International Campaign for Real History
IN THIS article, written for the Californian Journal of Historical review, New Zealander Paul Moon argues that there was more than met the eye when the world's newspapers published photographs of Serbian "concentration camps" in 1990.

The Serbian Concentration Camps: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

by Paul Moon

During the first half of the 1990s, the world was made to feel outrage at the alleged atrocities being perpetrated by Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. A combination of emotive reporting and a myriad of unsubstantiated and often contradictory eyewitness testimonies contributed to the impression that a holocaust was being perpetrated in Bosnia. However, recent information has surfaced which casts serious doubts over the stories of genocide and concentration camps -- stories which were initially trumpeted in the West as proof of the need to bomb the Serbs into submission and acceptance of the Western-imposed peace.

The prima facie evidence of detention facilities was a problematic issue for the international community to grapple with. The visible and reported signs of breaches of international humanitarian law were apparent in several of these camps. Yet, the implication that they were devices in an orchestrated programme of genocide was much less certain. In fact, on the contrary, many of the camps succeeded in keeping civilian populations alive and away from the ravages of fighting, albeit only to be subjected in some cases to torture, beatings, rape, and death.

The camps themselves were often converted schools, offices, Government buildings, and sports arenas. The evidence of centralised planning for these camps is weak. Indeed, it is possibly because in part because of their ad hoc and independent nature that they were able to become the sites for some of the more barbarous attacks on civilians and prisoners of war. The Commission of Experts, charged with investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, hinted at this anarchic situation, observing that:

The characteristics and patterns of violation in the camps differ widely depending on the controlling authority, the purpose of the camps, and the camp commander.'

This widely differing pattern of violations suggests that there was no specific command, even at a regional level, for such abuses to be carried out. And even if such an order did exist, the obvious inability of the camp leaders to carry it out would be evidence of a chain of command that had completely broken down.

In its summing up, the Commission of Experts, while repeatedly stressing that the frequency of brutal acts necessarily made such crimes systematic, it also, paradoxically, argued that the defence of following orders was invalid because:

. . .of the loose command and control structure where unlawful orders could have been disobeyed without individuals risking personal harm?

Therefore, if such choices did exist, the command structure must have been close to falling apart. In such an environment, the capacity of a commander to comply with a

1 Paragraph 225 in Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 1992.

2 Paragraph 318 in Final Report of the Commission of Experts.

systematic policy, assuming that such a policy ever existed, would be highly questionable.

The issue of actual evidence for the alleged atrocities carried out in some of the camps remained an outstanding one for the Commission and the international community. There was one incident in particular which brought to the attention of a wider audience the problems of prime facie evidence of atrocities.

The particular incident in question - one which exploded the credibility of many of the reports emanating from the war zone - was of the 'concentration camp' being run by Serbs at Trnopolje. In what was to represent a major turning pint in the West's attitude to the Yugoslav conflict, film footage was screened on news networks around the world in August 1992 showing emaciated Bosnian Muslims caged behind barbed wire. The scenes were peculiarly reminiscent of those filmed at the German concentration camps during the Second World War -- a point that was not lost on the media. Britain's Daily Mirror headlined the photo, accompanied by the caption 'Belsen 92'? These were followed by headlines using the same photo in The Star ('Belsen 1992), The Daily Mail ('The Proof) and The Times ('Evidence Mounts of Executions and Beatings in Serbian camps'). The Daily Mail was explicit in its linking of the photo with the images of then Nazi are: 'They are the sort of scenes that flicker in black and white images from 50-year-old films of Nazi concentration camps.'[4] The Independent mirrored its sister papers in emphasising the Nazi connection: 'The camera slowly pans up the bony torso of the prisoner. It is the picture of famine, but then we see the barbed wire against his chest and it is the picture of the Holocaust and concentration camps'.[5]

However, an investigation by German journalist Thomas Diechmann revealed that the images filmed by the British ITN camera team were misleading. Diechmann concluded that there was no barbed wire fence surrounding the Trnopolje camp (as shown in the pictures); that the camp was, in fact, a collection centre for refugees and not a prison; and that the refugees pictured were in no way surrounded by barbed wire, but that the barbed wire surrounded the news team who were filming from inside a small enclosure next to the camp. Diechmann's concluding comments indicated the annoyance he felt at the misleading photojournalism that had whipped up so much anti-Serb feelings in the West:

I am shocked that over the past four and a half years, none of the journalists involved has told the full story about that barbed wire fence which made such an impact on world opinion. The photograph has been taken as proof that Trnopolje was a Nazi-style concentration camp, but the journalists knew that it was no such thing.[6]

Contrary to the impression created by the pictures the reporters released, the individuals at the refugee centre, including Fikret Alic, the prominent person in most of the photos, were free to leave at any time. There starved bodies were more likely to have been the result of malnutrition suffered as a result of walking for days, and in some cases weeks with virtually no food, endeavouring to reach refugee centres such as the one at Trnopolje.

3 The Daily Mirror, London, 7 August 1992.

4 The Daily Mail, London, 7 August 1992.

5 The Independent, London, 5 August 1992.

6 T. Diechmann, cited in 'The Picture That Fooled The World', LM Press Officer, Press Release, London, 25 January 1997.

In an interview given by Diechmann in 1997, it became clear that the story splashed across the pages and screens of the world's media about the Serb concentration camps was based on details that were fallacious or seriously misconstrued:
It was through my role as an expert witness to the War Crimes Tribunal that I first realised that something was wrong with the famous pictures from Trnopolje. As a journalist with a track record of reporting on Bosnia, I was asked to present the Tribunal with a report on German media coverage of Dusko Tadic, a Bosnian Serb accused of war crimes. Reviewing press articles and video tapes which had been shown on German TV, I became aware of the major importance of the Trnopolje pictures. The picture of Fikret Alic behind the barbed wire...could be seen again and again.

One night, while I was going through the pictures again at home, my wife pointed out an odd little detail. If Fikret Alic and the other Bosnian Muslims were imprisoned inside a barbed wire fence, why was this wire fixed to the poles on the side of the fence where they were standing? As any gardener knows, fences are, as a rule, fixed to the poles from outside, so that the area to be enclosed is fenced-in. It occurred to me then that perhaps it was not the people in the camp who were fenced-in behind the barbed wire, but the team of British journalists.[7]

The more the stories of death camps were examined, the less seemed to make sense of the reports being spread through the media. First, the Bosnian Serbs themselves had invited reporters to se their refugee centres in operation. It would have been extremely unlikely that such an invitation would have been issued had these centres been the type of concentration camps claimed by some journalists. Secondly, Throughout the summer of 1992/3, several news teams, mainly from Britain, were dispatched to Bosnian in order to find 'further stories' of concentration camps. When none were forthcoming, the pressure to support the original story heightened. Penny Marshall, a reporter for ITN and Channel 4, was quoted as saying:

They had sent Ian Williams (a fellow journalist) and myself loose on an open-ended brief to find and visit the detention camps, and with orders to file nothing until we had come up with the story.[8]

Diechmann was at first just mildly sceptical about the photos he had seen of Trnopolje, but his scepticism increased the more he pieced together other details about the Trnopolje camp:

My suspicions were heightened by a conversation I had with Professor Mischa Wladimiroff, Dusko Tadic's Dutch defence advocate at the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. The main witness against Tadic, Dragan Opacic (later exposed as a trained liar), had told the court about the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp at Trnopolje and had even made a drawing of where it was. But when Professor Wladimiroff went to Bosnia to investigate for the defence, it became clear to him that Opacic had lied in the witness box; he could find no evidence of a barbed wire fence surrounding the Trnopolje camp.[9]

7 T. Diechmann, cited in 'The Picture That Fooled The World'.

8 P Marshall cited in 'The Picture That Fooled The World'.

9 T. Diechmann, cited in 'The Picture That Fooled The World'.

Opacic's sketch of the Trnopolje camp was completely at odds with the site plan outlined in a US satellite photo taken on 2 August 1992, just three days before the British journalists arrived. His credibility as a witness was subsequently undermined when he confessed that Government agents had shown him videos of Tadic and Trnopolje, and schooled him in lying when giving evidence.'[10]

Even the US State Department, which had been consistently hostile to Serb aspirations, mentioned in its 1994 Annual report on Human Rights that the camps at Batkovici, Kamenica, Trnopolje, and Doboj, only suffered from '...poor living conditions',[11] whereas the Bosnian Muslim installation at Dretelj was:

. . .perhaps the most notorious camp. . .the UNHCR found prisoners in conditions of "appalling brutality and degradation", with broken ribs and fingers, bruises, and heart irregularities. Amnesty International said prisoners at Dretelj were so cramped that they could not lie do..... Summary executions and deaths due to torture or neglect were attested to... [12]

Inexplicably, the Western media were mute on the existence of this concentration camp throughout the war.

The Trnopolje camp consisted of buildings that had previously been part of a school, community centre, medical centre, and public hall. The outside area had been part of a large sports field that remained unused for that purpose during the war. The only fences that appeared anywhere around the camp were those normally placed around schools. They were approximately a metre high, and did not have any barbed wire on them. It appears, based on pictures of the buildings adjacent to the Trnopolje refugee centre that the British news team shot their film from a compound which housed an electricity transformer station, and which had been fenced in a few years earlier to protect it from vandalism and to keep children out. The relative complexity of the construction of the fence suggested that it had not been hastily erected in order to accommodate a sudden influx of refugees.'[13]

Another central aspect about the film of Trnopolje was that certain sections of the film were not screened. A segment which included a wide angle view showed a large area where refugees were standing that was not fenced in with barbed wire. The film crew were able to walk freely in and out of the compound and there was no indication of a presence of guards of the sort that would normally be expected at a prisoner of war, or concentration camp.

Within two weeks of the film of the Trnopolje camp being aired to the world, Paddy Ashdown, leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party, visited Trnopolje, and gave a substantially different opinion of the camp and its 'inmates':

They have gathered here because they have to go somewhere. Their houses have been burnt and their lives threatened. Muslim extremists pressurised the men to join up with the guerrillas, so they have come here for safety. But on most recent nights the unprotected camp [author's italics] has been raided by Serbian extremists who beat them, rob them of what little they have left and, it is claimed, rape the women. Things are better now.[14]

10 T. Diechmann, 'Es War Dieses Bild, Das Die Welt In Alarmbereitschaft Versetzte', Novo'. January/February 1997.

11 US Department of State, 1994 Report on Human Rights by the US State Department: Bosnia and Hercegovina, Washington, II June 1994.

12 op. cit.

13 T. Diechmann, 'Es War Dieses Bild, Das die Welt In Alarmbereitschaft Versetzte'.

14 P. Ashdown, Liberal Democratic Party Leader, in The Independent, 13 August 1992.

In preparing the defence for Tadic, the Dutch lawyer, Professor Wladimiroff visited Trnopolje, and discussed his impression of the camp and what it had been used for. In an interview conducted in 1997, Wladimiroff disclosed his own findings:
One of the elements we felt we should check on was this reference of witness 'L' to a barbed wire fence around the camp site, that reminded us of the Penny Marshall pictures. Later when I was back in the area we found a man who worked as a guard in that camp, and he was able to provide us with all kinds of details and names, and from that point we were able to go deeper and deeper into the matter. During my October 1996 visit I very specifically focused on that barbed wire issue, and then I approached that man again and he showed me where this fence was.

It became clear to me what actually must have happened. According to this man, Penny Marshall entered an area which is at the side of the camp where there is a barn and an electricity house. And the area with the barn and the electricity house was surrounded by barbed wire and poles. He told us that the camera crew must have walked into that area and from there filmed the camp. I videotaped the area and his explanation fits with all the images I have seen. . . .

I have no indication that at the Trnopolje site things were taken away in order to hide things....

I think what has happened is that while being there, Penny Marshall and her crew were looking for the best picture, as every TV crew and journalist crew would do. And later on I think that she may have realised that it was a very suggestive, a very strong image, a very direct resemblance to the camps of the Second World War. Then she did not feel the necessity to explain more about these pictures. It is for her to explain why she did not. I have no idea. But as a matter of fact, I can say that in some ways, it was good that she made these pictures, because it helped us out. If 'L' had not collapsed and confessed that he had lied, we could have used the videotape as evidence against him.[15]

The issue of media involvement, and the capacity of just a few reporters to alter world opinion was another striking feature of the Serb concentration camp stories. The pictures of suffering and death, accompanied by stories of almost unthinkable brutality were juxtaposed against images of the political leaders in the war, particularly Karadzic and Mladic, who were found guilty by association of the crimes that were being reported.

The media war was fought around the world in order to achieve maximum effect on the public opinion of the West.

In America, the public relations firm Rudder and Finn devised media policies to assist Croatia and the Muslim Government in Bosnia in achieving a more favourable representation in the eyes of the United States:

We were working eighteen months with some breaks, for Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the paramilitary opposition in Kosovo. We won because we were aiming at the Jewish public opinion. The press immediately changed its vocabulary and started using terms with strong emotional impact, such as the ethnic cleansing and concentration camps which started to resemble Nazi Germany and the gas chambers [sic] at Auschwitz. The emotional charge was so strong that no-one could resist it. It is not our job to check the information, but

15 Professor M: Wladimiroff, interviewed by T. Diechmann, cited in LM Magazine, issue 97, February 1997:

to speed up the flow of those which are favourable for us and to direct them at carefully selected targets.[16]

The cynicism over the manipulation of the media existed even within official circles.

In writing about a meeting held with the Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic on 14 April 1992, James Baker, the US Secretary of State, indicated his plans to battle the propaganda war through the media:

After the meeting, I had Larry Eagleburger take Silajdzic to see the EC troika political directors (who happened to be visiting the Department) and asked Margaret Tutwiler to talk to the Foreign Minister about the importance of using Western mass media to build support in Europe and North America for the Bosnian cause. I also had her talk with her contacts at the four television networks, the "Washington Post" and the "New York Times" to try to get more attention focussed on the story. . . [17]

On the ground in Bosnia, it was difficult to escape the pervasive influence that the media was having on the conflict. Major-General Lewis MacKenzie of the UN Protection Force in Sarajevo vented his frustration at the way in which the combatants in the war were playing up to the media: 'If I could convince both sides to stop killing their own people for CNN, perhaps we could have a cease-fire'.[18]

No amount of military planning or protestations of innocence could free Karadzic and his fellow Bosnian Serbs from the onslaught of the professional image makers, and breakers, in America. The fact that certain parties hostile to the aspirations of the Bosnian Serbs seized the initiative in the media war from a very early stage led to a tendency to partial reporting, a distortion of the nature and rationale for the conflict, and the vilification of certain individuals whose preparation for the media onslaught was insufficient. The final consequence was that the assumption of Serb criminality was portrayed as a certainty in the mass media, leaving the Bosnian Serbs in particular with little chance of vindicating their actions in the minds of the West.


16 Spokesperson for Rudder and Finn, cited in 'Media Falsehoods About the War in the Former Yugoslavia Discovered', in Nasa Borba, 27 January 1997.

17 J: Baker and T. M. De Frank'. The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989 -- 1992, New York, pp. 643-644:

18 Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, UNPROFOR, Sarajevo, 1992.

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