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Bijeljina massacre
Part of the Bosnian War
275px
Ron Haviv's image showing a member of the Serb Volunteer Guard kicking a dying Bosniak woman
Location Bijeljina, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Date 1–2 April 1992
Target Bosniaks, other non-Serbs, moderate Serbs
Attack type
Mass killings
Deaths Estimates range from 48–1,000
Perpetrators Serb Volunteer Guard, Mirko's Chetniks
Motive Creation of Greater Serbia[1]

The Bijeljina massacre was the genocidal[2] killing of Bosniaks in the town of Bijeljina on 1–2 April 1992 during the Bosnian War. The killings also included a number of other non-Serbs and moderate Serbs. They were committed by the Serb Volunteer Guard (SDG), a Serbian paramilitary group under the command of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and subordinate to Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, and a local paramilitary group known as Mirko's Chetniks.

In September 1991, Bijeljina had been claimed by the Bosnian Serbs as part of a "Serbian Autonomous Region", later in March 1992, the Bosnian referendum on independence was passed with overwhelming support from Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. A poorly organized local Bosniak Patriotic League had been established in response to the Bosnian Serb proclamation and on 31 March it was provoked into an armed conflict by local nationalist Serbs and the SDG both of which were motivated by the creation of a Greater Serbia. On 1–2 April, Bijeljina was overtaken by the SDG and the JNA with little resistance and murders, rapes, house searches, and pillaging followed. On 3 April, the bodies of those massacred were removed in anticipation of the arrival of a Bosnian government delegation tasked with investigating what had transpired. A number of sources put the figure of civilians killed in the hundreds or even a thousand, but the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was only able to verify 48 deaths. After the massacre, a campaign of mass ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs was carried out, all mosques were demolished, and nine detention camps were established.

As of October 2014, local courts had not prosecuted anyone for the deaths, but a member of the SDG was under arrest at the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office. Milošević was indicted by the ICTY and charged with carrying out a genocidal campaign that included Bijeljina and other locations, but he died while the trial was in progress.[3] A number of Republika Srpska leaders were convicted for the deportations and forcible transfers in the ethnic cleansing that followed the massacre[4][5] and Radovan Karadžić, former President of Republika Srpska, is currently under trial for the massacre and other crimes against humanity committed in Bijelina. In 2002, less than 2,700 people of the over 30,000 pre-war Bosniak population still lived in Bijeljina. Local Serbs celebrate 1 April as the "liberation day of Bijeljina" and a street there has been named in honor of the SDG.

Background[edit | edit source]

The municipality of Bijeljina in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

According to the 1991 census, the municipality of Bijeljina had about 97,000 inhabitants with 59% being Bosnian Serbs, 31% being Bosniaks, and the rest belonging to other ethnicities. The town of Bijeljina had an estimated 37,200 inhabitants, with the majority being Bosniaks.[6]

Tension existed in Bijeljina prior to the takeover by Serb paramilitary groups and the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA).[7] Over the course of 1990 the RAM Plan was developed by a group of Serb officers of the JNA and experts from the JNA's Psychological Operations Department[8] with the intent of organizing Serbs outside Serbia, consolidating control of the SDS, and preparing arms and ammunition.[9] In 1990 and 1991, Serbs in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina had proclaimed a number of "Serbian Autonomous Regions" with the intent of later unifying them to create a Greater Serbia.[10][11] As early as September or October 1990, the JNA had begun arming Bosnian Serbs and organizing them into militias.[12] That same year the JNA disarmed the Territorial Defense Force of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (TORBiH).[13] By March 1991, the JNA had distributed an estimated 51,900 firearms to Serb paramilitaries and 23,298 firearms to the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS).[12] Throughout 1991 and early 1992 the SDS heavily Serbianized the police force in order to increase Serb political control.[13] In September 1991, Bijeljina was established by the Bosnian Serbs as the capital of the "Serbian Autonomous Region of Northern Bosnia", later renamed in November as the "Serbian Autonomous Region of Semberija" and in December as the "Serbian Autonomous Region of Semberija and Majevica".[14] In response, local Bosniaks established the Patriotic League.[7]

In January 1992, the assembly of the SDS proclaimed the "Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia and Herzegovina" and Radovan Karadžić, its soon-to-be president, announced that a "unified Bosnia and Herzegovina no longer exists".[15] In March, the Bosnian referendum on independence was passed with overwhelming support from Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, but had been boycotted by most Bosnian Serbs.[7] The SDS had claimed that independence would result in the Serbs becoming "a national minority in an Islamic state",[15] blocked the delivery of ballot boxes through the use of armed irregular units, and dropped leaflets encouraging the boycott.[16] Though thousands of Serbs in larger cities voted for independence.[17] Incidents of violence were triggered across Bosnia and Herzegovina.[7] According to Noel Malcolm the "steps taken by Karadžić and his party — [declaring Serb] "Autonomous Regions", the arming of the Serb population, minor local incidents, non-stop propaganda, the request for federal army "protection" – matched exactly what had been done in Croatia. Few observers could doubt that a single plan was in operation."[18]

Bijeljina is credited with being the "first municipality of Bosnia and Herzegovina to be taken over by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992".[19] It was strategically significant due to its location which enabled easy movement of military personnel, weaponry, and goods into Posavina and the Bosnian Krajina where Serb forces were.[20]

Provocation, takeover, and massacre[edit | edit source]

Željko Ražnatović ("Arkan"), leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard (SDG), reportedly spent a month in Bijeljina devising battle plans prior to the attack.[21] On 30 March 1992, Blagoje Adžić, Bosnian Serb chief-of-staff of the JNA, announced that the army was "ready to protect Serbs from open aggression".[22] Fighting in Bijeljina began on 31 March after grenades were thrown into shops[23] and in a Bosniak-owned cafe,[21] provoking the poorly organized Patriotic League into an armed conflict by local Serbs and the SDG.[24][25][13] About a thousand[21][24] SDG members and Mirko's Chetniks,[26] a paramilitary formation commanded by Mirko Blagojević, were involved and captured its important structures.[19]

On 1 or 2 April 1992, the town was encircled by JNA soldiers, tanks, and other vehicles[19] in order to "keep the peace".[13] Met with little resistance,[27] the SDG, under JNA command,[28] swiftly captured Bijeljina.[19] The SDG was directly subordinate to Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and reported directly to him.[29] The Panthers led by Ljubiša Savić ("Mauzer") also participated or arrived shortly after.[30] They terrorized local Bosniaks and some Serbs through murders, rapes, house searches, and pillaging.[31] Subsequently, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović sanctioned the JNA's occupation of Bijeljina and warned them to end the SDG's terror.[28] As the fighting was in progress the SDS and the Bosnian Serbs created the Ministry of Interior of Republika Srpska, an independent Serb police force.[13] A pattern, motivated by the creation of a Greater Serbia,[1] developed in Bijeljina that was repeated in other municipalities of north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina with similar paramilitary groups from Serbia.[19] The situation in Bijeljina fit the examination of the United Nations Commission of Experts that:[32]

First, Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces, often with the assistance of the JNA, seize control of the area. In many cases, Serbian residents are told to leave the area before the violence begins. The homes of non-Serb residents are targeted for destruction and cultural and religious monuments, especially churches and mosques, are destroyed. Second,the area falls under the control of paramilitary forces who terrorize the non-Serb residents with random killings, rapes, and looting. Third, the seized area is administered by local Serb authorities, often in conjunction with paramilitary groups. During this phase, non-Serb residents are detained, beaten, and sometimes transferred to prison camps where further abuse, including mass killings, have occurred. Non-Serb residents are often fired from their jobs and their property is confiscated. Many have been forced to sign documents relinquishing their rights to their homes before being deported to other areas of the country.

The exact number killed in the takeover is unknown.[33] Some sources put the figure in the hundreds or at a thousand.[33][28][22][34] According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at least 48 civilians were killed of which 45 were non-Serbs.[35] The civilians were "in particular political leaders, businessmen, and other prominent Bosniaks",[33] and also included women and children.[35] A number of Serbs who had attempted to stop the massacre were also killed.[2] The victims had been shot "in the chest, mouth, temple, or back of the head, some at close range" and none were wearing military uniforms.[35] Eyewitnesses of the killings included photo journalist Ron Haviv, who was invited by Arkan himself to take photographs. One of his pictures, which depicted an SDG member kicking a dying Bosniak woman, was later published and caused Arkan to put out a death warrant for Haviv.[36][37]

The Serbian state-owned Radio Belgrade Network reported that much of Bijeljina was "liberated" with the help of "members of the Serbian National Guard of Semberija and Majevica, in cooperation with Serbian volunteers, Arkan's men, and the Serbian 'radicals'".[21]

Bosnian delegation investigation and response[edit | edit source]

On 3 April, the dead bodies were collected and removed in anticipation of a delegatory visit of high-ranking Bosnian officials that would arrive the next day. The delegation included Serb representative of the Presidency Biljana Plavšić, Bosniak representative of the presidency Fikret Abdić, Croat Minister of Defense Jerko Doko, and chief-of-staff of the JNA 2nd Military District General Dobrašin Praščević.[38] They were sent by Izetbegović with the purpose of investigating alleged atrocities.[39] On 4 April, the SDG situated themselves in the local headquarters of the SDS. Local police, who were engaged in arresting the town's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) presidency, joined them for many days. Also present were members of the White Eagles and local Territorial Defense.[35] Serb flags were mounted on the two mosques in Bijeljina.[40] Checkpoints and roadblocks were established and journalists and European monitors were stopped from entering. The delegation visited the crisis staff and a military barracks where they were made aware of the situation.[35] Arkan took them on a tour of the town during which a Serb journalist who had bypassed the checkpoints confronted the group and warned Arkan: "You’ll never be forgiven for what you have done to the Muslims in Bijeljina. History will judge you".[38]

During the visit Plavšić requested that Arkan transfer control of Bijeljina to the JNA, but he refused citing unfinished business and said he would target Bosanski Brod next. She ceased and repeatedly commended Arkan for having done a good job in protecting local Serbs from the Bosniak threat. Plavšić thanked and kissed Arkan in public to which the local members of the SDS responded with "shouts of approval".[38] A "widely-circulated" and "notorious" photograph shows Plavšić stepping over the body of a dead Bosniak civilian during the kiss.[41][42] She later stated to Cedric Thornberry, a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) representative, that Bijeljina was a "liberated" town.[38] Abdić was initially turned back at gunpoint[34] and later noted that: "Bijeljina was practically empty, I met with the local authorities, they told me what had happened, but there wasn't a single Muslim there, so we couldn't discuss the problem as a whole. Muslims didn't answer our appeal. They were too scared to come out, and specially scared to talk about it at all."[39] General Sava Janković, commander of the JNA’s 17th Corps, reported that:[43]

A big influence of the SDS and Arkan’s propaganda is felt in the 38th [Partisan Division] and the 17th [Mixed Artillery Regiment], because of which some [conscripts] have left their units with arms. [...] The situation in the territory is extremely complex. The town of Bijeljina is controlled by the SDS and Arkan’s men, who do not even allow our anti-tank unit to reach certain positions in the town. There are about 3,000 refugees in the barracks and the Cooperative Hall area in Patkovača. A team from the BH Presidency led by Fikret Abdić, Biljana Plavšić, the chief of staff of the 2nd Military District and the commander of the 17th Corps, has been in Bijeljina barracks since 1200 hours.

He predicted that: "In the following days further deterioration of the entire security and political situation is expected. There is a threat that interethnic conflicts in Posavina and Semberija might spread to other parts of the zone of responsibility [...] Direct armed provocations by SDA, [Croatian Democratic Union] HDZ and SDS paramilitary units against commands and units are also possible, as well as attacks by them on military warehouses and isolated facilities."[43] On the same day, Bosnian Defense Minister Ejup Ganić and Croat members of the coalition government urged Izetbegović to mobilize TORBiH[44] due to the inability of JNA to stop the violence.[13] Commenting on the images coming out of Bijeljina, Izetbegović said "it was unbelievable almost. The civilians being killed, pictures showed dead bodies of the women in the streets. I thought it was a photomontage, I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe it was possible."[45] He explained that:[46]

This is simply an attempt by criminals. It came to the murdering of civilians, unarmed men and women. We consider the army responsible for this event. There are indications that it passively stood by and watched what was happening. This unit has been glorified in Serbia and enjoyed the Serbian government's support.

On 4 April, Izetbegović mobilized the Territorial Defense so as to "enable people to defend themselves [...] from future Bijeljinas". Serb members of the Bosnian Presidency, Plavšić and Nikola Koljević, denounced the mobilization as illegal and resigned.[13] On 8 April, Izetbegović announced a "state of imminent war danger".[25] The JNA rejected requests from the Bosnian Presidency to return TORBiH's weapons that they had confiscated in 1990.[13] Karadžić and the Bosnian Serb leadership used Izetbegović's mobilization order as a pretext to independence and mobilized their Municipal Crisis Headquarters, reserve police units, and TO forces.[47]

Ethnic cleansing, religious building destruction, and detainment[edit | edit source]

The SDG stayed in Bijeljina until at least May 1992.[38] The ICTY concluded that Serb forces killed a minimum of 52 people, mostly Bosniaks, between April and September 1992 in the Bijeljina municipality.[48] In April, an "organized campaign" had begun to remove the Bosniak population of Bijeljina.[49] The SDS in Bijeljina put forth a plan and proposed that a Bosniak family be killed "on each side of town to create an atmosphere of fear".[48] On 23 September 1992, the SDG and Mirko's Chetniks handed over control of Bijeljina to the SDS[21] and the plan was carried out by Duško Malović’s special police unit.[48] On 24 and 25 September, in the village of Bukres, 22 people including seven children were removed from their homes and taken to the village of Balatun where they were killed and thrown into the Drina river.[50] Mass ethnic cleansing was committed and nine detention camps were established following the massacre.[48] All seven mosques in Bijeljina were destroyed.[51] They were mined systematically under the supervision of police and experts and after their collapse the remains were removed with military construction equipment.[52] Trees were planted where they once stood.[21] A "Commission for the Exchange of Population" was also created, it was headed by Vojkan Đurković, a major in the SDG,[53] and involved Mauzer's Panthers.[54] Đurković claimed Bosniaks left voluntarily and said Bijeljina is a part of "sacred Serbian land".[21] Expulsions continued into 1994,[55] and in July a "systematic program" was started with the goal of "expelling the remaining Bosniaks and extorting property and money from them".[56]

War crimes prosecution[edit | edit source]

"We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets."

Branko Todorović, President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina[57]

Local courts have not filed a single war crimes indictment for the massacre. Branko Todorović, the President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina, criticized the "lethargic" and "unacceptable behavior" of the judiciary of the Republika Srpska.[58] Those suspected of having committed war crimes, but that have not been prosecuted include:

  • Mirko Blagojević is claimed to have led a group called Mirko's Chetniks that took part in the attack and in the ethnic cleansing of Bijeljina.[26] He served as the head of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in Bijeljina[57] and is now a lawyer.[59]
  • Vojkan Đurković is suspected of forcing Bosniak civilians "to hand over all their money, valuables and documents, and to sign away their property." He is also reported to have worked with the Panthers and other groups in the "forcible expulsion of the civilian population".[26] He was arrested in November 2005, and was released from custody less than a month later.[60]
  • Jovan Aćimović is alleged to have had a major role in the last initiative to ethnically cleanse Bosniaks from Bijeljina shortly prior to the signing of the Dayton Agreement.[26]

In 1997, the ICTY secretly indicted Arkan for war crimes carried out in Sanski Most in 1995, but not for those in Bijeljina.[61] Arkan was killed in 2000 and did not face trial.[62] In 1999, Serbian president Slobodan Milošević was indicted by the ICTY and charged with carrying out a genocidal campaign that included Bijeljina and other locations, but he died while the trial was in progress.[3] Plavšić and Momčilo Krajišnik, speaker of the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska, were found guilty by the ICTY of committing crimes against humanity and engaging in "persecution on political, racial or religious grounds" through deportation and forcible transfer in Bijeljina and other areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2002, Plavšić was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and in 2009 Krajišnik was sentenced to 20.[4][5] In 2010, the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office investigated Borislav Pelević, a former SDG member and a member of the Serbian parliament. The investigation was ultimately dropped due to lack of evidence.[63] In 2012, the Prosecutor’s Office request for the arrest of Srđan Golubović was fulfilled in Belgrade. Golubović was charged with an indictment listing the names of 78 victims. Clint Williamson, the lead prosecutor, said that other members of the SDG could not be identified because their faces had been covered with masks.[63] Karadžić, the former President of Republika Srpska, is currently on trial for the massacre[64] and other crimes against humanity committed in Bijelina, amongst other areas, and for the genocide at Srebrenica.[65]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo estimates that a total of 1,040 people were killed in the town during the war.[58] In 2000, less than 2,700 people of the over 30,000 pre-war Bosniak population still lived in Bijeljina. Many faced difficulty in returning to their homes, encountered discrimination from the police, could not get an identification card, or reconnect their phone lines. Local authorities had forbade the Islamic community from reconstructing a mosque and, for a while, from having a place to gather. Meaningful Bosniak participation in the politics and administration of the municipality was blocked.[66]

In 2007, the Bijeljina truth commission was created with a four-year mandate. It held two public hearings in 2008, but by March 2009, despite not being formally disbanded, the commission was effectively dissolved after the majority of members resigned. Factors contributing to its failure included lack of statute, inclusion of the commander of the Batković detention camp in the commission, poor funding, and disputes over the commission's scope."[67]

Local Serbs celebrate 1 April as the "liberation day of Bijeljina."[68] A street in the town is presently named after the Serbian Volunteer Guard.[69] In 2012, the Bijeljina municipal veterans organization, municipal officials, and city leaders marked the occasion stating that "on this day the Serbian people of Semberija were organized to defend against and prevent a new Jasenovac and notorious 13th Handschar division."[59]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 HRW May 2000, pp. 2, 16, 33.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Weitz 2003, p. 215.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Armatta 2010, pp. 285, 470.
  4. 4.0 4.1 ICTY Momčilo Krajišnik CIS, p. 1.
  5. 5.0 5.1 ICTY Biljana Plavšić CIS, p. 1.
  6. HRW May 2000, p. 11.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 HRW May 2000, p. 12.
  8. Allen 1996, p. 56.
  9. Judah 2000, p. 170.
  10. Lukic & Lynch 1996, p. 203.
  11. Bugajski 1995, p. 15.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Ramet 2006, p. 414.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 OREA 2002, p. 135.
  14. Thomas 2006, p. 9.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Toal & Dahlman 2011, p. 110.
  16. Gow 2003, p. 173.
  17. Velikonja 2003, p. 238.
  18. Lukic & Lynch 1996, p. 204.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 ICTY 27 September 2006, p. 113.
  20. HRW May 2000, p. 15.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 21.6 UNSC 28 December 1994.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Goldstein 1999, p. 242.
  23. Gow 2003, p. 128.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Toal & Dahlman 2011, p. 113.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Calic 2012, p. 125.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 ICG 2 November 2000, pp. 10–13.
  27. AI 21 December 1994, p. 5.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Magaš & Žanić 2001, p. 182.
  29. Ramet 2006, p. 427.
  30. HRW May 2000, pp. 11–12.
  31. ICTY 27 September 2006, p. 117.
  32. HRW May 2000, p. 16.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 HRW May 2000, p. 14.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Malcolm 1994, p. 236.
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 35.4 ICTY 27 September 2006, p. 114.
  36. BBC 24 May 2001.
  37. Kifner 24 January 2001.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 38.3 38.4 ICTY 27 September 2006, p. 115.
  39. 39.0 39.1 Silber & Little 1997, p. 225.
  40. ICTY 27 September 2006, pp. 113–114.
  41. BBC 27 February 2003.
  42. Subotić 2012, p. 42.
  43. 43.0 43.1 ICTY 27 September 2006, pp. 329–330.
  44. Kumar 1999, p. 40.
  45. Silber & Little 1997, p. 224.
  46. Sudetic 5 April 1992.
  47. OREA 2002, p. 136.
  48. 48.0 48.1 48.2 48.3 ICTY 27 September 2006, pp. 117–118.
  49. Sudetic 18 July 1994.
  50. Musli 24 September 2011.
  51. HRW May 2000, p. 4.
  52. Musli 13 March 2013.
  53. HRW May 2000, p. 28.
  54. AI 21 December 1994, pp. 6–7.
  55. Sudetic 18 July 1994; Sudetic 3 September 1994; Sudetic 5 September 1994; Sudetic 20 September 1994; Sudetic 30 August 1994
  56. AI 21 December 1994, p. 3.
  57. 57.0 57.1 Little 17 September 2008.
  58. 58.0 58.1 Husejnovic 8 November 2008.
  59. 59.0 59.1 Musli 2 April 2012.
  60. B92 27 October 2011.
  61. ICTY 23 September 1997.
  62. Erlanger 16 January 2000.
  63. 63.0 63.1 Ristic 2 October 2012.
  64. Irwin 22 March 2013.
  65. ICTY Radovan Karadžić CIS, p. 1.
  66. HRW May 2000, p. 37.
  67. ICTJ 8 September 2009, p. 3.
  68. Dnevni Avaz 2 April 2012.
  69. Pazarac 8 August 2010.

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