For four months, Serbian militias have pounded the Bosnian town of Gorazde with artillery and sniper fire as civil war rages in the new state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, part of what once was Yugoslavia. On Aug. 15, a United Nations aid convoy arrived in the city with 46 tons of food—the first aid Gorazde has received. Since the civil war began in February, the population of the town, about 50 km southeast of Sarajevo near the Bosnian border with Montenegro, has swelled to over 70,000from 37,000 as refugees from neighboring towns, mainly Moslems, sought safety. Maclean’s correspondent Louise Branson visited the embattled region, where she spoke with both local Serb fighters and terrified Moslems. Her report:
We made the final move into the besieged city under cover of darkness. Our jeep drove without headlights through a village, Zubcici, where many homes had been destroyed, then coasted into Gorazde itself. The sound of gunfire echoed in the distance. My Serb escorts, made bolder by local plum brandy, swaggered into the local militia command post. “Don’t worry,” said the bearded and tattooed “Cigo” (short for gypsy), seeing fear fleet across my face. “The snipers can’t hit here.” He added: “You should come across the river with us. Then you’ll really see what’s what. This belongs to the Serbs and we’ll win. Serbs never lose.”
That night, 22 Serb fighters snaked across the River Drina right into what for them is the lion’s den: the heart of mainly Moslem Gorazde. I felt neither brave nor foolish enough to go along. I could have been among the three Serbs who did not make it back, including one killed by a Moslem sniper. There was a lot of drinking among those who did return, as well as talk of “terrible Moslems.” Said one fighter: “They nail babies to pieces of wood. I paid some back tonight.”
The Serb militiamen are mostly uneducated, their numbers swelled after work on Friday nights by part-time fighters known as “weekend warriors.” They are answerable to several local warlords who receive orders from political leaders in Serbia and Bosnia. The men talk in nationalistic buzz phrases. But there seemed also another, unspoken, underlying incentive: a licence to loot, rape and kill. It is, one man admitted, “much more fun than working” at his job as a clerk at a coal mine.
One of the most feared local warlords is “Major Cheko,” whose real name is Milika Dacevic. In an interview at his farmstead home in the village of Odjak, across the nearby
border in Montenegro, he typified the kind of local commander being used by political leaders in Bosnia and Serbia to carry out “ethnic cleansing”—the systematic purge of Moslem and Croatian civilians from their traditional homes. Major Cheko, 36, looked like Rasputin, with the unkempt flowing beard and hair that identify Serb militiamen known as Chetniks.
They take their name from the Second World War militia that fought for the royalists against the Nazis and later against the Communists. He reeled off fronts where he had fought, a list of towns that are synonymous with orgies of killing: “Vukovar, Gospic, Bijeljina, Kupres, Öajnice, Gorazde.”
The warlord had recently come back to his home area in Montenegro to set up a local branch of the Radical Party, headed by Belgrade politician Vojislav Seselj. It is a name that sends a chill through both non-Serbs and moderate Serbs alike. Seselj is a fascist-style nationalist who is widely considered Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s alter ego, carrying out acts of terrorism without linking Milosevic directly to them. Milosëvic has publicly praised Seselj as “the politician I admire the most.”
Major Cheko wields such power that even the police in the nearby Montenegrin town of
Pljevlja cannot control him. Moslems, who make up around 18 per cent of the population, say that over the past few weeks the warlord had gathered together a motley crew, which he claims to be about 4,000 men. Said one Moslem school teacher: “They are mainly people who are out of work. Many of them are former students of mine who didn’t manage to graduate.” The Chetniks have begun a now-familiar pattern of terrorizing local Moslems: smashing shop windows, making threatening phone calls and remarking ominously to people on the street that “there will soon be some very nice vacant properties here.”
Almost half the Pljevlja Moslems have left in the past two weeks. The final push for many of them came earlier this month when local police imprisoned Major Cheko for roaming with his men around town tearing down pictures of former Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito and put-
ting in their place photos of Seselj. In response, the warlord’s men blocked all entrances to Pljevlja and seized all key buildings. They retreated only when the police released their leader—an event that set off a night of revelry, with the Chetniks firing machine guns into the dark sky.
I met with a group of local Moslems who had not yet left, although they had sent their children out to safety. They had heard that I would meet the next day with Major Cheko. Said one Moslem: “Please, will you ask him for us: what should we do to live here peacefully? Let him tell us that and we will do it. Our families have lived here for hundreds of years. Our mosque is opposite their church.” But both they and I knew that they were condemned men and women. Deep down, they must have understood they would have to join the flood of refugees, the victims of ethnic cleansing. The only alternative was certain death. □
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