Since the summer the most dangerous and miserable of all Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cities has not been Sarajevo; it has been Mostar. Once one of the most beautiful of all the region’s towns, Mostar attracted tourists by the busloads. They would come to stroll in the old Muslim quarter and see the city’s most famous attraction, the Ottoman bridge, the Stari Most.
Once compared to a “rainbow rising up to the Milky Way,” the Stari Most is today a battle-scarred monument to the hostility between the Croats and Muslims fighting for control of the city. The bridge spans the Neretva River which divides the two sides. Croatian Mostar on the west bank is well supplied with water and electricity. It is relatively safe except for the neighborhoods along the streets that are now the front lines. Muslim Mostar, on the other hand, is an encircled ghetto of some 25,000 inhabitants on the east bank, where only one in three buildings is habitable and where Croatian shells bring death and destruction daily. Snipers are everywhere, and the main streets and the river are now killing zones. Mostar is also the gateway to the greater hell of central Bosnia which is the most unstable and fought-over region of the country.
In a basement café-bar not far from Mostar’s front lines one can meet members of a special twenty-five-man military unit, among them a friendly man called “Branimir.” Music is blaring from two jukeboxes and the bar’s regular customers—body-builders with Mohawks in stylishly ripped fatigues, heavily made-up women in short skirts, sharply dressed boys with buzzcuts and guns—gather around a billiard table with black metal pool cues. The place has the look and feel of the aliens’ bar from Star Wars.
In fact everyone looks as if he had been cast as a thug by a movie director. Everyone, that is, except Branimir. He is twenty-four, soft-spoken, and good-looking, almost angelic. He has long, thick hair which he wears in a ponytail. He has a gentle smile and expressive eyes, and he wears a tiny Beretta pistol in a holster near the small of his back. The delicate gun somehow suits his personality but it still seems out of place. His beauty and friendliness, along with the gun and the company he keeps, all remind one of Byron’s line from Don Juan: “The mildest mannered man that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat.”
Branimir and his friends are killers. They are part of a paramilitary force of several hundred men which specializes in terror. They see themselves as patriots, slaughtering Muslims for their country, while to outsiders they are war criminals plain and simple. Contrary to the popular perception of Bosnian killers, however, Branimir and his buddies are not Serbs, but Croats, attached to the HVO, the 20,000-member army of the Bosnian Croats. Only a year ago this army was allied with the Muslims in the fight against Serbian expansionism. Now the serious fighting in Bosnia is between Muslims and Croats, while Serbs do more watching than shooting.
The Bosnian Croats entered the war confident that they were, as their legends claim, the best warriors in the Balkans. Life, however, has failed to live up to legend and the Croats have been steadily losing ground to the Muslims. The Croats are now fighting to keep Mostar, which has been chosen as the capital of their ethnic state in Bosnia. Faced with military humiliation on the battlefield, the Croats have turned their wrath on civilians. Most of the butchering of Muslim civilians around Mostar and in central Herzegovina has been done by Croatian special punishment units, such as Branimir’s, under the command of a man called Tuta Naletalic.
I met Branimir in late August, a few days after reports of fierce fighting in a village north of Mostar. I was waiting with some colleagues at the Croat HVO military police headquarters to see the boy commander of Mostar, twenty-two-year-old Zlatan Mijo Jelic. Commander Jelic has a portrait of Ante Pavelic, Croatia’s Second World War fascist leader, on the wall above his desk and surrounds himself with officers who give the fascist salute to foreign journalists, whom they like to insult. Into this den of hostility Branimir appeared, offering a smile, a place to spend the night, and some whiskey.
There was nothing in Branimir’s manner to indicate that he was anything but a simple conscript, nostalgic for the good old days when foreigners were a common sight in Mostar. There was no reason to suspect otherwise, until we reached his house in “Croatian” Mostar, on the west bank of the Neretva River. The bungalow used to belong to a Serbian family but they fled when things first turned ugly in the city. Now it’s a hangout for Tuta’s “boys.”
When we arrived, seven lean young men with handguns sticking out of the tops of their blue jeans sat around the living room joking about their recent trip to the Adriatic coast for a seafood dinner. One of the group, a twenty-two-year-old wearing a baseball cap and an earring, mimed pulling the head off a prawn and muttered, “Musilman.” At this they all started to laugh but stifled the outbursts into snorts and brief giggles, obviously trying to behave for the benefit of outsiders.
As Croats, they had reason to suspect, and to hate, foreign journalists who would only “misinterpret” their patriotic duty to create an ethnically clean living space for their families. But their hatred that night was tempered by an even stronger feeling that many brutal men like themselves succumb to: the desire to boast and justify their actions to strangers. It is the killer’s need to confess.
“Have you ever heard of Tuta?” Branimir asked us.
“Tuta Naletalic? The gangster?” replied a Slovenian journalist with me. “He’s a killer.”
“Yes,” said Branimir. “We are his men. We were just on an action a few days ago in Bijelo Polje, north of here. It was a big fight. We lost five, including our squad leader. He was a great soldier. But we killed more than forty Muslims—the men. By accident some women and a young girl were also killed but it was a mistake. We always let women and children go. That is why we are different from the other sides in Bosnia. They kill everybody. We are not animals. We only kill the men.”
The Slovenian reporter asked: “Do you know you could be tried for being a war criminal?” For a long time Branimir didn’t respond. Then he looked away. “Yes. I know it is possible. But all these questions have already been decided. It is too late now.” His words trailed off into a long silence.
Branimir used to be a photographer’s model and worked part-time as a waiter. He played the piano, studied photography, and designed jewelry. But that was long before Muslims and Croats declared open season on each other and long before his unit’s attack on the village of Bijelo Polje. During the “action” Branimir’s squad came across twelve civilians hiding in a house. “We killed them. There was no other way. Especially in a situation like that. There was no one behind us who could take prisoners and it happens very often that they shoot you in the back. Even the old people. Sometimes you can’t run away from things like this.”
Branimir said he had wanted to avoid taking part in the war but that this was impossible. The situation in Mostar caught up with him, labeled him, made him choose: stand with your own or leave your city like a dog and a traitor. “I no longer have any of the friends I grew up with. They are all on the other sides. Serb among Serbs. Muslim among Muslims. If I met them again I wouldn’t know what to say to them. There’s no turning back now. The only thing left is to fight for Mostar.”
He paused a long time before adding: “In everything I ever did I only wanted to be perfect.”
Gangsters, outlaws, and criminals have had a special place in the war in the former Yugoslavia. Their skills in organizing people and their ruthlessness made them natural choices for Balkan rabble-rousers looking for men to defend cities or serve as nationalist shock troops. All sides in Bosnia have their outlaw heroes. The Serbs have Arkan, a member of the Serb parliament in Belgrade and a fugitive from a Belgian prison. He is an internationally wanted thief and murderer who has now become a prominent “ethnic cleanser” with his own private army. The Muslims have Celo, a convicted rapist, and Juka, a former mob leader, who have helped to keep the Serbs at bay around Sarajevo. The Bosnian Croats have Mladen “Tuta” Naletalic. Before Yugoslavia fell apart, Tuta made a name for himself running clubs, casinos, and protection rackets. He was not a big boss but he was rich enough to spend most of his time abroad in Italy and Spain, unconcerned about the nationalist politics being stoked in Belgrade and Zagreb. But soon after the war started he returned to take command of a special Croat “anti-terrorist” force. According to UN investigators and UN soldiers in the region, he became one of the worst criminals in the former Yugoslavia. One British officer in the Central Bosnian town of Tomislavgrad told me: “His units are very effective. The mere mention of his name inspires fear and can cause an entire village to panic.”
Muslim leaders have said that Naletalic is a cold-blooded murderer of civilians, and UN human rights investigators agree. “He buys sniper guns and runs sniper units, death squads,” one UN human rights official told me. According to the UN, Tuta, in violation of the international arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, is importing from Germany Browning 12.7 sniper rifles, the Rolls Royce of assassins’ weapons. The rounds for the rifles resemble small rockets more than bullets. This is the same gun that Branimir uses.
“It is the worst weapon,” one UN official said. “It has an effective range of 900 meters and total range of three kilometers.” The gun is a killer’s dream and is the perfect rifle for the kind of killing operations Croats have been accused of. The best-known and best-documented Croat-led massacre took place in April in the village of Ahmici, a stone’s throw from the British UN battalion base at Vitez. According to a UN report on the incident:
In the early morning of 16 April, at approximately 5:30 AM, Croat HVO forces launched a mortar attack on the northern part of the village of Ahmici [which contained no legitimate military targets]. The shelling effectively prevented people from fleeing towards the wooded area to the north of the village. The villagers were thus presented with the choice of remaining in their homes or fleeing south towards the main road to Vitez. It appears that a large number of residents chose the latter option and ran southwards to an open field where Croat HVO forces were waiting. At least twenty fleeing civilians were ambushed at the field and shot at close range, mainly in the head and neck. There appear to have been no survivors of this ambush.
The report goes on to say that at three vantage points “high-powered, sniper-calibre shell casings had been left behind.” After the ambush HVO soldiers moved into the village, tossing grenades through windows and shooting into houses. “In a number of cases, residents were ordered to come out of their homes and were summarily executed.” There were eighty-nine bodies recovered, but as many as 190 people, including women and children, are believed to have been butchered in Ahmici.
Branimir and others from his unit described similar tactics: choose a target, attack at night, cause panic, open fire, mop up. This, they said, is the art of killing as taught to them by a British mercenary. For eight weeks Branimir and members of Tuta’s other units were trained in marksmanship and killing techniques by a fifty-seven-year-old former British sergeant and paratrooper named “Norrie.”
Now using the Muslim spelling of his name, Nouri, meaning “the shining,” has since converted to Islam and to the Bosnian cause. When he first arrived in Bosnia two years ago he was one of a group of “internationals” who was hired to train the HVO. The units were mixed Muslim and Croat and their task was to fight the Serbs. After a time, Norrie claims, he was ordered not to train any more Muslims. At a meeting of commanders he was told that the plan was to fight alongside the Muslims against the Serbs, establish a border, and then push the Muslims out to the mercy of the Serbs and Allah.
It was time to switch sides, to become Nouri. Today he has the rank of colonel in the first Mostar brigade of the Bosnian army and is directing the defense of “Muslim” Mostar. In July he slipped out of Mostar for a few weeks to tour European capitals, not to raise money but to publicize the carnage in Mostar that was being largely ignored by the West. “All the time the West is talking, people are dying,” he said during a visit to London. He accused the Croats of planning genocide in Mostar. The news of his activities has embittered his former students. “We think Norrie is a spy and we will kill him,” said one of Branimir’s friends.
Norrie trained Tuta’s men at Grude, the administrative “capital” of the self-styled Croatian republic of Herzeg-Bosna. It is also the headquarters of the HVO and the home of Mate Boban, a silver-haired man in his fifties who is the leader of the Bosnian Croats and a member of the HDZ ruling party of the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman. Boban, eager to please foreign journalists (especially since the American ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, called him a “war criminal”), denies that any HVO units were responsible for the massacre at Ahmici. Referring to the Muslims, he says, “they did it to themselves.”
Interviewing Serbian and Croatian leaders and soldiers, it is hard not to be astounded by claims that their enemies routinely kill themselves, burn down their own houses, and destroy their places of worship. These practices are alleged to be so commonplace that one might think that one was in Jonestown and not Bosnia. What better way to win the sympathy of the world’s press, they argue, than to kill your own people and then to blame it on your enemy?
The argument is ludicrous but not to Mate Boban. To Catholic Croats such as himself, he explains, life is sacred. As part of the training at Grude the soldiers are shown American westerns. “I teach our soldiers ethics and moral lessons using American cowboy films. Yes. That’s the truth,” he says. But exactly what message Boban hopes the men to draw from the films is unclear. He says he likes to use the example of an American film where an old hangman is brought out of retirement in the East to come back to Texas to hang a condemned man. “He does not want to go but along the way he realizes that he must go because he has to give the man a dignified death. That is an important lesson, that death can occur in a human way.”
Local and regional HVO military authorities, like Mr. Boban and Mr. Tudjman, deny that their soldiers carry out such actions as the one at Ahmici. When they are not claiming that Muslims kill themselves, they insist that such murderous activities are carried out by fringe elements not connected to the HVO. One Croat officer, though, laughs at this. “There are no illegal HVO units. But there are special units for special tasks.”
At the bar in Mostar, Branimir’s men pass around pictures taken at the funeral of their former squad leader, a tough bodybuilder named Zelko, who supposedly stepped on a mine in Bijelo Polje and then chose to take his own life with a grenade rather than risk living as an invalid. Pictures of weeping women and tearful comrades are interspersed with snapshots of men reading speeches at the funeral. Some of them are present in the bar.
“Where is Tuta?” I ask. Branimir says, “It is not allowed to take his picture. No one but us should know what he looks like.”
Over a game of pool a few of Tuta’s men talk about how it is only a matter of time before Mostar’s Stari Most bridge will be destroyed. It is not enough, one of them says, to clean Mostar of the Muslims—their relics must also be removed.
Mostar was once a cosmopolitan city where Croats, Muslims, and Serbs lived in relative harmony. But more than eighteen months of war, combined with the break in the Croat-Muslim alliance and Croatian fears of being forced out of their city by growing numbers of Muslim refugees from Serb-occupied eastern Bosnia, brought the city to a kind of a collective insanity. Some people tried to fight the madness and have resisted pressure to give into fear, to leave their neighborhoods and join their “people,” but such defiance could only end in tragedy.
On September 29, late in the evening, 530 Muslims still living on the west bank of the Neretva, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were rounded up by tough young Croatian soldiers and taken at gunpoint to the edge of the front lines. They were then ordered to cross into the eastern ghetto of the city. Croatian snipers, the group was told, would hold their fire as the people ran through the labyrinth of wire and sandbags marking the no man’s land between the two sides. But the snipers did not comply. Survivors spoke of passing corpses as they fled for their lives. It all happened so fast they did not know the exact number killed. But of one thing they were sure. The soldiers in Croat uniforms who took them from their houses and herded them across the front lines under a hail of bullets were Tuta’s men.
“I really don’t hate Muslims,” Branimir said, “but because of the situation I want to kill them all.”
—October 21, 1993
November 18, 1993