Sremska Mitrovica Prison
Sremska Mitrovica prison (Serbian: Казнено-поправни завод у Сремској Митровици / Kazneno-popravni zavod u Sremskoj Mitrovici) is the biggest prison in Serbia, consisting of two facilities. It is situated in Sremska Mitrovica, Vojvodina province.
Foundation and early history
It was formed by the order of Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph between 1895 and 1899. From 1918 to 1941, it functioned under administration of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and after 1944 under administration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav wars period
During Yugoslav wars, some Croatian prisoners of war were kept in this prison. The main prison facility; the largest known in Serbia, was open from November 1991 to August 1992 and was a scene where many prisoners were tortured, abused and raped. At least 25 prisoners were killed in front of witnesses, but the actual number is believed to be much higher. International organizations collected detailed information from reports, inspections and survivors regarding Sremska Mitrovica prison.
One of the two facilities making up the prison is Sremska Mitrovica-"Fruška Gora", which was a secondary location where an unknown number of detainees were kept. Information on this facility is very scarce and most of the reports by international institutions focuses on the primary facility.
The primary facility was the "Penal Correctional Facility" ("Kazneno Popravni Dom" - KPD for short) which was primarily a civilian rehabilitation center for civilians. The facility was located in the center of Sremska Mitrovica and was an old brick building surrounded by four meter high walls with barbed wire. The main building was two stories high and 60-70 meters long and 8 meters wide. The building was composed of multiple pavilions with rooms of varying sizes. Along with these rooms, there were also solitary confinement cells and segregation cells of unknown purpose. The basement of the building was used for torture of prisoners.
During the 1991-1995 War in Croatia, the Croatian city of Vukovar was captured by JNA and Serb paramilitary forces on November 18 following a three-month siege. While Croats surrendered under the agreement that the civilians from Vukovar would be allowed to go free, the JNA did not honor this agreement, and held the remaining Croatian military personnel and captured civilians in custody. Among the civilians, a large number of medical personnel from Vukovar's main hospital were also arrested, which was where many of the survivors in Vukovar took refuge. Among the prisoners was Dr. Vesna Bosanac, chief of medical staff at Vukovar.
The remaining prisoners were transported to Sremska Mitrovica (which is only 75 kilometers southeast of Vukovar) over the next few days, and the KPD (the prison) was now expanded for this purpose. This was the first of several large groups transferred to the prison. On the way to KPD, buses full of prisoners were often stopped, so that Serbian reservists guarding the prisoners could take some of them out and kill them.
Later, other groups would be transferred to the KPD from other locations in Croatia and Serbia. Later, during December, civilians wounded in the Lovas minefield massacre were also brought to the KPD.
As the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina erupted in 1992, Bosniak prisoners were also brought to the camp, but Croats remained a majority of war prisoners there (since Bosnian Serbs opened concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina to hold Bosniaks there).
The majority of the war prisoners were from Vukovar (army and police) and Muslim and Croatian POWs from Bosanski Šamac (BiH). Along with them, there was at least one American, Ruthenian, a Slovenian woman and several Albanians. Serbs from Vukovar, who refused to collaborate with Serb forces were also detained, along with one JNA soldier.
Since the facility was a primarily civilian prison, the KPD was also populated by civilian criminals who were also encouraged by the guards to participate in the abuse. Some of them raped female prisoners.
The number of non-Serb war prisoners at the facility is reported to be between 3,000 and 4,000 after the fall of Vukovar. More prisoners were transferred in and out of the facility to other locations (Stajićevo, Niš, etc.), and some were executed, making an exact figure unknown. Many prisoners were also released for prisoner exchanges.
The Yugoslav Army (JNA) was in charge of the prison, although Serb paramilitary units (known as being particularly brutal) and local Serb civilians were also among the guards. Several survivors described the brutality they survived at the hands of the paramilitaries, assessing that if they were in charge, everyone would have been killed.
The commander of the guards at the KPD was nicknamed KOS (acronym for Yugoslav counter intelligence agency) by the prisoners, while the guards referred to him by a code name. He has personally participated in the beating of prisoners. He is believed to be a JNA Captain.
The guards were a wide collection of JNA reservists, military police, paramilitaries and local Serb civilians who sometimes came to the camp simply to abuse and beat up the prisoners. Five prison guards (aged 18–20) were JNA privates in KPD for military training. They regularly tortured the inmates and killed at least 18 prisoners. Four Serbs from Vukovar knew some of the prisoners and inflicted the worst beatings and torture and were brought into interrogations of the prisoners. Two of them were called executioners by the prisoners.
In January or February 1992, some of the original guards were replaced by 18- to 20-year-olds who increased the frequency and severity of the beatings. The guards were again replaced in March, following Red Cross requests, and food was improved.
Following reports on the prison, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) first visited the detention facility on December 2, 1991. ICRC registered the detainees it could (many were hidden away) and monitored their treatment.
The prison guard went to some trouble to cover up the abuse. For the first two months, the Red Cross was not allowed access. Once they were allowed, they were banned from certain areas where heavily abused prisoners were moved. The ICRC sent inspectors there every month, which improved the conditions for a short time. Prisoners who complained to the ICRC over their treatment were later beaten severely. Most women were released following news of ICRC inspection.
Upon arrival, the prisoners were forced to undress and strip-searched. All their belongings were confiscated, and anything valuable was never returned. The prisoners were put in rooms with wooden floors and no beds. Nearly 100 prisoners were situated in rooms between 50 and 92 square meters, which forced some prisoners to stand so that others could sleep. In such conditions, no one was able lie down on their backs. Wounded and sick were held among the general population and were denied medical treatment unless absolutely necessary. Since a number of hospital staff was also held, they tended to the wounded prisoners, but were denied medication and equipment. Many wounded died because of this treatment.
Cold water was available, but the detainees had no soap, towels, toilet paper or detergent. Some of these were later provided, but were always scarce. Consequently, hygiene was non-existent. For months, the prisoners weren't able to shave or wash and became infested with lice, upon which they were sprayed with insecticide by the guards. The prisoners were given soap and toilet paper only when the Commission came to inspect the camp - but these were taken away the moment the inspection ended. After two and a half months, the prisoners were finally allowed to bathe due to ICRC pressure, which occurred only during inspections. During the night, a strong light was constantly on, preventing prisoners from sleeping easily.
The prisoners were fed food they described as "terrible" and "horrible" and the portions were inadequate. Most prisoners lost weight, some up to 30 kg. Some were not fed at all for the first two days after their surrender. Prisoners were sometimes forced to eat unplucked chicken and never received any fruit or vegetables. Of the three daily meals, only one was hot. According to one prisoner, the guards always fed the prisoners one slice of bread short in order to cause friction among the inmates. For a full month and a half, the prisoners were not taken out into the fresh air. After that, they were forced to work in the fields, clean sewers and do other hard labor until exhaustion.
Immediately upon arrival to the prison, male prisoners would be offloaded and "run a gauntlet" - i.e. run into the prison along a line of guards beating them with clubs, truncheons, axe handles, black jacks or simply hands and legs. At least 84 women were held after the fall of Vukovar and more were transferred there later. Most of them were separated, transferred to other locations and eventually released. Prisoners were beaten severely on a regular basis. Several were beaten so powerfully that they suffered from permanent body harm. Some were beaten until they passed out from the pain. A common practice was beating prisoners on the soles of their feet.
The prisoners were ordered to stand with bowed heads and hands behind their backs whenever guards entered the room. They were forced to stand or sit like this for hours at a time. Guards would sometimes pick a prisoner for "not lowering his head low enough" for beating. Sometimes the guards would line up the detainees against a wall and beat every second or third in the line. Prisoners were beaten more severely each time Croatia had an important success (such as international recognition or successful military action).
A group of 180 Croatian soldiers from Vukovar was isolated in pavilion three and was treated worse than other prisoners. They were beaten with iron rods on their feet and in the groin and kidney areas. Along with torture, the detainees were abused verbally and psychologically - a regular practice were mock executions: leading a prisoner to be "shot" by a firing squad and then returning him to the prison.
Some prisoners were held in solitary confinement cells for two to five days where they were physically abused and forced to listen to Chetnik songs for days on end. While the beatings of those in confinement could not be seen by other prisoners, they were heard and the victims had to be dragged out, as some could not even walk for seven to ten days after solitary confinement. One prisoner was held for four months in solitary confinement.
JNA officers, along with various soldiers, held interrogation sessions with the prisoners, which continued constantly. Many prisoners were beaten to extract confessions to false admittance of their "crimes". The brutality towards the prisoners was selective: some were not harmed, while others were beaten indiscriminately. Some prisoners were given statements to read aloud for cameras. These films were later shown on Serbian television. Many were charged with crimes and sent to Belgrade for trial. They would be charged with armed insurrection or genocide based on statements extracted from the prisoners during beatings.
Sometimes, the guards would hold a mock trial and beat the accused. One such was found dead the morning after the "trial". An unknown number of prisoners were beaten to death. According to one survivor, two prisoners in the same room died due to beatings and were left to lie there for 20 hours with the other prisoners. Other prisoners also speak of prisoners being beaten or tortured to death. According to the U.S. Department of State's declassified materials, at least 18 prisoners were tortured to death. Another survivor claims that people were killed, but not in front of witnesses, while at least two others said they witnessed at least two deaths. Some prisoners were transferred to solitary confinement cells and never returned.
Throughout 1992, prisoners were regularly exchanged. On August 7, 1992, an agreement was reached between Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panić and Croatian Prime Minister Franjo Gregurić in Budapest for a mass exchange of prisoners. About 500 prisoners from the KPD were to be exchanged at Nemetin, near Osijek. During the ride towards their destination, many were mistreated. On August 14, approximately 1500 prisoners from both sides were exchanged.
The prison reportedly did no longer kept war prisoners after August 13. Some of the inmates survived for nine months in the prison. According to the Croatian Society of Serb Concentration Camp Inmates (HDLSKL), 8,000 Croats went through Serbian prison facilities, 300 of whom never returned. The Sremska Mitrovica prison was prominently mentioned in ICTY trials to Slobodan Milošević and Veselin Šljivančanin, as many survivors testified there. Following the democratic changes in Serbia, the prison function was also expanded to hold Serb war criminals from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
- Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts: detailed reports on prison camps in former Yugoslavia, including Mitrovica prison camp, witness reports and info on visits
- (in Croatian) Basic info and one testimony of a day in the life of one survivor
- U.S. Department of State, Declassified Materials, 1992, IHRLI Doc. No. 56582 - 56583
- (in Serbian) Danas.co.yu news article on Vukovar commemoration
- News article on Milošević trial and Vukovar
- News article on Šljivančanin trial and Vukovar
- ICTY transcript, witness Ivan Grujic (March 2003)
- News article about a war criminal
- About the prison (in Serbian)
- (in Croatian) Croatian Society of Serb Concentration Camp Inmates (Hrvatsko Društvo Logoraša Srpskih Koncentracionih logora)