Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Captain Dragan to the Rescue

Former top Yugoslav athlete tells how mysterious Serb paramilitary leader saved his skin.
By Stacy Sullivan

The first witness to take the stand this week in the prosecutor’s case against Momcilo Krajisnik, the former speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, was no stranger to testifying at the tribunal.


Isak Gashi, an ethnic Albanian from Brcko, was once one of Yugoslavia’s best known athletes. In the 1980s, he represented Yugoslavia in rowing competitions, competing in regattas all over Europe.


But in the spring 1992, when Bosnian Serb forces began expelling non-Serbs from large swathes of Bosnia in order to create their own republic, Gashi was arrested and interned in the notorious Luka camp along with hundreds of other Croat and Muslim residents in the Brcko area.


Luka, a warehouse at a port on the Sava River, was run by Goran Jelesic, a sadistic man who nicknamed himself “Serb Adolf” and reportedly took pleasure in beating and killing the non-Serbs in his charge. At Luka, like in other Serb camps, prisoners were beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed, for no apparent reason, their bodies often tossed into the river.


Gashi, an imposing man who at 46 still has the build of a professional athlete, was freed after the intervention of Captain Dragan, a mysterious paramilitary leader-turned-humanitarian who had come to Serbia from Australia in 1991 when the first fighting broke out in the region.


After surviving his ordeal, Gashi first came to testify at the trial of Bosnian Serb camp guard Dusko Tadic, the first person ever to face trial at the Hague tribunal. Later, Gashi was called upon to take the stand against former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. And this week, he returned yet again to testify against Krajisnik.


It’s not hard to see why the prosecution keeps calling on Gashi. Unassuming and articulate, Gashi was both privy to many of the meetings the Bosnian Serb leadership held in Brcko in the lead-up to war, as well as a witness and a victim of their crimes.


At the time the war broke out in Brcko, the former professional rower was working as a controller at the Brcko electric company.


Like many in the former Yugoslavia at the time, he had no idea war was coming.


He was aware that political parties had been formed on a mostly ethnic basis – he had briefly been a member of the largely Muslim Party of Democratic Action – but in Brcko, the multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party won most of the votes and there didn’t seem to be any ethnic tension between him and his neighbours.


One day in late 1991, perhaps early 1992, Gashi said he was en route to repair some electricity devices when he saw some signs on the road with the inscription SAO, and had no idea what they stood for. He later learned that it stood for Serbian Autonomous Region.


He knew that was a bad sign, but he didn’t think too much of it.


Then, just prior to Bosnia’s February 1992 referendum on independence, Gashi went to one of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, rallies in Brcko – a meeting that was attended by most of the top party brass, including Biljana Plavsic, Nikola Koljevic and Momcilo Krajisnik.


At the rally, some people began making threats and saying that all non-Serbs should leave, but Gashi said others stepped in and talked of the importance of living together with their non-Serb neighbours, so still, he didn’t believe war was in the air.


From February on, he said, he heard that the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, was passing out weapons to local Serbs. During his rounds passing through villages to repair electrical devices, he saw some trucks dropping off semi-automatic rifles in front of the Brcko community centre.


He also saw that at the JNA garrison near his apartment, there were more young conscripts, as there had always been, but rather older men, in army reserve uniforms.


Then, on the morning of April 30, he and his wife and child were awakened to the sound of huge explosions as the bridges over the Sava were blown up.


One of Gashi’s neighbors – a Serb woman – came to his apartment and beseeched him and his family to leave. She said it wasn’t safe for them to stay and she arranged for a friend for Bijeljina to drive them to Serbia until things calmed down.


Gashi, showing the kind of naiveté so prevalent among many in Bosnia, still believed “everything would be ok”. Instead of leaving, he arranged for his wife and child to go to Serbia, vial Bijeljina, and he himself went back to Brcko.


“I had my job at the electric company and my flat. I know it might sound ridiculous now, but at the time, that’s what I was thinking,” Gashi told the court.


Once back in Brcko, he saw two JNA planes fly over, then heard two massive explosions. One day in the centre of town, he witnessed a policeman executing several civilians, making them stand against a wall before shooting them in the back.


Soon, his boss at the electric company called on all employees to be on duty 24 hours a day and sleep at the office premises, so that they would all be on call to repair any electrical problems.


One day, while climbing a transformer pole to repair some electrical wires, he looked out toward the Bimeks meat processing plant and saw a group of men unloading bodies from a refrigerated meat truck and burying them in a mass grave.


Finally, on May 27, two policemen showed up at the Brcko electric company and arrested him.


They took him to the police station then transferred him to Luka where he was locked up with scores of other men.


Because he was a top athlete, many of the camp guards knew Gashi, and more than once, some of his old acquaintances form the kayak team stepped in to ensure that he was not beaten or killed.


Still, Gashi saw how other inmates were beaten, even killed. Once, he was even sent on clean-up duty, and forced to toss the corpses of his fellow inmates into the river.


After a couple of weeks in the camp, a JNA lieutenant, whom Gashi bumped into, offered to call his wife, who was then in Belgrade. The lieutenant did so, and Gashi’s wife tracked down Captain Dragan.


Captain Dragan had reportedly fallen out with the regime in Belgrade, but sill wielded considerable influence because he had started a fund to raise money for war veterans.


He apparently liked the way Gashi’s wife looked, and decided to help. When Gashi was released, he was driven to Zvornik where he met Captain Dragan.


Gashi said Captain Dragan told him, “You are a good man, and your wife is first class. Where you were, a human head is not worth a head of cabbage, I know that. Now you are free. Be quiet and don’t’ talk too much.”


Gashi said he heeded that advice for a few months, until he and his family received political asylum abroad.


Now, however, he is making up for that silence.


Stacy Sullivan is IWPR project manager in The Hague.


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