Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: Insights from War Crimes Trials

Dr Iva Vukušić introduces her recent book, Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia.

This article was written by Dr Iva Vukušić
This article was published on

On 12 March 2003, the reformist Prime Minister of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić, who came to power after the decade-long rule of Slobodan Milošević, was murdered. The assassin was a former member of an elite Serbian paramilitary organisation which, after the war in Bosnia, became the Special Operations Unit—Jedinica za Specijalne Operacije (JSO). The JSO was under the authority of the State Security of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The assassin’s motives were twofold: to stop the potential arrests and transfers of his comrades in arms to The Hague to stand trial for war-time crimes, and to prevent the newly elected government from dismantling the JSO and its lucrative organized crime networks. The elite Special Operations Unit was increasingly merging with the criminal underground, threatening the very viability of the post-Milošević state. This assassination, alongside many other events during the 1990s and beyond, shows just how important paramilitaries were for how the war was fought, for how civilians experienced it, and the post-war path taken by Serbia as a state. 


My recently published book, Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: State Connections and Patterns of Violence, is the first to comprehensively analyse the records of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and its daughter-institution, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), and explain the emergence, nature and functioning of Serbian paramilitaries during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. The book is about select Serbian paramilitaries—important units acting on behalf of and in cooperation with the Serbian regime as well as its partners in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina—such as Arkan’s Tigers, the Red Berets, the Scorpions, the Šešeljevci, and others. It focuses on Serbian units, and not those affiliated with the Croatian or Bosnian government authorities, or the Kosovo Albanian efforts for independence, because the book privileges depth over breadth, and because others have investigated these armed groups comparatively. The centring of paramilitary units does not suggest that they were the only perpetrators during the war. In fact, some of the most notorious massacres during the war were perpetrated by the army and police forces. A well-known example of the army’s involvement, in this case the Bosnian Serb Army, are the mass executions following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, which have since been described by different courts as genocide.


This book will hopefully intrigue historians of the former Yugoslavia, but also those studying irregular armed groups in other contexts, as it discusses what paramilitary are, and which key features they possess. Furthermore, methodologically, it provides tips and strategies to assists other researchers studying the voluminous and rich archives of the ICTY/IRMCT, which are, laudably, widely accessible online. Special attention is given in the book to contextual factors as well as actors, formal and informal, actively involved in establishing paramilitary units. This last point is discussed through the notion of paramilitary ecologies – systems which produce and maintain different kinds of units, which go on to commit different kinds of violence. The book is thus relevant to a wide array of researchers investigating dynamics in civil wars, especially on the issue of how states use these kinds of seemingly independent actors to create plausible deniability and outsource violence. The utility of these units for states is in escaping sanctions, diplomatic consequences and ultimately, criminal accountability. Finally, this research speaks to those researching perpetrators and perpetration, i.e. the actors and social processes which result in the harming of civilians.


There are six chapters in the book, where the first three cover the 1990s chronologically, and discuss the emergence, functioning, and transformation of paramilitary units, respectively. One key contribution I make is in the chapter on paramilitary violence, discussing how and why select paramilitary units attacked civilians, and how the way the units were set up and operated influenced how likely they were to engage in torture and extreme cruelty. In fact, this point, that the structure, composition, and way of functioning of units influenced not only how they engaged and attacked civilians, but also how they interacted with other armed forces, civilian authorities and others who crossed their paths, is key. This influence of structure and nature on what the units were involved in did not end when the guns went silent. In the aftermath, much about the units’ post-war fate was determined by the nature of the units, and their closeness (or lack thereof) to the highest echelons of state power. Concretely, being a former member of one or the other kind of paramilitary is, and was, an accurate predictor of how likely it is for someone to face criminal charges in Serbia today.


The sources from the war crimes trials in The Hague, complemented by other records, paint a complicated picture of the units being established through cooperative efforts of institutions and individuals, clearly rebuking arguments about their mobilization being a spontaneous, grassroots effort. They also make clear that the paramilitary units, often treated in bulk in scholarly literature, were diverse and had dynamic relationships with both the state apparatus in Serbia, Milošević’s regime, and its partners. Moreover, the sources used in this book—mostly military and intelligence reports, witness testimony, meeting minutes, and other documents—are not “enemy documents”, i.e., they do not come from Croatian or Bosnian intelligence circles. These are documents written on the same “side” – they come from the Yugoslav Army, Serbian politicians and civil servants, and paramilitary members themselves.


The way the paramilitary units functioned is also elucidated through the sources. Documents show that plausible deniability was created and maintained on purpose, with concrete actions. Removing insignia before deploying, being paid “off the books”, signing salary slips with nicknames – these and other techniques were deployed to foster ambiguity about who the units really “belonged to”. Finally, the book considers how paramilitary units changed through the decade and their engagement from Croatia, through Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Kosovo, and how they benefited from looting, sanctions-busting and other illicit dealings which, understandably, also fuelled further paramilitary activity.     


This publication is a result of almost two decades of work in and around war crimes trials, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and The Hague. My hopes are that those studying contemporary examples of irregular armed group mobilization and deployment, as well as efforts to outsource violence to seemingly independent actors such as Wagner in the case of Russia, will benefit from this study as well. Given that the number of these groups seems to be growing, it is vital that these actors are understood. Furthermore, understanding how units were established, how they operated and attacked civilians is vital for creating a historical record but also for fighting denial of atrocity crimes which is often present in (post)conflict settings.


Finally, a few words on sources and the importance of making them accessible for researchers. This book, as well as two other recent contributions on crimes and perpetrators during the war in the former Yugoslavia, and in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina, were written based on ICTY/IRMCT sources. Christian Axboe Nielsen’s book on the Bosnian Serb police and Hikmet Karčić’s work on the camp system are crucial publications, and they both use these trial archives extensively. My book, alongside theirs, shows clearly why it is necessary that archives of war crimes trials, internationally as well as domestically, are made available for research (clearly, in ways which do not endanger fair trial rights of the accused, credible national security claims, or the safety and dignity of witnesses). These trials are legal proceedings of particular public interest and should be conducted with transparency and accessibility in mind. It is through these records that scholars, and historians in particular, can uncover and explain the dynamics of wartime violence and record, for posterity, what happened to its victims.


Dr. Iva Vukušić is an Assistant Professor in International History at Utrecht University, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King's College London. She is a historian and a genocide scholar, and her work is on irregular armed groups, genocide, mass violence and transitional justice, especially criminal accountability. Before coming to The Hague in 2009, she spent three years in Sarajevo, where she worked as a researcher and analyst at the Special Department for War Crimes at the Office of the Prosecutor. She is a frequent contributor in public debates and has been interviewed for the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, de Volkskrant, the BBC, etc. Her first book Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: State Connections and Patterns of Violence was published in September 2022 in the Contemporary Security Studies series at Routledge. Iva is also one of three editors of the new CEU Press series “Perpetrators of Organized Violence: Eastern, Central and South-Eastern Europe”.