In Bosnia, ‘Disloyal Serbs’ Share Plight of Opposition

The Washington Post
August 24, 1992

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia – The Serb nationalist forces that are terrorizing and evicting Bosnia’s Slavic Muslims and Croats have found a new target: “disloyal Serbs.”

Spasoje Knezevic, a prominent lawyer and politician here in the largest city of Serb-occupied Bosnia, fits into the disloyal category. He opposes the uneven territorial war in which Serb militia forces have seized 70 precent of the republic, mostly at the expense of poorly armed Muslims and Croats. He pleads with Bosnian Serb leaders to stop the carnage, and he defends scores of peremptorily jailed Muslims and Croats, many without specific charges.

The response from fellow Serbs has been uniform. His phone rings with death threats; his mailbox is stuffed with chilling letters; passersby curse him. Local Serb leaders have told him to his face that one day his body will be found floating in the Verbas River here.

“This war is decadent, disgusting and leading us nowhere,” Knezevic said in a recent interview. “When the war is finished, it will be shameful for someone to be a Serb.”

To much of the outside world, the picture that emerges from four months of factional warfare here is of Serbs killing, torturing and intimidating Muslims and Croats to establish a homogeneous Serb state linked with neighboring Serbia. But that picture is incomplete. Many Serbs are repulsed by the depredations committed in their name, but they are a terrorized minority. If they take action, such “disloyal” Serbs face the same brutality as the Muslims and Croats they wish to defend.

“In some places, Serbs have been killed while protecting Muslim villages,” said a Muslim leader here. He cited the example of Kozarac, a largely Muslim town in northwestern Bosnia that was overrun by Serb militia forces several months ago. The town’s defense was led by its police force of 95 Muslims and five Serbs, he said. The Serbs fought alongside the Muslims and died alongside them.

But the Kozarac Serbs were an exception. Most Serbs in northern Bosnia support the nationalist zealots who lead the self-proclaimed autonomous Serb republic of Bosnia and marvel that the outside world could believe Serbs guilty of atrocities. A crude but concerted media campaign, relying heavily on grisly and contrived television reports, has convinced them that Muslims and Croats are aggressors who want to exterminate or subjugate the Serbs as a people.

All across Serb-held northern Bosnia, Serb political leaders and quasi-independent local warlords have made it clear that moderate Serbs who question them or oppose their practices face the same kind of treatment as recalcitrant Muslims. A “Crisis Committee” that rules a key north Bosnian region near the Croatian border even has ordered removal of all disloyal Serbs — as well as Muslims and Croats — from positions of responsibility.

The edict, dated June 22, declared that Serbs who do not support the Bosnian Serb regime or who do not support its ruling Serb Democratic Party would be fired from the militia, the government and state-owned companies.

Serbs who refuse to help carry out the purge risk falling victim to it themselves. For example, a Croat lawyer named Slavko held a senior position at a large firm here, but after the edict was passed the Serb company director called him into his office and told him he was being dismissed. “His eyes were full of tears,” Slavko said. “He had no choice.”

Some Bosnian Serbs have simply left the republic rather than witness abuse of their non-Serb friends. They have moved in with relatives in Serbia or emigrated to Western Europe, but their departure has strengthened the hardcore nationalist cause by removing any threat of strong opposition.

But Serbs who oppose the exclusionary policies of their leaders are a distinct minority in northern Bosnia, and most behave as did the company director — meekly going along because they do not want to lose their own jobs, or their lives. They feel helpless against men with guns, and — like the few Muslims and Croats still here — are too terrified to speak on the record.

One of them, an 18-year-old, paused while taking out the trash from his apartment here and vented his anger at the silent majority of Serbs that “sees what they want to see or what others want them to see.” He said he is appalled by the continuing bloodshed here but concedes that he would join the Bosnian Serb military if called upon. “It’s better than jail,” he said with a shrug.

From time to time, feelings of guilt seem to catch up with get-along Serbs and force them to choose, as in a nearby Serb-controlled town, Bosanska Gradiska. Last week, witnesses said, marauding Serb militiamen went on a rampage of shooting and looting there, killing at least eight Muslims, but many more lives were saved by a few militiamen who ran ahead of their comrades and warned Muslims to hide.

Here in Banja Luka, attorney Knezevic said he believes he is still alive because the region’s Serb overlords need token opposition so they can demonstrate to the outside world that their domain is democratic. But the last time Knezevic tried to organize a protest march, unidentifed gunmen fired tear gas and broke it up while local police stood by.

Now, he has as much effect on events around him as he does on the jet fighter that screeches overhead, interrupting his conversation at an outdoor cafe. Knezevic looked into the sky and explained that Serb pilots buzz the city when they come back from a successful bombing raid. “It’s a sign of victory,” he said.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.