Feature 25 Sep 17

Bosnia’s ‘Bone Hospital’ Still Haunts its Inmates

The destruction of a memorial to Bosniaks imprisoned at the Kostana Hospital detention camp in Stolac during wartime brought back disturbing memories of the torture they endured there.

Igor Spaic BIRN Stolac
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Mustafa Dizdar, 69, can only speak about it if he takes sedatives first.

The old man’s eyes begin to tear up as he points towards the white building behind the trees in the central yard of Kostana hospital in his hometown of Stolac.

“They played loud music so the screams that would come from here would not be heard,” he says as he slowly walks the compound that once was a hospital specialised in treating bone conditions turned into a concentration camp.

“A butcher’s shop does not produce the amount of blood that passed through this place,” he says as he enters the rundown building and heads straight to the little cells in the basement where the prisoners were kept, “living like moles”.

A small white stone monument with the inscription “Do not forget” in the hospital’s yard used to honour the victims of Kostana, but one morning earlier this month, locals found that the memorial was missing. Nationalists had apparently removed it during the night.

Kostana was part of a network of detention centres established and run by the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, in 1993, when Bosniaks were ordered to leave their homes and leave the keys in the doors.

They were rounded up, men were separated from women, children and the elderly and sent to the camps, while the others were driven out to the north of the country.

Stolac’s Sultan Selim Mosque and Muslim monuments were destroyed in an attempt to erase any evidence they ever lived here.

What happened in that period in the south of the country was eventually deliberated over by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

In 2013, Hague Tribunal judges sentenced six top Bosnian Croat officials to a total of more than 100 years for taking part in a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ aimed at forcibly removing Bosniaks from territories under their control in an attempt to create a ‘Greater Croatia’.

The verdict mentions late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and several other Zagreb officials as members of the joint criminal enterprise.

In the appeals hearings that started in March this year, defence lawyers for the six focused on trying to convince judges that Croatia had nothing to do with their crimes.

The ruling is expected next month.

Dizdar speculates that this could be why the memorial that was installed in the yard of the Kostana hospital to honour the victims was removed by nationalists earlier this month.

“They are trying hide the truth, but we all here know what happened,” Dizdar said as he stood where the stone memorial used to be.

“No. They cannot erase it from history,” he said, and looked up at the building again.

“The walls were covered in blood,” he said. “These walls - this is what their souls look like.”

Mustafa Dizdar inside the old Kostana Hospital where he was imprisoned. Photo: BIRN.

After Kostana, Dizdar was taken to another detention camp, called Dretelj.

“I had a special kind of treatment in Dretelj. I got three meals of beatings a day, and one small meal of food,” he said.

He was also forced to sing songs about Ante Pavelic, a leader of Croatia’s World War II Nazi puppet regime, he said.

He soaked his wounds with his own urine to heal them.

Hundreds of Bosniaks from Stolac went through Kostana but stayed only for a few days here before being taken to other camps - if they survived.

That hot August of 1993, when the soldiers were rounding people up, Amer Djulic turned his head and looked at his house one last time.

He was 17, and had just completed the third grade of high school.

He thought that because of his age, he would be allowed to leave for territory controlled by the Bosnian Army with his mother, grandmother and grandfather, where they would be safe - but the Croat soldiers decided to take him away instead.

“I was supposed to be listening to music, going out with girls and having fun. But at this age I was thinking about whether I would stay alive, if I would have enough to eat,” Djulic told BIRN.

His mother cried, begging the soldiers to let him go, but to no avail. He had to join the column of men.

“There were about 10 of us minors there. Among them were my cousins, Emir, Sanel, Elvir, Azer, Ibrahim... We were between 15 and 17 years old,” he remembered.

“I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t,” he added.

He saw his older cousin Salem taking off his watch and telling cousin Elvir to give it to his wife and children. Salem later died from the beatings.

Djulic did not know much about Kostana, except that it was a well-known hospital for curing bones.

“But while I was there, this was a place where bones were being broken,” he said.

He was put in one of the little cells in the basement.

“It was completely dark inside. I could only see some scared faces and concrete.”

The next three days changed his life.

“I spent a total of 238 days in concentration camps like Dretelj, Gabela and Heliodrom,” Djulic said. “But those three days and two nights in Kostana were worse than the rest of the 235 days.”

His room only received two cans of food and a loaf of bread to eat. And he saw death for the first time in his life.

In his cell were two beds where people who had recently been beaten would be recovering, while others would sit on the concrete floor.

The injured would name their torturers and Djulic would never forget their names. He knew them all.

The beatings went on day and night and the soldiers would sometimes have two prisoners carry someone who was not able to walk because of the severe beatings back down to the cellar.

The other prisoners would pour water over the wounds, as they had a small faucet and a bucket in the room, in which they would also defecate.

Amer Djulic. Photo: BIRN.

“Waiting for your turn was the worst,” Djulic said.

Day and night, the screams echoed through the building.

The first one to die was a man in his sixties, Vejsil Djulic.

“They interrogated him for a long time, after which he slowly stumbled down to the room. ‘My neighbours are beating me,’ he said. Then he just turned to [another prisoner called] Salko and said: ‘I am... I am...’, and then he died,” Djulic remembers.

Meanwhile Salem Djulic, who had already been beaten, was being taken up again for another session. Within the hour, the soldiers asked two prisoners to carry him back down.

“We realised he did not hear anything. He only managed to lie down next to Vejsil, and simply let his soul out,” Djulic said.

Then a man he knew from the town came into the room. He was wearing a black hat with a large ‘U’ on it - ‘U’ for ‘Ustasa’, the Croatian nationalist troops of World War II.

“He began hitting me and accusing me and the others of killing someone in 1992. He then continued to hit an older man with a heart condition, Salko Kaplan, who died a few days later,” Djulic said.

“I wanted to grab him and throw him against the wall, but I couldn’t. You feel like your hands are tied,” he added.

Djulic was chosen, along with a few others, to bury the dead.

“We placed them next to each other and put dirt over them. It was a weird feeling, burying someone you spoke to only an hour ago,” he recalled.

Djulic thought that after the two men died, the ordeal would end. But then came the worst night.

His name was called out.

“In the room I saw many of my Croat neighbours. They asked me what my name was and I answered, thinking to myself, why they were asking if they all knew me?” Djulic said.

“‘Where are the bombs the army gave you?’ they asked. I laughed, asking what they were talking about. They kept accusing me of shooting at them,” he recalled.

They ordered him to stand in front of a wardrobe in the room.

“Did you burn down our houses?” the soldiers asked.

“No, it was the Yugoslav People’s Army, you know that!” he replied.

“You are lying,” they yelled. “Bang your head against the wardrobe!”

Djulic had to. The soldiers ordered him to do so again, harder and harder each time, until the cabinet door fell off.

Then he was ordered to stand against the wall and spread his hands and feet. He had to position himself for the beating he was about to take.

“I stood there for five minutes thinking I will simply endure it. But they kept hitting, asking me to confess. I would not say I did something that I didn’t. It was an inquisition.”

Djulic fell to the ground several time but was ordered to get back up.

When he pretended to faint, they poured water over his head and started all over again.

He said this went on for about an hour until a soldier he had never seen before entered the room, yelling and scolding the others for “beating children”, and saving Djulic from his former neighbours’ blows.

“He took my hand and we left the room,” Djulic remembered. “I don’t know if he saved my life that night or not. I don’t know his name.”

A 16-year-old who was detained alongside Djulic then tended to his wounds.

The next morning the soldiers woke Djulic and the other prisoners up, saying they would be taken elsewhere.

“Stolac was being ‘cleansed’, and fresh meat was to arrive,” Djulic said.

He often tried to get into the minds of those who were beating people here.

He found an answer. War gives people a new kind of freedom.

“Many who did not have the courage to shoot [when they were] at the frontline, who were afraid of everyone during peacetime, came there to spill their ‘courage’ - on children and on people who were tied up,” he said.

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