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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]

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