Srebrenica: The World War II History

By Carl Savich

What was the history of Srebrenica during World War II? The World War II history of Srebrenica is suppressed and covered-up.

After Germany and the Axis countries invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, Yugoslavia was occupied and dismembered. German troops took Sarajevo on April 15, 1941. The territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina was made part of the Independent State of Croatia by Adolf Hitler. The NDH was declared a Croatian and Bosnian Muslim state. Serbs, Jews, and Roma were de-recognized and targeted for extermination. Croatian and Bosnian Muslim leaders then launched a systematic policy of genocide against the Serbian population of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Eastern Bosnia was majority Serbian. The population of Srebrenica was approximately equally made up of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in 1941.

Ustasha Occupation

After the German invasion and occupation of Yugoslavia, three German soldiers on motorcycles had been the first to arrive in Srebrenica in 1941. There were no paved roads in Srebrenica. After they left, a small group of German troops then arrived a few days later. A Croat Ustasha military force also arrived during this period.

Srebrenica was initially occupied by the German Army. They turned over control of the town to the Ustasha forces on July 25, 1941. The Ustasha IIIrd Domobran or Home Guard Infantry Battalion was stationed in Srebrenica. The Ustasha in Srebrenica were recruited from the local Bosnian Muslim population because it was not settled by Croats, the population of eastern Bosnian consisted primarily of Bosnian Serbs and Muslims. After the departure of German occupation forces, 45 Serbian civilians from Srebrenica were imprisoned. They were jailed for two months. They had been beaten and were subsequently deported to Germany as conscripted workers.

The Bosnian Muslim population of eastern Bosnia joined the Ustasha forces immediately and in large numbers. When German and Croat Ustasha forces occupied Srebrenica and Kravica, the Bosnian Muslims welcomed and joined them willingly. In Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1998), American journalist Chuck Sudetic wrote that “[m]ost of the area’s Muslims subsequently enlisted in the Ustase or the Croatian army, and the Ustase began patrolling nearby villages, demanding that the Serbs surrender all their weapons and arresting Serb menfolk.”

In the Srebrenica district, Bosnian Serbs were the majority. Dragoljub, 22, and Hrista Vuckovic, 65, recalled that in the town of Srebrenica, Muslims were slightly more than Serbs, but that in the entire Srebrenica district, Serbs were the largest group.

One of the first objects seized by the Ustasha forces was the newly-constructed Serbian Orthodox Church in Srebrenica, which was four years old. Croat forces used the church as a command center. The Srebrenica parish consisted of approximately 3,700 Orthodox Serbs.

The Ustasha attacked symbols of Serbian identity and history. A monument built to commemorate Serbian Major Kosta Todorovic in 1924 was destroyed in 1941. Todorovic had led Serbian troops which had captured Srebrenica in 1914. He had been taken prisoner by Austro-Hungarian troops and was burned alive. The Ustasha occupation authorities ordered Srebrenica Serbs to tear down the memorial themselves.

The Ustasha targeted Bosnian Serbian Orthodox priests for murder. A Serbian Orthodox priest in Srebrenica, Dragan Jolovic, testified that in the eparchy of Zvornik-Tuzla, the Croat and Bosnian Muslim Ustasha forces killed Dusan Bobar, a Serbian Orthodox priest from Vlasenica, Milos Savic, a priest from Milici, the priest Dragomir Maskijevic, Ljubomir Jaksic, a priest in Han Pijesak, and the priest Janko Savic, a priest in Knezine. In Kravica, the Ustasha closed the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Serbian Orthodox priest and the schoolteacher where murdered in the surrounding woods. The Ustasha threatened to summarily execute the entire Serbian population of the town.

Resistance

The systematic and planned genocide of the Serbian population in eastern Bosnia, organized by Croats and Bosnian Muslims, forced the Serbian population to launch a resistance movement in the area. On August 8, 1941, Serbs from Kravica gathered around the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kravica and proclaimed an uprising by ringing the church bell in defiance. After two weeks of combat, the Serbian guerrillas linked up with the guerrilla forces of General Draza Mihailovich to drive out the Ustasha forces, both Croat and Bosnian Muslim. Serbian guerrillas had thus seized the entire Srebrenica region of eastern Bosnia.

Jezdimir Dangic was the Serbian guerrilla commander in Srebrenica and in eastern Bosnia. When he had heard of the Ustasha massacres of Serbs in Bosnia, he attempted to obtain permission to go there to escort his family and relatives to safety. Dangic began his guerrilla operations in eastern Bosnia on August 16. He targeted the Ustasha forces and their Bosnian Muslim collaborators. On August 18, Dangic was able to take Srebrenica with a group of Chetnik guerrillas consisting of four hundred men. The Chetniks seized weapons and began recruiting Bosnian Serbs to join the Chetnik guerrillas led by Draza Mihailovich.

The Ustasha responded by organizing attacks against Bosnian Serb villages, massacring Serbian civilians. The Croatian and Bosnian Muslim massacres of Serbian civilians led to reprisals. A civil war emerged in eastern Bosnia between Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. Serbian guerrillas were able to gain control of eastern Bosnia.

The Black Legion

CrnalegijaBosnianMuslims

Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak members of the NDH Ustasha Crna Legija or Black Legion unit outside of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, 1942. The Black Legion was commanded by Jure Francetic.

This is what led to the formation of the 1st Ustasha Brigade, the Black Legion, or Crna Legija. The Black Legion, made up of Croats and Bosnian Muslims, was formed to regain control of eastern Bosnia.

The Black Legion was formed in Sarajevo in September, 1941. One of the founding members was Bosnian Muslim Becir Lokmic. The formation consisted of Croats and Bosnian Muslims from the beginning, but gradually the unit was made up predominantly of Bosnian Muslims. The Black Legion was responsible for the mass murder of Bosnian Serb civilians.

The Black Legion or Crna Legija, made up of a large number of Bosnian Muslims, took Srebrenica on April 11, 1942, forcing the Serbian guerrillas to withdraw from the area. The Bosnian Muslim troops in The Black Legion massacred Serbian civilians who remained in the Srebrenica region and burned down and looted Serbian villages. Brezani, Turija, Podravno, and all the Serbian villages around Bratunac were burned down and the remaining Serbian population was massacred. Most of the Serbian population fled Srebrenica by crossing the Drina River into Serbia.

Srebrenica continued to change hands throughout the war. German, Croat and Bosnian Muslim Ustasha forces, Serbian Chetnik guerrilla forces, and Communist Partisan guerrillas fought for the town and held it and lost control in succession. On July 5, 1943, the Partisan 1st “Proletarian” Division took Srebrenica. The Ustasha forces were able to regain control of Srebrenica after a three-day counter-attack. The Ustasha retaliated against Bosnian Serb civilians in revenge killings. Serbian civilians were massacred in Srebrenica and surrounding villages. Marta Vasic and her daughter Zora and her five children were killed.

Following Operation Trio by the Black Legion in April through May, 1942, the entire population of Kravica either fled or was killed.

Attacks against Bosnian Serbs continued for the remainder of the war. On July 3, 1944, Ustasha forces murdered over a hundred Serbian civilians from Kravica. About half had reportedly been burned alive in a single house in Kravica.

The Ustasha forces targeted the Kravica Orthodox priests. Srbislav Blazic, a priest in Kravica, recalled that when Croat forces occupied the region, he and three other priests were incarcerated in a military prison in Drinjaca. The Ushasha also banned Orthodox Church services.

Ustasha forces ransacked the surrounding towns and villages, robbing and looting Serbian property. They also reportedly committed rapes.

On May 11, 1941, Srbislav Blazic recounted that the Croat command informed him that he had “three days to leave the territory”. He escaped to Serbia the following day. Blazic reported that in the Kravica district north of Srebrenica, the population was 80% Serbian Orthodox and 20% Bosnian Muslim. No Croats lived in this region.

The Ustasha forces began murdering Bosnian Serb civilians in the area. The Ustasha murdered eight prominent Serbs near Drinjaca, the seat of the Croat command, in the forest of Rasica Gaj near Vlasenica.

In Vlasenica, approximately 80 prominent Serbs were murdered and thrown into a large ditch, some still alive. The Bosnian Muslims were responsible for many of these murders of Serbs. These Muslims had been prominent figures in the political structure of the region before the war. Before Vidovdan, June 28th, there were mass arrests of Serbs including Serbian schoolchildren and students and taken to Sarajevo. Blazic’s brother Mito was one of those taken. The Serbian Orthodox priest Dragomir Maksijevic had his eyes gouged out, ears cut off, and the skin on his back was peeled off. The Bosnian Muslims were responsible for these killings. Serbian priests and intellectuals were also taken to Caprag.

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Bosnian Muslim troops as part of the Ustasha Crna Legija or Black Legion unit which operated in Eastern Bosnia in the Srebrenica area, 1942.

Bosnian Muslim Collaboration

Bosnian Muslim leaders welcomed the Nazi and Ustasha occupation forces and joined their ranks. A hodza or Muslim cleric welcomed the Croat Ustasha as “our brothers” who brought the Bosnian Muslims “liberation” and “liberty” after 20 years of “oppression” in royalist Yugoslavia. Ismet Bektasevic, a former Bosnian Muslim representative in interwar Yugoslavia, was another Muslim who greeted the Ustasha and Nazi forces.

Bosnian Muslims joined Ustasha military formations and committed massacres against Bosnian Serb civilians. In “Commemorating Srebrenica: Histories of Violence and the Politics of Memory”, Ger Duijzings noted that Bosnian Muslims had joined the Ustasha in large numbers and had committed massacres of Bosnian Serb civilians in Srebrenica:

“A substantial proportion of the Muslim population in eastern Bosnia, especially in the villages, joined the ustase movement, and between 1941 and 1943 ustase units carried out several massacres against the local Serb population (among others one in Srebrenica in June 1943).” (Helms, Elissa, Ger Duijzings, and Xavier Bougarel, eds. The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-War Society. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007, page 148.)

Widespread Bosnian Muslim massacres of Bosnian Serb civilians in eastern Bosnia contradicts and disproves the commonly accepted assertion that Bosnian Muslims were merely defending themselves against Serbian attacks. Bosnian Muslims were engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocide. The basis of the civil war in eastern Bosnia was not so much ideological as it was ethnic and religious in nature, based on competing and rival nationalistic visions for Bosnia. Duijzings described the ethnic and religious basis for enmity: “Even though the situation on the ground was extremely complex, massacres on an ethno-religious basis remained a central feature of the war in eastern Bosnia.” (The New Bosnian Mosaic, page 148.)

In Visions of Annihilation, Rory Yeomans documented how Bosnian Muslim women in Srebrenica joined the Ustasha Black Legion:

“Some women, though, took up arms enthusiastically. In Srebrenica, Black Legionaries led by Franjo Sudar were surprised to be greeted by Muslim men who told him that their wives, sisters, and daughters would be fighting alongside them. ‘And really, we met Amazons with rifles,’ a newspaper reported. ‘They were prouder to be carrying rifles than if they were the most precious pearls.'” (Yeomans, Rory. Visions of Annihilation: The Ustasha Regime and the Cultural Politics of Fascism, 1941-1945. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, page 166.)

Not only Bosnian Muslim men, but also Bosnian Muslim women fought alongside the Ustasha Black Legion or Crna Legija units. Bosnian Muslim men were recruited into the Black Legion.

In the town of Fazlagica kula, located south of Gacko in southeastern Bosnia, Yeomans detailed how Bosnian Muslim women fought as part of the Ustasha armed forces:

“The women of Fazlagica kula, led by [Bosnian Muslim] Dervisa Jugo, were feted as female warriors, awarded the right to wear full military Ustasha uniforms. Jugo herself, as the mother of two sons in the [Waffen] SS and the widow of an Ustasha, became a celebrity. … For the Ustasa journalist Zahida Sefic, the story of the women of Fazlagica kula was a potent symbol of the emancipation of female Muslims under the Ustasha regime. … Sefic recalled meeting one young woman, ‘dressed in a male [Ustasha’s] uniform and with a gun on her shoulders,” who recounted her hard life. The young woman proudly told her that for seven months she had found herself carrying a gun: ‘I don’t sleep at home. The battle has become our everyday life. … As Sefic later enthused, she could only gaze in admiration at the self-discipline, selflessness, and military bearing of the young woman who rushed off to join her comrades.” (Visions of Annihilation: The Ustasha Regime and the Cultural Politics of Fascism, 1941-1945. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, page 166.)

This narrative presents Bosnian Muslims not as victims but as determined Ustasha warriors and fighters. Bosnian Muslims were armed. They were organized militarily. They fought to protect their interests.

Bosnian Muslims not only joined the Ustasha and Nazi ranks, but they also engaged in their genocidal policies against Bosnian Serbs, Jews, and Roma. They were not motivated by self-defense or preservation, but by annihilation and extermination. Over 200 Srebrenica civilians were killed on June 14, 1943. NDH Ustasha documents recorded that 155 civilians in Srebrenica were murdered. Almost all were Bosnian Serbs. Five members of a Jewish family were also murdered. The head of the family was a dentist in the town. One Muslim family was also murdered. The head of the family was a Bosnian Muslim court president who was married to a Bosnian Serb. Bosnian Muslim historian Enver Redzic documented the mass murders of 200 Bosnian Serbs in the Srebrenica region: “In mid-June 1943, in the area of Srebrenica, the members of the Ustasha 29th Division killed about 200 Orthodox [Bosnian Serbs] …” (Redzic, Enver. Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Second World War. London: Routledge, 2005.) Redzic also noted that Bosnian Serb civilians in Srebrenica were the victims of mass atrocities: “Members of the Ustasha 29th battalion committed mass atrocities against the Orthodox … of Srebrenica and surrounding villages.” 

In Bratunac, the Bosnian Muslims also greeted the Ustasha forces in the same manner. Bosnian Muslim Jusuf-Aga Verlasevic, the president of the Bratunac district, welcomed the Ustasha. Croats were able to take over the civilian control of the region. Croats had put up placards that ordered all Serbs to turn over their weapons or face the death penalty.

The NDH Ustasha forces armed the Bosnian Muslim population with weapons. Bosnian Muslims from the age of 14 years were issued weapons. The Ustasha police was formed in the Srebrenica region made up of Bosnian Muslims. Muhamed Djozic was made the prison warden in Srebrenica. Safet Abdurahmanovic was also placed in the Ustasha administrative hierarchy in Srebrenica. He had been a student at a Turkish school. Muslims were put in control of the entire district along these same lines.

As soon as the Bosnian Muslims were armed by the Ustasha, they began to attack the Serbian population of Srebrenica and eastern Bosnia. In Bratunac, the Serbs Vlajko Zaric, Pero Jovanovic, Savo Mladjenovic, and Desimir Delic were imprisoned. They were released only after a ransom had been paid. Orthodox priests were locked up, taken to Caprag, and finally deported to Serbia. Ustasha forces robbed Serbian homes of rings, watches, and jewelry. Clothes and shoes were also stolen. Serbian women and girls in the Srebrenica region were assaulted and raped. Bosnian Muslim Ibro Pasalic, a member of the Ustasha, was responsible for these attacks.

After these attacks, Serbs in the Srebrenica region fled into the forests and began organizing a resistance to the Bosnian Muslim Ustasha forces. Former Yugoslav Major Jezdimir Dangic from Srebrenica and Aco Babic from Vlasenica were the main organizers of the resistance. Serbian guerrillas retook the Srebrenica region. The Bosnian Muslim Ustasha forces retreated to Zvornik. On August 28, 1941, Serbian guerrillas retook Vlasenica which they held until January 15, 1942.

This is how matters stood until January, 1942, when a punitive expedition was launched to retake the Srebrenica region from Serbian forces. Serbian guerrilla forces were forced to retreat because of the overwhelming strength of the Axis forces, a combined force of German, Italian, and Croat units. After the Muslim and Croat Ustasha forces retook the region, Serbs were murdered, including Cedomir Marsalek from Bratunac.

Operation Trio

Serbian guerrillas again retook the Srebrenica region and held it until April, 1942, when the Germans, Italians, and Croats launched the coordinated joint offensive known as Operation Trio to clear the Srebrenica region of Serbian guerrillas. The Serbian forces initially defeated the Black Legion and drove it back outside of Vlasenica. But due to overwhelming superiority in numbers and arms of the German/Italian/Croat/Bosnian Muslim forces, had to retreat. The Serbian population now faced retaliation and extermination for driving out the Croat and Muslim Ustasha forces. The Serbian population of the Srebrenica region fled across the Drina River into Serbia when many Serbian women and children died in the hazardous trek. According to eyewitnesses, all the Muslims in the Srebrenica region joined the Ustasha. The Ustasha forces included Hasan Efendic from Bratunac and his brother Edhem, and Karlo Ekert, a blacksmith from Voljavice.

Ilija Nikolic, 42 at the time, a refugee from Srebrenica, testified that the Croats and Muslims sought to exterminate the entire Serbian population that remained in Srebrenica and eastern Bosnia. The following Bosnian Serbs were murdered: Aleksa Laketic, a pensioner and his wife Julka; Djuka Tomic; Momcilo Zekic, who first had his eyes gouged out before being killed by the Ustasha—all from Srebrenica; Filip Ilic lost 17 family members from the village of Podravanje; Sekula Vasic; Ilija Vasic, an invalid and war veteran who had lost an arm; Milovan Jovanovic; Malesko Filipovic was killed with his wife and children; the wife and child of Andrije Tanasijevic from Brezani, who was a forced laborer sent to Germany; Milovan Jokic, a businessman from Srebrenica; and, Stojan Stevanovic. They were all killed with knives. Their houses were robbed and looted, and then set on fire and burned.

The Serbian villages of Podravno, Brezani, and Turija were burned to the ground. In Brezani and Turija, all the remaining Serbs were slaughtered. All the Serbian villages around Bratunac were burned down. These massacres of Bosnian Serb civilians and the robbing, looting, and burning of their houses was carried out by the Croatian Black Legion (Hrvatska Crna Legija). According to Nikolic, however, these forces consisted of Bosnian Muslims.

The commander of the Ustasha Black Legion units in Srebrenica was a Bosnian Muslim, Mehmed Arpadzic, who had been the tax collector in Srebrenica before the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia. A Bosnian Muslim, thus, led this genocide of the Serbian population of Srebrenica as the commander of Black Legion units based in Zvornik.

Many Serbian civilians and POWs were murdered during the month of April, 1942 when the Black Legion occupied Srebrenica. Serbian civilians in Srebrenica now sought to escape this Croat and Bosnian Muslim genocide against them by fleeing the area. Many Serbian refugees drowned attempting to cross the Drina River into Serbia. Branka Grujicic tried to escape with a child by crossing the Drina in a boat. She was knifed by the Ustasha and they were thrown into the river. Bosnian Muslims Ibro Verlasevic and Hakija Sirucic, a court worker in Srebrenica, were prominent in organizing these attacks against Serbs. Serbs were thus forced to flee to Serbia to escape this genocide in eastern Bosnia. The Ustasha robbed and burned the Serbian villages around Srebrenica: Podravanja, Palez, Dzile, Viogor, Kravica, Turija. In Turija, the entire family of Ilija Tanasijevic from Srebrenica was burned to death in their house. In the summer of 1942, the Ustasha killed everyone in the Serbian village of Dubrovica.

A ten year old Serbian refugee from Derventa recounted how Bosnian Muslim troops killed his family. His father had fled the region to escape execution, fleeing to Banja Koviljaca east of Srebrenica for treatment after he was wounded. He and his family had been forced to hide in the forests to escape the massacres. They found a hut in the mountains where they hid from the Bosnian Muslim Ustasha. His family consisted of his mother, two sisters, six year old Milka, four year old Radinka, and his brother, four year old Rajko. Their hiding place was discovered by Bosnian Muslim Ustasha troops. The Muslim Suljo Sandzija, a neighbor whom they had earlier protected and given food and milk to and to his family, had now joined the Ustasha forces. He killed his mother first with a knife, then killed his sister Radinka. Milka tried to escape but was also killed. His brother Rajko was the last to be killed. Sreten was knifed and left for dead but he managed to escape. The Serbian Orthodox priest of Derventa was also killed by Bosnian Muslim Ustasha forces.

Legacy

The Serbian population of eastern Bosnia, in towns such as Srebrenica, Vlasenica, Kravica, and Bratunac, was subjected to a systematic genocide perpetrated by Croat and Bosnian Muslim troops during World War II. The Black Legion participated in killing Serbian civilians in eastern Bosnia. The result was that hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Serbs were murdered. This genocide has been suppressed and covered-up.

The legacy of this genocide continued in the 1992-1995 Bosnian civil war. Chuck Sudetic noted in Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1998) that Bosnian Muslim commander of Srebrenic “Naser Oric’s grandfather had been a member of the Ustase during World War II.” Oric targeted Bosnian Serb civilians, who were murdered, their bodies decapitated and mutilated, piled up in heaps. Bosnian Serb towns and villages were systematically attacked and destroyed.

New York Times reporter Roger Cohen described in Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1998) the mass murders of Bosnian Serb civilians, as had occurred in World War II:

“Oric liked to show visitors videos of piles of Serb bodies. He would boast about the number killed in a succession of lightning raids in the Bratunac area in which Serb communities were massacred and buildings torched. Oric was a nasty piece of work.”

He was also committing genocide. This was not sui generis. The Bosnian civil war of 1991-1995 was a continuation of the civil war during World War II from 1941-1945. This is the part of the Srebrenica story that is always missing and suppressed in U.S. media and government accounts.