‘We needed Operation Storm as much as Croatia did’
by General Atif Dudakovic - interview
An amateur video released by Serbian TV in early August 2006 made grave charges against members of the Croatian Army (HV) and the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina (AB-H). It purportedly showed the Black Mambas, a reconnaissance and commando unit of the HV, and AB-H soldiers belonging to the 505th brigade from Bužim known as the Hamza brigade, searching a refugee column on a road close to Dvor na Uni, separating off the men and taking them to a nearby field; ugly curses and imprecations are heard in the background, followed by an image of the execution of an unarmed captive. All this supposedly took place during Operation Storm [Oluja], the anniversary of which was at the time being celebrated throughout Croatia. Violent reactions from Zagreb followed the film’s projection, even anger directed at the Bosnian Army’s 5th Corps accused of besmirching the HV’s glorious past, while Belgrade continued to add oil to the flames. The Hague tribunal denied that the tape was in its possession. For Serbian TV, first on the list of accused was the commander of the 5th Corps and most celebrated AB-H general, Atif Dudaković. Further broadcast film showed him commanding his artillery, with his familiar order: ‘Fire!’ acquiring the Mladić-style significance of ‘Torch!’ [Serb villages: ‘paliti’ in Bosnian can mean either ‘to fire’ or ‘to set on fire’]. As for Sarajevo, it has chosen to keep its counsel: albeit a former member of the SDA’s Supreme Committee, the general has never in fact become part of the Bosniak establishment. General Dudaković, for his part, reacted like a soldier. Immediately after the first pictures were broadcast, he stated: ‘The Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was never ordered to commit crimes. If such things happened, then there should be an investigation and the perpetrators punished.’
Dani: Can you tell us whether you have seen all the pictures and what your reaction is?
Dudaković: My telephones have not stopped ringing since the evening of the broadcast. Apart from journalists from all over the world, most calls come from my soldiers, which is why I keep my lines open. I am now in Bihać. I was obliged to go there, since the veterans’ organizations insisted on it. I am in constant contact with them, i.e. with the president of the Association of Š ehid Families, the president of the RVI [War Invalids], the paraplegics, the Gold Lilies [holders of medals for bravery], etc. We are discussing what strategy we should adopt. The fact is that the latest pictures are sheer forgeries. They show me in the forest - I always kept the artillery battalion with me - ordering: ‘Fire, fire, fire!’. They put on a subtitle saying: ‘Fire the Serb villages.’ I am told that there is more to come.
The film can be divided into two parts: the first shows the Oluja action and an HV unit called the Mambas. The second shows Hamza soldiers of AB-H and the killing of a prisoner. Have you seen this picture?
Yes, I have.
Your reaction was that there should be an investigation.
Yes, I said that there should be an investigation. The Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina was never ordered to commit crimes and it is necessary to establish what happened.
Do you know which area is involved here?
Yes. It is the area of Bužim.
Can you say something about Operation Storm and the manner of cooperation between the HV and the AB-H?
But of course, given my role in it all. As its commander-in-chief I received all the praise that the 5th Corps had earned, so if I was responsible for victory then I was responsible also for anything that was not good. I know very well what happened within the 5th Corps. When talking about Operation Storm, we must not forget that in July 1995 Bihać became the target of a strong offensive on the part of the Serb army, the aim of which was to destroy the 5th Corps. The operation was commanded by General Mrkšić. But there was also the ongoing Operation Spider led by General Novaković. The 5th Corps was under constant siege by five Serb corps, two from Bosnia and three from Croatia, as well as by special forces forming the Spider operational group commanded by General Mile Novaković. The acme of this operation, the destruction of the 5th Corps, was planned for 23 July 1995, but in the meantime there was the Split Agreement [between Zagreb and Sarajevo], designed in particular to save the people of the Bosnian Krajina. So that an alibi - or, if you wish, a pretext - for Operation Storm included saving 250,000 Bosniaks and other endangered population in the area of the Bosnian Krajina. Operation Storm was not only a strategically decisive HV action for Croatia; it was strategically decisive also for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
What happened was that when on that 23 July the Serb forces were halted in precisely the area of the municipalities of Bužim and Cazin and the front was stabilized, there followed Operation Storm which resulted in the liberation of Croatia but also in the disappearance of the so-called Autonomous Republic of Western Bosnia [Fikret Abdić’s parastate]. Those who took part in this action were the forces of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as enemy forces composed of the forces of the former JNA, Serbia, Republika Srpska, Republika Srpska Krajina and the Autonomous Republic of Western Bosnia. This would be a summary of events between 23 July and 5 August 1995.
Ever since then Croatia has been celebrating this operation by its army without any reference to the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following these pictures, however, there is talk of the possibility of a cooling of relations between Zagreb and Sarajevo. According to the comments coming from Zagreb, the crimes committed during Operation Storm - deportation of refugees, ethnic cleansing, crimes in general - were all down to the AB-H.
That is in my view an understandable reaction, given that a strong relationship between Zagreb and Sarajevo was never established. But one must not forget that forces from Croatian territory, i.e. paramilitary Serb forces from the [Croatian] Krajina, were strongly engaged in the attack aimed to resolving the situation in the Bosnian - i.e. Cazin - Krajina. These were nominally forces of Fikret Abdić’s ‘national defence’, but were in reality Serb forces commanded by General Novaković. So that Plan Z-4, which offered autonomy to the Serb people in Croatia, was rejected first of all by Serbs - which was most welcome to the regime of Franjo Tuđman. I must admit, however, that we too preferred that the Croatian state, that is to say the Croatian army, should establish closer contact with us. At that moment in time we had spent 1,100 days under complete siege and were in a very, very difficult military-political situation. We were very keen to be rid of the encirclement by our Serb or Chetnik enemies. At all events, it suited us to have the Croatian state on our own state borders, and we supported its action. The Split Agreement thus gave us hope that the agony of the besieged Bihać region and the terrible suffering of its people would come to an end. This is what indeed happened as a result of Operation Storm.
It is known, however, that crimes were committed during this operation. This is why a Croatian general is now in The Hague. Although there has been talk of the role played by the AB-H in these crimes over the past few years, it is only now that we are being confronted with that possibility. Did you ever receive a report on the crimes committed during Operation Storm?
It is necessary, in my view, that we first define the crimes. We must not forget that in 1991 crimes were being committed on the territory of the so-called Serb Krajina, when Croats were driven out of their homes. In 1992, after the independence of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been proclaimed following a referendum, the aggression began, war began throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. At that time the Serb autonomous regions were already in existence, with their organizational structures, logistics and armed forces supported by Serbia and Montenegro. In these fictive, self-proclaimed Serb regions the non-Serb population began to be subjected to terrible crimes. This situation continued until 1995, i.e. until Dayton. The strengthening of the Croatian state in 1995, the strengthening of the Croatian army, the developing resistance of the Bosniaks and the growth of the AB-H created the conditions for a new military-political solution in the area of Croatia as well as of Bosnia-Herzegovina. With Operation Storm the Croatian state was solving first of all its own problems; but in doing so it created the preconditions too for solution of the political problems also in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Were crimes committed in the course of this? Most probably yes. War as such is a violent act, not child’s play. War is not an abstract category - it is a violent resolution of certain problems. To be plain: all three sides committed crimes. The international community, which witnessed all these events, has come up with an estimate of the distribution of committed crimes: the Serbs were responsible for 95% of them and the Croats and Bosniaks for the rest. It must be said when speaking about the area of the Bosnian Krajina and western Bosnia that the whole situation was exceptionally difficult, very difficult indeed. A war of defence against the Serbs was being waged in total encirclement, and also a war against those Bosniaks [Abdić’s followers] who for some reason took the Serb side.
A number of witnesses appearing before the court in The Hague have stated that, as soldiers of the army of Western Bosnia, the latter received their salaries from Martić and Milošević. If I am not mistaken, DM100 was paid for each dead Bosniak.
Strategically speaking, the Serbs wished to solve the problem of western Bosnia. The Croats too. When I think about this now I find it difficult to work out how I managed to find the strength to fight for Bosnia-Herzegovina. We decided to attack Fikret Abdić. For me it was, believe me, a highly risky decision. When I think about it now, I cannot but praise myself. In the end, after the signing of the Dayton peace in 1995, when the whole international community has acknowledged the scale of the terrible crimes committed against Bosnia and the Bosniaks at the end of the 20th century, when the court in The Hague has established the facts of the crime of genocide committed in Srebrenica - we ask ourselves questions which should have been answered long ago. I refuse to accept the shameless attempt to equalize the guilt, to divide Dayton-style the responsibility for the war. This I refuse. So I reject the charge. It is a lie. It is a forgery designed to equalize the guilt.
The first film shows a soldier of the AB-H, which it says was from the Hamza unit, killing a civilian prisoner. According to international war norms and every other legal norm, this demands an investigation and the establishment of responsibility. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I advocated from the start that for every crime committed the perpetrator must be named and punished. I do believe that the killing of civilians or prisoners of war must be investigated. I am a soldier. Contemporary armies, such as the American army, are also faced with this need. The US army, which many consider to be the best in the world, is under investigation for its conduct in Iraq. We must also remember what that army did in World War II in Palermo, what the Red Army did in Berlin, what many other victorious armies have done. I am not trying to make a comparison, only to say that all crimes should be investigated. As for the film, since it shows the front line it should be subject to an expert analysis. Why is the man standing on top of the bunker? Did he have a bomb, a pistol? What were his intentions? Next: the cries of ‘Kill!’ and ‘Allahu ekber!’. These are war cries, the speech of battle. I wish you to understand me as a commander, though I believe that no one who has not fought in a war can understand it. You see this as a film, but those who fought, those who were wounded, know what I am talking about. Two of my companions were killed. My personal guard was wounded twice. I myself was wounded twice. How could we have achieved anything, how could we have survived without strong, determined and committed fighters? We never would have. What was I supposed to do? To surrender and let the whole Krajina suffer the fate of Srebrenica? As you know well, I am proud that I was a front-line commander, and that I led the soldiers of the 5th Corps.
Can you tell us something about the Hamza unit?
Yes, I know it well. Each one of our units had a code name for the purpose of communication. This was the code name of the 4th battalion of the 505th Bužim brigade. The units would choose the commander’s first name or the name of a well-known hero. Hamza was a unit within the 5th Corps.
The film that shows you commanding the attack was not made during Operation Storm.
The film was made during Operation Sana ‘95, the purpose of which was to liberate the area of the Bosnian Krajina. Some of the troops under my command were engaged in that operation, which had nothing to do with Storm. Storm ended on 7 August, while the AB-H’s Operation Sana ‘95 began on 13 September1995. The Croatian troops that took part in Storm were commanded by General Ante Gotovina, and the troops of the AB-H by General Delić. In Operation Sana ‘95 only AB-H forces were involved, backed by the Croatian army. I must tell you that there were problems regarding cooperation with the Croatian troops which had to be solved in the course of the operation. The film shows the front line. I was normally engaged on the front line directing the artillery. I am an artillery man. The film with its subtitles are the usual product of Serb propaganda which we came across throughout the war and later too. This is why I do not get excited.
The Hague is not interested either. Many were surprised by their decision to state this publicly.
Why should it? What was I was doing? It is obvious that I was directing the artillery. It is also well known that my vocabulary contains no separate Serb, Croat and Muslim commands, but only military commands. On the other side of the front line I see only the enemy. I reject every attempt to turn me into a Mladić. I have heard similar accusations so many times before: about 50 Serb heads on pikes in Bihać, that I was dead, that I had surrendered...
You have not told me whether during those two actions you had received a report of crimes committed by AB-H in the field?
The Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not commit crimes in the field, nor did it ever have an order or permission to do so. I stand by every single soldier of the 5th Corps. If there were cases of individuals breaking discipline, then this should be investigated. I never had a report on crimes committed. But I can tell you that there were criminal acts committed in the area of responsibility of the 5th Corps, and the perpetrators were punished and sent to prison. Our district military court was functioning, the legal government of Bosnia-Herzegovina - composed not only of Bosniaks, but also of Serbs and Croats - was functioning. We were loyal to the concept of Bosnia-Herzegovina that had won international recognition.
Do you expect to be charged?
Possibly. In the world in which we live, not even that can be excluded.
This interview has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 11 August 2006