History has forgotten the many thousands of conscientious objectors and other resistors to the 1998-99 Kosovo War. Here are some of their stories.
Danilo Kiš, who died in 1989 and is often regarded as the last Yugoslav novelist, was haunted by that which had been lost to history. He was most preoccupied with forgotten people. In novels like A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and The Encyclopedia of the Dead, a recurring theme is biographical information missing from the historical record, due to deliberate omission, destruction or bureaucratic incompetence.
Kiš felt it was literature’s duty to rectify what reality got wrong, to fill in with compulsive detail that which had been hollowed out by history’s mistakes, and to correct for that most indefensible and potentially dangerous of crimes — forgetting.
Long forgotten by history now are the many conscientious objectors from Serbia during the 1998-99 Kosovo War. Amnesty International released a report entitled “The Forgotten Resistors of the Kosovo Conflict – The Price of Conscience” in October 1999, estimating that 23,000 men in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia faced prison time for their refusal to perform military service during the war.
Over 15,000 military deserters fled the territory of Yugoslavia from 1998-99 to avoid conscription and commands to kill. Many resisters left behind jobs, family and friends to seek protection in grim refugee camps, often in neighboring Hungary.
Their applications for asylum were almost always rejected, despite the fact that the UNHCR and the Council of Europe stated that “refusal to take part in a war condemned by the international community because of serious violations of international humanitarian law should be considered grounds for granting asylum”.
Neither Hungary nor any other NATO member state that participated in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia offered a permanent settlement option to those who dodged the draft and fled, despite the fact that the alliance had dropped propaganda leaflets all over Yugoslavia urging soldiers to do just that.
Resistors who were returned to Yugoslavia faced secret trials and sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
In addition to the military deserters from Yugoslavia, there are others who are absent from all of the competing historical narratives about the Kosovo War. The stories that follow are an incomplete attempt to contribute to that incomplete history. As Kiš wrote in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich:
“The ancient Greeks had an admirable custom: for anyone who perished by fire, was swallowed by a volcano, buried by lava, torn to pieces by beasts, devoured by sharks, or whose corpse was scattered by vultures in the desert, they built so-called cenotaphs, or empty tombs, in their homelands, for the body is only fire, water, or earth, whereas the soul is the Alpha and Omega, to which a shrine should be erected.”
They called their café the “Bastion of Freedom”. Located in the quiet, coal country city of Lazarevac about 35 miles from Belgrade, the young group of nine Serbs used to meet up at the cafe to drink coffee, plan anti-Milošević protests and put together opposition materials.
They were seasoned dissidents, and had participated in the massive student protests against the government in 1996-97. One member told Amnesty International of their efforts to resist fighting in Kosovo, “it is not the first time that we feel we do not want to participate in wars in Yugoslavia.” Some wore their hair long, and their anti-war activities already made them outsiders in their small mining community. But when one of NATO’s bombs struck an electrical power plant that employed many residents of Lazarevac, they became detested symbols of Serbia’s foreign enemies.
In the aftermath, their lives as anti-war activists in a small town where everyone knew them became almost unbearable. They reported being regularly harassed by the police and threatened with violence. Other residents told them that they were “traitors” and that Serbia was “bleeding” because of them.
The Bastion of Freedom, including a couple and their seven-year-old son, soon made their way to Hungary using various routes to escape call-up and military service in Kosovo. All nine of them moved into a tiny apartment with just two rooms on a busy boulevard in Budapest — accommodations which Amnesty International described as “cramped and inadequate”.
They reported receiving no assistance from the Hungarian authorities, who were reluctant to discuss asylum procedures with the group. “Everybody tries to fool us. Nobody tells us anything,” one member of the group said. Another spoke of hearing the same words repeated everywhere they went: “Sorry. It’s not my job. I can’t help you.”
“What have we done – it’s like we have gone from one jail to the next? We are being punished for what we have done,” another member said.
They were all in Hungary on temporary permits awaiting a decision on their applications for asylum. Fully aware of the dangers of being deported back to Serbia, the group spent all of their time reaching out to every potential resource, including embassies and human rights organizations. “We’re not asking for special favours. We have skills, we’ll work,” said Snežana Božičković, 30, who fled with her husband and young son.
The Bastion of Freedom group had more than Milošević’s military courts to fear should they face deportation to Serbia.
Siniša Prole, a 26-year-old member of the group, explained just how despised they all were at home in an interview with the Guardian. “My grandfather told me, ‘If you go back, I’ll kill you, and if I don’t, someone else will.’”
“We have fought for human rights and democracy for the past 10 years,” another member of the group said. “We understand the world’s anger at Milošević’s war crimes but we opposed his regime all our lives. I feel so bad that all the people who condemned the war have closed their doors on us.”
(Amnesty International, The Guardian)
The trouble began when the conversation turned to politics.
It was an afternoon in early April 1999, and Milan, a shopkeeper from Serbia, was standing in front of his small shop talking with a few friends.
“Milošević is always pushing us into wars,” Milan said aloud. Milošević’s policies, he added, were turning Serbs into “a genocidal people”.
Someone must have immediately reported Milan’s comments to the local police. The next day, he was escorted to the police station for what he described as an “informative interrogation”. Frightened, he told police that he’d been drunk when he’d made the offensive comments, since it was his daughter’s birthday. An officer reportedly hit him in the face and told him to be careful about making such remarks in a time of war.
Within 48 hours, a call-up notice was delivered to his home. His wife wouldn’t sign the paper, so police left it pinned to his front door.
Milan and a friend immediately went into hiding. About three weeks later, their hiding place was uncovered by police. Milan was taken to a prison, where he was locked up along with three other men who had refused to perform military service in Kosovo. Throughout his incarceration, he was denied all contact with his family.
Then after about a week in prison, Milan was taken out of his cell and forced onto a truck carrying soldiers. While the truck was still idling in front of police headquarters, he escaped, accompanied by a friend and fellow deserter. For the second time in a month, Milan went into hiding.
The police immediately visited his home, where his wife and children were nervously awaiting any news about his whereabouts. Instead, the military police ransacked his apartment, terrifying them.
Eventually Milan was able to find a car with Hungarian registration plates from a town just across the border. He bribed the border guards and was allowed to cross into Hungary, where his wife and young children joined him a short while later.
Milan did not want his family to live in one of the overcrowded refugee camps in Hungary, where thousands of deserters and conscientious objectors from Serbia were living in “spartan” conditions. Though Milan had been forced to leave his job when he fled and therefore had very little money, the family lived in private accommodations that Amnesty International described as “inadequate”, and were in danger of having to leave. Hungarian aid organizations had failed to provide them with assistance.
They feared being deported back to Serbia where Milan would be labeled a traitor and sent to prison.
The ethnic cleansing of the Albanians of Peja/Pec was among the most organized operations of its kind during the war. One week after the NATO bombing began, Serbian police had forcibly expelled 90 percent of the Albanian population. Buses collected local Albanians in the city center and then drove them south to Albania. But 75-year-old Zymber Buqaj and her husband didn’t want to leave.
The elderly Albanian couple discussed their dilemma with their Serbian next-door neighbor, Zivko Martinović. People had been whispering about possible Serbian massacres of Albanians in the surrounding villages, and the Buqajs needed a place where they would be safe from the roaming units of Serbian police. Martinović helped them by knocking down a wall in his home that had divided their two apartments. This created a secret passage the Buqajs could use without being detected by anyone outside. Then Martinović cleared a shed in his backyard which he’d used to store paint cans and firewood, so that the elderly couple could have their own secret living space. The Buqajs stayed there for three months. “He opened his door and helped us,” Zymber Buqaj explained, “because he knew [about the] massacres.”
That June, after the NATO bombing ended and Serbian authorities began to retreat from Kosovo, Martinović grew nervous about the rumored reprisal killings of Serbs by the KLA. Zymber Buqaj’s husband asked Martinović if they could meet. Buqaj wanted to return Martinović the same kindness he’d shown them, and invited him into their home to shield him from any revenge-seekers. But Martinović refused. Instead, Martinović insisted that Buqaj take the keys to his apartment and gave the place as a gift to the Buqaj’s daughter.
“I can’t be here anymore,” Martinović said, before leaving for Serbia.
(The Boston Globe)
“I’m an American, Chinese, German, international,” Damir, a photographer from Serbia said in 1999. “I want to be where I belong – that is peace.” The child of a Croatian mother and an Albanian father, Damir was also a committed Christian pacifist. When he received his call-up notice on March 30th, he immediately informed the authorities that he would refuse to carry any kind of weapon in Kosovo. Damir had worked as a fireman to reduce death and destruction; he refused to participate in creating it. His former commander at the local fire brigade contacted the military police on his behalf and suggested that Damir serve as a fireman as a sort of informal alternative to military service in Kosovo. Otherwise, he knew Damir would face the dreaded military police and prison time.
The authorities accepted the proposal. But it was during Damir’s service with the local fire brigade that his serious troubles began.
First, his fellow firefighters started to harass him about his mixed background. They denigrated him for his pacifism. He was reportedly told that it was people from mixed marriages who were responsible for the NATO bombing, and that for his refusal to fight in Kosovo, he should receive the death penalty. Other members of the brigade accused him of taking photos of sensitive military and industrial sites and of spying for NATO.
The harassment took a particularly horrific turn one night in early April, when members of the brigade were trying to contain a raging fire at a petrol storage facility which had been targeted by NATO bombs. Damir claims his colleagues attempted to lock him inside the building and burn him alive.
He still feared the military courts would not accept the unofficial arrangement orchestrated by his former commander, and that he would be arrested and tried for evading military service in Kosovo. After the war officially ended, and the “state of war” border controls were lifted in August, Damir managed to obtain a passport legally and crossed the border into Hungary. He applied for state protection with the Hungarian authorities. Friends in Serbia warned Damir that the military police planned to prosecute him aggressively should he return home.
He told Amnesty International that his “biggest wish” was to go to Australia, the destination of many Christian pacifists from Yugoslavia.
The Petković family lived in Gjakova, a city of about 100,000 with an old Ottoman Bazaar situated in a hilly area near the Albanian border. Živko, 61, was retired, and his wife Desanka, 58, was a homemaker. They were the parents of two sons, Nebojša and a second son whose name is not available in public records.
Their Albanian neighbor, Bashkim Xhoka, also lived with them. He had moved in with the Petkovics after Serbian soldiers torched his home in retaliation for the NATO bombing. Gjakova was targeted by NATO beginning March 24th, the day airstrikes on Yugoslavia began, and was the site of a devastating accident in which “NATO aircraft repeatedly bombed a convoy of refugees, many of them riding on tractors.” A total of 73 Albanian refugees were killed as a result.
Xhoka’s house was one of an estimated 5,600 homes destroyed by Serbian forces in Gjakova. A Human Rights Watch report from 2001 says that Gjakova experienced the worst violence against Albanian civilians of any of Kosovo’s larger cities. When the NATO bombing ended on June 10, the couple began to fear reprisal attacks from the KLA. On June 12, their two sons fled Gjakova to Serbia. But husband and wife stayed behind, and Xhoka promised to protect them.
Their two sons were unable to call their parents from Serbia because telephone connections had been cut. They didn’t hear from their mother or father again after leaving Kosovo and began to worry. In September, they were finally able to reach Xhoka for a short phone call, and he told them that their parents had left for Serbia in June, just ten days after they themselves had left. He said he’d tried his best to help them, but the situation had grown far too dangerous.
One journalist who visited Gjakova during the war described it as “nightmarish”.
In early January, the brothers called Xhoka’s sister in Prizren. She told them that the KLA had made frequent visits to the Petkovic family home in Gjakova/Djakovica to see their parents. Mostly the KLA men asked a lot of questions about them: the two Serbian brothers. Their parents became frightened and decided to flee. Xhoka helped them avoid identification by removing the license plate on their white Citreon. On June 22nd, the Serbian couple packed some things into the car and departed Gjakova/Djakovica around 2:30 pm on the road to Peja/Pec, bound for Serbia.
An Albanian friend of the family later told Nebojša that she saw the couple every day after they left their home until June 26th. It’s not clear from the records where she met them. What is clear is that she brought the middle-aged Serbian couple meals, which suggests they were too afraid to venture out alone. The KLA eventually threatened to kill the young Albanian woman along with her entire family if she continued “cooperating” with the Serbs by bringing them food. Soon, she grew too afraid to continue with the visits.
Nebojša informed UNMIK about his parents’ disappearance in 2000. Three years later, he heard from a friend and former Albanian neighbor that someone may have seen his parents alive in the Glakova/Djakovica region. He told UNMIK, and they conducted an investigation in an around the area, but failed to find any trace of them.
A few years ago, Nebojša filed a complaint with UNMIK alleging that they’d failed to properly investigate the disappearance of his mother and father.
Živko and Desanka Petković have never been seen again.
(Humanitarian Law Center)
Aleksa would dig trenches and build fortifications for the Yugoslav army but refused to take part in any armed conflict or carry out any order to kill. For the electrician and Seventh Day Adventist from Serbia, “people are all God’s children” and “differences in ethnicity” were of no concern to him.
Two months after digging ditches for the army, Aleksa learned that his unit was about to be deployed to Kosovo in late May of 1999. Still in his soldier’s uniform, he walked across the border into Bulgaria.
“I did not want to fight and take the lives of others for a war that I believed to be totally unnecessary because of our president’s wrong political motives,” he wrote in a statement for Amnesty International. “I am a Seventh Day Adventist, and I respect all human beings, no matter what their nationality or religion. I believe that God teaches that all men are equal.”
The Bulgarian police kept Aleksa’s uniform and took a statement, along with his photograph and fingerprints. They granted him temporary protection in Bulgaria for just three months. For two months he stayed with friends, before they found out that Bulgaria was slated to change its regulations concerning refugees, and asylum seekers like Aleksa might be sent back to Serbia.
Aleksa then traveled to Hungary, where he received shelter and support from the Adventist community. He sought protection in Hungary, but his ultimate goal was to reach Australia, where much of his family was already living and had offered to provide him with financial support.
“I cannot return to Yugoslavia because I will be put in prison for 10 to 20 years,” Aleksa said. “I cannot return to my country as a deserter, because my life would be in danger.”
Testimony records the man’s name as S.Dž. The initials belong to a Roma man from Kraljevo who, along with his uncle, brother and brother-in-law, were abducted by Albanian civilians on July 28th, 1999. Two of the Roma men were in a Zastava 101, and the other two were in a Renault 4. They were stopped by four drunk Albanians in sweat suits between 6.30 and 7 p.m. just outside of Dobrčane.
They began to beat S.Dž’s uncle and brother. Then two of the Albanian civilians forced S.Dž and his brother-in-law into the back of the Zastava 101, while one man drove and the other kept a pistol pointed at them. The other two men tied S.Dž’s uncle and brother together and pushed them into the Renault 4, and the drivers turned left off of the main road and into a wooded area.
They were taken into a barn and ordered to strip naked. A chain was placed around S.Dž’s neck. The captors demanded to know which army they fought for, and if they had collaborated with Serbs. They were heavily beaten with clubs and crowbars and had sharp sticks forced into their mouths. Then they were dragged into the woods and beaten with tree branches for two hours.
Suddenly, seven Albanians S.Dž knew from a nearby village appeared with axes and pistols. They ordered the men who were beating S.Dž and his family to stop immediately and let them go. S.Dž remembers that one of the seven men winked and smiled to reassure him. S.Dž and his three family members put their clothes back on, and then the seven Albanians who may have saved their lives, drove them back to the main road, where they were taken to a nearby hospital for medical treatment.
They never returned to Kosovo.
(Humanitarian Law Center)
The Debrecen refugee camp in eastern Hungary was one of the largest facilities for asylum seekers in the country, with a capacity to hold 1,200 people as they awaited the outcomes of their claims. Goran, a 28-year-old technician from Serbia, found himself sleeping on a raw iron bed in a moldy and claustrophobic room at the former Soviet army base in 1999, after fleeing military service in Kosovo.
A few days after the NATO bombing began, military police came to Goran’s door with his call-up notice. He wasn’t at home, and his sister was able to warn him over the phone. The decision to flee the country was made quickly: Goran packed one change of clothes, his passport, a piece of bread and what little he had in savings and headed towards the Hungarian border on foot, weaving his way through woods and flat fields. Refugees called it the “green border” – the smuggler’s route into Hungary. When he first crossed the border into Hungary, he was relieved, but that didn’t last long. Hungarian border police stopped him and transported him to two refugee reception centers before he finally wound up at the dreary Debrecen facility in a room filled with other asylum seekers who’d fled Serbia because they opposed the Kosovo War. Then he received Hungary’s decision on his application for asylum: denied. They said he lacked sufficient evidence to qualify. He spent the next year feeling “abandoned” at the detention center, awaiting a decision on his appeal.
“I know I did the right thing by refusing to fight in the war. I don’t regret it, but it costs me so much. I have no job. I miss my friends and family. I am afraid.”
“In the eyes of my people, I am a traitor and a lot would never forgive me,” Goran said.
Still, Goran knew he’d made the only decision he could live with. “I knew the risks. Milošević had declared a state of war and the borders were closed. But I didn’t agree with his senseless policies. I had always opposed him. I wasn’t going to serve in his war. I would never go to war.”
(Amnesty International, The Guardian)