Smiling commandant who instils fear in his prisoners: Robert Fisk visits the Manjaca detention centre in Bosnia which shocked the world last month and finds conditions are not as good as the chief jailer claims

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COLONEL Bozidar Popovic of the Serbian Bosnian army likes the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, he is obsessed with them. No priest could learn his catechism as the commandant of Manjaca camp knows the rubric of humanitarianism.

'The people in the camp have been caught in the zones of combat in accordance with Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, numbers 1 and 2, a, b and c . . .,' he says. 'I earnestly state that we treat them very humanely and correctly in accordance with Paragraphs 13 and 14 of the Geneva Convention . . . One of the unfortunate points is hygiene and medical care; we tried . . . to satisfy Articles 32 and 33 of the Geneva Convention but the embargo has had its results . . . '

Through the drifting rain outside Col Popovic's office, his Muslim prisoners looked like men from the Gulag: hands behind their backs, shoulders stooped, heads down, armed guards beside them, their shoes and socks filthy, their trousers stained brown, faces haggard with despair. As the downpour drifted across the soft green hills of Bosnia beyond the barbed-wire and minefields and thrashed on to the roof of their cattle-shed, the 3,640 prisoners of Manjaca were in no mood to appreciate the Geneva Conventions. 'Help me, help me, help me,' one of them muttered to me, tears streaming down his unshaven face.

Col Popovic, however, is an optimist. And a disciplinarian. He has the disconcerting habit of shouting everything he has to say at the top of his voice, glancing at handwritten notes and then banging his half-moon reading glasses on the table in front of him to scrutinise us through a second pair of plastic-framed spectacles. He has a moustache, and grey hair beneath his old Yugoslav army forage cap. And when he smiles, he smiles very broadly.

He announces in his office that he has 'studied international law'. One can well imagine. 'As far as freedom of religion in the camp is concerned,' he bellows, 'according to Paragraph 5, sections 31 to 37, we have said that everyone who wants to practise his religion may do so. We didn't have a single request for that. We have therefore sacked the five religious employees - the representatives of the humanitarian organisations have taken them away because there were no requests for any religious services.'

Where would such services have been held, one wonders? In the two huge cattle-sheds which serve as dormitories for the prisoner peasants of Prijedor and Kozarac and Ivanjska? Or would the imam have made his call to prayer beside the barbed-wire minefield, just below the wooden watchtowers. He would have had to shout just like the colonel to be heard above the barking of the Alsatian guard dogs. Perhaps beneath the roof of the iron hay-shed. The grass around the stinking latrines - prisoners are diligently digging new ones between the cattle-sheds - would have been no place for religion. Nor the bare, cold, tile-floor medical facility. No wonder the Muslims of Manjaca - they comprise 96 per cent of the prisoners - have chosen to forego any public expression of Islam.

When you walk down the centre of the cattle-sheds, they look at you with appealing eyes. Kneel down to talk and a guard approaches within seconds. Conversations come in cruel sound-bites, unless the guard is distracted. 'The police came to my home, they took me like this . . . ' Here the prisoner, blue-eyed, a thatch of brown hair, blue bags beneath his eyes, crosses his wrists. 'My wife, my children. Where are they?'

What was your job? I ask him. 'I was a lorry driver, my friend here a painter. This man . . . ' - and here a tall, skinny figure looks warily up at me - 'is a mechanic. All taken from home. Homes goodbye, finished. I was in Omarska (camp). Very bad. In Omarska, they killed hundreds. With iron bars, beat them with iron bars. No killing here.' When the guard returns, the ex-lorry driver lowers his eyes. Still with his head inclined to the ground, he asks: 'What hope to go?'

Well, of course, there was the London conference. International pressure. Agreements by Messrs Milosevic and Karadzic. Humanitarian concern.

The prisoners listen to this news from another universe. They have gained 20kg (44lb) in the past three weeks, most of them, fattened up since videotapes of them were shown to the world. In the hay-shed, old men lean over wooden trestle tables, slurping desperately at their bread and soup, some thrusting crusts into their pockets. One young man stands by the soup bucket to prevent any Oliver Twist from eating more than his fill. Like every camp, Manjaca has its 'trusties'. And, no doubt, its stool-pigeons too.

Three prisoners are sawing logs behind the food lines. The tallest of them will not speak to me until his friend goes to fetch a log. He frowns after him and looks at me to see if I understand. 'No soldier here,' he says in fractured English. 'All civil. You know this? All civil. No gun, no soldier.' And of course, he is telling the truth, just as Col Popovic is not telling the truth. These are not military prisoners and this is not a PoW camp. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has interviewed all 3,640 prisoners at Manjaca and concluded that only four of them were soldiers. The remaining 3,636 are peasants taken from their homes in Serbia's 'ethnic cleansing' around Kozara. Prisoner after frightened prisoner tells you just this. 'I from Prijedor. Home gone. Wife gone. Soldiers say I was going (for safety) to Germany . . . and I come here.'

Not for long if Col Popovic has his way. No prisoner at Manjaca will survive the winter, but the commandant of Manjaca boasts he need make no preparations for such an eventuality; for surely the Bosnian Muslims of Alija Izetbegovic will agree to an exchange prisoners before then. Col Popovic wants to free his inmates, you see, send them over the front lines to 'their own people' and - though he does not say this - thus complete a little more 'ethnic cleansing'. The prisoners know this. 'I want to go home, to my home, here in Bosnia,' an old man in the food queue says. The lower half of the right leg of his trousers is held up by clothes pins, his shirt torn open. 'All I have is this,' he says, picking at his unwashed clothes. 'I want my house. Where is my wife?'

Where are all their wives and children? It is a question to which we have no answers. Col Popovic has his say: 'My prisoners have received 250 food parcels, and they write and receive between two and four letters a month to and from their families.' I found no prisoner who had received any such communication.

Col Popovic goes on, smiling warmly: 'I wish all the prisoners could stay in hotels, but unfortunately I have no hotel even for myself and my soldiers.' But then the smile vanishes and a strange note comes into his voice; he shouts at us like a robot: 'My greatest weakness is that I am a humanist. 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.'

The prisoners understood this. When Col Popovic entered the first cattle-shed and walked between the hundreds of prisoners who were sitting on a long, dirty mat, they followed him with fearful eyes. He beamed. 'Do you know,' he boomed, 'that in other circumstances I could go to the homes of any of these prisoners and be their friend.' One man behind his back looked hard at me and, ever so slightly, shook his head. He did not appreciate Colonel Popovic's friendship. But then again, he no longer had a home to which to invite him.

Col Popovic wanted to know about the condition of Serbian prisoners in Croatian and Muslim jails, men incarcerated in railway tunnels, men who had disappeared in Croatian 'ethnic cleansing'. The 126 Croat prisoners at Manjaca would now be exchanged for their opposite numbers. Why could the Muslims not do the same? He warned of the dangers of an Islamic jihad - a notion curiously at odds with his own declaration that not one of his prisoners wished to participate in religious services. And then he invited us to his little office for drinks.

And smiling as never before, Col Popovic - only 200 yards from that mass of human misery - produced bottles of whisky and slivovica and poured glasses for his young officers and for his visitors. 'Chin-chin,' he roared. 'Zivili'. And one felt weirdly sorry for him. Col Popovic's propaganda was crude, his most important statement palpably untrue. Yet, in a nave way, he wanted to believe in what he said, to persuade us in order that he might persuade himself. He wanted to convince himself that he would be welcome in the long-destroyed homes of his prisoners. He wanted to be loved. He had even underestimated the number of inmates in his camp. For the 3,641st prisoner of Manjaca was Col Bozidar Popovic.

(Photograph omitted)