by Filip Švarm
In the middle of 1993, the second year of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, three hundred thousand people - between locals and refugees from northwestern Bosnia - were living in the Bihać region. They lacked everything: from electricity and heating to food and medicine. The Bihać region, the largest Muslim enclave, was surrounded to the north, west and south by Republika Srpska Krajina [hereafter Krajina], to the east by Republika Srpska [RS]. The very thought of another war winter made many of them despair. One man thought he had a solution.
‘Let’s be clear. Fikret Abdić was the leader in this area and a respected authority in the former Yugoslavia’, says General Atif Dudaković, former commander of the 5th Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Fikret Abdić, director of the huge Agrokomerc company based on Velika Kladuša, was known as Babo [Father]. It was not an empty word. Since most inhabitants of the Bihać region depended on Agrokomerc, Abdić had a huge influence over the life of the whole region. His arrest for business malpractice in the mid 1980s had in no way diminished his power: in 1990 he was elected with the largest number of votes as a member of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina. When conflicts escalated in the middle of 1992, Babo returned from Sarajevo to his native Velika Kladuša, where he enjoyed unquestioned authority.
In the middle of 1993 Abdić seized the opportunity to save his area from the war. At this time Serbs, Croats and Muslims were warring among themselves and forming all kinds of local alliances. Babo decided to join those who seemed to be winning, first of all the Serbs but also the Croats. Before, during and after the war Fikret Abdić knew everyone in the former Yugoslavia. Whether he was the first to contact the head of Serbian state security Jovica Stanišić or the other way round is not known. What is known is that Abdić’s separatism fitted well into Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s plans, as a result of which Babo’s region soon came under the protection of Franko Simatović Frenki’s Unit. Milorad Ulemek Legija, the man who ten years later would be charged with assassinating [Serbian] prime minister Zoran Đinđić, also played an important role in this region.
Feeling thus protected, in October 1993 Babo proclaimed an Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia in the Bihać region, and made a separate peace with RS. Or, put more simply, he defected from Sarajevo. Dudaković and his 5th Corps in Bihać, however, remained loyal to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s president Alija Izetbegović and his concept of a united state. Sarajevo charged Babo with treason. Having proclaimed his state, Babo also formed his own armed forces: the Western Bosnia Territorial Defence. The 5th Corps, which until then had been a unified Muslim army in the Bihać pocket, divided into two. Dudaković says: ‘They had a clear aim: to destroy the 5th Corps.’
Abdić’s allies drew financial as well as political profit from Abdić. Croatian president Franjo Tuđman allowed Abdić to do business in Croatia, and to buy petrol. In return for a part of this petrol, Milošević supplied Western Bosnia with arms and food from Krajina. The Red Berets could not pass up this opportunity: not a single tanker or trailer entered or left Babo’s state without the Unit’s permission.
‘The men guarding the posts were from Serbia’s Red Berets, controlled by Serbian state security’, recalls the journalist Igor Gajić, who was at that time a soldier in the RS army. Though Milošević’s partner, Fikret Abdić paid for every bullet, every grenade and every sack of flour. It may sound paradoxical, but [Serbian] state security and the Unit made more money trading with its enemy - the 5th Corps in Bihać. Dudaković had the money. It was easier to transport money than food or weapons by helicopter from Sarajevo.
‘Military theory specifies that supplies come from three sources: from one’s own production, from war booty, and from outside help. The outside help comes from friends or allies, but what was characteristic in our case was that it came also at times from the enemy’, says Dudaković. Dudaković gives an example of how the smuggling went. ‘My deputy for supplies would go to Glina. According to his subsequent report - it is obvious that he had to provide a written account of whom he had met - he would climb into a very expensive-looking car fitted with telephones. The guy in the car looked very weird, but a convoy of flour would arrive in Bihać. The person would be paid in full. You must know that this was one of our methods of survival.’
The profits were astronomical, and the leading cadres of [Serbian] state security and the Unit were delighted. It was like a fairy tale. ‘When darkness fell - "Good evening, good evening. What is there? Well, today we have cooking oil and sugar. How much - this much." End of story. "What do we have tomorrow? We have some grenades and some bullets." Again, end of story’, says Gajić.
The relationship between supply and demand was dictated by the tempo of war. At a time of intensive fighting, a bag of flour would sell for100 German marks and a box of biscuits for 30. The same applied to weapons and ammunition. Dudaković too recalled the prices: ‘Let’s say three bullets for one mark, but when there was an offensive against us we’d get only two bullets for a mark. There were times when ... the actual price was not important to me. Given that the government of the canton or district was paying, let a bullet be 1,000 marks - I had to have those bullets.’
True, no price was too high for the 5th Corps in the middle of August 1994, when Dudaković was taking Velika Kladuša. The whole population of Abdić’s Western Bosnia took refuge in Krajina, for it was impossible to shake their faith in Babo and his command. The supreme commander, meanwhile, was visiting Belgrade. Since Milošević continued to count on Babo, he mobilised the whole Unit in order to return him to Velika Kladuša. The operation, called Spider, was headed by Jovica Stanišić in person. He engaged the whole of the Unit’s command too: Frenki, Legija, Radojica Raje Božović and so on down the line. This was the Unit’s greatest ever action. The members of the Serb Volunteer Guard were completely unaware of what was involved when, at the beginning of August 1994, they lined up at the Serbian interior ministry base at Lipovačka Š uma. The commander of this section of the Unit, Željko Ražnatović Arkan, told them only that he would not be leading them in the action in the Bihać area, because he and the Muslims did not like each other. Arkan’s deputy Legija was very business-like: they had to leave behind their personal documents, because the task was so important and complex that the Guard would not be fighting even under its own insignia. They would use only one distinguishing mark: the red beret.
The Guard, commanded by Legija, arrived on Petrova Gora in Krajina, where the headquarters of Operation Spider was located. The second part of the Unit was already waiting for them: Frenki’s Red Berets, divided into operational groups. ‘My operational group of thirty men had a sniper section and a scouting section. The rest were foot soldiers armed with bazookas. It was a pure assault unit’, says Joca, a former member of the Unit. Arkan’s Guard was on this occasion just one more assault unit under Frenki’s command. He had become, after Stanišić, the second most important man in Serbian state security: the organisation and power of the modest Unit he had founded in Golubić near Knin had grown enormously. According to Joca, the Unit’s arsenal including fighting vehicles and recoilless guns, as well as MI-8 and ‘gazelle’ helicopters. The Unit was capable of doing the larger part of the job on its own.
Operation Spider in formal terms designated a joint action by the Serb Army of Krajina commanded by General Milan Novaković and Babo’s Territorial Defence. In reality, however, it was managed by the Unit. The armed forces engaged in returning Fikret Abdić to Velika Kladuša were divided into three tactical groups: the first under Babo’s command, the second under Legija’s, while the third tactical group code-named Sparrow-hawk was led by Red Beret colonel Rajo Božović, who three years would be warmly greeted by Milošević at the Day of the Unit celebration in Kula [Belgrade]. The Unit soon got Babo back to Velika Kladuša.
Operation Spider did not lead, however, to a resurrection of the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia. It was now necessary to help Babo also to survive. At the start of 1995 the commander of the RS army, Ratko Mladić, sent his chief of staff, General Manojlo Milovanović, to take over command of Operation Spider from Novaković . ‘I arrived there on 12 February 1995 on General Mladić’s orders. He told me that it was the position of Yugoslavia’s Supreme Defence Council and our Supreme Command that I should take charge of Operation Spider’, says Milovanović.
Although they began as skirmishes, the hostilities between Abdić’s Territorial Defence and the 5th Corps soon became very intense. In fact, the most bloody battles were fought between the Muslims themselves. While waiting for the formalities to be concluded, Milovanović visited the front. ‘I saw Fikret’s fighters. They were very determined. I saw a company attacking - it was awful. The troops from the 5th Corps simply cut them in half. But Fikret’s men continued to crawl on, pushing breeze-blocks ahead of them. They rolled these in front of themselves, breaking their fingers.’ Dudaković confirms that the inter-Muslim fighting was very bitter. ‘Here are some figures. We lost one thousand, seven hundred men in Abdić’s attacks on the 5th Corps, one thousand, three hundred men fighting the Krajina army. This shows that the battles against Abdić’s forces were of higher intensity.’
Legija and Rajo Božović, now called Sparrow-hawk, took their orders solely from Frenki. On his visit to the front, Frenki met Milovanović. ‘Frenki was accompanied by another man wearing the same red beret, and a light blue uniform. I think he was called Božović and was a colonel. We didn’t linger because things were, as we say, "hot". We just exchanged greetings. I asked Frenki - I’d heard of him but never met him before - "What are you doing here?" He replied: "I’ve come with Jovica Stanišić".’ Milovanović did not become commander of Operation Spider, however: ‘No general or officer of the Army of Yugoslavia attended the meeting called to effect the transfer of command, but only Stanišić, the head of Serbian state security. I told him: "Jovica, I will not execute your orders. You’re a policeman, not a soldier".’
Since the Serb forces aided by Babo were unable to destroy the 5th Corps, the war in the Bihać area became the site of the worst kind of war profiteering. What was important was that it should last. And it lasted. Independently of Operation Spider, General Milovanović led a counter-attack of the RS army after the great offensive initiated by the 5th Corps at the beginning of 1995. Heavy fighting went on for days in the east of the Bihać pocket. ‘Their artillery practically fell silent.’, says Milovanović. ‘They started to supply their front units with carts. This meant they had no petrol. There was no more fooling with infantry ammunition either. When a battle started and there was shooting on both sides, their firing would gradually die down. I concluded, and reported to General Mladić, that the 5th Corps had run out of ammunition.’ Dudaković confirms that the 5th Corps were bereft of ammunition. ‘Ammunition! All that interested us was ammunition!’ It was then Milovanović’s turn to be surprised. ‘All of sudden Muslim mortars started to fire day and night. I established a link with Dudaković through intelligence channels. I asked him where he was getting the ammunition from. He told me: "Your Serbs sold it to me".’
Among those who fell at Bihać in 1994 was the Red Berets’ chief quartermaster: Radoslav Kostić Kole. Two years later, the main Serbian base of this formation would be named after him. It is difficult to tell whether he was an especially deserving individual or simply a fond memory.
A few years later, Milovanović and Dudaković re-lived their wartime experiences of the Bihać region in the presence of Alija Izetbegović. ‘I came across Alija Izetbegović during a conference break,’ recalls Milovanović. ‘I think that Dudaković was afraid. He was embarrassed, he blushed. Alija passed us, saying: "It’s good when war commanders talk to each other." Dudaković, perhaps seeking to exculpate himself, said: "Mr President, I was explaining to the general how I succeeded in defending Bihać." Alija quipped back: ‘You wouldn’t have done so, if I hadn’t paid forty-six million marks.’ Dudaković’s view of this differs. ‘I don’t know, and I believe that Alija Izetbegović didn’t know either, how much money came to us, given the donations coming through family links and contacts. It’s the former prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haris Silajdžić, who maybe knows, but I doubt it. As for the figure of forty-six million marks, that’s news to me.’
'Factor of peace'
The secret Operation Spider ended in 1995, after the collapse of Krajina in [Operation] Storm. Two weeks earlier, however, the Unit appeared in public for the first time. It was a bizarre occasion. Following the bombing by NATO planes, Mladić’s army arrested the soldiers of the [UN] peacekeeping forces and tied them to every possible bombing target. Milošević now took the opportunity to legitimise himself as a ‘factor of peace and stability’, as American diplomats like Richard Holbrooke called him at the time. He promptly sent Stanišić to RS to free the hostages. Since this had to appear official, the wider public was able to see and hear for the first time the head of state security. ‘I am the head of state security, and I come here as President Milošević’s special envoy’, said Stanišić. And since Stanišić’s mission was supposed also to look daring and dangerous, he was accompanied by the Unit, re-named for this occasion the Unit for Anti-Terrorist Activity. Hardly anyone knew about these people wearing red berets. Even fewer were able to recognise Frenki on television, even if they had heard about him. The same and more was true of Zvezdan Jovanović, who in 2003 would shoot down Prime Minister Đinđić. While Frenki would subsequently appear occasionally in public, the Unit withdrew again into darkness, where they remained until 5 October 2000 [Milošević’s fall from power].
Living in this darkness, one branch of the Unit - the Scorpions, led by Slobodan Medić Boca - took part in the execution of prisoners of war from Srebrenica. At this time over seven thousand Muslim captives and civilians were executed under Mladić’s command in this small town and its surroundings.
A month later, in August 1995, Milošević finally gave up on the Krajina. It fell within four days in Operation Storm conducted by the Croatian army. Long columns of refugees from Krajina poured for days into Serbia. They were soon forgotten. With the exception of Arkan’s part of the Unit. Although there had been no hostilities in eastern Slavonia since 1991, Arkan transformed this area into his own private state and acquired great wealth by smuggling scarce goods. As the refugees arrived in Serbia, the Serbian police would arrest them and send them to Arkan’s headquarters in Erdut. ‘Those people were punished by being made to bark like dogs; they were chained to kennels and had to bark like dogs’, recalls one of the arrested and forcibly recruited refugees. ‘Arkan once addressed us, saying: "Listen, you!" We all listened. "Would one of you blow me?" Those were Mr Arkan’s words to us. We all stood there, no one dared to make a sound, say a word.’
Arkan and Legija
After the Krajina fell, there followed in the late summer of 1995 the great offensive of the Croatian and Muslim [Bosnian] troops against RS. Stanišić then sent Arkan and his part of the Unit to the Bosnian Krajina. Arkan’s participation in the battles was his secondary task; his main task was to discipline the RS army, whose morale had been badly shaken. There is a record of one of Arkan’s speeches delivered to a battalion of elderly reservists. ‘The whole of the Serb nation is looking at you here. For them, you are Serb heroes, Serb Obilićes. A hero and Serb Obilić can’t just go away like a cunt, sit by the schoolhouse and not give a fuck about the position. Is that clear? Morale must be maintained. "I’m tired, it has been four months." What four months? What if this war continues for fourteen years? What will we do then? Will we surrender? No, we will not surrender. This is Serb land, holy Serb land. Are your graves here? Your churches are here. You must defend what is your own. Defend your homes. Don’t let me hear that you’re tired. Because you’re not tired. All of you, heads up. Heads up. You are a Serb army.’
As soon as he appeared in the Bosnian Krajina, Arkan clashed with the men of the RS army. ‘One evening a colonel in the Drina Corps, a certain Svetozar Andrić, called me’, says Milovanović. ‘Irritated and angry, he asked: "General, can Serb officers be beaten?" Not knowing what the matter was, I replied: "Yes. The Muslims are beating us all over the place." He said: "I was beaten up by Arkan." "Where?", I asked. He said: "in Prijedor". "How come Arkan is there?" Andrić said: "I don’t know. They caught me and beat me up. Arkan himself beat me".’ Andrić was not the only officer who was beaten up. ‘He arrested one of my officers, among others, in the area between Sanski Most and Prijedor’, recalls Colonel Ostoja Barašanin. ‘He didn’t actually arrest him, but intercepted him with his car, like a robber, on the road and shaved his head. Arkan roughed the man up just because he did not have his pass.’
The RS army officers were not, however, the unarmed refugees in Erdut. ‘I told him we’d fight them’, said Barašanin. ‘I openly threatened Arkan: "If you want war, you’ll have it. I have three and a half thousand soldiers, and you three hundred and fifty. Let’s see who’ll prevail - if that’s what we want in the middle of the great Muslim and Croat offensive." Luckily the conflict was avoided, but Arkan understood that this was no way to behave.’ In the end the RS army command demanded an explanation from Karadžić about Arkan’s behaviour, and more generally about the actual reasons for his presence in the Bosnian Krajina. The star of the meeting in Banja Luka was Arkan himself. Milovanović spoke in the army’s name. ‘I said: "On whose orders are you here? Why did you come here at all?" Arkan said: "I came here on the order of President Karadžić." Karadžić, who was sitting across from me, said nothing. Neither did Krajišnik. Karadžić was twiddling his thumbs like a child who had done something naughty. I told Arkan: "Show me the order." He said: "I left it at the hotel." I said: "Mr President, does Arkan have your order to come here?" Karadžić said neither yes nor no, and remained silent. Arkan then started to spout hot air, all about how he was having a hard time, that he had left at home a wife of twenty-two who was pining for him (he had just married Ceca). I said: "Know what? I don’t care about your twenty-two-year-old wife’s sufferings".’ Mladić and I had already made a plan of how to get rid of him. So I told him: ‘I’m going tonight to Manjača to drive away what you have of your army there. General Mladić will do the same in Kotorski, because he’s on his way to Han Pijesak. You are to be gone within twenty-four hours".’ Before retreating, however, Arkan and his division of the Unit took part in the fighting near Sanski Most. Five years later The Hague Tribunal charged Arkan with the worst crimes committed in precisely this city. However, as the Guard was leaving RS, the end of the war was in sight. In September 1995 the war would formally end with the Dayton Agreement.
After the end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the whole Unit found itself in Serbia. The state security service was faced with the problem of what to do with these men, trained for and accustomed to killing. Since Stanišić would not consider giving them up, Frenki had his moment of triumph. His old idea could now be realised. Both divisions of the Unit - Arkan’s Guard and the Red Berets - were fused for good in the summer of 1996 as an official unit of the state security service. Its full name was: Unit for Special Operations of the Department of State Security of the Ministry of the Interior of Serbia. Or JSO for short.
Legija was appointed commander of this old/new formation. Being Arkan’s most capable operational commander, he had been noticed by Stanišić and Frenki at the time of Operation Spider. Legija had also formed the JSO organisation. While the war was still going on, he was training a super group within the Unit in eastern Slavonia. It was called the Super Tigers. Legija used all he had learned in the French Foreign Legion. There was a platform for rope descents, unavoidable training equipment for all true commandoes. There was also drill and brutal discipline. Legija was particularly keen on scenic effects: all who saw one of the Super Tigers’ displays were meant to be impressed. Stanišić certainly was. The Knin part of the Unit brought the red beret into the JSO, while Legija brought all the rest from his Super Tigers. Like, for example, ‘The Tiger’s Word’, recited by both parts of the formation:
One day when you get wounded
and left behind by your own side on the battlefield,
and when enemy women, children and dogs come
to tear you apart,
fire a bullet into your head
and die like a hero!
This second part of ‘The Unit’ has been translated from Vreme (Belgrade), 7 September 2006. The first part appeared in Bosnia Report No. 53-4.