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America and the Bosnia Genocide

In their plan, the officers described how artillery, ammunition, and other military equipment would be stored in strategic locations in Croatia and then in Bosnia, and how, with the help of the Secret Police, local Serbian activists would be armed and trained, thereby creating “shadow” police forces and paramilitary units in the towns of the Croatian Krajina and throughout Bosnia. And, as early as July 1990, this is precisely what the Army began to do. In the area of Foca, according to Doko,

The JNA had distributed among the Serb voluntary units about 51,000 pieces of firearms and [among] SDS members, about 23,000…, [the Army] also gave them armoured vehicles, about 400 heavy artillery pieces, 800 mortars….

The leaders of the Bosnian Serb Army would be able to depend upon this “parallel power structure” of dedicated, often fanatical, and now well-armed men to support their troops as they carried out their campaign to conquer Bosnia. For “to conquer” here does not mean simply to subdue. In Bosnia people of different religions tended to be well mixed together; many cities in the Drina Valley, for example, adjacent to the border of Serbia itself, contained large numbers of Muslims.

The officers confronted, then, both a demographic and a strategic challenge. They must create a new state whose contiguous territory bordered the Serbian motherland—and which held most of the “liberated” Serbs. “The fact that Muslims are the majority,” Karadzic said, “makes no difference. They won’t decide our fate. That is our right.” Serb lands were Serb lands, regardless of who happened to live there.

And thus came into use “ethnic cleansing,” an ancient and brutally effective technique of war christened by the Serbs with a modern, hygienic name. In city after city, town after town, in the spring and summer of 1992, the Bosnian Serb Army and its commandos and paramilitary units launched their attacks in precisely the same pattern. It was clear these operations of conquest and cleansing were minutely, and centrally, planned. According to Vladimir Srebov, a former Serbian Democratic Party leader who read the “RAM Plan,” the officers stipulated a vast program of ethnic cleansing the aim of which “was to destroy Bosnia economically and completely exterminate the Muslim people.” As Srebov later told an interviewer:

The plan…envisaged a division of Bosnia into two spheres of interest, leading to the creation of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia. The Muslims were to be subjected to a final solution: more than 50 percent of them were to be killed, a smaller part was to be converted to Orthodoxy, while an even smaller…part—people with money—were to be allowed to buy their lives and leave, probably, through Serbia, for Turkey. The aim was to cleanse Bosnia-Herzegovina completely of the Muslim nation.22

This plan was not fully accomplished, although it is astonishing to think that it might have been. With some exceptions, when the Serbs launched their campaign on March 27, 1992, they chose as their first objective to seize those parts of Bosnia closest to Serbia and to the (now Serbian-controlled) Krajina, regardless of who lived there. Within six weeks they controlled 60 percent of the country, and though they would later increase their gains, occupying, at their strongest, some 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory—Serbs made up slightly less than a third of Bosnians—and though the fighting and shelling and skirmishing would go on, the front lines would not change dramatically during the next three years of the war.

When the Serb gunners began shelling cities and towns in Bosnia, the pattern of “cleansing” emerged immediately. Army units would form a perimeter around a town, setting up roadblocks. Messages were sent inviting all Serb residents to depart. Then the artillerymen would begin their work, shelling the town with heavy and light guns; if defenders fired back, the Serb bombardment might last many days, destroying the town and killing most of those in it; if there was no resistance, the heavy guns might stop in a day or two. Once the town was considered sufficiently “softened up,” the paramilitary shock troops would storm in, and the terror would begin.

Like the camp guards—whom they visited when they could in order to take part in torturing prisoners—the paramilitary troops had one responsibility: to administer terror. After a town had been subdued by artillery fire the paramilitaries “mopped up.” Many bore on their person all the iconography of World War II “Chetnik” nationalists: bandoliers across their chests and huge combat knives on their belts; fur hats with symbols of skull and crossbones; black flags, also with skull and crossbones; and the full beard, which, as Ivo Banac says, “in the peasant culture of Serbia is a sign of mourning; somebody dies, one does not shave. This was something that happened in times of war….”23

Often the paramilitary troops would arrive at a newly conquered town with lists of influential residents who were to be executed; just as often they simply shot, or stabbed, or mutilated, or raped any resident whom they managed to find. These killers, many of whom were criminals who had been released from prison to “reform themselves” at the front, were attracted to the job by their virulent nationalist beliefs, by simple sadism, and by greed. Looting Muslim houses made many of them rich.

Many of the sadistic, high-living, and colorful paramilitary leaders became celebrities in Serbia. Zeljko Raznatovic, for example, known as Arkan (everyone knew his Serb Volunteer Guard, by far the strongest and best armed of the paramilitaries, as Arkan’s Tigers), was a famous criminal—a bank robber by profession who was thought to be wanted in several European countries, in several of which he had been imprisoned and escaped.

Judah speculates that Arkan’s legendary prison escapes have owed much to his longstanding contacts with agents of an espionage network run out of the Yugoslav Secretariat for Internal Affairs, for whom he reputedly worked as an assassin abroad. (His day job was running a pastry shop.) Having lately married a Serbian pop singer in a huge wedding, Arkan now is a member of the Yugoslav parliament.

Despite their flamboyance and seeming independence, Arkan’s Tigers and the other paramilitaries—Vojislav Seslj’s Chetniks, the White Eagles, the Yellow Ants (the name is a testament to their prowess at looting)—were creatures of the Serbian state. As Milos Vasic, an expert on the Yugoslav military, writes, “They were all organized with the consent of Milosevic’s secret police and armed, commanded, and controlled by its officers.”

Though it is unclear how specifically the officers described actual tactics in the RAM Plan, the similarity of atrocities committed in town after town lends credence to Beverly Allen’s assertion, in Rape Warfare, that they debated in detail the most effective means of terror. Allen quotes one document, “a variation of the RAM Plan, written by the army’s special services, including…experts in psychological warfare,” that offers a chilling sociological rationale for the tactics of ethnic cleansing:

Our analysis of the behavior of the Muslim communities demonstrates that the morale, will, and bellicose nature of their groups can be undermined only if we aim our action at the point where the religious and social structure is most fragile. We refer to the women, especially adolescents, and to the children. Decisive intervention on these social figures would spread confusion…, thus causing first of all fear and then panic, leading to a probable retreat from the territories involved in war activity.

This is why Vasic calls the paramilitaries the “psychological weapon in ethnic cleansing.” The men knew that they must be brutal enough, and inventive enough in their cruelty, that stories of their terror would quickly spread and in the next village, says Vasic, “no one would wait for them to come.” He estimates that the paramilitaries consisted on average of “80 percent common criminals and 20 percent fanatical nationalists.”24

José Maria Mendiluce, an official of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who happened to pass through Zvornik on April 9, was watching the paramilitaries “mopping up” the town, when he suddenly realized that “the Belgrade media had been writing about how there was a plot to kill all Serbs in Zvornik…. This maneuver always precedes the killing of Muslims.” As Michael Sells, who includes this quotation in his The Bridge Betrayed, comments,

The national mythology, hatred and unfounded charges of actual genocide in Kosovo and imminent genocide in Bosnia had shaped into a code: the charge of genocide became a signal to begin genocide.

Army gunners—some of them positioned across the Drina in Serbia itself—targeted Zvornik and drove its few, lightly armed defenders out in a matter of hours. Then Vojislav Seslj and his Chetnik paramilitaries moved in.

Mendiluce watched as the soldiers and the paramilitaries did their work:

I saw lorries full of corpses. Soldiers were dumping dead women, children and old people onto lorries. I saw four or five lorries full of corpses. On one bend, my jeep skidded on the blood.25

United Nations investigators say Seslj briefed his Chetniks in a local hotel, reading out a list of the names of local Muslims who were to be killed. “Milosevic was in total control,” Seslj later told an interviewer, “and the operation was planned…in Belgrade.”

The Bosnian Serbs did take part. But the best combat units came from Serbia. These were special police commandos called Red Berets. They’re from the Secret Service of Serbia. My forces took part, as did others. We planned the operation very carefully, and everything went exactly according to plan.26

According to the United Nations, some two thousand people from Zvornik remain unaccounted for. As for the other 47,000 Muslims, they were expelled, many of them forced onto the roads with only what they wore. Zvornik, which had a thriving community of Muslims for half a millennium, now has none.

Sometimes the cleansing was carried out more gradually. Early in 1992, members of a small paramilitary group seized control of Prijedor’s television transmitter, thus ensuring that the town received only programs from Belgrade—programs which, UN investigators wrote, “insinuated that non-Serbs wanted war and threatened the Serbs.” Soon Yugoslav National Army troops, fresh from the Croatia war, began arriving in the Prijedor area. The Army officers demanded that Prijedor’s leaders permit their troops to take up positions around the city, from which they could control all roads to, and exits from, the district.

It was an ultimatum. The legitimate authorities were invited for a guided sightseeing tour of two Croatian villages…which had been destroyed and left uninhabited. The message was that if the ultimatum was not [accepted], the fate of Prijedor would be the same. … The ultimatum was accepted.27

With Bosnian Serb troops guarding all roads, Prijedor became isolated. The Serbs closed down the bus service. They required that people have permits to visit even nearby villages. They imposed a curfew. The telephones were often not working.

  1. 22

    See Adil Kulenovic, “Interview with Vladimir Srebov,” Vreme (Belgrade), October 30, 1995.

  2. 23

    See Rabia Ali, “Separating History from Myth: An Interview With Ivo Banac,” in Rabia Ali and Lawrence Lifschultz, editors, Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan War (Stony Creek, Connecticut: Pamphleteer’s Press, 1993), p. 158.

  3. 24

    See Milos Vasic, “The Yugoslav Army and the Post-Yugoslav Armies,” in D.A. Dyker and I. Vejvoda, editors, Yugoslavia and After: A Study in Fragmentation, Despair and Rebirth (Longman, 1996), p. 134.

  4. 25

    See “The Gates of Hell,” Program Four in The Death of Yugoslavia.

  5. 26

    See “The Gates of Hell,” Program Four in The Death of Yugoslavia.

  6. 27

    See United Nations Report, Annex V, “The Prijedor Report,” paragraphs 6-13, 16, 19-20.

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