Ethnic Purges Spread To `Sister Province' Of Montenegro

Ultranationalists in Bosnia, Serbia recruit unofficial armies from among unemployed

THIS is a town where shots and screams ring in the dark and anarchy reigns.

It is not in Bosnia-Herzegovina, nor Croatia, republics that declared independence from the former Yugoslav republic. Pljevlja is in Serbia's sister republic of Montenegro, which has joined with Serbia to form the new Yugoslavia. But that provides little protection to local Muslims, since, according to many local Serb fighters, "there are no borders between Serbs."

"What is happening down there is pure gangsterism," says one Western diplomat who recently visited Pljevlja. "The Muslims are ... being bullied away.... Many Serbs down there seem not to want to see this happening; they may even be the majority. But they are a silent majority, because they, too, have been terrorized by these troublemakers."

Life was relatively peaceful here until the war began in Bosnia-Herzegovina in April. The first signs of trouble came in May and June, when thousands of Muslim refugees fled their homes in Bosnia. They were terrorized into leaving by Bosnian Serb forces under a local warlord, Dusan Kornjaca - known as "The Turtle" because his surname means "turtle" in Serbo-Croatian.

Pljevlja's 18 percent Muslim population breathed a sigh of relief that they did not live in Bosnia. They wrongly thought it couldn't happen to them.

"We took in a lot of the refugees as they passed through," says the local Muslim leader, Sefket Brkovic, who heads the SDA Muslim party here. But Pljevlja's Muslims found they were powerless to stop local Serb militias from knocking on doors of families who had taken in Muslim refugees. "They would separate the men from the women and children. Then they took the men away - we assumed to camps where they could exchange them for Serb prisoners of war," Mr. Brkovic says.

What followed is happening in towns and villages across Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Milika Dacevic, a local boy, returned home. Bored by his job as a hospital cook and fired up by nationalist propaganda, he had joined Serb irregular forces at the front. He fought in several of the bloodiest battles in Croatia and Bosnia. His brother even died in the siege of Vukovar, in which some of the worst atrocities of the war in Croatia were carried out. He himself was wounded several times.

This, in effect, was his training. In reward, he was made a "major" in the unofficial army formed by Serbian ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj. Mr. Seselj is widely seen as the right-hand man of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic here, carrying out his policies while avoiding any direct public link. Seselj heads the Serb Radical Party. The men of his unofficial army call themselves Chetniks - taking their name from the Serb royalist fighters in World War II.

Mr. Dacevic - known locally as "Major Cheko" - sports the flowing hair and beard that are the Chetnik hallmark. He began recruiting local forces in Pljevlja: many of them unemployed, most with little education.

People like Major Cheko and his men are being used by politicians in Bosnia and Serbia to carry out their policies of ethnic cleansing, according to Western diplomats in Belgrade. But though these local warlords are frightening and carry out many atrocities, they would not be in their positions in this unofficial army without direction from political leaders in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Major Cheko says he coordinates closely with the feared Bosnian warlord Kornjaca who is under the command of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadjic - and who has now been made defense minister of the unrecognized Bosnian Serb government.

In an interview, Major Cheko claims to have 4,000 followers. The figure may be somewhat less. But they are armed with weapons supplied by the Yugoslav Army. They travel regularly to the town of Gorazde, just 40 miles away in Bosnia and return with loot to sell in the local market, including video recorders and refrigerators.

But Major Cheko is not satisfied with exploits in Gorazde, some 30 miles southeast of Sarajevo. He turns his attention to Pljevlja itself. The story is now familiar. Major Cheko's men have smashed Muslim shop windows, set Muslim-owned properties on fire and made threatening phone-calls in the night threatening to cut Muslims' throats.

(When asked about this in an interview, Major Cheko dismisses the allegations: "I get plenty of phone calls from my friends in the middle of the night, too," he says. "And the Muslims are setting their own properties on fire to spread the war further.")

The republic's police are unable to stop what one Muslim called "terrorization by a just a few people. It only takes 1 percent and you see what is happening - we had lived happily together for 400 years and now that is all being destroyed. Everywhere this is happening it is begun by just a few people."

Last week, the police arrested Major Cheko because he had rampaged with his men through Pljevlja tearing down any photos of former Yugoslav communist dictator Marshal Tito and replacing them with likenesses of Seselj.

Within hours, Major Cheko's Chetniks had seized all public buildings and barricaded all entrances into the town. They did not back down until their commander was released - setting off a night of revelry in which the Chetniks fired machine guns and tracer bullets into the night.

Already, most of Pljevlja's Muslims have been scared into leaving. A few remain, clinging to the hope that somehow they may be able to stay in the town their ancestors inhabited for generations. But deep down they know that if they do not leave they may well be killed. The only authority here in Pljevlja is Major Cheko.

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