Preferred Citation: Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.

Ethnic Harassment in the Serbian Core


4. Ethnic Harassment
in the Serbian Core

The ability of institutional settings to shape repertoires of state violence was dramatized in 1992 and 1993 when Serbian paramilitaries returning home periodically from Bosnian fighting behaved quite differently within the borders of the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). Although local, republican, and federal officials all permitted and perhaps even encouraged the ethnic harassment of non-Serb minorities living in Serbia and Montenegro, they blocked Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing by paramilitaries. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Sandžak and Vojvodina, two ethnically mixed areas along Serbia and Montenegro's western borders.

The Serbian state prevented mass expulsions on its own territory and that of Montenegro (which was then largely under Belgrade's sway) because it enjoyed high levels of infrastructural power in its domestic sphere. Non-Serbs in Sandžak and Vojvodina did not launch armed rebellions or carve out semi-autonomous zones, and Western powers did not grant sovereignty to would-be non-Serb secessionists. The Western argument was that since the Sandžak and Vojvodina were internal regions within Serbia and Montenegro, not republics, they were not entitled to independence. With its empirical and juridical sovereignty over these areas assured, the Serbian state worked to prevent private Serbian nationalists from using Bosnia-style methods within the Serbian core. As noted in Chapter 1, strong and well-functioning states are loathe to permit violent paramilitary freelancing on their own territory, and Serbia

was no different. For similar reasons, the state would not violate its own laws by engaging itself in ethnic cleansing. Serbia was less troubled by ethnic harassment, on the other hand. It disciplined terrified minorities and encouraged some to flee, but did not trigger acute criticism from local and international human rights monitors.

Serbia's non-use of ethnic cleansing in its core territories was remarkable given powerful incentives in favor of ethnic cleansing. In the early years of the Croat and then Bosnian wars, Serbian nationalist passions were running high, semi-private paramilitaries were mobilized, and Serbian state-supported ethnic cleansers were active against Muslims and Croats living just beyond Serbia's official borders. Yet despite all this, ethnic minorities in the new Yugoslavia were neither massacred nor forced en masse from their homes, in marked contrast to the plight of their co-nationals in Bosnia. The Serbian core had molded Serbian nationalism to fit its own logic of appropriateness, smoothing down its sharpest edges to avoid international and domestic criticism. The impact of this on the lives of non-Serbs was tremendous. In 1992 and 1993, the boundary between Serbian core and Bosnian frontier was, quite literally, a border between life and death.


The Sandžak, divided between Serbia and Montenegro, is a mountainous region bordering on Bosnia with a population of some 500,000 split between Muslim Slavs, ethnic Serbs, and Montenegrins, with Muslims officially comprising slightly over 50 percent.[1] Strategically, Sandžak links Albania and Kosovo, to the east, with Bosnia, to the west. During the Bosnian war the region was a favorite jumping-off point for Serbian paramilitaries, who used its small, mountainous roads to quietly slip into Bosnia. Paradoxically, however, these gunmen did not systematically attack Muslims in the Sandžak itself.

Had institutional settings not mattered, Serbian officials are likely to have encouraged Serbian irregulars to ethnically cleanse the region. Authorities worried that a thriving Sandžak Muslim secessionist movement, allied to the nearby Bosnian Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), might eventually form the centerpiece of the so-called Green Belt, an allegedly hostile, Muslim-controlled arc encircling Serbia on three sides. As one Serbian military journal warned, Muslim Slavs coveted Sandžak as "the important link of the Muslim chain that should connect the Islamic centers Sarajevo and Istanbul."[2] Sandžak, moreover, was Serbia's only


Map 3. Within the Serbian core: The Sandžak

land link to the Adriatic Sea, and if Sandžak's Muslim secessionists were successful, Serbia's strategic position could be gravely endangered.

Serbian fears of Sandžak secession and rebellion were not entirely unfounded. Sandžak's Muslims, like those of Bosnia, identified themselves politically as members of Yugoslavia's Muslim nationality, implying that

at least some of their number believed in their right to territorial selfdetermination.[3] During Yugoslavia's 1990 multiparty elections, Muslims in both Sandžak and Bosnia had voted heavily for the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Muslim nationalist party, whose leader, Alija Izetbegović, said Bosnia had legitimate territorial interests in Sandžak and encouraged Sandžak Muslims to demand autonomy from Serbia and Montenegro.[4] Between 1990 and 1992, when the Bosnian war erupted, the SDA's definition of "Bosnian territory" occasionally referred to the Sandžak, [5] and some of the party's most committed activists came from the mountainous region.[6] In October 1991, the party organized a Sandžak referendum in support of autonomy and the right to secede, [7] and in March 1992, a leading Sandžak Muslim politician openly threatened secession if Serbia refused to grant the region autonomy.[8] Throughout 1992 and 1993, the Sandžak SDA branch pressed for greater territorial rights, including autonomy and/or secession. It was only some years later, after consistent Western disinterest, that political activists quietly dropped secession from their agenda. The specter of Sandžak secession in the early 1990s, therefore, was quite real.

In Belgrade, the Serbian nationalist counter-elite had their own reasons for supporting Sandžak's ethnic cleansing. As was true for Kosovo, nationalists cherished Sandžak as a historical center of Serbian culture, politics, and religion, fearing that a politically self-confident Sandžak Muslim community posed a major threat to Serbia's heritage. During the 1980s, nationalist spokesmen such as Vuk Drašković placed Sandžak's Muslims high on their list of enemies, warning in February 1988 of the alleged "rage of offensive and intolerant Islam in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Sandžak," as well as of the "vampire rebirth of" Islamic law and the "Jihad strategy of creating an Islamic state in the Balkans."[9] In 1990, Drašković organized a large demonstration in Novi Pazar, Sandžak's unofficial capital, warning Muslims their arms would be "cut off" if they dared raise a non-Serbian flag.[10] As Serbia's rulers became increasingly nationalistic themselves in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they increasingly referred to Sandžak as an integral part of Greater Serbia. Both Serbian officials and private Serbian nationalists, in other words, had reason to resent the Muslim presence in Sandžak, a fact recognized by concerned international actors when the Bosnian war began. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urgently deployed monitors to the region in 1993, responding to repeated warnings of impending genocide by Sandžak's Muslim leaders.[11]

Sandžak's Muslims, in sum, conceived of themselves as a distinct political

community, sought territorial self-determination, and appealed to Western powers for succor. Given these circumstances, ethnic cleansing would appear to have offered a quick and easy solution for Serbia and the newly reduced Yugoslav federation that it led. If paramilitaries could have quickly pushed Sandžak's Muslims out through Bosnia-style violence, state officials would have resolved a thorny strategic problem and placated the Belgrade nationalists. The Sandžak attacks might have been explained away or even partially concealed amidst the fog of war, as the Bosnian conflict was then raging only miles away. Belgrade's decision not to engage in ethnic cleansing in the Sandžak, therefore, is an empirical puzzle requiring explanation.


As noted above, a key difference between Sandžak and Bosnia was the former's inability to attract Western support for sovereignty. When combined with the lack of a credible Muslim insurgency in the Sandžak, this kept the area under Serbian infrastructural control, maintaining the integrity of the Serbian core. Western powers did extend some human rights oversight, however, reinforcing the Serbian state's tendency to project an image of law and order in its own territory. In response to complaints by Sandžak leaders, Western diplomats repeatedly expressed their interest in human rights conditions in the area, pressing the authorities to restrain private Serbian nationalists and reign in Serbia's police forces. The results, some Sandžak leaders believe, were life-saving: "If we hadn't managed to attract international attention to Serbian actions here," said Nedim, a Party of Democratic Action leader, "we would have been killed or driven out of our homes."[12] Nijaz, another party activist, explained that before the war, "the Western world had no idea there were Muslims living in Sandžak." But when the Bosnian fighting began, "they learned of our existence, and began to visit. Parliamentarians from all over the world came, learning that we lived here and that our rights were being violated. We had contacts with the Red Cross, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and many visits from international embassies." That internationalization, he said emphatically, "was the only reason we weren't cleansed."[13] According to these activists, international engagement with Sandžak through the human rights norm served as a crucial brake on Serbian nationalist ambitions. International actors were determined to grant sovereignty only to former Yugoslav republics, not to internal regions such as Sandžak,

but as an integral part of the Serbian core, Sandžak triggered Western human rights interest, with non-trivial results.


State-tolerated violence in the Sandžak never rose above the level of ethnic harassment, a terrifying phenomenon that nonetheless did not entail Bosnia-style forced displacement, sexual violence, and massacres. Paramilitaries, as noted above, used Sandžak as a rear base during 1992 and 1993 because of its proximity to eastern Bosnia and its remote, mountainous terrain. Far from Belgrade-based diplomats and journalists, Serbian irregulars could quietly cross the Bosnian border, hiding their violation of Serbia's official zero-tolerance policy on paramilitary infiltration. As fighting continued through 1992, however, the paramilitaries' increasingly resented exempting Sandžak's Muslims from attack. The Muslim population on both sides of the border shared family ties and political affiliations, some Sandžak Muslims had gone to Bosnia to fight, and Serbian nationalist rhetoric did not distinguish carefully between Muslims in Serbia/Montenegro and those in Bosnia. More importantly, perhaps, many of Sandžak's Muslims owned prosperous shops and businesses, presenting the paramilitaries with a tempting economic target. From the paramilitary perspective, it was unclear why they should pursue two separate policies for what was essentially the same group of people.

Local police, municipal authorities, and Serbian state officials, on the other hand, felt somewhat differently. Sandžak was located within the Serbian core, and paramilitary freelancing would violate Serbian law, disrupt central state control, and attract unwanted international attention. State and paramilitary interests converged on Bosnia, in other words, but diverged in the Sandžak. As state representatives and paramilitaries tacitly negotiated the boundaries of acceptable anti-minority violence in the Sandžak, practices of ethnic harassment emerged. The state tolerated and perhaps even encouraged low-level violence against Sandžak's Muslims, but refused to let the Serbian irregulars go too far. When they threatened to seize control of Sandžak territory and take blatant action against local Muslims, the state felt compelled to crack down.

Pljevlja's Aborted Paramilitary Coup

Events in Pljevlja, a small Sandžak town near the Bosnian border, are a case in point. The government allowed Serbian irregulars to use Pljevlja

in 1992 and 1993 as a staging ground, providing them with access to local Yugoslav army barracks and, allegedly, to weapons. When Pljevlja's irregulars intimidated and harassed local Muslims, moreover, local, republican, and federal authorities turned a blind eye, hoping perhaps that the violence would force Pljevlja's Muslims out. Once the paramilitaries took more resolute action, however, seizing control of the town and announcing their intent to force Muslims out en masse, the Serbiancontrolled Yugoslav authorities sent reinforcements and swiftly defused the attempted coup. Pljevlja's Muslims were frightened and suffered material loss, but they were not killed or forcibly evicted from their homes in large numbers.

Pljevlja's central paramilitary organizer in 1992 and 1993 was Milika (čeko) Dačević, leader of the Pljevlja branch of the Serbian četnik Movement. "There were many paramilitaries at that time in the town," recalled Dino, a local Muslim political leader, "but čeko brought them all together."[14] In addition to his charismatic appeal, čeko's ties to the Belgrade-based nationalist radical, Vojislav Šešelj, seemed crucial. "čeko was Šešelj's designated man in Pljevlja," recalled Stevo, a Montenegrin journalist, "and was also close to the Serbian ministry of interior."[15] This very agency, it will be recalled, was home to the plainclothes Serbian state security apparatus, linchpin of the Belgrade-to-Bosnia network. C ć eko, in other words, was a middle-tier operative of the clandestine Serbian Military Line.

Estimates of čeko's following vary from dozens to thousands. Zoran, Pljevlja's mayor throughout the 1990s, insisted that čeko had successfully mobilized only a "few dozen unemployed people, riff raff from Pljevlja and from all across Serbia."[16] Muslim leaders in the town, however, put the numbers at several thousand. čeko himself claimed in an interview to control 4,000 men, including Bosnian Serb fighters from across the nearby border.[17] čeko used Pljevlja as his rear base, according to the same report, traveling "regularly to the town of Goražde, just 40 miles away in Bosnia," returning "with loot to sell in the local market, including video recorders and refrigerators."

Zoran, Pljevlja's mayor, dismissed čeko as a local troublemaker bent on stirring up anti-Muslim violence, saying the paramilitary leader was a "criminal and a pathological thief" who falsely presented himself as defender of the Serbian people, "but really only cared about stealing the homes and businesses of Muslims." Milan, one of Zoran's senior aides, called čeko "an ignorant, uneducated man who attracted stupid and violent criminals."[18] He recalled that čeko used to "scream that all the

Turks [a derogatory term for Muslims] should get out, or be killed. He was trying to stir up the least educated, the unemployed, into attacking the Muslims." čeko's favorite saying, according to the mayor, was that "Pljevlja was a small town, and that there was only room for Serbs, not Turks." čeko, it seemed, wanted to apply Bosnian frontier logic to Pljevlja, resisting distinctions between Muslims living in the Sandžak and those in Bosnia. Muslims were Muslims, and they should be forced out. Serbia and its smaller federal partner Montenegro, however, felt differently, distinguishing between Muslims on the Bosnian side of the border, whom čeko was entitled to attack, and Muslims on the Yugoslav side, who were off-limits.

Muslims from Pljevlja believe that in 1992 and 1993, čeko was politically influential at the local level. "čeko did as he liked in town, and the state could do nothing about it," said Dino, the Pljevlja Muslim political activist. "Even the mayor was afraid of him." The authorities would not criticize him in public and did not protest when čeko's irregulars threatened Muslims in the street, smashed their store windows, and gave strident anti-Muslim speeches. It seemed that in the summer of 1992, čeko's power was even beginning to rival that of the mayor. "Increasingly, it looked like Pljevlja and the surrounding areas belonged to čeko and others like him, not to the state," recalled Stevo, the Montenegrin journalist then covering events. As one Western reporter wrote at the time, "While the police say they could arrest him [čeko] … if they wanted, he and his followers appear to do what they like. For example, despite a line of several hundred cars for gasoline at the local station—which had a sign up saying no gasoline was left—Mr. čeko was able to go straight to the front of the line where he was immediately, and deferentially, served."[19] Some Muslim leaders recalled that čeko even warned he might "annex" Pljevlja to the adjacent Bosnian Serb state, adding that they believed many of Pljevlja's policemen supported čeko's beliefs.

The irregulars, or perhaps some of their local sympathizers, soon began a campaign of nighttime bombings aimed at Muslim businesses. "The Serbs wanted us out," said Dino, the local Muslim political activist, explaining that the "state, čeko, the mayor, everyone, wanted no Muslims in Sandžak at all, and especially not in Pljevlja, so close to the border." Some Muslims feared that ethnic cleansing was about to begin. Nusret, a prominent local Muslim businessman, said that "the state first fired Muslims from state businesses, then accused us of being disloyal secessionists, and finally turned to čeko, telling him to terrify us into fleeing

with his bombings. If that didn't work, they were planning to kill us."[20] Yet while local authorities may have privately hoped the Muslims would leave, they did not tolerate open attacks on the Yugoslav side of the border, since that would contradict Belgrade's efforts to portray the new federal Yugoslavia as an orderly, law-abiding area. The paramilitaries appeared to understand this constraint, if only instinctively, targeting their bombs so as to cause no casualties. The nighttime bombings terrified local Muslims, but did not trigger a vigorous state response.

In early August 1992, however, čeko's men went too far, triggering a state crackdown. The drama began with čeko's arrest by local policemen for a minor infraction. When his fighters learned the police might hold čeko overnight, they launched a coup. "It was a very precise military operation," recalled Senad, an official in Pljevoja's local Muslim aid agency.[21] "They seized the radio station, cut communications, blocked the roads leading into town, and even put machine gun nests in the hills above the town." Pljevlja's Muslim population was terrified, hiding in their homes as irregulars in the street shouted slogans against the police, the Yugoslav federation, and Muslims. "čeko's men were demanding that we leave and that our homes be given to Serbs," Senad claimed. "They wanted this place to look like Bosnia, where Muslims' property and lives are worthless." Pljevlja seemed on the verge of slipping into frontier-like status, and a wave of deadly, Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing seemed poised to begin.

The state's response, however, was both swift and unequivocal. Momir Bulatović, then president of Montenegro and Slobodan Milošević's close political ally, flew to Pljevlja in a helicopter, accompanied by a high-ranking officer of the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army. The two men negotiated with čeko in the mayor's office while Yugoslav military reinforcements were deployed around town. Yugoslav federal president Dobrica ćosić, a famed Serbian nationalist and intellectual, provided moral support and pressed Vojislav Šešelj, čeko's political superior in Belgrade, to counsel restraint. The combined pressure worked, and the paramilitaries de-escalated in return for čeko's release. Federal forces continued to patrol the area, gradually reasserting central state control. čeko's fighters continued to sally forth into Bosnia, but refrained from threatening Pljevlja's Muslims too openly. Some local Muslims fled but most remained, and no homes were destroyed or looted.

The attempted coup was a dramatic illustration of the state's resolve to block ethnic cleansing in the Serbian core. čeko and his men were cross-border predators, attacking Muslims in Bosnia with Serbian and

Yugoslav federal support. Inside Serbia and Montenegro, however, local, republican, and federal officials were uncomfortable with blatant rampages against Sandžak's Muslims. Seeking to uphold Yugoslavia's lawful image at home and abroad, officials felt constrained to suppress openly predatory paramilitary activity in their own backyard. They were willing to tolerate nighttime bombings, but would not permit more drastic measures. Officials had effectively had set a cap on anti-Muslim violence in Pljevlja, preventing it from rising above the level of ethnic harassment. When čeko's men threatened to physically tear Pljevlja from the core and attach it to the Bosnian frontier, the state cracked down. The border thus functioned as a signaling mechanism, defining different areas for ethnic cleansing and harassment. Two institutional settings had been created—a Bosnian frontier and a Serbian core—and they powerfully shaped Serbian repertoires of state violence.

Priboj Municipality

Pljevlja was not the only Sandžak border town where cross-border paramilitaries pushed the envelope, attacking small numbers of Sandžak Muslims in a tacit process of negotiation with local and national authorities. Priboj, an ethnically mixed municipality located directly adjacent to the Serbia-Bosnia boundary, witnessed several cases of paramilitary intimidation and even murder. The most deadly attacks, however, took place in remote corners distant from Priboj town. By keeping to the municipality's geographic margins, the paramilitaries made a concession to state officials concerned with preserving the integrity of Serbia's core.

I visited Priboj after first interviewing Muslim political leaders in Novi Pazar, the unofficial Sandžak capital, for whom distinctions between violence in Bosnia and the Sandžak were problematic.[22] To emphasize the intensity of Sandžak Muslim suffering, the leaders equated their community's fate with that of Bosnia's Muslims. "In 1992 and 1993, a nationalistic, dictatorial Serbian regime did not want to see Muslims living in the Sandžak," explained Sead, a leading Muslim politician in the Sandžak.[23] "They did everything they could to kill us, murder our people, and thus force us to flee. What they did here is similar to what happened in Bosnia." As Dzenan, a Novi Pazar human rights activist said, "The state pretended that it was at peace, not at war, but they conducted a genocide right here in the Sandžak. They did it in Bosnia, and they did it here."[24] For Novi Pazar's Muslim political activists, the parallels with Bosnia were clear: Muslims were attacked in Bosnia to force

them from their homes, and Muslims were victimized in Sandžak for similar purposes.

Interestingly, however, both men realized the evidence did not entirely support their claims. Their hometown of Novi Pazar, for example, was still a Muslim-majority city in 1997, signaling the Sandžak had not been emptied of its Muslim population. Muslims had been intimidated, marginalized, and discriminated against, but most remained alive in their homes. Total wartime casualty figures for Sandžak's 200,000 Muslims, after all, were only a few dozen. To resolve this apparent contradiction, the leaders encouraged me to travel to Sandžak's border regions, including both Priboj and Pljevlja. "Go there and you will see proof of the Serb genocide," Sead urged. But the very fact that I had to go to Sandžak's border with Bosnia signaled that anti-Muslim violence inside the Serbian core was heavily influenced by institutional settings. Although Muslims throughout Sandžak were intimidated and harassed, evidence of direct violence could be found only along the border, where Serbian core met Bosnian frontier.

Once I visited Priboj, moreover, I found the violence was even more targeted, discriminating, and calibrated then I had imagined. Not only was it restricted to Sandžak's border regions, but it had focused sharply on Muslims who fell into one of two categories: persons caught by paramilitaries as they strayed onto Bosnian territory, or persons living in remote border villages. Other Muslims were untouched, although many feared for their lives, were humiliated by anti-Muslim propaganda, and lost their public sector jobs. Local Muslims had suffered enormously but had not experienced the same repertoires of violence encountered by their co-nationals living nearby in Bosnia.

In Priboj, I was told that a Belgrade-based Serbian paramilitary, the White Eagles, had recruited heavily among local Serbs during 1992. The town's proximity to the border, moreover, had made it something of a gathering place for other Serbian irregulars. Priboj town's 12,000 Muslims, who represented less than a third of the overall population, were acutely aware of the paramilitaries' presence. Sejo, a local Muslim politician, recalled that 1992 was a "terrifying period. Nationalist paramilitaries were everywhere, marching in the streets with their guns and uniforms. They cursed us and made all kinds of horrible statements about us."[25] Safet, a Priboj café owner of Muslim origin, recalled paramilitaries being "everywhere, often drinking and eating in the town. If they saw a Muslim in a café, they would say to the owner, ‘Why do you allow Turks in here?’ And if they saw a Muslim and Serb together in a café, they said to the Serb, ‘Why are you drinking with filthy Turks?’"[26] Mehmet, another

Priboj Muslim leader, said the town was then a place of "state terror. Muslims were being killed without any compunction. Those socalled paramilitaries were all over, but in reality, they were an arm of the state."[27] According to a Western reporter visiting Priboj in November 1992, local Serbs believed Muslims were terrorists, while Muslims felt terrorized by ethnic Serb paramilitaries. In Priboj, he wrote,

hate letters are circulating among Serbs.… "Serbs, you must leave Muslim cafes because they are preparing cocktails that will make you sterile," reads one of the hate letters. "Each Muslim has been assigned his own Serb to liquidate." … The main Serb paramilitary force around Priboj is the White Eagles, a Belgrade-based group that last spring led assaults on Muslim towns in Bosnia. In August, an elderly man in … Višegrad, eighteen miles northwest of here, gave a detailed account of having watched members of the White Eagles take Muslim residents to a bridge, kill them and throw their bodies in the Drina river.[28]

Yet while Priboj was a site of anti-Muslim intimidation and harassment, the violence never escalated into ethnic cleansing. Despite the paramilitary presence, anti-Muslim propaganda, public sector discrimination, and border proximity, Muslims were never killed within Priboj town itself.

Individual Muslims were abducted and/or killed in the general vicinity of Priboj, however, in particularly remote geographical corners. In choosing these sites, the attackers signaled their actions should not be interpreted as severe challenges to the Serbian core's integrity and law-andorder image. As long as the nationalists did not kill their victims deep within Serbia's domestic sphere, Sandžak officials could keep up legal appearances. In what follows, I describe two types of paramilitary attacks on the margins of Priboj municipality: hit-and-run raids by "unidentified gunmen" on remote Muslim villages, and paramilitary abductions of Muslim commuters who strayed onto Bosnian territory.

Hit-and-Run Raids

In early October, 1992, gunmen rampaged through Sjeverin, a remote Muslim village adjacent to the Bosnian border, wounding scores and causing substantial property damage. Hundreds of villagers fled, walking on foot through the mountains to Priboj town. "The Muslims' flight," a reporter wrote, "alarmed the federal authorities in Belgrade, committed to preventing the spread of ethnic cleansing across the Bosnian border. Yugoslav federal troops were ordered to reinforce special police units assigned to push the Serb irregulars out of the border villages.

"[29] Gunmen launched a second hit-and-run attack on February 18, 1993, firing mortars at Kukurovići, another remote village. Three Muslims were killed, others were wounded, and the village's 1,000 residents fled to Priboj town, telling Serbian human rights workers that their assailants were Yugoslav federal reservists trying to push them away from the Bosnian border.[30] Serbian officials denied the charge, saying the attackers were paramilitary infiltrators from Bosnia.[31] The government sent reinforcements but said it was impossible to entirely seal the remote area to infiltration from Bosnia.[32] By focusing on remote border villages, the attackers—regardless of their true identity or patrons—were carefully avoiding a blatant challenge to Sandžak's law-and-order image. As long as the attackers did not descend from the mountains into Priboj town itself, the integrity of the Serbian core remained relatively intact.


The second category of attacks-on-the-margins is even more illustrative of the power of institutional setting. In 1992 and early 1993, gunmen carried out two highly publicized abductions of Sandžak Muslims near Priboj municipality, seizing a total of thirty-eight men. Although the evidence is slim, it is widely believed by local Muslims that the men were subsequently killed. Significantly, the abduction sites were carefully chosen so that they took place on slivers of Bosnian territory protruding into Serbia. The victims had strayed across the slivers because of the Bosnia-Serbia boundary's circuitous trajectory, which forced commuters to briefly pass through what had become in 1992 sovereign Bosnian territory.

The first kidnapping took place on October 22, 1992, when a commuter bus en route to Priboj from a small border village was stopped by paramilitaries as it crossed Bosnian territory. The gunmen searched the bus and forced off seventeen Muslim passengers, carting them off in a truck allegedly belonging to an ethnic Serb in nearby Priboj town.[33] The second attack took place on February 27, 1993, in Štrpci, a small village where the Belgrade-Bar railway briefly dips into Bosnia. The gunmen boarded the train, searched for Muslim passengers, and pulled off twenty-one persons, who then disappeared without a trace.[34]

Many observers suspect Milan Lukić, commander of a White Eagle contingent in the nearby Bosnian town of Višegrad, of organizing both abductions.[35] His precise motivations remain unclear, but observers offer different, equally plausible, theories. Some say Lukić hoped to use

the men for a prisoner swap that went bad, while others say he hoped to ransom the prisoners off. Still others argue that Lukić, together with powerful patrons in the Belgrade establishment, were trying to drag Yugoslavia into the Bosnian war. Many Muslims in Priboj think the abduction was a tacit threat signaling them to flee the region. Newspaper reports say Lukić came to Bosnia from Serbia early on in the war, embarking on a spate of killings of Bosnian Muslims and Serbs who tried to restrain him. The paramilitary leader appeared to enjoy close relations with Serbian and Yugoslav federal officers based near Priboj, who supplied him with weapons and other logistical support.[36]

Lukić's relations with the Republic of Serbia and the new Yugoslav federation were complex, however, exemplifying patterns of both cooperation and conflict. Although the paramilitary commander had powerful patrons in Serbia, other officials seemed concerned lest Lukić import Bosnia-style methods into the Sandžak.[37] Yugoslav federal forces had a sharp confrontation with Lukić right after the October 1992 Sjeverin bus abduction, for example, arresting him over the protests of his men, who vowed to kill local Sandžak Muslims in retaliation if Lukić was not set free. According to a local Serbian reporter, "Fingers were on the triggers all night" as paramilitaries tensely negotiated with government forces.[38] Lukić was released and was later seen traveling regularly between Bosnia and Yugoslavia, stopping off in Priboj. Still, he seemed to respect the integrity of the Serbian core, ensuring his next abduction again took place in Bosnian territory.

The official response to both kidnappings was sensitive to the institutional terrain in which they had occurred, tacitly rewarding the paramilitaries for their restraint in the Serbian core. In an interview, Predrag, Priboj's former mayor, stressed that the attacks took place in Bosnia, not Serbia, and that they were therefore not his responsibility. "Those terrible attacks were tragic," Predrag said, "but it is important to remember they did take place in the sovereign territory of another country. We can't be responsible for that."[39] At the time of the incident, Predrag told local Muslims, "The kidnapping happened on the territory of an internationally recognized state over which we have no jurisdiction."[40] As one Serbian parliamentarian noted approvingly, "Bosnia-Herzegovina is a recognized country. Therefore, it is legally difficult to launch an investigation on its territory."[41] The Serbian justice minister also noted that the abductions had taken place on the territory of "another state which is recognized and sovereign," and where "Serbia had no jurisdiction."[42] Slobodan Milošević took care to address the abductions himself,

emphasizing legal limitations posed by the kidnappers' use of Bosnian territory. "The moment I learned about the kidnapping," Milošević told Muslim representatives, "I personally contacted the highest authorities of … [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and received their firmest assurances … that the kidnapped citizens should be found and returned and … that the culprits should be caught and brought to trial." The problem, Milošević stressed, was that the Serbian police were "powerless on the other side [of the border]."[43] In emphasizing their inability to investigate crimes that took place inside Bosnia, Serbian authorities were essentially turning the tables on the international community, which had recognized Bosnian independence against their wishes. If Bosnia was now its own country, how could anyone hold Belgrade responsible for crimes committed on the wrong side of the boundary?

The Sandžak abductions received significant domestic and international publicity, compromising the Belgrade authorities' law-and-order image. Sandžak Muslims demonstrated in front of local officials' offices, demanding information and protesting in Belgrade and the Montenegrin capital.[44] Antiwar groups in Belgrade rallied to the cause, using the abductions in their own struggle against Serbian nationalism. Local papers of all political persuasions carried the story, which remained a mainstream Belgrade news item throughout 1993 and 1994. In response, Serbian officials reassured the public they were doing everything they could to locate the missing men, even though matters were complicated by the fact that the crimes had occurred on sovereign Bosnian territory. Slobodan Milošević promised he would move "heaven and earth, leaving no stone unturned" to find the abducted persons, and Husein, a Muslim political activist from Prijepolje, recalled that "everyone from the president on down made it very clear that they took this case seriously."[45] The republican governments of Serbia and Montenegro created investigative commissions and checked with Bosnian Serb authorities, but allegedly unearthed no new information. Sandžak Muslim leaders suspect that government officials know who the kidnappers are but refuse to prosecute for fear of revealing clandestine state ties to cross-border paramilitaries.

Serbian officials were discomfited by kidnappers' public challenge to their law-and-order image. Explained Jasmina, a Belgrade journalist and human rights investigator,

At that time, it was very unusual for twenty people to disappear like that in Serbia. You must understand how major an event it was. We were not at war, according to the government, and we were not involved in the Bosnian

fighting. It is very important to realize that the people who disappeared were Serbian citizens, even if they were Muslims. Serbian citizens!! Milošević promised the families of the missing he would turn over heaven and earth to find their relatives. Given the circumstances, he of course had to say that.[46]

Thus the same state that clandestinely helped organize ethnic cleansing in Bosnia felt obliged to publicly explain what actions it was taking to address the abduction of thirty-eight Muslims from Serbia proper.

The Serbian government had helped cross-border irregulars displace, wound, and kill thousands of Muslims inside Bosnia, but inside Sandžak, only 50 Muslims were killed out of a potential 200,000 victims. Both Muslim communities lived in Serb-controlled space, but their fates proved vastly different due to the effects of institutional setting. Belgrade's commitment to Serbian nationalism and covert cross-border operations was coupled with its desire to project an orderly, lawful image in its domestic sphere, and this had dramatic repercussions for repertoires of state violence. The Serbian-Bosnian border powerfully shaped Serbian conduct by separating Bosnian frontier from Serbian core.


In Sandžak, non-Serbs were cowed by private Serbian paramilitaries, but in Vojvodina, an ethnically mixed province near Belgrade, non-Serbs were intimidated by the local equivalent of Bosnia's crisis committees. As was true in the Sandžak, the Serbian state blocked nationalists in Vojvodina from developing into full-blown, Bosnia-style ethnic cleansers. This trend is perhaps best illustrated by events in Hrtkovci, an ethnically mixed village in the province. In the summer of 1992, Serbian nationalists created a local version of the Bosnian crisis committees to force ethnic Croats from their homes, and while many did eventually leave, the Serbian radicals did not use Bosnian-style violence, resorting instead to harassment. Ethnic Croats suffered tremendously, but like their Sandžak Muslim counterparts, were spared Bosnia's frontier horrors.

Vojvodina, one of Serbia's richest regions, had been ethnically mixed for centuries. According to the 1991 census, 57 percent of its residents were ethnic Serbs, along with 22 percent Hungarians, 7 percent Croats, and 14 percent other.[47] Vojvodina was incorporated into Yugoslavia from the Habsburg empire after World War I and was designated in 1945 an "autonomous province" within Serbia. In the late 1980s, however, Vojvodina, along with Kosovo, was subjected to Serbian administrative

centralization, and a new 1990 constitution revoked many of Vojvodina's powers.[48] In reaction, a handful of Vojvodina activists began to lobby for "cultural autonomy." And while they insisted they had no secessionist intentions, Belgrade authorities resented their claims as precursors to secession. Vojvodina bordered Croatia, Serbia's arch-enemy, as well as Hungary, which had supplied weapons to Croatia during the 1991 fighting.[49]

Occasional secessionist appeals from Vojvodina radicals reinforced the authorities' fears.[50] These attracted no international support, however, and territorial independence was never on any credible political agenda. Like Sandžak, moreover, Vojvodina offered no armed opposition to Serbian rule, leaving the state's empirical and juridical sovereignty entirely intact.


Thousands of Serbs fled the Croatian fighting in late 1991, settling in Vojvodina at the Serbian state's request.[51] Hrtkovci, a Croat-majority village located some thirty-five miles west of Belgrade, was slated to accommodate several thousand refugees. Before the influx, some 2,600 of the village's 3,800 residents were ethnic Croats, but tensions soon mounted as the ethnic Serb population grew. Rumors spread that Belgrade officials had told displaced Serbs to evict Croats from their homes. Hrtkovci's Croats were on occasion threatened with beatings and even death if they refused to flee.[52] Children were harassed in school, a few night-time grenades were thrown into Croat gardens, and fistfights erupted in public places. A similar pattern emerged in several other Croat-majority villages. "Croats here were terrified," recalled Father Dejan, an official in Novi Sad's Catholic church. "They kept coming to see me and asking what to do. Within weeks or months after the Serb refugees arrived, the Croat population had begun to flee."[53] The intimidation first began in the villages of Slankamen and Beška, and then moved on to Hrtkovci.

In Belgrade, Vojislav Šešelj was a key supporter of the Vojvodina eviction efforts, arguing in May 1992 that the solution to Serbian refugees' housing problems was "to give them the addresses of the Croats in Serbia, and to give the Croats the addresses of abandoned Serb houses in Croatia. Then a population exchange will take place, even if under pressure."[54] Such plans were blatantly illegal, of course, and officials from Serbia's ruling Socialist Party condemned them harshly.[55] Still, there were

reports that Šešelj's representatives met Serbian refugees at the border, helping them to identify Croat homes for eviction.

Unofficially, some Serbian officials appeared to tacitly support Šešelj's eviction campaign. Father Dejan thought that national security considerations were paramount; Serbian state security, in particular, he said, feared that Vojvodina's Croats would become a fifth column.[56] Stanimir, a senior member of Vojvodina's anti-nationalist party, the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats, believed the evictions sought to change the province's electoral balance of power. "It was straight electoral politics," Stanimir claimed. "Milošević wanted to get rid of anybody whom he couldn't trust to vote for him."[57]

Tensions crested in Hrtkovci after a large, Šešelj-led rally in the village on May 6, 1992, when nationalist spokesmen demanded in no uncertain terms that local Croats pick up and leave. Thousands of Serbian Radical Party supporters, including many recent Serbian refugee arrivals, attended, according to Father Dejan, and many "marched in full četnik uniform."[58] One speaker went so far as to read out the names of alleged Croat traitors, warning them to flee Hrtkovci as soon as possible.

"Soft" Ethnic Cleansing

As we saw in Chapter 3, the Bosnian Serb crisis committees operated quite differently than the Belgrade-based paramilitaries. The latter were external actors loyal to national Serbian figures, functioning outside the normal structures of state and municipal authority. Paramilitaries used violence of the most direct kind, displaying little interest in local laws, regulations, or other bureaucratic tools. The crisis committees, by contrast, emerged from existing local authorities, relying on mechanisms of local administration and governance to enforce ethnic cleansing. Whereas the Sandžak town of Pljevlja had experienced a failed paramilitary coup, Vojvodina's Hrtkovci village was home to an aborted nationalist crisis committee.

Hrtkovci's crisis committee experience was created when the head of the local Radical Party branch, Ostoja Sibinčić, was elected chief of the local council in 1992 with the help of Serb refugees from Croatia. Local councils were on an administrative tier below municipalities, encompassing either neighborhoods or villages. After Šešelj's May 1992 demonstration, Sibinčić organized a new vote for council leadership and was elected its leader, granting him substantial administrative power. "The local police were either cooperating with him or were scared of

him," recalled Father Sreten, a local Catholic priest.[59] "He did what he wanted, said what he wanted, and no one could stop him." What Sibinčić desired above all was to force out Hrtkovci's Croat population and to move Serb refugees into those homes. According to the Novi Sad priest, Father Dejan, Sibinčić was "one of many fingers belonging to one hand in the region," that of Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj. "In every village with Croats there was a kind of Sibinčić. In one village, it was the chief of police. In another, it was head of the local council. In each place, another person carried out the plan of ethnic cleansing."[60] In July 1992, Sibinčić changed Hrtkovci's name to Srboslavci, or Serbian Glory, and his supporters sprayed anti-Croat slogans and broke windows in Croat homes.

Surprisingly, however, Sibinčić's activities triggered a substantial degree of resistance from some ethnic Serbs. Hrtkovci was a relatively large village and enjoyed close ties to Novi Sad, the provincial capital; as anti-Croat measures escalated, a Hrtkovci member of the nationalist but anti-Milošević Serbian Renewal Movement contacted the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats in Novi Sad, pleading for support against Sibinčić's campaign. The Social Democrats had earlier polled some 20 percent of Vojvodina's votes, and therefore constituted a local political force of some note. "We sent faxes to Western embassies, newspapers, Belgrade antiwar organizations, and talked with government authorities," recalled Stanimir, the Social Democrat politician in nearby Novi Sad.[61] Croats and anti-nationalist Serbs from Hrtkovci, in other words, used Vojvodina's League of Social Democrats to trigger international human rights scrutiny, just as Muslim activists had done in the Sandžak. Sovereignty for Vojvodina was not on the international agenda, but human rights monitoring was.

International human rights reflexes were swift. In summer 1992, Western reporters descended on Hrtkovci, writing a flurry of articles on the impending spread of ethnic cleansing to Vojvodina.[62] The Serbian press then picked up on the story. First, the Serbian daily Borba published several lengthy articles, and then other mainstream media followed suit, prompting a delegation of Belgrade intellectuals to mobilize and meet with federal officials and visit Hrtkovci, where they spoke with Sibinčić, local police, and residents. Most importantly, perhaps, longtime Serb residents of Hrtkovci joined the protests, publicly defending their Croat neighbors and blaming Sibinčić and the recent Serb refugees from Croatia for the troubles.[63]

In August 1992, the combined pressures bore fruit. Serbian police officers

arrested Sibinčić and four Serb refugees from Croatia, charging them with illegal firearm possession and disturbing the peace. On May 5, 1993, Sibinčić received a six-month suspended sentence. Another nationalist received a three-month suspended sentence, while three others were cleared of all charges. The sentences were light, but they sent a message to Sibinčić and his colleagues in Vojvodina, warning them to tone their methods down. Yet while Sibinčić's most blatant intimidation efforts subsided, his harassment campaign ultimately worked. By the end of 1992, most of Hrtkovci's Croat population had fled.

Still, though Sibinčić and his allies had pushed many Croats from Vojvodina, the modalities of their displacement were quite different than in Bosnia. Only a handful of persons died in the process, and the eviction campaign was not accompanied by Bosnia-style atrocities. There were no concentration camps in Vojvodina, no large-scale murders, rapes, or torture. Hrtkovci's Croats did experience physical and psychological threats that prompted them to flee, but it was "soft" ethnic cleansing, as Nataša Kandić, director of Belgrade's Humanitarian Law Center, termed events.[64]

Serbian repertoires of violence shifted from Bosnia-style violence to "soft" ethnic cleansing as a result of Vojvodina's institutional setting. Vojvodina, like Sandžak, was part of the Serbian core, and no major international actor claimed otherwise. Vojvodina residents did not mount an armed rebellion, unlike their Kosovo counterparts in 1998–99, appealing instead to international human rights monitors. As a result, Sibinčić and his fellow Serbian radicals knew they could not count on state support if they initiated a wave of Bosnia-style violence. Once his threats against Croats were publicly condemned, moreover, Sibinčić's freedom of maneuver was further reduced. Opponents of Sibinčić's ad hoc crisis committee discovered opportunities for meaningful political protest, since they lived in a country then eager to project a clean-hands image to the world and its citizenry. Protestors could approach the press, officials, and foreign embassies and complain about Sibinčić's actions, and it was in the state's interests to respond, at least partially. As a result, ethnic harassment, rather than ethnic cleansing, was Vojvodina's dominant repertoire of violence.

The potential for Bosnia-style ethnic cleansing in the Sandžak and Vojvodina endured throughout 1992 and 1993. During those years, paramilitaries from Serbia proper repeatedly crossed from Serbia into Bosnia and back, unleashing a wave of death and deportation against Bosnia's

non-Serbs. Within Serbia and Montenegro proper, however, these same men acted quite differently. Whereas the Serbian state secretly encouraged ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, it prevented similar efforts within the Serbian core itself. There, Serbian officials did not eliminate nationalist violence altogether, but did reshape its contours dramatically, pushing it toward ethnic harassment, a pernicious but quite different phenomenon from ethnic cleansing.

Why did the Serbian state differentiate so sharply between Serbia proper (and Montenegro), on the one hand, and Bosnia, on the other? Had Serbia tolerated ethnic cleansing within its own internationally recognized territory, it would have risked its domestic credibility and claim to international legitimacy. Serbia would have had to openly acknowledge it had lost its monopoly over violence to private actors, or would have had to publicly acknowledge its use of ethnic cleansing on its own behalf, violating both domestic laws and international norms. In either case, important institutional rules would have been violated, compromising the state's claims to legitimacy at home and abroad. In 1992 and 1993, Serbia still cared deeply for its image. By 1998–99, as the next chapter demonstrates, issues of international image became less salient for Serbia due to serious challenges in Kosovo. In the early 1990s, however, Serbia was still hoping for integration into the Western-dominated international community, and was still genuinely concerned with avoiding responsibility for ethnic cleansing in its own territory.

Conclusive proof will have to await opening of Serbian state archives or interviews with key officials, but it is likely that many Serbian efforts to cap nationalist violence at ethnic harassment were produced by deliberate, conscious policy choices. There must have been discussions in the ruling Socialist Party, the Serbian interior ministry, and elsewhere, in which the costs and benefits of allowing private notionalists to operate inside Serbia were discussed and weighed. At the same time, however, it is likely that the Serbian state often reacted instinctively to subdue the nationalists. As paramilitaries or homegrown crisis committees emerged within the Serbian core, state bureaucrats mobilized the police, judiciary, and other law enforcement agencies to suppress nationalist freelancers, to project a law-and-order image, and to transform repertoires of nationalist violence.

Public protests and the media played a key role in triggering these mechanisms for defending the institutional integrity of Serbia's core. Had the Štrpci kidnappings or Hrtkovci expulsions never been publicized, Serbian officials are not likely to have mobilized the police, army, and judicial

system to divert the nationalists. This was perhaps clearest in Vojvodina, where two isolated villages with no outside political support—Slankamen and Beška—were quickly and quietly cleansed by Radical Party activists. It was only when Sibinčić began his activities in Hrtkovci that tolerance for outright violence stopped. Some Hrtkovci residents had allies among opposition parties in Vojvodina's capital, Novi Sad, and these politicians took courageous actions that helped trigger international and domestic scrutiny of the Hrtkovci events.

The push toward ethnic harassment did not always require political struggle, however. Unlike their counterparts in Bosnia, it seems unlikely that Serbian Radical Party activists inside Serbia ever seriously contemplated creating concentration camps in Vojvodina. And while paramilitary leaders such as čeko Dačević may have considered massacring Muslims in Sandžak's border towns, there is no indication that he, or any other paramilitary leader, ever seriously considered doing the same in the rest of the Sandžak region, in areas further from the Bosnian border. Thus the logic of what was possible and appropriate in the Serbian core was also determined through deeply internalized, taken-for-granted operating routines.

Ethnic Harassment in the Serbian Core

Preferred Citation: Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.