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

Comment: Serbia's 'Secret War'

Protected witness tells court of part played by special Serbian police units in the Bosnian war.
By Mirko Klarin

So far, the most striking difference between the prosecution procedure in the Croatia and Kosovo indictments in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic has been the ethnicity of the witnesses.


In the first part of the procedure, the witnesses were mostly Kosovo Albanians, while the second was marked by major participation of Serb witnesses.


Out of ten witnesses heard so far, eight were Serbs: from Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. Out of these, five testified with their identity and image protected, and occasionally in sessions closed for public.


In addition to ethnicity, another common element of the latter is that at the beginning of conflict in 1991 they all lived in Croatia and that (with possible exception of witness C-020) they still live there.


Some of them were active in the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, established in Croatia in 1990, and/or in the territorial defense, which mobilised local Serbs before the war.


One of last week’s witnesses who did not accept the politics of the SDS and refused to be engaged by this party was arrested and almost shot by local Serbian police and paramilitary units in October 1991.


The fifth witness from this category, C-020, progressed on his war path from the local territorial defense, through Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic’s Tigers, to the Red Berets special police units backed by the Serbian state security service.


In tribunal lingo, they are all described as sensitive source witnesses, and all of them for the sake of their security and the security of their families have had their identities protected.


All the questions that might reveal the identity of such witnesses, as a rule, are presented in so called private sessions, during which cameras and microphones in the courtroom are switched off.


Although he never missed an opportunity to object to secret witnesses and private sessions, Slobodan Milosevic very often used questions and comments, which forced the judges to exclude the public.


The most drastic example was seen last week during the testimony of protected witness C-020.


Even before he entered the courtroom, this witness was described by Milosevic as a murderer, criminal and robber. Then, at the end of the direct examination, which for the most part was carried out in private session, he made a speech against secret trials, saying they belonged to the past and that for the sake of truth he wanted cross-examination to be conducted in an open session.


He revealed details in his very next sentence about the origin and war activities of witness C-020, which might disclose his identity, thus forcing the judges to close the session.


Before the microphones were switched off, judge Richard May ordered that data revealed by Milosevic must be removed from the public transcript and video recording of the trial.


Before they left the public gallery, the reporters and others were warned both by Judge May and prosecutor Geoffrey Nice that dissemination of data presented by Milosevic will be regarded as contempt of the court and adequately punished.


Milosevic's conduct in the courtroom so far indicates that incidents like this are a deliberate attempt to intimidate the witnesses both current and future and demonstrate that the use of initials and electronic distortion of images cannot guarantee anonymity or identity protection.


On the other hand, Milosevic did observe “the rules of game” in situations when on the basis of a previous written statement of the witness he knew that C-020 would confirm some of the theses that were beneficial for him.


Thus he cajoled the witness into confirming that he went into combat missions in Bosnia as a volunteer, because he was from that part of the country; or that after the fall of Vukovar, the Yugoslav army, JNA, protected captured Croats from vengeful local paramilitary units; or that Arkan's Tigers fought in Croatia in 1993 after the invitation and under the command of so-called Republika Srpska Krajina, and that they were engaged exclusively on front lines and had no contact with civilians.


Witness C-020 had his own reasons to have his identity concealed, both from the victims of the paramilitary formations in which he was a member, and from former comrades on the fronts of Eastern Slavonija, so-called Kninska Krajina and Western Bosnia.


During a short public introduction to his testimony, C-020 said that in the middle of 1991, he was mobilised for territorial defense in Borovo Selo, a Serbian suburb of Vukovar; that their weapons came from Serbia; that local territorial defense units and paramilitary formations from Serbia were included in the chain of command of the JNA; and that in the fall of 1991 during the Vukovar operation, the JNA openly took, as he put it, our, that is, Serbian side.


The testimony was then closed for the public, and, according to the prosecution’s pre-trial brief, which is a public document, C-020 was expected to speak about concrete crimes of Arkan's Tigers and local territorial defense units in Eastern Slavonija which he witnessed and in which he may have participated.


Milosevic alluded to his participation in these crimes at the beginning of the cross-examination and thus forced the judges to close the session for the public.


In those segments of the testimony that were open for public, it was heard that in 1992, C-020 went to Ozren Mountain in Western Bosnia, as a volunteer, and at the beginning of the next year he found himself fighting together with Arkan's Tigers in Kninska Krajina, on the side and under the command of the so-called Srpska Vojska Krajine (Serbian Army of Krajina).


After he was wounded in March of that year, C-020 returned to Eastern Slavonija and after he recovered joined the training course of the Super Tigers, Arkan's elite unit, equipped with high-tech weapons and equipment. The last, and for the prosecutor undoubtedly most interesting and most important, part of the war biography of witness C-020 was his participation in a combined formation composed of the Super Tigers, other paramilitary groups and special forces of Serbian police, engaged in a secret war in Western Bosnia.


When they came to Arkan's headquarters in Belgrade after the paramilitary leader’s invitation, the witness and other Super Tigers were requested to give away all their personal documents which could lead to their identification, and then listened to a moral lecture from Arkan and another commander Miodrag “Legija” Ulemek in which they were told that they will go to a secret mission in Bosnia.


Then they were transferred to the special base of the Serbian police near Belgrade, and from there, several days later, they were sent to Bosnia in a convoy of police buses and trucks with arms and military equipment.


At that time, in the middle of 1994, international observers were placed along the border between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to monitor whether Belgrade was observing a double embargo on arms and military equipment: an embargo imposed by the UN in 1991, and the one imposed by Serbia in 1993, due to the refusal of Bosnian Serb leaders to accept Vance-Owen peace plan.


In his written statement, C-020 described how they waited for the Russians' shift at the border for couple of hours, because the Russians could be bribed. In direct testimony, he modified his statement and said that what he meant was that it was possible to make a deal with the Russians to cross the frontier.


After they made a deal, the convoy crossed the border and travelled to Petrova Gora on the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, where they organised a camp and logistics base for the secret operation.


Volunteers were told that their mission was to help the forces of Fikret Abdic, a local renegade Muslim leader, who declared an autonomous republic and fought against the forces of the fifth corps of Bosnian army.


In order to achieve uniformity, they all wore red berets, which were a trade mark of the Serbian state security service, and were led by a key official in the latter, Franko "Frenkie" Simatovic.


After they sustained heavy losses in the first combat operations, including the death of some high-ranking Tigers and Serbian police officers, the nature of the mission was changed and Frenkie, the witness said, ordered that red berets must not be directly engaged in combat actions any more, and only participate in the training, monitoring and coordination of Abdic's forces.


The reason for the change of mission, according to this witness, was the problem of explaining the deaths of Serbian officers and soldiers back home, because at that time Serbia was not in war and there was no army and no police from Serbia operating in Bosnia.


Another indication of the involvement of Serbia in secret operations to help the Muslim renegades in Western Bosnia, and the link between Serbian police and private paramilitary formations, was provided by the fact that C-020 and other volunteers received their salary in two parts.


One part in the area where they were engaged and the other after returning to Belgrade, at Arkan's headquarters. As far as he was aware, C-020 said this money came from the Serbian interior ministry and Arkan.


Slobodan Milosevic, at least during the public part of the cross-examination, did not succeed in undermining the witness' version of the secret war in Bosnia by describing it as a kind of "joint venture" of Serbian secret police and private paramilitary formations.


It seems that this episode will not be finished with the testimony of C-020, because the prosecutor is expected to call witnesses who will confirm the links between the accused and Abdic and show that in Milosevic's Serbia in 1994 such a "joint venture" was not possible without knowledge and approval of top political leaders.


Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor at the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.


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