June 21, 1993 Vreme News Digest Agency No 91
Minorities in the Army
The Hungarian Syndrome
by Mirko Mlakar & Filip Svarm
Eight soldiers of the Yugoslav Army were killed in June, and another
five were wounded. Seven soldiers were killed and four wounded in Vranje, one killed and one wounded in Sabac. Everything took place in their military barracks. In the first case, the weapon with ammunition was seized from the soldier, in the second, it was the sentry who fired. Both soldiers who pulled the trigger were Hungarians and both committed suicide after the murder
On June 3rd, 1993, soldier Josef Meneder broke the bars of a prison, where he was held in custody in the military barracks in Vranje and killed the guard. Afterwards, he killed six sergeant majors, and, eventually, himself. The first association was the crime committed by Aziz Keljmendi when he killed four people in the military barracks in Paracin. In the country which is, first of all, unstable when it comes to the issue of national determination, it was conspicuous that the killers in both cases belonged to a non-majority, non-Serbian nationality. However, "the question of the Hungarians in the military" was open in the most tragic manner on June 8th. Nandor Kis, who was on guard, killed the corporal. The circle was at least temporarily closed when soldier Akos Lazar ran away from the military barracks in Kikinda, in whose warehouse one gun was found missing.
Two cases, the one in Vranje and the other in Sabac, were soon reduced to a single, Hungarian case. Meneder, Kis, and Lazar (it is still uncertain what crime he is about to commit!) are Hungarians from the vicinity of Subotica. This fact was rendered trite as the killings and wounding, as well as Lazar's flight, took place one after another, as if on the movie screen, while the other things which might be indicative in both cases were put on the back burner. How come that a suicide took place in both cases? It is true that the Hungarians as a nation are among the world's leading countries according to the percentage of suicides committed, but... What if Meneder killed himself because he had gone mad, and Kis because he realized that he had committed an involuntary manslaughter. The experts say that the first reaction of the one who murders by accident is to attempt suicide! Are these two cases related at all?
Unlike the Hungarian question in the military, which is only being opened now, the Albanian question is completely closed. We have learned from Colonel Petar Skrbic, the head of the Yugoslav Army Headquarters' Department of Information and Morale, that a "negligible" fraction of ethnic Albanian recruits report to their units. "The Shiptars' (the word the Serbs use to refer to the Albanians) response is almost the same as nothing, but this does not mean that the military service is optional for them. In other words, the number of those who fail to respond is so great that it would make initiating the legal proceedings, persecution or anything similar irrational. It seems that this suits both the state and the Shiptars. The Hungarians, Muslims and Croats are treated as everybody else is, that is, normally. There was a significant abstention among the Muslims, but every since one month ago they have become increasingly interested in responding to the call-ups. There are indications that these call-up slips are used while seeking employment abroad. On the other hand, pressure is put on them in some parts of Yugoslavia to go to the military service, which is their expression of loyalty to the state," Colonel Skrbic said. The officers with whom we spoke believe that there is a scenario behind the tragedies in Vranje and Sabac which is aimed at putting an end to drafting of the Hungarians, which would weaken its personnel basis, already fragile due to a reduced response not only by the Hungarians and members of other national minorities, but also by the Serbian and Montenegrin youths. A high-ranking officer told us that the murders had been committed by the members of a sect, which teaches its followers to kill as many people as possible around themselves before committing suicide. This "theory" was recognized so that some newspapers revealed the eccentricity of Nandor Kis who dressed in black when allowed out to the town. On the other hand, the parties representing the national minorities find it that the two, that is, three cases, where the youths with Hungarian names appear as the main badmen, are deliberately blown out of proportion so that ethnic cleansing of the military is carried out with as much justification as possible. However, this process is so obvious so that the tragedies which would serve as a trigger or a cover-up are unnecessary. The national, rather than citizens' army in the country, in which the army is not professional, means that some groups are prevented from acquiring military knowledge. This could cost them dearly in case of war, including a civil war as well. If the Yugoslav Albanians do not do their military service and are not called up to reserves, it does not mean that some of their youths are not trained in illegal recruitment centers of the planned army of the "Republic of Kosovo." On the other hand, the Hungarians have politically opted for non-violent methods of acquiring the autonomy, so that a thought of a parallel, "underground" army has not even occurred to them.
Colonel Skrbic said that according to their knowledge there were no indications that subversive activity was at issue in the cases in Vranje and Sabac. However, "the Democratic Community of Hungarians in Vojvodina (DZVM)" has founded its political program on political disobedience towards the military service. These arguments were also used by others, such as Dragan Bozinovic, the head of Northern Backa District. He attacked the DZVM, as the leaders of this party, deliberately or not, "considerably contributed" to the tragedies in the military barracks. "Besides, as an inspiration of sorts, a calendar with seven golden rules of disobedience towards the military was published beginning this year. The leaders of these parties often say that they are pacifists, but, in reality, they incite the young to kill innocent people." But, one look through the yearly calendar of the DZVM for 1993 reveals the shakiness of the District Head's grave accusations. "Seven golden rules of disobedience" of the party members towards the military service in the Yugoslav Army recommend: one - do not let them find you; two - if they do, do not accept the call-up slip; three - if you accept it, do not sign it; four - if you do, do not respond; five - if you do respond, do not go; six - if you go, come back, and, lastly, if you return, do not come alone but win over a new member of the party of civic disobedience.
At the joint session of both Chambers of the Federal Parliament, Milorad Jevric, the member of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), said that the tragic murders of soldiers in the military barracks are not a coincidence, but a result of a certain political activity. Immediately afterwards, he made an allusion to the DZVM. Caba Sepsei rejected any connection of the DZVM with the tragedies, adding that the Army is responsible for everything which is taking place in it. If mistrust towards the Hungarians is felt in the Federal Parliament, one can only guess how it manifests itself in the Yugoslav Army and how it affects Hungarian youths, Sepsei wondered, and, asked, "Who is to blame if the weapons are given to those who should not carry them?"
Colonel Skrbic said that ethnic differentiation in the military is not a system or a norm, but that it is certainly present. If some solder, a member of a nationality in the minority is maltreated ("most often through joking and heckling") he is transferred to some other unit, while moral and disciplinary measures are taken against the perpetrators, if it is established that they really harassed and insulted their army comrade. Judging by what VREME has learnt, a large number of soldiers would then have to spend their entire military service by transferring from one unit to another, while a relevant number of Serbs and Montenegrins would have to spend a considerable time of their military service in custody!
What vents do the member of the national minorities have on their disposal in the army, where verbal violence and other forms of negative treatment of comrades needn't be legalized as a norm, as such is a greater part of every day life anyway. The youths of Hungarian, Muslim, Croatian and other "non-constituent" nationalities are by rule either ostracized or ridiculed. But, when they socialize with the members of the same nationality, in two's and three's, and in "larger units", this is immediately labeled as "dangerous grouping." So, what are they left with? Little or almost nothing, it seems. One soldier, a member of a national minority, told us, "When a Serb gets drunk and gets into trouble, he's only a fool. If I get drunk and get into trouble, even if it isn't as big, a political background to it is immediately sought."
Colonel Petar Skrbic also said that the round table talks had been held, where high-ranking officers with the help of academics established some foundations for building new traditions and adopted the stand that positive Serbian-Montenegrin traditions must be cherished, regardless of the time period when they were conceived. "Naturally, with due respect for national minorities," Colonel Skrbic said. Besides inciting mistrust when nourishing "positive Serbian-Montenegrin traditions", because of their communist pedigrees, the officials meet with more serious problems if they are not Serbs or Montenegrins. "You watch TV, read the papers, talk to people, and everybody's telling you what the Muslims and Croats are doing to us," said a former member of the elite branch of land forces, adding, "and, then, you have to listen to the orders of your Croat sergeant and Muslim captain. I, personally, have nothing against them. But, when you give it a second thought, so many of their fellow countrymen have committed treason, why wouldn't they do the same?"
Colonel Skrbic also confirmed that the lack of confidence in the officers of non-Serbian nationality represents a big problem in the Yugoslav Army. Even though it is not a principle they are not on the key positions and cannot forcefully impose themselves on other units if the soldiers are openly suspicious of them, he said. But, we still try to talk to the people and convince them that everybody, regardless of their nationality, should be given a chance, he added. The Colonel also said, "Work and professional abilities as well as loyalty to the profession and fatherland represent the most important criteria for us, in spite of everything."
The identity crisis and the lack of confidence in the newly-proclaimed Serbian-Montenegrin army, undergoing transformation, are only the top of an iceberg.
The Yugoslav Army is shaken by the fever of all-out discontent, much more so, one would say, than by the establishing of new traditions, i.e. personnel reshuffles based on nationality. Just as everyone else in their country, army officers are poorly paid, the benefits from some former times are becoming tragi-comical, their housing problems remain unsolved... The soldiers, on their part, know less and lees why they are doing their military service, or for whom, especially if the recklessness of the current policy is taken into consideration!
Not to many things are functioning properly in the newest Yugoslavia, from the local public services to the sentries of its armed force. The fate of the army simply cannot be separated from the fate of its state. "We cannot speak about discontent, the least of all, about it being organized," Colonel Skrbic claimed, and went on, "Still, the difficult questions of survival do produce a certain psycho-sociological conduct of the officers. A high number of officers stay in the barracks for 24 hours a day, some because they have such orders, the others because they have no else to live. All of it creates the feeling of "saturation."
One signal man described the feeling of "saturation": "I had two months of training. We used to do something them. I didn't even have to run during the next nine months. What I did for most of the time was scrubbing the floors or plucking the grass between the concrete blocks. The only thing that mattered to the superiors was that some work was being done and that they were not being disturbed. The pay and promotion is what they were truly interested in."
The feeling of having no future whatsoever is also prevalent.
"Why did I bleed in Croatia and Bosnia? To have to pay 150 DM rent while I earn 40 DM a month. To fear being sacked every month as I wasn't born in Serbia, not is my father a Serb," said a noncommissioned officer of tank units.
The affairs which rocked the Yugoslav Army, such as the Opera, various trials and all the rest have resulted in an atmosphere of overall suspicion and mistrust among the officer corps, as many servicemen claimed. They try to avoid discussing the burning issues, the contacts with their colleagues who are in disfavor for different reasons are being severed - everybody is exclusively minding their own business. It is also clear that the army is way too huge, there is no room for everybody. A wrong word before a wrong person might often lead to the loss of job, if not to the charges of undermining combat power.
To go to war with the goal to stop the disintegration of the country, and to learn a year later from former military minister, General Veljko Kadijevic, that the real goal of the war was "the liberation of the Serbian lands and penetrating to the borders of some new Yugoslavia" represents the warning which is not the least insignificant. Therefore, the opinion voiced by many officers "that one should take from the army whatever he can and leave, as some new army is being formed from the police anyway" is not isolated.
All of it led to it that the prisons, which are in the proximity of the sentries, were rarely locked (as was the case in the JNA), and the real psychological and physical condition of the soldiers sent on sentry duty was never checked, according to numerous testimonies.
"It's true that they asked us whether we felt capable of doing it, but that was only for the sake of asking. Whenever someone replied he wasn't they demanded a medical certificate, which couldn't be obtained, unless one was so ill to be sent to dispensary," said a youth who has got out of the army recently.
The sentry rounds, as most of other duties which characterize the daily life in the barracks, are carried out routinely and formally. And, finally, no one ever shows genuine interest in a true state of interpersonal relationships, once the officers get off from work for the day. Whether the "old" soldiers bully "the young", whether the members of national minorities are provoked and how often - no one is concerned until such a case is reported. And, when it is reported, then the whole thing is solved by a soldier's report and a pronounced sentence, without tackling the core of a problem.
A 19-year-old Muslim testified that over two months spent in the field close to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina he was constantly exposed to provocation and harassment by a group of contract soldiers. He complained to the officers several times, but apart from being told that nothing similar would happen again, no concrete action was taken.
The tragedies in the military barracks in Vranje and Sabac took place in a similar atmosphere which many describe as chaos. Speculations as to why those two soldiers of Hungarian nationality decided to commit such acts range from seeking a political, religious (a possible membership in suspicious sects) to a purely political background. It is certain that scapegoats will be found (suspension of the officers in Vranje and Nis), that certain measures will be taken (Colonel Skrbic has mentioned educating the officers so that they could spot psychologically unstable servicemen) and that everything will remain more or less the same. What else could be expected from the army of the country which was ostracized by the entire international community and which perceives the whole world, with minor exceptions, as the enemy. There is no doubt that 18-year-old Hungarians who are in the Yugoslav Army will have the worst of it.There are some officers who already avoid having them in their units, their lockers are searched by the members of the security, while their fellow soldiers, influenced by the climate in the state and in the barracks, look on them with suspicion, to say the least.