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

Serbian Leader Feared 'Papist Plot'

TV journalist tells of encounters with the Serbian president - and with his men in Bosnia.
By Chris Stephen

A leading television reporter from the Yugoslav wars this week provided unique insights into the mind of Slobodan Milosevic, and testimony suggesting that the military forces he controlled were involved in the Bosnian conflict.


Arnot van Linden - a correspondent with the British channel Sky News - talked about his time covering the conflicts in Croatia and later Bosnia. Prosecutors will be hoping that the evidence helps prove their argument that units under Milosevic's control assisted local Serb forces - something he has always denied.


But first the reporter described a strange outburst from Milosevic, suggesting that even during the war in Croatia he was already hostile to Muslims as well as the Catholic Croats.


The Serbian president was a secretive man, rarely shining a light into his innermost thoughts, so when he took Van Linden aside after an interview in 1991 the reporter was excited.


The interview itself had been a routine affair, involving questions about the fighting in Croatia which were met by stiff answers. But when it was over, Milosevic walked out into the corridor with Van Linden and suddenly confided his thoughts.


Milosevic leaned in close, telling the reporter that the war unfolding in Croatia was a "Papist plot". And, he added the Serb nation faced other enemies, including a nationalist Germany and Muslim extremists.


In the courtroom, Van Linden addressed Milosevic and said that in the space of one sentence during the conversation, he had spoken about the dangers posed by a German "Fourth Reich" and Islamic fundamentalists.


His claims brought a fiery response from Milosevic, who said he did not remember the conversation and would not describe the Catholic Church in disparaging terms. "Never in my life have I used the term Papist. I don't think you will remember me using the word Papist at all." He said he could not remember giving the interview, either.


"That is how I recall it," replied Van Linden. "I'm slightly surprised that you have no recollection, because I'm informed that that was the first interview you gave to a Western journalist."


The Sky TV broadcast of the interview in August 1991 shows Milosevic saying "no" when Van Linden asked, "Are you controlling the Serbian militia in Croatia?" Asked what connections he did have with the Serb forces in Croatia, Milosevic said, "We are helping them in terms of food, medical equipment, medicines, money and the like."


Van Linden went on to give evidence of what he saw on the ground during the war in Bosnia, suggesting that the Yugoslav military were collaborating with the Bosnian Serb army.


He told the court that in 1992, his Sky News producer met a Yugoslav army captain, named as Captain Dragan, and some of his men who were stationed alongside Bosnian Serb forces at the Lukavica barracks outside Sarajevo. This would indicate that the Yugoslav armed forces, which prosecutors say were controlled by Milosevic, were present and possibly active in the Bosnian conflict.


Van Linden also told the court that he saw direct evidence that Yugoslavia was sending aid to the Bosnian Serbs despite a UN embargo, when he watched petrol tankers cross into Bosnia over a bridge near Bijelinja.


In other parts of his evidence, Van Linden talked about the way media were used to block objective reporting and broadcast propaganda.


"The main Serb TV channels gave a very distorted picture first of the war in Croatia and then of the war in Bosnia," he told the court.


Van Linden's his own channel was broadcast on Serbia's Channel Three as part of a pre-war agreement, but during the war in Bosnia, Belgrade cut the service. "It was stopped to prevent people from getting an alternative view," he said.


Chris Stephen is IWPR's tribunal project manager.


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