'Shoot First, Live Longer'

Returning Yugoslav soldiers give their accounts of brutality, courage and despair in the failed war to save Kosovo.

'Shoot First, Live Longer'

Returning Yugoslav soldiers give their accounts of brutality, courage and despair in the failed war to save Kosovo.

Wednesday, 21 July, 1999

Dragan's great-grandfather fought the Germans in World War I. His grandfather faced both Nazis and Communists during World War II. In 1991 his army reservist father was ordered into a war against the Croats, among whom he counted many friends.

His father came back in a wheelchair, home to a war-disability pension worth about 30 marks a month. Then it was Dragan's turn, this time into a war against Kosovar Albanian guerillas and NATO's air forces. That conflict came to its own end last month, but 24-year old Dragan's struggle did not stop with it.

Instead he became one of the group of angry army reservists who used their armoured vehicles to blockade the central Serbian town of Kraljevo this month. They were protesting at the state's refusal to pay them for the weeks they were away from their homes, families and regular jobs, but the causes of their frustration ran deeper than just lack of cash.

"In my army unit in Kosovo there were 20 people, mostly workers and peasants," says Dragan. "We did not fire a single bullet, then five of my friends died from a NATO cluster bomb and two from Albanian snipers.

"We withdrew from Kosovo, bid farewell by the curses of the Serbian civilians who we were supposed to protect, but left like mangy dogs. We left as whores. Back here we were greeted by Milosevic's TV. They told us we had won! Who exactly did we win against?"

According to official figures, disputed by many locals, Kraljevo, population 50,000, lost 41 of its men killed in action during the conflict, with 90 more wounded. Leskovac, an even smaller town in Eastern Serbia, lost 57 killed and more than 100 injured.

The true casualty totals may never be known, as both army and government are vague about figures. When the fighting ended in June, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who commanded the army in Kosovo until the retreat, said just 161 of his men had died there.

The dead were the first to return to Kraljevo, then the wounded, followed by the tanks of the retreating Yugoslav Army, and finally by the refugees, by tractor or on foot, escaping the vengeance of the Kosovo Liberation Army. No one who took this route came back satisfied, not even the officers who were given medals on the way. But the reservists had special cause for anger. They left ruins behind in Kosovo; back home they found ruins to greet them.

This is why Dragan curses his fate. Since the moment he left Kosovo, he says, he has had just one wish: "To go as far away from Serbia as possible and have children in some other world, where I could guarantee that they will not have to repeat my destiny."

Darko, an 18-year-old city child and computer fan, found himself in the Kosovo village of Kosare, near the Yugoslav-Albanian border.

"Once a shell fell half a metre from where I was standing," he remembers. "I looked at the shell and waited for her to explode. When I saw that she was not going to blow up, I leant down and kissed it. 'Thank you Miss,' I said, 'you know that I am not a bad boy...'"

He says the fighting turned people into beasts, even those who would normally hardly hurt a fly. The deaths of friends lead them to take awful revenge on the Kosovars. The only rule, said Darko, was 'shoot first - live longer'.

During fierce battles with KLA guerillas, he and his comrades in arms vowed that they would never leave the wounded behind for the KLA. "Sometime around midnight, a NATO cluster bomb hit us," he recalled.

"(His friends) Sasa and Dragan were instantly killed. I felt sharp pains in my stomach and in my back. I thought I would die. I begged my friends to kill me rather than to leave me behind. They carried me for three kilometers through the mountains, and deep snowdrifts. They saved my stupid life in which I have nothing to show, except these five wounds on my body."

Many believe that more soldiers were killed by the KLA than NATO bombs. A junior officer from the western Serbian town of Uzice believes the KLA snipers were more dangerous than the American B52 bombers.

"With the help of such air power, Serbian pilots could have destroyed half of Western Europe," he says. "Instead the US only managed to destroy fifteen tanks, a couple of bridges and some factories - which they are now required to rebuild for the Albanians!"

The majority of army reservists say they freely went to Kosovo, but are not keen to talk about their work there. Quizzed about ethnic cleansing and the mass murder of Albanian civilians, they react angrily. "The war was happening there," snaps Zoran L, a 30-year-old teacher from Kraljevo, "but not the one that CNN and the BBC showed, or the one Milosevic's TV and newspapers sang about.

"I am a father of two young children and a couple of times, I rescued Albanian mothers and their children from burning houses," he says. Pressed to identify the arsonist behind the burning, Zoran takes a line repeated by many Serbian veterans of the conflict.

"In Kosovo, as nowhere else in the world, there is an unwritten law of blood revenge. When an Albanian or a Serb kills someone, the family of the victim must avenge his death. We have witnessed Albanian and Serbian blood revenges and have been victims of them too...

"I did not dare stop a Serb who avenging the death of his father at the hands of an Albanian. That Serb had the right according to his own "law". We were only burying the dead and praying to God that we would not be hit by bombs or snipers."

One of his friends, based on the Yugoslav-Albanian border during the conflict, explains how his unit came across a seriously wounded Albanian in a burned out house. He was given medical attention and discharged ten days later from their camp.

"We found him dead the next morning. His fellow Albanians killed him and carved the word 'KLA' on his forehead with a knife. Albanians hate us so much that they will kill their own people if they are saved by Serbs."

Rade D. another army reservist from Uzice spent two months in southern Kosovo, around the town of Pec. In peacetime he is a farmer, without significant army experience, but he was still ordered to join soldiers in dangerous zone-by-zone sweeps for enemy forces.

Since he returned he has been unable to sleep, and wonders about the mental effects of post-traumatic stress, sometimes called 'Vietnam syndrome' in reference to the many US soldiers who were psychologically damaged by their combat experiences during that war.

"Albanian snipers attacked us from the roofs and two of our men were killed," he recalled. "Then we started shelling the houses. The houses were burning, Albanian women and children were running on the road, men, we could see, were running towards the forest.

"We started to follow them and we caught three. We asked them who was firing and they were pretending that they did not understand. We tied them up and took them to the command for interrogation, but local (Kosovo) Serbs intercepted our patrol and in front of us they killed all three.

"Then we set out again on the sweep and we almost ended up shooting a group of paramilitaries from Serbia, who just follow their own rules. This wasn't a war, it was a madhouse, where every madman thought he was a general."

The paramilitaries showed little mercy towards their captives, and paid little heed to the reservists. "Once we wanted to free a group of Albanians, men," Rade says. "The paramilitaries came and said they recognised two members of the KLA. They were swearing at us, calling us 'stupid Tito partisans'. They took the Albanians and disappeared off to an unknown destination."

Some paramilitaries disliked the experience. Boban, 32, a veteran of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, signed up as a volunteer. "I went to Kosovo not because I love Milosevic, or hate the Albanians, but to use my military experience to help Kosovo Serbs defend their homes.

"But while we were defending their villages, they were next door looting Albanian houses!" he says. "I cannot believe that the TV set of some Albanian meant more to these Serbs than their own lives!"

He found the Kosovar Albanians just as hard to understand. "The KLA killed more of their own people than we did. They were killing them just because they were working in Serbian factories and were in some way seen as loyal to the Serbian regime."

Another reservist from Kraljevo saw six friends killed, and 20 wounded. "When we were going into action we would shell the houses. Once we hit a Serbian house by mistake," he says. "We did not know the terrain. The local Serbs were too busy taking their revenge on their neighbours or looking to steal a nice car from somewhere to be our guides.

"And what now? The family of my friend who died in battle receives state benefit worth only 25 German marks. I am afraid that the whole state and Milosevic together is not worth more!"

The contributor is a journalist in Serbia whose name has been witheld.

Support our journalists