Violation of the Muslim innocents: Bosnians held in a camp at Manjaca are civilians taken from their homes in handcuffs, not captured soldiers. Robert Fisk reports

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The Independent Online
A WEEK after the London conference on Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 3,640 prisoners at the Manjaca camp in western Bosnia - 96 per cent of them Muslims - are no nearer freedom than they were before the peace talks began.

And despite claims by the Serbian authorities that the men were soldiers captured in battle, it turns out that all but four of the camp inmates are peasants from the villages around the Bosnian town of Prijedor.

Cowed and dressed in filthy clothes, ordered to walk in the camp in silence and with hands clasped behind their backs, sleeping in a converted cattle shed, many of the prisoners - seven of whom have died since mid-May, six from a dysentery epidemic, the other from salmonella poisoning - did not even know that the London conference had taken place.

According to the Serbian camp authorities at Manjaca, they are ready to exchange their captives for Serbs held by Croatian and Muslim forces but no exchange can take place because, in the words of the camp commandant, Colonel Bozidar Popovic, the Muslims 'are not interested in their own men'.

Col Popovic says that he is making no preparations for his prisoners for the freezing winter months in the Bosnian hills. 'I was asked this by a humanitarian group the other day,' he says. 'I told them I haven't given it a thought - because the humanity of the other side must prevail and they must take them.'

But Muslims and humanitarian agencies regard the demand for an exchange of prisoners as a continuation of the practice of 'ethnic cleansing'. Col Popovic denies this.

Under his strict regime, Manjaca camp is surrounded by barbed wire, watchtowers, minefields and alsatian dogs. 'My greatest weakness is that I am a humanist,' the colonel says. 'I allow no reprisals. Yes, in every family, you have to slap a child sometimes. As a man and an officer, I respect only order, work and discipline. As long as I am commandant, no one will ever escape. I can tell you that no one will try.'

According to Serbian authorities at the Manjaca camp, 126 Croat prisoners will soon be exchanged for Serbian prisoners in Croatian hands. A Croat-born Canadian who fought with Croatian forces as a mercenary but was captured by the Serbs is currently in a prison 30 miles away in the city of Banja Luka, in 'the process of interrogation', according to his captors.

Another inmate of the prison is a former comrade of Col Popovic in the old Yugoslav army who fought for the Croatians until he was taken prisoner by the Serbs. Visitors to the camp, however, have found that the inmates are almost invariably civilians taken from their homes and separated from their families during Serbia's 'ethnic cleansing' around Prijedor.

Several this week described how they were arrested by Serbian troops, led from their homes in handcuffs on the pretext of being 'protected' from extremists and then sent to the Omarska camp between Banja Luka and Prijedor. One man claimed that up to a thousand Muslims had been beaten to death with iron bars at Omarska. 'They were taken away at night and beaten with the bars,' he said. 'They did not come back.' There is, of course, no way of confirming such a figure.

Outside in the rain, columns of prisoners trudged back to the cattle shed from the food lines. If we said 'hallo', a few would wink, others merely stared at our insanity. One man cried as he held out his hands to me and repeated: 'Help me, help me, help me.'

Humanitarian organisations say that most of the prisoners have gained 20 kilos (3st) in weight in the past three weeks. But what did the Red Cross visits and the care of the nutritionist matter to them? For they were innocent men held in violation of human rights, held in conditions that - were this the aftermath of the Second World War - just might be categorised under war crimes.