Nuserta Sivac (left) speaks through a translator (center) in Geneva on Friday about her time in the Omarska concentration camp, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay listens.
Photo: Tovah Lazaroff
As an inmate in the Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia, in 1992, Nusreta Sivac began her days by counting the corpses of those who had been killed overnight.
“We would see them on the grass in front of the ‘white house,’ which was a little building where the worst torture was committed,” she told the audience who had gathered on Friday to hear her and other victims of racism, including some from Rwanda. They spoke on the sidelines of the United Nations anti-racism conference that met in Geneva last week.
They sat on a small stage, set off from one of the main corridors in the UN’s European headquarters, at an event titled “Voices: Everyone affected by racism has a story that should be heard.”
Speaking with the help of a translator, Sivac explained how in April 1992 Serbs took over her native city of Prijedor, in the northwest part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and went about “ethnically cleansing” the area of Muslims and Catholics (Croats).
First, “freedom of movement was strictly limited. Muslims and Croats had to wear white bands around their arms and to have white flags on the windows of their apartments,” she said.
Sivac was 40 and a judge in the municipal court. Within a few days of the takeover, she was banned from her job.
“I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to me, and later I realized that was only the introduction to the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being,” she said.
In June, she was asked to come to the police station, where she was forced onto a bus and driven away by members of the Serb military forces.
“I did not know in what direction I was taken. Only when we arrived I understood that I was taken to the Omarska concentration camp,” she said.
It was an unusual move because mostly it was men who were sent there, while women and children were typically driven to the border with the Bosnian-controlled area, where they sought protection, Sivac said.
She was one of 36 women among 3,500 men detained at the camp.
The women were given rooms above a restaurant. During the day they were forced to serve food or clean while the rooms that they slept in were used to torture prisoners.
“We would hear them screaming every day… When we would come up to the rooms to sleep, we first had to clean because blood was everywhere,” she said.
Every day, people were tortured to death and massacred. Drunken guards jumped on the bodies and sang Serb nationalist songs, she said.
Fathers would see their sons tortured and killed and sons would watch their fathers being murdered, she said.
“Even some of the detained women saw their husbands tortured, and no one was ever allowed to help anyone. They would have risked their lives,” she said.
“Once I saw my cousin running on the grass area covered by the massacred bodies and he was desperately looking for his son. Then I saw them killing him.”
Another time, she saw a Serb soldier take a knife and make a cross on a woman’s face.
Male prisoners were only given one meal a day, a small piece of bread, bean soup and coleslaw, she said.
“When detainees would go to eat, they had to pass a line of Serb guards that would beat them,” she said.
If prisoners did not finish the meal within minutes, they risked being beaten, sometimes to death, Sivac said.
Many people stopped going to meals to avoid the beatings.
For the women, nighttime was the worst, she said.
“The guards would come to the rooms and take us somewhere in the camp and rape us. That happened on a regular basis. We were not allowed to say anything to anyone. I was regularly raped and beaten,” said Sivac.
She was the only judge to survive the camp. All the male Muslim and Croat judges were killed. But Sivac survived until her release in August 1992, right before Western journalists and the Red Cross were brought in to see the camp, which was closed later that month.
Today, she has returned to live in Prijedor, which is now part of the Republic of Srpska. The city is now 99 percent ethnic Serb. Most of the Muslims live in the Federation of Bosnia, where there are some 500,000 Muslim refugees.
No one in the Republic of Srpska talks about what happened in 1992.
“I am surrounded by a society that does not recognize what happened, which I find very difficult,” Sivac said.
In Prijedor, “I see some of the perpetrators and some of those who came already out from The Hague,” she said.
Prejudice still runs so deep in Prijedor that she cannot work there. Instead she travels more than an hour to the Federation of Bosnia to work.
“I have been called to witness in The Hague and I have seen the man [Zeljko Mejakic] that was regularly raping and beating me and other women,” Sivac said.
“He was the worst to the women in the camp. I know that many of the women did not talk about their experiences, because it is extremely difficult to think and to talk about it, even for me today, but I have to be strong and let my voice be heard.”
In 1996, an American documentary, Calling the Ghosts, was made about her story.
Still, she told the audience in Geneva on Friday, very little attention is paid to what happened in Bosnia.
“Unfortunately, the concentration camps in Bosnia is something very rarely spoken about, which is dangerous. We should not close our eyes to what happened. We should condemn it and never allow it to happen again,” she said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, who joined the panel, said, “This is why this conference matters. It is because of your experiences.”
Racism, she said, “is a global human tragedy blighting lives and destroying the future of men, women and children in every corner of the world. We must always insure that the voices of the victims are heard and that they resonate.” jpost.com