Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map
Human Rights Watch - Home Page


The town of Bijeljina was the first town in Bosnia and Hercegovina to come under attack by (Bosnian) Serb forces. On April 1, 1992, paramilitaries belonging to the Serbian Volunteer Guard (Srpska Dobrovolja...ka Garda), known as "Arkan's Tigers" after their leader ðeljko "Arkan" Rañnatovi_, took control of Bijeljina.5 Other paramilitarygroups including the "Panthers" commanded by Ljubi_a Savi_ "Mauser," were also involved in the take over of Bijeljina, or arrived soon afterwards.6

There was considerable tension in Bijeljina even before April 1, 1992. In a referendum on independence for Bosnia and Hercegovina, which was boycotted by most Bosnian Serbs, over 99 percent of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats voted for independence. After the referendum, violent incidents erupted in several parts of Bosnia. In the Bijeljina area, Bosnian Serbs announced the establishment of the Independent Autonomous Region of Semberija and Majevica (Samostalna Autonomna Oblast Semberija i Majevica). In reaction, the Bosniaks in Bijeljina established the Patriotic League to "defend" the city.

A series of violent incidents took place in Bijeljina during the last week of March 1992, that provided a pretext for Arkan's forces to enter Bijeljina. F.M.,7 a former inhabitant of Bijeljina, told Human Rights Watch:

A few days before March 31, 1992, there had already been several incidents. A [hand]grenade was thrown into Café Istanbul, a local pub where many Bosniaks came.8 Then a Patriotic League was formed by the SDA (Party of Democratic Action) defend the city....The Patriotic League set up four or five blockades in town, which were guarded by seventy to eighty armed Muslims, mostly local guys who were not very organized. On March 31, I saw a group of Serbs with beards and ,,etnik10 hats near Café Istanbul. [Later, I heard that] a group of Muslims who were standing in front of Café Istanbul put a retarded guy on a horse and told him to go tell the Serbs that, since a grenade had been thrown, they were now declaring war. The guy on the horse went and declared war on the Serbs. Most of the [Serbs] just laughed, but then [a man] pulled a gun and shot him. At around 8:15 p.m., I heard sustained shooting. Someone came to [the place where F.M. was] and told me that someone had been shot. I went to see the guy, who was under the influence of alcohol, and bleeding, so I took him to the hospital. When I came back from the hospital, the two groups were shooting at each other. This was the sign for Arkan to come in. That night, about 350 Arkanovci and 250 Beli Orlovi11 came [into Bijeljina].12

Ron Haviv, a photo journalist from the United States, was in Bijeljina at the time the violence erupted, together with a Serb photographer from Associated Press:

In Bijeljina, we were stopped at a checkpoint where we were told we couldn't go any further. This was the first day Arkan's guys came to town. A bus came, in a little convoy, and about sixty men came out of the bus. They were all in uniforms...heavily armed, with AK-47s, etc. They all lined up in formation. Arkan came out of a car and started talking to these men. I knew it was Arkan, because I had been working in Croatia before, and I knew him already from there. I didn't speak enough Serbian to follow what Arkan was saying, but my translator told me Arkan gave them a "Get prepared, get ready" type of speech.

The men got ready to deploy into the city. I went to Arkan and asked his permission to work [in Bijeljina]. He agreed and said: "We are going to liberate this city of Muslim fundamentalists." So I went with a group of ten to fifteen guys, including one Australian Serb who spoke English. I spent the day with them. The Serb photographer went off with another group of Arkan's men. We started moving through the streets on a "tactical mission."...The first place was the hospital, where we went from room to room, searching for soldiers, but we didn't find any, so we left again. We went back outside, and we reached a mosque....They went inside, and I followed them. One guy went to the minaret and pulled down the [Muslim] flag, and they posed for a photo. At about the same time, I heard shouting from another room in the mosque, so I went there, and they had a guy backed up against the wall. They took his I.D. card, and the Australian Serb said he was a Muslim fundamentalist from Kosovo....They said he had two pistols, which were proof he was a fundamentalist.

Then I heard screams outside, so I went out, and [saw that] they held a kid, about eighteen years old. They were joking and making fun of him. He either broke free or they let him go, I am not sure, and he ran to the back of the mosque. But apparently there was no way out, because he came back. That's when they shot him in the back. I don't know who killed him....

Within a few minutes, they went to the other side of the street, and they pulled a guy out of a house. His wife came out of the house as well, and he started screaming. They shot him, and she tried to help him, by putting her hand over his wound. Then they shot her as well. Then they told me not to watch, so I turned around. I saw another woman come out of the house, but I didn't see her go down. I just saw her later, lying on the ground, shot.

I went back into the mosque and kept a low profile, because I was scared. Maybe ten minutes had gone by when the soldiers inside the mosque said we were going. I went outside and waited in the middle of the street, because I wanted a picture of the dead people. Then I saw a guy with sunglasses kick the three people, while they were lying there, dead or dying.

They took the guy from the mosque, and took him to the house of the local command center. They went inside, and I was told to stay outside....We couldn't leave without Arkan's permission, so I was waiting for him outside with the Serb photographer. At some point, I heard a crash, and I looked up and saw the window shutters were open, and this guy [from Kosovo] came flying out of the window on the third floor. I jumped aside, and he landed at my feet. They started kicking him when he landed, then grabbed him and put him on his feet, doused him with a bottle of water, and dragged him back inside.

[The next day] we went to the hospital [to find the man from Kosovo], but we didn't find him. The town was pretty much under Serb control, although there was still a bit of shooting. Again, I saw Arkan [in Bijeljina]. The Serb flag was in the minaret of the mosque, and an anti-aircraft gun was in front of the building on the square.13

Arkan established the headquarters of the Serbian Volunteer Guard in the center of town, together with Ljubi_a Savi_, whose nom de guerre was "Major Mauser" or simply "Mauser," a local commander of the Serbian Volunteer Guard.14

In the days that followed, the paramilitaries reigned with terror in Bijeljina. Houses, shops, and businesses owned by Bosniaks were ransacked and burned, and Bosniaks and members of other minorities were harassed, threatened, and sometimes killed.15 A witness described one of the killings:

One evening during the first week of April, at approximately 10:00 p.m., I was in the town square, near the bus station. A group of about fifteen paramilitaries was roaming the streets. Two of the paramilitary soldiers had stockings over their heads and all were armed, primarily with AK-47s. A Muslim man who appeared to be drunk walked up to the group and said something to them. One of [the] paramilitaries shot him dead immediately. Thereafter, shots rang out from Serbian positions throughout the city center, and I started to run from the gun fire.16

Although it is clear that many people were killed in Bijeljina in the first days of April 1992, in particular political leaders, businessmen, and other prominent Bosniaks, the exact number remains unknown. Amnesty International claims that up to forty people were killed,17 but other sources claim that the death toll may have been as high as several hundred or even a thousand.18 A Bosniak who remained in Bijeljina throughout the war told Human Rights Watch:

On April 1, 1992, Arkan and his men came to Bijeljina. In the three nights that followed, they killed many people. The official figures say that fifty people were killed, but it must have been many more. One of the persons involved in the disposal of the bodies told me that they had been loading bodies on trucks, drove them to the Drina and dumped them there. There were no lists, nobody kept count of how many were killed. But there must have been hundreds.19

The violence against Bosniaks and other minorities continued for four days, days which many Bosniaks spent in the basements of their homes, afraid to go out of their houses, or even to be seen inside their homes. But S.A. told Human Rights Watch, "[o]n the fourth day Arkan had a broadcast on the local radio, where he had a Muslim guest, a professor with whom he would have lunch. Arkan said: `You see, you Muslims don't have to fear anything, you will not be bothered, and the city is not destroyed. We just had to deal with some Muslim aggressors.'"20 It was announced that there would be no further trouble if the Bosniaks would hand over their weapons, which they readily did.

Whereas the take-over of Bijeljina was accompanied by substantial violence against the minority population, the take-over of Janja, the almost exclusively Bosniak village eleven kilometers south of Bijeljina, took place peacefully. After the take-over of Bijeljina, Arkan's paramilitary troops moved to Janja, which "was surrounded by thirty-nine tanks, fifty-one armored vehicles, and numerous other arms."21 There was "no fight, no struggle: the local Serbs told us that nothing would happen to us, that we should just keep on working, and the people believed that."22 The Bosniaks in Janja handed over their weapons when this was demanded.

A meeting was organized during which Arkan spoke personally. He demanded that the Muslims from Janja hand over all weapons....Immediately, a hundred to one hundred and five guns were handed over. They promised us that there wouldn't be any sanctions toward us since we, by handing over the weapons, had shown our loyalty towards the so-called Serb authorities.23

Indeed, the almost exclusively Bosniak village of Janja was later often referred to by the Bosnian Serb forces as proof that "loyal" Bosniaks would not be bothered by the authorities and could remain in the Republika Srpska.24

The fact that Bijeljina was the first city to be captured by (Bosnian) Serb forces was not a coincidence. Bijeljina was of strategic importance for the Serb forces in Bosnia and Croatia, since it is located on the road connecting the predominantly Serb Posavina and Krajina areas to the "homeland" Serbia.25 This allowed for easy transport of military personnel and goods, including weapons, to the Bosnian Serb forces in Posavina and Bosnian Krajina, as well as to Croatian Krajina, substantial parts of which were then already under the control of Croatian Serb forces. A week after Bijeljina had been "liberated," the Yugoslav Army26 and paramilitary troops27 attacked andcaptured Zvornik, a city forty kilometers (twenty-five miles) south of Bijeljina, thereby securing a second crucial border crossing between Serbia and predominantly Serb areas in Bosnia.

But the ultimate aim of the Bosnian Serb nationalist leaders was not just to ensure good connections between Serb-held territory in Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia; the aim, and the ideology that defined the Serb political and military agenda was the creation of a "Greater Serbia." The concept involved the creation of an ethnically homogenous, preferably contiguous, area inhabited by ethnic Serbs.28 However, the demographics and geography of Bosnia and Hercegovina (and to a lesser extent Croatia) were such that the creation of such an area could only be achieved through massive population transfers and by conquering areas where ethnic Serbs did not constitute an ethnic majority. The policy of "ethnic cleansing" was devised to realize these aims. The United Nations' Commission of Experts, which defines "ethnic cleansing" as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area,"29 described the pattern of attacks used in "ethnic cleansing:"

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.30

In many respects, the take-over of Bijeljina and its aftermath fit the pattern described above.

5 Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division), War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina (New York: Human Rights Watch, August 1992), p. 38, 62. See also: Laura Silber and Alan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia - Revised Edition (Penguin Books: London, 1996)p, pp. 224-225; Chuck Sudeti_, "Serbs attack Muslim Slavs and Croats in Bosnia," New York Times, April 4, 1992; Andrej Gustincic, "Report says Serbs control most of Bosnian Town," Reuters, April 3, 1992; Renate Frech, Disappearances in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo/Tuzla/Vienna: Association for the Promotion of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, 1998), pp. 41; Peter Maass, Love Thy Neighbour - A Story of War (London: Knopf, 1996), pp. 21; State Commission for the Gathering of Facts about War Crimes-Municipal Commission of ðivinice, Criminals and Victims- About War Crimes committed in the Tuzla-Drina area in the war years 92-94, Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1995, p. 107. Rañnatovi_'s Serbian Volunteer Guard was the most notorious paramilitary formation involved in the wars in formerYugoslavia. On January 15, 2000, Arkan was assassinated in Belgrade's Intercontinental Hotel. 6 Based on Human Rights Watch interviews with former and current residents of Bijeljina and Janja in April, May, July, and December 1998. See also: Helsinki Watch, War Crimes, pp. 62. 7 The witness chose not to have his/her full name revealed. Instead, initials are used. Throughout the text, initials will be used where witnesses chose not to have their names revealed. 8 See also: United Nations, Final Report of the United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992), (New York: United Nations Publications, 1994), S/1994/674/Annex III.A, pp. 157. 9 The Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske Akcije- SDA) is the main Bosniak nationalist party. 10 During the Second World War, the ,,etniks called for the restoration of the Serbian monarchy and the creation of a Greater Serbia. They fought pro-Nazi Usta_e forces, Tito's communist partisans and at times with and against the Axis powers. They were especially brutal in Bosnia and Hercegovina, where they carried out large-scale massacres against the Muslim and to some extent Croat populations. Bosniaks, Croats, and some Serbs opposed to their policies commonly refer to Bosnian Serb military and Serbian paramilitary forces, during the Bosnian war, as ,,etniks. Some Serbs vehemently rejected the label ",,etnik," claiming they were merely defenders of their people and their land and that they are not extremists. Others, such as paramilitary units loyal to Vojislav _e_elj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party and deputy prime minister of Serbia, commonly and proudly refer to themselves as ,,etniks. 11 "Arkanovci" is yet another name for paramilitaries loyal to Arkan. "Beli Orlovi" (White Eagles) is the name of an other paramilitary group. 12 Human Rights Watch interview, Tuzla, Bosnia and Hercegovina, December 11, 1998. 13 Human Rights Watch interview, New York, February 8, 2000. 14 Human Rights Watch interview with S.D., a Bosniak who used to live in Bijeljina, Tuzla, April 23, 1998; Human Rights Watch interview with F.I., a Bosniak from Bijeljina, Tuzla, May 24, 1998; Human Rights Watch interview with F.M., a Bosniak who used to live in Bijeljina, Tuzla, December 11, 1998. 15 See Helsinki Watch, War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina (New York, Human Rights Watch, August 1992), pp. 133; Frech, Disappearances, p. 42; United Nations, Final report, p. 158. 16 Interviewed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on June 4, 1992. The man's account was corroborated by five other persons. This statement was previously published in: Helsinki Watch, War Crimes, p. 62. 17 Amnesty International, Living for the Day - Forcible Expulsions from Bijeljina and Janja, 1994. 18 Among others: Keith Dovkants, Victor Sebestyen, "War Criminals who may be Charged with Balkan Atrocities," Evening Standard (London), February 16, 1993; State Commission for the Gathering of Facts about War Crimes - Municipal Commission of ðivinice, Criminals and Victims - About War Crimes committed in the Tuzla-Drina area in the war years 92-94, Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1995. Moreover, several persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that the number of people killed ran into the hundreds. 19 Human Rights Watch interview, Bijeljina, April 8, 1998. 20 Human Rights Watch interview, Tuzla, April 16, 1998. 21 Human Rights Watch interview, Tuzla, December 16, 1998. Similar reports can be found in: Amnesty International, Living for the Day, 1994; and State Commission on the Gathering of Facts about War Crimes - Tuzla, War Crimes in the Tuzla Area, (Bosnia and Hercegovina, 1996), p. 60. 22 Human Rights Watch interview with Bosniak, expelled from Janja, Tuzla, April 24, 1998. 23 State Commission - Tuzla, War Crimes, p. 60. See also: Amnesty International, Living for the Day, 1994. 24 BBC Monitoring Service, Karadñi_ Says Bosnian Serbs Want to Live in Peace with Muslims, April 24, 1993. 25 Posavina is the northern part of Bosnia and Hercegovina south of the Sava river, and includes important cities like Derventa, Prijedor, and Banja Luka. The Krajina consists of two parts: the Bosnian Krajina in the (south)western part of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the Croatian Krajina, which is the area immediately to the west and southwest of Bosnia. See also United Nations, Final Report, Part III, para. B. 26 Prior to May 19, 1992, forces of the Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslavenska Narodna Armija - JNA) stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Serb-held parts of Croatia openly fought together with Bosnian and Croatian Serb paramilitaries. The nominal withdrawal of JNA troops from Bosnia and Hercegovina took place on May 19, 1992. However, the Belgrade authorities claimed that 80 percent of the JNA troops in Bosnia and Hercegovina were Bosnian Serbs who would be free to remain in Bosnia-Hercegovina and fight on behalf of Serb forces in Bosnia and Hercegovina after the JNA withdrew on May 19, 1992. 27 Again, a major role was played by Arkan's Tigers. See Frech, Disappearances, pp. 32-41; and Tretter, Müller, Schwanke, Angeli, and Richter, "Ethnic Cleansing Operations" in the northeast Bosnian City of Zvornik from April through June 1992 (Vienna: Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, 1994), pp. 10-15. 28 For a description of the Serb position and an explanation of the idea of a "Greater Serbia," see: Human Rights Watch, War Crimes pp. 46-49; and U.N. Commission of Experts, Final Report, Annex IV, Part II, para. II. 29 U.N. Commission of experts, Final report, Annex IV, Part II, para. I. 30 U.N. Commission of Experts, Final report, Annex IV, Part II, par. III B.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page