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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]

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