Serbia’s Red Berets’ War Crimes And A Good Wife

A Good Wife

The 25th anniversary of Croatia’s declaration of independence is fast approaching; 25 June is just around the corner. Personal wounds from war are still raw as most victims still wait for justice, for the perpetrators of crimes to own up, to repent, to acknowledge, to accept… to reconcile. Anyone who has had exposure, whether direct or through media, to the 1990’s Serb attacks against Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina that had the sole purpose of ethnically cleansing of non-Serbs significant territory in those former Yugoslavia states and declaring them Serb/Serbia territories/regions, would remember Serbia’s Red Berets units operating with utter murderous depravity. The Red Berets sowed terror and mass murder everywhere they stepped – a cruel disregard for human life and wanton urgency to destroy it if it was not Serb.

When in March 1991 Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic sent special security operatives to Croatia he was whipping up Serbian nationalism, preparing to attack Croatia. As Croatia got closer to peacefully and democratically achieving its goal of independence from Yugoslavia Milosevic went about setting up murderous units within Croatia. Initially this was by way of helping local Serbs in Croatia establish special militias, killing units some of which would wear distinctive red berets and the rest of the world was only dimly aware of a simmering ethnic conflict that was about to explode in former Yugoslavia, unable to even imagine that this conflict would involve brutal ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs. Belgrade based Yugoslav politicians needed a way to make secret war on their own republics that were pushing for independence without involving the military. Red Berets were set up in Croatia (and later in Bosnia and Herzegovina) as units consisting of ex-policemen, ex-convicts and other self-proclaimed volunteers who would answer only to Serbian secret police. The Red Berets units in Croatia called “Ninjas”(Knindze) operated in the Serb self-proclaimed territory of Krajina and involved the leadership by Captain Dragan (also known as Dragan Vasiljkovic and Daniel Snedden) who in 1991 arrived in Croatia from Australia and immediately began serving as commander of a Serb Red Berets unit. Vasiljkovic was extradited to Croatia in 2015 and is currently before the courts answering to charges of five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict by ethnic Serbs in Croatia between 1991 and 1993.

Dragan Vasiljkovic Captain Dragan

Dragan Vasiljkovic, Serbian Red Berets operative in Croatia. Photo: Reuters/RE (screenshot, 2010     )

Serbia’s Red Berets operating in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (referred to as “Ninjas”, “Serb Voluntary Guard”, “Arkans”, “Tigers, “Scorpions”, “Wolves” or just “Unit”) significantly contributed to the invention of the 1990s version of “ethnic cleansing” and went on to become the most feared so-called paramilitary unit of the 1990’s wars in former Yugoslavia. Despite volunteers etc being members of Red Berets these units were certainly not paramilitary formations as they have often been described because Serbia’s state institutions formed them with the approval by the heads of state. There is no doubt that without such units, politicians like Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic would never have had the means to carry out their radical ethnic policies.

And just as the 25th anniversary of Croatia’s independence declaration arrives this month reflection upon the terrible past needs to include reflection upon the progress of any post-war reconciliation path between the different ethnic groups. Lasting reconciliation and peace can only be established through looking into the past and accepting as well as acknowledging both its good and evil – expressing and feeling remorse and sorrow for the evil perpetrated. But, speeches of some leading politicians, public figures and even government operatives in Serbia often reveal deep-rooted denials of any wrongdoing in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; they continue regurgitating WWII as if WWII occurred in 1990’s! Publicly expressed heartfelt remorse and true reconciliation for wrong doings as a matter of national course, particularly in Serbia where the original aggression stemmed from, are perhaps more distant now than ever before.

Scene from A Good Wife Mirjana Karanovic

Scene from A Good Wife
Mirjana Karanovic (Photo: Screenshot)

But seeds of light are visible. There are people who seem to think hard about remorse as part of reconciliation for the terrible war crimes committed in the name of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. On Sunday 12 June I experienced a wonderful thing that pours hope into the process of true reconciliation and that wonderful thing was, in fact, seeing the 2016 Serbian film by a renowned Serbian actress and now film director Mirjana Karanovic, “A Good Wife” (Dobra Žena), that’s starting to hit world’s film festivals and cinemas (although it had its debut screening at this year’s Sundance festival some months back) with an increasing force and impetus of human foundations of lasting reconciliation.

In the movie, Milena (Karanovic) is a middle-aged housewife living with her not very sensitive but a good provider husband and their two children not far from Belgrade in a comfortable home who accidentally stumbles upon, discovers her husband’s war crimes in Bosnia as an operative of the Red Berets. She agonises as to what to do with the distressing discovery about her husband’s past. After a doctor confirms something she was trying to ignore — a neglected lump in her breast — and recommends immediate mammogram, Milena embarks on a furious bout of house and garage cleaning. She discovers videotape from her and her husband’s happier times; playing it on after the footage of her and her husband in younger days finishes, to her surprise, she discovers the tape also contains some shocking, chilling wartime footage of her husband and his Red Berets unit in Bosnia executing scores of bound and frightened civilians in cold blood. Now looking at the world through more alert eyes, Milena must reconsider everything that she once took for granted in her life; as she continues to study her husband and their surrounds including friends, a craving to effectuate justice subsumes her desire for affection.

Mirjana Karanovic in A Good Wife

Mirjana Karanovic in
A Good Wife (Photo: screenshot)

The discovery of that terrible secret festers deep inside Milena’s soul like a cancer, forcing her to act outside of her usual comfort zone of submissiveness and servitude; but, nonetheless, Milena approaches the situation with great stoicism. Passing comments and manners displayed by her husband Vlada and his other former Red Berets war mates show a repugnant attitude that the war crimes were not crimes at all – they were needed and justified for political gain of Serbia. The film masterfully addresses emotional intensity in all concerned through mostly telling glances and gestures, but also with alternating almost-fixed close-ups, seemingly taken with handheld camera, giving the effect of twitchy movements, which may unnerve at times until one realises the powerful effect this technique also brings to the portrayal of emotions in turmoil.

“Karanovic’s film intelligently presents the evils of ethnic cleansing by way of the guilt that suppurates within the country responsible for the atrocities. While xenophobes may selfishly believe that mass genocide will quell their fear of ‘others,’ they fail to consider how their actions will impact the world around them, especially their friends and family.”

While Karanovic said at the Sydney Film Festival screening that the movie has not had any notable or sweeping impact in Serbia she hopes it may contribute to wider discussions in the society about reconciliation once it is aired on television. As to what motivated her to co-write the script and make such a movie knowing that its theme would win her no fans in her own country (Serbia) but possibly pile enemies and resentment against her, she responded that she can only be what she is.
When I played Milena, I had a big empathy with her because I think it is very hard to change oneself at that age. You cannot bring back a lost soul. Once you lose your soul, then you are merely an empty shell that moves around. I made this film for my own soul.” She once said.

She said that she wanted to make a film on the subject for a number of years and that the idea became a compelling passion. She wanted to show what elements of human behaviour and emotions she believes one must go through in order to truly reconcile with those against whom one has committed terrible crimes. She articulated her deep beliefs that reconciliation for Serbs with regards to the 1990’s war crimes is only possible through admission of the crimes by each and every perpetrator and that Serbia’s society must also embrace this path instead of permitting denial to fester and thus keep the very idea of lasting reconciliation in perpetual turmoil. Certainly a film to see on many fronts but to me its best message is that cover-ups and denial of war crimes lead nowhere except eternal unrest and that Serbia still has a long way to go before any widespread positive progress in reconciliation with other ethnic groups in the region, linked by recent history of violence and war crimes – is made. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)


  1. Nila Oreb says:

    Watching the movie on Sunday at the Sydney Film Festival stirred intense feeling in me, primarily ones of much anger, ( and frustration at the poor cinematography) however Actress / Director Mirjana Karanovic exhonorated herself in my eyes at the end, especially at the Q&A session after the movie concluded.
    I found Mirjana’s candour refreshing and her motive for telling this story very brave and honourable……. Thumbs up 👍🏾
    Well written Ina!

    • Thank you Nila, yes regarding the cinematography as I mentioned in the article perhaps the effect of twitchy movements were meant to strengthen the impression of intense emotional turmoil the “Good Wife” was going through…and as you say, Mirjana Karanovic was brilliant in the movie and in the Q&A session after it.

  2. Looks like my kind of film. Thanks for the introduction. I will look out for it 🙂

  3. Excellent article, Ina! I will definitely place this movie on my watch list. Happy middle of the week to you! 😊

  4. Your words dear Ina on the beginnings of the war is one of the clearest that I have read.
    I know how affected I was in the 90’s by this terrible conflict. And as you know wrote a poem as I donated a medical aid convoy at the time.

    Your description of the film sounds to be a very emotional journey..
    And it was lovely to see you with Mirjana Karanovic in that lovely photo.
    I agree, we cannot sweep under the carpet or forget. The way forward is learning from the past, and not making those same mistakes in the future. As we move forward with more unity and understanding, that we are all human beings despite our ethnic backgrounds and religions..
    It appears Human life appears cheap in the games at play around our globe..
    I pray for peace and unity constantly for the world which appears to be fragmenting more and more.

    Love and Blessings dear Ina xx
    Sue <3

    • Yes Sue I know of your ties with the conflict through humanitarian help and moving words and thank you for these word here also. We are all human, at important times often different to intolerance and hence, conflicts everywhere. It is the qualities showed through this Good Wife that the world should strive to achieve and that take participation of majority of us – perhaps one day

  5. From Facebook: I also saw that film last week and while I was quite impressed with it, I also heard that it was not all that well received in Serbia. No surprises there.

    • Thanks BB, no surprises indeed but at least with this film the seed of serious reconciliation may be planted and with God’s help it may spread to achieve significant results eventually

  6. That’s awesome that you got to meet with the lead actress! Hopefully the movie will make its way here to the US.

  7. Good morning, Ina !

  8. I shared this to all socials, Ina… look like a great film and I love that pic of you and Mirjana. 🙂

  9. I’d love to see this film.

  10. Interesting – I wonder if the movie will make it here – I would be a rapt audience member.

  11. A writer from the East says:

    Will look out for this movie with anticipation, the history of war is important in understanding Croatia and Serbia and these nations’s journey towards a peaceful reconciliation and hopes for non violent future.
    Thanks for bringing this to attention!

  12. Thankyou for an amazing film!! I am somewhat confused by the final scene on the operating table though as it looked like, on my small TV that she had opted for only a lumpectomy rather than the life saving radical double mastectomy?? and if so why? to punish herself for her own perceived guilt by not having lifesaving surgery or did the scene end before the complete surgery? I would hope she wasn’t punishing herself!! thanks k

    • The strength of it as I saw it is that her own illness gave her the strength to report her husband as having committed war crimes when she handed the film in, as though no matter which way her own life moves with the illness she had by that deed of handing over the tape achieved the most difficult thing and yet the best

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