How Serb paramilitary violence was perpetrated in two Bosnian towns: an interview with Dr. Iva Vukušić

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CN: this article contains discussion of genocide, rape, torture and war


Dr. Iva Vukušić is a lecturer at the Department of History at Utrecht University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on irregular armed forces, perpetrators and perpetration, and judicial responses to mass violence. She completed her PhD in Utrecht, focusing on Serbian paramilitaries and irregular armed forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Iva worked for the Sense News Agency in The Hague, analysing evidence from trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and before that, she was an analyst and researcher at the Special War Crimes Department of the State Prosecutor’s office in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her latest publication, ‘Masters of Life and Death: Paramilitary Violence in Two Bosnian Towns’ can be accessed here.

Following the publication of her latest article, Politika News sat down (virtually) with Dr. Vukušić to discuss the complexities of Serb paramilitary violence in the Bosnian War, and the dwindling pursuit of justice.

During a recent presentation that you gave of your paper, ‘Masters of Life and Death: Paramilitary Violence in Two Bosnian Towns [Višegrad and Bosanski Šamac]’, you stated that Slobodan Milošević utilised paramilitary groups to obscure his regime’s own accountability for crimes committed by the very groups his regime sponsored. Do we know if there was any direct and/or indirect communication between Belgrade and Serb paramilitary groups in Bosnia? If so, what would this communication have consisted of?

This is a more complicated question than it may at first appear. The “paramilitary universe” if you will, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was incredibly dynamic and diverse, especially early on in the war (in the spring and summer of 1992). As the war progressed, there was a certain consolidation of the various armed groups.

The Milošević regime seems to have had closer ties with some groups than others, but much about the nature of those relationships remains opaque. Units most frequently associated with the Belgrade regime include Arkan’s Tigers (the Serbian Volunteer Guard), the so-called Red Berets (which is an umbrella term for a number of units), and the Scorpions. A number of scholarly books exploring the violent breakup of Yugoslavia have discussed these ties.

The retrial of the Serbian State Security officials, Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović (at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, which took over many of the tasks of the now-closed ICTY), where we expect soon a trial judgment will provide some answers, at least from the judicial perspective. 

These two are essentially charged with establishing, operating, funding, training and directing the above-mentioned paramilitary units. Sadly, many records from that trial remain publicly inaccessible so crucial details about the connections between Milošević, his close associates and the units perpetrating attacks on civilians in the field are beyond our reach (for now).

What we do know is that extensive cooperation, support and financial assistance was provided to Bosnian Serbs throughout the war, and that Belgrade was influential and powerful when it came to how the war and the pursuit to achieve political goals were executed. 

There are extensive records of phone conversations between Milošević, Stanišić and many of the Bosnian Serb leaders, including of course Radovan Karadžić. Paramilitaries were, of course, part of that cooperative universe. 

These contacts and cooperation continued in different ways, even during political crises in the relationships between Serbs on both sides of the Drina river (separating Bosnia and Serbia). However, there are no recorded instances of Milošević himself, for example, speaking or being publicly seen as engaging with paramilitary leaders. 

Given that one of the main purposes of these kinds of units in the war in the former Yugoslavia (as it frequently is elsewhere) was to outsource violence and protect the state and the leadership (from diplomatic pressure, additional economic sanctions and potential criminal prosecution down the line), it would have made no sense to openly engage with them, as the government. 

Court records in The Hague do point to a network of people in formal and informal positions, many of them in Ministry of Internal Affairs and to a lesser extent the army, working with the units for the same political goal—to redraw borders of the crumbling Yugoslavia once it became clear that independence for Croatia and Bosnia were looming.

There are numerous records, however many of them still classified, providing details of what could be called “liaison officers” who were working for Serbian institutions but were almost “on loan” in the field, seemingly affiliated with the local institutions of Bosnian Serbs (and a similar set up was put in place earlier in Croatia too). 

Those people seem to have been crucial links between the centres of power and decision-making in Belgrade and the operations in the field. Whatever instructions and direction were needed, it likely went through them. 

Therefore, contacts and cooperation between Belgrade and the select units in the field seems to have gone through these “liaison officers”, and through informal channels, but again, we have to wait for more documents before we make broader claims about the precise content of those communications. 

I invite your readers to follow the proceedings in the Mechanisms’ trial in the Stanišić and Simatović case, this complex story plays out in significant detail there. Hopefully, one day we’ll have access to more documents so we’ll be able to be more precise.

Dr. Vukušić worked as a researcher in The Hague (2009-2015), analysing evidence from trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

In your presentation, you state that paramilitaries were perceived to be those who would commit violence towards civilians that other fighters would not. Can you elaborate on this? 

Well, paramilitaries were often much more permissive as to who they let join (especially some of them!). In fact, some units drew openly from groups which were already accustomed to violence (football fan clubs, or martial art clubs).

There is evidence of convicts being released from prison if they “volunteered” to go into the field and join units. Of course, we know how many crimes were perpetrated by the official armed forces (e.g. Yugoslav Peoples’ Army in Vukovar) or the Bosnian Serb Army shelling and sniping Sarajevo (to name just a few). 

Armies were often full of people who were trained officers and they had certain criteria to allow people to join (as well as certain criteria about the actions they would be involved in). As trained officers, many of them understood the bounds of law (and others still chose to ignore it). 

The less formal units were more welcoming, and included, for example, people with alcohol and drug problems and a history of violent behavior. However, we should stress – not all paramilitaries were equally likely to torture, and within units, there were ringleaders. There was great diversity between units, and diversity within units as to the kind of behavior people would engage in. I hope my latest article helps make that clear.

In the paramilitary groups you studied, did the willingness of fighters to commit atrocities against civilians change as the dynamics of the war evolved?

I have not studied “willingness” (and would find it difficult to try to “measure” that) and how it connected to the military realities and power-balance in the field as the war progressed. That is definitely one aspect we should study in the future, as archives hopefully open up more (and for that we as the scholarly community should join forces and lobby together). 

‘I’m afraid we’ve witnessed the best days of war crimes prosecution in and for the former Yugoslavia, and now we are witnessing a slow, painful and remarkably quiet decline.’

During your time analysing evidence from ICTY trials, what was one thing that struck you regarding how justice was pursued for paramilitary crimes? 

The ICTY was in operation for 25 years and its daughter-institution, the Residual Mechanism, still has trials to finalise, so it is not over. 

We are expecting the judgment in the case against Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić (for a long list of crimes including persecutions and murders early in the war, the sniping and shelling of Sarajevo and the mass executions following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995) and the already mentioned Stanišić and Simatović case is still in the works, so it is not quite over yet.

However, one can say that prosecution of paramilitary crimes, as those committed by others was rather uneven. Some important perpetrators were convicted (such as Milan Lukić), some never charged. The workload of prosecuting other suspects now rests on the states of the former Yugoslavia and I have little faith that they will raise to the challenge. 

The political will was never truly there, and the pressure is gone. I’m afraid we’ve witnessed the best days of war crimes prosecution in and for the former Yugoslavia, and now we are witnessing a slow, painful and remarkably quiet decline.  

In your presentation, you discuss the difference between professional and non-professional paramilitary units acting in Bosnia. One major difference you mention is that non-professional paramilitary ‘fighters’ had time to invest in imagining and staging torture. What factors may have shaped this imagining?

Some units such as Milan Lukić’s unit in Višegrad or the Yellow Wasps in Zvornik were known as being particularly brutal, targeting not only men but also women, children and babies, and also engaging in acts of performative violence.

Here I want to emphasize that these units are not those most frequently related to the circle around Milošević. This status of lesser importance, for the regime, maybe liberated them in some way—gave them time and freedom to do whatever they wanted to, locally.

What is interesting is that in particular Lukić’s group consisted of many local men, so they were abducting, killing and raping their own neighbors. That was not the case with what I called the more professionalized units. Those were mobile and generally did not attack people they knew or children and women in a systematic way. 

Of course, categories of units are ideal-types and if one looks at examples, one will find units and incidents which sit uncomfortably somewhere in grey areas or stand out. However, as I show in my upcoming book and in my recent article, there are some patterns we can observe in paramilitary violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Along a similar vein, you mentioned that professional units (who had closer ties to Milošević and the MUP) were more mobile and would often leave a settlement after attacking its civilians. How did this mobility shape the way professional units carried out violence against civilians?

This is something I go into quite a bit of detail in in the article, so I won’t repeat it here.  However, I should say that, overall, professionalized units had less time to engage in performative torture and were operating under different rules. In order to be effective, they were not supposed to raise much attention and attract journalists, and international monitors.

Arkan was a bit of an outlier here, he craved attention, but for the most part, these units were often moving a bit under the radar and did not stage orgies of torture as some other units. 

‘Paramilitary violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina was ubiquitous, diverse and effective. The territorial ambitions of the Bosnian Serb leadership, for the most part, came true.’

Finally, in your view, why is it crucial that scholars properly understand the nature of paramilitary violence in the Bosnian War?

Paramilitary violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina was ubiquitous, diverse and effective. The territorial ambitions of the Bosnian Serb leadership, for the most part, came true. 

That would not have been possible without extensive paramilitary involvement. Also, plausible deniability works—in total, few leaders were convicted for paramilitary violence, especially in Serbia proper (especially at the very top). In fact, almost none were, as Milošević himself died before hearing the judgment in The Hague. 

Those who have been prosecuted were mostly lower-level perpetrators who committed violent crimes personally. However, the stage these guys (and they were overwhelmingly guys) walked onto, and often the resources they needed to operate and flourish, were provided from Belgrade. 

No serious effort was ever made to prosecute these leaders, or arrest suspects in any systematic way during the war, even though credible allegations existed about what they were doing to non-Serbs. 

There’s ample evidence that Serbian military and intelligence services were well aware of what these units were up to in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just to emphasize, paramilitary units were used by other “sides” in the war in the former Yugoslavia too (but to a lesser extent), and all kinds of units with diverse and dynamic relationships with states all over the world serve as convenient perpetrators of violence in ways that are effective in shielding the state. 

That is why we need to understand these mechanisms of plausible deniability, and how units perpetrate—because it is not something uniquely Serbian at all. These kinds of ways of employing paramilitaries are really quite frequent. 

Finally, as a historian and a former Yugoslav myself, I find it important to document what happened to victims of paramilitary violence. There, I think there is value in simply recording those horrific events for history and memory.   

Politika News would like to thank Dr. Vukušić for her time. Readers can access Iva’s publications here. Readers can access her latest article on paramilitary violence in Višegrad and Bosanski Šamac here. Iva’s new book on Serbian paramilitaries in the former Yugoslavia is due to be published next summer (2022) and will be accessible here.

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Article Image Source: Flickr

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