Former Yugoslavia: the radio treasure trove

During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, I experimented with monitoring the radio wavebands for journalistic purposes. It was somewhat of a treasure trove. As hostilities increased in Croatia in 1991, I could listen to the Yugoslav Air Force with the help of a defected fighter pilot who acted as my interpreter. Later on, the warring factions could be monitored as they used unencrypted Motorola ‘walkie-talkies’.

As the United Nations deployed units throughout Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I could listen to their military observers (UNMO’s) and other communications (all unscrambled). The cellphones in those days were analogue and likewise easy to monitor (although this rarely provided useful information) with receivers and scanners readily available in hobby shops.

Somewhat more complicated was the monitoring of radioteletype (RTTY) messages. But Dutch over-the-counter software linked to a signal converter (to digitalize the ‘beeps’) and a laptop provided the solution. At first I used this ‘secret weapon’ to receive the regional news agencies, including Tanjug (Yugoslavia/Serbia), MTI (Hungary) and ATA (Albania).

Then came the next step. Thanks to a radio amateur magazine, I learned that humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) also used radioteletype to transmit messages to and from their field offices – including those in the former Yugoslavia. Phase two of exploiting the treasure trove began. The traffic gave me invaluable insight into the events on the ground, in particular in Bosnia.

For obvious reasons I never told anyone how I got my information. But when I learned about certain events, I would call the press officers of the mentioned organizations to verify the reports I said I received from ‘a reliable source’. If confirmed, I had a nice scoop. If not, better luck next time.

When I stopped covering the war in 1994, I informed the ICRC and UNHCR about their leaky radio traffic. At first they wouldn’t believe me.  But of course I could show them the evidence. It turned out they had believed the Swiss provider of their radioteletype equipment who told them the traffic could not be monitored by radio amateurs. No comment…

And how did those messages sound on the airwaves? Here is a sample of a typical UN and ICRC protocol of those days, PACTOR-I:

Below is one of the gems that made it to my laptop via that ‘cricket sound’ on the airwaves. It caused quite a stir as it proved that the UNHCR allowed US military personnel to drive its cars in Bosnia – a perfect cover for other activities. In addition, this took place at a moment in time when the United States said it had no military personnel in Bosnia other than a few officers and NCO’s serving in UNPROFOR. Bingo… (The text was slightly garbled due to atmospheric circumstances)


Thu 23.03.9NSA   from: HCSWIGE    msg: HCBSNSA.306



BU01-23-3-0673 205.HRV

HCR/bsn/0l 09 HCR/hrv/0484

For L. Chang OIC-CAU/M. Zimmermann from C. Walker, PCBS

lnfo T. Birath Head FO/M. Morand


Most grateful you send to Sarajevo all relevant authorizations for US DOD personnel to drive UNHCR vehicles already provided to you by HQ.


lf further authorization are required for LJS DOD personnel please follow usual procedures of asking HQ to authorize on an individual basis.


Re assignment of Philip J. Antonio to Zagreb.  We agreeable to Antonio being authorized to drive UNHCR vehicles under same conditions as T. Zakriski, B. Sheedy, C. Blevins, V. Debray, M. Burken M. Zimmermann, L. Velzke, N. Grandy, P. Ray and D. Tucker pending resolution of legalities between US Gov. Legal Experts and UNHCR.  For conditions please refer to HCR/HRV/1057 of 2 June 1994 below


(UNHCR) GENEVA 02JUN94 1100z

BU01-0206-1178 205.BSN


~~Foation to drive for Tim Zakriski . UNHCR Legal Adviser has reviewed correspondence received and counsels as follows:

While JTF Team Leader memo does not address UNHCR concerns clearly, it is an acceptable solution on a temporary basis.

There should UNHCR Driver’s Waiver if the reference to the Vehicular lnsurance Agreement is deleted. Accordingly, recommended action ls that UNHCR propose that in high risk areas such as BiH the lnsurance Agreement be forfeited where drivers, are government employees.

Should US Government legal experts wish to liaise with UN ~~should be addressed directly to the UNHCR

Legal Adviser, General Legal Advice in Geneva.



col 01 2303 0673 1994 02 94 1100 01 0206 1178

205 1057 27



Over Hans de Vreij

Retired Dutch journalist. Covered EU, NATO, UN, security & defense. Was correspondent in Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Prague. Studied Russian language & literature.
Dit bericht werd geplaatst in (former) Yugoslavia en getagged met , , , , , , , , . Maak dit favoriet permalink.

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