Eldin Elezovic dreamed of becoming a football star while growing up in Stolac, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and part of Yugoslavia. In June 1993, he remembers spending a hot summer’s day playing football with friends. It would be his last day of freedom for the next nine months.
“We were learning about Auschwitz and Nazi camps in high school,” said Elezovic, speaking in Queens, New York, where he has lived since 1997. “We never thought that would happen to us. But it did.”
Elezovic and his older brothers, Remzo and Jasmin, were rounded up and imprisoned – along with their father and thousands of other Bosnian Muslim men, or Bosniaks – by Croatian Defence Council (HVO) forces. The HVO was the military wing of an unrecognised territorial entity called the Republic of Herceg-Bosna that Bosnian Croat nationalists tried to establish during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
Slobodan Praljak, who died after drinking cyanide in a war crimes court on November 29, commanded the HVO’s main staff.
The Elezovic men were divided among three of about half a dozen prison camps run by the HVO in Herzegovina. There was fierce fighting between the Bosnian army and HVO forces during the summer the men were arrested, but Elezovic – now president of the Congress of North American Bosniaks – says his family was not affiliated with any armed group.
Elezovic told Al Jazeera his story about surviving the Gabela detention centre, where about 1,500 men were housed in three large storage sheds by August 1993, according to testimony from former prisoners and accounts that Bosnian Croat authorities provided to Human Rights Watch.
“I was like every normal teenager when I was growing up. The first movie I ever saw in theatres was Top Gun, which is still my favourite movie ever. I dreamed of one day being a soccer player or a banker.
Before the war, I had so many friends, and I really didn’t know their ethnicity or religion. I was raised to respect good people and to separate them that way – into good and bad – not by who is Muslim or Jewish or Catholic, or any other religion. But when the aggression started, that’s when I started to realise some of my high school friends in Mostar were on the other side.
I was barely 18 when I was taken. Members of the Croatian army and locals came and took me out of my house, along with my brothers and father. They took me to the concentration camp of Gabela. I spent 273 days in captivity. I wasn’t organising or anything like that; it was just because I’m a Bosniak.
There was no typical day in the camp. They would come, take some people, beat them up and then bring them back at night. They would beat you up really bad so that you would be all bloody. And then the next day, they would take you to do forced labour.
They told us at the time that they were building an army complex. The work was basically moving big rocks and dirt, and you always had guards above you with machine guns. The weather was so, so hot and they didn’t give you much water to drink. Sometimes we didn’t get water for two or three days. Sometimes people would drink urine because it was the only way to get water.
It was just humiliation. There were dogs around and they would be giving food to the dogs and not to us, for example, just to humiliate us. At night, they would take us back to camp.
The warehouse where they kept us was made out of metal. It was extremely hot inside, and we were on top of each other. We had to sleep on a concrete floor that was dirty as hell. They wouldn’t let you go outside to the bathroom, except maybe once a day. There were days that you would have to do what you had to do in the corner, and people were sleeping right there. It was really horrible.
I was 6’4″ [1.9 metres] and only weighed 48kg [106 pounds] when I got out.
Despite all the beatings and suffering and humiliation, going without food and water and being taken to do forced labour, the hardest moment during the whole nine months was when I witnessed my childhood friend, Mujo Obradovic, get killed.
I was in line to drink some water. The water tank was outside of the camp and they would line us up to drink water once a day. At that time, they brought back the people who had been taken to do forced labour that day. They were taken from the truck and lined up right in front of the entrance.
The guy who was in charge of the camp, Bosko “Boko” Previsic, asked if anyone had any food. They said no, but my friend, who was 18, had a piece of bread in his pocket – a small piece of bread he was trying to take in. I’m assuming he was going to take it to somebody inside who probably hadn’t eaten for days.
When Boko found it, he just shot Mujo. Point-blank. That was the hardest thing for me to see as a young man. That was the first time I saw a dead body. We shared all these happy moments, and he got killed basically at the beginning of his life.
Boko is still in hiding in Croatia and he hasn’t been prosecuted for anything.
Every time I talk or think about these things, I cry. I still can’t sleep at night, especially lately. I still ask, how? Why? How did we deserve this? There’s no language or emotion strong enough to portray the real picture of what we went through. But I have a duty and obligation to tell these stories. I think that’s why we’re still alive – to make sure we tell these stories so it doesn’t happen again. If we fail in that, it will happen again and it will be too late.
I was looking forward to the trials [in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia every single day since my first day in the concentration camp. There is absolutely nothing that will make up for the time lost, for the lives lost. There is absolutely no prison sentence that would bring all of that back, but it’s a lesson to everybody in the world that if you commit a crime, be ready to face punishment in the future. Justice is slow, but it catches up.”