In the Spider’s Web

The Unit, its command staff and the sponsors of the State Security have never made so much money as in the operation Spider in western Bosnia.

Written by Filip Svarm

WHAT HAPPENED WITH 46 MILLION DEUTSCHMARKS: Generals Manojlo Milovanovic and…

In mid 1993 – during the second war year in Bosnia and Herzegovina – there were more than 300,000 inhabitants living in the region of Bihac: the natives and the refugees from Bosnian Krajina. They lacked absolutely everything – from electricity and fuel to food and medicine. The region of Bihac – the largest Muslim enclave – was surrounded from the north, west and south by Republic Serbian Krajina, and from the east by Republic Srpska.

The very thought of another war winter drove many to desperation. One man, however, thought there was a solution.

“Let’s make it clear, Fikret Abdic was in this region the leader as a recognized political authority in the former Yugoslavia,” says Atif Dudakovic, former commander of the Fifth Corps of the Bosnian army.

Fikret Abdic, director of a big company Agrokomerc from Velika Kladusa, had the nickname Babo (Daddy). It wasn’t just an empty word. Since the greatest number of the inhabitants of the Bihac region depended on the work of Agrokomerce, Abdic exerted great influence on the entire life of this region. Not even the arrest due to embezzlement in mid ‘80s diminished his power: with the largest number of votes he was elected in 1990 a member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When in the summer of 1992 the fighting flared up, Babo came back from Sarajevo to his native Velika Kladusa where he had limitless power.

Abdic saw an opportunity to pull out his region from the war in mid 1993. At that time all the three nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – were mutually fighting and making local alliances in all imaginable ways. Babo decided to join those who he thought were winning – primarily Serbs, but Croats as well.

Before, during, and after the wars, Fikret Abdic knew everyone in the former Yugoslavia. Did Babo first made contact with the head of the Serbian State Security Jovica Stanisic or was it the other way around, it is unclear… It is known, though, that Abdic’s separatism perfectly fitted the plans of the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, so Babo’s region soon found itself under the protection of Franko Simatovic Frenki’s Unit. An especially important role in this region belonged to Milorad Ulemek Legija, the man who will ten years later be accused for assassination of the Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Feeling protected, in October 1993 Babo declared Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia in the Bihac region, and made a separate truce with Republic Srpska. Or, simply put, he completely broke off from the government in Sarajevo.

Dudakovic and his Fifth Corps with its seat in Bihac remained loyal to the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, and his concept of a unified country… In Sarajevo Babo was accused of treason.

In return, Babo could rely, beside Milosevic, on the president of Croatia Franjo Tudjman. Their common interest was to show that not all Muslims were for the unified Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Having declared independence, Babo formed his own armed forces – The Territorial Guard of Western Bosnia. The Fifth Corps, up to that point a unified Muslim army in the Bihac pocket, had split in two.

“They had a clear goal – solely the defeat of the Fifth Corps,” Dudakovic says.

Beside a political profit from Abdic, his allies reaped a financial profit as well. Tudjman made possible for Babo to purchase oil in Croatia, and Milosevic, for part of that oil, supplied Western Bosnia with arms and food from Krajina. The Red Berets could not miss out on such an opportunity: not one cistern or trailer truck left from Babo’s state without a permission of the Unit.

“The people at check points were the Red Berets from Serbia, under the control of the Serbian State Security,” remembers Igor Gajic, now a journalist, at that time a member of the Republic Srpska Army.

Although he was Milosevic’s partner, Fikret Abdic was paying for every bullet, every bomb and every sack of flour. Even though it sounds paradoxical, the State Security and the Unit made even more money on trade with its enemy – the Fifth Corps in Bihac. Dudakovic had the means to pay. It was easier to transport money from Sarajevo than food or weapons.

“Supplying is a known concept in military theory: one’s own production, booty and delivery. This delivery is from friends – allies, but for us it was characteristic – conditionally – from the enemies as well,” Dudakovic says.

“For that purpose check points for trading were opened up – or, as we called them – for smuggling,” explains Becir Sirovina, former aid for logistics to the commander of the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps.

Dudakovic gives an example of what the smuggling looked like: “My aid for logistics went to Glina. According to his later reports – naturally he later had to write with whom he came into contact – he sat into a luxury car supplied with telephones. The guy in the car was very strange, but a convoy with flour did come to Bihac. The person was paid fair and square. Let’s make it clear, that was one of our ways to survive.”

The profits were astronomical, and the leading staff of the State Security was delighted. It was like a fairy tale…

“When it gets dark – ‘Good evening – good evening? How is it going? Today there is cooking oil and sugar. How much is it – that much’ – the end of story. ‘What do we have for tomorrow – we’ve got some bombs, we’ve got some ammo,’ again end of story,” Gajic says.

The relationship between supply and demand was dictated by war. During intense fighting, a sack of flour was sold for a hundred, and a box of cookies for thirty Deutschmarks. The same applied to weapons and ammunition.

Dudakovic remembered the prices: “Let’s say three bullets cost one Deutschmark, so when we were being attacked, two bullets went for a Deutschmark, and sometimes it was… I didn’t care about the price. If the government of the canton or the region is paying, let a bullet be a thousand Deutschmarks! I need that bullet!”

Of course, no price was high enough for the Fifth Corps when in mid 1994 Dudakovic was taking over Velika Kladusa. The entire population of Abdic’s Western Bosnia fled into refuge to Krajina. Nothing could shake their faith in Babo and his command, though.

The first commander, however, was sitting in Belgrade. Since Milosevic still counted on Babo, he moved the entire Unit with the aim to bring him back to Velika Kladusa. The operation was called Spider, and at its head stood Jovica Stanisic himself. The entire command team of the Unit – from Frenki to Legija, Radojica Rajo Bozovic and all the way down. It was the greatest action of this formation – before and after.

Members of the Serbian Volunteer Guard could not anticipate any of this when they lined up in the Serbian police base in Lipovacka suma in early August 1994. The commander of this par to the Unit, Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, only told them he will not personally lead them into action in the Bihac region because he doesn’t like Muslims, and they don’t like him either. Arkan’s aid, Legija, was strictly business-like: all personal papers must be left behind because the assignment is so important and complicated, the Guard will not even wage war under its own insignia. They will use only one emblem – the red beret.

Under Legija’s command, the Guard arrived at Petrova Gora in Krajina chosen for the headquarters of the operation Spider. They were already awaited there by the other half of the Unit – Frenki’s Red Berets split into operational groups.

“My operational group of thirty people had a group of sniper shooters and a group of scouts. All the others were infantry with bazookas… It was a pure assault group,” says Joca, the former member of the Unit.

Arkan’s Guard was only one of those assault groups under Frenki’s command. After Stanisic, he became the second man in the Serbian State Security: the organization and the power of the Unit he had modestly founded in 1991 in Golubic near Knin has grown enormously.

The Unit had terrain vehicles and cannons in its arsenal, as well as its own aviation – helicopters MI-8 and “Gazelles. “It could easily accomplish a large part of a task by itself,” Joca explains.

Operation Spider formally represented a joint action of the Serbian Krajina Army under the command of General Milan Novakovic and Babo’s National Guard. In reality, everything was in the hands of the Unit. The troops engaged in returning Fikret Abdic to Velika Kladusa were divided into three tactical groups: the first was under Babo’s command; the Tactical Group was lead by Legija, under the name of Vulture, and the Tactical Group Three was commanded by a Red Beret Colonel Rajo Bozovic, three years later heartily greeted by Milosevic at the celebration of the Day of the Unit in Kula.

The Unit quickly managed to bring back Babo to Velika Kladusa.

Operation Spider did not finish with the resurrection of the Autonomous Province Western Bosnia; Babo now had to be helped to keep it alive. In early 1995, the commander of the Republic Srpska Army, General Ratko Mladic, sent the head of his headquarters, General Manojlo Milovanovic, to take over the command of the operation Spider from Novakovic.

“I arrived there on February 12th 1995 under the order of General Mladic. He sent a message to me that the stance of the General Council of the Yugoslav Defense and our General Command was that I should take over the command of the operation Spider,” says General Manojlo Milovanovic, former head of the Republic Srpska Army headquarters.

Although they started as skirmishes, the clashes between the National Guard and the Fifth Corps soon became very serious. In fact, the bloodiest battles were wages between Muslims themselves. While waiting to take over the command, Milovanovic toured the front. Milo: “I watched those Fikret’s warriors. They fought terribly. I watched a platoon in attack – it was God forbid. Those from the Fifth Corps cut them in half, and Fikret’s soldiers are crawling and pushing in front of them some building stones. They are rolling them in front of them, their fingers are bouncing…”

Dudakovic confirms the fierceness of the inter-Muslim fighting: “Here is a number: in combat against the Fifth Corps 1,700 members of the Fifth Corps died, and against the Serbian Krajina Army 1,300. An indicator that the fighting against Abdic’s forces were more intense.”

Legija and Rajo Bozovic, in this action “Vulture,” received orders exclusively from Frenki. During the overseeing of the front, Frenki met Milovanovic. “There was another man with Frenki, also with a red beret and in a blue uniform… I think his name was Bozovic and he was a colonel. We didn’t stay too long, because it was – as they say – ‘hot.’ We only greeted each other. I asked Frenki – I have heard about him, but I had never seen him – ‘What are you doing here?’ He tells me: ‘Jovica Stanisic came, and I came with him’.”

Milovanovic did not become, nevertheless, the commander of the operation Spider: “No Yugoslav Army general or officer came to that meeting to carry out the replacement – to discharge General Novakovic and appoint me – instead came Jovica Stanisic, the head of the Serbian State Security. I told him: ‘Jovica, I won’t listen to your orders. You are a policeman, not a soldier’.”

Since the Serbian forces helped by Babo could not liquidate the Fifth Corps, the war in the Bihac region became an example of the worst war profiteering. It was only important that it lasts. And it lasted. Independently from the operation Spider, Milovanovic lead the counter-attack of the Republic Srpska Army after a big offensive of the Fifth Corps in early 1995. Heavy fighting lasted for days in the east of the Bihac pocket.

“Their artillery was practically silent,” Milovanovic says. “They started supplying their units in front with trailers. So, they are out of fuel. There is no more showing off with the infantry ammo. When a fight would start and there were shootings from both sides, it was obvious their fire was slowly quieting down. I came to the conclusion – and reported that to General Mladic – that the Fifth Corps is out of ammunition.”

Dudakovic confirms the shortage in the Fifth Corps: “Ammunition! All we were interested in was ammunition!”

And then it was turn for Milovanovic to get surprised: “All of a sudden, Muslim mortars started shooting day and night. And I, through the intelligence sources, get in touch with Dudakovic. I ask him where did he get the ammunition. And he tells me: ‘Your Serbs sold it to me!’.”

In 1994 the main logistics officer, Radoslav Kostic Kole, was killed near Bihac. Two years later, the main base of this formation in Serbia was named after him. It is not know to this date whether it was the especially meritorious member or the especially pleasant remembrance of the Unit – Operation Spider.

Since its formation, the Unit participated in the privileged criminal deals of Milosevic’s elite. But never have its command staff and sponsors from the State Security made so much money as in the operation Spider on the lowest trade of human misfortune that did not end until the break of Babo’s Western Bosnia in August 1995.

A few years later in Sarajevo, Milovanovic and Dudakovic, with the presence of Alija Izetbegovic, summed up the war experience from the Bihac region.

“And Alija Izetbegovic came by between two sessions,” Milovanovic remembers. “I think Dudakovic got scared. He was embarrassed, he blushed, and Alija walks by us and tell us: ‘It is good that war commanders are talking.’ Dudakovic, probably to justify himself, says: ‘Mr. President, I am explaining to the general how I defended Bihac.’ Then Alija, in passing, replicates: ‘The hell you would defend Bihac if I hadn’t paid 46 million Deutschmarks for it’.”

Dudakovic’s view was considerably different: “I don’t know, and I think Alija Izetbegovic didn’t know either, how much money poured in considering the donations from many good-intentioned people through relatives and connections. Haris Silajdzic, at that time the prime minister of Bosnia Herzegovina probably knows it. Maybe he knows it, but I doubt it. And when this sum of 46 million Deutschmarks is mentioned – I hear that for the first time.”

Secret operation Spider ended in 1995 after the fall of Krajina during the “Storm.” Two months earlier, however, the Unit appeared in public for the first time. The occasion was bizarre. After the air strikes by NATO planes, Mladic’s army was arresting members of the peace forces and tying them to all the possible targets of bombing.

Milosevic didn’t miss on the opportunity to declare himself as a factor of peace and stability, as Americans diplomats, such as Richard Holbrook, labeled him at the time.

He immediately sent Stanisic to Republic Srpska to free the hostages. Since everything had to look official, the wider public saw and heard the head of the State Security: “I am the head of the Serbian State Security and I am here as a special envoy of President Milosevic,” Stanisic said.

And as Stanisic’s mission had to look dangerous and tense, the Unit – for this occasion named the Unit for anti-terrorist activities – followed him. There was almost no one who knew anything about these people in red berets. There were even fewer of those who could recognize Frenki on TV – even if they had heard about him. And about Zvezdan Jovanovic, who will shoot Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, one should not waste words. If Stanisic has here and there appeared in public, the Unit again retreated into darkness in which it stayed until October 5th 2000.

In that darkness, one branch of the Unit – Slobodan Medic Boca’s Scorpions – participated in the liquidation of war prisoners in Srebrenica in July of 1995. At that time more than 7000 Muslim prisoners and civilians were killed under Mladic’s orders.

A month later, in August 1995, Milosevic finally gave up on Krajina. It fell after only four days in operation Storm of the Croatian Army. Unending columns of refugees from Krajina towns were pouring into Serbia for days.

If everyone had forgotten about the people from Krajina, they didn’t forget Arkan’s part of the Unit. Even though there was no fighting in eastern Slavonia after 1991, Arkan made this region into his private state, and he grew rich by smuggling deficient merchandise. As they were arriving, the police in Serbia were arresting refugees and sending them to Arkan’s base in Erdut.

People there were punished by having to bark like dogs, they were tied with chains to dog houses and people had to bark like dogs,” one arrested and recruited refugee remembers. “Once Arkan addressed us and said: ‘Listen here.’ We all listened. ‘Does someone want to give me a blow job?’ With those words Mr. Arkan addressed us. We were just standing, no one dared to say a word…”

Apart from leading his Unit, Arkan tried his hand at politics as well. Despite an exhaustive propaganda campaign, his Party of Serbian Unity utterly failed in the elections of 1993. He had more luck in love: Arkan’s marriage to country diva Svetlana “Ceca” Velickovic, in the spring of 1995, was marked in tabloids as the wedding of the century. They were not meant to enjoy their honeymoon for a long time, though. After the fall of Krajina, a great offensive of Muslim and Croatian troops on Republic Srpska followed in the summer of 1995, and Stanisic sent his part of the Unit into Bosnian Krajina. For Arkan, participation in combat was a secondary task, and the main one – disciplining the Republic Srpska Army whose morale was shaken. A speech by Arkan in a reserve battalion is recorded: “All this Serbian nation here is watching you. For them you are heroes and Serbian Obilics. And it cannot be that a hero and a Serbian Obilic leaves like a chicken and sits by a school and doesn’t give a fuck about the situation! Is that clear? The morale mustn’t drop – I am tired, four months… What is four months? What if this war lasts for fourteen years? What are we going to do then? To surrender? Hey, we won’t surrender! This is Serbian land, holy Serbian land! Are your tombs here? Your churches are here! You have to defend your own land! Your hearths to defend. And I don’t want to hear that you are tired. Because – you are not tired! Heads up everyone! You are the Serbian army!”

As soon as he appeared in Bosnian Krajina, Arkan clashed with the members of the Republic Srpska Army.

Sometime in the evening I received a call from a Drina Corps colonel – Svetozar Andric,” Milovanovic says. “Frustrated and revolted, he asks: ‘General, can someone beat Serbian officers?’ And I, not knowing what happened, answer: ‘Yes. Muslims are beating us whenever they get a chance.’ And he says: ‘I was beat up by Arkan!’ Where – I ask. He says – in Prijedor. What is Arkan doing there? Andric says: ‘I don’t know. They met me and beat me up. Arkan himself beat me’.”

Arkan wasn’t the only officer who was beaten up.

“On the territory between Sanski Most and Prijedor, he, among other things, arrested one of the officers from my brigade…” Colonel Ostoja Barasanin relates. “He didn’t really arrest him, but blocked his road like a bandit, took away his vehicle and shaved the officer’s head. Arkan mistreated this man only because he didn’t have his pass.”

Members of the Republic Srpska Army, however, were not unarmed refugees in Erdut.

“I threatened him that we will start an armed conflict,” Barasanin says. “I openly threatened Arkan and said: ‘If you want an armed conflict, you will have it. I have 3,500 fighters, and you have 350, and we will see who will come out as winner, if we need this during a Muslim and Croat general offensive.” Luckily, the conflict never occurred, but Arkan realized he could not behave in this way.”

Finally, the command of the Republic Srpska Army requested an explanation from Karadzic about Arkan’s behavior and, in general, about the real reasons for his presence in Bosnian Krajina. The star of the meetings in Banja Luka was Arkan himself, and Milovanovic spoke in the name of the RSA: “I said: ‘According to whose orders did you come here? How did you come here in the first place?’ Arkan says: ‘I came according to the orders of President Karadzic.’ Karadzic is here, sits across from me and is silent – both he and Krajisnik. Karadzic was playing with his thumbs like a child who does something wrong. I tell Arkan: ‘Give me that order!’ He says: ‘I have it in the hotel.’ “Mister president, does Arkan have your order to come?’ Karadzic didn’t say neither yes nor no, he was just silent. And then Arkan started to talk nonsense: how he is having a difficult time, how he left at home his wife who is twenty two and who misses him – he had married Ceca then… I say: ‘You know what. What do I care your wife is twenty two and misses you…’ And Mladic and I had already made a deal how to get rid of Arkan. ‘Tonight I am going to Manjaca to drive away your little army, and General Mladic will do the same in Kotorsko, since he has left for Han Pijesak. I want you out of here in twenty-four hours!”

Arkan retreated before Mladic for the second time; another crises in Republic Srpska, which has lost a large part of Bosnian Krajina during the offensive of the Muslim and Croatian troops and NATO air strikes, didn’t suit Stanisic. But Karadzic thanked Arkan as he had never done before.

Still, before retreating, Arkan and his part of the Unit participated in clashes near Sanski Most: five years later, the Hague tribunal accused Arkan he committed worst war crimes in this very town. While the Guard was leaving Republic Srpska, the end of the war was in sight. In November 1995 the war will officially be over with the Dayton agreement. The war ended by the same people that had started it.

After the end of the war in Croatia and Bosnia, the entire Unit gathered in Serbia. The question what to do with these people – trained and used to killing – was placed in front of the State Security. As Stanisic didn’t even think about renouncing them, a moment of triumph for Frenki ensued. His old idea could finally be realized: both parts of the Unit – Arkan’s Guard and the Red Berets – were definitely put together in the Spring of 1996 into an official formation of the State Security. The full official title was: The Unit for Special Operations of the Serbian State Security Police Department. USO for short.

Legija was named the commander of this old/new formation. As Arkan’s most capable operational commander, he caught the eye of Stanisic and Frenki during the operation Spider. Legija set up the organization USO as well. While the war was still being waged, he trained in Slavonia a group within the Unit as a super formation. They were called Super Tigers.

Everything he learned in the Foreign Legion, Legija applied to Super Tigers. There was a platform for descending down ropes – the inevitable educational material for every real commando. But also drills and extremely harsh training. Legija paid special attention to special effects: everyone who would watch a demo drill of the Super Tigers was supposed to be impressed. Stanisic certainly was.

The Knin part of the Unit introduced red berets into USO, and Legija from his Super Tigers everything else. All the fancy moves and rituals from the Foreign Legion were exactly the same in Super Tigers and the USO. For example, “ the Tiger’s word” recited in both of these formations.

One day when you are wounded
And left behind on the battlefield
And when the enemy’s
Women, children and dogs come,
To tear you into pieces,
Shoot yourself in the head,
And die like a hero!