27 May 2011

Ratko Mladic arrest: life-saving journalism

As Europe’s most wanted war criminal, Ratko Mladic, faces extradition for war crimes, an Omarska concentration camp survivor recalls how a Channel 4 News report helped saved his life.

Omarska was described as a vision of hell: a 1990s concentration camp in northern Bosnia hidden from the eyes of the world.

Skeletal men imprisoned behind barbed wire faced beatings at best, death at worst.

The UN and Red Cross were denied access to Omarska. But journalists from Channel 4 News, ITV and the Guardian managed to gain entry to the camp.

They were confronted with shocking scenes which were later broadcast to the world.

As people were taken out, tortured and killed, gradually there was more space on the floor. Kemal Pervanic

“This is not a camp, this is a transit centre,” they were told by Serbian authorities.

Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian Muslim, spent more than two months at Omarska. He survived but many of his friends were killed.

One the day of Ratko Mladic’s arrest Kemal told Channel 4 News that he believed the journalists’ visit to Omarska saved his life: “I understood after I was released that (Radovan) Karadzic had been on this programme and that when he was asked a question about concentration camps he denied their existence and invited any journalists to find such places.

“One of your colleagues, Ian Williams, along with Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian came and I guess saved my life.”

The European Union condemned the camps as “repulsive” following the news reports which emerged from Omarska in 1992.

There were immediate calls for intervention and a UN war crimes tribunal was set up the following year.

Recalling the camp’s conditions, Kemal said: “I was kept in a fairly small room with some 500 other men and there was literally no space to sit on the floor.

Read more: Alex Thomson - up close and personal with General Mladic

“As people were taken out, tortured and killed, gradually there was more space on the floor but then the camp authorities would bring fresh faces to the camp.”

Asked whether it would be difficult to re-live the memories of Omarska which would inevitably resurface during Mladic’s trial Kemal said: “There comes a point where you have to accept what happened to you and move on – you have to stop becoming a victim.

“It will be difficult for some of them, many of them find it really hard to face their past, but this is something we have to do if we want to have a better future in that part of the world.”