ZAGREB, Croatia -- The first images of emaciated men peering through barbed wire in Serbian detention centers in Bosnia-Herzegovina riveted the world's attention. In the week since, a clearer picture has begun to emerge of the scope of the camps, their conditions and the role they play in the larger Serbian military strategy.
Interviews with officials of international relief agencies and dozens of Bosnians -- some of them still held in the camps, others living as refugees in Croatia -- establish these major points about a conflict that has created Europe's worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II:
* Conditions at the detention camps were described as brutal, but there is little evidence as yet that the Serbs were using them to carry out a policy of mass killing. Witnesses said repeatedly that death was usually more of a random event, resulting from beatings by drunken guards, disease and revenge shootings by Serbian irregulars whose friends had died in combat elsewhere.
* The camps were only one of the instruments of terror, and by no means the most deadly, in the arsenal of "ethnic cleansing," the campaign to drive Muslims and Croats from their homes in large swaths of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
* The Serbian efforts gathered momentum in mid-May after Western aid workers and journalists were temporarily driven out of most of Bosnia by a series of lethal, premeditated attacks. The "ethnic cleansing" operations were largely complete by early July, when Western aid workers returned to the area.
* The existence of the detention centers and the possibility that summary executions were taking place within them were made known to Western governments and aid agencies at least a month before the firstextensive press report on the subject appeared in Newsday Aug.2.
It was only after that report and the first broadcast of film from the camps several days later that President Bush announced that he had ordered U.S. intelligence to use "every asset available" to investigate the conditions at the camps.
The interviews have shed little light on the assertions of the combatants themselves, which are wildly divergent. The Serbian forces who control 70 percent of the country say, for example, that they are holding no more than 8,000 prisoners in a handful of camps, but their beleaguered Bosnian foes say that the number is 105,000 people in 94 locations. Bosnia estimates that 17,000 have died in the camps. Refugee interviews, representing only a fraction of the camps, can account for only a few hundred such deaths.
Although the investigation did not substantiate assertions that the camps had again brought genocide to the heart of Europe, it has turned up ample evidence of mistreatment, beatings and abuse involving thousands of prisoners.
Some have spoken of dozens of inmates being taken away, never to be seen again, and others have told of an incident in which more than 100 prisoners were machine-gunned when they rioted for lack of water.
Those accounts cannot be directly confirmed. But their credibility is bolstered by the consistency of testimony from refugees and prisoners in disparate places who have had no chance to coordinate their stories.
Taken together, the interviews lend credence to a story that Bosnian officials publicly and privately had tried to bring to the world's attention for more than two months.
More damaging evidence may still be hidden, for even as they let Western reporters into the region to visit the camps, Serbian officials were shuttling prisoners out of sight and dismantling the most notorious camps. Moreover, Western reporters and officials international relief agencies have been allowed to visit only four Serbian detention camps in Bosnia; the Bosnian government lists 94 such sites.
Western aid officials say that Croats and Muslims are, to a lesser extent, setting up their own prison camps. As of last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had visited 13 detention centers or prisoner-of-war camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina: 7 Croatian, 4 Serbian, and 2 Muslim.
'Ethnic cleansing' begins
Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically mixed of the six republics that made up Yugoslavia. Slavs whose forebears converted to Islam during the centuries in which Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman Turks constituted the biggest group in Bosnia-Herzegovina, representing 44 percent of the population of 4.5 million, according to the 1991 census.
Serbs were 31 percent of the Bosnian total. Croats, who, like the others, are Slavs and speak Serbo-Croatian but are Roman Catholics, made up 17 percent.
The remainder identified themselves to the census-takers as Yugoslavs, embracing a non-ethnic nationalism that today is all but crushed.
Those groups were interspersed throughout Bosnia, with many towns and villages having no majority ethnic group and many Muslims, Serbs and Croats living literally next door to each other.
Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in The Bosnian leadership was leery of following suit, having watched neighboring Croatia plunged almost immediately into vicious fighting with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav armed forces. But the Sarajevo leadership scheduled a referendum on independence for Feb. 29 of this year. Muslims and Croats voted yes, while Serbs boycotted the polling and demanded the division of the country into three ethnic cantons.
The Bosnian government refused to accept the cantonment of the country, and war erupted in early April after the European Community officially granted recognition. The Yugoslav army and Serb irregulars quickly overwhelmed the lightly armed defenders, who were predominantly Muslim but included Serbs and Croats.
The plan, it is evident now, was to seize enough territory to forge links between the Serbs in Bosnia, the Serbs in Serbia and the Serbs in neighboring Croatia. Up to half of Bosnia's 2 million Muslims live in the areas slated to be corridors of the various Serbian regions. They were to be exiled forever under the Serbs' policy of "ethnic cleansing."
The accounts of the Serbian policy coming from many parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina are so similar that they seem to indicate the workings of an overall plan.
In village after village, it begins with local Serbs politely suggesting that their Muslim or Croat neighbors hand over their weapons. That is generally followed by the cutoff of electricity and water, and then an ultimatum. Shortly after, Serbian soldiers, backed by armor, roll through the town, shooting a few people, dynamiting houses and driving men, women and children first into fields and then into camps.
Dozens of witnesses said that they were startled by the attitude of their Serbian neighbors, saying that in some instances the Serbs had clearly helped the invading forces prepare lists of prominent citizens to be arrested.
"We were surprised by how the Serbs changed," recalled Emir Medjedovic, a store owner from the northern Bosnian city of Bosanski Novi. "One day everything was fine, the next day they said, 'Why haven't you left yet?' "
The detention centers play a major role in the Serbian strategy. The intention, it seems, is that a few days' or weeks' incarceration in grim conditions will induce people to give up their property and flee their homes. Indeed, thousands of Muslims have accepted release from the camps in exchange for their signatures on documents "voluntarily" relinquishing their goods and property.
When Western journalists arrived at Omarska camp last week, only 175 men were still there. Crude attempts had been made to clean up the camp. Bunk beds were lined up in a room in which inmates said as many as 1,300 men had slept on concrete a few days before.
Food was distributed at Omarska intermittently, and the thinnest of the prisoners shown in the first television footage had been incarcerated there. Witnesses said beatings occurred daily at the camp and that the men, some blood-soaked from their wounds, were crammed into cavernous buildings and a cage-like device once used for storing iron ore.
In nearby Prijedor, a ceramic-tile factory called Keraterm was used as a prison. A half-dozen witnesses who are now in another camp said last week that a riot over a lack of water ended with the machine-gunning of dozens of inmates on or about June 23. Others were said to have died of asphyxiation in the crush as they tried to escape the attack.
Five witnesses described hearing what happened through the walls of adjoining rooms. One said he helped carry out corpses the next day and that he counted 130 dead.
On their first visit to the camp, Western reporters were not shown the room where the shooting was said to have taken place. But a return trip last week found the doorway and external wall of the room where the shooting was alleged to have taken place pocked with what appeared to be bullet holes, just as the witnesses had described.
Some Omarska prisoners were moved to Trnopolje, a nearby camp in a school that was said to house another 2,500 to 3,000 men, women and children.
Unlike the prisoners in Omarska, who showed clear signs of starvation and beatings, those kept at Trnopolje appeared well-fed. Inmates said they were allowed to pick vegetables from nearby gardens, and relatives and friends were permitted to bring food to the captives.
Serbian officials insist that the camps were set up solely to hold prisoners of war, criminals and refugees who might otherwise be at risk from local vigilantes. They have attributed the conditions in the camps to bureaucratic confusion and theft of food by the guards, not to an overall plan to terrorize civilians. The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, said that Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm were all under the authority of the local police chief, Simo Drljaca.
Western observers driven out
On May 18, the newly named chief of the Sarajevo delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Frederic Maurice, negotiated his safe passage through Serbian positions just outside Sarajevo. Shortly after his convoy, clearly marked with .. Red Cross emblems, moved ahead, it came under a withering mortar assault that lasted for more than a half-hour. Maurice was fatally wounded and two assistants suffered lesser wounds.
On May 20, the Red Cross pulled out of Sarajevo; on May 27, just as the Serbs were poised to move into Kozarac and its environs, the International Red Cross pulled out of Bosnia-Herzegovina entirely.
European Community monitors had already left the country a week earlier after they had come under fire. At that time, most Western journalists also decided to pull out of Sarajevo after a photographer was killed by a mortar shell.
The effect of those attacks was to drive Western observers out of Bosnia at the crucial moment when the "ethnic cleansing" was about to turn nasty. While the Bosnian government held on to Sarajevo, Serbs seized 70 percent of the country, and Croatian forces took control of most of the remainder.
Reporters returned to Sarajevo within a few weeks and the Red Cross resumed operations on July 7, and the full story of what happened in May and June in the rest of the country has only become publicly known in the last few weeks as refugees have been expelled or allowed to leave.
But memos show that international agencies operating in Yugoslavia had a solid idea of what was going on by early July. A July 3 memo written by an official with the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Croatia specifically identified Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje as "reported concentration camps."
The memo, based on interviews with refugees, spoke of "frustration" about "our inability to do anything other than write reports and stand by." The document, which was later released by the Bosnian government, noted that the U.N. peacekeepers had authority to operate only in Croatia.
Aid officials here say that a meeting was immediately convened in Croatia to discuss the matter. It included the International Red Cross, which had returned to Bosnia in mid-June, and aides to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. European Community monitors in Croatia were also present, thus putting all European governments on notice about the reported concentration camps Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Red Cross officials began demanding access to the camps, but the Serbian authorities refused when it came to sites identified in the memo.
On June 28, President Francois Mitterrand of France made a dramatic visit to besieged Sarajevo and was told by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic that "information is reaching us of the existence of concentration camps in which the civilian population is being subjected to torture and murder."
On July 2, Mr. Izetbegovic wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali about human-rights violations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"The fate of some 100,000 people currently held in concentration camps is entirely uncertain," the letter said.
On July 9, Mr. Izetbegovic said at the Helsinki summit meeting of the 54-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe that his country had identified 27 Serbian-operated concentration camps and that "schools and sports stadiums have become places of torture and mass killing."
The Bosnian government said that on July 19, Mr. Izetbegovic wrote to Mr. Bush complaining of "genocide" in the violent attempt to redraw the map of his country.
Yet it was only when the story appeared in the news media two weeks later that Mr. Bush publicly directed U.S. spy agencies to train their full resources on the question of whether there were concentration camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"If you ask me, it was a question of naivete on the part of the West," Mr. Izetbegovic said recently. "They simply could not believe such things are happening in our country, in Europe, in the last 10 years of the 20th century."
Jose-Maria Mendiluce, special envoy of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said that his organization had no authority to investigate allegations of concentration camps and had done all it could when it turned the matter over to the Red Cross.
Pierre Andre Conod, the Red Cross chief in Zagreb, said his agency had done its job by forcefully and repeatedly making public statements that raised the horrors of the so-called ethnic cleansing.
Mr. Mendiluce acknowledged that the war in Bosnia had exposed a vacuum among international agencies when it came to investigating and exposing human-rights violations.
Mr. Mendiluce also said that the world's focus on the camps was somewhat misplaced and that more atrocities may probably occur during the Serbs' initial attacks on towns and villages. Referring to the continuing siege of the major Bosnian cities, the shelling of civilians and the cutoff of food supplies to Muslim areas, he suggested that there had been some hypocrisy in the world's revulsion at the allegations about detention centers.
"The whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina is becoming a sort of concentration camp," he said. "This has been well-known."