“YOUR LIVES ARE WORTH LESS THAN OUR BULLETS”
By: Nisvet Nezic (Serb-run Manjaca Concentration Camp Survivor)
Before I start, I have to warn you and ask parents to remove young children as what I am about to tell you is a graphic recount of only a part of suffering my people had to go through, little more than a decade ago.
My speech tonight is titled “I am a survivor of a Serb concentration Camp.” The last few weeks were very emotional to me because I was faced with two challenges at the same time. The first challenge is to attempt to translate into words what the title of this speech really means and feels like, to us survivors. My second challenge was to deal with the unavoidable reliving of the torture and suffering I and my compatriots were subjected to in the concentration camps all over Bosnia during the whole length of the war. Every time I tried for the past several nights my thoughts wandered away, memories become too real and painful. I again felt the Chetnik’s baseball bats beating on my back like it happened yesterday.
I was arrested on June second nineteen-ninety-two, while hiding in a forest near my birth place, together with five of my friends. Immediately after the first contact with Chetniks, we realized they had no humanity in themselves. They tied our hands behind our backs and started beating. At one moment one of the Chetniks grabbed me by my hair, pulled a long knife from his boot, placed it on my throat, swore at me and said “What are you going to do now? I am about to decapitate you.” All I could do was look at his eyes ad calmly say “The knife is in your hands. Do what you want.” As if someone put the thought in my head that he was seeking pleasure in my fear. Then his commander came, swore at him and said “Leave him alone. You know we need them alive.” I was spared.
I arrived at Manjaca, the concentration camp, on June twelveth. I was surprised by the number of Bosniaks who were already there. Over the next few months over four thousand people turned into over four thousand walking skeletons. We were given so little food that in just two months we lost twenty to forty kilograms in average. At times we went without water for days, and even when we got it, four of us had to share one cup.
In addition to hunger and thirst, we were tortured many other ways. We were beaten with baseball bats wrapped in barbwire, an inch thick electrical cables with metal balls attached at ends – a device specifically created for torture. They cut our skin with knives, cut our ears off, our genitals, leaving us to bleed helpless. They threw hand grenades in rooms full of prisoners. They randomly and aimlessly shot bursts of automatic rifle fire through windows, killing and wounding dozens at a time. They used bulldozers to load corpses onto trucks for transport to destinations unknown. Today we know where they are. Teams of international forensic experts are still excavating mass graves of my people of all ages and both genders. Sometimes they forced us, the inmates, to load our dead friends onto trucks. I had to do that myself. One of the corpses I loaded had a slit throat. Another had a punctured heart. But the image that will never leave me is one of a dead inmate with his eyes still open. A cigarette but was extinguished in his right eye. “Your lives are worth less than our bullets” – they kept telling us. So they killed and tortured us with knives, baseball bats, electricity, hunger and thirst. They competed at inventing harder ways for Bosniaks to die. They took virtually everything from us except our faith and pride.
The real focus of my speech tonight is not to tell you all the details of the torture I personally endured. I wish to give you a brief recount of another person’s story that made me the person I am today and has a strong message for all of us here tonight and all of humanity. His name is Dragan Draganovic, my first cousin and best friend. We slept in the same room at Manjaca. Almost every night about four Chetniks came for him after dusk. They forced him out and beat him for half an hour at a time. At the end they open the door and throw him back inside. Often he had to crawl back to his sleeping spot on bare concrete floor. This went on over 7 months of our imprisonment at Manjaca….
Incredibly, they broke his body many times over but his spirit remained intact. Every morning he found the strength to get up, walk around in the barn where we were kept and sometimes, he even told jokes as if to cheer up the rest of us. About four hundred Bosniak prisoners were held in this barn and we all admired his bravery and refusal to give up. We called him “the Rubber man.” But only him and I knew how much human strength, love and will to live it took to endure what we went through. Many times I wanted to take his place, to receive his beating. But he did not allow it in fear that Chetniks would find out and kill us both. In rare nights when they spared him we talked for hours and gave courage and hope to each other that this horrible evil would end one day. That we’ll again have a chance to hug our children, breathe air with full lungs and look up into the sun…
We never lost hope. Three days before my release we separated for the first time in our lives for more than a few days. Dragan was lead out of Manjaca with five-to-six-hundred other Bosniaks and Croats. They were taken to a different camp. The following three days I dried out my tears crying for him. Because of this separation I think I was the only inmate that came out of there more sad than happy. When I came to Croatia and met Dragan’s family I had to find a way to control my emotions and explain his three year old daughter why her father was not with me. That was harder for me than all the Chetnik torture I endured over my 7 months of horror.
Later I found out that Dragan was transferred to another concentration camp called Batkovic where he spent another year going through similar torture. Midway though the war he was exchanged for a Serb soldier. He then joined the Bosnian defense army and became one of the bravest fighters and greatest human beings I ever had an opportunity to meet.
His humanity and the message here tonight can be most accurately summarized by his visit to a war prison where Serb soldiers were held. When I asked him how he reacted when tables turned, when he had an opportunity to face again the soldiers of an army that tortured him. He said “I remembered what you and I went through. I remembered all the torture and suffering… I felt compassion toward them. I gave them a pack of cigarettes and asked the prison guards not to harm them in any way…”
At the end of the war he joined his family.
I personally am very thankful and privileged today to have spent a good portion of my life with a person like Dragan. I owe my thanks to Dragan, who showed me that regardless of what happens to you, life with love is incomparably better than life with hatred in heart. This is what kind of people we Bosniaks are. We carry love in our hearts, not hatred. Even with over a thousand destroyed mosques, their churches are standing still. For all the evil they released upon us we did not choose to answer with hatred and wish for revenge. We answered with wish for peace and life together. We showed to the whole world how freedom, homeland and family are defended.
Unfortunately, however, we felt alone in this struggle. Some of the world’s powers even encouraged us to give up and surrender. An impossible proposition because we would have handed our lives to the people who raped our mothers and sisters and bombed our schools and hospitals. Who chose not to recognize any human laws at the times of their historic trial. Who, as it is proven today by the International Tribunal for War Crimes, committed the act of genocide.
Dragan’s story also shows that family, love and faith comprise the power that helps us endure even the hardest challenges. It tells us that while we must not allow ourselves the sin to forget the evil some of us are capable of, we must look up and live on. We must pass even our most negative experiences to our next generations in form of lessons of how to cherish and promote universal human values and how not to fall into the trap of hatred and revenge.