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Ethnic Cleansing on the Bosnian Frontier
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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.

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