Child of the Service

“The Unit always existed – whether formally, or informally, whether it contained fifteen people or, at the end, 300 people,” says Dragan Vasiljkovic in the documentary “The Unit.” “At one period I had the command of the Unit, at another it was Frenki, at a third period – Legija. But, the Unit always existed.”

Written by Filip Svarm

The best known part of the Unit and the best known Serbian paramilitary commander: The Serbian Volunteer Guard…

Wednesday, March 2003 dawned a sunny, almost Spring-like day. In Kula, at the Center “Radoslav Kostic” of the Unit for Special Operations of the Serbian government, the schedule was ordinary: reveille, physical exercise, basic training according to the program. In fact, few people knew what these people do: the media flattered them, the politicians respected them, the Army and the Police bowed to them, and the entire Serbia feared them. They were also called the Red Berets or, short and bloodily simple – The Unit.

The news that at 12:25 Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was shot with sniper fire reached Kula in about twenty minutes. A “quarantine” was declared immediately. Members of the Red Berets started arriving to the main base: from the command in Senjak, the scuba-diversion team from the Sava river, members of the Department for the Protection of People and Buildings, logistics support from the “Lipovica” base, the promontory combat group in Vranje… That same evening, during the gathering, the Unit underwent a collective shock when the government announced that Milorad Ulemek Legija and the Zemun clan, the most powerful Mafia group in the region, stand behind the assassination.

Even though he was only thirty-five at the time, Legija was already a retired police colonel. But for the Unit he was still the first, real and only commander.

Although a state of emergency was declared in Serbia, the Red Berets waited for an assignment for days. They never received it. Under the accusation for a series of serious criminal activities, the majority of the command and a few members of the Unit were arrested on March 22, 2002. The entire formation was quietly dismissed three days later.

How did it come about that the man described by Djindjic as one of the heroes of October 5th be accused as the main organizer of his assassination?

How was it possible that the assistant commander, Lieutenant Colonel Zvezdan Jovanovic, was accused of pulling the trigger of the sniper?

In order to come up with at least some answers, one has to return to the very beginning.

ROOTS: This beginning could have happened in the night between the 3rd and 4th of April 1991, when a group of armed, menacing, nervous men set out from Belgrade to Knin. Out of these five, two were important: Franko Simatovic Frenki and Dragan Vasiljkovic, later widely known as Captain Dragan. In fact, about twenty days earlier – on March 9th 1991 – demonstrations of the Serbian opposition shook the foundations of the Milosevic’s authoritarian regime. Now the president of Serbia used the plight of the Serbs in Croatia to incite quarrels in the opposition. In the speech of March 16th 1991, at a closed session with the presidents of Serbian counties, Milosevic promised to help the Serbs in Krajina with the formation of the Unit.

“…The government received the assignment to prepare certain formations that would make us safer, i.e. make us capable to defend the interests of our Republic, and also the interests of the Serbian people outside Serbia,” Milosevic said.

The execution of the order about the formation of the Unit was entrusted to one of the most reliable and most capable of Milosevic’s collaborators – the head of the Serbian State Security, Jovica Stanisic. As to an adventurer and a man of action ready for everything, Stanisic entrusted the formation of the Unit in the field to Franko Simatovic Frenki. Since Yugoslavia still existed, the Unit was not allowed to have a formal connection with Belgrade, and Frenki, therefore, could not count on the members of the Serbian police; with a full logistics support of the State Security, he had to find and recruit people by himself.

Captain Dragan was the very man Frenki was looking for: absolutely anonymous, militarily educated, with the spirit of an adventurer. Frenki probably remembered that Captain Dragan was in Knin in October 1990, and that his offer to train Krajina policemen remained without response. Was it still valid? At the end of March 1991, Frenki set up an interview with Captain Dragan in the Belgrade hotel Metropol.

“I think I made a deep impression on them during that conversation,” Captain Dragan says. “At that time I became friends with Frenki to a certain extent; it went a lot farther than the business talk.”

As soon as they arrived at Knin, Frenki and Captain Dragan reported to the minister of internal affairs of the independent region Krajina, Milan Martic, who drove them to the base of the Krajina militia in the village of Golubic. Captain Dragan took over the command there on April 5th 1991.

“It really didn’t look like much…” Captain Dragan relates. “They were in various uniforms, they wore various insignia – from the Serbian national emblem to the red star – everyone carried what he wanted. Discipline was at a very low level. I had an impression that the strongest among them automatically had the greatest authority. I accomplished to bring that to order very quickly. In a week a drastic change could be observed. I managed to arrest, kick out or bring to order the few loudest and strongest leaders. I established order pretty quickly in that police unit.”

Not one of about a hundred disorderly Krajina policemen, while being lined up, confused, by a man without a last name, could not suppose that he is participating in the birth of the Unit. Mainly kept secret, it will operate for more than twelve years under various names – official and unofficial. Depending on the period, some will call them Frenki’s men, others the Unit for Anti-terrorist Activities, others the Unit for Special Operations, and all together – the Red Berets. A lot will change during those years in the Unit, but its essence as the secret armed formation of the State Security never will.

Or, as defined by its spokesman ten years later during the armed rebellion of this formation: “This Unit is the child of this Service. It was created in a difficult period for Serbian land and its people; it waged war according to all the rules of the Geneva convention. That’s why we are proud of the Service and we see its future activity in its frames, because it is the heart of this Unit.”

THE SECOND STEP: Armed incidents in which the Yugoslav National Army was increasingly involved started multiplying in the Spring 1991 in eastern Slavonia as well. In this part of Croatia, next to the border with Serbia, the State Security was facing very serious challenges: the Serbs neither had a dominant majority nor the political infrastructure as in the rest of Krajina. The Serbian Democratic Party, therefore, depended much more on the support from Belgrade, and had a much greater need for the Unit as well.

This became much clearer during the night between the 1st and the 2nd of May 1991. That night, beside one Serbian national, twelve Croatian police officers fell, and a few dozens were wounded in a large conflict in Borovo Selo. Was the local Serbian militia capable and organized for this action? Six years later, at the celebration of the Day of the Unit, in a speech Frenki hinted that there was someone a lot more serious and better trained in Borovo Selo at the time: “It (the Unit) was formed on May 4th 1991, in the period of the demise of the former Yugoslavia, and since its beginning it was directly involved in the protection of national security in the conditions of threat to the Serbian people on its entire ethnic area,” Frenky said in Kula.

Why was May 4th chosen as the day of the Unit, and not another date connected to “Knindzas” or “Golubic?” Is it because the collaborators of the State security that would later make up the core of the Unit participated in the conflict in Borovo Selo two days earlier? Or did Stanisic formally sign a decision about its formation then?

Eastern Slavonia, next to the border with Serbia and much wealthier that the rest of Krajina, was an irresistible bait for the self-proclaimed dukes and weekend-warriors. As soon as he was named commander of the local Serbian National Guard, the commander of the Special Anti-terrorist Unit of the Serbian Police, Radovan Stojicic Badza, quickly formed his part of the Unit, presenting it just as another of his numerous volunteer groups.

What else can be said about the best known Serbian paramilitary commander – Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan? Although many think that Arkan and his Serbian Volunteer Guard are somewhat autonomous entities, it was only a part of Badza’s part of the Unit, formed by the State Security, just like Frenki’s part in Knin.

In accordance with Arkan’s reputation, a good part of the command staff was comprised of his partners from the underground, with police files of variable thickness, which Captain Dragan was found out when he came to help them with military training: “I remember that Arkan lead me through the bedrooms, and in one of them he said: ‘In this one, there is 250 years of prison’.”

It is clear that one could rule over this sort of lineup only with a strong hand.

“We had a punishment that was taken over fromm the tradition of the old Serbian army. And that was twenty five hits on the butt on a mast in front of the whole Guard. It was a bat that didn’t terribly hurt,” Borislav Pelevic, former general of Arkan’s guard, remembers.

“We had a stick ‘Ustasha One.’ It’s that thick electric cable,” Zuti, Arkan’s former officer explains. “Do you know what it’s like when that hits you, brother? Believe me, when it hits you, it pushes your liver and stomach all the way to the brain!”

“Those volunteers were really afraid of Arkan, and he maintained the discipline with fear,” Captain Dragan says.

THE RED BERET: In this period the Unit from Knin, after a fiery debut in June 1991 on the ridge Ljubovo near Gospic, was involved in conflicts in Lika, Banija and Kordun. And then Captain Dragan, during one of the cyclical clashes between the president of Krajina Milan Babic with Martic over the control of the army and police, joined Martic. Babic complained and bothered Milosevic about it until Frenki called Captain Dragan: “He said the chief wanted to see me in Belgrade. Jovica, in fact, came to me and literally told me I can’t go back to Krajina. I asked him – why? He told me I cannot see from my position some things that can be seen from a higher position. And finally he told me that, if I don’t listen to him, he will be forced to place a barrier. He literally told me: “Cap, you have to understand that I don’t have other options than to place a barrier for you. You can’t go to Krajina anymore’.”

In fact, Stanisic and Frenki judged that the Unit from Knin became too susceptible to the influence of local politicians, so Knindzas, as the journalists called them, were dismissed. A selected group, however, was put together by Frenki himself. A firm control of the government in Krajina was, from then on, a much more important task for them than the training of the Krajina militia and war actions. Six years later, at the celebration in Kula, Milosevic congratulated these very people who operated in greatest secrecy. They were all, as well as the whole Unit, labeled forever thanks to one of the last actions of Captain Dragan before he left Krajina in early July 1991.

“We started to wear red berets after the battle for Glina,” Captain Dragan Vasiljkovic says. “There were twenty-one guys in Glina. I didn’t have anything else to give them. I didn’t have decorations, didn’t have money.”

Since than and until the dismissal, a red beret was the emblem and the name of the Unit. During the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, few people knew about Frenki and Legija, their people and what they were doing there, but there is almost no one who did not hear about the Red Berets. Those two words bore a horrific resonance of war and death, and they represented a license to kill. The Unit changed its name, assignments and commanders, but it never took off the red beret.

“The Unit always existed – whether formally, or informally, whether it contained fifteen people or, at the end, 300 people,” says Dragan Vasiljkovic in the documentary “The Unit.” “At one period I had the command of the Unit, at another it was Frenki, at a third period – Legija. But, the Unit always existed.”

Since the war shifted to eastern Slavonia because of Vukovar, Arkan had neither financial nor political problems as Captain Dragan did. The Guard departed to its war campaigns in Croatia and, later, in Bosnia from the base in Erdut, in which it will, with one break, spend five years. This part of the Unit never numbered more than three hundred members, they rarely engaged in independent actions, and they were accompanied by plunders and war crimes. According to Badza’s idea, in 1991 they represented the combat group for the support of the Yugoslav National Army.

Even though the YNA generals were loyal to Milosevic, at the end of 1991 he got rid of the top echelon simply because he did not name it, but inherited it. In the campaign designed to prepare the public, the media loyal to the regime accused the military for inability and treason, and Arkan and his part of the Unit were offered as the example of patriotism and military skill.

Certain generals understood the message. Among the first – the commander of the Novi Sad corpus Andrija Biorcevic. Speaking at a celebration together with Arkan, Biorcevic said among other things: “What you were told by Mr. Arkan, who is an honest and honorable Serb to me… He was a wealthy man before the war. In this war he lost more than he gained. Where is your wound? Show it, you Serbian hero! Look at his finger! Which one is it? You see what it looks like. I tell him go and get some aid, and he says to me: ‘I am with you!’”

After the truce in early 1992, YNA retreated from Croatia. Named as the head of the uniformed police, Badza returned to Serbia as well. But the Unit stayed. With the permission of Stanisic and Badza and using his firms as a screen, Arkan established a monopoly in all the business in eastern Slavonia: he smuggled oil and cigarettes to Serbia and from it, he sold the wine confiscated from the winery in Erdut, he cut oak trees for free and exported it… The part of the Guard that worked on these jobs was called the engineering corpse. Arkan, surely, was not the only one. With this business that accompanied by a mandatory tax to the State Security, Milosevic’s nouveau rich elite was established.

Even though in comparison with Arkan the Unit form Knin seemed in 1992 like an impoverished provincial aristocracy, its significance for the State Security was by far more important.

“Frenki gathered around himself a part of these young man, not more than fifteen,” Captain Dragan Vasiljkovic says. “He took them to Fruska Gora and formed a camp there.”

Motel Lezimir on Fruska gora, today neglected and abandoned, was strategically chosen as the first base of the Unit in Serbia: in less than an hour, the Red Berets could reach eastern Slavonia where the war had just ended, as well as to Bosnia where the war was anticipated. Although the command staff was mainly comprised of Krajina veterans, Lezimir was not the same as Golubic. The Unit was now mainly manned in Serbia and reorganized according to the methods of Arkan’s Guard. There was almost no place for Captain Dragan anymore.

“Zika the Montenegrin was then made the commander of the Unit,” Captain Dragan Vasiljkovic says. “In my opinion, he is a really nice boy, he was a hero when he commanded a group of five people, but at the moment when he received the command of the Unit, it was a great error for him and the entire Unit.”

At Lezimir, the Red Berets acquired the character that would not change much until its dismissal.

“They were, in fact, the ominous Unit for Special Operations,” Captain Dragan Vasiljkovic says. “Frenki had the idea to form USO. I know he lobbied for a long time and fought to get the permission for it.”

For political reasons, Stanisic never fulfilled Frenki’s wish for the Red Berets to become a part of the regular police in Serbia. The Unit will still function without officially existing anywhere.

DANGEROUS MEN: Soon after the fighting in Croatia was temporarily over, in Spring 1992 the largest war in Europe after 1945 broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with heavy destruction, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Arkan’s Guard immediately joined in the occupation of eastern Bosnia together with local Serbian forces.

“Arkan is a special problem. When I came to the front on May 11th 1992, Arkan had already finished business in Bijeljina and Zvornik,” says General Manojko Milovanovic, the head of the Republic Srpska Army headquarters. “A characteristic of the Serbian Volunteer Guard was that its every return from Republic Srpska and Republic Serbian Krajina took place in convoys which was, beside transporters and tanks, comprised of a great number of trailer trucks. That means we are talking about plunder.”

In this period, Arkan’s Guard was joined by a guy who had robbed a sport equipment store in New Belgrade – Milorad Ulemek Legija. At that time the public didn’t know a single thing about him.

“At that time there was at least six or seven Legijas. Whoever spent some time in France – he didn’t have to be in the Foreign Legion – was called Legija,” says Igor Gajic, former member of the Republic Srpska Army.

Ten years later, however, while as a commander of the Unit he held the government elected after October 5th 2000 in check, the entire Serbia pronounced his nickname, Legija, with fear.

“Legija was militarily the most educated person out of all who were with Arkan,” Captain Dragan Vasiljkovic thinks. “He was young, full of energy, resolute…”

Very soon it was clear that Legija knew a lot, and that’s why he was made into one of the main instructors, and later one of the main commanders of the Serbian volunteer Guard,” Borislav Pelevic says.

Legija made an impression on “Joca,” a former member of the Unit, as an “unscrupulous guy who is able to do something big, and who is not afraid of an assignment or a bullet.”

Split into two fighting groups, the Unit from Lezimir, known as the Red Berets, was sent in early April 1992 to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“We received the assignment and we flew with a helicopter to Han Pijesak,” Joca relates. “In Han Pijesak we landed next to Ratko Mladic’s headquarters. From there we were transported to Sarajevo and placed in the police school in Vrace. There we received certain assignments from our host Karlo Karisik, the commander of a special unit.”

In the first war months, while the Army and the police of Republic Srpska were not entirely organized, the Red Berets acted as a combat group in strategic places between Herzegovina and Sarajevo without much pomp.

The Unit was at first organized into operational groups or, as we called them, “combat groups,” Joca explains. “The operational group I belonged to had forty-two members. There were people from all the regions, except Montenegro. Montenegrins had their own operational group, and didn’t mix much with the others, even though they were OK and fair. According to one information that came to us, in mid-1992, the Unit – divided into operational groups – numbered around two thousand people.”

Among the first generals of the YNA who became a Serbian general, Commander of the Republic Srpska Army Ratko Mladic started his path in the Knin Corpse in 1991. Cruel, unscrupulous, but also charismatic and capable, he couldn’t stand armed forces he didn’t completely control. As soon as Mladic’s Main Headquarters started functioning, Arkan had to finish his Bosnian campaign.

But, when the Red Berets under Frenki’s command are concerned, the heard-headed Mladic had to give in.

Badza was in the uniform, and Stanisic in civilian clothes,” General Milovanovic relates. “I asked General Zivota Panic who those men were. He told me that Stanisic was from the State Security – he didn’t say neither “head” nor this or that. I was amazed how familiar Stanisic was with our situation in Podrinje. He knew some things better than I did. He knew who was fighting in what village, who is commanding and so, he flabbergasted me a little.”

The Unit will operate in Bosnia and Herzegovina until the end of the war. From the very beginning, one of its main activities was the organization and training of the local special police forces and the army, like The Panthers from Bijeljina under the command of Ljubisa Savic Mauzer.

“As far as my fighting group is concerned, after Sarajevo we were at Ozren, than we gave support to the Mauzer’s Panthers, followed by Grahovo, Prijedor, those forrests north of Sanski Most…” Joca relates about his war path. But Frenki was the only one who had the entire list of places from which the Unit was deployed: “In Republic Serbian Krajina in Golubic, on Dinara, Obrovac, Gracac, Plitvice, Samarice, Petrova Gora, Licki Osik, Benkovac, Lezimir, Ilok, Vukovar, and in Republic Srpska in Banja Luka, Doboj, Samac, Brcko, Bijeljina, Trebinje, Visegrad, Ozren, Mrkonjic Grad…”

“It was a ‘gemischt’!” Zeljko Kopanja, owner of ‘Independent Newspapers’ of Banja Luka, remembers. “You don’t know who is a ‘red beret,’ who is a member of the special unit of the Republic of Serbia police, when everything was the same. Even when Arkan’s men came, they were part of some special units of the Republic Srpska police. You can’t know who is who.”

“Joca” explains: “One should know that many units came out of the Red Berets. For example the Wolves from Vucjak. All those people were trained by us, and when they returned to their towns they formed their units according to what we taught them.”

As opposed to Arkan, the Red Berets operated quietly in Bosnia. A few people knew the name of their combat groups’ commanders. A name would come out here and there, however.

“Rajo Bozovic…I heard that name in the context – dangerous people,” Kopanja says.