Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis 1999
Belgrade bully boys set loose
A sinister group of regime henchmen are trying to silence government critics.
By Daniel Sunter in Belgrade
Ordinary Serbs are nervous about speaking openly over the phone. They suspect the police might torture them for the most minor offence. And if they oppose the regime, they fear falling victim to the "men in black".
Beatings of people critical of the government - students, opposition politicians and independent journalists - have become a daily occurrence. Together with the police, the regime is employing groups of thugs whose appearance and conduct has spread fear among Belgraders.
Unlike the police, they obey no law. And since officially they do not exist, the state can always deny it has anything to do with them.
The "men in black" resemble the Serbian criminals who emerged during the 1990s. Typically, they wear black leather jackets, sweatshirts and trainers - mostly Nike or Reebok. Their hair is cropped and they work out. According to police sources they come from towns in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. All have a dubious past and are in debt to the regime.
A decade of sanctions has left a thriving grey economy where fortunes are made overnight. Huge sums are made from hard currency deals, money laundering and illicit trade in cigarettes, alcohol, stolen cars, petrol, oil derivatives and scarce foodstuffs.
The regime has allowed its heavies to profit from the black market and, in return, expect them to do its dirty work. "We've got an entire caste of young people ready to defend the authorities," says an IWPR source close to the Serbian police.
They operate quite unlike the police. Usually an informer lets them know that some anti-government activity - a gathering of students, a civic protest or the defacement of regime posters - is under way. They arrive in jeeps or in vans, attack the "suspects" and leave.
According to one member of the government's bully boys, who spoke on condition on anonymity, students and their "Otpor" ("Resistance") movement are a particular target.
"It is incredible how persistent these students are," he said. " Unlike the majority of citizens, they have no fear, they are real fatalists. They are the only ones we've got any respect for. Ordinary people are cowards and don't really cause us any problems."
These days, the "men in black" are on alert to deal with "trouble". According to IWPR sources, the authorities are likely to stop any opposition organised protest, giving Milosevic's hard men a free hand to do their business.
Depending on the size of demonstrations, they may have between a dozen to several thousand people on stand-by at any given moment. They are also able to draw on plain-clothes police.
Belgraders saw them in action for the first time during several months of protests three years ago. Then, a group of men in tracksuits showed up to help police secure the Serbian parliament. They drove their cars and jeeps into the crowd of demonstrators and threatened them with guns.
Following the implementation of a law that brought universities under the control of the regime, they began appearing at several faculties as well. Unidentified men in black leather jackets and sports outfits turned up daily at the electrical engineering and philological faculties in Belgrade.
They checked the IDs of students, provided security for new state-appointed deans, threw out dissenting professors or prevented them from entering the faculty. Some teachers ended up delivering their lectures in the street.
Several months ago, they turned up at the ABC Grafika printing, the publishers of an opposition newspaper. According to the witness statements, they fired above the heads of employees and kept the entire building under surveillance. The owners' attempts to get the police to throw them out proved fruitless.
They have also recently assaulted people ripping down regime posters. Student, Milos Dosen was attacked late last month. An eyewitness recorded the incident on a video camera. The footage was broadcast by nearly all independent TV stations in Serbia. Both Dosen and another victim, Nikola Radakovic, vainly complained to the police.
In early March, a group of Otpor activists and Belgrade citizens set out towards the municipal board of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia. They were set upon by the bully boys who chanted, "Slobo [Milosevic's nickname] the Serb, Serbia is with you!". Once again the police held back and warned the demonstrators not to be provocative.
A few days before, several people wearing police fatigues broke into the premises of TV Studio B, beat up two security workers and damaged broadcasting equipment belonging to the independent radio station B2- 92. The police denied that the intruders were officers.
One recently retired senior police officer told IWPR that the reported incidents of regime thuggery are only likely to increase, "I fear this phenomenon is only the beginning of the regime's harsher settling of accounts with dissidents. These men will be around for as long as the current authorities are in power."
Daniel Sunter is a journalist with the VIP agency in Belgrade.
© Institute of War &Peace Reporting
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