Serbian pillage of the occupied territories 1991-5
by Aleksandar Sekulovic
It is common knowledge that Serbia exploited the Đelatovci oil field and the Slavonian forests during its occupation of that part of Croatia. It is difficult to estimate the actual worth of this lucrative enterprise, but it must have been considerable, given that despite the oil embargo Serbia managed to keep its war machine going and also supply its own population. The same goes in relative terms for Montenegro, whose troops plundered agricultural lands in Konavle and Dubrovnik’s Čilipi airport. Especially profitable here was the theft of movable assets, which ended up in the hands of military and paramilitary formations. Konavle was one of Croatia’s richest areas, and the Dubrovnik riviera had in addition a number of luxury hotels full of expensive imported goods. It is not surprising, therefore, that volunteers were enticed with the promise of plunder.
From Kijevo to Kozluk
The greatest economic benefit for the Serbian side came from mass deportation of the civilian population from occupied areas. When in the autumn of 1991 the Croatian village of Kijevo near Drniš was taken, on which occasion the Belgrade daily Politika published a triumphal text headlined ‘Kijevo is Liberated’, its 3,000 Croat inhabitants were deported and all their property subjected to systematic looting. The same happened when 6,000 Croats and Slovaks were deported from the Croatian town of Ilok, and indeed in all areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina seized by the so-called Yugoslav Army and paramilitary Chetnik formations. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, real estate too became part of the plunder, since in the view of the Serb National-Socialists 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina belonged to the Serbs. In order to prove this argument, at the time of their deportation Bosniaks were forced to sign away their land in favour of the so-called Republika Srpska. Where this form of ‘legalisation’ proved impossible, entries in the land registers were simply ‘corrected’.
At the trial in The Hague concerning the deportation in June 1992 of 1,822 Bosniaks from the village of Kozluk, the witness Daul Banjanović stated that he saw an order from the new government in Zvornik according to which the Bosniaks were voluntarily leaving Kozluk and surrendering all their property to the Serb territorial defence; and that all inhabitants of Kozluk had to sign this document. During the deportation the army forbade the local population to take anything valuable with them. On boarding the buses, they had to surrender all personal jewellery. Following their departure ‘articulated lorries took goods from 1,000 houses away to Serbia’.
During an 11 September 2006 programme on B92 television about the Red Berets, a high-ranking wartime military leader of the insurgent Serbs, General Manojlo Milanović, stated that whenever Arkan and his paramilitary units left Bosnia, their columns included lorries loaded with goods stolen in Bosnia. Arkan and his troops clearly behaved in a similar manner in Croatia and Kosovo. One of the favourite methods of pillage was the right to ransom, which Serbia bestowed upon the myriad of paramilitary formation it had legalised: Arkan’s, Š ešelj’s and Bokan's men, Scorpions, White Eagles, Grey Wolves and other such criminal gangs. It was a common practice on the occasion of mass executions, as at Ovčara in Croatia and Srebrenica in Bosnia, that enemy soldiers as well as civilians were thoroughly searched before or after the execution and their wedding bands, rings, necklaces, bracelets and gold teeth taken, as well as their identity cards in order to impede subsequent identification of the victims. The verdict issued at The Hague against General Radoslav Krstić quotes evidence that all captured Bosniaks were forced to leave all they had with them on a pile, and to surrender their valuables. The practice of ransom differed, in the sense that the prisoners would surrender valuable items - including foreign currency, jewellery and other valuables - after having been promised that they would be set free or transferred to territory held by their own forces. Most of those who paid the ransom were nevertheless executed.
The real value of the goods pillaged in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina by Serb forces will never be known, but it is possible to make an informed guess on the basis of the wealth accumulated by the looters. When, for example, the leader of the paramilitary formation known as the Avengers, a particularly brutal war criminal called Milan Lukić, was arrested in Argentina, he had in his pockets 250,000 Euros in cash. If one adds to this the expense of a decade hiding from The Hague (though most of this was probably paid by the Serbian government), the cost of moving his family to Argentina, the cost of renting a luxurious apartment in central Buenos Aires, then it becomes clear that this former waiter from Višegrad must have left the country with at least half a million Euros.
This description by one analyst (Janjić, Politika, 17 September 2006) may be taken as providing a synthesis of the plundering enterprise: ‘The cities and villages caught up in the war were systematically looted. Absolutely everything was taken from the houses and flats, irrespective of their owners’ nationality, including wooden fixtures, installed equipment and bricks. The seized goods were sold at a minimal price in the emerging Serb ‘republics’. Those involved in looting had to pay protection money, which was collected at the headquarters of Arkan’s Serb Volunteer Guards.’
This description must be qualified, however, in the following way. Plundering was not limited to the paramilitary formations. It involved all other formations that fought on the Serb side, from the former JNA, whose elements were transformed into the armies of Serbia and the national-socialist creations called Republika Srpska and Republika Srpska Krajina, to reservists, to volunteers, and to the police and administration of Serbia and its para-state offshoots. What distinguished the paramilitary formations from all others was their exceptional cruelty. Their task, indeed, was to provoke a counter-reaction on the other side, so providing an excuse for committing war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war. A relatively small proportion of high- value goods did nevertheless go to Arkan’s Serb Volunteer Guard, mainly when looting was a highly visible operation. But not even Arkan’s all-powerful guard was able to oversee all forms of plunder, from what individuals took for themselves to the looting conducted by state organs. As one reservist angrily admitted to the author, he took ‘only a satellite dish’ in Kosovo, while others seized cars, tractors and lorries often loaded with stolen goods. It may be added that these looted goods were sold not for minimal money, but at prices determined by the black market in Serbia. Some of the goods in great demand, such as weapons, were sold at inflated prices, so that small quantities could give rise to great wealth.
Finally, it is known that the so-called Serb forces in the war zones of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina did not plunder only the property of civilians, but also everything else they could get their hands on. This is true especially for industrial concerns and the goods found in them (like cars at Vogošća), for banks, and for movable property from public institutions such as schools, hospitals, etc, even museum artefacts. There is no evidence as to how this loot was distributed (hundreds of thousands in foreign currency being found in local banks), i.e. how much of it ended up in private hands and how much went to Serbia and its para-state forms. What is known, however, is that the plunderers often fought and killed each other over the spoils. Some prominent Serbian officials lost their lives as a result.
These forms of plunder, in short, brought additional capital accumulation to Serbia, permitting the state and its citizens to survive at the most critical period. A layer of prosperous individuals with a certain profile suddenly emerged in Serbia as a result, whose wealth was of either unknown or dubious origins. Their subsequent life stories recall that of the wanted Nazi criminal in Orson Welles’s film The Outsider, who comes to a small place in the USA, becomes a teacher at the local high school and wins the trust and respect of the citizens. Contemporary Serbia, like sometime Paraguay, is full of war criminals and looters transformed into peaceful and respected citizens, whose capital has provided many local families with jobs and regular incomes, families who are ready to swear on oath to their benefactors’ moral purity. To paraphrase Ali Getz, those who refuse to speak about of the profit that hundreds of thousands of Serbian citizens derived from the war should not speak about the war crimes and genocide that, among other things, were the means whereby they realised the benefit.
Extract translated from a longer text in Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), November-December 2006