Suspects who went to war over diversity pass jail days in harmony

DURING the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, they were sworn enemies. But now, behind the walls of a UN detention centre, war crimes suspects from all sides of the conflict celebrate birthdays together and mingle in relative harmony.

"There is very little quarrelling," Naser Oric, a recently released Bosnian Muslim military commander, told a Sarajevo television talk show.

Oric's comments gave a rare personal glimpse behind the high brick walls of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia's detention centre in The Hague seaside suburb of Scheveningen.

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Oric, who spent three years in the tribunal's cell block inside a Dutch prison, painted a picture of ethnic and religious harmony - born out of necessity - among inmates that could set an example for the feuding nations born of Yugoslavia's disintegration.

His comments flesh out the findings of an independent review of the 84-cell unit carried out by Swedish government officials in the aftermath of the death in March of its most high-profile inmate, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

The Swedish report also said prisoners spent free time together and said: "There is no sign of ethnic antagonism here."

Oric said that when someone celebrates a birthday or religious holiday, he can ask for a special meal. "We Muslims from Bosnia and Kosovo celebrated our religious holidays with the Serbs and Croats. Croats also invited Serbs, Bosniaks and Albanians to celebrate Catholic holidays, and the Serbs again invited everybody for Serb Christmas."

According to their indictments, the 53 inmates currently held in the detention unit comprise 35 Serbs, 12 Croats, one Bosnian, three Albanians and two Macedonians. They are housed in individual cells, but share facilities such as a living room and fitness centre.

Oric spent most of his time with Kosovo Albanians and the Bosnian, but his relations with the other inmates were cordial.

"The rules in the detention unit are clear and strict, the staff is professional and the relationship between the prisoners is correct," he said.

Of his many fellow inmates, Oric gave a surprising description of Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, who has been in custody since 2003 on charges that paramilitary troops under his control murdered and tortured non-Serbs.

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Seselj is known for his extreme views and has clashed with tribunal judges, but away from the public, he "acts completely normal and is very nice", Oric said. Seselj still often defends the idea his troops fought for during the war - a greater Serbia that would include parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

Although the idea has all but died with the establishment of sovereign states like Bosnia, Croatia and most recently Montenegro, Seselj said he would not abandon it because it has become his trademark policy.

However, the Serb radical's best friend in jail is Croat war crimes convict Mladen Naletilic. "They play chess all day and tease each other," Oric said.

Oric, who commanded troops defending the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, was last month handed a lenient two-year sentence for failing to prevent murder and torture of Serb captives. He was released immediately for time served.