Samir Poljak, a Bosnian Muslim teenager remembers the terror of Serb-run detention camps. He describes how he managed to survive, while the other members of his family perished. He testified on 23 and 24 July 2002 in the case against Milomir Stakić. He also testified on 20 November 2002 in the case against Radoslav Brđanin.
“ There was a dead man lying there. It didn't even prompt any kind of feelings in me. It was as if it was just a piece of wood, a log, a rock. ”
In the spring of 1992, Serbian authorities forcibly took control of Prijedor municipality. Mr. Poljak was 19, he was attending the Prijedor technical secondary school and living at home with his parents, his brother, his brother’s wife, and their six month old son. “When Serb authorities took over the municipality, I stopped going to school as of that day because my parents thought that it was better for me not to continue going to school for my own safety.”
The situation in the area quickly deteriorated, with the increasing militarisation of Serb forces and rising propaganda against non-Serbs. In response, several villages - including Mr. Poljak’s - organized Territorial Defence units that erected barricades to protect the villages from the threat of Serbian attacks.
On 24 May 1992, Mr. Poljak remembers “That day, the situation was really tense.” Around 1p.m., he was eating his lunch and listening to the radio, when he heard a news announcement: “They said that unless the barricades were removed from the Banja Luka/Prijedor main road, Kozarac and the surrounding area would be attacked.” This really scared him, because in Jakupovići there was also a barricade.
As he was alone at home, he immediately went to his aunt’s house which was less than a kilometre away from the barricade, his mother was also there and his father soon joined them. Then some of Mr. Poljak’s cousins arrived and told them that they had to leave the village because it was under attack and a tank had broken through the barricade. Mr. Poljak told the Tribunal: “They said we had to leave the basement and run towards Kozarac because they hoped that there, it would be safer. This was all happening very quickly. No one really managed to collect any of their belongings. We just took off for Kozarac.” They cut across fields and through forests, avoiding the roads.
“We got some rest in the forest and then gradually and very slowly, we kept on retreating because we no longer knew -- the area was not safe. It had mixed population. There were Serb houses there and Muslim houses, too.”
Finally in the evening Mr. Poljak and his parents arrived in Brđani, where his sister-in-law’s father lived. They stayed there for two days. The village was constantly being shelled, so they stayed in the basement the entire time. “The basement was full of people seeking shelter. I didn't know most of those people.” On the second day, someone arrived and told them that the town of Kozarac had fallen and an order had been issued to go in a convoy and surrender to the Serb authorities there. After hearing this, most of the people who had been sheltering with Mr. Poljak, including his parents, his sister-in-law and his infant nephew, began to walk to Kozarac. Mr. Poljak himself did not go with them because he was scared. Along with his sister-in-law’s brother, Mr. Poljak decided to try to go to Croatia instead. The two young men spent the night in the woods, with many other refugees, listening to the sounds of shooting and shelling.
Mutnik Mosque in Kozarac, one of the religious sites damaged or destroyed by the Serbs in Prijedor Municipality in 1992.
(Prosecution Exhibit S15-5 from the Stakić case)
In the morning, they came across and joined a group of approximately a hundred people that was heading towards Croatia. The group was mixed; it included some armed men, but also women, children and elderly people. Mr. Poljak himself did not have a weapon and had never been a member of any armed group, nor performed any military service or received any military training. The group seemed to have been rather random. “And I'm not sure who the leader of this group was, who led the way, who was the guide… We started out slowly. I didn't know where I was going. We were in the woods and the area was unfamiliar to me. So we just walked on, and we followed those other people there.”
Later that morning, they paused to rest at a World War II memorial fountain on Kozara mountain. While they were resting there, they suddenly hear a shot close by. But someone quickly reassured them, saying: “Don’t be afraid. It was just an accidental shot.”
Before long, however, shooting broke out all around them. Mr. Poljak remembered: “We were just resting there and everything was silent, and suddenly, we heard sounds of shooting in several places at once. And we started running. I turned around, and everyone started running up the hill. They didn’t take the path. They just started running straight into the woods, scared by the shooting. So I started running, too.” When they reached a sort of plateau, they stopped running and the shooting stopped too. Suddenly, someone spoke through a loudspeaker and told them: “Do not resist. You are surrounded. Surrender immediately. We guarantee your personal safety.”
People began surrendering. Mr. Poljak and his relative did not know what to do. Then, they saw Ekro and Eno Alić, some of the wealthiest men from Kozarac, surrendering. Mr. Poljak thought: “Well, since the two of them are surrendering, I think we better surrender, too.”
When they came out of the woods and onto a dirt road, soldiers ordered them to lie down on their stomachs and put their hands behind their heads. The soldiers wore a variety of camouflage uniforms, some of which Mr. Poljak identified as old JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) uniforms. A soldier kicked Mr. Poljak’s feet and instructed him and two other men who had surrendered to assist in gathering discarded weapons. The soldier guarding them asked them: “Why did this have to happen? Why did you do this? You didn’t stand a chance to defend yourselves. Don’t you know what forces attacked you?” The soldier then named some special units from Belgrade and from the Serb-controlled town of Knin in Croatia.
While they were gathering the weapons in the woods, Mr. Poljak heard a shot from the road. After collecting the weapons, they went back down to the road and were again forced to lie down on their stomachs. Soldiers demanded that all the people hand over their jewellery, money, and gold. Eventually, the soldiers formed them into a column and marched them down the road. They passed a man who was lying on the side of the road, who had been shot in the eye and was obviously dead. Mr. Poljak later heard that this man had been executed because he was a member of the Croatian National Guard (ZNG) who had come to Bosnia to fight the Serbs.
Finally, they reached the Kozara/Mrakovica road, where the soldiers put the men into trucks and drove them to the Benkovac barracks. There, the soldiers made them stand in rows, with their hands on their heads, outside in the hot sun. “There were many soldiers all over the place. They were shooting, singing, roasting a lamb on a spit.”
After some time, the soldiers took five or six people out of the group, one of whom Mr. Poljak recognized as Ekro Alić. “He was taken out and brought to a nearby building outside this building. So they probably started beating him up because we could hear his screams. We could hear him shout: ‘Don’t do this to me. Better kill me.’” Then, Mr. Poljak heard a shot, followed by silence. He never saw Ekro Alić or any of the other men taken from the group again.
“ Mr. Poljak never again saw any of his other relatives who were at the Omarska camp. He testified: "They are not around. They never returned. I can’t really believe that they would still be alive after ten years. ”
After several hours, the soldiers moved the remaining men to a small bathroom area. Mr. Poljak remained in that room for three days. It was so full that no one could lie down. “Some people leaned against the wall or next to each other.” From time to time, the soldiers threw in some bread and jam and water. Several times, the soldiers took some of the men out of the room to beat them. One of them was Hamid, a local Muslim cleric, who had also surrendered on the Kozara mountain. Mr. Poljak remembers: “Once he returned, he wasn’t even put back into the room. He remained […] – sitting on a small chair in the corridor. He didn’t have any clothes on from the waist up. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t speak. He just sat quietly on the chair.” Mr. Poljak could see that Hamid’s upper body was mottled black, blue and purple from bruises.
After three days, the boys were separated and taken away. Mr. Poljak and the rest of the men were also to be transferred elsewhere. “We didn't know where we were going or anything.”
As they ran to the buses that were waiting to transfer them, the detainees were forced to shout “Serbia, Serbia” and hold three fingers in the air in the manner of a traditional Serb salute. Soldiers stood along the path to the buses and beat the prisoners with their rifles as they ran to the buses. “They were hitting us with whatever they had, with the rifles. I remember that a couple of lads fell down, that they were beating them. I received several blows myself, but nothing really very bad.” Mr. Poljak and the other men were made to sit on the bus with their heads down so they could not see where they were going.
After some time, the bus stopped and the detainees were again forced to run through lines of soldiers who hit them. Mr. Poljak saw soldiers beating one man off to the side. He ran quickly to the garage-like building where they were now to be detained. No one knew where they were, but they later learned that this was Omarska, a former mine turned into a detention camp.
With about 150 other men, Mr. Poljak was detained in this garage for 10 days. When he summed up what he had endured there, he said: “It was just terrible. It was impossible. It's impossible to describe. It was hell.”
The garage was so packed that they had to remain standing at all times, and for the first few days there was not even room to turn around, until some people were taken away. Mr. Poljak remembers that there was no air to breathe: “It was dreadful. When they shut us up inside, it was very hot. There wasn’t enough air. I remember that within half an hour or one hour, I was soaking with sweat. Everything I was wearing, my shirt, my trousers, it was all soaked in sweat. It was unbearable. I remember that I pressed my hand against the wall, and I saw that the paint on the wall began to melt. The ceiling was full of drops of sweat. Sweat was dripping from the ceiling.”
The soldiers forced the prisoners to sing a song in exchange for a single jerry can of water, which the detainees then fought over, since it was not enough for all. “It was awful. It was a fight to survive, as simple as that. No one really cared about the person next to them. We fought like animals over the water they had brought us.” For two days the detainees received no food. Then someone opened the door and threw in some bread. Again, people started to fight each other to get it.
In the first evening, Mr. Poljak testified, “two young men suffocated… They were just lying there on the floor. They were dead. No one flicked an eye. No one paid any attention. That was the state we were in. And everyone just looked after himself. No one had any sympathy for the dead body lying there. Until a day ago, we had still talked to each other, and now this person was dead. But it made no difference. It was really awful.”
As the horrific conditions worsened some of the people in the garage broke down, “I remember one man… started to hallucinate: "Get out of that forest, what are you doing there? The Chetniks are coming. They will kill us." There was another elderly man who was looking into my eyes as if he were looking through me. He started to talk to me, "Come on, young man, saddle the horses. We are going."”
After a day or two, detainees were allowed outside to urinate. On the grass just lying there, there was a body of one of the young men who had suffocated. Again, the brutalities that Mr. Poljak experienced made him numb. “I wasn't even paying attention to that. There was a dead man lying there. It didn't even prompt any kind of feelings in me. It was as if it was just a piece of wood, a log, a rock.” Mr. Poljak admits that in this “abnormal situation” the only sensation he felt was enormous joy being outside his suffocating prison. “I felt wonderful. The smell of the air was somehow pleasant, and the sunshine. It was nice. It's beyond words. It was a wonderful feeling. That was something, it's stuck in my memory, the morning and the grass, the smell of fresh air.”
After 10 days, Mr. Poljak was finally transferred to a room in a different building at the camp. There, he found his father and some other relatives and they were held there for over a month. Mr. Poljak was interrogated three times and, at one point, told that he was being charged with participating in armed rebellion – although he had never participated in the conflict.
The soldiers also questioned and beat Mr. Poljak’s father many times. One day, they called him out of the room around five in the afternoon. Mr. Poljak remembers: “He came back at about midnight. Most of the people in the room were sleeping. He sat down. He didn’t say anything much. He was very scared. You could tell that he was scared by the look of him. He was sweating, but he didn’t want to talk about it.”
About an hour later, someone came to the door and called out Mr. Poljak’s father’s name again. Mr Poljak told the Tribunal: “I remember clearly that he stood up. He went to the door. He turned, looked at me, he smiled, and went out.” Mr. Poljak never saw his father again. At Omarska, none of the people taken away at night ever returned.
In August, most of the prisoners were transferred to different camps. Mr. Poljak was left behind at Omarska, along with roughly 150 other detainees. He remembers: “Those of us who stayed, we were really scared. We thought they had left us there to kill us.”
The next day, however, each prisoner was assigned a bed—it was the first time in three months that Mr. Poljak was able to lie down. Other conditions also improved: there was no mistreatment, food was better, deteinees could shave and cut their hair. They were assigned to cleaning toilets, removing all traces of killing. “I know that a couple of guys went to remove several dead bodies, not far from the camp, which had lain there for a long time and I remember it well…When they tried to move them, they simply -- these bodies, I mean they simply disintegrated. The arm came off, a leg came off.”
Detainees were confused by these unexpected improvements to their conditions. However, soon it all became clear as foreign journalists and Red Cross representatives visited the camp during the next few weeks.
Finally, Mr. Poljak was transferred to the Manjača camp. He remained there until late December, 1992, at which point he was transferred to Batković in northeastern Bosnia, near Bjeljina. He remained there until 9 October 1993, when he was freed after a prisoner exchange. “I have no idea how I survived and how it is that I'm still normal, if I am normal.”
In 1994, Mr. Poljak left Bosnia. After the war, the Prijedor area became part of Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “Republika Srpska”. Mr. Poljak has never returned. His brother visited the village and took pictures of their house. “There are just fragments of walls left standing. It's a ruin.”
Mr. Poljak never again saw any of his other relatives who were at the Omarska camp. He testified: “They are not around. They never returned. I can’t really believe that they would still be alive after ten years. They are just not there, and their bodies were never found or identified.”
Samir Poljak also testified on 20 November 2002 in the case against Radoslav Brđanin. Radoslav Brđanin was a leading political figure in the region known as the Autonomous Region of Krajina (ARK) and was sentenced on appeal to 30 years imprisonment for participating in a strategic plan that, amongst other things, led to the establishment of detention facilities across the region, including Omarska camp.