On a small road near the city of Prijedor stands an old, white building. It looks no different than many of the other buildings that surround it—dilapidated and empty. Behind it, children have set up nets on a basketball court in order to play soccer, and a few small shops can be found close by. It’s hard to imagine that, twenty years ago, this building was a concentration camp.
The building—Trnopolje Camp— was a transit camp. Bosnian Serb military and police authorities in Prijedor, a municipality in northwestern Bosnia, established it during the summer of 1992 as a place to intern Bosniak and Croat civilians. While there, detainees underwent harsh beatings, torture, and rape (among many other forms of violence) and were often then transported to other camps in the region.
Trnopolje was not an isolated camp. Instead, it was part of a larger campaign of genocide that was mainly aimed to eliminate Bosniak residents from the region. There were multiple other camps where civilians were forcibly detained. Many died in transport, and some never even began the journey—they were killed in their homes or right outside their houses on the street.
The Serb military, police officers, paramilitaries, and other forces used these camps as part of their plan to create an “ethnically clean” region for Serbs. Notably, many other types of violence were prevalent in the region. For example, in June 1992, all non-Serbs were required to wear white armbands and hang white flags on the windows of their homes. Cultural monuments, such as mosques, were also destroyed throughout the municipality.
During my time in Prijedor, I was able to visit several of the former camps. Almost all of them are unmarked. In fact, the only sign at Trnopolje is on a statue dedicated to fallen Serb soldiers. There are many reasons behind such genocide denial, but one key reason is that this region is actually a separate political entity that was created largely through ethnic cleansing and reinforced by the peace process after the violence. It’s called Republika Srbka—the Serb Republic.
As the genocide is not acknowledged, there are not memorials at the camps. In fact, Omarska, one of the most notorious camps, is currently owned by a steel company. Rather than a place of remembrance, it is a place where iron ore is mined. Pictures of this camp are not allowed (check it out on google, though), but I was able to visit it with a survivor who painted a vivid picture in my mind by pointing out where torturing took place, where bodies were piled for morning pick-ups, and where he was beaten.
Today, many human rights groups are fighting to stop genocide denial, and several associations of former detainees are working to create memorials at the camps. I'll write more on this soon!