Reining in the warlords
by Ariane Quentier
(December 12,1993, L’Evènement du Jeudi)
“When the war started, the men who took up weapons were small time thugs and crooks. They -defended Sarajevo and became paramilitary forces. We called them warlords because they had created their own mini statelets, ruling by force and taking over organized crime. -Sarajevo, even under siege, could not be run by such guys. We had to do something”. Hence the decision to crackdown on them, Kemal Muftic, personal advisor of President Izetbegovic, -explained to me a few days after the operation was over. “They had appointed themselves “Commanders”, brought more violence into the city and would answer to no one. We had to get rid of this cancer…”
In fact, some of them have already disappeared from Sarajevo: “Juka” — Jusuf Prazina — was driven out of town at the end of the summer of 1992, only a few months after the beginning of the siege. A troubled teen turned chief racketeer and king of the black market, he had appointed himself “Commander of the Special Forces”. A loose cannon, he continued fighting and -controlling the black market from the Igman mountains surrounding Sarajevo. A few months ago, his pockets full, he fled to Belgium where his wife Zaklina, a blonde, attractive woman whom I had met when she was still in Sarajevo, waited for him. Last week, Juka was found dead, two bullets lodged in his head. The investigation is ongoing.
Another character, Ismet Bajramovic, or “Celo” Ismet (“Celo” ie, “bald”, a nickname for former prisoners whose heads were shaven) also faced “early departure”. A petty criminal and rapist, he had spent a few years in jail in the mid-1980s, where he met Alija Izetbegovic, the future President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, imprisoned for “Islamic militancy”. Legend has it that Celo Ismet took “Alija” under his wing and became one of his closest men when the war broke out. As the self-appointed “Commander of the Military Police”, he controlled organised crime. He also ran bars including the only war-nightclub, “BB”, located in the basement of the “Hotel Belgrade” promptly renamed “Bosnia”. He would drop by late at night, tall and striking, surrounded by his bodyguards. Last month, Celo Ismet was shot in the heart and flown out of town “to get treatment”; a strange departure thanks to a United Nations airlift.
By the end of last October, a few warlords were still alive and kicking, and enjoying the windfalls of the siege. Among them was the infamous Musan Topalovic, “Caco”, a cruel sadist, and a has-been rock guitarist turned “Commander of the 10th Mountain Brigade”. Based above the old Ottoman town, he controlled the hills of Trebevic, threatening a strategic Serbian resupply road. He had two pet hates: the Serbs, and women going out alone at dark. “They have no business being out at night; they should stay at home and wash the socks of their men while they are fighting on the front line,” he once told me. “No cheating in my neighborhood, it’s bad for the morale of the soldiers.”
Also revelling in the pleasures of Sarajevo, was his friend Celo Delalic, aka “Celo” Ramiz, “Commander of the 9th Mountain Brigade”, a chief racketeer worshipped by his soldiers. In March 1992, during the referendum on independence, Celo Ramiz shot dead a Serbian man whose daughter was getting married. The killing, a few weeks before the war, sparked three days of street fighting, turned Sarajevo into an embattled campground and a dress rehearsal of the future siege. “The wedding procession in the Muslim old town was provocative,” he said to me months later when I asked if he felt any responsibility in the war to come.
Up until last summer, these gruesome characters had maintained a firm grip on the capital. That is, until the government realised that the time had come to reassert control over Sarajevo. It was a matter of credibility in the eyes of the people, but also for “international friends” who would arm the nascent Bosnian Army. Not an easy task: warlords were not only looked upon as necessary evils but also as heroes.
“Celo “Ramiz” was taking from the rich, the skivers and the war profiteers”, my friend Mesa, one of his soldiers, a 19-year-old former bartender turned volunteer told me. “‘It was simple,’ he would say: ‘Either you fight or you pay.’ Why not? I have been on the front line from day one; they should also pay the price to defend Sarajevo. And Celo cares about his men and fights with us…” A tune I also heard about Caco. “He has stolen and made money, but it’s for the soldiers,” Mirza, whose house stood less than 10 metres down from Caco’s headquarters, would admit. “However he does not grow richer. He is more like Robin Hood.”
But the warlords overestimated their strength. Their paramilitary units would roam the town to mobilise anyone crossing their path, or worse, whom they simply disliked. They would round up men of all ages and force them to dig trenches, as “a punishment for not fighting”. They became the nightmare of the Sarajevans: they could strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. Bosnian authorities initially turned a blind eye: “They were rounding up people who were not doing anything for Sarajevo, people who deserved to go out and dig once in a while,” Muftic reluctantly admitted to me.
The turning point came when the warlords thought they could dismiss the senior staff of the 1st Corps of the Bosnian Army, the regular military forces officially in charge of Sarajevo. “A bunch of traitors divulging our plans to the enemy so the war can continue; war profiteers who don’t want it to stop. But where were they when it all began?” Celo Ramiz would tell me matter-of-factly. Like Caco: “The officers of the Bosnian Army? They never fought. Peace is not in their interest, they know they would lose their privileges.” Caco himself always wore a dirty green bandage around his hand on a badly healed wound. He would never have been able to play the guitar again.
The threat to replace the military hierarchy of the embryonic Bosnian Army sparked the crackdown. On a mild night last October, in a rage over the arrest of one of his men, Caco attacked a police station and killed everyone, apart from a dozen hostages sent to dig the infamous trenches. This was a step too far. The authorities knew they had to react. “These commanders never obeyed orders,” General Ismet Dahic, deputy commander of the 1st Corps explained to me a couple of days later “We tried to solve our issues amicably, but they did not want to get back in line.” So the decision was taken: Celo Ramiz and Caco were to be reined in, forcefully if needed. “You cannot create a country and an -army with people like that,” Muftic added. “But neutralising them was dangerous. These guys had followers armed to the teeth and ready to die for them. There was also the risk of breaking the spirit of the Sarajevians who looked upon them as heroes”.
The Bosnian Army and the police eventually attacked on October 26. Up in the hills, entrenched behind the walls of his bunker, Caco put up a forceful resistance and executed 17 people. He was finally captured — and killed while “attempting to escape”. As for Celo Ramiz, he was easily arrested and sent to jail.
The Bosnians are now rid of their warlords and the time has come to create a “real army”. Not an easy task in a besieged city. Weapons and thugs are all over Sarajevo, crime is commonplace and the black market is flourishing. The “big” warlords have been neutralised, but war profiteers and local commanders still have bright days ahead. Will they want an Army and the end of the siege? That's another story ■