The Forgotten Genocide Part 1

Back in in March I wrote about the activities of Serb nationalist and Nazi collaborationist Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As I pointed out in my post, today throughout the Bosnian entity of RS (Republika Srpska) there could be as many 30,000 Chetniks organized in various chapters. They are mostly registered as members of “NGO´s” and by all accounts are highly motivated, wearing uniforms with officer insignia which as one Bosnian writer says; means that there is a hierarchy and a command chain, and when there is a hierarchy means that if you add guns we have a military formation. They wear the same uniforms with the same with labels that they had on in 1940s and 1990s when they engaged in mass slaughter and rape of Bosniaks.  I also brought up some of the atrocities carried out by Chetnik bands both in WW2 and during the Bosnian genocide of the 1990´s.

While there has been considerable amount of literature in former Yugoslavia dedicated to the Chetnik genocide in Eastern Bosnia during WW2 very little is known about it outside academic circles. One of the first serious treatments of this topic came in 1990 when Sarajevo-based publishing house Svjetlost published an over 800 pages’ long tome by Antun Miletić and Vladimir Dedijer of documents and testimonies called Genocid nad Muslimanima (Genocide of the Muslims) putting some light on the massive scale of Serb nationalist atrocities against Bosniaks and Croats during WW2. Since then above all, Marko Attila Hoare, the British historian and genocide scholar has shed light on that aspect of WW2 genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in two books; 1) Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941–1943 (London, Oxford University Press, 2006) 2) The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History (London, C. Hurst & Co., 2013)

Right after I posted my article on the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement in today´s Bosnia and Herzegovina a received request both from my Bosnian readers and some foreign friends who wanted to know more on this.  I recommended Hoare´s books on the topic as well as some treatments in Bosnian, including Smail Čekić´s; Genocid nad Bošnjacima u Drugom svjetskom ratu (PDF).

This article is a result of those requests, I have no intentions of reviewing Hoare´s or Miletić´s and Dedijer´s work since their reputations speak for themselves, and I leave that to their peers. However, the number of primary sources collected by above all the latter two speaks volumes about the intentions of the ideologues of the Chetnik atrocities. I do have to admit that I was not overwhelmed by the latter two´s analytical prowess, while they make a convincing case using the vast archives of the former Yugoslavia they do shy away from Partisan atrocities above all in 1941. As well as trying make a (unconvincing) case that Serb and Croat nationalists were somehow inspired by “Anglo-Saxon supremacists” and their genocide of the Native Americans in North America. I find that Marko Attila Hoare offers a much more lucid and convincing interpretation of the events during WW2.

Be that as it may, I have decided to honour the request of my readers and publish two articles summarizing the vast amount of documentation & primary sources  presented by the two men, primary sources that dovetailwith the testimonies of survivors to show the extent of Chetnik atrocities during WW2.

In their book; Miletić and Dedijer concluded that there was a genocidal intent on the part of the armed forces of the exiled (in London) Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and their military leader, General Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović when it came to the Bosnian Muslims. (Bosniaks) The authors, drawing from the archives in Montenegro and Serbia laid bare the ideology that served as the driving force behind the atrocities committed against Bosniaks in the Second World War by Chetnik units and not only that but going back to the First Balkan War of 1912. Miletić and Dedijer write that one of the ways this genocidal ideology can manifest itself is by the removal of, or denial of the national identity of a certain nation, in this case the Bosniaks. Miletić and Dedijer bring up Poglavnik Ante Pavelić, head of the NDH (The Independent State of Croatia) and the people in his inner circle who propagated the idea that Bosnian Muslims were in fact Croats of Islamic faith. In fact one could argue that Bosnian Muslims, spent most of the WW2 on one hand trying to avoid annihilation at the hands of Serb nationalists and on the other trying to avoid assimilation by NDH as “Croats of Islamic faith”. The desperate situation the Bosniaks found themselves in lead to some strange alliances and as British historian Marko Attila Hoare showed in his book: The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War, also shaped the form and outcome of Communist revolution and struggle against the Nazis, The NDH and The Chetniks.

When it comes to the ideologues of the Chetnik genocide; Miletić and Dedeijer point to Stevan Moljević, Dragomir Vasić and Živko Topalović, as well as Dragoljub Mihailović himself and their writings. Miletić and Dedijer also claim that the notions of ethnic and national purity that were propagated by Croat and Serb nationalists at the time were not only inspired by Hitler and his Lebensraum but also by Anglo-Saxon supremacists and the genocide of the Native Americans. According to Miletić and Dedijer as well-read people, Moljević, Vasić, Topalović and other Serb nationalist ideologues could not have only been inspired by Hitler´s theory and praxis, but his “Anglo-Saxon predecessors” as well, the conquerors of North America. As I wrote above; it should be noted though that the two historians are most likely speculating on that part since they don´t offer much if any proof that the Chetnik ideologues we inspired by the genocide of Native Americans, in fact the policies proposed by the Chetnik ideologues and carried out during the Second World War could have just as easily been inspired by or a continuation of the nationalist chauvinist policies propagated by among others Tsarist Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece which led to the ethnic cleansing and death of millions of Balkan and Ottoman Muslims between 1821-1922, as documented by American demographer Justin McCarthy in Death and Exile.

In any case, when it comes to driving force behind the atroceties against Bosniaks and non-Serbs during Second World War, Miletić and Dedijer point to among other things a document, a plan of action written by Stevan Moljević, dated 30th of June 1941 about the borders, social construct and foreign policy of a “Greater Serbia” within a new Yugoslavia. The document was titled: Homogena Srbija (Homogenous Serbia) From the document they cite the following passages:

1) Today, Serbs have a first and foremost duty, which is the creation of a homogenous Serbia which will encompass the entire ethnic area which they inhabit.

2) The relocation and exchange of population, specially Croats from Serb, and Serbs from Croat areas, which is the only way to create a safe border between the two peoples an avoid the possibility for renewed atrocities such as the ones that took place during the last war, especially in places where Serbs and Croats were intermingled and where Croats and Muslims set out to destroy the Serbs.

Moljević´s plan was augmented by Draža Mihailović´s instructions of December 20th 1941 to Chetnik Detachmets in Montenegro and the commander of the Chetnik Detachment in Lim Valley, Pavle Đurišić. From Mihailović´s instructions to Đurišić, Miletić and Dedijer point to several passages which they say points to genocidal intent towards Muslims, or non-Serbs:

1) Create a Greater Yugoslavia and within it a Greater Serbia which is to be ethnically pure and is to include Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srem (Syrmia), the Banat, and Bačka.

2) The cleansing of the state territory of all national minorities and “anational” elements.

3) The creation of continuous frontiers between Serbia and Montenegro, as well as between Serbia and Slovenia by cleansing the Muslim population from the Sandžak and the Muslim and Croat populations from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dedijer and Miletić also point to a letter from Stevan Moljević, adressed to  Vasić from February 1942 where Moljević writes: “In regards to our internal matters, the separation with the Croats, we maintain the need to imminently, as soon as the opportunity presents itself collect all our forces and settle the matter once and for all: a) takeover the territory indicated on the map, b) cleanse it before anyone has a chance to gather. The takeover could only be carried out if we could with strong units’ takeover the main strongholds such as: Osjek, Vinkovici, Slav, Sunja, Knin, Sibenik, Metkovic and Mostar, and then cleanse the land of all non-Serb elements. The guilty should also be allowed a road, the Croats to Croatia, the Muslims to Turkey (or Albania).”

According to the documentation that was available to Miletić and Dedijer the two were able to point to three periods during the Second World War where mass atrocities were committed against Bosnian Muslims, and Muslims of the Sandžak; first from 1941, to February 1942.  Second, during august 1942, and the third during the first months of 1943.

Documents collected by the two historians during the first period show members of the Priboj Chetnik Detachment out of Sandžak, using weapons given to them by the Italians in Montenegro set a plan in motion for the destruction of Bosniaks in Čajniče region (across the border in Bosnia).

In their communication with Mihailović the Priboj Chetnik Detachment is fairly open about their intentions towards the Bosniaks of that region. In a communique to Mihailović dated 16th of November 1941 signed by Dragiša Jovanović, it states that the number of Muslims living in the region is about 40% and about how they are in large number joining the region´s Partisans. The communique mentions the Chetnik´s need for weapons and ammunition. It also mentions the Partisan activities in the region and across the border into Bosnia, according to Jovanović the Partisans are able to re-supply their men with guns and ammunition due to their access to the weapons factory in Užice and asks for permission from Mihailović to approach the Italians about arming them, saying that Chetnik Vojvoda (Duke) of Račak (Kosovo) Zaharie Milekić also agrees with this. The document adds that Milekić is not a member of the Royal Yugoslav Army but belongs in the ranks of Vojvoda Kosta Pećanac (who from late summer and early fall 1941 was openly collaborating with the Germans.)

The communique also complains about the alien nature of the communists and their aggressiveness in the region while mentioning that the Chetniks are left alone by the Italians who have not applied any pressure on them. The communique from Jovanović ends in a spectacular fashion saying that the bulk of it was written on 25th of November and that today, on the 26th they came under attack from the Partisans but were able with the help of the Italians drive the Partisans back.

The answer from Mihailović on December 20th was un-equivocal: In it he lists the ten goals of the Royal Yugoslav Army and the Chetniks, including those listed above. Others include “punishing the Ustaše and the Muslims for destroying our people”. The re-settling of Montenegrins in parts of Bosnia, Kosovo and Sandžak that had been “cleansed” of “anational elements” and minorities. In regards to the communists (Partisans) Mihailović says that “there may never be any co-operation with them for they are fighting against the dynasty and for their socialist revolution, which can never be our goal because we are exclusively fighting for the King, the Fatherland and the freedom of the people.” (i.e. the Serb people)

In his instructions to the Montenegrin Chetniks Mihailović firstly named Đorđe Lašić as overall commander of all Chetnik units in the Montenegro oblast. Mihailović´s instructions to the Lim Valley Chetniks in regards to Sandžak were clear: With part of your men fight towards Bjelo Polje-Sjenica and cleanse Pešter ( Pešter plateau ) of Muslims (Bosniaks) and Arnauts (Albanians). As well as moving from Montenegrin side of Čakor mountians towards Metohija, i.e. the southwestern part of Kosovo and “cleansing” of all “Arnauts” in that direction as well as intercepting those being cleansed in the direction Pešter-Sandžak.

Rest of the reply are instructions regarding co-operation with Jezdimir Danagić´s Chetnik Detachment across the border in Bosnia, the need to secure an airstrip in Montenegro in order to better be able to receive aid, and securing a route for aid from the sea, as well instructions to Pavle Đurišić whom he names as commander of the Lim Valley Chetnik Detachment as well as commander of infantry units in Bjelo Polje, Plevalje, Berane, Andijevica and Kolašin.

However, Đurišić was subordinate to Lašić who was overall commander of the Montenegrin Chetniks, as appointed by Mihailović. On July 24, 1942 an agreement was reached by Lašić and Đurišić under the supervision of Italian General Alessandro Pirzio Biroli, who served as Italian Governor of Montenegro from 1941 to 1943. The agreement was “legalised” by the Italians who at the time tolerated certain “illegal groups” of Chetniks whom they dubbed “national peasants’ militia”. By “legalising” them and putting them under a single command, that of the Lim-Sandžak Detachment, the detachment was divided into four mobile battalions, who´s men received food, money, uniforms and weapons from the Italians. These were in turn engaged in counterinsurgency actions against the Partisans.

Đurišić making a speech to the Chetniks in the presence of General Pirzio Biroli, Italian governor of Montenegro
Đurišić making a speech to the Chetniks in the presence of General Pirzio Biroli, Italian governor of Montenegro

Miletić and Dedijer say that there is not enough documentation  paint an adecvate picture of the mass killings taking place in Višegrad, Foča, Čajniče and Goražde for that first period, which according to them is not unusual, however documents discovered hint at the extent of the carnage in that area including reports from the local authorities, military reports and NDH reports. According to Miletić and Dedijer: “from those reports one can see the evil fate that awaited the Muslims”. The first mass executions took place in the summer, fall and winter. In Ljubinje, Bileća, in June 1941; 600 people were killed. In Višegrad, in July-August 1941, 500 people were killed. At the Čavkarica pit near Stolac; 497 people were killed, at Kulen Vakuf 1600 people were killed in the fall of 1941. From those documents one can see that from December 1941 to February 1942 a massive slaughter of Bosnian Muslims took place in again in Višegrad, Foča, Goražde, Vlasenica and Srebrenica. According to Dedijer and Miletić several thousand people were killed, great many of the thrown into the Drina river. The two historians cite Chetnik captain Sergije Mihajlovic who wrote that “we´ve gotten rid of the enemy, we´ve killed 5000 Muslims in Foča and Goražde.”

The documents collected by the two historians paint a harrowing picture of the situation in Višegrad and Foča. Those that survived and fled the Chetnik´s barbarism could for the most part only turn to the NDH authorities. The survivors testified what started happening the very night the Italians handed over control of Foča to the Chetniks. The Italians left Foča in the dead of night. As soon as the Italians took control of Foča, they disarmed the NDH garrison in the town, which according to testimony of survivors as well as NDH authorities surrendered inexplicably to the Italians. Hours later, Chetnik bands appeared alongside the Orthodox Abbot of Čajniče; Vasilije Jovičić who negotiated with the Italians about the control of the town. Once they handed over the control of the town to the Chetniks, the Italians left, and as soon as they left cannon fire and church bells could be heard as well as a swell of Orthodox Serbs coming down from their villages into the town. The looting and burning of Muslim houses and killing of Muslims started. According to survivors during the that entire period, people were afraid to go out of their houses. During the night gun fire could be heard throughout the town, many Muslims were killed then and dumped into the Drina River. The Chetniks put on the clothes that they had stolen from the Muslim men and women they had robbed and murdered. Those that could, escaped towards Sarajevo thorough passes in the snow-covered mountains of Eastern Bosnia.

The killings stopped by the end of January 1942, when during the first months of 1942 a large “Free Territory” (Slobodna Teritorija) was proclaimed by the Partisans with Foča serving as a command centre for the Main Staff of the National Liberation Army (NOP) with Tito himself staying in the town. The free territory lasted until May 1942 when Tito and his men had to pull back in to the mountains due to as Miletić and Dedijer write” the pressure of much more powerful occupation and quisling forces”.

The second mass killing in Foča took place during August 1942 by Chetnik units under the leadership of Chetnik major Zaharie Ostojić who ordered his men to kill the victims using their military knifes (Kama) in order to preserve ammunition. In one depesch dated August 22d Ostojić wrote: “in Foča there are all kinds of things, so I´m hoping for a great booty. I can´t wait for people to gather around me, and then I´ll finish them of once and for all” (referring to the Muslim population of Foča). In a depsch dated 23d of August, Ostojić reported directly to Draža Mihailović about actions taken in Ustikolina, Grebek and Jahorina. In it he writes: “According to latest information 1.000-3.000 Muslims slaughtered. All the troops are good fighters, and even better at looting, except for Pavle (Đurišić) The fall of Foča has a good resonance, The Muslims are running in masse towards Sarajevo. I´ve ordered the troops to return home, since yesterday I´m in Kalinovik settling other matters with Ištvan (a pseudonym for Chetnik commander Petar Baćević) and Jevđević,” ( Ostojić´s  reports to Mihailović from Eastern Bosnia were later used in the latter´s trial.)

According to Miletić and Dedijer the second slaughter was well-documented by the NDH authorities as well. According to the documents collected by the two historians; the slaughter was systematic and wide-spread, in Foča some 2000 people were killed during the second wave of mass killings, while several thousand were driven into exile, the documents mention the figure of 5000 refugees driven into exile towards Sarajevo and central Bosnia. The NDH documents also point to Chetnik killings in other parts of the country. In the villages around the town of Prozor in southern Herzegovina 2000 people were killed.

End of Part One.