In the late 1980s, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, had a plum job as head of Serbia’s Communist Party. He was the fair-haired boy of the then Yugoslavian president Ivan Stambolic. Milosevic managed to convince the ardent Communist Stambolic that he, too, was a committed Bolshevik. So doctrinaire was Milosevic, Stambolic fondly called him “Little Lenin.”
However, Milosevic was secretly a Serbian nationalist–or he adopted the issue because he had ambitions beyond Serbian Communist Party chief. Whatever his motivation, he went on to unseat Stambolic to become the head cheese, and what followed was nearly a decade of civil wars and ethnic cleansing.
It All Comes Back to Kosovo
Serbia is the largest of the former Yugoslavia’s provinces, but, again, under Tito, all provinces were equal in brotherhood and unity. Serbian nationalists, suppressed by Tito’s will and secret police, believed Serbia was the “first among equals.” The province of Kosovo, part of Serbia, is crucial to Serbian national identity because in 1389 a Serbian army led by Prince Lazar defeated an Ottoman army, effectively freeing the country from Muslim rule. However, since the Ottoman Empire required conversion to Islam in the areas it conquered, the people there–ethnically connected to what would eventually become Albania–continued to practice their religion.
In the succeeding 630+ years, a number of battles have been fought over Kosovo, mainly to keep it from either becoming independent or from joining Albania, but the fact that an outnumbered army of Serbians defeated what was then the most powerful army in that area of the world was a major source of Serbian pride–to this day.
In 1987, with Yugoslavia still committed (on paper) to Tito’s Brotherhood and Unity, ethnic troubles began to occur in Kosovo. The Serbians living there complained of oppression from the ethnic Albanians, and tensions rose to the point where President Stambolic dispatched Milosevic to calm those tensions. Stambolic expected Milosevic to toe the brotherhood and unity line, but the Serbians in Kosovo would have none of it. They complained of having been beaten by ethnic Albanians and began to threaten Milosevic unless he did something about it.
Now, Milosevic wasn’t stupid. He understood what Kosovo meant to Serbians, and he also understood he had an opportunity before him to be a Serbian hero. After accepting the abuse from the Serbians, he managed to get them quieted down. Once he had their attention, he declared, “No one will ever beat you again!”
And the crowd went wild.
By the time Milosevic returned to Belgrade to report to Stambolic–who wasn’t happy about the nationalistic declaration–the state-controlled media had taken Milosevic from Serbian hero to Serbia’s savior.
Milosevic began to look beyond his position as Serbian Communist Party leader, even though it was a very powerful position. He began an underhanded campaign to undermine Stambolic, using the nationalist media and outright falsehood. Because then the Communist Party selected the president of Serbia–and the Serbian president was essentially in charge of Yugoslavia–Milosevic, as head of the party machine, had Stambolic removed. The Party then named Milosevic president of Serbia and effectively president of Yugoslavia.
Now, this is a too-brief overview. The under the table and underhanded machinations would have made Machiavelli envious.
Nationalism is Contagious
Under Milosevic and with Serbia establishing itself as the embodiment of Yugoslavia, other provinces of Yugoslavia–Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, etc.–decided, out of their own nationalist pride, that they needed to be independent.
Milosevic wouldn’t have this. Not only would Serbia lose resources, it would never stand for losing Kosovo. He would hold Yugoslavia together by force, if necessary. War erupted between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and between Serbia and Croatia.
All involved committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it was Serbia, determined to remove non-Serbians from Yugoslavia, that sent troops and paramilitary units throughout the country to “cleanse” it of those considered ethnically impure.
Milosevic wasn’t the first to do this in Europe. He won’t be the last, but what we saw through journalists’ eyes in the 1990s was almost as searing as the old newsreel footage of World War II concentration camps. And there were concentration camps in Yugoslavia. There were mass graves. There were rape camps. There were generals who forced prisoners to fight each other and commit atrocities on the defeated ones.
For me, the most horrific act of ethnic cleansing took place in 1995 in the town of Srebrenica, supposedly a U.N. safe area protected by Dutch peacekeepers. The Serbian Army and its loosely affiliated paramilitary units chased tens of thousands of people from Srebrenica to the small Dutch Army compound and surrounded it. The hopelessly outnumbered Dutch soldiers had no choice, so their commander believed, but to do as the Serbian Army instructed, which was to separate the men and boys from the refugees.
I’ve read several books and other accounts of that day, and I can only imagine what it was like to have your husband or father or son or brother taken from you, loaded on buses, and hauled away. The Serbian Army said it was simply routine, that the men and boys would get food and water and would be returned.
They were never seen again. Indeed for several years no one knew what had happened to almost 10,000 Muslim men and boys–until the mass graves were found.
In 1996, I started a novel about Srebrenica; I had to give it up. I couldn’t handle the darkness.
Peace at Last? Hold My Beer
Srebrenica was almost the last straw. The outcry was so fierce and with the threat of NATO bombing, Milosevic agreed to peace talks in Dayton, OH. As a result, Croatia became independent, Montenegro became even more semi-autonomous, and Bosnia-Herzegovina broke away.
And, no, I haven’t mentioned the Siege of Sarajevo here because that would take several blog posts.
For four years, things stayed calm, more or less, in the somewhat smaller Yugoslavia. But the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were not happy to have to remain part of Serbia. The Kosovo Liberation Army–considered terrorists by Serbia–began a guerrilla war against Serbs and Serbia in the province in the late 1990s, and in 1999 Milosevic sent the Serb Army, and its ubiquitous paramilitaries into Kosovo.
Village by village, men and boys would be taken away, led to a secluded place, and shot. One of the earliest of these war crimes took place in a village named Racak in January 1999, and that fueled my first short story to win a writing contest. That short story, “Blood Vengeance,” anchored my short story collection of the same name published in 2012.
By the time May 1999 came around, there was enough evidence for who ordered the genocide in Kosovo that the International Criminal Tribunal indicted Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And that brings us to the timeframe for my Self-Inflicted Wounds trilogy, which launches on October 1.
Almost from the time of Milosevic’s ascension to power, a series of murders began. Many of the victims were his political opponents or former members of his inner circle who perhaps knew too much, i.e., they might be called as witnesses if Milosevic were ever to be put on trial. In the year 2000, the murders reached a peak.
“I Have an Idea for a Book for You to Write”
So said a friend of mine to me in 2001. This friend was an employee of, shall we say, an unnamed intelligence organization, and we’d met on a few post-9/11 task forces.
“I even have a title for you,” this person said. “Who is Killing the Friends of Slobodan Milosevic?“
That intrigued me as a student of the Balkans, though it had been a long time at that point since I’d studied the area. I used the fledgling search engines at the time and was astounded not only by the number of murders over almost a decade but the fact the crimes were often given only a perfunctory investigation.
One of the victims was the aforementioned Ivan Stambolic, though it wasn’t until 2003 that his body was found. He’d been kidnapped in August 2000, and the Yugoslavian government tried to blame “mafia business dealings” for the disappearance.
And I started writing.
An interesting irony I discovered as I researched was the fact the U.S. and Yugoslavia both had presidential elections in 2000. The world expected that the U.S. elections would go as smoothly as always and that the Yugoslavian election would be rigged.
Boy, were they wrong.
Milosevic, once he was out of power, was extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal in 2001. He went on trial in early 2002, and I watched as much of it as I could. Milosevic had been a lawyer and used every legal trick in the book to prolong the trial. He dragged it out for four years, until 2006 when he died of a heart attack in his cell at The Hague. By some quirk of international law, once the Butcher of Balkans was dead, all charges against him were dropped.
And that, you see, is why intrigue, underhandedness, mayhem, and dark dealings makes the former Yugoslavia the perfect backdrop for spy stories.