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

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.

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.