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Ethnic Cleansing on the Bosnian Frontier
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3. Ethnic Cleansing
on the Bosnian Frontier

Serbian disengagement from Bosnia severed overt links between Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, on the one hand, and Serbian (and Montenegrin) state organizations, on the other. Within Serbia proper, nationalism was promoted, upheld, or maintained by the police, the interior ministry's state security agency, and the newly reduced federal Yugoslav army. Those agencies could not function openly inside Bosnia, however, generating a demand for alternative organizational forms satisfied by the Serbia-based paramilitaries, local Bosnian Serb crisis committees, and clandestine cross-border agents. These bodies filled the gap between Serbian territorial aspirations, which transcended Serbia's official borders, and the global norm of sovereignty, which bottled Serbia up within internationally recognized lines. Given Western efforts to uncover evidence of Serbian intervention in Bosnia, these frontier agencies had to keep their distance from Belgrade, granting them substantial autonomy. In return, however, they forfeited claims to international acceptance or long-term stability. Once Serbia reintegrated into the international system, it disowned its frontier allies, exposing some to international stigmatization, isolation, and even war crimes prosecution. Paramilitaries thrived in Bosnia's frontier-like setting, but disappeared once institutional conditions changed.



The paramilitary phenomenon appeared first in the summer 1991 battles between local Serb militias and Croat republican forces.[1] A typical newspaper article described the former Yugoslavia as a "land where former football hooligans and neo-fascist ganglords run riot with assault rifles and mortar bombs instead of boots and bottles."[2] Another talked about a "bizarre assortment of soldiers of fortune, self-styled dukes, guerrillas and local warlords,"[3] while a third spoke of "the Duke, the King of Slavonia, Captain Dragan … and many other colorful characters.… They govern, plunder and defend their patches of land in exchange for fairly nominal pledges of loyalty to distant governments." The paramilitaries, this account argued, had become "cult heroes in their local towns, mopping up unemployment among the jobless youth and, as a result, winning far more popularity than their leaders in Belgrade and Zagreb."[4] By the end of the Croatian war, paramilitaries on all sides of the conflict had made a tremendous impression on journalists and citizens alike. Units such as Kapetan Dragan's "Ninjas from Knin" (Knindže), Željko Ražnatović's "Tigers" (Tigrovi), Mirko Jović and Dragoslav Bokan's "White Eagles" (Beli Orlovi) and "Dušan the Mighty" forces (Dušan Silni), and Vojislav Šešelj's "Chetniks" (čentnici) became household names.

When the Bosnian war began in April 1992, reports of Serbian paramilitary activities accelerated. As a typical account reported, the Bosnian war "is being waged by a kaleidoscope of militias, armies and freelance groups. Accurate numbers are impossible to ascertain, loyalties overlap, and who really controls whom, if anyone, is a moot point."[5] Journalists were eager to discover links between paramilitaries in Bosnia and Serbian officials in Belgrade, because the West had spoken out strongly against direct Serbian cross-border intervention. Hinting at a Belgrade-Bosnian connection, one British daily wrote that as

Bosnia is ripped apart at its ethnic seams, a notorious band of Serbian veterans of the dirtiest fighting in neighboring Croatia is leading the assault. The warlords, usually products of Belgrade's underworld, are television celebrities, icons of national heroism for many Serbs, and powerful players on the republic's political stage.… Fighters annexing territory for the self-styled Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declare their allegiance to "Arkan," "the Duke," or Jović—two underworld figures and a political thug. But the militia also provides a front for crack [Serbian] professional soldiers masquerading as local volunteers.[6]


Many experts believe the paramilitaries played a key role in ethnic cleansing, particularly along the Serbian border with eastern Bosnia. One comprehensive UN study, for example, found that reports of atrocities co-varied with the number of individual paramilitaries in a given region. The report identifies fifty-five different ethnic Serb paramilitary groups and sixty-seven different municipalities in the former Yugoslavia that experienced ethnic Serb paramilitary activities, the overwhelming majority of which were in Bosnia.[7] These irregulars were often the first troops to engage Bosnian Muslim and Croat civilians firsthand, and it was during this time that many killings and other atrocities occurred. The Yugoslav federal army, which was officially in Bosnia until May 14, 1992, lent artillery and logistical support to the irregulars, but kept its direct involvement in the dirtiest events to a minimum. Federal regulars often surrounded Bosnian Muslim villages, cutting them off from the outside world, but reportedly preferred to leave actual village occupations, mopping-up, and civilian abuses to paramilitary fighters.[8] Once the federal army withdrew into rump Yugoslavia, leaving the new Bosnian Serb army behind, that pattern continued.

The paramilitary moment in Bosnia was short-lived. By the end of 1992, the Serbia-based paramilitaries were being squeezed out by regular Bosnian Serb forces, which no longer tolerated the existence of unruly, semi-autonomous forces. According to Colonel Dragutin, a military advisor to the Republika Srpska administration in 1997, all "self-organized defense units" were disbanded on Bosnian Serb territory by August 1992.[9]

Most of the Serbia-based paramilitaries clustered around charismatic individuals associated with extreme Belgrade nationalists. Men such as Mirko Jović and Dragoslav Bokan of the Serbian National Defense Party (SNO; Srpska Narodna Odbrana), Vojislav Šešelj of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS; Srpska Radikalna Stranka), and Vuk Drašković of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO; Srpski Pokret Obnove) were all politically active national figures, as well as energetic paramilitary organizers. Jović and Bokan formed the White Eagles and Dušan the Mighty groups at the end of 1990; Šešelj created the Serbian četnik Movement, first in 1990 and then later, with official support, in 1991; and Drašković created the Serbian National Guard in 1991.

A fourth key organizer, Željko Ražnatović (Arkan), was in a category by himself. Although he later displayed minor political ambitions, Arkan initially had no autonomous political base and was not a member of the nationalist counter-elite, although he adopted some of their symbols.[10]

Instead, Arkan was reportedly close to Yugoslav intelligence services, Serbian state security, and perhaps even to Slobodan Milošević himself, setting him off from the other paramilitary leaders, who saw themselves as Milošević's rivals. Building initially on supporters of the Belgrade soccer team Red Star, Arkan founded the Serbian Voluntary Guard (Srpska Dobrovoljacćka Garda; referred to also as the Tigers) in October 1990. According to one analysis, Serbian state security officials originally asked Arkan to create the Tigers to monitor the other Serbian paramilitaries.[11]

Most of the larger, Belgrade-based groups were first created in 1991 to fight alongside the Yugoslav Federal Army and local Serb militias in Croatia. According to some reports, the groups were integrated into the federal army's battle plan in 1991, and as one observer notes, the alliance between the formerly communist Yugoslav army and the nationalist paramilitaries "marked a major shift in the ideological orientation of the army … to one which accommodated groups dedicated to the Serbian nationalist cause."[12] Although there were tensions between the regular and irregular forces, they apparently overcame their differences during key operations, such as the November 19, 1991, conquest of the Croatian town of Vukovar. When the Croatian war ended, some paramilitaries demobilized, only to reemerge once the Bosnian fighting began in spring 1992. According to two Belgrade journalists, Serbian irregulars fighting in Croatia had their own separate organizational structure that was "different than the organization of regular army units. They had their own special platoons, units, battalions and divisions. They appointed their own commanders in the field.… They had different insignia from the military … they had their own flags and emblems, and they always went to church before battle."[13] Belonging to the most radical strands of Serbian nationalism, the paramilitaries' official ideology was fiercely anticommunist, populist, and strongly right wing. Their leaders vowed to defend ethnic Serbs from genocide in Croatia and Bosnia, saying they were only doing what the Serbian state itself was afraid or unwilling to do. Since Serbian police or Yugoslav troops were not adequately protecting ethnic Serbs, these self-styled patriotic volunteers felt obliged to step in.

During 1991–92, the Belgrade-based militia leaders spoke of the need for a new Serbian army to replace the communist-tainted federal force in order to protect diaspora Serbs. Although the irregular commanders agreed to work with Milošević temporarily, they regarded his Serbian Socialist Party as an incompetent ex-communist band unwilling to resist

Western pressure. Although the regime provided them with weapons, money, and a territorial base within Serbia, it could not be trusted. Milošević's Socialists, for their part, encouraged paramilitary sallies into Bosnia as a way of contributing to the Bosnian Serb war effort and bolstering their nationalist credentials without openly flouting Western directives.

The Croatian and Bosnian wars provided a unique opportunity for Serbian nationalists such as Drašković, Jović, Šešelj, and Bokan. Most had their headquarters in Belgrade, but they recruited widely throughout Serbia and Montenegro, sending busloads of volunteers to the front lines. The most effective organizer was Vojislav Šešelj, who received significant support from the Socialist regime until a 1993 dispute. Šešelj reportedly sent 5,000 men to Croatia and as many as 30,000 to Bosnia, although some experts use lower estimates.[14] According to another source, Arkan's Tigers had between 1,000 and 1,500 combat personnel.[15] Other groups seem to have mustered a few thousand all told, with their ranks fluctuating over time and space.

A number of smaller fighting groups were also formed by lower ranking political entrepreneurs from Serbia.[16] The Yellow Wasps, for example, were a group of some sixty men who came together in spring 1992 to fight in Zvornik, a Bosnian border town. One of their commanders was a judo teacher from Šabac, a town near Belgrade, while the other was his auto mechanic brother. Both had fought in Croatia with Vojislav Šešelj's forces, but when the Bosnian war began they decided to organize their own autonomous group. In addition to targeting Zvornik's Muslims, they also reportedly extorted wealthy local Serbs, angering the Bosnian Serb authorities.[17] Bosnian Serb forces eventually cracked down on the Wasps, forcing them back to Serbia.[18] Another example is that of Dušan Petrović, an ethnic Serb from Serbia who established himself in the eastern Bosnian town of Višegrad after fighting in Croatia.[19] Petrović later said that he had worked closely with local Bosnian Serb army commanders and Yugoslav army officers in Serbia. "We got everything" from Yugoslav army bases, Petrović explained, including "arms, camouflage uniforms, and food." In return, Petrović's men occasionally guarded convoys running between Serbia and Višegrad. Petrović's group was eventually forced to close down by another smalltime paramilitary leader, Milan Lukić, commander of Višegrad's č etnik Avengers. "Lukić wanted to take my group from me," Petrović recalled, "but I resisted." Petrović refused to join Lukić, he said, because Lukić was a freelancer, fighting outside the control of the Bosnian Serb army.

"We fought bravely under the army," Petrović said. "We didn't want to be under Lukić." Lukić, for his part, reportedly recruited his fighters from a café he owned in Obrenovac, a Serbian town near Belgrade. Lukić's original cadre, according to one study, "consisted of relatives, colleagues, and individuals recruited from the clientele of his café."[20]

The ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian town of Zvornik, located just over the river from Serbia proper, illustrates the paramilitaries' effect on Bosnia. Zvornik, a town of some 80,000, was approximately 60 percent Muslim in early 1992 and was strategically important because it commanded a major artery leading from Serbia proper into Bosnian Serb territory.[21] On April 8, the day after European recognition of Bosnian sovereignty, ethnic Serb paramilitaries attacked Zvornik, crossing the border from Serbia proper. The initial assault was led by Arkan's irregulars, the Serbian Voluntary Guards, and Arkan himself was reportedly in charge, appearing to some witnesses as if he was independent of both local Bosnian Serb authorities and nearby Yugoslav federal troops. The second assault wave included less elite paramilitaries such as the Serbian četnik Movement and the White Eagles.

Obrad, a Serbian reporter from the Serbian daily Politika, was on the Serbian side of the river when the fighting began. He followed the second wave into Zvornik, recalling that the paramilitaries "looked like a bunch of gangs. All the scum of Serbia were there, and it was total chaos."[22] Obrad made his way to the office of Zvornik's territorial defense chief, Marko Pavlović, the man theoretically in charge of the local Serbian military effort. Pavlović was all but powerless, however, since none of the paramilitaries felt obliged to follow his instructions. "I felt almost sorry for him," Obrad said. "He didn't have any of his own men and the paramilitaries weren't listening to him. They were a bunch of bandits, threatening him as well."

The paramilitaries quickly subdued Zvornik's Muslim resistance, looting and killing civilians. Arkan's troops were more disciplined and professional, leaving the town soon after its conquest. New irregulars came and began searching empty homes more thoroughly for valuables. Differences arose between the local Serb authorities and the paramilitaries. The authorities were issuing safe passage permits to Zvornik's Muslims, encouraging them to flee in a relatively orderly manner. The paramilitaries did not respect the permits, however, grabbing civilians as they exited the police station, ripping up their passes, physically abusing them, and even taking some to impromptu detention camps. According to one report, "The various para-military units maraudering [sic] around

Zvornik all had unlimited freedom of action (terrorizing the civilian population, randomly performing executions and arrestations [sic])." Refugee testimony indicated that the "paramilitary units only accepted the authority of their own respective ‘leaders, ’ … [while] many of the less strictly organized para-military groups regarded their complete freedom of action as a kind of ‘remuneration’ for their work."[23] Obrad noted in his diary that several paramilitary commanders active in the Croatian fighting had reappeared in Zvornik.[24] There was "Miroslav, from Šešelj's paramilitary, who was commander of a big unit," as well as "Pedđa, from Arkan's unit." Obrad estimated a total of some 5,000 Serb fighters dispersed through the town and surrounding villages. In areas where fighting had ended, Serb irregulars were loading trucks with looted refrigerators and other appliances. Obrad noted a hierarchy of looters, with Arkan's men enjoying preferential access to the most lucrative assets, such as gold and cash. Next came the Serbian četnik Movement and White Eagles, who seized the larger appliances. Bringing up the rear were local militias and the smaller Serbia-based paramilitaries, who were forced to settle for whatever remained. "These guys stripped the wires out of the walls and dismantled windows and door frames," Obrad said.

The Zvornik ethnic cleansing model was repeated throughout the spring and summer of 1992, as paramilitaries from Serbia proper swept through eastern Bosnia, beginning with northern towns such as Bijeljina and then moving south along the Drina River toward Zvornik, Foča, Goražde, and Višegrad, as well as numerous smaller villages. From their bases along the Bosnia-Serbia border, men from the larger paramilitary formations sallied forth to join smaller local militias, jointly consolidating Bosnian Serb military power in much of eastern Bosnia and forcing out much of the Bosnian Muslim population.[25]


The Bosnian Serb crisis committees, or Krizni Štabovi, were created from fragments of former Bosnian municipal governments. Although analysts often focused on Serbian political elites in capital cities, these were often removed from events on the ground during the first part of the war. Communications were poor and many areas were virtual islands, cut off from Belgrade or Pale by irregular transportation and military blockade. Northwest Bosnia, for example, was isolated by Bosnian Muslim troops from Serbia and much of eastern Bosnia until the summer of 1992, when Serb troops broke through. As Balkan specialist Susan Woodward notes,

"Competing militias and gangs marauded, only loosely linked to centers of command and control," and "lack of communication affected the command and control of both the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian government armies and emphasized the dominance of local territorial forces."[26] Nothing resembling a smooth, centralized state structure existed in the emerging Bosnian Serb republic during the spring and summer of 1992. During the first months of the war, regional power was often shaped by the crisis committees, which served as focal points for local leaders of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), municipal officials, territorial defense officers, [27] local police, and even commanders of nearby Yugoslav federal units. Crisis committee members also occasionally met and worked with local Bosnian Serb paramilitary leaders.[28] The latter were distinct from the Serbia-based irregulars, who were linked to Belgrade and whose geographic scope was much broader. The crisis committees could flourish only on the frontier; had the Republic of Serbia not been obliged to publicly disengage from Bosnia, Serbian military and political power likely would have been concentrated in Belgrade. The crisis committees were vehicles for local Bosnian Serb political or military strongmen who might never have become prominent if Serbia had directly and openly dominated Bosnia with its own troops. Owing no direct allegiance to Serbia and maintaining only sporadic connections to central Bosnian Serb political leaders, the crisis committees presented themselves as the authentic, grassroots voice of the Bosnian Serb nation.

The Bosnian Serb Autonomous Regions

The crisis committees emerged from the Serbian autonomous regions (Srpske Autonomne Oblasti), Bosnian Serb municipal coalitions created chiefly by Serbian Democratic Party activists in 1991 and early 1992.[29] Local government in Bosnia, like elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, was a highly organized affair with a mayor, municipal executive committee, legislative assembly, police chief, and local territorial defense coordinator. The municipal coalitions were founded in autumn 1991, when Bosnian Serb activists responded to the Croatian fighting by creating their own political structures. At the center of each of five autonomous regions was a large municipality, typically controlled by the Serbian Democratic Party, which was then joined by other nearby Serbmajority municipalities or by Bosnian Serbs living in Muslim-majority municipalities.[30] In Olovo, for example, a Muslim-majority municipality in central Bosnia, Bosnian Serb political activists declared in September

1991 that the town's Serbian Democratic Party branch had voted to join the Romanija autonomous region, "following a poll and meetings held in Serbian villages."[31] The Olovo municipality was controlled by the Muslim Party of Democratic Action, [32] but local Serbian Democratic Party activists nonetheless planned to attach Olovo to the Romanija autonomous region.

At first, Bosnian Serb leaders rejected separation from Yugoslavia, viewing the federation as sole effective guarantor of ethnic Serb security and rights. The Romanija autonomous region spokesman, for example, announced that the "Serbian people will never allow any separation from their homeland of Serbia."[33] Three other autonomous regions declared in October 1991 that they would not recognize laws made in Sarajevo, but would instead respect Yugoslav law.[34] In November 1991, the Serbian Democratic Party organized a plebiscite in which Bosnian Serb voters elected to stay in Yugoslavia.[35]

When Serbia began to disengage from Bosnia in early spring 1992, however, Bosnian Serb leaders shifted gears, pressing instead for an independent state alongside Bosnian Muslim and Croat entities.[36] According to Nenad Kecmanovic, a former Bosnian Serb politician, "Independence and the notion of a separate state came very late in the game. The first idea was simply to stay in Yugoslavia and to have recognized control over certain areas inside Bosnia."[37] When the European Community recognized Bosnian sovereignty on April 7, 1992, Serbian autonomous region leaders gathered to declare independence, calling their new state the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, later renamed Republika Srpska.[38]

Creating the Autonomous Regions

Each autonomous region had a central crisis committee controlling lower-tier committees at the municipal and submunicipal levels. The result was a pyramid of Bosnian Serb functionaries tied together by their common loyalty to the Serb national cause, linked only loosely to Serbian Democratic Party headquarters, and even more loosely to Belgrade. The crisis committee network was interlaced at every level with a hodgepodge of police, territorial defense, army, and paramilitary forces. Although the police and territorial defense were nominally under the Bosnian government and the Yugoslav federal army, they drew closer to local Bosnian Serb leaders as the crisis unfolded.

The Bosnian police had begun to dissolve into ethnically pure units

after nationalist parties ran in Bosnia's November 1990 elections. Local governments often came under the sway of one or another ethnic group, and then maneuvered to create ethnically loyal police units. On March 31, 1992, the fledgling Bosnian Serb interior ministry announced the creation of all-Serbian "public security centers" for each of the five autonomous regions.[39] A newspaper sympathetic to the Sarajevo government described the move as a "putsch" by Serbs in the Bosnian police, demonstrating that "the Serbian Democratic Party is determined to round out its own state in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Whoever has the police in a particular area exercises authority de facto." The autonomous regions and their new security centers, the paper charged, were using classical "revolutionary methods" to grab hold of disputed territory.[40] In municipalities where Serbs were a majority and already controlled the local government, Muslim officers were often fired or marginalized, and in areas where Muslims dominated, Bosnian Serb police officers often formed independent units.

Local Serbian Democratic Party activists, often linked to crisis committees, occasionally created militias of their own. In the northwestern town of Banja Luka, for example, local party activists organized the Serbian Defense Forces (Srpske Odbrambene Snage), also referred to as the Red Berets. Stanica, a local political activist and former Bosnian Serb army intelligence officer, explained that the Serbian Defense Forces had been a small "popular force aimed at enforcing public security in Banja Luka."[41] She said they were given weapons by the Serbian Democratic Party, which was intent on "arming the people for self-defense." An additional source of power for crisis committees were local paramilitaries organized by businessmen and political entrepreneurs, who contributed to the national cause while also protecting their assets in an uncertain environment. In the Banja Luka area, for example, a well-known businessman, Veljko Milanković, recruited and armed the Wolves from Vučjaka (Vukovi sa Vučjakaa).[42] By his own account, Milanković was a financial backer of the Serbian Democratic Party, and when fighting began in Croatia, Milanković sent the Wolves to support Serb fighters, moving them back to Bosnia when tensions there mounted.[43] Their first Bosnian operation, Milanković said, was the occupation of a local television transmitter, allowing the Serbian Democratic Party to replace broadcasts from Zagreb and Sarajevo with news from Belgrade. The Wolves' commander said his activities were coordinated with the head of the Bosanska autonomous region, its information minister, and the local police chief, all of whom were crisis committee members.


Milanković portrayed himself as a patriot, but Major Stanko, a Banja Luka–based former officer in the Bosnian Serb army, saw things differently. "Only riffraff and thieves" joined the Wolves, Stanko alleged, attracted by the prospect of looting. "Those men had joined up early to steal during the Croatian fighting," he charged, "and wanted to continue the same here by stealing from Muslims."[44] Stanko's view was seconded by Nikola, a low-ranking Bosnian Serb soldier from the Banja Luka region who said that although the Wolves had fought bravely in Croatia, they later engaged in ethnic cleansing in Banja Luka.[45] Stanica, the former Bosnian Serb intelligence officer, said that the Wolves' main function was to guard Milanković's property and business interests. "It was a chaotic time," she explained, "and rich men like Milanković wanted to protect their money."[46]

A detailed study of wartime events in two Bosnian towns—Doboj and Teslić—revealed extensive links between crisis committee functions, local paramilitary commanders, and Serbian Democratic Party activists.[47] The study claimed that local Bosnian Serb political leaders, police chiefs, party leaders, officials, and civilians had established an "underground mafia-type network" in the early stages of the war, noting the central role of Milan Ninković, president of the Doboj town branch of the Serbian Democratic Party and head of the municipal executive council. Ninković, the study charged, was a principal organizer of ethnic cleansing in Doboj, maintaining contacts with paramilitaries through his brother, who managed two local businesses and procured weapons. In the town of Teslić, the report said, Milovan Mrkonjić, chief of the local territorial defense, was one of five ethnic cleansing organizers working with commanders of local paramilitaries such as the Red Berets and "Predo's Wolves."

Crisis Committees and the Ethnic Cleansing of Prijedor

The ethnic cleansing of Prijedor municipality is one of the betterdocumented examples of forced displacement by Bosnian Serb crisis committees.[48] During the first months of the war, Prijedor, situated deep within the Bosanska Krajina autonomous region, was cut off from Serbia proper and other Bosnian-Serb areas, and initial ethnic cleansing efforts were done mostly by local forces. The 1990 municipal elections had left the Muslim Party of Democratic Action in charge of Prijedor's municipal assembly, although the Serbian Democratic Party gained a significant portion of assembly seats.[49] Muslims were therefore in positions

of local authority, controlling the Prijedor police force and radio station, while ethnic Serbs were the majority in many surrounding villages. By early 1992, most of Prijedor's neighbors had joined the Bosanska Krajina autonomous region, isolating Muslim-controlled Prijedor. The nearby town of Banja Luka was not only the capital of Bosanska Krajina, but also a thriving center of Serbian Democratic Party activity and a major headquarters for the Yugoslav federal army, which was increasingly pro-Serbian.

Tensions mounted during 1991, especially after fighting began in nearby Croatia. In February 1992, Prijedor's Serbian Democratic Party activists created their own parallel municipality and a crisis committee composed of retired policemen, teachers, the owner of a local transportation firm, and the head of the local Serbian Democratic Party branch.[50] Bosnian Serbs also created an autonomous police force led by Simo Drljača, an ethnic Serb officer and crisis committee member who created a series of all-Serb security centers, separate from four existing Muslim-controlled police stations. According to a local Bosnian Serb paper, Serbian Democratic Party activists asked Drljača to create the new force in late 1991, and after "half a year of illegal work," Drljača had created thirteen new police stations and mobilized "1,775 well-armed persons" willing to "undertake any difficult duty in the time which was coming." On the night of April 29, 1992, Drljača's men seized the central police station, the radio transmitter, and municipal headquarters.[51] According to one Bosnian Serb leader, the action sought to preempt an impending Bosnian Muslim attack. The local Yugoslav federal army commander quietly supported the coup, although publicly he said events in Prejidor were an internal municipal affair over which he had no jurisdiction.[52] According to UN researchers, the Prijedor crisis committee was "an instrument of gaining complete control" over Prijedor, for arming local Serbs, blocking Muslim communications, and mobilizing men into the nascent Bosnian Serb army. Its most important function, however, was to persistently argue "that the Serbian people as such were threatened by the non-Serbs."[53] Once the coup was over, the crisis committee expanded to include the head of the local Serbian Democratic Party branch, the local Yugoslav army commander, the new territorial defense commander, the new chief of police, the new mayor, the president of the local Serbian Red Cross, and managers of local, state-owned industries.[54] The new committee thus drew together diverse strands of local power, with the Serbian Democratic Party assuming political leadership, the police and territorial defense providing coercive manpower,

and the Yugoslav federal army providing weapons and a secure environment. Drljača later said relations between his policemen and the Serbian Democratic Party were "satisfying" during the coup, since "everyone did his job," but later soured when the party tried to infringe on police authority. Relations first with the Yugoslav federal army and then with the new Bosnian Serb army, conversely, were always "excellent."[55]

Muslims were forced out of Prijedor municipality through a variety of mechanisms. The Muslim territorial defense forces in the nearby village of Kozarac, for example, were attacked by local Bosnian Serb paramilitaries and Prijedor territorial defense troopers, reportedly with support from the Yugoslav federal army. Muslim villagers were sent to nearby detention camps, and survivors of that experience were later deported.[56] In Prijedor town, displacement was more gradual. Muslims were first fired from their jobs and ordered to wear distinctive armbands, and were later arrested and sent to camps. Men were interrogated and questions about armed activities and political plans were accompanied by torture and, in some cases, murder. Physical conditions in the men's camps were atrocious. Muslim women, elderly men, and children were sent to other locations where conditions were slightly better.

UN investigators are unsure who, precisely, was overall leader of Prijedor's ethnic cleansing. The detention camps were clearly under the local police, although some military police from the new Bosnian Serb army were involved as well. At one point, the UN report charges the Yugoslav federal army with overall responsibility for events, saying the crisis committee had been appointed by the military.[57] Elsewhere, however, UN investigators suggest the crisis committee was in charge, while on still other occasions, they argue for Serbian Democratic Party responsibility. Clearly, all these bodies played major roles, but the identity of the person or agency controlling events, if there was one, remains unclear.


Confusion over who was in charge of ethnic cleansing in Prijedor mirrors the larger confusion over command-and-control within the entire Serb war effort in Bosnia. Was Belgrade directly responsible for the ethnic cleansing, as so many allege, or was it organized locally by Bosnian Serb extremists, as the Serbian state's defenders argue?

The previous chapter discussed vigorous Serbian efforts to publicly disengage from Bosnia, but given broad Serbian nationalist sentiment, Belgrade also felt compelled to remain supportive of Bosnian Serbs. Although

some of Slobodan Milošević's colleagues might have been willing to cut the Bosnian Serbs off, the Serbian far-right opposition, as well as a significant constituency within the ruling Socialist Party itself, felt differently. Serbian leaders groped their way toward a solution, fashioning a series of plausibly deniable, clandestine connections to Bosnia. When Western analysts saw through the ruse, Serbia's leaders were unpleasantly surprised, having failed to comprehend the full extent of Western intelligence-gathering abilities, which diplomats would not divulge for fear of compromising their sources.[58]

Much effort has been devoted to proving the role of Belgrade in general, and Slobodan Milošević in particular, in planning and executing the ethnic cleansing. From a legal point of view, the extreme difficulty of this effort is frustrating. Sociologically, however, the difficulty is telling: The very fact that the Serbian leadership's responsibility is difficult to prove suggests that secrecy and plausible deniability are what made the ethnic cleansing policy feasible, appropriate, and cost-effective for the Serbian regime in 1992–93. At the time, Serbia was intent on regaining its international legitimacy, and this required that it try to appear uninvolved in the Bosnian fighting.

Visions of Control

At one extreme, critics view Milošević as the sole architect of Bosnian ethnic cleansing, managing the bulk of the deadly process.[59] The image these critics promote is of a smoothly functioning death machine spreading out from Belgrade to individual far-flung Bosnian camps and killers. Military analyst Milan Vego, for example, argued that although Belgrade authorities did their best to muddle events, there was in fact an unbroken chain of command running from the Supreme Defense Council in Belgrade, through the Yugoslav army's General Staff, down to the Bosnian Serb army.[60] A similar interpretation was offered by a leading U.S. war reporter in Bosnia, Roy Gutman, who said the death camps, mass killings, and rapes were all planned in detail by the Yugoslav federal army and Slobodan Milošević.[61] Milošević, Gutman says, was in charge throughout, despite efforts to hide his involvement through the federal army's withdrawal.[62] At the other end of the spectrum are vehement denials offered by Serbian leaders, who argued from spring 1992 on that Serbia had nothing to do with Bosnian Serb actions, paramilitary activities, or ethnic cleansing. A third interpretation rejects both extremes, suggesting instead that although Milošević encouraged and supported

the Bosnian Serb war effort, he only set the general tone by providing guidance and weapons. Sonja Biserko, the head of Belgrade's Helsinki Commission for human rights, believes that "Bosnia got away from Milošević; I think he started something he didn't know how to stop."[63]

Bosnia was a confusing place in 1992, with a multitude of paramilitaries, army units, and local leaders wielding political and military power. The confusion may have been carefully crafted to mask centralized control, but may also have reflected the actual state of affairs, in which, as one UN team wrote, "regular armies in the process of constituting or reconstituting themselves could not [remain in] control until they had reached a sufficient level of organization."[64] According to Nataša Kandić, director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center and a noted war crimes investigator, there "may in fact be no one chain of command" for the Bosnian atrocities.[65] Investigations are especially difficult because there are no written orders available for scrutiny. "Can you imagine anyone stupid enough to write down an ethnic cleansing order?" asked Boro, a veteran Belgrade war correspondent. "Everyone knew this was a crime. You will never find an official or officer who put his name to an order to kill or ethnically cleanse."[66]

Serbia's Military Line

We may never know with certainty which particular vision of Serbian control is correct. A group of journalists and experienced war observers, however, have developed a plausible scenario known as the Military Line (Vojna Linija) hypothesis. It argues for the existence of an unofficial network of ruling Socialist Party members, interior ministry officials, and army officers, all of whom held positions of power and supported the general goal of advancing Bosnian Serb interests and pushing Muslims and Croats out of Serb-held areas. This circle was an unofficial policy group and its activities were never documented, regularized, or legitimated by the wider Serbian body politic. In late 2001, international war crimes investigators indicted former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević for genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and their charge sheet is essentially a summary of the Military Line model, with some added details.[67]

The Military Line was first discussed in print by Tim Judah, a Belgrade-based British correspondent.[68] In Judah's words, it was an informal group of senior Serbian republican security officials and individuals within the Yugoslav federal army (the JNA) who sought to help ethnic

Serb organizations, first in Croatia, and then in Bosnia, carve out their own enclaves. Eventually, these areas were to be annexed to Serbia or a slimmed-down Yugoslavia. Julian Borger, another British reporter, wrote that the Military Line was a parallel chain of command allowing Milošević to privately control Serb-based paramilitaries and Bosnian Serb forces.[69] According to both journalists, the group's main coordinator was Jovica Stanišić, then head of the Serbian interior ministry's clandestine service, known as state security, or SDB (Služba Državne Bezbednosti). His chief aides were Radovan Stojičić (also known as Badža), an officer in the Serbian ministry of interior's uniformed public security, and Franko Simatović (known as Frenki), a senior officer in the plainclothes state security agency. The two men reportedly trained and armed the Serbia-based paramilitaries and even traveled with them to the battlefields in Croatia and Bosnia. Borger writes that Stojičić, Simatović, and other key leaders stood at the apex of a pyramid coordinating Belgrade's plans in Bosnia and Croatia, while Judah adds the names of two key Yugoslav federal officers, General Andrija Biorčević, commander of the Novi Sad Corps, and Colonel Ratko Mladić, commander of the Knin garrison.[70] British reporter Julian Borger also stressed the role of Mihalj Kertes, a leading member of Serbia's ruling Socialist Party, who distributed guidance and weapons to Serbian Democratic Party officials in Bosnia and Croatia. Misha Glenny, a third British journalist, added more details on Kertes' activities, writing that in 1990 and 1991, Kertes ran a major weapons distribution program, shipping "hundreds of thousands" of weapons and boxes of ammunition on lorries into Bosnia, with special emphasis on Bosanska Krajina and eastern Herzegovina.[71]

Borger's article was based on interviews with anonymous informants and Branislav Vakić, a Serbian Radical Party legislator and former paramilitary commander. Vakić, like other Radical Party members, publicly broke ranks with Milošević in 1993, accusing him of betraying the Serbian national cause. According to Vakić, Serbian officials such as Stojičić and Simatović helped supply, train, and coordinate Radical Party irregulars in Croatia and Bosnia. Vakić made similar claims in an interview with Serbian newspaper reporters, asserting that the Radicals had supplied thousands of volunteer fighters with fuel and uniforms given to them by Yugoslav military police and naming a string of helpful federal officers and Serbian interior ministry officials.[72]

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj lent credence to the Military Line hypothesis, telling Serbian newspapers his men had relied heavily on the Serbian interior ministry during the war. His volunteers, Šešelj

said, belonged to "special units" of the Serbian police under the command of Kertes and Simatović.[73] Šešelj elsewhere supplied other crucial details, saying Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević "gave us money and munitions and volunteers from Serbia and Montenegro and told us to fight for greater Serbia,"[74] and that all Serbian forces in Bosnia were directly commanded by the Serbian president.[75] In 2001 further evidence from Milošević himself appeared to support Šešelj's claims. Soon after his arrest by the international war crimes tribunal, Milošević claimed he had diverted Serbian government funds during the Bosnian war to finance Serbian militias in Bosnia and Croatia.[76]

I found fragments of additional evidence supporting these claims. A former U.S. State Department official involved with Bosnia, for example, said he believed the 1992 ethnic cleansing campaign was directed from Belgrade by Serbian state security. In the first months of the Bosnian war, he said, "state security operatives fanned out across Bosnia initiating, leading, and controlling the fighting in different districts."[77] The United States had satellite imagery and radio intercepts in support of his claim, he said, but refused to specify details. Boro, the veteran Belgrade war correspondent, painted a similar picture. "State security sent men to each Bosnian municipality looking for trusted persons who would act as allies," he explained. "These ‘trusted persons’ would be told that the area needed to be secured for reasons of convoy security or military strategy, and that as a result, the Muslims needed to be cleared out." At times, local police chiefs ran the operations, while on other occasions, hospital directors or mayors were the major coordinating figures. "You'll never find one method or one chain of command for ethnic cleansing," Boro explained, "because in each area, the person or group responsible for carrying out the ethnic cleansing was different. Each commander used a different method based on the different tools he had."[78] Aleksandar, a war correspondent for Vreme, a liberal Serbian weekly, said state security typically recruited men with assets such as warehouses, trucking companies, or municipal jobs. "Those people were most useful because they could store weapons and provide vehicles when necessary," Aleksandar explained.[79]

Miroslav, a young man who fought with an elite Serb military unit in Croatia, recounted an experience supporting Aleksandar's account of Belgrade's clandestine mobilization and coordination efforts.[80] In early 1991, Miroslav said, a local merchant in his village was recruited by Yugoslav federal military intelligence agents as their local contact. "I don't know why he was chosen," he said. "Perhaps because they trusted him,

or because he was generally respected by everyone." The merchant organized a local group of men who trained together in 1991 in preparation for fighting with Croat republican forces. Every week, Miroslav recalled, the group would go to the woods where they would be met by a representative of Yugoslav military intelligence, who occasionally delivered a truckload of weapons. Although Miroslav's experiences took place in Croatia, similar mechanisms may well have been used in Bosnia.

The most compelling evidence for Serbia's cross-border role, however, came directly from Daniel Snidden, an Australian Serb with a military background who trained Serbian militias in Croatia.[81] Snidden said Serbian state security agents approached him in Belgrade during 1991 and requested that he assess the potential of local Serb militias in Croatia. Later, state security asked Snidden to organize a training course; his trainees, schooled at the "Alpha center" in the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia, became elite members of the local ethnic Serb army, and some even volunteered to fight in Bosnia. In a separate conversation, Colonel Stevo, one of Snidden's aides, claimed Snidden's fighters were directly controlled by Serbian state security. The men were given official state security identification cards and dog tags, Colonel Stevo said, and Snidden himself received his orders directly from Belgrade.[82] "Other units may have been under the local Serb authorities," Colonel Stevo claimed, "but we were the direct responsibility of Serbia."

Most of the men recruited by Serbian state security were not as glamorous as Daniel Snidden, who later ran a famed veterans' assistance group in Belgrade. Dragutin, a former truck driver, was at the very bottom of the Military Line's network.[83] When I met him in early 1997, Dragutin worked for another and much smaller veterans' association in Belgrade, lobbying the Serbian government on behalf of former paramilitary fighters. Prior to that, he said, he had fought in Croatia and Bosnia. In a series of meetings, Dragutin gradually revealed details about his recruitment by Serbian state security, explaining they originally approached him "because my father had been a police chief in his town." He said state security was searching for men whom they could trust to fight for the Serbian people, and were recruiting heavily among Dragutin's acquaintances in 1990–91. "Everybody was either an agent, working part time for state security, or pretending to be an agent," he recalled. Some men were true patriots, he said, but others simply sought war booty. "People said you could make money in the field," Dragutin explained. I learned more details about Dragutin's activities from Tomo, an ethnic Serb from Krajina who said he had worked for local Serb military

intelligence in Croatia. Tomo said he had met Dragutin several times during the war while the latter made truck deliveries for Serbian state security.[84] "There were lots of guys like him," Tomo said, "working either for state security or KOS [Yugoslav federal army intelligence], driving around the country, delivering things and helping make things happen."

Dragutin's tale underlines the importance of the Serbian police for the Military Line. His father had been a police chief, making him visible and trustworthy to state security recruiters, but recruitment was not just limited to the sons of trusted officers. Journalist Julian Borger interviewed a former Belgrade police chief who said Serbian convicts were occasionally recruited to fight in return for reduced sentences.[85] His claim was supported by Miroslav Mikuljanac, a Borba reporter who said he met former convicts on Serbian Radical Party busses heading toward the Croatian fighting in 1991.[86] The men were told their sentences would be cut if they fought and had been sent so quickly to the front that "they hadn't even been given a chance to call home and tell their mothers." Mikuljanac accompanied the Radical Party irregulars from Belgrade to Croatia, where they received Yugoslav army weapons and joined other ethnic Serb fighters at the front.

Obrad, the Serbian journalist, explained that when the fighting began, Serbian police "turned to the people they knew best for help: informers and criminals."[87] It was a natural move, in many ways; secrecy was of the utmost importance, and the criminal underworld was particularly well suited to the work. Borivoje, a respected Belgrade criminal defense lawyer, said the Serbian police had "slowly crossed the line from working with informers to gain information about criminals, to recruiting informers to act as paramilitaries outside of Serbia."[88] Borivoje's argument was supported by Belgrade's former police chief, who told British journalist Julian Borger that "in using criminals, for example as informants, there is always a narrow line you walk along. The police here crossed that line by a mile."[89]

Bosnian Serb Lobbyists in Serbia

Not all Serb support for the Bosnian Serb military effort flowed through criminals and underworld agents, however, and not all of it was initiated by the Belgrade regime. The Serbian national enterprise was immensely popular in some quarters, and many covert cross-border links were generated by Serbian citizens concerned for Bosnian Serbs' well-being. Serb

politicians and intellectuals such as Dobrica ćosić, the famed writer, pressed the Bosnian Serb case in Belgrade, lobbying the ruling Socialist Party to supply Bosnian Serbs with food, fuel, and other items. Bosnian Serb supporters viewed Serbia's official disengagement as a terrible betrayal of cherished co-nationals in dire need. Indeed, some activists did more than send humanitarian supplies. The Belgrade-based Association of Bosnian Serbs in Serbia, for example, was allegedly a clandestine conduit for arms and men, as well as food, fuel, and clothing. The group's board included some of Serbia's leading public figures, including executive director Gojko đogo, a famed nationalist poet. đogo was reportedly an unofficial Bosnian Serb representative in Belgrade, speaking to Milošević on their behalf, mobilizing support in the Serbian press, and perhaps even helping to send paramilitary fighters.[90] đogo himself, however, refused to speak about the issue, saying only that "some things should be reserved for a discussion years from now."[91] The association had branches across Serbia, based in municipal offices, sports halls, and other public facilities. During the war, it collected money, blankets, clothes, and medical supplies, coordinating what đogo called a "tremendous" popular response. đogo said his association enjoyed support from all Serbian political parties, including Milošević's Socialists. "The regime has their spies in our association," he said, "but we have our spies among them as well."

Through the Military Line, top Serbian officials generated a network capable of transferring influence and coercion from Serbia into Bosnia. Secrecy was vital because the West had designated the Bosnian border as a sovereign boundary, barring Serbia from openly intervening. Secrecy also provided Serbia with plausible deniability, which in turn facilitated an ethnic cleansing policy for which the Serbian government hoped it could evade responsibility. Plausible deniability was bolstered by the chaos and confusion caused by the breakdown of normal state controls, and the emergence of a frontier-style institutional environment in Bosnia. Although a slim coordination chain appears to have stretched from Belgrade to Bosnia through the Military Line and its lower-ranking operatives, the extent of Belgrade's actual control over individual events remains unclear.

To some degree, Serbia's ties to Bosnia were actively constructed by the Serbian regime, but to some extent, they existed sui generis. Here, the regime's contribution was to tolerate the continued existence of those ties and to lend a helping hand when possible. In the spring and summer of

1992, Serbs in Bosnia and Serbia were connected through multiple links, and it would have required substantial political effort to sever those ties entirely.[92] Together, Serbian state and society helped construct a complex cross-border network that linked Serbian core to Bosnian frontier, despite conditions of breakdown and chaos. The next chapter explores repertoires of nationalist violence within the Serbian core, where the state pursued a radically different set of policies toward non-Serb populations.

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