The Day When Kouchner Lost His Temper
24 August 1992
The sudden aggravation of the situation on the fronts in Bosnia has induced French Minister for Health and Humanitarian Action Bernard Kouchner to accept the invitation of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Presidency of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to once again take the French government plane and fly to Bosnia. Both presidencies told him he was welcome and that he could see all the camps he wanted. Moreover, Sarajevo and Pale agreed to open up the gates of camps and prisons picked out by the other side.
After many difficulties, the minister's plane was allowed to land at Banja Luka airport. The representatives of the Presidency of Serbian Bosnia, who had waited for him for four hours, had already gone home so that Kouchner was greeted by several policemen who took him and his escort to the hotel "Bosna". They were met by Banja Luka Municipality President Predrag Radic who told them, over dinner, that his municipality is inhabited by Orthodox Christians, who are the majority population, and they continue to live in peace with their Moslem and Catholic neighbours.
Well, if that is the case in this green oasis, where there is a precarious peace and the power supply is reduced, that is not so in the nearby municipality of Prijedor where Kouchner, on the next day, visited the camp in Manjaca, the transit camp in Omarska and finally Trnopolje, an open-type camp. Despite the kindness of the commander of the Manjaca military complex, which used to be one of the biggest tank centers of the Yugoslav People's Army, and the freedom the Frenchmen were allowed to see the former stables packed with Moslems from Kljuc, Prijedor and other surrounding settlements, the overall impression was bad. "Why don't you take pictures of this fat guy, why pick only the skinny ones?" the camp commander asked pointedly. The problem was that most of the prisoners were skinny and scared. Others one did not have to ask whether they had been beaten, and the camp infirmary -- where about 20 prisoners were lying on some straw and a blanket -- reminded the minister of similar medical institutions in Somalia. There we found a Canadian of Yugoslav origin, with a leg in plaster, who claimed he had been offered a post in the Croatian Information Ministry. He was born in Edmonton and spoke excellent English. Asked what he was doing in Yugoslavia, he said "C'est la vie."
According to the prisoners the minister talked to, three Libyans were shot to death the day before, and three blacks were killed a week ago. "This is not a concentration camp like Auschwitz," the minister noted, "but it is a place unfit for people." Fully aware that neither the soldiers nor the people outside the camps have enough food, the minister urged for at least the bare minimum which the prisoners have been receiving since ten days ago. There are no gas chambers in Manjaca, but there are mines along the strip of barbed wire around it. The only desire of the army in charge of the camp is that no one escapes. The only wish of the prisoners, who have the right to go out of the barracks, is to survive.
The next stop was Omarska, which was also said to be a concentration camp. Around 200 prisoners, accomodated in one of the administration buildings of the former mine, look well. They are mainly Moslems and are waiting for investigators who will either let them go home or send them to Manjaca or somewhere else. They are all in a large room with bunk-beds and say they were not tortured.
From there, by a round-about route, the French team went to Trnopolje, an open-type camp from which women and children are transported to the Croatian border and who are believed to have been on one of the trains bound for Austria or Germany. The prisoners have not had any news from them. The team came to the camp around lunch-time. Beans were on the menu. "It's good," say the young prisoners, "but not enough." They must pay for the bread and, if they have money, they can even buy some potatoes or a hot meal prepared by a prisoner inside the camp. Two buildings are crammed with people, there are people in the yard where they themselves put up huts similar to the ones in Ethiopian or Somali camps. It is bearable as long as it is summer and hot outside, but what will they do when winter comes?
Here in Trnopolje, where discipline is more slack than in Manjaca, a human tragedy multiplied by several thousand is underway. The prisoners are inhabitants of Kozarac, a Prijedor suburb in which all Moslem houses have been destroyed or badly damaged. The other houses, belonging to Serbs, and only two meters away are standing intact. "Where will you go once you are released from the camp?" asks the minister. Home, say the prisoners. "But you no longer have a home," notes Kouchner. "No we don't, but we still have hands to build them again." However, there was no answer to the next question, which was whether they could go on living with their former neighbours again, since many of them helped in the destruction or plundering of their homes. Although they have the right to go to the village and bring flour or potatoes, hardly anyone dares leave the camp, since those who went for walks never came back.
All three camps were on a list which the French minister had received from the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.
Kouchner came to Sarajevo on a French transporter via Split. He was greeted by a French officer in the United Nations Protection Force with two armoured vehicles. After a brief meeting with Vice-President Stjepan Kljujic, who opened the doors to all facilities he wanted to see, the diplomats and journalists went to the once beautiful and now badly damaged Olympic center Zetra and the Kosevo stadium, overgrown in grass which the Serbian Bosnian Presidency claims is a camp for Serbs in Sarajevo. Besides two or three families from nearby sky-scrapers, who are waiting for the shelling to stop, they saw no one. From there they went to the central prison and talked to the prisoners, Serbs and Moslems, whose stories were moving but who did not complain of abuse. Kuchner also talked to a former Lieutenant-Colonel of the Yugoslav People's Army who was sentenced to six months in prison for possession of weapons. But, the prison was clean, a bucket of water was placed outside each cell (the city's waterworks is not functioning) and the impression was not that the prisoners were treated badly. They are mainly accused or found guilty of possession of weapons.
However, the picture in the military prison in the former Yugoslav army barracks "Viktor Bubanj" is completely different. The people there, Serbs, looked like skeletons compared to the Moslems in Manjaca. No one even tried to hide the bruises and wounds which were obviously caused by beatings. There were up to 12 prisoners in cells of only four square meters, among them was a surgeon who refused to be enlisted in the Bosnia and Herzegovina territorial defence, four engineers ... One floor up, in several rooms, bigger and with more light and a window, are women. There were old and young women, one was pregnant, her mother-in-law was in the next room, her husband in the cells below. On Kouchner's remark that the people did not look well and that they had been beaten, the prison warden says that they might have been beaten up when they were brought in, but not while in prison. The wounds are fresh. Kouchner is a doctor. He lost his temper. Only Bradina and its railway tunnel were left on his list. Serbs say there are several hundreds of prisoners there, but he cannot go there, not because of some ban but because of the fighting. More prisoners are being captured. And, as the war is fought with hatred and without excuses, that is how those who are caught are treated. Even the last bridges to the future are being burned down.
Ahead of the depature, two badly wounded children were brought into the Red Cross transporter. The grenade did not ask what nationality they were. The Orthodox child had a shrapnel in the head, the Moslem third-degree burns. Their mothers held them in their hands while UNPROFOR soldiers, obeying completely senseless orders from the High Commissioner from Geneva, made a fuss over their departure. Not a single civilian is allowed to leave Sarajevo by plane! Luckily, a Norwegian government official was there, a friend of Kouchner's, and he intervened with the Norwegians in UNPROFOR.
Fourty minutes later, the plane landed at Split airport where a special French government plane was waiting for Kouchner. He was greeted by journalists at the military airport, who learned that there are no concentration camps, like the Bergen-Belzen camp, in former Yugoslavia, but that there are camps of hatred, camps of revenge and shame.
A ranking French officer at Sarajevo airport told me earlier this week how he neutralized a sniper at a window while he was shooting at an ambulance. Although the guy was the target of three French sharp-shooters, one of them managed to take a picture of him. With the film developed, he went to a house 500 meters from the ambulance, found the flat from which the sniper had opened fire and found an old lady who turned out to be the sniper's mother. "Madam," he said, "this is your son. We supposed he had a mother and we did not shoot, although we could have killed him. Tell him next time we will not hesitate."