Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
One of the mainstays of Slobodan Milosevic's regime, the forces of the Yugoslav Army (VJ) and the paramilitary police have returned from Kosovo in an ugly mood. Rivalry between the police, the government's main security force, and the regular army, which is treated with much less favour, is sparking particular anger.
Returning to bases within Serbia and tasked with minding military equipment, officers are sounding off. While soldiers and officers who spent the war at anti-aircraft positions in Serbia and Vojvodina have been promoted and praised, "the true combatants from Kosovo villages are being forgotten," says one officer.
Major D.T., commander of an engineering battalion in an anti-aircraft regiment in the VJ's Uzice corps, spent four months in Kosovo. Redeployed out of the province with his troops, he is now marking time in a town in southern Serbia, far from his family. He hasn't been paid for 40 days.
The major says that the army in Kosovo largely performed as a professional military force, and blamed the police for "special actions" against so-called terrorist cells of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "But these actions mainly ended in massive looting and burning," he says.
The army normally concentrated on tasks such as laying mines, but were called in by the police whenever KLA resistance proved too much for them to handle on their own, he claims. "Our units got a bad reputation of only wreaking havoc and destruction. But we got our information on positions and details of action from the police. That information was obviously subject to the police and their plans for robbery."
Another high-ranking VJ officer is now serving in Prokuplje, southern Serbia. He hasn't had leave to see his family for many months, and in the past four months has only received two payments of just over 100 German marks ($59) each.
"I am deeply disappointed in the army chiefs. Their lack of care and knowledge, their arrogance, are truly a signal that our end is near," he says. He expects that he may be ordered to go to Kosovo in some capacity "to gather information", and if so, is considering refusing an order for the first time in his career.
Reactions among Milosevic's dejected soldiers are especially strong in Kraljevo, just 170 kilometres from Kosovo. Thousands of young men from the town were mobilised or joined "patriotic volunteer forces" to fight in the province, serving for a monthly wage of 700 German marks ($412).
On their withdrawal from Kosovo, these soldiers raised the three-fingered Serbian salute before television cameras and chanted, "We shall return soon." But back in their hometown, they have faced a cruel reality--unpaid utility bills, overdrafts on their bank accounts, debts from family borrowing, no salary payments from their decimated employers and no jobs on offer now.
Unwelcome in Kraljevo--they are unavoidable reminders of a war the local citizens would rather forget---the returning soldiers angrily erected barricades on key roads around the town. Their focus was not against Belgrade and its war policy, but personal. They just wanted to get paid.
After two days wrangling with local military officials, themselves active officers anxious to be paid, the warriors from Kosovo got an initial payment of 1,800 dinars each. The next day they got 45 dinars for every one of the 120 days they spent in Kosovo. In total they had to settle for the equivalent of a month's money for a local militiaman, or about 700 German marks. This was the price their country paid for the patriotic service of the men of units like squad 5522, which spent the war as virtual sitting targets, defending a bridge across the Ibar river in the heart of Kraljevo from prowling NATO fighter-bombers.
But the army has been increasingly marginalised for years. Instead Milosevic usually relies on the police and the state run media to hold the line. Yet even their effectiveness in the role of Milosevic loyalists is in doubt.
The police, the men who spearheaded Milosevic's interventions across the former Yugoslavia over the decade, are also bearing the brunt of the defeat that followed. Their forces went to Knin to foster the creation of a Serb para-state in the Croatian Krajina; stood over the wreckage of Vukovar, and later in Bosnia and Herzegovina; fought in Banja Luka and Sarajevo; and finally ended up in, and out of Kosovo.
Milosevic may not have stepped foot in any of these places during this time, and the police may gratefully note that the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague is clearly willing and able to draw clear lines of command between the Yugoslav president and their acts in these places.
But the police, who mark the line between Milosevic and his beleaguered people, are still feeling increasingly tense. A 1990s TV documentary about Belgrade's underworld described life in "a small pond with many crocodiles". They know how that feels. "Who knows what video I'm on," says a police veteran, just back from Kosovo and his third war for Serbia. "Maybe someone will recognise me on the street," he adds. "I would just like to disappear."
By an independent journalist in Belgrade, whose name has been withheld.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight