Top Quotes: “The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia” — Tim Judah

Austin Rose
54 min readJun 3, 2024



“In the south, in Kosovo, the medieval churches of the Serbian kings are like rafts on the sea of history. They are like rafts because Kosovo, once a land inhabited by Serbs, is now a land overwhelmingly populated by Albanians. In the 1690s, following an uprising against the Turks, thousands of Serbs migrated northwards and settled in the fertile lands beyond the Danube. When they left they took with them the remains of Lazar, their greatest medieval prince who had died in 1389.”

“When Serbian peasants from villages surrounding Sarajevo began to bombard the city they did so confusing in their minds their former Muslim friends, neighbours and even brothers-in-law with the old Ottoman Turkish viziers and pashas who had ruled them until 1878.

It is unfashionable to link the past and present when writing about the wars in the former Yugoslavia. One stands the risk of being accused of implying that somehow the people of the former Yugoslavia are more predisposed to war than anyone else in Europe or that they went to war because of their history. This is not true. The Serbs went to war because they were led into it by their leaders. But these leaders drew on the malign threads of their people’s history to bind them and pull them into war. If Serbian history had been different, today’s generations could not have been manipulated in the same way.

“In Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters town, the director of a local TV soap opera borrowed tanks being used in the siege of Sarajevo to use as props.”

“Leaving aside political cynicism, few realise just how much money was made by gangsters, politicians and army officers trading across the frontlines. Whole communities became pawns to be pushed across the board like so many chess pieces, but the kings grew rich in the process.”

“Perhaps one day a future patriarch will commission a picture of the great exodus of 1995. After four years of war and isolation, the Serb will to resist, at least in Croatia and Bosnia, finally gave way. For all this time the Serbs had defied the world and carved out mini-states for themselves in these republics. When Krajina, the Serb-held part of Croatia, collapsed that August along with defence lines in western Bosnia, the resulting exodus looked remarkably like Paja Jovanovié’s epic pictures — but with more cars and tractors than horses and carts. And, whether old Patriarch Georgije would have liked it or not, there were sheep this time around too.

By the time the Croats launched their offensive on Knin, the capital of what had for four years been the rebel Republic of Serbian Krajina, few put up much resistance. Worn down by poverty, hopelessness and the very public war-profiteering of the few, morale was at rock bottom. The offensive began at 5.00am on Friday, 4 August 1995. Artillery opened up along every front. It continued all day, dying down only at about 11pm. The radio was off the air and most people huddled in their shelters and basements uncertain of what was going on.

When the shelling stopped, the shocked and traumatised people grabbed what they could carry and fled for their lives. In some places the move was spontaneous. People began to run once they saw the army in retreat. In other areas the army or police gave orders for people to be ready to leave within the hour. Two days later, more than 170,000 people were on the roads. That was all the time it took for the Serbian Orthodox population of these lands, which had lived there for several centuries, to virtually vanish.”

“When the Bosnian war broke out, the Yugoslav Army cleared the Serbian side of the border of Muslim villages, and many began to emigrate for good to Turkey and Scandinavia in search of a new future for themselves and their families.”

“The Brankovic story is ‘a legend which has become part of the reality,’ the foundation of a people’s historical consciousness and awareness of its ethnic individuality. The Brankovic myth of treachery was needed as a way to explain the fall of the medieval state, and it has powerful seeds of self-replication contained within it. Throughout the wars of 1991–9 few Serbs ever ascribed a defeat to losing a battle fair and square. With monotonous regularity losses were always put down to secret deals — and treachery.

“The fact that the Serbs are Orthodox and the Croats Catholics is the result of historical accident. In 380 the Emperor Theodosius, who ruled the eastern half of the Roman Empire, decreed that his subjects would be Christians according to the formula laid down by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Henceforth the language of the Byzantine church was Greek, while that of the Roman church was Latin. When the empire was definitively split in 395, the line of division in Europe ran south along the Drina river. Roughly speaking modern Croatia and Bosnia lay to its west, with the regions of modern Serbia and Macedonia to its east. This division was to take place more than 200 years before the pagan Slavs even migrated to the region, but so long-lasting was to be its legacy that we are still living with the results today.”

“The church faced difficult years ahead, but it maintained its position as the sole institution keeping alive the idea of ‘Serbdom’ under the Turks. Thanks to this, most Serbs retained their Orthodox and thus Serbian identity. This contrasted with Bosnia, where, lacking a strong national church, many people had converted to Islam following the conquest in 1463.”

“It is not hard to see why the Serbs have regarded Russia with deep suspicion, despite its frequent extension of diplomatic protection to them. While the Russians have been happy to play the Orthodox or pan-Slav card when it has suited them the Serbs have always been conscious that there is no real love lost between the two countries. When push comes to shove Russia has always abandoned the ‘savages.’ During the war of 1991–5 much nonsense was written in the west about the great history of the Serbo-Russian alliance. But, as the Russians did virtually nothing to help the Serbs, it seems that the ‘savages’ attitude has continued to prevail. Most memorably Vitali Churkin, a Russian special envoy, once stormed out of a meeting with Bosnian Serb leaders accusing them of being ‘sick with the madness of war’.”

“Montenegrin men spent much of their lives sparring with the Turks and their Albanian and Montenegrin Muslim neighbours. While they like to claim that it was their military prowess which kept their land free, it is also true that the area was so poor that the Turks saw little point in expending blood and treasure trying to subdue it. The Montenegrins were also frequently embroiled in fighting one another, miring themselves in blood feuds and stealing one another’s cattle. Society was highly tribalised, and life was so hard in the barren mountains that much of the population was emigrating to fertile Serbia.

Penned inside what was to become an enclave, the Muslims retaliated and raided Serbian villages in search of food. On 14 December 1992, during one such raid, they burned two villages and massacred sixty-three of those who could not run fast enough.”

“It is in this way that, for generations, literature that elsewhere would have long been banned from schools is still, subconsciously or not, shaping the world view of Serbian children. It is inconceivable that in Germany, for example, poetry inciting the murder of Jews and the burning of synagogues would be considered acceptable today, however noble its literary pedigree.”

The Balkan Wars

“The Balkan Wars were to set the precedent in the twentieth century for massive waves of ethnic cleansing and the forced migrations of hundreds of thousands of people. All the worst evils that were witnessed in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999 were present in the Balkan Wars, including large-scale massacres of civilians, the destruction of whole towns and the gross manipulation of the media.”

Immediately after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Croatian and Muslim mobs rampaged through Bosnian towns destroying Serbian shops and property. Soon afterwards, special armed units of Muslims and Croats called Schutzkorps were formed by the authorities and given ‘full powers to deal with the Serbian population.’ By the end of July 5,000 Serbs were in prison, and the Schutzkorps often dispensed their rough justice without recourse to courts or other such legal niceties. Cyrillic was banned in Bosnia, Serbian schools closed down and property confiscated if members of a particular family had fled — for example, to fight in the Serbian Army.

In 1915 a trial of 156 Serbian intellectuals was begun in Banja Luka. In eastern Bosnia, in an early version of ethnic cleansing in the region, 5,200 Serb families living along the Serbian border were resettled in northwest Bosnia. By far the worst collective punishment, though, was the opening of concentration camps in Hungary, to which some 150,000 Serbs were sent during the war and from which many did not return, owing to disease and poor conditions. These prisoners were not just from Bosnia but also from Serbia itself. Despite its initial victories the Serbian Army was no longer able to hold back its enemies after Bulgaria was tempted into the war with a promise of Macedonia. In October 1915, combined forces from Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria took six weeks to occupy the country. It was then divided between Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Conditions under occupation were appalling. In addition to those despatched to concentration, camps in Hungary, some 30,000 Serbs were sent to Austrian camps or used as forced labour. Factories were plundered of their machinery and a devastating typhus epidemic stalked the land. Just as the Serbs had forced Macedonian Slavs to affirm that they were Serbs, the Bulgarians now forced Serbs to say that they were Bulgarians. Thousands died in desperate uprisings, and in some cases Bulgarian policy was so rigid that it even provoked mutinies among its own soldiers.

If Serbia had simply been occupied and had laboured under extreme conditions, there would be little more to say on the subject. But this was not the case. In an extraordinary development, the Serbian government, the army, its high command, deputies, government officials, King Peter, the prince regent Alexander and thousands of civilians began a historic retreat through Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. The ageing King Peter, who had yielded his royal duties to his second son Alexander in 1914, was hauled on carts into exile. Generals were carried in sedan chairs. As if to exult in the idea that Serbia would soon be resurrected, the soldiers also carried with them the casket and remains of Stefan Provencani; the so-called ‘First Crowned’ Nemanjic monarch who had died 700 years before.

The Serbian aim was to reach the Adriatic coast, from where they could be rescued by Allied forces. As the Austro-Hungarians, Germans and Bulgarians were closing in and the Serbian escape route to Salonika in the south had been cut, the only hope was to trek across the snow-clad mountains. The retreat was as remarkable as any single event in Serbian history. It falls into the tradition of the great migration of 1690 or the flight of the Krajina Serbs in 1995, but is even more remarkable because in 1915 the army had every intention of returning and eventually succeeded in doing so.

The order for a general retreat was given on 12 October 1915. The authorities organised mustering stations, and before pulling out of towns and villages, public and even private property was put to the torch. ‘What poet of genius, what writer could ever evoke the tragic scenes which were about to unroll,’ wrote Nikola Petrovic, a Serbian captain who recorded his experiences in a book published after the war in France called Agonie et résurrection: ‘Priests, teachers and their pupils followed the army. And behind it came the immense crowd of women carrying their children in their arms and young girls who did not want to remain under the domination of the conquerors.”

“Roads turned to mud tracks impassable by car, laden cart or artillery hauled by yoked oxen. Cars were doused with petrol and set on fire while ammunition was destroyed and artillery thrown off steep mountain passes. With every passing mile, food was in ever shorter supply and the weather became colder and colder. Men began to freeze to death where they lay down to sleep. The price of horses, normally 100 or 120 francs, shot up to 700 or 800, and even saddle bags normally worth 6 to 10 francs went for 100 to 150. But the cold, the dreadful conditions and the lack of food were not the only problems.

The route to the Albanian coast taken by Petrovic’s regiment led through Kosovo, which had been liberated, or occupied, by the Serbs and the Montenegrins in 1912. The occupation had been followed by harsh repression against the majority Albanian population, which deeply resented its forced incorporation into these two Slav monarchies and desired instead union with the emerging Albanian state. The Serbian retreat presented the perfect opportunity for revenge. Petrovic records that the local Albanians, ‘whose feelings were violently … hostile to Serbs’, mounted guerrilla actions to pick off weak detachments. ‘The whole Serbian Army suffered … suffered horribly from the cold, he wrote,

…and the worst thing was that unlike the enemy it could not take refuge in the houses of Albanian villages, because if one of ours dared to venture into one of these houses to warm up or rest, he would be pretty sure to die there. The Albanians killed those who had become isolated, chopping their heads off with axe blows. Then they seized the uniform of the dead man and, disguised as Serbian soldiers so as to allay any suspicion, they killed other unhappy men by luring them into ambushes.

Large numbers of soldiers began to desert before the army made it to the Albanian coast. Typhus and dysentery were rife. Military baggage was burned to warm cups of tea and in some of the most horrific scenes Petrovic describes pathways strewn with the corpses of soldiers mingled with the carcasses of horses and oxen. There was worse to come, as starving soldiers, refugees and prisoners of war who had also been forced on the great march began ripping off ‘sticky’ flesh from dead horses: ‘hunger was stronger than disgust’.

By the second half of December the Serbs began to arrive in northern Albania, making initially for Skadar (Shkoder), where the Serbian government had taken refuge. Because the area was exposed to Austro-Hungarian naval attacks from nearby Kotor Bay, however, it was impossible either to send provisions or to evacuate Serbian forces from there. They began to march again, this time to Durres and Vlore. From there, they were evacuated by the French to Corfu. But the agony was not yet over. Epidemics swept through the Serbian camps and in an effort to contain them the sick were quarantined on two little islands off the coast. In the two months to March 1916, 11,000 soldiers died of disease and 7,000 of them had to be buried at sea. ‘The bodies were piled up one on top of the other until the heap was sometimes three metres deep. The night fell, they were put on barges and thrown into the open sea.’

Within months the surviving army of some 120,000 men was taken to Bizerte in French Tunisia and from there to the front which the Allies had opened at Salonika. Civilians too were taken to north Africa and to France itself, especially to Corsica.”

“During the Balkan Wars Serbia lost some 30,000 men. The First World War cost itcost it 275,000 men and wartime diseases another 800,000 civilians. These losses amounted to a quarter of the population and two-thirds of its male population between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five.”


“The most oft quoted statement of Ustasha intentions is that of Mile Budak, the Croatian writer who became the NDH minister of education. On 22 June he is alleged to have said that in the NDH one-third of the Serbs would be killed, one-third expelled and one-third converted to Catholicism. In September an Italian military report recorded that Budak and others were giving speeches about the ‘Serbian Orthodox question’ in which ‘they have not hesitated to define the aim of the Ustasha struggle … [as] the extermination of the Serbs.’ The Cyrillic script was banned, Orthodox church schools were closed and Serbs were ordered to wear identifying armbands. Deportations to Serbia began and by 1943 the Serbian Orthodox church estimated that there were some 300,000 refugees in Serbia alone from the NDH. Of course there were a good deal more refugees in the areas which soon rose in rebellion and turned themselves into enclaves from which NDH power was expelled.”

“Among the most infamous of the early massacres was one which took place, again in Glina, on 5 August 1941. Some 1,200 Serbs dressed in their Sunday best were called to the church from surrounding villages to be ‘converted’ to Catholicism. Instead they were locked inside the church and murdered.”

“Hitler’s intention, as in Serbia, had been to install a friendly regime, or in the Italian zone leave Mussolini’s men in charge. He had not counted on the fanaticism of the Ustashas, which, although successfully killing unknown hundreds of thousands, rapidly led to Serbian revolts.”

Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1941, Kosovo and the Albanian-populated areas of western Macedonia were divided between the Italians, the Germans and the Bulgarians. While the Germans took the zone which included the important Trepca mines and the Bulgarians were awarded a relatively small area, the bulk of these regions became part of Italian-ruled Greater Albania. Pogroms against Serbs began immediately and the Italians were often forced to intervene.”

“In 1941 the wrath of the Kosovo Albanians was directed primarily against Serbian and Montenegrin settlers, almost all of whom fled. Serb sources talk of some 100,000 Serbs fleeing, of whom 40,000–60,000 were of settler stock. Albanian sources unsurprisingly say little or nothing about this subject. By April 1942, the authorities in Belgrade had registered more than 70,000 refugees from Kosovo. Another 10,000 Serbs are said to have been killed. Albanian sources talk of Chetnik reprisals, but how many Albanians were killed is unknown.”

“His function was to write rousing pieces to help prepare the Serbs for war. Even more important though was Crncevic’s role as head of Matica Iseljenika Srbije. This venerable but more or less moribund cultural organisation and publishing house was revived under Slobodan Milosevic. It did not however seek out up and coming young poets. Its humanitarian aid department was widely believed to be a cover for dispensing money and arms in preparation for events to come.

This was also the period when Serbian television played its part by the constant screening of documentaries about the Ustashas and Jasenovac, implying all along, that President Tudjman was the heir of Ante Pavelic. The effect of all of this was profound and did much to terrify and soften up the Serbs, especially those in the rural Krajina regions. These programmes made them susceptible to the suggestion that their only course of action was to take up arms and so to be prepared — unlike 1941.”

“This was the rub, of course. The Yugoslav constitution was, as we have seen, unclear on the question of secession. Although the republics were the declared subjects of the 1974 constitution, the constitution itself provided that ‘The nations of Yugoslavia, proceeding from the right of every nation to self-determination, including the right to secession … have … united in a federal republic of free and equal nations and nationalities and founded a socialist federal community.’ As Slovenia had no native-born minorities and there were no pockets of Slovenes outside the republic, the issue was clear-cut: republic and nation were the same thing. By contrast, Milosevic argued that the Croats had a right to self-determination, but that they could not take Serbs out of Yugoslavia against their will. The problem, as Kucan implied, was that Serbian self-determination was not possible without hurting the other nations, mainly the Croats and Muslims among whom they lived. Likewise Croatian and Muslim self-determination without hurting others was also impossible. Determined to ignore this, however, Milosevic and Tudjman pressed on with their preparations for conflict.”

90s Croatia

“Using their overwhelming firepower, the Serbs managed to carve out between a quarter and one-third of Croatia’s landmass and hold it until, abandoned by Serbia, it was reconquered by Croats in 1995.

“Jabbing the air, the new generation shouted that it was thanks to Britain that the Montenegrin Army had been forced to abandon Skadar (Shkodër), the northern Albanian port, in 1913. Having sacrificed thousands of men during their seven-month siege of the town, the statesmen of Europe ordered the ‘Serbian Sparta’ to withdraw. It refused and so an international naval blockade was ordered. Reluctantly the Montenegrins turned Skadar over to the British Royal Navy in mid-May 1913. What the angry Montenegrins of 1991 forgot to mention was another factor which had helped prise their army out of Skadar — a six-million-franc loan-cum-bribe to King Nikola.”

“After the bay was taken, the soldiers closed in on Dubrovnik itself. It was hard to know how to explain the sheer lack of Croatian defenders; was it because the republic was so poorly prepared for war or because the authorities were luring the JNA into the trap that it proved to be? Young Croatian guardsmen set up mortar positions just outside the walls of the old city and hard Hercegovinian warriors fought rocket duels with the Montenegrins over the ancient walls. The world, watching on television, was transfixed. Here it seemed as though the JNA had stooped to the lowest depths, that it was about to destroy the pearl of the Adriatic, one of the greatest architectural and historical jewels of the Mediterranean. Several shells fell on the old city, but the damage here, as opposed to the modern outskirts of town, was never as bad as the Croats made it out to be. Spectacular film was made one sunset of columns of smoke appearing to rise from within the walls. ‘They are destroying it stone by stone!’ shrieked the Croats. ‘The Croats are lighting tyres!’ cried the JNA. Neither was true. The JNA had hit a car park by the walls which burned with an abundance of black smoke.

Strangely the Serbian leadership never seemed to realise that they had fallen into a trap and that with every shot they were turning the Serbs into international pariahs. It was too late anyway. They could not pull back while there was fighting because this would be celebrated by the Croats as a morale-boosting military victory. Next came Vukovar and then Sarajevo. The JNA and then the Krajina and Bosnian Serb armies believed that they were fighting a traditional Balkan war. They consistently failed to understand that since 1941 an extra dimension had been added to war — international opinion as guided by television and the media.”

“In 1994 a UN report identified eighty-three paramilitary groups fighting in Bosnia and Croatia, of which fifty-six were Serb, thirteen Croat and fourteen Bosnian Muslim. On the Serbian side, most were small and, although murderous, not particularly significant. Two, however, deserve special mention. They are Arkan’s Tigers and the Chetniks of extreme nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj. These groups played major roles as shock troops of ethnic cleansing both in the autumn and winter of 1991 in eastern Slavonia and at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. The reason they became a necessity was two fold. First, Arkan’s men especially were used as a form of brutal commando force whose incentive to venture where others feared to tread was the promise of loot. Seselj’s men were also fighting for pillage but, less specialised than Arkan’s troops, they were used to make up dwindling numbers in the JNA. This was because, as the war in Croatia ground on, the number of desertions and failures to report for duty rose dramatically. Tens of thousands of young men, especially from Belgrade, began to escape abroad rather than go to the front. As the military police hunted for those that remained, they slept in different places every night until such time as the authorities began to lose interest in them. In eastern Serbia, reserve units began to mutiny in protest against going to Vukovar, and General Kadijevic complained that many of those units which reached the front soon ‘abandoned’ it. In the most famous desertion, a man drove his armoured personnel carrier away from the front and down the motorway, and refused to come to a stop until he reached the federal parliament building in the centre of Belgrade. Serbian nationalism had lost its appeal in the mud and gore of eastern Slavonia.”

“While officially a simple pastry-shop owner, he suddenly emerged at the end of 1990 as the head of Delije, the official fan club of Belgrade’s Red Star football team. Until Arkan was put in charge, the fans had become increasingly prone to uncontrolled outbursts of nationalist chanting. Milosevic’s men needed to control this. They did not want any surplus energy being harnessed by Vuk Draskovié’s nationalist and opposition Serbian Renewal Party. Simultaneously, but rather more discreetly, Arkan founded the Serbian Volunteer Guard, known as the Tigers. The core of this new militia was none other than a select group of young men from Delije. ‘We fans … trained without weapons,’ said Arkan, which may or may not be true. ‘I insisted on discipline from the beginning. You know our fans, they are noisy, they like to drink, to joke about. I stopped all that in one go, I made them cut their hair, shave regularly, not drink — and so it began the way it should be.’

Arkan’s contacts were Radmilo Bogdanovic, Frenki and Badza. The Tigers set up a training camp in Erdut in Serb-held eastern Slavonia from which they fought and coordinated their pillage. (All the best Belgrade restaurants suddenly began serving Erdut wine.)

90s Bosnia

The Serbs were told that if Bosnia became independent they would once again be subjected to the laws of Muslim landlords, agas, begs and pashas, and that independence represented a rolling back of everything Serbs had died for since 1804, if not 1389. Nothing could better exemplify the threat faced by the Serbs, they were told, than the fact that for hundreds of years they had been Bosnia’s largest single community but that in the last twenty-five years the Muslims had suddenly ‘outbred’ them. As in Croatia, the extreme stress of the situation left people feeling vulnerable. Many simply suspended their critical faculties and put their trust in their leaders. After all, they argued, they were well educated and well connected to Milosevic, the man who had ‘saved’ the Serbs of Kosovo and now Croatia too.

“‘It was war,’ said a Serbian soldier. For more than fifteen kilometres every single house along the Kozarac road had been devastated. Grimly cradling his AK-47 he said, ‘Those that didn’t resist are in the camps, those that did were killed. There will never be Muslims here again!

In the little riverside town of Bosanska Kostajnica, the mosque had been dynamited and the Catholic church was a charred skeleton. In a backstreet a Muslim woman hissed from behind half-closed blinds, Help us please, help us to get out.

In Prijedor a line of women and children queued silently in the blazing August sun in front of the town hall. They were waiting to sign their property over to the municipality in exchange for exit, or rather expulsion, permits. By doing so they hoped to have their menfolk released from the camps, into which thousands had been herded. In Celinac the local ‘War Presidency’ promulgated a series of regulations by which non-Serbs could not swim or fish in the local rivers, could not gather groups of more than three and could not dally in public places. In Sarajevo, where utilities had been cut off, people who ran to get water during a lull in the shelling were cut down by snipers or random mortar shells.

This was how the Republika Srpska was born.”

One part bowed to the Nazi regime without any strong resistance, but also without becoming admirers of the Nazi ideology and political practice. Another part was deeply attracted to the new ideology and fanatically attached to those that proclaimed it.

Psychologically, this readiness to submit to the Nazi regime seems to be due mainly to a state of inner tiredness and resignation….

For millions of people Hitler’s government … became identical with ‘Germany.’ Once he held the power of government, fighting him implied shutting oneself out of the community of Germans. … It seems that nothing is more difficult for the average man to bear than the feeling of not being identified with a larger group. However much a German citizen may be opposed to the principles of Nazism, if he has to choose between being alone and feeling that he belongs to Germany, most persons will choose the latter. It can be observed in many instances that persons who are not Nazis nevertheless defend Nazism against criticism of foreigners because they feel an attack on Nazism is an attack on Germany. The fear of isolation and the relative weakness of moral principles help any party to win the loyalty of a large sector of the population once this party has captured the power of the state.

One way the loyalty of ordinary Bosnian Serbs to the SDS could be ensured in circumstances of breakdown and extreme political tension was the pre-emptive tactic of making out that any attack would come from the other side. In this way the taking up of arms was justified in terms of self-defence. Biljana Plavsic, who became the vice-president of the Republika Srpska when it formalised itself after Bosnia’s international recognition, declared just before the war, ‘Serbs do not want to turn the wheel of history back to the nineteenth century. Independence would be violence without precedent against the Serbs. If the others want to live in a Muslim Bosnia then let them mark the borders out. Let us part peacefully but I will not live in such a state.’ As she well knew, there could be no such thing as the peaceful marking out of borders without a Muslim capitulation. When this did not come ‘violence without precedent’ had to be used against the Muslims, and in some areas against the Croats, in order to draw the lines in blood. Those that looked for a justification, however, could say that they were fighting a just war because the Muslims had refused all entreaties to part peacefully.”

“The siege became the strangest in military history. After Mitterrand’s visit, the UN and its refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), opened the city for emergency aid. Up to 4 January 1996 and despite many airport closures; the UNHCR was to fly 12,951 aid flights, which literally kept the city alive. In this way Sarajevo was saved from defeat and thus, in a hideous paradox, the war could go on for over three more years. And not only did the international community feed the defenders of the city but, with scrupulous fairness, they fed the besiegers too, because otherwise they would have closed the airport again. This is not to say that the UN should not have done what it did, because Sarajevo was the victim of aggression driven by the SDS and plotted by Serbia and the JNA’s most senior officials. It is only to point out that the haphazard western response to the war helped to fuel it and prolong it. Opening the airport was away of avoiding the more robust option of air strikes which western leaders were so frightened of but which, when they finally came in sufficient strength, were to prove doubters wrong.”

Since they had been so confident of a quick victory, the Serbian leadership had thought nothing of beginning the siege while Sarajevo remained full of Serbs. Even in July 1993, more than a year after the siege began, it was thought that some 50,000 people out of a besieged total of 250,000 were Serbs. Because of their numbers and the international presence in the city, these people were afforded more protection than Serbs in smaller provincial cities who were vulnerable to attacks by extremists, criminals and angry neighbours. A few extremely courageous individuals like General Jovan Divjak, the deputy commander of the Bosnian Army, and Gordana Knezevic, the deputy editor of the daily Oslobodjenje, were also willing to nail their colours to the mast of the multi-ethnic Bosnian ideal and to fight for it. Knezevic divided the Serbs within the siege lines into three. There was a small ‘anti-fascist’ group, among which she counted herself; a small group that ‘eagerly awaited liberation’ by the gunners in the hills and a third undecided mass who approved neither of the Bosnian government nor of Karadzic and his followers.”

“The ethnic purification of Bosanski Novi took place in two waves. In May, as the war started in earnest, the people of eleven Muslim villages near the town were rounded up at gun point and herded into one village. There, crammed thirty to a house, they were kept for eighteen days. They were then forced onto freight trains, men in the back wagons, women and children in the front ones. ‘As this was happening they fired on the crowds,’ said Emsuda Krilic, aged thirty-seven. ‘We saw thirty or forty dead. There were up to 300 in each wagon.’ There was no food or water for four days. ‘You crouch, you faint, you come to, you faint,’ said Namka Ekic, aged thirty-one, whose baby was fifteen days old at the time. Her sister Arifa Ekic said that they knew the men who had forced them on to the trains: ‘They were our school friends and Serbian neighbours. They said they had been threatened with death if they did not drive us out. I don’t believe them, they are all the same.’ According to the Ekic sisters, at one point some girls of about eighteen and nineteen years of age had been taken off the trains, ostensibly to fetch water. They were not seen again. After five days travelling the men were sent back and imprisoned in Bosanski Novi’s sports stadium. The women and children were then expelled to Croatia.”

“On 2 June anti-tank weapons were used to destroy the town’s two mosques. A well-known local Serbian mafia called the Spare Ribs donned uniforms and quickly gained a reputation as the most brutal of five Serbian armed groups now roaming town. At an increasing tempo Muslim-owned cafés, shops and restaurants were blown up during the night and houses were sprayed with bullets. An outlying suburb was shelled and houses burned down by men in camouflage uniforms. ‘There was not so much killing,’ said Samir, it was just that no one knew what was happening a hundred metres away. The town was festooned with Serbian flags. Serbian property was not touched. The police began to make sweeps, raiding homes and arresting able-bodied Muslim men. Almost all of the men who arrived in Karlovac that night said.that they had spent up to five days imprisoned in the sports stadium. Numbers there ranged up to 1,000 at any one time. Abdelhaid Dautovic, aged twenty-three, said:

There were sixty rounded up in my group. They fired into the air as they pushed us onto the bus. When we got there we were made to kneel with our hands behind our necks. They beat the older ones who could not do this with their rifles butts. We got tea and salami once a day and we slept in the shower and locker rooms by night. Everyone went to the toilet, one by one, once a day. After a couple of days the guards asked for volunteers for their army. About 150 went. They did it to protect their families.

The pattern was that after five days most people were released. Meanwhile Muslims were sacked from their jobs and, with armed Serbs patrolling the streets, people hid indoors. There was a curfew, there was no electricity and all normal life collapsed.”

In a bid to survive, people began to sell their possessions at knock-down prices. The going rate for a video recorder was £30. Asked if he thought local Serbs were ashamed to buy in such circumstances, Samir said, ‘They couldn’t wait to get their hands on the stuff, they set the prices.’ Armed gangs robbed houses and businesses. One group forced a man to sell his successful café at a nominal price or die. Everyone who came out that night could name people who had ‘disappeared’ or worse. Abiologist and former Muslim mayor, Hamdia Ekic, was gunned down in the street ‘as he went to get an asthma spray for his child’, said one man.

On 15 July notices were posted on the town hall announcing that buses would be leaving for Croatia. Having been suitably softened up, non-Serbs queued for up to fourteen hours to get their permissions to leave. The municipality extended working hours to process this cleansing operation. Many were granted permission to leave only after signing their property over to the local authorities. Others scoffed, saying they had not had to do this as it had already been seized. Then, the final indignity, those in flight for their lives had to pay for their bus tickets. The buses took them to a rendezvous point where the cleansed were decanted into UN trucks.”

“Within Serb-held Bosnia there were massacres, scores of Serbian groups were out of control and rape was widespread. The effect was that within weeks of the outbreak of fighting the Serbs had consolidated control over wide areas of the republic, except for various enclaves where their power had been resisted. The most important of these lay in the east, in hilltop Srebrenica and riverside Gorazde.

The camps had two purposes. First, they were used to intern men of fighting age, and local leaderships, to prevent any resistance from forming. Secondly, they were designed to intimidate non-Serbs into leaving Bosnia. That there was a rough plan which was being followed is clear from the fact that across Serb-held territory the organisation of round-ups and camps was much the same. According to a painstakingly detailed UN study:

Reports suggest a common method of initial apprehension and identification of those non-Serbs detained for ultimate disposition (either long-term detention, deportation, or execution). A common plan is also suggested by the implementation of a system whereby prisoners were detained, classified, and subjected to similar types of abuse (e.g., it was often regularly reported that intellectuals, politicians, police, and the wealthy were regularly tortured and killed in certain camps). There is also a similarity in the command and control of the camps, whereby there was a mix of civilian, political, JNA, paramilitary, and local Serb reservists and civilians involved in camp operations. With regard to practical aspects of camp operation, large suitable facilities appear to have been selected and prepared, to some extent, in advance.

“The UN-appointed Commission of Experts compiled thousands of pages of documents on all the atrocities that took place during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and has archives of individual testimonies of survivors of some of the worst places and incidents. Typical of its dry prose is the following from a survivor of Omarska:

One subject reported that each night the guards at the camp would select 10–20 prisoners, beat them up, and then shoot them with pistols. He said that on the following morning, the [surviving] prisoners would have to get up early to load the bodies on a ‘Combi truck.’ The subject was not sure where the bodies were taken. Another subject estimated that on many occasions, 20–40 prisoners were killed at night by ‘knife, hammer and burning. He stated that he had witnessed the killing of one prisoner by seven guards who poured petrol on him, set him on fire and struck him upon the head with a hammer. The subject reported that there were about 100 such killings at the camp. He stated that the intelligentsia of the camp were selected first for killing.

During the Second World War a dreadful massacre of Serbs had taken place at Omarska, which was a Serbian village. Today the area is part of an iron-ore mining complex and as such has several large hangars. In 1992 more than 7,000 prisoners were crammed into them, sardine style, and were then called out for questioning, beating, torture and execution. Hundreds were killed there. If this was revenge for 1941, it was done on a grand scale.”

He was a teacher and many of the guards had been his pupils. Some of them got very bad marks so they made him wear a woman’s wig. They beat him every day.

“Ostra Luka was the Serbian village next door. Before the war the people of the two villages did everything together — weddings, funerals and football matches. While Alisici lived in terror in August 1992 it was clear that at least some of the people of Ostra Luka passed that summer in the grip of some form of collective insanity. Perhaps they had to believe the most bizarre of tales in order to justify to themselves what they were doing to their neighbours. Darko, a young policeman from Ostra Luka, claimed, ‘We captured documents and lists that prove what the Muslims were going to do to the Serbs here. We found hermetically sealed boxes that they were going to put our kidneys and hearts in which they were going to send to Germany and France in exchange for tanks!

Kozarac and the Prijedor region had seen some of the worst massacres and deportations of Serbs during the Second World War. This certainly explains some of the Serbian passion for ‘never again’ which they manifested that summer, but it does not explain how they simply suspended all critical faculties. Needless to say, Darko had never seen the purported documents and hermetically sealed boxes, but such beliefs were widespread and broadcast widely by the Bosnian Serb media. After these areas had been more or less cleansed, the war turned into a far more classical affair of trenches and frontlines.”

“A small group of Serbs were willing to help their Muslim and Croat neighbours. Tens of thousands of Serbs, especially the educated and better off, fled from towns like Banja Luka because they did not want to take part in the war. The insanity then was not total. Others who also did not believe in the cause did not or could not flee. If they actually chose to help Muslims or Croats, though, their lives were as much at risk as those of the persecuted.

“Despite the fact that Srebrenica had been declared a UN ‘safe area,’ Bosnian Serb forces began an all-out drive to capture it on 6 July 1995. As a result as many as 12,000 people, mostly men, formed a twelve-kilometre-long column to try and march the seventy kilometres to government-held territory. Survivors claimed that no more than half of those who attempted to flee made it to safety. One of them recalled a particularly harrowing moment:

We arrived close to a road. The Serbs were waiting for us. They had gathered some buses full of civilians from Srebrenica. They passed them the loud hailers so that they could beg us to surrender. Soldiers heard their wives imploring them. We were 500 metres away and there was nothing we could do. Some cried, others threw down their rifles and surrendered. One of my friends committed sui-cide.

Summary executions followed, often after the Muslims had been ordered to dig their own graves. It has also been alleged that at one point the fleeing men were attacked with shells containing hallucinogenic gases which led some to kill each other believing that they were Serbs. The accounts of the survivors are among the worst of the war. Some who lived to tell the tale survived under piles of bodies and managed to flee as night fell — a tale reminiscent of the darkest days of the Second World War.

Thousands who did not try to flee across country gathered at a Dutch UN base hoping for protection. Bosnian Serb soldiers surrounded it and at first seemed friendly enough. As cameras were present they gave out sweets to the children, and General Mladic himself is recorded telling the people, ‘No one will harm you!’ Mladic wanted the people out of the base. Sixty buses arrived which were to take the women, children and elderly to Tuzla. Men from the ages of seventeen to sixty, however, were separated from their families and executed.”

“In October 1994 the Bosnian Army’s 5th Corps finally broke out of the enclave, briefly taking large swathes of Bosnian Serb-held territory. The Bosnian Serb leadership furiously blamed the UN, saying that the Bosnians could do this because they were operating out of what was supposed to be a UN ‘safe area.’ Then they boasted that they had retaken the lost territory because their Krajina Serb brothers had come to their aid. What they did not say, though, was far more interesting. In fact it was the Bosnian Serbs themselves who had sold the 5th Corps a good part of its weaponry — and had then been taken by surprise when it was used against them.

“The other element to the Bihac story is the failed attempt to buy off Cazin Krajina’s Muslims. Initially the Serbian leadership was divided about what to do with Bihac and its people. Some argued that this Muslim enclave had to go because otherwise it would remain like a stone stuck in the gullet of Greater Serbia. In the long run they were proved right, as the extended lines around the enclave tied up large numbers of men who could have been deployed elsewhere. Others argued that since its people were overwhelmingly Muslim it was not Serbian land and so an accommodation would have to be found with its leaders. Because it would have been far too costly to try and capture the whole area, rather than just the strategic railway line that skirted the Una and connected Banja Luka to Knin, Serbian leaders decided in favour of the second option. They were also fascinated by the possibilities of what they could do if they succeeded in splitting the Bosnian Muslim leadership by recruiting Fikret Abdic.

After his return home in 1993 Abdic dominated what had become the ‘Bihac pocket’ from Velika Kladusa. To begin with, Abdic kept his peace with the Krajina Serbs, but he soon began to negotiate with the Bosnian Serbs and the Croats too. Inevitably he fell out with the leadership in Sarajevo and began parroting Serbian and Croatian claims that Izetbegovic had embarked on an Islamic fundamentalist path. By this time, the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats had made peace and were cooperating against the Muslims. On 26 September 1993 Abdic proclaimed the foundation of the ‘Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia and so literally became a pocket ‘president.’

At first all went well. A current joke asked what would be left of former Yugoslavia after the war. The answer was Velika Srbija, Velika Hrvatska and Velika Kladusa — Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia and Greater Kladusa.

As a result of the agreements Abdic signed with the Serbs and Croats, commercial traffic again began to flow from Velika Kladusa. Convoys went to Croatia across Krajina Serb territory and a bus line was also established. As the Croats were at that time waging war against the Bosnian government, they shared the Serbian aim of splitting the Muslim leadership. For their part of the deal Abdic’s Agrokomerc republic was granted a duty-free area in the Croatian port of Rijeka. In Zagreb, Pale and Belgrade, Abdic was fêted as a man of peace and the kind of Muslim that both Serb and Croat could do business with. In Sarajevo, not surprisingly, he was stripped of his official post of member of the republic’s presidency and denounced as a traitor.

For the year that the Abdié pipeline was in operation almost everyone concerned reaped the benefits. The Krajina Serbs sent food to be processed by Agrokomerc, ordinary life began to revive in the part of the Cazin Krajina still under his control and above all millions were made through sanctions-busting. The key part of the Abdic deal was that the Croats made money by selling him fuel and other goods which, in theory, were only for his Autonomous Province. In fact UN officials noted that Abdic convoys that made their way across Krajina carried far more fuel than the area could possibly use. The extra petrol was not just for the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs but for Serbia itself. By August 1994, however, the greatest scam yet devised to make money out of the war came to an end. The government in Sarajevo proved itself powerful enough to initiate and carry through a successful revolt led by the 5th Corps. Abdic was driven out, but as he departed from Velika Kladusa he led with him some 30,000 refugees, whose devotion to their ‘Daddy’ verged on the cultish.

Once inside Krajina, Abdic’s followers ended up stranded because the Croats would not let them cross into government-held territory. Also, since the halcyon days of war profits for all, the Bosnian political kaleidoscope had turned and Croatia was no longer a friend of Abdic but had switched sides again to support the government in Sarajevo. Some 20,000 Abdié followers now found themselves housed in the Batnoga camp, less than three kilometres from their homes in Velika Kladusa but firmly inside Krajina. It was here that the sheer madness and the utter cynicism of the war reached new heights. Batnoga was not just any old camp — it was one of Agrokomerc’s chicken farms. So, courtesy of the Serbs, Abdic’s people were settled in the long hen-coops where they waited patiently until they could be put to good use again. This came to pass in October 1994 when, having partly armed themselves from their shopping spree with the ever helpful Serbs, the 5th Corps launched their attack.

Batnoga was the epitome of the Bosnian nightmare. There was neither electricity nor running water. In each of the twenty-four hen-coops families staked out tiny squares of floor space on which to live. The huts were not just gloomy but smoky too, as the women cooked on stoves next to their family mattresses. Outside children played in the mud while other families lived inside their cars, lorries or makeshift tents. Bizarrely, considering that the Serbs were locked in mortal combat with the Muslims, the 20,000 people living in the hen-coops constituted, after Knin, Krajina’s ‘second city’ in terms of population.”

“The Battle of Velika Kladusa bore witness to some of the strangest scenes since the beginning of the war. Some of Abdic’s men went to war wearing badges with his picture on and others fought under a hand-made flag bearing the slogan ‘Long Live Daddy!’

“Close to Mostar, the Serbs occupied the heights behind the town. The Bosnians held the eastern part of the town and the Croats the west. A sliver of Bosnian-held territory also ran north from Mostar, connecting it to the main body of government-held territory in central Bosnia. In east Mostar, during the worst days of the Croatian siege, the Serbs could be persuaded for a fee to shell the Croats. However, it has also been claimed that the Serbs would take the money and duly fire the number of shells the Muslims had ordered but, so as not to jeopardise their relations with the Croats, they warned them first to get out of the way.

“One scandal that lingered for a long time over the Republika Srpska was the mystery of what had happened to thousands of Volkswagen Golf cars that were stolen from Bosnia’s Volkswagen factory during the first weeks of the war. According to some sources, the brand-new vehicles which were at the plant in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca were divided between the Serbian and Sarajevo mafias. Other reports imply that Bosnian Serb officials, working in collusion with the Belgrade mafia, managed to steal most of them, perhaps 5,000 cars in all. This haul was reputed to be worth DM90m. Either way the pillage of Vogosca must rank as the largest car theft in history. One report says that many of the Golfs which were sold in Serbia were subsequently stolen from their new owners and then sold in Bulgaria and Belarus. As too many people close to power among the Bosnian Serbs were connected with this, the Bosnian Serb parliament shied away from naming those responsible.

“It is impossible to underestimate the debilitating effects of such corruption on the Serbs. When in August 1995 Krajina and later much of Serb-held western Bosnia collapsed, ordinary soldiers said they had been betrayed and saw no more reason to fight. It was not only that they believed that they had been sold out politically, but that for four years they had manned the trenches while many of their officers and political chieftains had made millions for themselves. It was well known that many if not all of their superiors had acquired flats and houses in Serbia in readiness for the moment when they would make off with the loot.”

The end of Yugoslavia turned Serbia and the Serb-held lands in Croatia and Bosnia into a patchwork of mafia fiefs. The unprecedented breakdown of law and order and the fantastic business opportunities provided by sanctions-busting meant that many Yugoslav gangsters who had hitherto operated in the richer pastures of Germany and Switzerland returned to reap the profits of war. Some became involved with Serbian paramilitaries, which under the cover of patriotism became rapacious looting machines.”

Serbia in the 90s

“The gangster presence in Belgrade was inescapable. Many cafés and restaurants asked their clientele to check their weapons in with their coats, and while murders in the city were common the vast majority were mafia-related. Even small children could not escape their effects, as the deaths in the park showed. ‘I could not drag Isidora away from the window,’ complained one woman, whose six-year-old daughter had insisted on watching while the remains of a neighbour were zipped into a body bag and carted off after his murder in an affair related to the petrol business. It was not only classic gangsters who died. In the autumn of 1995 the director of Coca Cola in Serbia was gunned down in his office.”

“In 1989 it was Milosevic who ironically instituted the first sanctions regime in the region by ordering a Serbian boycott of Slovene goods. And in December 1990 his government excelled itself by instigating one of the greatest bank frauds in modern financial history. Despite republican autonomy, the dinar was the preserve of the federal Yugoslav authorities. All of a sudden, however, the balance sheets of Serbian banks swelled to the tune of some DM2.6bn (US$1.5bn). This was then promptly distributed as credits to large companies, which used them to buy hard currency. Mladjan Dinkic, an economist, and later government minister, who wrote about the financial wonderland that was to develop in Serbia, noted, “It appears that only certain companies received “grey dinars”. All of them were reliable financial supporters and recruiting grounds for the ruling party. The Serbian authorities were able to issue the phantom dinars that they had printed because, although they did not (yet) control the National Bank of Yugoslavia, they did control the National Bank of Serbia and its counterpart in Vojvodina. Other republics had done this before, but the sheer scale of the Serbian swindle has often been cited as one of the key events which made the death of Yugoslavia inevitable.

At the time, however, the fact that Milosevic had succeeded in literally plucking vast amounts of money out of thin air was of great encouragement to him. It meant that from then on until January 1994 he could implement a policy of economic improvisation, though it was little more than a series of conjuring tricks. However, in the place of the conjurer shouting to disbelieving children ‘Oh yes there is!’, the Serbian media was loud in calling for patriotic forbearance. When UN sanctions were imposed at the end of May 1992, Milosevié said simply, ‘This is the price we must pay for supporting the Serbs outside Serbia.’ In this way the population could be persuaded to suffer almost any hardship and con trick. Until January 1994 there was simply no economic policy that would be recognised as such anywhere else and certainly not in the middle of Europe. Instead there was the state-sponsored theft from millions of hard-working citizens who had been fooled into believing that somehow their sufferings were worth it and that the cause of the Serbian people was worth their sacrifices.”

[Dafina] was asked to make a huge investment in the construction of Belgrade’s new underground system and high speed rail links in the rest of Serbia. The decision was made at the end of July 1992 at a meeting with the director of Belgrade’s railway service, Milomir Minic, soon afterwards promoted to general secretary of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, and Milutin Mrkonjic, director of the CIP planning institute, in the intimate atmosphere of a villa in Uzica Street in Belgrade’s most exclusive residential suburb, Dedinje. Only two days later, several employees of the National Bank of Serbia and a dozen policemen visited Dafiment Bank and took DM40 m from its vaults in sacks, put them in an armoured vehicle and drove off in an unknown direction.

It was hardly surprising that later there were claims that none of this cash was ever actually invested in the underground.

Throughout the war various attempts were made to drum up support by using Jews, both Yugoslav and foreign ones. Dafina was no exception, and her particular ploy may well have impressed some of the more gullible. To an outsider, however, the use of one Israel Kelman was one of the crudest forms of subliminal advertising to be applied in Europe in many a year. At one point Dafina gave a press conference flanked by the wizened figure of Kelman, who sported a kippa or skullcap. The message was obvious: ‘Don’t worry — your money is safe with me. The Jewish bankers are here.’

“Instead of GDP the equivalent Yugoslav statistic was then the Gross Material Product (GMP) concept. GDP is then estimated at between 15–20 per cent greater than GMP. In 1989 the GMP of Serbia and Montenegro was $24.6 billion, but by 1993 it had plummeted to $9.5 billion. Annual growth rates were -8.2 per cent in 1991, -26.1 per cent in 1992 and -27.7 per cent in 1993. At the beginning of 1994 industrial production was 30 per cent of its 1990 level. All the statistics show similar drops and indicate that, by the time the government saw fit to introduce its emergency stabilisation measures in January 1994, the economy was operating at approximately one-third of its pre-war level. When sanctions were introduced, legislation was passed making it illegal to lay off redundant workers. This meant that at any one time at least one-third of the workforce was kept on ‘paid holidays’ at 60 per cent salary, which were mostly worked out on a rotation basis.

Although all of these figures sound dramatic, they were nothing compared to the real drama of the period leading up to January 1994, which was hyperinflation. While the monthly rate remained relatively low until the beginning of 1993 it began to edge over the 200 per cent per month level in February of that year. By July it was creeping over 400 per cent, in August it reached 1,880 per cent. At an annualised rate that is 363,000,000,000,000,000 per cent, or in plain English 363 quadrillion per cent. This was but a fraction of what it was to become.”

“When the November inflationary rate hit 20,190 per cent Vreme spoke of an ‘inflationary Tsunami, recalling giant Japanese tidal waves. There were no words then for the final figure some six weeks later, which was a monthly rate of 313,563,558 per cent. At an annualised rate this is 851,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 per cent. Amazingly, this was not the highest figure in recorded economic history. In October 1923 the German monthly inflation rate hit a measly 32,400 per cent, but in November 1944 Greece peaked at a monthly 855,000,000 per cent. The highest ever recorded monthly inflation figure was that of Hungary in April 1946 which was 4.19 trillion per cent. Serbia’s place in the economic history books is secure, though, because its two-year period of hyperinflation was the longest ever recorded. During this time the National Bank of Yugoslavia produced thirty-three new bank notes, twenty-four in 1993 alone. In September 1993 six zeros were knocked off the currency in a bid to keep figures manageable, but three months later new notes, this time shorn of nine zeros, had to be introduced. Twenty-four days later the new dinar was introduced, bringing to a close the era of monetary chaos. The largest bank note issued during the period of hyperinflation had a face value of 50,000,000,000 dinars and was virtually worthless two weeks after its introduction.

The pace of hyperinflation made coinage redundant, which led in turn to an extraordinary curiosity. As the lack of coins meant that Belgradians and their children could no longer toss their metal small change into the city’s fountains, they threw in bank notes instead. This meant that billions upon billions of dinars floated about until gypsy children or hungry pensioners waded in to fish out their soggy loot.

“Because inflation could be measured per hour, most wages or pensions were worthless by the time they were paid out. Immediately wages were paid, workers had to rush out to convert them to Deutschemarks, thus fuelling the spiral, or they had to spend them before their value melted away entirely. Businesses began to abandon the national currency in favour of the Deutschemark or barter, and some simply closed, battened down the hatches and waited until the chaos had come to an end. Some private shops would take only Deutschemarks, while others, tired of having to write out new prices every few hours, resorted to pricing in ‘bods,’ literally points. If a customer wanted to buy, the shop assistant would check the up-to-the-minute exchange rate of the Deutschemark, which was usually pegged at the rate of one to one with the bod, and then accept payment in dinars.”

Monthly pensions, if converted quickly enough, were worth £3 but a litre of milk, if it could be found, cost £1. The saving grace for the vast majority of the population was that hyperinflation rendered utilities such as gas, electricity and the telephone as good as free. Between the day companies sent out their bill and the day it had to be paid hyperinflation had reduced the sum owed to nothing vis-à-vis the Deutschemark. So, while an impoverished pensioner might not be able to afford to eat, he could at least talk with his family in Australia for several hours for next to nothing.

Although life was of course extremely tough, especially for pensioners, few starved. There was a spate of well-publicised suicides of old folk who could not afford to eat or who could not bear the humiliation of asking for help, but in the main they were cared for by their families. In the countryside the problems faced by most people were far less severe than those experienced in the cities because peasants simply grew their own food. The effects of hyperinflation were also far less drastic than they would have been in the west. One of the main reasons for this was that the bulk of the industrial working class moved to work in factories only after the Second World War and so retained close links with the home village. So, even if people no longer owned land of their own, though many did, they still had family who could send them food.”

“Lab-Ajk, a glue manufacturer, was typical of small companies which managed to survive hyperinflation. Before the war it just made glue and sold it. With hyperinflation out of control, it had to adapt to survive. It did this through barter. Typically it traded glue for tins of meat with a producer who needed the glue to stick its labels on to its cans. Lab-Ajk then part-paid its workers with meat. It bartered glue with a brewery which also needed to stick on its labels and then sold beer in a Lab-Ajk shop set up specially to sell goods that it received as payment.”

“The biggest but riskiest money was always to be made in sanctions-busting oil. This operated on two levels. At the bottom end there was what was called the ‘ant trade.’ This consisted of individuals driving back and forth across the border, filling up their cars with petrol and siphoning it out and selling it once they got back to Serbia.”

The Exodus from Croatia

“As the war began, Croats fled in the face of Serbian militias and in many cases angry Croats took individual revenge on Serbs in Croatian government-controlled territory. The phenomenon was not widespread at first, but it was enough to prompt the gradual flight of the Croatian Serbs, two-thirds of whom lived not in what was to become Krajina but in the big cities. Serbs, seeing they had no future in an angry and nationally radicalised Croatia, began to pack up and leave. Thousands lost their jobs; there were murders; thousands of Serbian houses were blown up in villages and angry people demanded to know when their neighbours, to whom they had lived next door all their lives, were going to go. This is how the exchange began.”

“That December there were pitiful scenes on the great ground where in peacetime the tanks would have been parked. Their place was taken by serried ranks of tractors, at times up to 500 of them. Mostly peasant farmers, the Serbs had fled on their tractors, pulling their families and bundles of belongings behind them in trailers. Thousands of the refugees slept in sports halls and schools. Those with families elsewhere set off on their tractors or in their laden cars while the authorities deliberated about what to do with the rest of them. Then they hit upon a bright idea — or possibly this had been the intention all along — of shifting them, en masse, to land recently taken in eastern Croatia from which tens of thousands of Croats had just fled. Some of the refugees were convinced that they were the victims of a secret deal by which the Serbs of western Slavonia were being exchanged for the Croats of eastern Slavonia.”

“People learned quickly though. Sava Bjelobrk and his family, who only four days before had moved into an Ilok house, explained, ‘We thought, ‘If they are settling Ilok we want to be on the list. But, of course, it’s all a dirty business. The ones with the Deutschemarks got all the best houses and we were pushed right out of the game!’

So Bjelobrk took matters into his own hands. He marched over the Danube bridge, found a house and moved in. ‘We just came over and got the keys off the neighbour. And indeed Bjelobrk was neither the first nor the last. Desultory couples wandered the streets rattling gates and peering into windows. If there was no key they just broke in. Meanwhile the handful of Croats who remained lived in terror.

Literally everything had been left behind in the Bjelobrks’ new house. Becoming emotional, Sava Bjelobrk suddenly began waving the driving licence that the owner of the house, one Anto Musa, had left on the sideboard: When he gets back he’s going to find this right where he left it — we’re not staying. Impassively Anto Musa and his family gazed down on the Bjelobrks, from their family photos, still hanging on the walls. The Bjelobrks came from Daruvar, which remained under Croatian government control, and said that they wanted to go home.

On 1 May 1995 the Croatian Army launched a successful operation to recapture that part of western Slavonia around Okucani which the Serbs had managed to keep hold of in 1991. More than 12,000 Serbs again took to their tractors. And, yet again, more than half of them found themselves being directed to Serb-held eastern Croatia.”

“While some like the Bjelobrk family were lucky to find themselves a choice property ready to move into, others either had to make do with gutted houses and render them habitable again or, in some cases, personally eject the occupants. While the most brutal and direct way of doing this was simply to evict the owner from his house at gunpoint, others — who after all were refugees themselves — found themselves moving in while the original owners were still at home.”

“By the early summer of 1995 the problem of emigration had become so great that police were forced to trawl the restaurants of Belgrade looking for young Serb men from Bosnia and Croatia, whom they were packing on to buses and off home to fight.”

Late 90s Serbia

“Perhaps what was about to happen conformed to the classic theory that uprisings happen not when people are desperate, ground down and frightened but in times of mounting expectations.

For eighty-eight days, hundreds of thousands of Serbs marched in towns and cities across the country. It was a form of catharsis. They came from what they called the ‘other Serbia,’ especially from its battered middle-classes who wanted to show the world that they were not genocidal maniacs but ordinary people who had had enough of war and authoritarianism and yearned for the boring anonymity of any other post-communist country. Significantly and fatally though the country’s industrial workers stayed at home.

The marchers garnered sympathy across the world, and in this way they began to redeem Serbia’s tarnished image. Waving the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack and other western flags, they seemed to be saying: ‘We too are part of Europe.’ Goran, a thirty-four-year-old technician put it another way: I was never sure about Milosevic but now it is clear to me. These people are just bastards and thieves… and they lost the war. Every night the demonstrators blew whistles and jangled pots and pans in a symbolic gesture to drown out the incessant lies of TV Serbia’s news broadcasts. For the first time Milosevic’s position looked shaky. Milo Djukanovic, at that point premier of Montenegro, came out against his former master while exuberant Serbs thought that finally their nightmare might be coming to a close.

And then, all of a sudden, Milosevic gave way. The opposition were handed their stolen municipal councils, including Belgrade. The optimists imagined that this first taste of power would be used to make life better for people and to buttress the image of the opposition in order to make it a credible force capable of winning a general election. Of course, the fact that hopes were so high only meant that the bitterness and the shock would be all the greater as the opposition disintegrated. Its two main leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, now Mayor of Belgrade, quarrelled, accusing each other of consorting with Milosevic and the secret police. Then, in September, Draskovié moved to depose his former ally, voting him out of office in alliance with the SPS and Seselj’s Radicals.

As if this was not bad enough, there was worse to come. In many places where opposition councillors had taken up the posts for which ordinary people had marched throughout the winter, they proved to be just as rapacious as the SPS bureaucrats whom they had just kicked out.”


“Serbia kept Kosovo under tight police control. In a report published in 1993 Ymer Muhaxheri, president in Pec of the main Albanian political party in Kosovo, summed up what forms this took:

The pressure is continuous. Police expeditions, raids on villages, armed civilians parading around. They always use weapon searches as excuses. They harass families and beat parents in front of their children. Very rarely are there no incidents. Here, in town, the repression takes an uglier form. They use fiscal controls … to break the Albanian shop owners. They surround one part of the town and search everyone to collect hard currency. No one dares react. There is no contact between citizens and the government.

Another man explained:

The police charge into the market place whenever they want and search everyone. Last Saturday, they blocked seven streets and searched everyone who was there. They took everything that people were selling. I was in a little bar near the market at the time. Policemen entered the place and said, ‘Put everything you have on the table!’ They were wearing police uniforms and they had machine guns. I had twenty Deutschemarks on me, and they took it.

In the years between Milosevic’s abolition of autonomy in Kosovo and the outbreak of war there in 1998, Kosovo Albanians said that for them, Serbian rule was occupation. Armoured cars prowled through towns, warplanes swooped overhead and, from 1989, most Albanians were either sacked from their jobs or had left in protest, hundreds of thousands leaving for Germany, Switzerland and other countries. Just as many Serbs abandoned the area in search of work.”

“Kosovo was odd because, despite constant police repression, Albanian politicians held semi-underground polls, declared Kosovo ‘independent’, ran a parallel education and health system and elected Rugova as president of the Republic of Kosova. Woe betide any Albanian family or shop-owner or businessman who did not pay his dues to Kosova’s tax collectors. Rugova would sweep out of his headquarters, a ramshackle wooden building, hop into a limousine and drive about Pristina just like a real Balkan president. A government-in-exile, complete with ministers, commuted between Bad Godesberg, a suburb of Bonn where it was based, Tirana and Skopje. Rugova travelled abroad to lobby for international recognition of his phantom state, but despite the odd hassle over his passport, he was not arrested for challenging Serbian power in such a blatant fashion. Presumably the Serbian authorities believed that as long as he kept his militants in check it would only serve to aggravate the situation if they decided to do anything about him.”

“During the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Kosovo Albanian leaders in no way stuck up for the Croats or the Bosnian Muslims. This was because, although in their hearts they wanted to see the Serbs defeated and humiliated, their heads told them that a Serbian victory was in their political interests. At first this seems contradictory. Why would they want their enemies to defeat potential friends? The answer was that Kosovo’s Albanian leaders declared that they only wanted the same as the Serbs. They said that if the Serbs, at 12 per cent of the population of Croatia or 31 per cent of the population of Bosnia, were entitled to their own states, by the same logic Kosovo’s Albanians, at some 16 per cent of rump Yugoslavia’s population and more than 80 per cent of Kosovo’s (they said 90 per cent) were more than entitled to the same thing. If Krajina and the Republika Srpska could join Serbia as they so desired, Kosovo equally had the right to join Albania if its people wished.

Like the Serbs, they did not want the international community to uphold the principle that Yugoslavia’s old republican borders could turn into new, inviolable, international ones, because that left Kosovo as a mere province rather than a republic, trapped inside Serbia. If Serbian leaders succeeded in their aims and managed to have internationally recognised borders changed, the precedent would be set by which it would be very hard for the international community to refuse to Kosovo Albanians what had already been granted to Serbs in Bosnia.”

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the KLA must rank as the most successful guerrilla organisation in modern history. In barely nineteen months following its first public appearance in November 1997 it had all but fulfilled its aims — having managed to subcontract the world’s most powerful military alliance to do most of its fighting.”

“There was no way round the fundamental problem of how to import large quantities of arms and ammunition into Kosovo.

The answer to the arms question came in the most bizarre way imaginable. In the spring of 1997, out of the blue, Albania, as state and country, simply imploded. Hundreds of thousands of people had invested their savings in fraudulent pyramid banking schemes, which the government failed to stop. Inevitably, they collapsed. Outraged, Albanians took to the streets and rose in anger against their president, Sali Berisha. Arms depots were broken open, the army dissolved, the police ran away and suddenly Albania was awash with hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikovs. The significance of this could hardly be lost on the Kosovo Albanians — hundreds of thousands of guns going for $10 each — and no more central government in Albania.


“By the time of the poll, Otpor had run a massive campaign to mobilise people, especially the young, to vote. Some 20,000 were also ready, organised by CeSID and DOS, to monitor the votes in polling stations to make sure that there could be no fraud. Djindjié was taking no chances, however. Two days before the election, a small group of DOS leaders were taken to a secret dinner held in a windowless room in a sports hall. Svilanovic was one of them, as was Nebojsa Covic, the mayor of Belgrade from 1994 to 1997, who had turned against Milosevié when he had attempted to steal the local elections in 1996. According to Svilanovic, Djindjic said: ‘we are going to win — no doubts.’ But then he warned his fellow diners that Milosevic would also not accept defeat. ‘We will have to fight,’ he said, warning that Milosevic might try to arrest them. ‘Be ready for every scenario.’ Then he turned to Covic. ‘Do we have a truck of guns?’ The former mayor replied: ‘Yes. Svilanovié was stunned. We were scared’, he said. ‘We were playing the game but, we were not aware of the whole game.’ At the table he said nothing, but he knew there was no going back now.

Within hours of the polls closing, Djindjic’s prediction had come true. Ceda Jovanovic, a student leader during the demonstrations of 1996 and 1997, who was now a member of the DS and close to Djindjic, announced that Kostunica had won the presidency outright.”

“In theory, DOS had a dilemma. The second round was called for 8 October. It could reject this, saying that Kostunica had already won, or it could take part and Milosevic would declare he had won, or it could boycott the poll and Milosevic would automatically win. A meeting was called. Kostunica staunchly declared that there would be no second round.”

“The opposition gave Milosevic a deadline of 3.00 pm on 5 October to step down, and a massive rally was planned for the centre of Belgrade. But more than that, plans were laid to seize certain key buildings such as the Federal Parliament, the nearby Serbian TV headquarters and the town hall. Columns of demonstrators were organised to converge on Belgrade from five cities. Svilanovic was sent to Uzice, where he was shocked to find out how well organised everything was. Buses and earth movers were ready to leave the next morning and activists were busy making packed lunches for everyone. A year later, when he heard a recording of himself on the radio, speaking to people there on the evening of 4 October, he was equally shocked by what he had said: I told them that the next day either Milosevic and his family would be in prison — or we would. At five the next morning, just as in the other cities, a column of 7,000 people in cars and buses set off. Soon the police stopped them at a tunnel. Svilanovic asked them what was happening and they said it was blocked with sand so the protestors could not proceed. He told them to move, and said they would use the bulldozer they had brought to clear it. As there were only some fifty policemen and they could see which way the wind was blowing they told Svilanovic that they would tell their bosses they had tried to prevent the column going through but had failed. Svilanovic told them he ‘didn’t give a damn’ what they did. Of the five convoys, four got through.”

Tens of thousands were in front of the Federal Parliament, but between them and it was a line of police. The question was what to do now. Opposition leaders were speaking from a truck when suddenly a man shot forward with a Serbian flag and ran up the stairs of the parliament, which is flanked by two sculptures of massive rearing horses. The police grabbed him and then the crowd surged forward. The assault had begun. Stones were thrown at the police who responded with tear gas. The crowd fell back but eventually got to the door. Svilanovic was at the front. ‘We were scared,’ he said, ‘and the police were scared too! The first to enter the building with him were fighters by nature. Some began to loot and grab equipment off the police, who had no idea what to do. Part of the building was now on fire. Over the next few hours, and thanks to frantic calls, the police inside the parliament were evacuated through the back door. Svilanovic and the others, including a man with a bulldozer called ‘Ljubisav Joe’ Djokic, moved on to seize the TV building around the corner. Then they heard the ominous sound of a column of police vehicles. It was Legija’s men. They had not come to intervene, however, they were just waving to the people. Meanwhile a frantic Milosevic was trying to get the police to take control. When they could not or would not, he tried the army. But they could see that it was all over. They abandoned him and Legija told Djindjie that if they did try to intervene his 1,200 men would be on the side of the opposition. That night Svilanovic was despatched to various key media outlets. Feeling, he recalled, rather like a Soviet revolutionary commissar, he quickly assumed control, firing Milosevic’s editors and installing new ones. In the town hall, the old royal palace out of whose windows Aleksandar Obrenovic and Draga Masin had been unceremoniously tossed in 1903, Djindjic had taken charge and the building was being protected and patrolled by his armed bodyguards. The next morning the army general staff announced that it would respect the will of the people.”

“Serbia’s economy had made huge strides since 1999 but in 2009 its GDP was still only 70 per cent of what it had been in 1989.



Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at