RETURN TO UNCONQUERED BOSNIA HOMEPAGE
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Source:1995 N.Y. Times News Service
Black Swans, Muslim Paramilitia
KAKANJ, Bosnia-Herzegovina - The Bosnian army's toughest commandos have turned a schoolhouse here into an incongruously plush, carpeted headquarters replete with fresh meat and vegetables, satellite television in the mess, and an ivy-covered gazebo. Before they step inside, they remove their shoes in the Muslim fashion. The Black Swans - most of them refugees, some the only survivors of families obliterated by Serbian ``ethnic cleansing'' - began as a few dozen men who had been driven from their hometown, Bijeljina, in the first battle of the war. Now 800 strong, all Muslim and equipped with shiny French assault rifles and American-made M16s and rocket launchers, the Black Swans walk with a swagger taken on after successful missions on almost every war front in the country.
On Thursday night, somewhere about 25 miles southeast of this mining town, the Black Swans are surely playing a part in what may be the Bosnian government's push to break the three-year Serbian siege of Sarajevo. Asked what the Bosnian army has in mind with its buildup of some 15,000 or so troops north of the capital, the Black Swan's commander, Brig. Hase Tiric, only smiled. ``You'll find out soon enough,'' said the 30-year-old commander, who was one of those original bedraggled civilians fleeing Bijeljina. But he added that he still hoped a political solution can be found to lift the siege without a military offensive, which military observers say would be ill-advised against the Serb's better-armed forces. ``It would be very costly,'' the commander acknowleged. ``And I hope I never have to see it.''
In three years of war, Tiric's unit has become the Bosnian army's most elite force, and one indicator of how the Bosnian army, despite its continuing inadequacies, has risen from infancy. The Black Swans guard the president when he leaves Sarajevo, and, last summer, they opened the way for the capture of an entire plateau north of the city, surprising the Serbs just east of the town of Vares. Two months ago, the Black Swans captured the peak of Mt. Vlasic, overlooking a huge expanse of northern Bosnia, by traversing a snow-carpeted minefield and catching the Serbs napping on the other side. Three weeks ago, a Black Swan contingent pulled the Bosnian army's Second Corps to within three miles of the Drina River near the village of Sapna east of the city of Tuzla. ``They are a zealous and disciplined unit and have a high morale,'' said a U.N. military officer in the Kakanj area. ``We know that when they are in an area, something will happen.'' The commando unit also is an example of Islamization of Bosnian society. At obligatory Friday prayers, members of the Black Swans - no women may enter their barracks - bow toward Mecca in a rug-covered hallway they have converted into a mosque. All Black Swans commandos are required to swear off alcohol and cursing,though many of the men, whose average age is about 20 and who hail from all over the country, pepper their language with profanity when out of the range of their officers. ``Muslims in Bosnia know they cannot separate religion from their national consciousness,'' said the Black Swans' morale officer, Sead Numanovic, explaining that the religious instruction and obligatory prayer help solidify the men's national identity. ``This has nothing to do with fundamentalism,'' he said, adding that half of the men do not know an Islamic prayer when they arrive. ``Fundamentalism is just a propaganda term.'' Over the last year, a reorganization of the Bosnian army has strengthened all-Muslim attack groups like the Black Swans while ethnically mixed local units defend the trenches in their regions. U.N. military observers criticize the government's overall war effort, saying it lacks the firepower, tactical prowess, and logistical wherewithal to defeat the Serbs. Tiric, the Black Swan commander, acknowledged that ``there is a great deal of ineptitude.'' ``We have an army that has a lot to learn,'' he said. ``We have good fighting men. But we lack more than artillery and tanks. We lack a skilled officer corps, and we lack logistical backup.'' There was also a deeper problem, he added. ``We lie to ourselves,'' he said when asked whether the Bosnian command too often bases its strategy-making on chest-pounding propaganda rather than cool assessment of the army's limited, albeit slowly growing, offensive capability.
``The problem,'' he said, ``is that when the Bosnian army takes some small bit of ground, there is a lot of hoopla and too many television pictures of commanders. Only when we are holding 50 percent of our territory will we be able to say we're any good.''
Tiric said the Black Swans spend on average about $700,000 a month for weapons, equipment, and supplies. All of it, he said, is in cash. He said some of the funds come through the army's general command but that most come from ``private sources.'' Members of the Black Swans said better living conditions were a main reason for joining the unit, but added that it was like a family to them, especially for fighters who lost their natural families early in the war. ``We are like brothers,'' said 22-year-old Admir Kunic, a refugee from a village near Zvornik. ``It is much better here than in other units of the army. Our morale is high. There is real military discipline. Not anyone can be a Black Swan. It is a high honor.''
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