The head of the Army of Serbia is a man of a problematic past; those convicted or suspected of war crimes are deputies in Serbia’s parliament — they can be found in the top ranks of ruling parties, whereas the highest officials get advice from, and shake hands with, convicted war criminals, some being lecturers at the Military Academy.
This is the image of Serbia today, more than 20 years after wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina ended, and almost 20 years since the termination of the war in Kosovo.
During the war in Kosovo, General Ljubisa Dikovic was the commander of the 37th Motorized Brigade of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), within whose area of responsibility (the area of Drenica), from late March to the middle of June 1999, around 1,400 Kosovar Albanian civilians were murdered, and tens of thousands of people were banished.
No, they were not killed and expelled by paramilitaries and outlaw groups that were not under Dikovic’s control. The “Ljubisa Dikovic File,” compiled by the Humanitarian Law Center, contains documents that show that it was almost exclusively police and military units participating in these crimes. Military units were controlled by Dikovic, whereas he cooperated with the police forces.
For instance, on March 28, 1999, in the Izbice village in Municipality of Skenderaj, more than 130 male Kosovar Albanian civilians were executed in a brutal manner immediately upon the arrival of Serbian troops. The majority of the civilians were old people, and there were also disabled people among them. They were killed by the police, while Dikovic’s brigade secured the perimeter.
Afterwards, in April 1999, in the territory under the command of the 37th Brigade, soldiers partook in violence in the Qirez village, where people were persecuted, and women were locked up and raped. Six girls and women were ultimately murdered. Hundreds of other civilians were killed in other crimes in the villages of Shavarine, Baks and Verboc.
Undoubtedly, Dikovic’s brigade did participate in actions in the villages of Rezala and Staro Cikatovo, where 68 civilians were murdered in 1999. This is shown by attack orders and battle reports of the brigade from that period. The bodies of 47 victims from those two crimes, alongside the bodies of an additional five victims from Donje Zabelje and Gladno Selo, were found in early 2014 in a mass grave at Rudnica, close to Raska, where the main barracks of the 37th Brigade were located. Besides this, there is a police document that proves that members of one department of Dikovic’s brigade had the bodies of the Rezala victims in their possession a few days after the killing.
In short, General Ljubisa Dikovic is today the chief-of-staff of the Serbian Armed Forces.
His battlefield comrade, Bozidar Delic, ex commander of the 549th Brigade of the VJ, in whose area of responsibility in Kosovo around 2,200 civilians were killed, including a large number of them murdered in military actions, is today a deputy in the Parliament of Serbia, as a member of the Serbian Radical Party. The president of this nationalist party is Vojislav Seselj, a Hague indictee, a man that called for crimes to be committed in the previous wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but who also recruited volunteers that went to the battlefield and committed crimes. He also has a seat in the Parliament of Serbia.
Furthermore, the former VJ Prishtina Corps officer, Momir Stojanovic, who, according to witness reports, ordered and led the Reka operation in which 350 unarmed Kosovar Albanian men were killed in the Gjakova villages of Meja and Korenica, was until recently also a deputy of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, but also head of the parliamentary Security Services Control Committee. Since then, he has had a quarrel with the Progressives, established his own party and become part of the opposition. He lives and works in peace, even though an indictment has been issued in Kosovo for the crimes committed in Meja and Korenica, on the basis of which Interpol had issued a red warrant against him.
The Serbian Progressive Party has within its top ranks Goran Radosavljevic Guri, who has been accused of being involved in moving the corpses of Kosovar Albanian civilians from Kosovo to Serbia, but also of being an actor in the murders of Mehmet, Agron, and Ylli Bytyqi, brothers who were arrested by the Serbian police having mistakenly crossing the border between Kosovo and Serbia, after attempting to help a Roma family to cross into Serbia. Guri was a high ranking police officer who, during the war in Kosovo, was head of police operational forces, and who led the attack on the village of Racak in January 1999.
The second ruling party — the Socialist Party of Serbia — has on its central board not a suspected or accused but a convicted war criminal. The former president of the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Nikola Sainovic, served an 18 year prison sentence, to which he was convicted for participating in a joint criminal enterprise with the goal of permanently banishing the Albanian population from Kosovo in 1999.
His colleague from the indictment bench, a former commander of the Army of Yugoslavia’s Pristina Corps, Vladimir Lazarevic, after serving a 14 year prison sentence for crimes committed against Kosovar Albanians, arrived in Serbia via a governmental plane and was received as a hero in the presence of ministers and other top officials. Today, he is a lecturer at the Military Academy, since the Ministry of Defense believes that his war-related — some would say criminal — experience is of immense value.
In the last few years, the government has also honored other war criminals. Momcilo Krajisnik, the wartime president of the Bosnian Serb Parliament, who served a 20 year sentence for banishing, deporting, and forcibly transfering Bosniak and Croatian civilians during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in April last year presented his book in Belgrade’s central Youth Center, a public institution of the City of Belgrade.
Another war criminal, a former Yugoslav National Army officer, Veselin Sljivancanin, after serving a 10 year sentence in the Hague, engaged in promoting the ideas and politics of the ruling Progressive Party, as part of which he regularly speaks at their public events. He was convicted of the torture of more than 200 Croats captured in Vukovar in November 1991; these victims were then killed in the agricultural property of Ovcar, just outside the city.
Representatives of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights protested against, and disrupted, the grandstands in which Krajisnik and Sljivancanin took part. On both occasions they were physically assaulted, with no sanctions against the attackers.
This is something we can see with our bare eyes. But what about the lower structures of the military and security services? For years now, the Humanitarian Law Center has been sending requests to the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs questioning the whereabouts and affairs of people who this organization’s research has identified as participants or accomplices of murder, expulsion, imprisonment, abuse, or other war crimes. In 90 percent of cases, they remained in their positions of state service after the war, often even promoted; in the worst case scenarios, they peacefully awaited their retirement, or are still in their war posts.
Ultimately, the war past of the current Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, is also not very clean.
There are no data on his participation in crimes, but we know that in the ’90s he had visited battlefields in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia, that he sent death threats from the Parliament speaker’s post, proclaiming to kill “one hundred Muslims for one killed Serb,” calling on the Krajina Serbs to continue with their armed rebellion against Croatia, and that he advocated for Greater Serbia with the borders of Ogulin, Karlobag, Karlovac and Virovitica, formulated previously by his political father, Vojislav Seselj.
In the meantime, Vucic had changed his politics, at least at a declarative level. He is now advocating for EU integration and preaches peace and stability. However, he has never given a clear stance toward his war past, claiming that his calls to conflict were taken out of context, or that he never even said them. It is undisputable that he has accepted new politics; but it is problematic that he has never renounced his old politics.
This walk from the top to the bottom of the pyramid can take forever, and we would still find somebody who directly or indirectly participated in the wars of the ’90s. The situation is little better in neighboring countries, but Serbia leads in being poisoned by war (and criminal personnel). After all, this was the only country that partook in three wars, hence the war personnel agglomerated.
Serbia has never taken steps to clean its military and police structures from compromised war personnel, which is one of the key reasons for the failure of the transitional justice process.
With old people inside the political system, and especially in the army and police, it is not possible to implement a single mechanism of transitional justice — investigations for war crimes are surely not going to be conducted by those who should be the subject of these investigations; institutional reforms will not be implemented by those who would lose their jobs in the process; victims won’t appreciate those who made them victims.
With everything mentioned, there is this public mantra that we must turn toward the future, whereas the past should be forgotten and left to historians. This is precisely the way to further protect those participating in wars and war criminals within the government, and for victims not to have justice served. The perfect way to fill the tank with the most filthy fuel for new conflicts in the Balkans.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.o.