Bosnia's bloody history rewritten
by Ian Traynor
A gorgeous spring day in the Balkans in April 1992 and we were on the move from Belgrade to Bosnia. So was Slobodan Milosevic's military machine. The war was just beginning and the dilemma for reporters was where to go. An American colleague and I, along with Amra, our resourceful Belgrade translator, rented a car and headed from Belgrade into south-west Serbia towards the Bosnian border in the hope of getting across.
Bosnia's was by far the worst of the Balkan wars, the sole indictment of the three against Mr Milosevic to charge him with genocide. We had seen the Yugoslav (Serb) army in action in Vukovar and Dubrovnik in Croatia the previous year. We knew what to expect. Yet still we were dumbfounded by what we stumbled across.
The old Muslim town of Visegrad, immortalized by the writer Ivo Andric, straddles the river Drina some 15 miles into Bosnia from the Serbian border.
The entire area on both sides of the border was one huge armed encampment, a staging area for the massed forces of the Yugoslav army en route across an international border of a country afforded diplomatic recognition by America and the European Union the previous week. The only media in the region, we had chanced upon an invasion.
Yesterday, Mr Milosevic drummed his fingers in the Hague like a schoolmaster testily having to explain yet again to a particularly dimwitted bunch that Bosnia had nothing to do with him, that it was a faraway country of which he knew next to nothing. ‘The Serbs did not start the war,’ he said.
But that Tuesday morning in 1992 told a different tale. Thousands of Yugoslav army troops trudged through the dusty gullies from Serbia into Bosnia. A freight train disgorged 17 Yugoslav tanks. Batteries of artillery and multiple-rocket launchers were wheeled into place and then let loose.
Fleets of civilian lorries were commandeered by Yugoslav - not Bosnian Serb - officers to transport the men. Mountain meadows were turned into tented military villages. Officers took over the local housing.
They advanced from Serbia on Visegrad and emptied it of its Muslim majority. Civilians were executed in cold blood, their corpses thrown into the Drina from the town's famous, ancient stone bridge.
We did not see that at the time. By then, the Yugoslav officers masterminding the ethnic cleansing had arrived from the rear and told us we would be arrested if we did not clear off. Later that year, in what was the cruellest summer in the Balkans since the Nazi occupation, the Muslim refugees from Visegrad recounted what had happened.
A Yugoslav army colonel, whose name I cannot recall, was merrily frank about it all. ‘We always operate in cooperation with the Serbian territorial forces. Our fighters are now in Visegrad. We'll take it quickly.’
We met men from Belgrade, from the Serbian provinces, from Montenegro, anywhere but Bosnia. They were all working for the paramount leader in Belgrade: Slobodan Milosevic.
He is a past master at plausible deniability, at exercising power without taking responsibility. And he invoked the old ruse again yesterday. Sure, there may have been a few rogue elements doing dirty deeds, but it was nothing to do with me, Mr Milosevic maintained.
The fabled rogue element, in any case, was always a myth. Mr Milosevic's hierarchical regime was tightly controlled, the all-powerful police and security apparatus inherited from the old communist structures.
The massed uniformed troops outside Visegrad were not rogue elements. The proliferating paramilitary thugs who served as the shock troops for the orthodox soldiers gave the impression of being uncontrollable wild cards. They were trained and supplied by the interior, defence and intelligence agencies and then let off the leash as a matter of policy.
Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin is not a rogue element either. In November 1991, the rangy federal army officer from Montenegro stood outside the ruins of the Croatian town of Vukovar and barred the late American statesman Cyrus Vance from entering the town because it was not safe.
Mr Vance was apoplectic. But what Colonel Sljivancanin knew and he did not at that moment was that Colonel Sljivancanin's army colleagues were completing their conquest by dragging 200 civilians from Vukovar hospital to a farmyard outside town where they were killed and dumped in a mass grave. Colonel Sljivancanin has been indicted by the Hague for mass murder, but he is still at large in Yugoslavia.
Vukovar, also in another country, Croatia, was only 90 minutes up the road from Belgrade. Yugoslav army officers took us there as it was falling. Old women's corpses still littered the streets. Giant green Yugoslav army bulldozers were sweeping away the bodies so the town could be presented partially sanitised to the rest of the world.
Colonel Milan Gvero, the Belgrade army spokesman, hosted a surreal military lunch amid the rubble by the Danube to tell us that Croatian fighters had been fashioning necklaces from the fingers of dead Serbian children.
A few months later we ran into Colonel Gvero again, this time in Bosnia where he had swapped his federal army togs to be the sidekick to General Ratko Mladic of the Bosnian Serbs.
The jobs were interchangeable. The Bosnian Serb officers' salaries and pensions were paid by the Yugoslav federal defence ministry in Belgrade. Before moving to command the Bosnian campaign, General Mladic led the Serb insurgency in Croatia as a Yugoslav officer in the town of Knin.
When things were going badly, federal officers in Belgrade were seconded to the Bosnian Serbs before returning to their previous positions and being promoted. They shelled the hell out of Mostar in 1992 and ran the siege of Bihac in '94. Now they are back in Belgrade.
Colonel Sljivancanin is indicted for the 200 Vukovar dead; General Mladic for the 7,000 of Srebrenica. ‘The police and the army defended the country courageously and honourably,’ Mr Milosevic said yesterday. ‘My conduct was an expression of the will of the people.’ But as head of state he was not responsible for Belgrade's conduct, he maintains.
Plausible deniability is much the same as having your cake and eating it, a trick that Mr Milosevic got away with for years. He still can't kick the habit.
This article appeared in The Guardian (London), 15 February 2002