Forgetting Resistance in the Balkans

Serbia recently arrested eight individuals suspected of committing war crimes at Srebrenica. The coming trials are unlikely to help anyone “confront the past”. Failing to account for history, with all of its complexities, doesn’t just mean that guilt isn’t processed or punishment not distributed where it’s due; it means that stories about resistance, bravery, and kindness are also lost.

With additional reporting by Sonja Srdanovic.

Mount Jahorina was the site of the women’s alpine skiing competition during the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic Games, when a record-breaking number of spectators cheered from the sidelines of the new state-of-the-art slopes, braving biting winds which sometimes reached 200 km per hour.

Less than a decade later, in the summer of 1995, the former premier ski resort had an entirely different purpose: it operated as a wartime training center for the Special Police Brigade of the Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska (MUP), and was overseen by commanders with nicknames like “Nedjo the Butcher” and “Stalin”. There wasn’t much left of Yugoslavia’s world-renowned winter resort by then, other than eight rickety ski lifts (reconstructed for the 1984 Olympics), the derelict “Dolce Vita” cafe, and empty chalets. The desolate training center also held a “deserters’ unit” for Serbs who had attempted to flee the war. In June of 1995, police carried out a series of raids on deserters across Serbia; they were rounded up, arrested, transported to special “collection centers”, and put on buses bound for the border with Republika Srpska. About 250 of these deserters from Serbia ended up at the remote Jahorina Training Center in the Dinaric Alps, where they were stripped of all personal documents and identification, forced to undergo 20 days of intensive training, and divided into two companies before being deployed.

“Nedjo the Butcher”, the nom de guerre of Nedeljko Milidragovic, was the commander of Jahorina’s first company. He earned his nickname on account of having been associated with a host of wartime atrocities, including the shooting death of a severely disabled Bosniak man and the singling out of a boy of about 11 years old for execution.

But the most despicable of Milidragovic’s alleged crimes occurred on July 13th, 1995 at the notorious Kravica agricultural warehouse. Members of the first and second Jahorina companies, including many from the “deserters unit”, captured more than 1,000 Bosniak men and boys in and around Srebrenica, forced them onto white buses, and drove them to a nondescript roadside warehouse in Kravica, a small village about a kilometer away. The captives were then led into the long, low building, a former agricultural collective still strewn with hay and full of rusting industrial equipment. Survivors recall they were packed in so tight, there was hardly enough space for them all to fit.

Then, without warning, the shooting began. The bullets and M75 hand grenades came “from both sides of the warehouse, through the windows, with all types of weapons, even with RPG,” according to one witness, who managed to survive by hiding underneath the dead bodies of his fellow prisoners for the night. The well-armed captors threw grenades and fired automatic rifles and sub-machine guns through windows and the warehouse entrance, killing anyone who tried to escape. Commander Milidragovic is alleged to have been personally responsible for the deaths of 100 of the captives executed at the Kravica warehouse.

After the war, “Nedjo the Butcher” reportedly settled into a comfortable life in Serbia, where he became a successful businessman in Belgrade. His lucrative post-war career finally ended during the early morning hours of March the 18th, when he was taken into custody by police, along with seven other individuals in Serbia who are all suspected of participating in the genocidal killings at Srebrenica in 1995, including the murders at the Kravica warehouse. The police operation was carried out 20 years after the mass murders at Srebrenica, in which 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were systematically executed by Bosnian Serb forces over the course of just three days in an area designated a United Nations “safe haven”. Meanwhile, the commander of the Dutch “peacekeeping troops” in the area was photographed sipping champagne with General Ratko Mladic.

More recently, “Nedjo the Butcher” and the seven other suspects (identified only by their initials) arrested on March 18th had all been living as free men, mostly in Belgrade or Novi Sad — some for nearly two decades.

What became of the “deserters” who were trained at the former 1984 Olympic site on Mount Jahorina where “Nedjo the Butcher” was a commander? ICTY documents indicate that many participated in the killings at Srebrenica. But some refused, and risked their lives to do so. Deserters in some corners of the country were even tortured by Serbian paramilitary units. An Amnesty International report from the time noted that “Draft resisters and deserters, who may have included conscientious objectors, were prosecuted by the Bosnian Serb de facto authorities. In September and October Serbian paramilitaries tortured deserters from the VRS who left front lines in northwest Bosnia.”

Some stories of resistance are buried deep within the transcripts of the ICTY. Take Witness PW 100. He was described as “a young man in the summer of 1995”. Arrested as a war deserter, he was detained at the Training Center on Mount Jahorina. In mid-July, he and other deserters were sent to the area around Srebrenica. One day, he testified that his unit came across a meadow of waist-high grass near the village of Sandici, where a group of Bosniak prisoners were being held before being loaded onto buses and driven to the Kravica Warehouse. After the last of the transports had departed, Witness PW 100 and the other men in his unit were ordered to kill the captives who remained in the meadow. “We were shocked, we couldn’t believe our ears,” Witness PW 100 said, describing the reaction he and two other members of his unit had to his commander’s directive. “[We] saw crowds of frightened civilians,” he explained. Witness PW 100, along with the two other deserters from his unit, refused the order to kill the prisoners. When others volunteered to complete the task instead, Witness PW 100 asked one of them why: “He told me this was a revenge for his family being wiped out.” As punishment for their insubordination, the three men who resisted the command to kill were kept under constant guard, starved, and forbidden from speaking for a period of several days. At some point on the way back to the training center on Mount Jahorina, Witness PW 100 escaped — by “running as far away from there as possible.” For his safety, the Witness PW 100 was forced to give his testimony before the ICTY via video link from an undisclosed location, with face and image distortion to conceal his identity.

Near Sandici Meadow. (Photo credit: S-P 1981/Panoramio)
Near Sandici Meadow. (Photo credit: S-P 1981/Panoramio)

The recent arrests are without precedent in Serbia: Never before has a domestic court processed a case directly related to the Bosnian war and acts of genocide. In lieu of domestic prosecution at the national level, the ICTY has labored intensely to extradite criminals to the international court at The Hague. Never before has the war crimes prosecutor’s office handled a case with so many victims. The eight detainees are suspected of having murdered between 1,000 to 1,300 people of the 8,000 killed at Srebrenica. And never before has the war crimes prosecutor’s office been responsible for such a high-profile crime.

Meanwhile, news of the arrests in Serbia seem to have been met with little more than a shrug. Though the March 18th operation received widespread attention in the international press, the coverage in Serbia has been minimal, and will likely to stay that way. Some foreign commentators have expressed hopes that a major war crimes trial in Belgrade will at last allow Serbia to “confront its past”. Ian Traynor expressed this idea in the Guardian: “Many Serbs persist in believing that the tribunal in The Hague is an international plot aimed at stigmatising the Serbs and blaming them for the horrors of the 90s. Staging a trial on such an emotive subject in Belgrade might serve an educational purpose as well as bringing justice and some closure to the families of the victims.”

Such hopes, however, hinge upon an association between the Serbian public with acts of genocide, massacre, and destruction in Bosnia during the 1990s. The state of present attitudes, both at the highest level of the Serbian government as well as much of society, make the pedagogical and civic promise of public prosecution an abstract venture at best, and a fool’s errand at worst. First, we need not look further than the ICTY. The Hague’s prosecution of war criminals has been met alternatively with inattention, apathy, derision, or fierce allegations of anti-Serb bias and Western conspiracy. These feelings of collective persecution through prosecution are announced in all of the former Yugoslav republics with respect to the Hague’s proceedings of war criminals, but no where does such animus reside at a more resentful and unproductive level than within Serbia. A series of high profile acquittals of Hague indictees accused of having committed war crimes against Serbs and other nationalities, including Roma, have undoubtedly helped fuel this perception. But the international community’s hopes that a domestic trial of war criminals in Serbia, as opposed to internationally, is not grounded in over twenty years of extended polemical denial or avoidance of culpability within Serbia itself.

On July 20th, 1995, an angry young Aleksandar Vucic gave an inflammatory speech. “For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims,” the future prime minister and most powerful man in Serbia shouted, with none of the studied restraint he’s adopted since his recent makeover as a moderate. The Srebrenica massacre had ended on July 13th, exactly one week earlier.

This July will mark the 20th anniversary of the genocidal killings at Srebrenica, and the final dženaza or annual memorial service to commemorate the 8,000 lives lost. If Vucic is asked about his speech from that same week back in 1995, he’ll likely concede it was a mistake. Before his Serbian Progressive Party’s crushing victory in the March elections last years, Vucic gave a very different kind of speech in Novi Pazar, a town in southern Serbia where the population is predominantly Muslim. “Smart people learn something through life, and those who are not smart can live three lives and learn nothing.”

But the current government has played a significant role in the shaping of attitudes toward Serb war crimes, diminishing whatever power they may have upon prosecution. Recalling President Tomislav Nikolic’s recent comments about allegations that Army General Ljubiša Diković committed war crimes during the Kosovo War, the idea that people in Serbia will be “educated” by a domestic trial (as opposed to a trial before the Hague tribunal) seems all the more unlikely: When Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia’s chief war crimes prosecutor, announced that he would proceed with an investigation of General Dikovic’s wartime activities in Kosovo earlier this year, Nikolic responded by attacking the veteran prosecutor in an interview with the Serbian daily Politika. “To be a prosecutor for war crimes in Serbia is very delicate,” Nikolic said. “[Vukcevic] is not a pawn of the Hague Tribunal, nor is he merely a hand that is supposed to sign decrees that arrive from The Hague.” In other words, even a domestic investigation by the war crimes prosecutor can be characterized as a detested foreign imposition if it serves the leadership’s prevailing political aims, such as the protection of a close ally.

The irony of Nikolic’s statements is that it’s unlikely the current government would have arrested the eight Srebrenica suspects if it hadn’t been for foreign pressure from the European Union. “They are selling [the detainees] gradually for steps forward to the EU,” a journalist for the Associated Press who helped break the story about the Srebrenica arrests, told Balkanist.

The European Parliament’s “Resolution on the 2014 Progress Report on Serbia”, passed by an overwhelming majority of MEPs on March 11th, 2015, seems to strengthen this claim. The new resolution includes several paragraphs about Serbia’s need to address war crimes:

13… Encourages Serbia to further cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), to strengthen domestic war crimes trials and continue to strengthen its efforts regarding regional cooperation to end impunity and bring justice to the victims of war crimes and their families; highlights the urgent need to adopt comprehensive legislation and policy for the protection of witnesses and to provide the victims and their families with the right to reparations; reiterates its support for the REKOM initiative;

14… Calls on Serbia in the spirit of reconciliation and good-neighbourly relations to consider its Law on Organisation and Competence of State Authorities in War Crimes Proceedings in cooperation with its neighbours and with the Commission;

15…  Calls on Serbia to intensify its cooperation with neighbouring countries and to strengthen its efforts in the search for missing persons, and to fully share all relevant data; urges the Serbian authorities, in this regard, to open up the archives of the Yugoslav People’s Army in order to establish the truth of past tragic events and obtain information…

Serbia's Minister of Labor, Aleksandar Vulin, visits Milosevic's memorial on March 11th, 2015 (Photo credit: Tanjug)
Serbia’s Minister of Labor, Aleksandar Vulin, visits Milosevic’s memorial on March 11th, 2015 (Photo credit: Tanjug)

The March 11th resolution was also passed on the anniversary of Slobodan Milosevic’s death. Minister of Labour Aleksandar Vulin, who is part of Prime Minister Vucic’s own governing coalition, decided it would be a good idea to honor the occasion with a visit to Milosevic’s hometown of Pozarevac to place flowers at his memorial. Vulin, a politician with a penchant for gothic fashion and comic books, urged Serbia not to forget Milosevic, whom he referred to as the country’s “first democratically elected president”. The EU is unlikely to have reacted with much enthusiasm to such a display.

So as with previous big arrests of suspected war criminals like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the impetus for the recent police action is unlikely to have been a desire for international justice, a concept that is met with suspicion by many in Serbia and elsewhere, but rather the desire to access greater power and financial opportunities through improved relations with the West. This is a potentially dangerous game to play, as it is indicative of no level of reform or collective responsibility on the part of the current government. It reduces the importance of such arrests to mere monetary transactions in return for a favorable political and business environment domestically. In short, it is a mere political performance on the world’s stage with especially beneficial rewards for the Serbian elite. Considered through this lens, the arrests of war criminals adds another layer of belated insult, and indeed injustice, to those in the Bosniak community both in the Balkans and in the diaspora.

There are some nominally positive developments worth noting. With the passing of time, and each successive alleged war criminal’s glorified flight to or from the Hague, the public protests and rallies in Serbia have diminished in size. When Karadzic was sent to the ICTY in 2008, an estimated 15,000 supporters, some bused in from Bosnia by the Radical Party, turned out to protest in Belgrade. Less than three years later, when Ratko Mladic was extradited, that number had fallen to 10,000. Finally, after Vojislav Seselj was released from Hague detention in November of last year, between 3,000 and 5,000 people showed up at his homecoming rally in the capital.

Of course, Serbia is by no means the only country to have treated its alleged war criminals with such fanfare. When the 24- and 18-year sentences of Croatian Generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were overturned by the ICTY in November of 2012, news reports indicated that “tens of thousands” of supporters showed up to celebrate in central Zagreb, though Croatia Week placed that number at a staggering 100,000.

Srdjan Aleksic
Srdjan Aleksic

In the end, Serbia’s prosecution of eight individuals suspected of carrying out the Srebrenica massacre is unlikely to open up any new public discussions about culpability or the complexities of the conflicts.

The Yugoslav wars produced plenty of famous generals, paramilitary leaders, warlords, guerillas, and strongmen who have been celebrated as brave warrior-martyrs at home, and demonized as the embodiment of evil, death and wanton destruction in neighboring countries. For a region where there was a fairly high level of social cohesion prior to the conflict, there is an alarming deficit of stories about so-called Balkan “Schindlers”. Srdjan Aleksic, a Bosnian Serb who was beaten to death in 1993 for attempting to defend a Bosniak friend in the town of Trebinje in southern Bosnia, is one such individual. In early 2013, Belgrade city officials said they would support a citizens’ initiative to name a street in the city after Aleksic. Certainly there are more stories like his, forgotten because they don’t fit neatly with any ethnic narrative of the conflict. Or perhaps the political elite and society itself are unprepared to say yet whether such people are traitors or heroes.

So for now, those responsible for mass murder and the forced displacement of entire populations are celebrities, their faces inescapable on billboards, television and posters. Having refused to kill often means the opposite: being labeled a traitor, testifying under a pseudonym at the Hague, your face obscured. Failing to properly account for history with all of its complexities doesn’t just mean that guilt isn’t processed or punishment not distributed where it’s due, it also means that stories about resistance, bravery, and kindness — all useful for restoring a sense of individual agency and a measure of trust in the world — are also lost.

Photo credit: Ratko Bozovic

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.