Feature 14 Sep 12

The Untold Story of the Dretelj Horrors

Twenty years on from the first crimes in the Dretelj concentration camp, the victims, both Bosniaks and Serbs, still feel that their suffering remains untold.

Mirna Buljugic and Denis Dzidic
Dretelj camp                                                     Photo by BIRN

On Friday, September 14, the Bosnian State Court is due to pass its first ever verdict for the crimes committed in the Dretelj concentration camp.

The court will rule in the case of Drazen Mikulic, a Bosnian Croat military policeman charged with the torture of Bosniak prisoners in 1993.

Prior to 1992, this vast military complex, the size of two football fields was a barracks and fuel storage facility for the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA.  But between 1992 and 1995 the Dretelj barracks near the town of Capljina in southern Bosnia and Hercegovina became one of the cruelest camps of the Bosnian war.

In the spring and summer of 1992, the Dretelj barracks were used by the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat forces as a detention center for Serbs from the Herzegovina region.

A year later it became a concentration camp for the Bosniaks under the command of the Croatian Defence Forces, HVO.

All of the prisoners, both Serbs and Bosniaks, around 3,000 in all, were subject to torture, beatings, and rapes.

“We were beaten by guards, civilians, soldiers, anyone really. I was even sexually abused. The prisoners were forced to strip and pleasure each other orally. They made us kiss each other,” said Slavko Bogdanovic, a Bosnian Serb who was brought to Dretelj in April 1992.

A year or so later, the winds of war changed but the horrific abuse continued. Ramiz Suta, a Bosniak who was brought to Dretelj along with another 68 Bosniaks in 1993, experienced similar brutality.

“The beating was so severe, that one time I counted 16 strikes with a military boot form one side, and the same on the other side. If my ribs were made of steel they would have broken,” remembers Suta.

Most prisoners –Serb and Bosniak alike – hope that those responsible for the crimes in the Dretelj camp will be prosecuted, as a way to stop such horrors ever happening again. Many former prisoners refuse to talk about what they lived through, saying that the trauma is too severe.  

To date, the only convictions for these crimes have come from courts in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which sentenced three former members of the Croatian Defence Forces, HOS, to a total of 21 years in prison.

There are three ongoing trials for crimes committed in Dretelj before the State Court in Sarajevo, and one trial before the Hague Tribunal.

Rapes and Torture

When the JNA units retreated from Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1992, the Dretelj barracks fell into the hands of the Croatian Defence Forces, HOS. |The HOS, in one of the many interethnic permutations seen during the Bosnian war, was made up of Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks from Herzegovina.  

According to the Bosnian prosecution’s documents, the barracks were turned, from the spring of 1992 until the end of that year, into a “military prison for Bosnian Serb war prisoners and civilians”.

One of the first prisoners to enter Dretelj was Slavojka Frizovic. She told BIRN that she was brought to the camp in the spring of 1992 with 40 women and saw some of them being taken away to be raped.  

“They [the soldiers] came during the day and noted where the women were being kept. At night, they would ask the guards for keys and take the women they fancied. One woman told me she was raped. She cried and was ashamed. I have not suffered as she did, but I lived through the stress and fear and this is why I am sick today”, says Frizovic who is suffering the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Dretelj camp                                              Photo by BIRN

Slavko Bogdanovic also recalled the conditions of the camp, and says the prisoners did not even have enough water and food.

“They made me drink urine and eat shoe cream. We even had to eat grass,” says Bogdanovic.

The HOS dispersed at the end of 1992 and its remnants were incorporated into the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After increasing tension between the two armies, conflict broke out the spring of 1993.

The HVO units took control of the Dretelj camp, and in the summer of that year a large number of Bosniak prisoners were brought there.

“People were killed. Five men that were brought with me died of the stress. They could not take it. We were taken each day to the plateau and beaten by the police and the HVO soldiers… Each day was the same,” recalls Ramiz Suta, one of the Bosniak prisoners of the camp.

Suta claims the conditions of Dretelj in 1993 were “indescribable”.

“People drank urine. We were brought filthy water that people drank. No one had a blanket and we were held for 105 days. We were made to finish our food in a minute or two and they gave us steaming hot plates, so no one could eat a thing”, Suta recalled.

Zijad Tucakovic, was one of the Bosniaks brought with Suta to Dretelj. During his detention he was held in Hangar Number One.

“There were 300 of us in there… We were so jammed that some men slept on the roof on boards. There was constant abuse. People would fall into comas from thirst. They thought they would die. One bottle of water was given to 20 prisoners. So you got a mouthful only,” said Tucakovic.

Never again

Former prisoners say that all the crimes in this camp should be punished, so that such horrors can never be repeated.

Sead Tabakovic, the President of the Association of Capljina Camp Survivors, says that life in Dretelj had no value.

“Prisoners had no choice, they were held there at the mercy of others. Any thug was allowed to do as he pleased with them. Life was worth a bullet, that is how much life was worth,” said Tabakovic.

The Dretelj camp, according to former detainees, is an untold story. Most still do not talk about the horrors they survived, but they pray for justice.

“If we do not prosecute those responsible, my God, someone could do these things again, thinking there will be no consequences,” says Tucakovic.

Tucakovic’s view is shared by Janko Velimirovic, the President of the War Crimes Investigation Center of Republika Srpska.

“I hope those responsible will be punished and the survivors will see that there is a legal framework to protect them and that those responsible are being prosecuted. In this way the courts will speak out about what happened in Dretelj, and we would prevent others from promulgating their own version of the truth, which might lead us to conflict again someday,” Veilimirovic concludes.

Other than Mikulic’s case, the Bosnian prosecution also charges Veselko and Ivo Raguz, members of the HVO forces with crimes against Bosniaks in Dretelj.

Ivan Zelenika, Srecko Herceg, Edin Buljubasic, Ivan Medic and Marina Grubisic-Fejzic are charged with crimes against several hundred Bosnian Serbs committed in 1992 in Dretelj.

Six high ranking officials of the Bosnian Croat wartime statelet, Herceg Bosna, are on trial before the Hague Tribunal for crimes in both Herzegovina and the Dretelj camp.

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