‘Chetnik Youth’ Group Provoke Unease in Bosnian Town of Gacko

Illustration: Detektor

‘Chetnik Youth’ Group Provoke Unease in Bosnian Town of Gacko

22. September 2023.12:27
22. September 2023.12:27
A group of young people called the Chetnik Youth Gacko express support for Serb nationalist Chetnik leaders who have been convicted of inciting hatred and military leaders convicted of genocide and war crimes. They’ve amassed 6,000 followers online, causing concern among post-war returnees to the small town of Gacko.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Many young people attended the event, at which Gacko mayor Ognjen Milinkovic made an opening statement that described Slavko Aleksic, who the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina convicted in a final judgement of inciting national, racial or religious hatred, discord and intolerance at a gathering of Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement members in Visegrad, as “an honourable warlord”.

Aleksic followed the history class from the front row. A call to attend the gathering was published a few days before on the Instagram page of a group called Chetnik Youth Gacko. The event itself was held with the support of the Gacko municipality, the Orthodox church organisation that covers the municipality and the Club of Gacko Citizens in Belgrade.

The following morning, a large number of people gathered in the yard of the Holy Trinity church in Gacko to remember local members of the Chetnik Movement who were killed during World War Two. A memorial to Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement members killed during World War Two was also unveiled.

From the monument, from which Chetnik Movement flags were flying, one of the organisers said that they “know we have a future, because they have great young people”. The speech, alongside others which glorified members of the Chetnik Movement and their battles during World War Two, were listened to by a number of children and young people, among whom Detektor journalists spotted two members of the Chetnik Youth Gacko.

Two of the people who attended were Gacko resident Andrej Sojic and Stefan Rajkovic. When Detektor journalists approached them, Rajkovic walked away, while Sojic said that the journalists had been spotted before and Detektor’s vehicle had been photographed in front of a hotel in central Gacko.

“You were detected,” said Sojic with a smile.

He said he considered himself a member of the Chetnik Youth Gacko, who aim to bring young locals back to “their identity, culture and religion”.

“It is not a formal organisation. We don’t have membership cards, we don’t join it and it does not exist as some sort of organisation. But every young man you see here, who is not married, is considered a member of that idea, a member of the Chetnik Youth,” Sojic explained.

The Chetnik Youth Gacko have around 6,000 followers on Instagram, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook. They have most followers on Instagram, where they have published more than 1,100 posts since 2018, often glorifying convicted war criminals from Bosnia and Herzegovina and marking dates of importance for the Chetnik Movement.

The group offered support to Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement members Slavko Aleksic and Risto Lecic, who were both convicted by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina of inciting hatred. In 2019, they also invited people to participate in a motorcade to mark the Day of Republika Srpska, which commemorates the founding of the Serb-dominated entity just before the war started in 1992. The police penalised one of the motorcade’s participants for offending post-war returnees.

In a previous investigation into Chetnik associations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was based on registration documents, Detektor discovered that a total of 16 such associations formally operate in the country.

The registration documents revealed that the founders of these groups included war crime defendants, amongst others. Detektor’s investigation also established that Chetnik associations from Serbia were involved in arrangements for people to go and participate in the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The Intelligence-Security Agency and Security Ministry have warned that gatherings with extreme nationalist messages, like the Chetnik events, cause fear among post-war returnees. The Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina sentenced Dusan Sladojevic, Slavko Aleksic and Risto Lecic to five months each for inciting hatred or intolerance after a Chetnik rally in Visegrad. But despite all this, courts throughout Republika Srpska rejected requests from the Sarajevo Cantonal Government in 2019 for the closure of all Chetnik organisation.

Naim Leo Besiri, a counter-terrorism expert and director of the Belgrade Institute for European Affairs, believes that groups such as the Chetnik Youth Gacko clearly demonstrate how radicalised narratives may be manifested through “targeted intimidation and ethnically-based insults”.

“There is a real danger that such actions will be carried over to other communities, where other at-risk groups could become targets of similar attacks,” Besiri said. He added that young people “may be susceptible to manipulation and instrumentalisation by political groups”.

Such abuse can deeply divide society, undermine stability and peace, as well as reduce trust in institutions, Besiri said. He argued that the country’s institutions must act against online radicalisation.

Support for convicted Ravna Gora members

Chetnik flags on the new monument to members of the Ravno Gora Chetnik Movement in Gacko. Photo: Detektor

Andrej Sojic told Detektor that the Chetnik Youth Gacko started when a group of students and high school pupils from Gacko embarked on a joint “tribute journey” to Ravna Gora and to Drazevina, near Visegrad, where members of Ravna Gora movements have gathered for years to pay respect to Draza Mihailovic, the Chetnik warlord from World War Two.

“We hang out together and we mark such dates, everything that is important and positive in our municipality,” Sojic said. He added that they share whatever they consider to be positive on their social media accounts, with the aim of “improving our youth and our identity”.

In late January 2023, the Chetnik Youth Gacko shared a post by the Union of Ravna Gora Chetnik Movements of Serbia, seeking help to pay the fines for Risto Lecic, Dusan Sladojevic and Slavko Aleksic.

Aleksic was also the subject matter of later posts by the Chetnik Youth Gacko, when it republished a post from his page, highlighting his wartime merits, in particular that he “was the commander of Novo Sarajevo Chetnik Movement, headquartered in Grbavica”, that he excelled in “combat for the defence of Grbavica”, and “commanded a squad of Russian volunteers in Serb Sarajevo”.

They published Aleksic’s photo with the flag of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, a separatist statelet in Ukraine, on April 11, 2022, a few weeks after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. A day later they published other symbols of support for Russia that were photographed in Visegrad.

Bosnian state court judge Azra Miletic, who chaired the chamber that sentenced Aleksic, told Detektor that the existence and official registration of organisations that uphold the heritage of the Chetnik movement from Word War Two was incompatible with the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The [post-war returnees] living there [in Republika Srpska] in particular, they feel afraid, because it is all about support [for nationalism]. You live surrounded by people who openly say they don’t like you, that they despise you and your religion and ethnicity, they demean you,” she said.

Dusan Sladojevic, one of the three men who were convicted under a final judgement by the state court for inciting hatred, says he has no information about the existence of any Chetnik organisations in Gacko, adding that his group avoids admitting young people into the movement.

He said he thinks that young people are not properly informed about the historical material they are using, because they rely on social media. He added that he thinks young people should devote themselves to the future rather than the past, and to living together with people of other ethnicities.

“Perhaps [the reason why they turn to nationalist groups] is actually about spite, perhaps it is about some family traditions, perhaps a family member used to be a member of the Yugoslav Army in their homeland [during the World War Two],” he said.

He argued that the leaders of the Chetnik movement from the World War Two, such as Dragoljub Draza Mihailovic, were condemned without the right to a free trial, and this “probably awakened the revolt in those young people”.

“We know that young people are full of energy and the desire to prove themselves,” he said.

When asked if he thinks that someone might abuse such youth Chetnik organisations, he said that was a possibility, and that was precisely why they tried to keep young people out.

Asked why he personally looks back to the past, Sojic said that in the 20th century, “Serbs were hit on the head three times” – meaning that they were the victims in World Wars One and Two as well as the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia. He argued it was only to be expected that people would look to the past to reconcile themselves with this suffering.

“Those Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement members, they were educated people. They were not some ignorant people as they were presented in 1945. They were not long-bearded, long-haired Chetniks as presented in the films of [Veljko] Bulajic,” Sojic said. Montenegrin director Bulajic’s films portrayed the Chetniks as villains during World War Two.

Serb motorcade spooks Bosniak returnees

Publication of Chetnik youth Gacko about the Gacko brigade of the Army of Republika Srpska. Photo: Screenshot

In January 2019, the Chetnik Youth Gacko invited people to the celebration of January 9, the Day of Republika Srpska, which has been declared unconstitutional by the state-level constitutional court but has continued to be marked by Serbs in the entity.

The Chetnik Youth Gacko said that after gathering at Savo Vladislavic Square in front of the Orthodox church in Gacko, a column of cars would start circling around the town.

The Police Department in Trebinje told Detektor that one person was sanctioned by the police in Gacko for insulting behaviour in Fazlagica Kula, a settlement near Gacko populated by Bosniak post-war returnees, on January 9. It was alleged that the person flew the flag of Republika Srpska on his car.

A video posted on YouTube shows the January 9 motorcade travelling through the returnee settlement with the flags of Serbia and Republika Srpska flying from the cars.

One of the few Bosniak returnees to the town, who now lives in central Gacko, is Sadet Bilalic, the imam at the local mosque, who told Detektor that the January 2019 incident was intended as a show of force to intimidate returnees.

“The Chetnik Youth in Gacko abused the third day of the Christmas holiday and St Stephen’s Day and the church as the gathering place for the motorcade of flag-bearers towards Kula Fazlagic,” Bilalic said.

He added that the existence of groups such as the Chetnik Youth Gacko was one of “the symbols of a political story that has gone on for three decades”.

Andrej Sojic confirmed that the Chetnik Youth Gacko called on people to take part in the motorcade, but they did not know “whose idea it was to go to a Muslim village”.

“It would not be controversial to just pass through, because it is our territory, but I think that any provocation, anything, was unnecessary… I would be happier if that had been done in Stolac or Sarajevo perhaps, where Bosniaks are more numerous, than here where just a few people live,” Sojic said, adding that he went back to town as soon as he could that day.

The District Public Prosecution in Trebinje told Detektor that it does not have any information about the activities of the Chetnik Youth Gacko.

Glorification of wartime crimes

Mural of Ratko Mladić and Božidar Delić at the entrance to town of Gacko. Photo: Detektor

Despite claiming that the group is not aimed at provoking or offending anyone, the Chetnik Youth Gacko has shared photographs of a mural in the town depicting Ratko Mladic, who was sentenced in The Hague to life for genocide and war crimes.

They have also posted an image of a poster with a tank and the flag of Republika Srpska and coat of arms of the Bosnian Serb Army with an message reading: “Everyone knows it, but doesn’t want to see it, that [our] brothers fought against al-Qaida.”

On several occasions in 2019, when their page was the most active, members of the Chetnik Youth Gacko boasted about their activities in the town, as well as in nearby Trebinje. Besides the screening of films and staging of theatre plays, the group also participated in a visit to Dobrunska Rijeka, better known as Drazevina, where members of Ravna Gora Chetnik movements mark the deaths of Draza Mihailovic and his followers in March each year.

The same year, the Chetnik Youth Gacko distributed invitations to hat they said was a ‘humanitarian’ event on an Orthodox religious holiday which is also celebrated as Serbia’s Statehood Day. Sojic attended personally.

The event was organised as part of a project by the Serbs for Serbs charity organisation, which cooperates with several right-wing groups such as the St. George organisation, and with internet shops in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina that sell clothes that glorify war criminals and extreme right-wing ideology, as Detektor has reported earlier.

Lejla Brcic, a former justice minister of Sarajevo Canton, filed a criminal complaint about members of the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement in 2019 for organising events to celebrate Draza Mihailovic’s birthday. Brcic also called for associations whose names or statutes promote the values of the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement and its founder to be removed from the official register.

Brcic said that organsations like the Chetnik Youth Gacko were part of a broader narrative that thrives on maintaining nationalist-inspired tensions, intolerance and an atmosphere of fear, diverting people’s focus from the fact that they are living on the edge of poverty.

“If the promotion of such activities is not condemned or punishable in the communities where they live, go to school and work, but is promoted as desirable, it is completely clear why they are going that way,” Brcic said.

When she handed down the judgment convicting the Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement members, judge Miletic said she “wrote the verdict using simple language”.

“An essential feature of a [hate] crime is that the person speaking is aware that his words may cause another person to feel ethnic and religious intolerance, and deepen and inflame such feeling, which, in my opinion, is not hard to prove at all. Especially here where we live,” she said.

However, she said that there is a problem with hate crime convictions because of “unqualified and politically ambitious people in the judicial system”.

Naim Leo Besiri argued that radical narratives among young people should be blamed on political parties, among others.

“The authorities and right-oriented opposition are using disinformation, false news and nationalistic propaganda to prepare future warriors. Unfortunately, their effort is supported by the formal education system, in particular history classes which are full of ‘enemies in the house next door’,” Besiri said.

Local imam Bilalic also blamed the education system for what he called the current “hysteria” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Many participate in the hysteria, although they don’t remember the war, because they were children or were even born after the war. We are talking about the generation born in the post-Dayton era, where the education system is very much responsible for the present nationalistic narrative among young people,” Bilalic concluded.

Enes Hodžić

This post is also available in: Bosnian