Brendan O'Shea had access to both EU and UN official documents for his research and used these to unravel the complex story of the Bosnian war. He tells the tragic story of what happened at the "safe haven" at Bihac in northwestern Bosnia between 1992 and 1996, showing the Bosnian civil war in microcosm. At Bihac, Muslims fought all variety of Serb, Muslims fought Muslims, and the Croats interfered continually, thereby ensuring a rapid descent into bitter civil war and a vindictive power struggle. "Ethnic cleansing" was rife, and horrific war crimes that shocked the world were committed on all sides. Local politicians manipulated the desperate refugee situation in order to extract concessions, humanitarian aid, and considerable sums of money from the UN and other agencies, and then siphoned off huge quantities to pay for military arms and equipment. O'Shea reveals how the generals manipulated all agencies who came to assist them to ensure their own military and political advancement. Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Slobodan Milosevic are still names that stick horribly in the memory. As every party to the Bosnian tragedy promoted their own version of events as the truth, O'Shea reveals the numerous layers of deceit and dishonesty.
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About the Author
Brendan O’Shea is a member of the Irish Defence Forces and the author of Warrior 80: Irish Volunteer Soldier 1913–23 and the coauthor of Baptised in Blood: Illustrated History of the Cork Brigade and The Burning of Cork. He served with the UN in Lebanon and in the former Yugoslavia. Robert Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for the Independent, described by the New York Times as "probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain." His books include The Age of the Warrior and The Great War for Civilisation.
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Bosnia's Forgotten Battlefield: Bihac
The Carter Peace Initiative Croatia Reclaims Western Slavonia The Fall of the Krajina Serbs
By Brendan O'Shea
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Brendan O'Shea
All rights reserved.
The area known as Bihac Pocket, in the north-west corner of Bosnia-Hercegovina, can claim 738 years of history, with 1260 generally being accepted as the year of the first recorded settlement in the area. In the late sixteenth century it came under Turkish rule and in common with several other places throughout Bosnia, the Slav population converted to Islam in order to preserve their social status and retain their property. This conversion was in most cases simply a matter of convenience, with the people retaining their secular lifestyle, habits and customs. As time went on, it became inevitable that some religious conversion would also take place and it was this adjustment which, in the longer term, would serve to differentiate between the citizens of Bihac and their Catholic/Croat and Orthodox/Serb neighbours. Austro-Hungary eventually reasserted its authority here as the Ottoman influence declined from 1521 onwards, and for a time the area became known as the 'Cazinska Krajina' as it linked up with the 'Vojna Krajina', the military frontier that had until then just surrounded it.
With the inclusion of Bihac in the newly created 'Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes' in the aftermath of the First World War, the people of the region consistently supported the concept of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Their ability to co-habit peacefully with both Serbs and Croats had always been a feature of the area in the past. It was because of this ethnic homogeneity that Josip Broz Tito decided to move his Partisan headquarters to Bihac in order to hold the first meeting of his Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia there on 26 November 1942. In the spring of 1954 all three groups banded together again in pursuit of their economic interests and revolted against Tito's Communist regime in what would turn out to be Europe's only post-war peasant rebellion and the severity with which this was crushed served only to unite them all even further. Contrary to popular mythology there was no history of ethnic hatred in this part of Bosnia but with the advent of the 1990s all this changed and the region was plunged into needless suffering and senseless bloodshed. Under threat from all sides the situation in Bihac Pocket became exacerbated by an internal power struggle within the Muslim leadership. In turn, this forced the ordinary people living there to take sides in a vicious inter-Muslim civil war in which all the main players in the overall Yugoslav conflict then began to interfere, in order, one suspects, to fight their own wars by proxy.
Bihac Pocket roughly conforms to that area of land locked within Bosnia by the international border with Croatia to the west and north, and by the Una river valley that cuts deep through the countryside to the east and the south. This valley is strategically important in the region because control of it facilitates both road and rail communications with Banja Luka in the north-east and Knin to the south. Failure to control it leaves the inhabitants of the area cut off from the outside world and effectively imprisoned. In 1990 local government within the Pocket was centred on the four principle towns – Velika Kladusa, Cazin, Bosanska Krupa and Bihac itself – with each surrounded by an administrative area called an Opstina. Over 250,000 people lived in this region before the recent war began, with significant numbers of both Serbs and Croats co-existing peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.
Islamic influence was negligible save for in the small town of Buzim where a number of people appeared to follow a stricter religious routine. The majority of the area's pre-war trade was conducted with Zagreb and Karlovac in Croatia as distinct from Sarajevo or Banja Luka, something that was continually emphasised by the Muslims to indicate their non-fundamentalist orientation.
When the war began to spill into the Pocket in 1992 'the entire population appeared to be well integrated, with little ethnic friction and the civil, political, and religious leaders were firm that the community as a whole was homogenous, and facing its new adversity as a group. Neither was there any resentment towards the 1500 Serbs living there whose circumstances were essentially no better, or worse, than those of their neighbours.'
Equally, relations with the Serbs surrounding the Pocket remained reasonably civilised until 21 April 1992 when, in tandem with events elsewhere in Bosnia, Serb forces launched an attack across the River Una. The town of Bosanska Krupa was shelled incessantly and systematically destroyed. This senseless violence had been predictable since the early days of July 1991 when the Serb leaders in the town, Gojko Klièkovic, Miroslav Drljaèa and Miroslav Vjestica, decided to form their own assembly, which then sat in parallel to the legally elected body and began passing resolutions that established the Serb Municipality of Bosanska Krupa. Maps were drawn up that proposed to take 60 per cent of the town for the Serbs, who represented just 27 per cent of the population, and if the Muslims failed to agree to this partition it was made clear that force would be used against them. To this end all able-bodied Serb men began wearing paramilitary and police uniforms, and the plight of both Muslims and Croats quickly became untenable. This previously homogenous community had begun its descent into hell.
The last days before war finally broke out are well recorded by a European Community Monitoring Mission (ECCM) Team who went to the area in what eventually turned out to be a pointless attempt to get all sides to settle their differences peacefully. On 13 April 1992 Hugh O'Donovan (IRL), and his team-mates Michel Ducheyne (BE) and Thiery Rousseau-Dumarcet (FR), went to meet Milan Voynovic, the President of the Serb community in the town, but were unable to effect any change in the Serbs' attitude. Instead Voynovic told the Monitors about the situation in the nearby village of Perna, a small hamlet of some sixty houses with a Serb population of about 150 people. Apparently the village had now become completely surrounded by armed Muslims who had begun digging trenches, patrolling the streets and setting up roadblocks. As if this was not bad enough, the Muslims, he said, had begun cutting down trees in the forest which were the property of Serbs and had fired shots at Serbs who had tried to stop them. For Voynovic the theft of these 'Serb trees' had become the last straw.
The following day the Monitor Team went to see the Muslim Mayor of Cazin and his Chief of Police who, after a while, agreed that the digging of trenches around Perna probably constituted a provocation and as a compromise they would just position wooden barriers on the roads. However, they felt that no matter what they did Bosanska Krupa was going to be attacked by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) within a few days, in order to open up a new front line to the north-west of the country. Serb women and children had already been evacuated from Bosanska Krupa, they said, and this was in keeping with the type of preparation that had preceded attacks on other towns in eastern Bosnia. They were also adamant that the JNA had used helicopters to re-supply the citizens of Perna with mortars and anti-tank weapons, although they could produce no evidence that this had taken place. The best suggestion they could make was that the United Nations (UN) take over administrative control of the whole area and expel the JNA, but realistically there were two chances of that happening – slim and none.
As O'Donovan sat down that night to file his daily report to ECMM HQ in Zagreb he wrote in his diary, 'I feel that our efforts [here] may be pointless'. The next few days would prove him right but as he hit the 'send' button on his Capsat that night he had no idea just how quickly the situation would slide into war. On 17 April the Monitors did actually manage to get all parties around a table in Bosanska Krupa but nothing tangible was achieved. Complaints were made, grievances were aired by all parties and the tension was palpable but no one was prepared to compromise lest it be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Three days later another ECMM team reported small arms fire in the Muslim village of Arapusa to the east of Bosanska Krupa and from here there was to be no turning back.
Senudin F. Jasarevic recalls that:
April 20, 1992 was the last market day before the war came to Bosanska Krupa. On that peaceful Monday there were a lot of people about and the selection of produce was good. The buyers were Serbs. They did not even ask the prices. Did they know or foresee anything? Grandpa Ahmet came from Pistaline. He suspected something, too. Never before has so many cattle been taken towards Grme. 'Something ain't right here. I smell a rat. Well, we'll see!' he thought out loud. The following day there were no early risers on the streets of Bosanska Krupa with its half empty buses, closed shops, and only the usual black market operating in front of the 'Stari Grad'. Thirty Serbs left the hotel lobby and headed toward the city limits. What was going on? At one o'clock armed members of the Serb Territorial Defence surrounded the Health Centre and prevented the departure of trucks filled with equipment, medicine and sanitation materials.
Certain now that the situation was spiralling out of control, O'Donovan and his team went back to Bosanska Krupa on 21 April, arriving there at about 1630 hrs. The situation had now become critical. Large-scale troop movements had been observed in the hills overlooking the town to the east and the Serb leadership had apparently disappeared. O'Donovan remembers that
When we arrived the town was deserted. We travelled to the Town Hall where the local leaders were gravely concerned about the situation. During our discussions General Spiro Nikovic (Commander 10 Corps JNA) arrived, spoke to the Mayor, and then departed to speak to the other side. The Territorial Defence (Muslim), who were positioned around the Town Hall, were now becoming increasingly excited and nervous. At 1750 hrs, without warning, continuous small arms and machine-gun fire erupted in the hills around Bosanska Krupa and began impacting in the area of the Town Hall.
As the Monitors beat a hasty retreat all they could do was impress upon General Nikovic the absolute necessity of having the fighting stopped, but as the General was actually taking refuge in the back of an ECMM Landrover at the time, and effectively relying on the EU Monitors for his own protection, there appeared to be little prospect of him instigating any immediate solution. For the present there was nothing more to be done except count the shells impacting all around and plot the location of a new front line on the overall map of Bosnia. The ordinary citizens of Bosanska Krupa did not have the option to jump into a white Landrover and head for the relative safety of Bihac town. These poor souls would have to stay and deal with the hail of death that was now beginning to rain down on them.
Senudin F. Jasarevic again:
It began violently and surprisingly, and for those who had never seen something like this before, it seemed almost unreal. Just after 1700 hrs on 21 April, the first explosion from a shell fired near Vranjska was heard and was followed by rounds from machine-gun and assault riffles. A state of panic occurred and everybody fled from the right to the left bank of the Una river. In a mere hour and a half the town was drowned in a rain of shells and bullets. At the same time, from six Chetnik strongholds, fellow-workers, friends and neighbours were being fired upon. Many buildings were hit and flames engulfed the beautiful building of the Trade Centre. Irfan Kadic, a taxi driver, right by his own house, was the first civilian casualty. Terrible news of dozens of wounded and dead came from Mahala and Ustikolina. Nero Tatarevic was killed and his brother was wounded, while a piece of shrapnel hit and injured Zlatan Aliddanovic. Mujaga Mesic was badly wounded, Emin Kabiljagic was killed and Husein Sabic was massacred. Ibro Mesic was killed by his neighbour Stevo Strbac on his own doorstep. Sharp-shooters brought death from all major locations. Bosanska Krupa was continually shelled for the next few days and over 1000 Muslims who could not make it out were forced to remain in the town. On Saturday 25 April the Chetniks began the 'cleansing' of the town. The disobedient ones were killed on the spot while others were taken away to prison camps through Jasenica and on towards Sanski Most, Prijedor or Banja Luka. This was how the right bank was taken from its inhabitants – the Muslims. Those in other villages who did not manage to escape became easy targets for the unleashed Chetnik bands. Approximately 3000 civilians, mostly senior citizens, women and children, who were physically beaten after being interrogated at the 'courts-martial', were then deported to Bihac and Kamengrad from the concentration camps at Arapusa, Petar Koèic Elementary School and Jasenica. During the attack and 'cleansing' thirty-five civilians were killed and, according to witnesses, three prisoners at the Bosanska Krupa Jail were executed, while one young girl was raped. Other prisoners from Krupa were used for forced labour, mostly for clearing rubble and corpses, as well as for general repairs. Most of the houses were looted, burned and destroyed after the final occupation of the part of the city on the east bank of the Una river.
As the Muslim population either fled or were herded into detention centres Bosanska Krupa became divided between the opposing Serb and Muslim forces. Both sides settled into entrenched positions with the big guns positioned high on the plateaux east of the Una valley. The Bosnian Serbs then began constructing fortified positions all along 'their' bank of the river, from Otoka right around to Bihac town, as sniping, indiscriminate shelling and the occasional limited offensive became the norm. To compound matters further the Muslims were barely able to defend themselves because of a deliberate policy that the JNA had implemented as they withdrew from the area earlier that month. While they handed over huge quantities of arms and equipment to both the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs, the Muslims and Croats were given nothing. From then on the local Serb militias were at liberty to use tanks, artillery, mortars, anti-aircraft guns and helicopters more or less at will, leaving the beleaguered Muslims in the unenviable position of trying to hold the line with just a handful of rusty muskets, an assortment of shooting rifles and whatever bits and pieces they had managed to pilfer from the JNA before they withdrew.
Recognising this imbalance and the opportunities it presented, more Serb troops were moved forward into new positions overlooking the river, and on 12 June over 1000 shells were fired in an attempt to 'soften up' the Muslim positions for an infantry attack. Amazingly it did not work, and with resistance proving much more determined than expected the confrontation line remained more or less where it was. As a result of this, both sides adopted 'stand-off' positions, with the Serbs regularly shelling into the Pocket and mounting the occasional probing raid. By November these tactics had left 200 dead and 1600 wounded; the Muslims took most of the casualties.
Identifying that this had now become a battle for survival, the Sarajevo government ordered the establishment of a new District Assembly, whose first task was to marshal all available forces into an organised unit. Within a short time the Bosnian army's 5th Corps came into being under the command of General Ramiz Drekovic, a professional officer from Sandzak, who had only left the JNA in September 1991, and who was still wanted for alleged war crimes by the Croatian government. By the autumn of 1992 this restructuring was complete and Drekovic was ready to defend Bihac Pocket against the Serbs. His new corps had been organised into seven brigades but the strength of each of these was probably no more than 800 men, while the few pieces of heavy equipment that remained in the Pocket – a few field guns, the odd tank and a handful of light mortars – were also put under corps control. Additionally there was a Bosnian Croat (HVO) brigade located in the mountains to the south-west of Bihac town, which went by the colourful name of the '27th of July Brigade'. About 600 strong, this Croat brigade was initially led by a Colonel Sedic who was also appointed Deputy Commander of the 5th Corps, thus bringing everyone theoretically within the one chain of command. Later Sedic would be replaced by a colourful character called Vlado Santic but for the moment the HVO coexisted comfortably enough with Drekovic. Supporting these full-time soldiers was a reorganised version of the old Territorial Defence Force (TDF) and, although poorly equipped, these people could operate reasonably well as a local defence unit in each of the Pocket's municipalities.
Excerpted from Bosnia's Forgotten Battlefield: Bihac by Brendan O'Shea. Copyright © 2012 Brendan O'Shea. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword to the First Edition vi
Introduction to the Second Edition xii
The Main Protagonists xviii
Groupings and Abbreviations xx
1 Bihac Pocket 1
2 Enter Fikret Abdic 15
3 The 5th Corps Fights for Survival 33
4 The Advent of Bosnia's Muslim/Croat Federation 39
5 The Safe Area of Gorazde 43
6 The Contact Group Plan 51
7 Bihac Under Siege 63
8 Operation Tiger-Liberty 83
9 Turanj Crossing and Batnoga Camp 91
10 The 5th Corps' Southern Offensive-Operation Grmec 101
11 Boutros-Ghali goes to Sarajevo 117
12 Croatia's Economic Agreement and the Z4 Plan 121
13 Casualties for Bangladesh 125
14 The Carter Initiative 129
15 Christmas Time in Bihac 139
16 Croatia's Gratitude to UNPROFOR 143
17 'Arms Embargo! What Arms Embargo?' 155
18 The Serb Stranglehold on Bihac Recede 165
19 General Vlado Santic Disappears! 173
20 A New Military Alliance 177
21 A Muslim Offensive Shatters the COHA 183
22 Political Unification of the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs 189
23 The Croatian Army invades Sector West 197
24 The Beginning of the End for the Krajina Serbs 209
25 Operation Storm and the Fall of Fikret Abdic 217