Remembering Vlašic and the 17th Brigade
by Lee Bryant
This summer, former Bosnian Army 7th Corps and 17th Brigade soldiers met in Travnik to commemorate their role in the 1995 capture of Mount Vlašić and the subsequent push towards the Krajina that helped bring about the end of the war.
Under the title ‘Comrades in war, friends in peace’, a group of them met at the Krajišnik graveyard in Travnik, the last resting-place for many young men from north-west Bosnia who died defending this central Bosnian city from Bosnian Serb forces. After a short ceremony of remembrance, they moved on to the 7th Corps barracks, with its dramatic stone monument to the famous 17th Krajina Brigade. From there the veterans drove up the winding road ascending Mount Vlašić to the peak at Galica, which was the site of a celebrated operation to capture the commanding heights above Travnik in 1995.
General Ćuskić, founder and first commander of the 17th Brigade, gave a speech recalling the fight for Vlašić and the role of the Brigade in creating conditions for the 1995 counter-offensive that preceded the final cease-fire and the Dayton accords. Looking down from the steep eastern approaches to Vlašić, Ćuskić spoke with pride about the long operation to take the mountain, which began in 1994, and about how the bravery and professionalism of the individual soldiers was the decisive factor in this success.
Brigade of the expelled
The 17th Brigade was formed in 1992 in Croatia (and with assistance from the Croatian army) with the aim of returning to Bosnia to fight for Bosnian Krajina, which had been ethnically cleansed and was under occupation by Bosnian Serb forces. Many of its soldiers were volunteers who had been expelled from towns in north-west Bosnia, and many had survived the notorious Serb-run camps at Omarska, Keraterm, Manjača and Trnopolje. Their aim was simply to return home, but as Ćuskić remarks, ‘the shortest route is not necessarily the fastest’, which is why they fought wherever they were needed in Bosnia rather than just in the north-west. The long and arduous operation in 1994-5 to capture Vlašić - dubbed by Radovan Karadžić the ‘roof of Bosnia’ - was a vital stage in achieving the Brigade's main aim; but it was also one of the most symbolic victories of the war for the Bosnian Army as a whole. Various military observers, including visiting US Generals and Paddy Ashdown, had all rejected the idea that the Bosnian Army could dislodge Serb forces from the peak, and indeed it took cunning, bravery and several metres of snow in some areas for the operation to succeed.
Looking down into Travnik from a height of over 1,200 metres, some nine years later, this event was a chance to reflect upon the hope and determination that surrounded the capture of Vlašić, and upon the disappointment that followed soon after when the dream of return was shattered by the reality of geo-political horse-trading. In 1995 we had travelled this same road up the mountain to Galica and on to the old ski-resort Hotel Babanovac with 7th Corps commander General Alagić, just behind the first wave of soldiers who had secured the peak. Alagić had been in expansive mood, insisting his assistants make us a cappuccino in a wooden dugout on the mountain, and allowing us to join him in his new command post after he had congratulated a tired but jubilant throng of soldiers outside the Hotel. We could hear the excitement, sometimes disbelief, as commanders radioed in their reports confirming that Serb forces were on the run and that the Bosnian Army was pushing northwards.
With the capture of Donji Vakuf and then the peak of Vlašić in the summer of 1995, the way was finally clear for the 17th Brigade to begin what it hoped would be the final leg of its journey home to the Bosnian Krajina. In the days that followed the capture of Vlašić, the soldiers of the 17th Brigade gathered in Travnik one last time before heading north. Even the wounded and barely mobile would not miss this chance, but joined the others with whatever transport they could muster. Passing through newly established Croatian positions around Jajce, the Brigade advanced towards Ključ and Sanski Most, where it was involved in heavy fighting with Serb forces from across Republika Srpska and from Serbia proper to re-capture and secure both towns. Then it began moving towards the region's main town Prijedor, across the Manjača plateau, where units of the 17th Brigade came within striking distance of the site of one of the notorious network of Serb-run camps in north-west Bosnia. But then, in a series of events that have been the subject of much speculation since the end of the war, the Bosnian government ordered it to cease operations and withdraw to Sanski Most, where it would remain until the war was formally ended. Ironically, with the end of the war and the recognition it afforded to Republika Srpska (RS), many 17th Brigade soldiers now once again found themselves ‘displaced persons’ on the wrong side of the divide: despite being stationed in the Federation, they were citizens of municipalities in the new RS, ruled by those very forces against which they had fought throughout the war.
In November 2004, when General Ćuskić addressed a Bosnian Institute forum in London, he provided a fascinating insight into how a volunteer army comprised initially of people expelled from the Bosnian Krajina had become a formidable fighting force, capable of sophisticated operations such as Operation Vlašić. He placed great emphasis on professionalism and discipline among his men, especially important during the 1993-4 war with the HVO in Central Bosnia, when the situation in the Lašva valley threatened to destroy the Bosnian ideal in bloody internecine conflict. He was rightly proud of the conduct of his men, and of the positive role they eventually played in creating co-operation on the ground between HVO and Bosnian Army forces.
Conflict with the HVO
At the start of the war, the 17th Brigade played an important role in the defence of Jajce alongside the HVO, before being forced into a long and bitter conflict with Bosnian Croat forces during 1993, which was particularly painful given the Brigade's connections with Croatia. In his testimony to the trial of General Enver Hadžihasanović at the Hague Tribunal on 22 November 2004, Ćuskić maintained that the Bosnian Army had tried ‘at all costs’ to avoid conflict with the HVO in 1992 and 1993, even after the HVO offensive in April 1993 and the Ahmići massacre; and that it had ‘managed with great difficulty to prevent its soldiers from starting indiscriminate conflicts with the Croats’. Later, in 1995, it played a leading role in the recapture of the traditionally majority-Croat town of Kupres from Serb forces, but made a point of allowing HVO units to enter and re-take it. This was a key moment in the rapprochement between the HVO and the Bosnian Army that helped pave the way for the 1995 joint counter-offensive in western Bosnia.
After the end of the war, General Ćuskić took over command of the Bosnian Army 5th Corps in Bihać, and later worked at the Defence Ministry in Sarajevo before taking early retirement as part of a major re-shuffle within the Ministry in 2004. Since then, he has continued to assist returnee communities in the Prijedor/Kozarac area within Republika Srpska, and is involved in trying to preserve the memory of the role that the soldiers of the 17th Brigade played in the recent history of Bosanska Krajina.