“After 15, 20 minutes of being beaten I fell and I thought they would stop. But they didn’t. On the ground, they kicked me with boots. It was the first time I felt the pain of a boot.”
Kostana Hospital in Stolac was famous throughout Yugoslavia as a centre for osteopathy. But with the arrival of war in the 1990s its purpose was sadistically inverted: instead of being a place to heal human bodies, it became a place to break and torture them.
A brigade of the Croatian army, the HVO, arrived in Stolac in 1992 and made the old bone hospital their headquarters.
Amer Dulic was 17 in 1992. He now shows young people around the bone hospital as part of a scheme to educate the youth of Bosnia about the crimes committed in the 1990s. But his job is made more difficult by the local government, who refuse to allow any acknowledgement of the crimes committed there.
“We have built two memorials,” he says, “But they destroyed both. Now we have a mobile memorial that we bring for ceremonies and then take away again.”
There are no plaques at the bone hospital, no somber displays of artefacts, no glossy brochures to catalogue what happened. The building, a slowly disintegrating shell, is a haunted embodiment of the tenth and final stage of genocide: denial.
When the Bosnian war arrived in Stolac in 1992, Amer didn’t feel in particular danger:
“I was 17, I was just a kid. I didn’t think they’d bother with me.”
When he was arrested and taken to Kostana Hospital, he was relieved to see that a school friend of his was registering the people coming in. He greeted the boy, but the response was cold:
“He didn’t recognise me and asked my name so he could record it. It was strange. I realised that things had changed.
We were taken into the basement.
There was the scent of sweat and blood. It was like a horror movie. There were big metal doors and no light. The only light came through this window.”
Amer points to a small window, about a foot across, at ground level. There is no glass in the window now, and through it we can see only the pitch darkness of the basement. A gust of wind catches some dry leaves and throws them into the abyss below.
“The first room was for adults. In the second room there were twenty kids. I was taken into the second room.
The third room had a bucket for a toilet.
We thought they might interrogate us and send us home.
After 30 minutes in that room the doors opened and soldiers came in - they were all our neighbours!
We were so happy, we thought they would protect us. We smiled and called them by their names.
But they acted as if they didn’t recognise us. They had bloody eyes, they were not the same people we had known a few weeks earlier.
It was a time when weak men could only show bravery against kids.
We saw our other neighbours, Muslim neighbours, bloodied and in pain. They weren’t talking, they weren’t allowed to.
The soldiers started taking people into another room, one by one, and each time you could hear screaming and crying.
Two of my cousins were killed by torture, beaten with batons. They were old men: in their fifties and sixties. Another cousin survived.
Six people were killed here by torture.
When they called my name I went into another room with six men I knew. I had grown up with them, I knew their families.
They said, ‘You must tell the truth.’
‘Of course,’ I said. I had nothing to hide.
‘You have to admit you torched someone’s house.’
‘I haven’t,’ I said. ‘I’m a child.’
Each person was forced to admit a lie. If you admit the lie, they beat you.
If you didn’t, they beat you until you admit.
I never admitted to anything I didn’t do and I won’t ever admit to what I didn’t do.
My friends and neighbours were bravely beating me up.”
At this point Amer Dulic names the men who beat him, one by one, totalling six names.
He says the names slowly and deliberately.
Each utterance feels like an act of defiance: a scrap of transient memory in a place where physical memorials are banned. But the group of kids gathered in front of him hear those names, and the truth, however fleetingly, is heard, and hopefully remembered, recorded, rooted in time.
“After 15, 20 minutes of being beaten I fell and I thought they would stop.
But they didn’t. On the ground, they kicked me with boots. It was the first time I felt the pain of a boot.
My neighbour kicked me between the legs, each time I would fall. If I didn’t get up they would hold a knife to my neck.
If I fainted they threw water over me to bring me round.
I was forced to clean up my blood with a T-shirt.
They played loud music so people wouldn’t hear. Our screams were lost in the music.
Those first few nights - 3, 4, 5, 6, August 1993- nobody slept, there was constant screaming. They were taking people out of the rooms and torturing them one by one.
That first night my cousin died, then another died soon after.
It was the first time in my life I saw a beaten and bloodied man, and listened to his final breaths.
His final words were, ‘My neighbours killed me.’
My other cousin tried to say something but he couldn’t. It was the first time I experienced someone with their eyes open trying to tell us something but they couldn’t. We saw ourselves in that position, we knew that soon that could be us.
The people who did this still live in Stolac, they own businesses here.
The man who beat me up owns a bar over there. He was freed from the judicial process because it’s all corrupt. There are false witnesses, bribery.
I was offered 100,000 marks to admit that it was made up. I only had ten marks at the time but I couldn’t take it.
People still believe politicians, the church and stories from the mosque. When I see the men who tortured me they bow their heads. They can’t look at me.
My child knows who beat me but he wouldn’t say anything. When I see them I get churning in my stomach. I know it’s hard for them to see me.
On 3 August we took our dead cousins out to bury them and then we were brought back here to the hospital, thinking they’d be satisfied. But the same neighbours took us out again to admit.
The three days and two nights here were the hardest time of my life.
There were forty people we had one piece of bread. All we had were T-shirts to treat our injuries.
On 4 August the door was open, there were new people being brought in, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims had started. They said ‘We have fresh meat’.
We were taken to another camp with the the same Croatian neighbours who had tortured us at Kostana.
We had to sleep on concrete in the middle of the day, in fifty degree heat.
A minister from the Croatian parliament visited us there. There were children there, people were tortured. When the Red Cross discovered one of the camps we were all moved on and hidden in new camps.
It was always the same thing.
No food for days, beatings. You were given hot soup and only had 11 seconds to eat it, there were 548 prisoners and only 33 plates and spoons. You ate as fast as you could, it burnt your mouth but if you didn’t eat quickly you didn’t eat.
It was not all Croatians who did these things. There are good and bad people on both sides. There were good soldiers too, people who tried to protect us.
I don’t hate, I wasn’t raised to hate.
It would be wrong to say my army didn’t commit atrocities. I am embarrassed and ashamed of the things we did.
You can’t say a whole group is responsible, it is individuals who committed these crimes.
I wrote a book about my experiences, it was the first one to use the full names of perpetrators to focus on individuals.
I returned to Stolac in 1998, I was among the first returnees. Those people still my neighbours.
I’ve been to The Hague, I always try to speak the truth. I don’t hate, I don’t wish to hate. This country has a judicial system and God exists if you believe, He will judge them.
All I ask of you is that you speak the truth; I want all of you to speak the truth.
Srebrenica is a story for all of us, a lesson for all of us.
Last year I did the March of Peace to Srebrenica. It was the first time I’d cried in years. I had food, a tent, people waiting for me but the people who walked then had nothing.
I’m grateful that I’m alive and able to tell my story.
Next year I will take my wife and kids to Srebrenica and if they will get blisters on their feet at least they will feel a part of the pain that the mothers of Srebrenica felt.
Since the 1990s more extremist voices have become more prominent. The reasonable people aren’t listened to.
The Croatian nationalists don’t want this building to be recognised as a place where torture and beatings were carried out.
We built two monuments and they destroyed both. Now we have a mobile monument that we bring for ceremonies.
It’s a shame that this history is still being ignored.”
Throughout my travels with Smajo in Bosnia, the intimacy of the crimes committed here has been their most shocking aspect.
This wasn’t Britain’s experience of war: planes flown by faceless men from far away, dropping bombs from great heights.
In Bosnia, war was personal.
Men looked into the eyes of men they had grown up with as they were beaten, burned and humiliated.
Women were raped by men they had played with as children.
War crimes were perpetrated in small rooms by half a dozen men who knew the names, the histories and the families of their victims.
As if to emphasise the interconnectedness of the people who experienced these things, Smajo discovers that Amer Dulic’s grandmother was the sister of Smajo’s grandmother.
Sometimes, this feels like a war committed not between nation states, but within a family.
There has been no meaningful resolution here. The pain is omnipresent, almost always unspoken, bubbling under the surface. It feels as if people are crouched in anticipation, still frozen in a point in time 25 years ago.
Perpetrators still walk freely among their victims, the powerful still seek to deny what happened.
After visiting the bone hospital, it feels difficult to be optimistic for Bosnia.
The physical fighting has stopped but beneath the surface it seems that so many people here are still fighting for justice and recognition.
Bosnia is no longer a country at war, but after listening to the account of Amer Dulic I’m not sure it can properly be called a country at peace either.