Fighting for the right to return
by Fikret Cuskic
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to be here to speak to you tonight, and I am grateful for the invitation. First of all I should like to introduce myself. I am a retired brigadier-general of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the war I held a number of different posts, including commander of the 17th Krajina Brigade, commander of the Bosanska Krajina Operational Group, and deputy commander of the 7th Corps. I am married with two children.
I am going to speak tonight about one of our key war aims: the right to return to one`s homeland and one’s home. As you know, the right to a home is one of the universal human rights. Unfortunately this right was taken away by a terrible crime that happened in my country, so we had to fight for it.
Establishing the 17th Krajina Brigade
At the beginning of April 1992, aggression was unleashed against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Probably all of us remember the fury with which it began, especially in eastern and western areas of Bosnia. In the municipalities of north-west Bosnia (Bosanska Krajina) terrible crimes were committed against the non-Serb population. The first concentration camps were set up: Trnopolje, Keraterm, Omarska. Pictures from some of them shocked people across the world, reminding them of the holocaust.
The Serb extremists wanted to cleanse this part of Bosnia of non-Serb population, and to link up ‘Serb lands’. It could not be done without war crimes and genocide. Thousands of people were expelled from their homes, mainly to central Bosnia and to the Republic of Croatia.
Meanwhile, people from this area who lived in western Europe started to organize themselves to help their country and homeland. Images from the camps accelerated this process. They organized demonstrations, set up associations and put pressure on international organizations and the embassies of powerful countries. At the end of May the first preparations were made for the creation of military units.
A group of volunteers from west European countries gathered in Zagreb on 30 May 1992. Mainly they were from Bosanska Krajina. They received military training and equipment in Croatia. On 28 June, 580 fighters armed with only 130 rifles arrived at a military base in Travnik, and by order of the Joint Command on 21 July they became the 1st Krajina Brigade. On 21 June in Klana, near the city of Rijeka in Croatia, the 7th Brigade of the Bosnian Army was formed. They received very good training and, completely armed and equipped, came to Bosnia on 8 July, to Mount Igman.
The arming of these volunteer units was taking place during the hardest period for Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the same time, the biggest crimes were occurring in Bosanska Krajina (in the municipality of Prijedor alone, about 4,000 were killed) and the process of ethnic cleansing was at its peak. It is no coincidence that most of the fighters were from the area of Bosanska Krajina. Both units consisted mainly of Bosniaks, but there were also Croats from this part of Bosnia (around 6 %). This was to be the first and only military organization of our people abroad, and it was an attempt to support their country and homeland by military means.
In Travnik in the summer of 1992, we had both volunteers from Bosanska Krajina arriving from western Europe and, on the other hand, thousands of refugees from Bosanska Krajina itself, who saw their only hope of escape from war and massacre in trying to get abroad. The city of Travnik played a historically positive role. It took care of about a hundred thousand refugees from Bosanska Krajina, and the same time it helped the growth of the Bosanska Krajina units. As a result of this, on 25 November two units (the 1st and 7th Bosanska Krajina brigades) joined to form the 17th Krajina Brigade. We can say that this brigade was the basis for military organization in central Bosnia of people from Bosanska Krajina - the focus of the fight for return to Bosanska Krajina, and a vehicle for the military development of Krajina units in central Bosnia.
Contribution to the defence of Bosnia-Herzegovina
The 17th Krajina Brigade was probably the best in the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was unique in many respects. In terms of its structure, it contained fighters from 60 municipalities, but most were from Bosanska Krajina:
Bosanska Krupa: 115
Bosanski Novi: 149
Banja Luka: 210
Sanski Most: 728
It is worth stressing that the fighters in the Brigade were citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina who had been living in 13 different European countries. During the war, 6,085 fighters were members of the Brigade. Of these, 333 were killed, 1,081 were wounded (some more than once), and 20 remained missing in action (most of whom disappeared during the defence of Jajce in 1992).
These characteristics made this unit one of the best mobile brigades in the Bosnian Army. Very often, the Brigade was employed in different theatres of war throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, in some of the most critical places and situations. For example, in the month of August 1993 alone units of the 17th Brigade were engaged in operations from Igman to Vlašić.
Its guiding aim - return - was the reason why the Brigade was continually on the offensive. Our motto was that only battles and victories lead home. We considered that the shortest way was not necessarily the fastest. This is why it was not hard for us to fight for every foot of free Bosnian land. The brigade made a major contribution to crucial operations of the 7th Corps - Vlašić, Kupres, Donji Vakuf, Jajce, the battles for Ključ and Sanski Most. The biggest motivation for our fighters was the idea that by virtue of the freedom of Bosnia as a whole they would go back home.
During the war units of the 17th Brigade participated in operations all over Bosnia: Goražde, Igman, Sarajevo, Visoko, Fojnica, Busovača, Vitez, Travnik, Novi Travnik, Donji Vakuf, Jajce, Ključ, Sanski Most. There is no comparable example in the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The dream of return was partially realized by the historic march on 19 September 1995 from Travnik to Bosanski Petrovac, and the link-up with the Fifth Corps. Even many disabled people were in the ranks, because they did not want to miss that moment.
The Brigade played a special role in the integration of patriotic forces from Bosanska Krajina within the country and abroad. Within the country, it helped in the establishment of the 27th and 305th brigades, a police unit of people from Banja Luka, the Bosanska Krajina Operational Group, and later the 7th Corps. At the same time, the 17th Brigade had good connections with our people abroad; it was logistically supported by them, and in this way it maintained the unity of our expelled people. By its victories, it kept the hope for return alive.
The fight for return in peacetime
During the post-Dayton period, the fighters from municipalities now in Republika Srpska mainly lived in the Federation municipality of Sanski Most. Interestingly enough, many military leaders from the war later became political leaders in order to continue the fight to return to their homes. In the spring of 1998, the first organized return to Republika Srpska (Prijedor and Bosanski Novi municipalities) took place. It is a striking fact that the areas that produced the most fighters are now making better progress in return (Kozarac, Ramići, etc.). This is borne out by official documents from the Ministry for Refugees in 2003.
The protracted and arduous struggle of the refugees from Bosanska Krajina to be able to return home is one of the brightest examples from our war. Even though they were separated for ten years from their homes, even though war criminals were still free, they still fought for their return. The right to a home, their hope for return - these were stronger than the crimes against them.
This is the edited transcript of a speech given by Fikret Ćuskić at a regular forum of The Bosnian Institute on 1 November 2004.