Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Retired Bosnian Serb general Milan Gvero - a former aide to fugitive indictee Ratko Mladic - has become the second Belgrade-based war crimes suspect to surrender voluntarily to the Hague tribunal this year.
Gvero, who has been charged in connection with the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa, turned himself in on February 21, some days after the Belgrade authorities were presented with a sealed indictment against him. He arrived in The Hague on February 23.
The former Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, spokesperson is often remembered as the person who organised trips for reporters to war-torn areas. He gained notoriety in 1991 by taking a group of journalists for a lunch party in the ruins of Vukovar and telling them that Croat troops had the habit of making necklaces out of the finger bones of Serb children.
While Gvero is a citizen of Republika Srspka, RS, he handed himself over to the Serbian authorities as he has lived in Belgrade since being removed from his military post by the then Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic in 1996.
This ended a long career in the army which had culminated in him acting as close aide and unofficial spokesperson for Mladic at the height of the hostilities in Bosnia.
Gvero was born in the Bosnian town of Mrkonjic Grad in 1937, and graduated from the Belgrade military academy with a masters degree in family sociology. Unlike many of his peers, however, the young Gvero entered the army as a political officer rather than joining a combat unit.
He spent his entire career as political officer, with responsibility for troop morale and public relations, rising to become head of the JNA’s political management office. This section was renamed the department for morale and information after the collapse of communism.
Sources close to the indicted general say that in the Sixties, when he taught at JNA political schools, he was respected for his “manners and attitude”, adding that he had the reputation of an ambitious officer who was loyal to Marshall Tito and the Communist Party.
When the former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early Nineties, Gvero was acting as JNA spokesperson and held the rank of colonel. He organised weekly press briefings in the early stages of the conflict in which he tried to explain and justify the army’s actions.
When the war broke out in Bosnia, Gvero left his family home in Belgrade to join the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, and set up a press centre in Banja Luka, which produced a weekly military magazine.
He was promoted several times while in the VRS and eventually reached the rank of lieutenant colonel general. Gvero acted as the head of the sector for morale, information and legal issues and was Mladic’s aide and unofficial spokesperson.
Sources close to the JNA and the VRS told IWPR that Gvero was a typical officer who was strongly allied to Belgrade and had resisted showing allegiance to nationalist Serb leaders such as the then RS president Radovan Karadzic, now one of the Hague tribunal’s most-wanted fugitive indictees.
When Karadzic tried to sack his army chief Mladic, Gvero openly sided with the latter and accused the Bosnian Serb president of leading a witch hunt against senior VRS officers.
Once the war in Bosnia ended with the Dayton Agreement in 1995 and Karadzic was deposed, Biljana Plasvic was elected as RS president. With the support of the international community, she moved to reduce Milosevic’s influence within the Bosnian Serb entity, including sacking those senior VRS officers who were close to Belgrade. Gvero was among 80 people who lost their jobs in this manner on October 23, 1996.
After his dismissal, Gvero returned to Belgrade and spent his days in retirement until the sealed indictment was served to the authorities.
He is the second Serb general to surrender voluntarily to The Hague this year, following the example of Vladimir Lazarevic, who turned himself in to face war crimes charges around a month ago after a meeting with Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Kostunica’s government, formed in 2004, advocates cooperation with The Hague through voluntary surrender of suspects - not their arrest and deportation - and had been roundly criticised for failing to produce results.
This lack of success had led the international community to warn Serbia that talks about its possible admission to the European Union and NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme would not take place unless an improvement was noted.
Serbia and Montenegro’s president Svetozar Markovic said that the surrender of Gvero and Lazarevic “reflect a high level of present consciousness that full cooperation with The Hague tribunal is a condition for getting close to [membership of] the EU”.
Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.
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