224. The October 5th Mass March on Belgrade: An Eyewitness Account

By
Velimir Ilic

The regime of Slobodan Milosevic created great problems not only for those of us who live in Serbia, but also for the entire world. His regime, which was probably one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world, basically brought the Serbian people to the edge of insanity - to a point where they did not know what to do. The terror and repression that occurred in terms of kidnapings, arrests, and even murders, had tremendous impact on the people of Serbia.

The Democratic Opposition (DOS) would continually arrange for protest demonstrations and Milosevic, through his police apparatus, would allow us to speak. But then, because of the repressive atmosphere, we would simply speak and then go home. The only real problem he had to deal with was OTPOR, a group of young people and students who really caused Milosevic to lose his nerve and patience.

Milosevic was powerless against OTPOR because they were decentralized and able to actively undertake activities throughout all of Serbia. They would speak very little, but they would take many effective actions against him. Thus, he began a campaign of terror against these young people and even got to the point where he called them Nazis and Fascists.

The town that really drove him crazy was Cacak. There, the opposition was so strong that nobody could defeat us. Milosevic could never come to Cacak to give a speech, nor could his wife.

During the Kosovo air war, he deliberately put military targets within our town so that Cacak was almost totally destroyed. One night, over twenty Tomahawk cruise missles hit just one factory. The factory "Sloboda" alone was hit with fifty-four 20,000 ton bombs. The six largest companies/factories were destroyed and tens of thousands of people were left without jobs. We were all very much disheartened and disillusioned because one of the greatest centers of opposition towards Milosevic was destroyed.

The town in which Milosevic lived, Pozarevac, didn't get hit with one single bomb, and he manipulated this fact. He launched a vicious media campaign in which he effectively said, "Here's your West. And the person that is the most responsible for this destruction is your mayor."

Milosevic also began to hound certain opposition leaders and ordered that I be arrested and locked up. He ordered the military police to immediately carry out his order. One of Yugoslav Army Commander General Pavkovic's closest colleagues called me and informed me only minutes before they surrounded my house so I was able to escape.

I had to hide for 43 days in the forest and in the "Jelica"mountains until the arrest orders were rescinded. On the day that I emerged from the forest, I was greeted by a crowd of over 20,000 people. They then guarded my house day and night to make sure I remained safe. These people also launched a petition campaign, which was signed by over 20,000 people, stating that I wasn't guilty of anything.

The day I came out of hiding, we held the first meeting of the newly-united opposition since the end of the Kosovo War in May, 1999. At that point, we decided to go for all or nothing. We began preparations to bring all of Serbia to Belgrade; however, we also had to really "heat up" Belgrade itself. We knew that we needed to gather a critical mass of one million people. I was tasked with the job.

We began to lobby people who shared our ideas in the military and police. Before the big demonstration in Belgrade on October 5, we had a complete unit of special anti-terrorist forces cross over to our side. Many leaders of the army also helped us by, among other things, supplying us with weapons. A few days before the big demonstration, we were able to smuggle these weapons into Belgrade with the assistance of active police officers. Elite forces of the 63rd parachute division also joined us. In addition, we had the support of pilots, sports figures, and athletes. We developed a very professional corps of leaders to lead the entire action.

This unit was led by officers of the Ministry of Interior. Two colonels on the staff of General Pavkovic, who were dressed in civilian clothes, were constantly with us. On the fifth of October we began from a number of cities and towns, but the most important was Cacak. We took over 230 heavy trucks filled with people, who were armed with rocks, sticks and wooden planks to break the corridors of police if they tried to block us.

We had over 60 bus-loads of people and a large number of private automobiles in our column. The convoy of vehicles heading to Belgrade that day extended over 20 kilometers, at the head of which we had heavy construction equipment, including bulldozers. The regime set up a number of obstacles and barricades, and at every barricade there were special police. Yet, we were able to get by each of these obstacles, one by one. Slowly we progressed towards Belgrade.

Close to the outskirts of Belgrade the Ministry of Interior had set up armored cars. We also plowed past those. At that point, the police began to run and throw away their equipment. They did not expect such a large number of people or that there would be so many professionals among us who could effectively deal with their obstructions.

All of our battles at these barricades were broadcast directly by Radio B92. All of Serbia was able to follow this - especially Belgrade. Everyone was rooting for us and was ecstatic about our progress. That was our goal, actually, to excite people - to show them that we weren't going to simply hold meetings, talk, and then go home. We were prepared to go for all or nothing. During my speech before I left for Belgrade, I had said, "victory or death. We are not going to come back alive if we have not overthrown him - if we have not gotten rid of him."

When we arrived in Belgrade, there were over 100,000 people on the streets. As our convoy progressed, we turned traffic around and directed it towards the city center. As we drove by the windows began to shake, literally, from the force of our numbers. Onlookers began to cheer. They started coming out into the streets, bringing us soft drinks, beer, sandwiches, flowers. They were overwhelmingly happy.

Also along the way, we were able to take a number of walkie-talkies and radios away from the police, which enabled us to monitor their communications. We were then able to anticipate their every move. We had moved through Belgrade so quickly that a confrontation began with the police in front of the federal parliament about two and a half hours before the time of the officially scheduled demonstration. Street battles began. Fighting with the police escalated and they began to use tear gas. Interior Minister Stojilkovic ordered them to use their weapons.

After the tear gas, they began to use certain chemicals against us. In anticipation of that, we had brought trucks full of water and a number of rags which were effective in countering the tear gas and chemicals. The officers leading the police kept encouraging their forces to continue to use tear gas, to move forward, to maintain their ranks. They were constantly saying, "15:30 (3:30 pm) is the critical time. We have to endure until then."

But the demonstrators kept coming back for more. We kept confronting the police. Then, people started throwing homemade explosives through the windows of the federal parliament building. When the police saw these explosives, they fled from the parliament, from which they had continually bombarded us with tear gas and chemicals.

The first to enter the federal parliament were professional police officers and fans from particular sports teams (particularly Delija), who could not be restrained. As the police began to flee, they discarded their equipment and uniforms. Young people put on the discarded helmets and bullet-proof vests and soon you could not tell one from the other. It was total chaos. Officials in the parliament building set fire to documents so that we couldn't get to them.

The Minister of Police and even Milosevic himself asked for military intervention, claiming that dozens of police officers had been killed and that people had been killed in the federal parliament building. Pavkovic, however, refused to carry out the command. The army sided with the people over party affiliations and party loyalty. Pavkovic was informed directly by his two colonels who were with us that there were no casualties - no dead people. He did not react, and that really saved us.

We also prepared a large number of Molotov cocktails, as well as Zolja (rocket-propelled grenades). Several police stations were abandoned by the police. Many young people took the rifles and pistols from these stations. In the evening we had great difficulty trying to get them to return these weapons, but they did return them slowly, putting the weapons in one big pile in the basement of a police station.

After the fall of the parliament building, the state television building (RTS) was quickly taken. Very soon after the parliament's capture, a bulldozer appeared in front of the television building and began to strike the foundation. The workers in the building were frightened by that and a fire that began soon after, so they quickly fled the building.

Once out on the street, the leadership of RTS begged the threatening crowd not to be beaten. The head of RTS, Milanovic, was nearly lynched. The executive director of RTS, Komarkov, also was severely beaten. We were barely able to protect them from this mob.

When we arrived at Studio B, it was completely deserted. We were unable to start using the TV broadcasting equipment in Studio B because there was no one there who knew how to work it.

When night came, we were exhausted, hungry and tired, but we tried to keep people on the streets through speeches from the city assembly building. We were trying to maintain a level of tension and momentum because we were frightened that we would lose all of our achievements of the day in a possible counter-strike. We wanted to prevent that at all costs. But, it was very difficult. People were exhausted and began to go home - especially the citizens of Belgrade. So, it was up to us from the interior of Serbia to maintain the vigil, to keep the crowds on the street.

We called on people from the interior of Serbia to send trucks of food to help us. And when dawn arrived, we were relieved. We knew we had achieved victory. We called on Belgraders to come out and replace us, and they came out in large numbers - heeding our call - and they began to celebrate in the streets. There was no more Milosevic.

We prepared our united DOS campaign for the December elections for the Serbian parliament, which we won handily. And despite all of the sabotage and all of the problems, we were able to emerge victorious because the people believed that we could succeed.

Now it is up to DOS to do something for the people, as they have suffered so much because of Milosevic's dictatorship: to give us respect and democracy, to do away with theft, to make sure that thieves end up in prisons, to make sure that everything that was stolen is returned. Whether or not all of this will be done now depends on the people who are in power. Serbia expects this of us. I hope that the people who have now come to power will heed the lesson of what happens to a government that does not respect the will of the people.

That is the end of my story. Maybe I was a little long in explaining it, but there were many important details that I did not feel I could gloss over or skip. It is important that the true story be known, because now there are many falsified stories being told and there are many members of paramilitary groups who want to cleanse themselves of dishonorable actions by claiming that they had some role in all of these events. The story that I have told you is based on my eye- witness account. As someone who participated in these events, I stand behind it.

Right after these events, I had a very severe car accident and spent a great deal of time in the hospital. Because of this, unfortunately, I was not able to publicly explain what I have told you today. I am very saddened by the fact that now there are some members of the previous regime, especially in the police, who are trying to whitewash what has happened, along with their roles in these pivotal events.

Let me give you just one example of the injustices done to some of our supporters following these events. One high ranking officer of a special elite unit of the police who helped us tremendously on October fifth has been demoted and now is guarding locomotives at a train station. I have hope that the new government is going to fix these types of injustices and bring order to Serbia.

Thank you for your attention.

Mayor Ilic spoke at an EES Discussion on February 2, 2001. The above is an edited transcript of his speech, which was delivered in Serbo-Croatian. Meeting Report #224.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant