemed to recall another time: men, some of them skeletal, lined up behind a barbed wire fence, with lantern jaws and xylophone ribcages visible beneath their putrefied skin. They, in turn, saw a camera crew and a clutch of reporters advancing across the withered summer grass.

This was Logor Trnopolje, a teeming mass of wretched humanity—scared, sunburned, and driven out of house and home. Among them was the figure of Fikret Alic, whose emaciated torso behind sharp knots of wire would become the enduring symbol of Bosnia’s war, of its cruelty and its echo of the worst calamities of our century. Alic had come from yet another camp, Kereterm, where he had broken down in tears, having been ordered to help clear up some 150 corpses, the result of the previous night’s massacre.

I ventured into Trnopolje, past families crammed against one another on the floor of what had been a school, past stinking holes dug into the ground for what were intended to be cesspits. “I can’t tell you everything that goes on,” said one young inmate, Ibrahim Demirovic, “but they do whatever they want.” A gracious doctor, Idriz, had been put in charge of a “medical center” where he gave us an undeveloped film—it showed his patients, beaten literally black and blue.

The day after the discovery of Trnopolje and Omarska, I shied from calling them concentration camps because of the inevitable association with the bestial policies of the Third Reich. I reasoned that we must take extreme care in relating genocides of our lifetime and the Holocaust, which was singular and inimitable. While thousands were purposefully killed in the gulag of Serbian camps, did that equate with the Nazis’ industrial mass murder of Jews and others?

On reflection, concentration camp is exactly the right term for what we uncovered that day. For here civilian populations were literally concentrated —frog-marched in columns or bused to locations for illegal purposes of maltreatment, torture, abuse, killing, and, crucially, enforced transfer, or ethnic cleansing. Indeed, The UN’s independent Commission of Experts determined after a year long study that Trnopolje was a concentration camp, and Omarska and Keraterm “de facto death camps.”

In general, the laws which would apply to concentration camps address the topic piecemeal, and the principal element is unlawful confinement, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Confinement of civilians is not necessarily unlawful. “Foreign” civilians who pose a threat to a party to a conflict may be put in “places of internment” or given an “assigned residence.” However, the threat they pose must be genuine, evidenced by some clear action, not merely by their nationality. It is also lawful to remove civilians for their own security in an emergency, such as an impending battle, and set up temporary shelters for them. Even so, they must be returned home as soon as it is safe to do so and be well cared for in the meantime. Also, some civilians may be held or imprisoned as suspects or criminals, so long as they are given due process. In an internal conflict, noncombatants may be interned but are entitled to humane treatment and the judicial protections guaranteed by a regularly constituted court. None of these safeguards exist in concentration camps. Confinement under such conditions is thus unlawful. The arbitrary imprisonment of large numbers of civilians during conflicts—internal or international—can be a crime against humanity.

The themes of the “concentration” and “clearance” of civilians came to dominate the last phase of the Boer War, just as they dominated the entire Bosnian War, most notably in its early stages. As we know, the removal of Muslims and Croats from Serbian terrain was not a by-product of a war between armies, it was the  raw material, the declared aim, of the Serbs.

The Boer War concentration camps aroused outrage and fury back in Britain, led by temperance crusader Emily Hobhouse. She described “deportations… a burned-out population brought in by hundreds of convoys… semi-starvation in the camps… fever-stricken children lying on the bare earth… appalling mortality.”

The camps provoked Lloyd George to thunder, “When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism.” Even the all-woman Fawcett Committee, which supported the British war but made intrepid inspections of the concentration camps, was struck by the conditions at Mafeking, where women were washing clothes in water fouled by excreta, or at Brandfort, where an epidemic killed 337 people in three weeks. These places were by no means Auschwitz or Belsen, but they were concentration camps.

The term concentration camp implies not so much a prison or assigned residence for POWs or even civilians, but a role in an overall process of “clearance.” The fact that the Serbs sought to defend Trnopolje by describing it as a “transit camp” confirms the point: there is an entwinement between concentration camps and the forced movement or clearance of population.

In their description of Trnopolje in the trial verdict against Dusko Tadic, judges in The Hague noted that “there was no regular regime of interrogations or beating, as in other camps, but beatings and killings did occur.” They referred to testimony about “dead people wrapped in paper and wired together, their tongues pulled out… and the slaughtered bodies of young girls and old men.” The judges acknowledged that some inmates were allowed to forage for food in the village beyond the camp. But this “in effect amounted to imprisonment,” since many were killed during these excursions, and survivors feared repeating them.

Moreover, “because this camp housed the largest number of women and girls, there were more rapes at this camp than any other. Girls between the ages of 16 and 19 were at the greatest risk… the youngest girl being 12 years of age.” One girl serially raped by seven Serbian soldiers suffered “terrible pains… and hemorrhaging.”

But what hallmarked Trnopolje was the fact that the camp was, as the judges said, “the culmination of the campaign of ethnic cleansing, since those Muslims and Croats who were not killed at the Omarska and Kereterm camps were, from Trnopolje, deported.” This is one of the defining essences of concentration camps—that the detaining power wishes to be rid of their inmates, either by killing them, or else by enforced transit elsewhere.

In the case of Trnopolje, these transits—the concentration camp’s purpose—were utterly terrifying. I went on one of them, in this instance of Muslims from the town of Sanski Most. Because they were internal displacements, from Serb-controlled northern Bosnia into government-held regions, they attracted little attention aside from the news media.

A year later, in September 1993, I found myself uncovering another concentration camp: Dretelj. This time the inmates were Muslims, their guards Bosnian-Croat. Most of the prisoners were locked away in the dank darkness of two underground hangars, dug into facing hillsides. The metal doors had been slid open for our visit, but many men preferred to stay inside, staring as though blind into the ether. “We’re not really allowed out,” said one. These men had been locked in here for up to seventy-two hours at a time, without food or water, drinking their own urine to survive. They all remembered the night in July 1993 when the Croat guards got drunk and began firing through the doors—between ten and twelve men died that night; the back wall of the hangar was pockmarked with bullets.

The plan was simple; the Bosnian Croat authorities explained them to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) at a meeting in the coastal resort of Makarska during the week before our discovery of the camp. The proposal was to ship fifty thousand Muslim men to a transit camp at nearby Ljubuski, and thence to third countries. The Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic said his country would do all it could to help. Would the UNHCR? The aid workers were flabbergasted, caught in a heinous dilemma: to cooperate with the aim of Dretelij and three other concentration camps, or else to leave the men festering in conditions which had been hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross for two months.

Any such fulfillment of the concentrations camps’ goal is illegal deportation anyway. But in addition to its laws on confinement, the Geneva Convention of 1949 does regulate the transfer of internees—to take the Serbs’ and Croats’ own sanitized description of their concentration camps. This shall, says Article 127, “always be effected humanely,” and as a general rule by rail or other means of transport. “If, as an exceptional measure, such removals have to be effected on foot, they may not take place unless the internees are in a fit state of health.”

The convention continues: “When making decisions regarding the transfer of internees, the detaining power shall take their interests into account, and in particular shall not do anything to increase the difficulties of repatriating them or returning them to their own homes.” At the time of writing, that provision, with regard to those “concentrated” at Trnopolje and Dretelj, remains infamously and horribly unfulfilled.

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