What do we call Omarska and the network of other such places throughout Serb army—occupied (and, for a time, Croat army occupied) Bosnia-Herzegovina? The evidence gathered by human rights reports and war crimes investigators shows that most of those taken to Omarska were not expected to emerge alive.
Detention was not the object of such places. The existence of Omarska came to light as a result of a series of articles for New York Newsday written by the reporter Roy Gutman. It was both the use of the term "death camp" and the content of the articles that finally forced Bosnian Serb leaders to allow a television crew into Omarska, but not until after they had spent time cleaning up and disposing of the most mutilated prisoners.[ ]
Unlike Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, or Belzec, Omarska had no gas chambers and lacked the mechanized mass-killing and disposal methods associated with Nazi death camps. The killings at Omarska were personalized, entailing prolonged beating and torture, frequently by former associates of the victim. How can we grasp the meaning of Omarska and the realm of which it is the center?
The word "ethnic" in "ethnic cleansing" is a euphemism. Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims all speak the same language, despite the fact that for political reasons they each call it now by a different name. They all trace their descent to tribes that migrated to the area around the sixth century and were Slavic in language and culture by the time they settled in the area. Those who have been singled out for persecution have fallen on the wrong side of a dividing line based solely on religious identity.
As in most wars, innocent civilians from all sides have suffered in the war, the quest for territory, and population expulsions. But Bosnian Muslims—and those who would share a body-politic with them—have been the victims of a consistently more brutal and more methodical violence. Even in the context of the conflict between Croatian and Serb nationalists, who engage in expulsions and atrocities against each other's population as a
continuation of the conflict of World War II, the Muslim population has been separated out and treated (by both Croat and Serb nationalists) with particular cruelty. Most victims were Bosnian Muslim noncombatants in areas taken by Serb and Croat militias without significant combat.
In such cases, Muslim religious identity was determined by strictly extrinsic criteria. A Bosnian Muslim in a Serb or Croat camp was there not because of any particular act, expression, or thought. Some in the targeted population defined themselves as Muslims according to the Islamic testimony of belief in one deity and in Muhammad as the messenger of the one deity. Some were observant, for example, keeping the required fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan or the prohibition against pork and alcohol. Some were unobservant. Many Bosnian Muslims were atheists. Many were observant of some of the Islamic practices such as the Ramadan fast but considered themselves religious skeptics and their observances cultural. Some supported the political leaders of the Bosnian government; some did not. Some were indifferent to politics.
In the 1971 census a new national category of "Muslims" in Bosnia was recognized by the Yugoslav government. This nationality label led to numerous contradictions within Yugoslavia: an Albanian Muslim was not considered to be a "Muslim" in the Yugoslav census of nationalities, but many Bosnians of Muslim background who considered themselves atheists or skeptics declared themselves "Muslim" in the census to avoid the categories of "Serb" and "Croat," both of which had religious implications. For those who wanted a Bosnian nationality to be affirmed, alongside those of Croat, Slovene, Macedonian, Serbian, and Albanian, this classification of "Muslim" was problematic; it finally
gave Bosnian Muslims a political voice alongside Catholics and Orthodox Serbs, but it did so at the cost of further reinforcing the identity between religion and nationality.
In the world of Omarska, if an inhabitant of Bosnia had a name identifiable as Muslim or parents with names identifiable as Muslim, that was considered guilt enough, whatever the beliefs or practices of that individual and whether or not that person was categorized as "Muslim" in the nationalities census. Those organizing the persecution, on the other hand, identified themselves and their cause through explicit religious symbols. The symbols appeared in the three-fingered hand gestures representing the Christian trinity, in the images of sacred figures of Serbian religious mythology on their uniform insignia, in the songs they memorized and forced their victims to sing, on the priest's ring they kissed before and after their acts of persecution, and in the formal religious ceremonies that marked the purification of a town of its Muslim population. The term "ethnic" in the expression "ethnic cleansing," then, is a euphemism for "religious." It entails a purely extrinsic yet deadly definition of the victim in terms of religious identity; the intrinsic aspect—in the form of religious mythology—becomes the motivation and justification for atrocities on the part of the perpetrator.
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