Official historiography in Kosovo and Serbia alike remembers the respective nation’s soldiers who fought in the Kosovo war of 1999. Many of these „war heroes“ are or have been charged with war crimes. Some have been convicted. The stories of the real heroes of Kosovo would be all but forgotten were it not for Amnesty International, The Guardian and Balkanist.
The real heroes of Kosovo: Those 23.000 or so young men who refused to fight in the Yugoslav army or in the ranks of Kosovo’s UÇK.
Mothers and fathers who hid Serbs and Kosovars from raids by regular troops or from pogroms by enraged populace.
Ordinary people who helped draft dodgers flee to safety.
The online magazine Balkanist has published some of their stories.
A Shopkeeper Says No
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.
A Safe Haven
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, Živko 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.
Saved from Almost Certain Death
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.
Lily Lynch for Balkanist
These stories are reproduced here as part of a cooperation with Balkanist. Click here to learn more about the real heroes of Kosovo.
These People Should Not Be Forgotten
There were many other people who dared say no to ethnic violence, torture and murder in this war.
Their stories should be remembered. If anyone, it is them that deserve memorials to be built for them.
After all, had there been more people like them, refusing to give in to authoritarianism and group pressure, had there been more people like them who in crucial moments just remembered that being human is about being decent, there may very well have never been a war at all.