The story behind “The Unit”
Filip Švarm: "The unit had a particular history. What was the idea behind it? To always pass themselves as someone else. Those who operated in Knin with Captain Dragan, called themselves “Knindžas”. Then there were other formations, “Wolves” from Vučjak. In other words, they produced fog, and very few could maneuver through that fog".Guest: Filip Švarm, “Vreme” weekly editor and author of "The Unit", Host: Jugoslav Ćosić
If you are a B92 TV viewer, you are aware that we have in the past couple of weeks broadcast "The Unit“, a three-part documentary series about the establishment and actions of the MUP Special Operations Unit (JSO), a.k.a. the Red Berets. My colleague Filip Švarm, “Vreme” editor and the documentary’s author, is my guest this evening.
Švarm: Good evening.
B92: The film’s enjoyed high ratings. However, for the sake of those who have not seen any of it, and in order to reveal the details that perhaps didn’t make it to the final cut, this is a good chance to talk about the documentary and its content. My first question pertains to your motivation to make a film like this?
Švarm: Well, it’s hard to pinpoint the motivation here. As a journalist I spent a lot of time dealing with the subject, the whole of the 1990’s. However, the idea to go ahead with the film was born out of conversations with a number of people who subsequently worked on it, and without whom the project would not have been possible. I have cameramen Zoran Stojčić and Predrag Đurđić in mind, executive producer Slaven Kranjc, producers Sanja Srdić and Biljana Vasić. Above all, I must say it was the film’s co-writer and editor, Radoslav Ćebić that carried the weight of it along with me. So, when we started talking about it, we looked for a way to start the project, and then we decided to tell the full story, from the beginning to the end.
B92: This is a good opportunity to tell those who do not know the whole story. Let’s go back to the start. I’m sure many are unaware that the Red Berets were established in the early 1990’s on Milošević’s express orders.
Švarm: Yes, on March 9, 1991, in Belgrade, viewers are aware of what happened in Belgrade and Serbia on that day. In my opinion, Milošević was cornered; he supported the Serb Krajina in Croatia story from the very start, but attempted to employ tactics in his support.
Only with March 9 he gained an opportunity to change the rules of the game, to divert the direction from Serbian problems to another place. And then the time came when he had to go from lip service to concrete support for Martić and Babić, that is, the Serb police there. The Krajina police was in disarray after Plitvice on April 1, 1991, and someone had to go and reorganize them, train them, someone had to lead them.
As far as general public could tell, that leader was Captain Dragan Vasiljković, whereas in reality it was the Serbian State Security Agency [DB] that stood behind him; the chief field operative was Franko Simatović Frenki, and behind Franko Simatović stood Jovica Stanišić.
Milošević himself made this commitment when he spoke in front of a gathering of municipal presidents on March 16, 1991, when he uttered the famous sentence that he had given orders to establish a formation which will protect Serb interests in Serbia, and, well, if need be, Serb interests outside of Serbia.
The Unit was created precisely with a trip that this team, and I mean Frenki, Captain Dragan and other DB operatives, took to Krajina. Of course, at the time, they could not parade it as a unit that has the DB, MUP behind it, it was presented as something genuine, local, Martić’s police, while the orders in fact came from over here.
B92: Still, the mastermind, the man who created this unit was Jovica Stanišić. It somehow turns out that despite the fact he is a Hague indictee today, Stanišić was a person standing aside, with no relation to the horrors perpetrated by the unit’s members in subsequent years. What is the truth as far as you can tell?
Švarm: Well, we can trace Stanišić’s steps from later on, we can’t tell what happened in the beginning. I would like to remind you that the general public only heard of and saw DB chief Jovica Stanišić in 1995, during the hostage crisis in the Republic of Srpska, when he showed up on television and said, “I am Jovica Stanišić, MUP’s State Security Chief”.
B92: The unit took part in combat for years prior to that, first in Croatia, then in Bosnia?
Švarm: Yes, the unit had a particular history. What was in fact the idea behind it? To always pass themselves as someone else. What that means is that those who operated in Knin, in Golubić, with Captain Dragan, called themselves “Knindžas”. Then there were these other formations, “Wolves” [“Vukovi”] from Vučjak. In other words, they produced fog, and few could maneuver through that fog. In 1993, or 1994, perhaps people already knew who Franko Simatović-Frenki was, but no one could recognize him, that man was nowhere to be seen.
B92: Let’s try to get the big picture here. What was the Red Berets’ combat history, I mean combat activity? Where were they deployed? In what manner was this unit deployed? What is its legacy in terms of combat value?
Švarm: Let’s put it this way. We use the term “unit” in a broader sense of the word. The unit had two branches, one was the Red Berets in Knin, more or less under Simatović’s control, the other was Arkan’s guards, the Serb Volunteer Guard in Eastern Slavonia, which, for the most part…
B92: But this is in fact the same formation?
Švarm: ... it is the same formation, commanded by Radovan Stojčić Badža. Now, let’s stick to Arkan, which might be a little easier to follow. Arkan’s main task in 1991 was to lead a combat group in support of the JNA effort in Eastern Slavonia, which he did. And then Arkan went to Bosnia in 1992, Bijeljina, Zvornik, eastern Bosnia, then Ratko Mladić drove him out of Bosnia, and he was back in Krajina in 1993, taking part in the Ravni Kotari fighting. Then, his formation was back in Eastern Slavonia with temporary crossings into Bosnia, for example Zvronik, until 1995 when Arkan went to Bosnia again and it ends there.
As for the Red Berets, they, of course, took part in the Krajina fighting from the beginning to the end, in Bosnia also, in Herzegovina, Sarajevo, Western Bosnia, they were in all those places. But, perhaps more significant than their participation in combat was the training of the local units, after which all these local units took to wearing red berets and then you were really at a loss trying to figure out who was who. After all, secrecy was of paramount importance to the Red Berets and they did indeed deploy secretly and in silence.
B92: Which were in fact their essential operations? When you look at the names of those who made up those types of units then and are now designated murderers, many are undergoing war crimes trials, for ruthless murder of civilians, what was the basic combat goal of such units?
Švarm: These formations were divided into strike companies, combat companies, as they themselves said, and operative companies. The groups numbered between 40 and 60 men, approximately two regular army platoons. They were used to show up in a place, wreak chaos, after all they were specially trained, and they were used for other purposes, the training of local troops.
But, anyway, if we must talk about why this was necessary, I believe the 1993-1995 Operation Spider in the Bihać area demonstrates the best. Fikret Abdić proclaimed his Autonomous Province of western Bosnia which was, naturally, unsustainable.
Since Milošević and Tuđman both had an interest in keeping Abdić in power they sent support. What kind of support? None other than the Unit. In other words, the Unit arrived there to reorganize Abdić’s army, dividing it into three tactical groups. It’s interesting that one of those groups was commanded by Milorad Ulemek, a.k.a. Legija, another by Rajo Božović, currently president of the football club Zeta in Montenegro.
Those men fought in that area all the time, and that was very important. On the one hand, Stanišić’s groups, Legija, the Red Berets, could always deny anything and say, well, that’s Republic of Srpska or Republic of Serb Krajina DB behind this. On the other hand, if it worked, great, their service was successful. That is the point of the road they took.
B92: And can you remind us of other names except for that of Rajo Božović, which you just mentioned? I believe Nenad Bujošević, one of the perpetrators of the Ibarska main route murders, was also a Red Beret? Which other names can you mention?
Švarm: Bujošević, for instance, was Arkan’s deputy in the so-called Super Tigers. And what were the Super Tigers? Another patch of fog, Arkan’s Serb Voluntary Guards, some called them “Tigers”, and then Legija comes up with some super formation, since they thought of themselves as being a super formation, ands names it “Super Tigers”. I could mention Vasilije Mijović here. He became known after the video that came out of Montenegro.
B92: So, a former Montenegrin DB member, previously a Red Beret?
Švarm: That’s right, formerly of the Red Berets. You could see him standing in that line when the veterans were presented to Milošević, you could see him salute Milošević.
B92: Zvezdan Jovanović was there as well?
Švarm: Yes, Zvezdan Jovanović, too.
B92: Boca Medić, “Scorpions” [“Škorpioni”] leader?
Švarm: Boca Medić. However, we need to make a distinction, the Scorpions were not the Red Berets, or to be more precise, they were one of the Red Beret’s branches. Scorpions main task was to guard oil rigs in Đeletovci in Eastern Slavonia, and they joined the Red Berets in action from time to time.
B92: I asked about these principal directions of this special unit’s actions since your film shows clearly that their parallel activity was that of making money. They were arms dealers, and not only serving the so-called friendly side, not only for Fikret Abdić, which you mentioned, but also for Atif Dudaković, who was a brigadier-general. So, if I’m not mistaken, this unit used to sell arms to its enemies, the Muslim side in the war?
Švarm: I couldn’t say that the whole unit was selling arms.
B92: Well it took part in it, can we put it that way?
Švarm: Well, we could say that a part of the DB, the unit’s leadership knew only too well about the sale of arms to Fikret Abdić.
B92: In other words, Belgrade knew arms were also sold to Dudaković?
Švarm: Sold to both sides.
B92: ...to both sides.
Švarm: Yes, it was the time of the worst imaginable war-profiteering.
B92: Do you think it likely Slobodan Milošević knew nothing about this?
Švarm: Of course not. I mean, perhaps Slobodan Milošević had no idea how many thousands of rounds of bullets, how many rifles went where exactly, but Slobodan Milošević was well aware that some people who mattered to him for other reasons were getting rich there, great.
B92: The quote that you mentioned is quite interesting. Alija Izetbegović addresses Dudaković in a meeting and says, “You would never have managed to defend Bihać if I hadn’t paid 46 million marks for it”. What money was he talking about?
Švarm: He was talking about the money shipped from Sarajevo to Bihać via helicopters. In 1994, then Bosnian Foreign Affairs minister, Irfan Ljubijnakić, died after his helicopter was downed with a rocket. When the helicopters fell on the Serb-controlled territory, the locals near the site collected thousands upon thousands, some say millions of marks, after that, the Red Berets arrived, confiscating the money.
In other words, what is this all about? The 5th Corps receives money from Sarajevo, that’s easier than shipping them arms, easier than sending in supplies. So then what do they do with the money? They buy supplies, they buy arms, they buy ammunition, that was a way in which the 5th Corps survived.
B92: Among others, arms from Serbia?
Švarm: Of course. For instance, when we researched this then Atif Dudaković’s chief of staff bragged about his rifle, the short AK 47, the short barrel variety number 078, made in 1993. So, anything went. Once they received the money, then the offer and supply went in effect. When there was an ongoing offensive against the 5th Corps a round would cost, let’s say, one mark. When the front was calmer, then you could get three rounds for one mark.
B92: What was the most lucrative front, in which part of the former Yugoslavia, and in what period of time?
Švarm: I believe the Bihać front. The greatest accumulation was in the Bihać front from 1993 to 1995. I’ll give you more prices as examples, a sack of flour could cost between 50 and 100, and sometimes even 500 marks.
B92: Have you any idea about the total amount of money extracted from the area? Are we talking tens, hundreds of millions of marks?
Švarm: No, I believe we’re talking tens of millions, but in any case huge amounts of money. On the other hand, I would like to remind you of the other gold mine for the Unit, namely, Eastern Slavonia, known at the time as Arkansas, not after the U.S. state, but after Arkan, who controlled absolutely everything, fuel, cigarettes smuggling, oak-wood smuggling and exports. It was a kind of a private state owned by the DB…
B92: At the time, the Serbian media described these people as special forces heroes. What went on in Serbia at that time? To what degree was Serbia, according to your findings, aware of what was happening in the areas these forces were deployed in?
Švarm: Well, Serbia had a media consciousness. Meaning, Serbia knew a person called Arkan existed, Serbia knew some “Tigers” also existed. Did people know about the Red Berets? Mostly they did, since 1993, I believe most citizens knew the Red Berets exited, but what they actually did, no one really knew. There were stories by those returning from the front, fairytales, but it was hard to make any sense of it.
B92: Can you tell us with certainty that Arkan was brought to Bosnia by the former republic of Srpska president Radovan Karadžić?
Švarm: Likely. He certainly invited Arkan, but Arkan had to cross Serbia if he was going to get from Erdut, his main base, to Bosnia, and he could not have crossed Serbia without the police or quite specifically the DB authorizing it. Arkan could never have shown up in Bosnia otherwise.
B92: In other words, there is no doubt it was the State Security that was behind his appearance both in Bosnia and Croatia?
Švarm: None whatsoever. Well, can you imagine someone having a private army? Arkan, of course, did not have his own private army.
B92: Many in Serbia right now can imagine it, that’s why I asked whether you had any doubt.
Švarm: No, absolutely not. There is simply no dilemma, there were people walking around with rifles, policemen, or militiamen, they posed as authorities, they were the authorities…
B92: Filip, there are those who have seen parts one and two, who have been critical of you for not portraying the magnitude of devastation this unit inflicted in a clear manner. What is your reaction to those claims? Are there things you are aware of, but could not prove, or is this a manner of approach, where your story spans a long period of time? What is your answer?
Švarm: We were out to tell a story. Meaning, we wanted to tell the Red Berets’ full story. Of course, there are many details, many names, nowadays largely irrelevant. In order to maintain the clarity of the story we left those out. Things we were aware of, the most important things, we have presented in the film as we thought they should be presented.
When it comes to destruction and devastation, the unit never numbered more than two to three thousand men, reserves included, I have the darkest days of the 1993 to 1995 in mind here. This is not a story about the war crimes committed, this is the story of the JSO. Where that angle needed to be told we have told it.
B92: Alright, but, for instance, you have this unit, Scorpions, which numbered several dozen men and yet committed the horrendous crime in Srebrenica.
Švarm: Yes, and we did not shy from this, but the essence was supposed to be… This unit was not used, it’s a horrible thing to say, not used for the banal war crimes, it was much more precious, much more important than the ethnic cleansing. They were a strike force that instilled fear. I have no doubt this unit was no better than any other that took part in the wars, but that was not the focus of the film, that’s maybe something out of its context. What we tried to explain was how the unit was established, with what goal, who led them, why they existed in the first place.
B92: Around October 2000, all those who controlled the unit’s work and activities disappeared. Slobodan Milošević was arrested and extradited, Rade Marković also.
Švarm: Jovica and Franko Simatović...
B92: Jovica Stanišić was indicted…
Švarm: They were pensioners spending time on their yachts, they had not yet been indicted.
B92: Oh, at that moment they were not indicted, but were pensioners?
Švarm: But without any operative powers, except for one man.
B92: Which does not rule out other kinds of influence and power?
Švarm: But, I would place that influence…
B92: But, tell us, what did the unit turn into after October 5, 2000? Once the state control over it disappeared?
Švarm: One man that emerged in possession of huge operative powers was Milorad Ulemek, a.k.a. Legija. He acquired this power on October 5 and was quick to make use of it, and he was very successful. However, this was one man. He was used to receiving orders, outside the army barracks and the military his experiences were scarce, now all of a sudden, he was on his own.
At one point he played a brilliant game profiting form the conflict between the late Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and then FRY president Vojislav Koštunica, in the end, of course he lost it, but that is the essence. Stanišić and Simatović held the unit if firm grip, among other means, using the short-term contracts with members that were then extended or terminated. The moment Legija managed to have its members become full-time DB employees, when he stopped reporting to anyone and no one asked him to, he was omnipotent, the water was in his ears.
B92: In other words, the unit went from being under state control to another kind of control, that by one man. So, whatever power the state had, got transferred to one man.
Švarm: There’s one thing we need to bear in mind, Milošević’s regime did create the unit, it was the unit serving the state of Serbia, but after October 5 this was not the case. On the contrary, after October 5 it hit at the very essence of the state twice.
B92: The Unit?
Švarm: Yes, twice. First, with the armed rebellion. I would like to remind you that many, including the government, refrained form using the term “armed rebellion”, even though that was precisely what it was, but opted instead for the euphemism “protest”. That was an armed rebellion, where Legija got all he asked for.
And the second time was when they murdered Prime Minister Điniđić, when they in fact hit at the state itself. And only then, after all that’s happened, did Serbia say, “no”, it said “no” to Legija, “no” to the unit, “no” to the Zemun gang, which the unit used to get rich, in a way, Serbia said “no” to Milošević’s heritage.
B92: This criminal enterprise had at one point underestimated the late prime minister’s determination to deal with them.
Švarm: Not only that. If they ever underestimated anyone, it was Đinđić, but they underestimated another factor, the citizens of Serbia, what is known as the people. Because the citizens of Serbia really said “no” then, and they had no other backing.
B92: The unit was practically on Dušan Spasojević’s payroll. Time is short, but this is an interesting story. How did this integration occur, this synthesis between the two people and the unit’s interests and those of that criminal gang?
Švarm: I’ll be brief. Dušan Spasojević was simply someone who knew how to make money selling heroin, by many criminal enterprises, while Legija was the man with a unit that could protect Dušan Spasojević while he was out there making money, that was the symbiosis, pure profit.
B92: What is the final part of the documentary about?
Švarm: The third part is about the period starting October 5, 2000, it’s about October Fifth and the relationships then, about the rebellion, and lastly the assassination of Zoran Điniđić.
B92: Filip, what is the conclusion which you can offer after learning about what you included in the three parts of your documentary?
Švarm: What’s there to say? We all knew about all this well enough. Perhaps not the dates, the details, perhaps not all those people, but we have kept quiet for a long time, we were afraid for a long time, and then it all blew in our faces.
B92: Could this be one of the reasons for the unit, once controlled by the state, to assume control over the state?
Švarm: Yes, precisely, but at the same time, at one point… The unit never controlled the state, not during Milošević’s regime, not after, but after October 5 it attacked the state. Their way of thinking and acting was in conflict with the wishes of the Serbian citizens. At that point they saw this sway of the public opinion, that their whole way of living was changing, slowly, insufficiently, but still changing, until they could no longer find a place for themselves in such Serbia, so they made a state of their own.
B92: We have only a few moments left, I will use your presence here to ask you, as a fellow journalist, about the Glas Javnosti daily’s gesture, the printing of a poster that accompanied the newspaper, the Mladić poster. What do you make of it? What’s your position?
Švarm: I certainly don’t see it as an intelligent move. I believe this is an attempt to make some money, to win readers over. I really don’t think it’s an intelligent decision.
B92: We have heard that the part about to be aired is the last part of “The Unit”. Is there any chance of new episodes?
Švarm: We have worked long and hard. This entire project started a year and a half ago, with my colleagues Kranjc, Stojčić and Ćebić involved from the beginning. However, we have heard from people volunteering additional information after the film was broadcast, and we don’t know whether we will use that new information after we have had a bit of a break.