A quarter of a century without the Serbian military in Kosovo: How do Serbs today view June 1999?

Povlačenje vojske i policije s Kosova jun 1999.
Source: Printskrin AP

With the plan from Kumanovo for the withdrawal of the Serbian army and police from Kosovo and Metohija, which ended NATO aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on June 10, 1999, it was envisaged that by midnight on Tuesday, June 15, there would be no more Serbian soldiers in Pristina, and the last uniformed policemen would disappear from the streets of this city.

Prepared by: Milos Garic

For history, scenes of military vehicles moving in long columns towards central Serbia, each with a Yugoslav (Serbian) flag draped over it, have been recorded. The army, which did not lose the war on the battlefield, withdrew from its country by political decision.

A few days before June 15, through the Merdare crossing, which Albanians today consider a border crossing and Serbs still only an administrative point, an endless "snake" crossed - anti-aircraft systems, mobile radars, tanks, trucks with soldiers, rockets, and ammunition. Many NATO officers were amazed by the sight, as they believed that tons of dropped bombs and cruise missiles had achieved much greater results, that they had decimated the Serbian forces. In their zeal for power, they completely wrongly expected to see a disintegrating army on the other side.

With the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the territory of Kosovo, an end was put to the illegal and inhuman NATO aggression, which began on March 24. It was 78 days of fierce, heroic resistance by the Serbian army against a much stronger enemy, which continuously bombed its positions from the air, while across the Albanian-Serbian border, rebel, terrorist groups, supported by foreign mercenaries, unsuccessfully tried to make a ground breakthrough into the depths of the territory of the southern Serbian province. Serbia lost many of its bravest defenders in Kosare, Pastrik, and many other places where the enemy forces struck. In ruthless attacks with the most modern deadly weapons of that time, civilians, children, the elderly, and patients in hospitals perished.

KFOR did not fulfill its mission

While after June 10, 1999, many citizens of Serbia celebrated peace, such as it was, and the cessation of war horrors, for Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, the end of the NATO aggression meant the beginning of a new horror. The scene that could be seen immediately behind the military vehicles in retreat best indicated this. Behind the tanks and transporters of the Serbian army, refugee tractors and overloaded cars of Serbs immediately followed, in a panic to flee from the KLA gangs that had already begun to seize and terrorize Kosovo cities and villages.

That June 15, exactly 25 years ago, will remain, unfortunately, remembered by Serbs in Kosovo as the date after which there were no more conditions for them to live in Pec, Istok, Decani, Orahovac, Djakovica, Prizren, Vucitrn, Podujevo, Pristina, and other places, especially in the Metohija villages, where they lost everything - houses, churches, fields, forests, meadows, graves, memories.

International forces in KFOR uniforms did not do their job in protecting the Serbian population anywhere near as they should have. Believing that KFOR guaranteed their lives, many Serbs were left without any protection against Albanian extremist gangs, who in the months and years after June 1999, freely carried out their "justice."

"Our relations with KFOR representatives, represented by British General Mike Jackson, were correct; they treated us with respect. We were thinking, and also talking to KFOR representatives, about what would happen after the signing of the agreement. We were worried about our people in Kosovo, for the Serbs who were staying behind, and what we feared did happen. The culmination was the pogrom in 2004," said General Branko Krga, a member of the Supreme Command Staff during the defense against NATO aggression.

Sladjana Dobrosavljevic from Gotovusa near Strpce remembers that June 1999 very well, although she was just finishing elementary school at the time.

"In June 1999, I was 15 years old, and it was a month full of important events that I now understand, but back then, I must admit, I didn't fully grasp. After the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement, the bombing stopped, and the withdrawal of our army and police began. I remember columns of military vehicles passing through our municipality, young soldiers waving to us, and we to them, not knowing how much trouble their departure would bring us in the following period. Right after them, in convoys, the Serbs from Prizren started moving, who were frightened for their lives, carrying only the most basic things and leaving their city. They headed straight for central Serbia via the Sirinicka Zupa. The decision of the Serbs from Prizren partially shook us in the Sirinicka Zupa, but a good part of the believing Serbs was unwavering in terms of their survival, so their firm decision prevailed," recalls Sladjana, now a successful journalist and mother, who, with her family, has no intention of giving up life in her Sirinicka Zupa.

The majority of Serbs from Strpce and the surrounding area are determined not to leave their homes and properties, despite all fears and threats, today as they were in June 1999.

"I remember that in those days in mid-June 1999, the residents of my village were working without hesitation on the fields. Although we saw KFOR soldiers on the streets who had entered Kosovo, that did not bring us peace and tranquility; instead, months and even years of fear and uncertainty followed, which unfortunately still continue. In 1999, four people from my village disappeared, and nothing is known about them to this day, while from the surrounding villages, several people perished at the hands of Albanian extremists in the most brutal manner. Instead of carefree youthful lives and travels that my peers had in other countries, we only left our municipality when absolutely necessary, in convoys escorted by KFOR soldiers, who despite this were often attacked and stoned. It was a life without basic necessities, without electricity, which we did not have for up to three months. Whenever the situation calmed down and life normalized, something would happen again that would bring back conflicts and tensions," says Sladjana Dobrosavljevic for Kontekst.

Tempering of the Serbian Character

In March 2004, there were the hardest few days in the pogrom against Serbs in Kosovo, when many perished, were expelled from their homes, and churches, monasteries, and houses were set on fire.

"Although in my municipality, among the few on Kosovo at the time, there was no expulsion or burning, we lost two lives. On the doorstep of a house in the village of Drajkovce, a father and son were killed, who were also my schoolmates. Although all subsequent years brought only challenges and numerous trials, we tempered our characters on them, so I, with my family, but also many others, remained firmly tied to our hearths, and I do not deviate from that even today," says Sladjana.

Ivica Simic from North Mitrovica says that since the withdrawal of the Serbian army and police from Kosovo and Metohija a quarter of a century ago, the lives of Serbs have been marked by the arrival of KFOR members and many international missions that changed from year to year.

"After all these exchanges of soldiers who completed their service and returned to their lives, in their countries, Serbs in Kosovo were left with memories of their first encounter with heavily armed KFOR members, who saw the remaining Serbs as enemies and criminals. They came in 1999 convinced that Serbs had tried to destroy Albanians. But now, some other soldiers in the same uniforms that their colleagues wore in June 1999 sit in cafes with Serbs, drink with us without weapons, but with the worry that Serbs will be permanently expelled from Kosovo. When they came to Kosovo in June 1999, many KFOR soldiers did not even suspect that their biggest problem would be how to protect the Serbs. The narrative that prevailed in the countries that participated in the aggression against Serbia was that Serbs were to blame for everything," recalls Simic for Kontekst.

Over time, he adds, the attitude of foreign soldiers has changed.

"Those people, when they got to know the local population, changed their minds. Quite the opposite of prejudices, they were confronted with numerous attacks on Serbs, brutal persecution, and killing of Serbs. From the murder of 14 harvesters in Staro Gracko, through the murder and wounding of Serbian children while bathing in the Bistrica River in Gorazdevac, to many seizures of property, burning of houses, the Pogrom of 2004, to the eviction and devastation of Serbian villages, to the current institutional violence, baseless arrests, prohibition of gatherings at Gazimestan during the celebration of Vidovdan, and bans on Serbian symbols, even Serbian T-shirts, years-long imprisonment of people without charges, suspicious indictments for war crimes just when Serbs are supposed to get some of the thousands of disputes over their seized property resolved in Kosovo courts," Simic says in one breath. He and his family still live in North Mitrovica and despite everything, have no intention of leaving their city.

In many cases, KFOR members have failed to do what they were mandated by the UN to do.

"Ordinary soldiers are aware of this while they are ashamed before ordinary people, listening to the orders of superiors who have never been in Kosovo but issued orders in line with the policies of their countries. Many KFOR members have become sons-in-law of Serbs, spending summers in Kosovo and now convey the truth about what happened here in the past two and a half decades. They say their voice cannot be heard because the media in their countries do not report it. They say it is hard to imagine that the 19 countries that bombed Yugoslavia and later sponsored the violent secession of Kosovo from Serbia will say, 'Sorry, we were wrong,'" says Simic.

Historian and political analyst Ognjen Karanovic points out that the quarter-century history of the southern Serbian province from 1999 to today is actually a continuous story of tragedy and suffering for the Serbs living in the southern Serbian province.

"There are undoubtedly differences between June 1999 and June 2024, but if we are to try to honestly assess these differences and the overall situation in the southern Serbian province, then they will mainly indicate variations in the degree or intensity of the tragedy and suffering in which the Serbs live. From June 1999 to today, the essential position of the Serbian people in the southern Serbian province has not changed. Moreover, statistical data, which are always rigid and dry, yet infallible and very precise, speak to how many Serbs lived in Kosovo and Metohija before 1999 and how many live there today. How many lived there a few years ago, and how many remain under Kurti's terror, in June 2024. This most precisely indicates what kind of suffering and what kind of ghetto a European people live in today," Karanovic reminds.

Geopolitical circumstances are fluid.

Let's not forget, he adds, that Tony Blair recently spoke again, supposedly saying that NATO planes were raised against Serbia to protect democracy and human rights in Kosovo.

"These rights were never jeopardized when it comes to the Albanian national minority or the Albanian people in Kosovo and Metohija. And, precisely since June 1999, at times even worse than under Turkish, Ottoman rule, Serbs have lived in one of the last ghettos in the world because Kosovo is a ghetto for Serbs today. Of course, June 2024 is different, first because in 1999 there was an open war against the Serbian people and against the state of Serbia to snatch Kosovo from Serbia by world powers. So, a war was waged, an open pogrom was waged, with weapons, open terror, naked terror, physical, biological removal of the Serbian people. However, Kurti's policy today, when it comes to the Albanian separatist movement, their political goal remains the same, the removal of the Serbian identity from Kosovo. The goal of Western politics is identical, the removal of the state of Serbia from the southern Serbian province, so these goals have not changed a jot, but the atmosphere and the international political circumstances in which this process takes place have changed. Today is not, when we talk about Serbia, Serbia from 1999. It is not Serbia that is isolated and humiliated. Today's Serbia is not a country that practically did not exist economically and politically, which was brought to its knees," explains Karanovic.

He emphasized that Serbia today is not a country that can be an easy prey for anyone.

"So, the biggest impression, when we compare June 1999 and June 2024, we discover in this fact that today the same creators of evil from 25 years ago, even if they have not changed their goals since then, are facing a decisive, steadfast, stable state of Serbia, which is aware of both its capabilities and its limits, and which, in seeking political allies, such as Hungary within the EU today, but also in strengthening its defense, its military potential, additional protection of its political stability and economic progress, is preparing for the moment when the word of the Albanian separatist movement will be entirely null and void. Of course, when there is a change in international geopolitical circumstances, and they are the most fluid category in any epoch, if we are talking about world civilization. So, these circumstances always change, and they will change," concludes Karanovic.

Twenty-five years have passed, but Serbia will never leave Kosovo. Next year in Prizren.