For Bosnians, Gaza concentration camps echo their 1995 genocide

For Bosnians, Gaza concentration camps echo their 1995 genocide
Israel's torture camps in Gaza draw another parallel with the Bosnian genocide, writes Nidžara Ahmetašević. And like the Bosnians, justice remains elusive.
5 min read
29 May, 2024
Testimonies from Gaza bear striking resemblance to that of the Bosnian genocide, writes Nidžara Ahmetašević [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

In July 1992, the world was shaken by images coming from one of the concentration camps in Bosnia — a group of men, skinny to the bone, hungry and scared, cowering behind barbed wire. 

Based in northwest Bosnia, the concentration camps of Omarska and Trnopolje were set up by war criminal Radovan Karadžić, wartime president of Republika Srpska, to exterminate Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats as part of Serbia's genocidal campaign.

Nearby, in the Prijedor municipality, non-Serbs were forced to display white linen on their homes and wear white armbands in public: concentration camps had returned to Europe just decades after World War 2 and, once more, people heard politicians promise 'never again'

In Gaza, never again is now

Thirty-two years later, in mid-May this year, CNN leaked images by an Israeli whistleblower from the Sde Teiman facility, an army base between Beersheba and Gaza in the southern Negev region.

The facility had been turned into a torture camp for Palestinians, including abductees from Gaza before they were transferred to other prisons. 

Like the Bosnian concentration camps of Omarska and Trnopolje, men huddled behind barbed wire, blindfolded, beaten, with their hands behind their heads. They were forced to kneel on gravel and asphalt or stand for 20 hours in a row, beaten if they moved, and prevented from sleeping by constant exposure to light. 


Palestinian prisoner rights group Adameer said there is "reasonable basis to claim that the occupying forces are committing war crimes and crimes against prisoners from the Gaza Strip," with claims of torture and abuse by +972 and CNN later confirmed by UNWRA, who'd collected data from hundreds of detained Palestinians since the beginning of Israel's ground assault.

This is one of many similarities between Palestine now and Bosnia back at the beginning of the 90s. Cities under siege, (un)safe zones, punishing of civilians, starvation, attacks on hospitals, schools, religious and cultural buildings.

As a Bosnian journalist who reported on the genocide years ago, testimonies coming from Gaza resemble a lot of those from Bosnia: beatings, torture, humiliation, and pain. But don't just take it from me, take it from someone who lived through both. 

Dr. Mohammed al-Ran, a Palestinian with Bosnian citizenship, is a witness to both genocides. After studying medicine in Yugoslavia, he stayed and lived in Sarajevo, where he survived the siege. After the war, Mohammed returned home to Gaza. 

In October 2023, he was head of the surgical unit at the Indonesian hospital in northern Gaza. In December, Mohammed was taken to the Sde Teiman torture facility where he was kept for 44 days. There, he was stripped, blindfolded, handcuffed, and crowded into the back of a truck with other detainees before being transported to detention. 

"Part of my torture was being able to see how people were being tortured," Dr. Mohammed al-Ran told CNN. "Our days were filled with prayer, tears, and supplication. This eased our agony."

In Bosnia, justice didn't bring back the dead

In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, survivors of concentration camps had to wait more than 20 years to see Radovan Karadžić in court, with several Serbian guards, lower-ranking police and military officials sentenced before he was tried.

Judges concluded that the concentration camps — numbering at least 400 throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina— around Prijedor, including Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, were not set up by chance but were the result of an intentional policy to impose a system of discrimination against non-Serb people.

But this offered little consolation to Bosnians and it certainly didn't bring back their dead. Speaking to Ed Villiamy — one of the three journalists who captured the images of July 1992 — one of the survivors said: "We can build our houses, we can show them we are back, that this is our country, but we can never get back our lives as they were before. Karadžić being arrested will not give us back our dead.”

So far, at least three detention sites have been discovered in Israel, all part of the infrastructure of Israel's Unlawful Combatants Law, passed through the Knesset in December 2023, which allows the Israeli military to detain people for 45 days without an arrest warrant. How many people are held in these facilities remains unknown. 

While I write this, the world waits for the International Criminal Court (ICC) Pre-Trial judges to deliberate after the prosecution issued an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, alongside three Hamas leaders. Whilst a welcome respite, it's yet to be seen if this piece of good news is but another false dawn. 

In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we learned that justice is very slow but, eventually, comes. Lost lives are lost forever. Traumas remain inside all survivors forever. The ICC warrant gives hope as a first step toward justice, but much more has to be done. 

As we see in Gaza, lessons learnt from Bosnia and Herzegovina have not been enough. 'Never again' has happened again.

Hopefully, the coming generations, including those who lead peace protests around the world, will, or already have, learned the lesson that enough is enough. It's time to start building a world in which concentration camps, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are just for the history books. Otherwise, there is no hope.

Nidžara Ahmetašević is a journalist, editor and author from Sarajevo. She has been working in the media for over 20 years. Her work has been featured in various media in the Balkans, as well as The New Yorker, Al Jazeera English online, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, the International Justice Tribune, The Guardian, etc. She is also the author of The Media as a Tool of International Intervention: House of Cards, published by Routledge.

Nidžara also holds a PhD from the University of Graz, Austria. Her fields of interest are democratisation and media development in a post-conflict society, hate speech, transitional justice, media and political propaganda, human rights and migrations.

Follow her on X: @AhNidzara

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.