For Some, Kosovo’s NATO Anniversary Stirs Mixed Emotions

Kosovo recalls the June day when NATO rolled in and Serbian forces rolled out.

Early on the morning of June 12, 1999, Halise Bala heard a faint knock on the door of her home in Peja/Pec, western Kosovo.

Cut off from electricity for months, Bala knew little about what was going on outside her hometown; her neighbours had come with the news that they had all been waiting for – that NATO troops were about to enter Kosovo, and Serbian forces were pulling out. The war had ended.

The moment was “breath-taking”, she recalled. But her joy was short-lived.

As evening fell, the soldiers of the Western military alliance had yet to reach Bala’s neighbourhood, when a group of Serbian paramilitaries burst into her home. “They ordered us all to gather in this living room,” Bala told BIRN, 24 years later. Her children were asleep and her husband had left on an errand minutes earlier.

The paramilitaries proceeded to rape Bala’s sister-in-law and then, “with a candle in their hands”, told the children they would be set on fire. In the darkness, shooting began.

When Bala awoke, she was bleeding from nine bullet wounds. She managed to light a candle and see the dead bodies strewn around her. Two of her sons, 11-year-old Hajri and six-year-old Agon, and her nine-year-old daughter Dardane, were dead, as were Bala’s sister-in-law, 26-year-old Vjollca, and Vjollca’s daughter Rina, aged six. Rina’s five-year-old sister, Nita, was still alive, as was Bala’s third son, Veton, who had managed to escape by jumping from the balcony. He later returned with his dad, Isa.

Too scared to leave the house, Bala and her niece, Nita, were only seen by a doctor, a Serb, at 9 a.m., when neighbours took them to the nearest hospital. The doctor broke the news to her that Nita had died. “He said in Serbian, ‘I’m sorry, she didn’t survive. She waited too long and lost too much blood’,” Bala recalled.

“After he operated on me, the doctor left for Serbia,” she said. “I spent a month in the hospital and never felt the day of liberation.” Ten days after the massacre, Bala’s brother-in-law, Musa, was found dead near the Peja/Pec cemetery.

Though not an official public holiday, for nearly a quarter of a century June 12 has been marked by Kosovo Albanians as a day of joy, the end of a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency war and the day Kosovo effectively threw off Serbian rule. For Bala, however, the anniversary is a tragic one; and for Kosovo’s Serbs, it marked the start of a wave of revenge attacks, driving thousands to flee their homes for Serbia proper.

Amid renewed tensions and a push by the West for Serbia and Kosovo to finally settle relations, Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanovic said the June 12 anniversary, and others like it, should be days that Serbs and Albanians mark together.

“This should happen not only in order to reconcile with ‘the Other’, but to reconcile with oneself,” Stojanovic told BIRN, speaking in English. “This is the only way for our societies to get out of the nationalistic traps that keep us petrified for such a long time.”

Veton Bala holding a photo of his three siblings who did not survive the attack in their home on June 12, 1999, in Peja/Pec. Photo: BIRN

Extra bullets

Paul Gibson, a British lieutenant colonel, was commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment’s 1st Battalion, the first British troops to enter. He recalls the heat of the day as he entered Pristina, the capital.

“A hundred years of history were changed on the 12th of June,” Gibson, now director of the London-based Security in Complex Environments Group, told BIRN.

NATO did not deploy without a hitch. Russia, an ally of Serbia, despatched its own soldiers to occupy Pristina airport, setting up a situation that the British commander of NATO troops, Mike Jackson, warned could trigger World War Three.

“That was a very tense moment,” Gibson said. “I got very brief orders, which were essentially to go to the airport and be prepared to face off with the Russians, which was a tall order.”

“We didn’t want to fight the Russians,” he said. But when he returned to North Macedonia, “I watched the soldiers putting extra bullets into their magazines. Everybody was taking it very seriously.”

The dispute was eventually settled, and Gibson was ordered to secure Pristina. His superiors told him to draw on his experience in Northern Ireland, but Gibson said the situation was “very different”.

The atmosphere was charged. “The soldiers were tense,” he said.“They really didn’t completely understand the picture. It was hectic and chaotic.”

Tears in his eyes, Gibson remembered how Albanians stood at the roadside, waving and throwing flowers at the NATO troops.

“There was a real atmosphere that we were doing something positive, we were doing something good,” he said.

With Serb forces still withdrawing, Gibson had no idea where he and his soldiers would spend the night. His Albanian interpreter recalled a friend with a house where they could stay. “It was really surreal,” he said. “I was there in my helmet, body armour, all of that.”

That night, Gibson accompanied a patrol in Pristina when a voice crackled over the radio saying, “We’ve just killed someone”. A Serbian police officer had opened fire and NATO troops shot him dead.

With Serb forces gone, looting broke out, and revenge attacks ensued. “There was retribution,” Gibson said.“There were elderly Serbs being killed. And dealing with that was a big issue.”

Then there were the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, who had coordinated with NATO during 11 weeks of air strikes to drive out Serb forces but were now expected to start disarming.

“The relationship with the KLA was not as good as it should have been,” Gibson told BIRN.“They were carrying weapons and we were told that nobody should carry weapons.”

Paul Gibson (L), a British lieutenant colonel, part of the first NATO contingent to enter Prishtina, Photo shows Gibson posing with Prince Charles who visited UK troops in North Macedonia days before entering Kosovo. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gibson

Bullet holes

Kosovo became a ward of the United Nations and declared independence, with the backing of the major Western powers, in 2008.

Three months after declaring independence, when Kosovo was still under a form of international supervision, lawmakers adopted a law on public holidays, but June 12 was not on the list, most likely out of sensitivity for minority Serbs who look on the day through a very different lens.

Fatlum Ibrahim, a Kosovo historian, said the anniversary had yet to be looked at objectively.

“Kosovo researchers lack the courage to expose the segments of this event that would probably not be very well received by the general public,” he said.

Some 50,000 NATO troops rolled into Kosovo in June 1999. Today, around 4,000 remain, though only this month the alliance has deployed hundreds more in response to fresh violence in a predominantly Serb-populated slice of the north.

In Bala’s home, bullet holes can still be seen in the floor of the living room. The rest of the house has since been renovated, but the bullet holes weren’t touched. “We want to leave them as they are, for the memory of my family, for my children as well,” said Veton, now 31 years old.

Recalling that night, 24 years ago, Bala said she recognised some of the faces of the paramilitaries. Among them, she said, was Nebojsa Minic, known as‘Mrtvi’ [The Dead]. Minic, who was from Peja/Pec, died in Argentina in 2005 while awaiting extradition to Serbia on war crimes charges.

“I have lived for justice,” Bala said. Though, for her, June 12 is a day of mourning, Bala believes it should be an official public holiday for her country. “As long as it is not official, I cannot see it even as a true day of liberation,” she said.


12 June 2023 - 13:54

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