Article by Peter Maass

Bosnia’s Ground Zero

Vanity Fair  |  March 1996
In Bosnia, soldiers keep an uneasy peace. In the Hague, an international war-crimes tribunal convenes. But neither courts nor armies can lay to rest the nightmare of the Bosnian Serb death camps. In an excerpt from his new book, Peter Maass finds that mass torture, rape, and murder are the face of an only too human evil.

Milan Kovacevic wanted to pray. It was Sunday, he shouted, a goddamn holy day, and he wanted to go to church.

Kovacevic weighed about 225 pounds and was built like a heavyweight boxer. He sat at the head of a table in a dingy room in a dingy municipal building in Prijedor, Bosnia, a town that had been swept virtually clean of non-Serbs. Under a wary military escort, I arrived in Prijedor with a small group of journalists on a Sunday morning in August 1992, and our first duty was to meet Kovacevic. We wanted to see his gulag.

He wouldn’t hear of it. He cursed the military officer who escorted us to Prijedor from Banja Luka, 35 miles away. Why the fuck were we so concerned about these camps? Why didn’t we fucking investigate the murders of Serb babies? His forces needed “collection centers” to hold captured Muslim soldiers, Kovacevic shouted. What was so unusual about that? A war was going on. And didn’t we know that the Serbs were good friends of the Americans? When the war was completed and Bosnia under total Serb control, perhaps it could become the 51st American state!

Kovacevic was not joking. He wore a combat-green T-shirt that had “U.S. Marines” emblazoned across the front and back. The man loved America.

His official title depended on the mood he was in when journalists came to visit. On the day I met him, Kovacevic gave his title as “executive mayor.” Other journalists had been told he was the “city manager” or “president of the municipal council.” He was the warlord, and warlords can call themselves whatever they want.

An anesthesiologist by profession, Kovacevic had a walrus mustache that, in other times, would have lent him a grandfatherly charm, but these were times of war, and the gray mustache served as little more than a storage facility for the remnants of his breakfast toast. He was bursting with crudeness and chutzpah, like a comic who belches onstage and draws waves of laughter. You could love him and be repulsed by him at the same time. What could be more hilarious than the idea that a cleansed Bosnia might want to join not Serbia but the United States? But Kovacevic was not doing funny things. His right hand was on intimate terms with the pistol strapped to his waist.

“This is a great moment in the history of the Serbian people,” he intoned.

Kovacevic was probably a madman from birth. He was born in a World War II Croatian concentration camp, the notorious Jasenovac slaughterhouse where tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies met their end. Imagine the stories his mother told him as he grew up, assuming his mother survived Jasenovac. Kovacevic would tell visitors to Prijedor that they should never forget where he came from, and this was one piece of advice that was both truthful and revealing. There was a certain vulgar justice to the fact that a man who was born in a concentration camp ended up ruling his own string of camps as an adult.

Evil has two faces. There is the banal face that Hannah Arendt described in Eichmann in Jerusalem, her classic chronicle of the life and trial of a senior Nazi official sentenced to death in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. Arendt wrote that Adolf Eichmann was a dull man, neither intelligent nor venal, a bureaucrat whose hands were bloodied only by paper cuts.

People like Eichmann make it possible for evil leaders to pursue their policies. But the leaders themselves are a different breed. They are deranged geniuses, the Hitlers and Stalins, the ones who come up with final solutions. In Bosnia, they were the ones who resurrected the notion of ethnic cleansing and fired the first shots or committed the first rapes. In the disturbed universe of evil, they are the “brave” ones who shout the unspeakable and perform the undoable and snap everyone else into line.

The fact that Kovacevic had a disturbed childhood is not happenstance. If you take a close look at the well-educated politicians and generals who led ordinary Serbs into the war, you’ll see that most have troubled histories. Look at Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president. His father failed in the priesthood and committed suicide. His mother, a fervent communist, also committed suicide.

Look at General Blagoje Adzic, the chief of staff of the Yugoslav National Army, who plotted the war against Croatia. As a child during World War II, Adzic scampered into a tree when Croat Ustashe troops attacked his village, and he watched as his family was massacred.

Look at General Ratko Mladic, the commander of Serb forces in Bosnia, now indicted by the war-crimes tribunal. His father was killed by the Ustashe troops in World War II, and his daughter committed suicide during the Bosnian war. Mladic invented a new, quasi-official military argot, including “clobber,” “torch” and “beat them senseless,” all orders that he shouted over military airwaves.

Kovacevic was in their class. Before he got to work, Prijedor was the second largest city in northern Bosnia, with a population of 112,000, in which Muslims composed a slim majority over Serbs and controlled the local government. When the war started, nationalist Serbs staged a nighttime coup against the elected Muslim authorities. There wasn’t much fighting, because the Serbs were well-armed, and the Muslims offered no resistance to speak of. They weren’t prepared for war.

Kovacevic organized the takeover. After thousands of Prijedor’s Muslim men were shipped to prison camps, the cleansing campaign focused on cracking a final nut called Kozarac, a town of 25,000 people, mostly Muslims, just six miles down the road. The cleansing of Kozarac turned into one of the most vicious campaigns of civilian slaughter in the entire war. A colleague from the Washington Post, Mary Battiata, wrote a lengthy investigative story about the cleansing of Kozarac, and I am drawing on her article for details about the town’s virtual obliteration.

The shelling began on May 24, 1992 after Kozarac had been surrounded by Serb tanks. Up to fifteen shells hit the town every minute from twelve directions. After a few hours, the shelling stopped, and the Serbs used loudspeakers to tell the people of Kozarac that they would not be harmed if they left their basements and surrendered. The people complied, and almost as soon as the streets filled up with surrendering Muslims, the shelling resumed. The street became littered with severed limbs and human gore. The survivors fled back to their basements or into the hills. After two days of continued bombardment, another order to surrender was issued, and the Muslims of Kozarac complied once more.

This time, the Serbs played a different trick. As Kozarac’s beaten population filed down the main road toward the soccer stadium, one of the Serbs who lived in the town stood on a balcony and pointed out every important Muslim—politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, businessmen, even sports heroes. Most were shot on the spot by Serb soldiers or taken to a nearby house, where their throats were slit. At one point, the Serbs tied a local man’s legs to a tank that dragged him through town. His misery ended when the tank ran over him, killing him.

It was a scene out of Schindler’s List, but until a Steven Spielberg makes a movie about it, few Americans will know, or believe, that it happened. This was eliticide, the systematic killing of a community’s political and economic leadership so that the community could not regenerate. At least 2,500 civilians were killed in Kozarac in a 72-hour period. It was a slaughterhouse. The survivors were sent to the prison camps I wanted to visit.

Kovacevic continued to talk about going to church. Fine, we said, go to church, but please give us permission to visit your camps. If you have nothing to hide, then why not let us go there? We went on like this for nearly an hour. He got tired of it and finally assigned Prijedor’s “police chief,” Simo Drljaca, to escort us to the three camps in the area—Keraterm, Trnopolje and Omarska.

We would not be the first journalists to visit them. A handful of reporters had been there a few days earlier, so the world had been alerted, and Kovacevic had begun cleaning up his gulag, washing away blood stains, carting away bodies and body parts. He could now afford to let us have a sanitized glimpse. I was almost glad for this, because the Potemkinized tour was chilling enough.

Drljaca, our tour guide, was the second-most unsavory character in Prijedor. More than six feet tall and dressed in all-black combat fatigues, he had the obligatory pistol at his waist and a bad poker player’s instinct for deception. Why do you want to go to Keraterm? he inquired. It’s just a factory, nothing’s there. Yes, some prisoners were held there, but that was just for a couple of days, and the last ones left more than a month ago. Fine, we said, but please take us there anyway.

He shrugged his shoulders and we drove in a convoy to the Keraterm ceramics factory on the outskirts of town. Word of the atrocities that had been committed there had gotten out. Bosnians had been locked into storage rooms without food, water, or fresh air, and many died from thirst as they lay in a stinking mixture of their excrement and urine. When they cried out for help, guards fired shots through the doors; prisoners taken out of the storage rooms usually ended up being tortured to death.

Our van pulled into the factory grounds. They were deserted, not a soul in sight. Drljaca led the way into a building and told us it had been used to hold prisoners for a few days in the month of June. “See, no blood,” he said, smiling. We were given five minutes to wander around. The building was the size of a football field and housed the main furnace, in which ceramic goods were baked into hardened form. The area around the furnace was empty, covered by a thin layer of white dust. There was not a human smudge mark on the floor or any of the walls. There wasn’t so much as a discarded shoelace. It had no smell, not even a hint of sweat or antiseptic. It was much too clean. Prisoners had never been held in that building. The ruse had begun.

Drljaca led the way out and told us to get back into the van. We asked to visit a brick warehouse that was less than 50 yards away. It was, of course, the building where prisoners had been held and tortured; we learned later that they had been moved the day before we arrived. No, he said, you cannot go there, it is a military facility. There was not a soldier or piece of military hardware in view. A television cameraman swung his lens toward the building, and one of Drljaca’s men jumped in the way. No filming of the building, the soldier shouted. Drljaca smiled again. Time to leave, he said. We followed his orders. We were his guests, and if we got out of line, we might become his prisoners. Simple.

We drove into the countryside and within fifteen minutes arrived at a former elementary school that had an English-language banner draped over its entrance: “Trnopolje Open Reception Center.” When the first journalists had arrived there a few days earlier, barbed wire surrounded the place and there was no welcoming banner. But Trnopolje had changed only superficially since then. A few thousand Bosnians were penned in, not by barbed wire but by the roaming presence of armed guards and the knowledge that they had nowhere to flee to. The entire countryside was in the hands of Serbs, so the inmates could not run, they could not hide, they could only stay put and hope for deliverance.

I had never thought that one day I would talk to a skeleton, but that’s what I did at Trnopolje. I walked through the gates and couldn’t quite believe what I saw. There, right in front of me, were men who looked like survivors of Auschwitz. I remember thinking that they walked surprisingly well for people without muscle or flesh. I was surprised at the mere fact that they could still talk. Imagine, talking skeletons! As I spoke to one of them, I looked at his arm and realized that I could have grabbed hold of it and snapped it into two pieces like a brittle twig. I could have done the same with his legs.

Since leaving Bosnia, I have often been asked the same questions: Did you visit those camps? Were they really so bad? I still find it hard to believe that Americans and West Europeans are confused about Bosnia and, in particular, about the camps. Yes, I visited them, and yes, they were as bad as you could imagine. Didn’t you see the images on television? Don’t you believe what you saw? Do you give any credence to the word of Radovan Karadzic, the indicted Bosnian Serb leader, who said the news photographs were fakes? Chico Marx had a great line in Duck Soup as he tried to fool an unsuspecting Margaret Dumont into believing a preposterous put-on: “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” It was like that with Karadzic and the camps.

Trnopolje was the repository for men who had been released from the hard-core concentration camps of Omarska and Keraterm. That’s where the skeletons came from. Also, women and children who had been cleansed from nearby villages came to Trnopolje voluntarily. Yes, voluntarily. It was one of the strangest situations in Bosnia—people seeking safety at a prison camp. Trnopolje was no picnic, but the known brutalities dished out there were preferable to the fates awaiting Bosnians who tried to stay in their homes. Women might be raped at Trnopolje but they probably would not be gang-raped. They might be beaten but they probably would not be killed. Ironically, the first television images that shocked the world came from Trnopolje, the “best” camp. The outside world never saw the worst camps when they were at their worst.

The luckiest prisoners at Trnopolje had found a spot on the floor in the school building, which stank of urine and unwashed humanity. You could not walk inside without tripping over someone. The less fortunate inmates lived outside, baking in the August sun and shivering in the cool nights. Drljaca gave us 15 minutes to wander around, and, technically speaking, we were free to talk with whomever we wished. But guards with Kalashnikov assault rifles and Ray-Ban sunglasses sauntered through the grounds, and I could talk for no more than a minute or so before one of them would creep up behind me and start listening.

A few guards had slung their rifles across their backs and started snapping pictures of us as we talked with prisoners. They were not subtle; they were in charge, and they wanted us to know it. One skeletal prisoner had just enough time to unbutton his shirt, showing off a mutilated chest with a few dozen fresh scars from God knows what torture, before a look of horror came over his face. He was staring, like a deer caught in a car’s headlights, at a spot just above the top of my head. I looked around. A guard stood behind me.

I walked on. A prisoner tugged at my sleeve. Follow me. I followed, trying to look as though I weren’t following. He led me to the side of the school building and, after glancing around, darted through a door. I followed. Where was he taking me? Why? I feared not only the trouble that I might be getting into, but also the trouble that he might be getting into. The door closed behind me. The room was small, dark. My eyes took a moment to adjust. People were whispering beside me. I looked at the floor. Two bodies on the ground. Corpses? Not yet. I was in the infirmary, the sorriest infirmary you could imagine. No medicine, no beds. I was not supposed to be there.

The doctor, also a prisoner, motioned for me to crouch down so that guards could not see me through the window. He began peeling off a filthy bandage from the leg of one of the two men. Puss oozed out. The man had an infected hole the size of a baseball just under his knee, the result of a bone-crushing blow from a rifle butt. In a few days, the leg would turn gangrenous, and the man would die. The doctor whispered his explanations to Vlatka, my interpreter, who whispered them to me.

I looked at the other body. The man seemed to be in his late 30s or early 40s. It was hard to tell. His face was cut and bruised, colored black and red, and swollen like the kind of grossly expanded reflection you see in a trick mirror at a circus. I looked at his naked torso—more bruises, more swelling, more open wounds. He didn’t move. I didn’t need to ask what had happened to this poor man, or what was going to happen to him. His agony would be over soon, for if his wounds didn’t finish him off in the next 24 hours, then the guards would. As I learned later, guards routinely killed prisoners who could not recover quickly from the beatings.

We slipped out after several minutes, Vlatka first, me a few seconds later. An 18-year-old youth came up to us. He had just arrived at Trnopolje after two months at Omarska, the worst camp of all. His skin was stretched like a transparent scarf over his ribs and shoulder bones. “It was horrible,” he whispered. “Just look at me. For beatings, the guards used hands, bars, whips, belts, chains, anything. A normal person cannot imagine the methods they used. I am sorry to say that it was good when new prisoners came. The guards beat them instead of us.”

I slipped into his hand a sandwich from my shoulder bag. It was a ham sandwich.

“I’m sorry, it’s all I have,” I said. “Will you eat it?”

He stared at me, as though I were a naked fool. Of course he would eat it. It was food. Allah would look the other way as he devoured the forbidden pork.

I approached another skeleton, this one too afraid to talk, turning away after whispering a single word, “Dachau.”

It was time to go. The guards started rounding up the journalists. We boarded the van. I forget my parting words as I broke off my conversation with the last prisoner. What do you say in a situation like that? See you later? Good luck? You are leaving the condemned, the half-dead, and the fact that you spoke to him probably puts him in even greater peril. You had a good breakfast that morning, a couple of eggs, some toast, lots of jam. He had half a slice of stale bread, if he was lucky. Your money belt contains $5,000, and there is always more where it came from. He has nothing. You have an American passport that allows you to walk into the camp and walk out unmolested. He has no passport, only two eyes that watch you perform this miracle of getting out alive. You have a home somewhere that has not been dynamited. You have a girlfriend who has not been raped. You have a father who has not been killed in front of your eyes.

Whenever I returned to a normal place after an assignment in Bosnia, friends would ask me what it was like to suddenly leave a war zone and then be in a place where bombs are not falling. I would say that it was no big deal, which was the truth. Going from Sarajevo to London in a day is a piece of cake in psychological terms. I would feel relief, splendid relief. It didn’t compare to the experience of mixing with death-camp inmates and then walking away, a free man with a future. The misery of Bosnia is staring right at you, less than a foot away, watching you as you get into a van and drive off, and it notices that you don’t look back.

The next stop was Omarska. I was to have the privilege, if you can call it that, of meeting some of the worst torturers of the 20th century.

During its heyday, in the summer of 1992, Omarska was the principal killing field. After the existence of the camp and of the horrors there had become known, the Serbs began playing a shell game: most prisoners were shipped off to other locations or executed; the camp was cleaned up; food rations were improved for those left behind.

When we pulled up to the camp gates, no more than 250 prisoners remained of the thousands who had been there, and those on display were recent arrivals, not yet emaciated or bloodied. Omarska was going out of business, but one thing was unaltered, the terror in the prisoners’ eyes. They had plenty of reason to be afraid.

Every imaginable degradation had been played out at Omarska during the previous months. It was not a death camp on the order of Auschwitz. There was no gas chamber to which the prisoners were marched off every day. What happened at Omarska was dirtier, messier. The death toll never approached Nazi levels but the brutality was comparable or, in some cases, superior, if that word can be used. The Nazis were interested in killing as many Jews as possible, and doing it as quickly as possible. The Serbs, however, wanted to interrogate their Bosnian prisoners, have sadistic fun by torturing them in the cruelest of ways, and then kill them with whatever implement was most convenient, perhaps a gun, perhaps a knife or scissors, perhaps a pair of strong hands wrapped around an emaciated neck. If the Germans had used the same approach, they would have needed decades to kill six million Jews.

Omarska was an abandoned mining compound. The prisoners were kept primarily in two places—an open pit mine and a huge storage shed. Many interrogations ended with execution in a building the prisoners called the “White House.” There was another building, known as the “Red House,” where, in addition to more executions taking place, the torn corpses were kept until being buried outside Omarska or thrown down a disused mine shaft. On a daily basis, between 25 and 50 people were killed. Some prisoners never made it as far as the White or Red Houses, dying of thirst or starvation or asphyxiation (because they were crowded so tightly) while awaiting their formal torture, or dying when they made the mistake of asking a guard for water and received a bullet in the head instead. In a way, they were the lucky ones, for whom death came quickly and painlessly.

Our van halted on a strip of asphalt next to the White House. A group of about 50 prisoners were washing themselves at an open spigot at a side of the building. They were surrounded by guards with submachine guns. It is a neutral term, “guards,” and it implies a certain amount of discipline, a sense that the camp had rules, and that these men whom we called “guards” enforced the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were no rules at Omarska except for one: The guards were omnipotent. It might be accurate therefore to refer to them as gods rather than guards. They could kill as they pleased, pardon as they pleased, rape as they pleased. Their subjects, the prisoners, prayed to them for forgiveness, for a favor, for life.

We were marched into the building and up a dark stairwell to the second floor. “Into that room,” Drljaca told us, motioning toward a door at the end of the hallway. We went. It was a stuffy office, with stacks of papers in the corners, a few books on a shelf, a table, chairs, a desk. A calendar hung behind the desk. It showed a half-nude woman with a huge pair of breasts.

The camp’s “chief investigator” was sitting behind the desk. I had brought an Instamatic camera on this trip, an idiot-proof apparatus, and during the half hour that the “chief investigator” talked to us, I tried to line up a picture that would show him and the nude girl in the background. The interview was a piece of obscenity, so what could be better than a visual touch of obscenity to go with it?

The session was forgettable, and so I have forgotten much of it. That sounds strange, because it’s not often that you get to question a man who, in all probability, spent the previous months overseeing a frenzy of cruelty. Imagine, how could an interview with Dr. Josef Mengele be forgettable? But this man, like dozens of war criminals whom I interviewed during my time in Bosnia, was not going to pour his heart out to us. Of course not. He said that the prisoners were interrogated to learn what role they had played in the “Islamic insurrection,” and that they were released if the investigators decided they had played no role. The ones who were involved in the fabled insurrection were transferred to “other facilities” for trial. Torture? He laughed. Of course not.

“Interrogation is being done in the same way as it is done in America and England,” he said.

I looked up from my notebook. The nude girl in the calendar was smiling.

What I find most remarkable about the session is that I cannot recall the chief investigator’s face. It is a total blank, gone from my memory, or sealed in a corner I cannot reach, no matter how long and hard I think about Omarska, no matter how firmly I close my eyes and try to recall. It is as though my subconscious were playing a trick on me, perhaps trying to send me a message that the man’s identity is not important: he is just another human being, faceless. He is you, he is my friend, he is me.

It was showtime. We were led downstairs to the cafeteria, a small one of the institutional, stainless steel variety. Bean soup was being served. Inmates were shepherded into the room in groups of two dozen, heads bent in supplication, shuffling one after another, hunched over. They knew the drill. After getting their lunchtime soup and piece of bread—the only meal of the day—they shuffled to the few tables and spooned the muck into their mouths as quickly as possible. They had about a minute or two before one of the guards said a word and they jumped out of their chairs, shuffling to the exit and handing their bowls and spoons to the next group. There was none of the dawdling or yawning that you would see at normal prisons. There was only fear and power, awesome power.

We were allowed to meander around the room and ask questions. It was another act of humiliation for the prisoners and, this time, for the journalists too. Perhaps that’s why it was done. The guards were never more than a few feet away, and there was no outdoor breeze to carry a prisoner’s words out of snooping range. Words bounced off the walls like those tiny, transparent “super balls” that I played with as a child. I bent over to a few prisoners and asked questions, but I never got a real response. They bowed their heads lower, noses virtually in the bowls. This was a place where words, any words, could kill them.

“Please, don’t ask me questions,” one of them begged in a whisper.

The visit of journalists was just another form of torture. I tried to turn the tables a bit, to interview one of the guards. I settled on a massive oaf who, like the other guards, was in need of a shave. His height seemed somewhere between six and seven feet. Dressed in a dark combat outfit, he had the physique of a steroid-pumped linebacker and was packing enough weapons to arm a platoon: a pistol on either hip, a compact AK-47 assault rifle hanging by a strap from his right shoulder, and a foot-long bowie knife dangling from his belt. His hands were covered to the knuckles by black leather gloves. He wore reflector sunglasses. We were indoors.

I tipped my head toward the ceiling and tried to soften him up. The only thing we seemed to have in common was that we were sweating a lot.

“Hot in here, isn’t it?” I suggested. He peered down at me for a second or two. He didn’t respond. I tried again.

“How long have you worked here?” No response. Vlatka gave me a look that said, Forget about it. I gave it one last try.

“Is it true that you torture the prisoners?”

I had gotten his attention. He glanced down at me, and his lips arched into the kind of thin smile that fails to make you smile in return.

“Why would we want to beat them?” he said.

The show continued. We were led to a dormitory room filled with about 40 bunk beds. It wasn’t such a bad place, but of course it was created for our benefit. Until a few days earlier, the prisoners had been sleeping on the hard ground in an adjacent shed. A guard shadowed me all the time, so trying to talk to the prisoners was more fruitless than ever. I decided to go outside, in the hope the guard would follow me, leaving Vlatka free to ask a few questions. As I headed for the exit, I passed the television crew. The reporter was interviewing a feverish inmate lying on a bunk bed. The television light was shining right on the poor fellow, and several guards were hovering around the bed. The inmate was shaking, his blankets moving up and down with the furious heavings of his chest.

“Are you being treated well?” the reporter asked. The prisoner’s look of terror tightened a few notches more, and he glanced at one of the guards, not knowing how to respond. Obviously he could not speak honestly, but the guard might get mad if he was too fulsome in his praise. The truth would kill, and even the wrong lie would kill.

“Dobro, dobro,” he gasped. Good, good.

I left the room, feeling sad for the prisoner and angry at the TV crew, which seemed to have crossed a boundary by getting involved in this game. It was a sort of Russian roulette. Five empty chambers in the gun, one filled with a bullet. The reporter was handing the gun to the prisoner when he turned the camera on. Speak, the reporter asked. Pull the trigger. The prisoner was safe while we were around but what would happen when we left?

The whole truth emerged as journalists and diplomats interviewed Bosnians who had gotten out of the camps and reached safety in Croatia, where they could speak freely. I questioned several dozen survivors in Croatia and read the written testimony of scores of others. The best overall picture was drawn, belatedly, by the State Department, which had far greater resources than any single journalist, in a series of reports sent to the United Nations Security Council. The reports amount to a catalogue of the unimaginable and the unbearable. One of the most chilling passages is in an October 22, 1992 report under the heading “Abuse of Civilians in Detention Centers.” This is how it summarizes the experience of one ex-prisoner from Omarska:

“The witness stated that a young Muslim man from Kozarac who had owned a Suzuki motorcycle was tortured in front of the other prisoners. He was severely beaten all over his body and his teeth were knocked out. The guards then tied one end of a wire tightly around his testicles and tied the other end to the victim’s motorcycle. A guard got on the motorcycle and sped off.”

Do you believe that Europeans did this at the end of the 20th century? Excuse me, the question should be rephrased. Europeans, as Bosnia reminds us, do not have an inside track on virtue. Ugandans, Germans, Cambodians—there is no difference in the cruelty sweepstakes, it is a dead heat. Here’s the question again: Do you believe humans can do this at the end of the 20th century? I find it hard to believe that a man can get on a motorcycle and ride off with another man’s testicles attached to the tailpipe. Yet the testimony from camp survivors is consistent. It gnaws away at me.

One survivor, Emin Jakubovic, told journalists he was ordered by his Omarska jailers to castrate three prisoners. “They forced me to tear off their testicles, with my teeth, so I tore off their testicles with my teeth. They were screaming with pain.” Impossible? At a refugee center in Croatia, I interviewed a man who said he witnessed the episode. It was wintertime, and we were sitting in a bare, unheated room littered with cigarette butts and trampled-on newspapers. My overcoat was buttoned up against the cold, and the ink in my pen was freezing, as was my right hand, which became too stiff to write legibly. I had been interviewing prison survivors for several hours, and I was tired, fed up with it all.

I looked at the man, whose name was Ibrahim, still half-emaciated from his ordeal, and shook my head. Even though I had heard of such things before, I could not believe it. No, I told him, I do not believe your story. I do not believe it. Even among torturers, there is a line beyond which they do not go, such as castration. I asked Ibrahim, Would you believe someone who said the things you have just said? He stared back at me.

“I know,” he replied. “I wouldn’t believe it unless I had seen it.”

More than two years later, on February 13, 1995, in its first batch of indictments, the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal issued international arrest warrants for 21 Serbs on charges of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The indicted men included Dusan Tadic, who, according to the tribunal, forced a Muslim prisoner to bite off the testicles of another prisoner.

Bosnia makes you question basic assumptions about humanity, and one of the questions concerns torture. Why, after all, should there be any limit? For a person capable of torture, no form of it is out of bounds. The big moral leap backward has already been taken once the door marked Torture has been opened and the first cut made in the prisoner’s skin, or the first butt-blow landed to the prisoner’s face. Suddenly, the torturer realizes that he, or she, has entered a new universe of sadistic pleasures. The wild beast has been set free and taken up residence in his soul.

What’s the moral difference between slitting a man’s throat and slicing off his balls? Please tell me, anyone. There is none. If you have the stomach to crush a man’s head under your boots, then you probably have the stomach to cut off a woman’s breasts. Will God treat you better because you killed but refrained from mutilating? No. You can do as you please and you have nothing to fear.

You can, for example, barge into a house and put a gun to a father’s head and tell him that you will pull the trigger unless he rapes his daughter or at least simulates the rape. (I heard of such things in Bosnia.) The father will refuse and say, I will die before doing that. You shrug your shoulders and reply, Okay, old man, I won’t shoot you, but I will shoot your daughter. What does the father do now, dear reader? He pleads, he begs, but then you, the man with the gun, put the gun to the daughter’s head, you pull back the hammer, and you shout, Now! Do it! Or I shoot! The father starts weeping, yet slowly he unties his belt, moving like a dazed zombie, he can’t believe what he must do. You laugh and say, That’s right, old man, pull down those pants, pull up your daughter’s dress, and do it!

You are the law, and you feel divine.

Prison survivors describe an odd enthusiasm on the part of their torturers, who laughed, sang and got drunk while committing their crimes. They weren’t just doing a job, they were doing something they enjoyed. They felt liberated. They could smash every crystal glass in the shop and break every taboo in the book, and no law could touch them. Torture became entertainment.

“After beating us for a while one night, the guards got tired,” Ibrahim told me. “They decided it would be a good idea to have the prisoners fight each other. A guard singled out me and another prisoner. He told the other prisoner to stand still and he told me to punch the prisoner as hard as possible in the face. I did it. But the guard said I wasn’t doing it hard enough, and so he hit me in the back of my head with the butt of his gun. He kept hitting me until I was covered in blood. And then he took another prisoner out of the line and told him to hit me.”

I talked to an American diplomat who debriefed prisoners freed from Omarska. “It was like (the) Roman Colosseum,” she said. “You have to hit the other guy as hard as you can if you want to stay alive. If you don’t hit hard enough, then you get shot.”

The guards even opened the camp gates and allowed their friends to share in the fun. Civilians came from the outside and would spend a night beating or killing or raping. What’s extraordinary is the reasons these Serbs entered the gates of hell for a night of twisted pleasure. They wanted to settle old scores. Survivors told me of hiding behind the backs of other prisoners when Serbs they knew suddenly showed up on the campgrounds. A poor Serb might search for the wealthy Muslim who had refused to give him a job five years earlier; a farmer might try to find the Croat who, a decade before, had refused to lend his tractor for a day; a middle-aged man might look around for the Muslim who, 25 years ago, stole away his high-school sweetheart. Petty quarrels were settled with major crimes.

It sounds unbelievable, yet it happened. It makes me wonder what would happen if half the population of Peoria were put into a prison camp, and the other half were told it could go into the camp and do whatever it wanted to whomever it wanted, and that no punishment need be feared, because any violent or sexual act committed against a prisoner would be an act of patriotism. How many citizens of Peoria would yield to the temptation? How many would resist?

My initial impulse was to be filled with anger and hatred toward the Serbs. It’s only natural. But then, as I listened to a Bosnian man crying as he described what hell was like, I heard him say that Serbs had helped him; while one of his Serb neighbors was kicking him in the face with army boots, another Serb neighbor stepped in and demanded that the assault stop. Or a Bosnian would explain that after he was thrown into a prison camp one of the Serb guards whom he knew secretly supplied him with food and got word out to his family that he was alive. You hear about acts of decency, such as when Serb soldiers who had been ordered to rape girls, after taking the girls away, did not touch them, but told them to say they had been raped.

It is wrong to retreat into a blind rage against the Serbs. Few were camp guards, fewer still were torturers. Most were lemmings, a common affliction in all societies, and a handful were even heroes. The Serbs do not have a monopoly on moral insanity. It is humans who have failed, once more.

Consider the following atrocity. In February 1993, a three-year-old Muslim boy was seized by two Serbs who proceeded to strip him from the waist down, batter him senseless with an iron bar and bricks, stomp on his face with their boots, and place his body in the path of an oncoming train, which duly sliced the toddler in half. It is a shocking tale. I have misrepresented it slightly, because the three-year-old was not Muslim but British, and he was murdered in Liverpool. The murderers were also British, and their ages were 10 and 11. Boys. All the other details of tiny James Bulger’s murder are represented accurately—the iron bars, bricks, the face stompings and the denouement under the wheels of a commuter train.

What happened in My Lai sounds like any of the village massacres that occurred in Bosnia. On March 16, 1968, American helicopters airlifted troops under the command of Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. into the Quang Ngai province of South Vietnam, an area that had seen heavy fighting. Lieutenant Calley’s Charlie Company entered the My Lai hamlet and shot everything that moved. The things that moved were civilians, mostly women, children and old men.

More than 300 were killed at My Lai, some thrown into ditches, screaming and crying, and then shot by young Americans who had grown up in places like Milwaukee, Dubuque and Fresno. Although My Lai got all the attention, another massacre was carried out at the same moment by a sister unit, Bravo Company, in the adjacent hamlet of My Khe. It would be naive to think that those were the only massacres involving American GI’s.

Of all the soldiers brought before a court martial, only Lieutenant Calley was convicted of murder. The other soldiers who were in My Lai, the colonels in Saigon who condoned the massacres, the generals in Washington who wanted to cover it up—they were untouched. America had a hard time digesting the fact that “our boys” were using their bayonets to slay women and children. Lieutenant Calley got a 20-year prison term, and America began the process of forgetting. Is it behind us?

Elvin Kyle Brown, a private in the Canadian Army, served in Somalia as part of the U.N. peacekeeping force. He was there to help Somalians stay alive. But after detaining a 16-year-old boy for trying to break into a U.N. warehouse, Private Brown and several other Canadian soldiers handed out an unusual punishment. The boy was kicked in the face and chest, and beaten senseless with truncheons, and the soles of his feet were burned with a cigar. Soldiers posed for trophy pictures, one of which showed a truncheon stuck into the boy’s bleeding mouth, while another showed one of the Canadians holding a cocked pistol to the boy’s head. After three hours, the boy was dead.

Private Brown was sent home, court-martialed for torture and manslaughter, and given a five-year prison term. (He was paroled after less than two years.) His commander got a one-year sentence for telling soldiers that they could do what they wanted with their captive as long as they didn’t kill him, and advising them to beat the boy with a phone book, because it would not leave any marks. At least half a dozen Canadian soldiers, including some officers, heard the beatings and the boy’s screams—“Canada…Canada…Canada”—but did nothing. The boy’s family reportedly got 100 camels as compensation. Canada is still trying to figure out what went wrong, and why.

Where can the answer be found to this maddening question, Why? It is like a one-eyed creature that stares and stares at us without blinking, without saying a word, without saying what its stare means. We can turn our backs on it and move ahead, for 5 years or 10 years or 50 years; we can build new civilizations, turning wastelands into cities and orphans into scientists. But soon the madness erupts again, creating new wastelands, new orphans. The question is there, always there, like a taunt. Why?

I don’t know. The most I can say is that I am brought back to Bosnia whenever I read a particular passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West’s thunderous masterpiece of Balkan history. The book was published in 1941, as the madness of World War II was getting under way, and West could not ignore the horrors that she had seen in the Balkans and that she was seeing in Hitler’s Europe. Since she wrote the passage, more than half a century ago, a genocide has been carried out against Europe’s Jews and a partial genocide has been carried out against Europe’s Muslims.

“Only part of us is sane,” West wrote. “Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”