Blogbox | '90s

78 days of fire, a lifetime of smoke

By - 26.03.2019

NATO bombings — between hope and terror.

“That is why we have acted now — because we care about saving innocent lives, because we have an interest in avoiding an even crueler and costlier war and because our children need and deserve a peaceful, stable, free Europe.”

Bill Clinton, March 24, 1999

I was only 9 years old when the war started. I was young enough not to be properly terrified, but old enough to remember everything clearly.

I always loved the apartment we lived in because it was right in the midst of the boulevard in Prishtina. But in 1999 I started to hate the fact that we lived in the middle of everything. I remember all the things I saw from the window of the living room (because of course getting out onto the balcony became a luxury in 1999). Things I would sometimes like to forget — but I cannot.

It’s so weird how you can at first love something and then, in time, start to hate it. That was my relationship with the location of our apartment.

I can apply a similar analogy in relation to the sirens that announced NATO air strikes. At the beginning I hated them and was very afraid, but in time I grew fond of them, and in a very weird way, even though I was afraid, I started to joyfully wait for them, because in my mind they were what was going to help save us all.

I remember one evening in particular better than all the others. During March 1999 we were of course sleeping with our clothes on, because we had to be ready at any moment to flee the apartment should the need arise. I was always a heavy sleeper but didn’t realize this until NATO bombed what we at that time called the SUP (Sekretarijat Unutrasnjih Poslova, or Secretariat of Internal Affairs). Their building was very close to where I lived and all I remember is my mom trying to wake me up because all the windows in our apartment were shaking and she was afraid that the glass would fall in on me.

Subconsciously I promised myself that if I survived I was going to dedicate my work to finding out what happened and how much harm all that was happening had caused.

I remember asking: “What’s going on?” and she told me: “Nothing. We’re just one step closer to ending this war, but we’ve got to be careful, let’s go.”

For a 9-year-old kid it was very difficult to comprehend how something so devastating as an air strike could lead to, or add to, a noble cause such as “salvation” or could even help in ending such a devastating fight between Albanians and Serbs.

Throughout the years I’ve looked back to that night very often. I do believe it is that precise evening that helped me shape my path toward the future.

Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but subconsciously I promised myself that if I survived I was going to dedicate my work to finding out what happened and how much harm all that was happening had caused, in order to be able to help prevent anything similar from happening to future generations.

No kid should grow up in an environment where sirens that announce air strikes become an intrinsic part of their daily life.

Learning what had happened

For the first month after the war had started, I remember having just one hour in the evenings when we heard the news. Later on we had to rely solely upon what the neighbors who were still around were saying.

At that time, all I understood was that a bunch of Albanians from Kosovo and Serbs from Serbia were gathered in a place far away — yes, France seemed far far away for us at that time — and were trying to put an end to this war.

Later on, when the war had ended and as I grew older, I was interested in finding out exactly what the process had been.

That’s when I understood that NATO’s deployment in Kosovo had been a result of the Rambouillet Conference held in February 1999. These so-called talks began on February 6, 1999, with NATO General Secretary Javier Solana attempting to convince both sides to sign an agreement.

The talks came after an earlier statement had been issued by NATO reiterating that the North Atlantic Council had agreed that the NATO Secretary General may authorize airstrikes against Serbia should the need arise to use sticks in order to make the parties comply with the international community’s demands and to achieve a political settlement.

In March 1999, the Kosovar Albanian, U.S. and British delegates signed the Rambouillet Agreement. The agreement foresaw a presence of NATO troops in Yugoslav territory and a NATO administration of Kosovo, which would be an autonomous province within Yugoslavia.

On March 24, 1999 at 7 p.m., as I waited in my central Prishtina apartment, NATO started the bombings.

Despite the fact that the arrangements were essentially the same as those that had been applied to Bosnia for the Stabilisation Force mission after the Dayton Agreement in 1995, the Yugoslav government at the time said that the provisions of the Rambouillet Agreement violated Yugoslavia’s sovereignty, and the Yugoslav and Russian delegates refused to sign. Alternatively, they proposed that instead of NATO troops there should be unarmed UN observers on the ground.

The refusal to sign marked the official failure of the Rambouillet talks, and as such, on March 23, U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke announced in Brussels that the talks had failed and the case had therefore formally been handed to NATO for military action.

On March 24, 1999, at 7 p.m., as I waited in my central Prishtina apartment, NATO started the bombings.

The attacks were largely aimed at air defense facilities, military barracks, bridges, industrial facilities, oil installations and airfields in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro; they lasted for 78 days, and finally, in June 1999, the North Atlantic Council suspended air operations when Slobodan Milošević accepted the terms of an international peace plan known as the Kumanovo Agreement, which formally brought an end to the war in Kosovo.

But during these 78 days, according to Human Rights Watch, between 279 and 318 civilians were killed as a result of NATO’s bombing in Kosovo alone, in 32 separate incidents. Two hundred and one civilians were killed in Serbia, and eight in Montenegro; according to these estimates, up to 60 percent of the total number of people killed by the NATO bombs were in Kosovo.

Civilian harm

By the time I learned all these facts I had already pursued what I had subliminally promised myself that evening in March 1999, and I was halfway through my PhD studies in criminology and law.

But now I needed to dig deeper and see for myself whether everything that I was reading with regard to the NATO bombings was actually accurate. That’s when I started interviewing former prisoners, several of whom had been stationed in the notorious Dubrava prison.

The case of Dubrava prison is very interesting as it shows the attempts by the Serbian authorities to deceive by attributing a significantly higher number of civilian deaths to the NATO bombings that greatly damaged the complex than was the reality.

The prison was hit twice, once on May 19, when three prisoners and one guard were killed, and the second time on May 21, when at least 19 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch. NATO acknowledged the air strikes and justified the attack by the fact that they had targeted military objects close to the prison.

But after the second bombing, Serbian forces hunted down prisoners inside the prison complex and used the bombings as an excuse to kill more than 80 of them.

The Serbian propaganda machine attempted to pin all of these deaths on the NATO bombs, but Human Rights Watch, as well as the testimony of surviving prisoners themselves, indicate that Serbian forces were responsible for the majority of the killings at Dubrava and that they happened after the bombing.

It’s difficult to find a proper way to react toward a process that has contributed toward both saving a nation but also leaving some parts of that nation crippled.

Away from Dubrava, the NATO bombings became an excuse for the Serbian forces to intensify their attacks on Kosovar Albanian civilians, forcing a mass exodus as people fled the terror, and the situation continued right up until the air strikes were ceased.

To this day I clearly remember the famous train that sent us to Bllacë at the Macedonian border, after Serbian troops had forced us to leave our apartment. There was only one family that remained in our building. Everyone else left due to the terror that we were witnessing night after night.   

Today, talking about the NATO air strikes in any sort of negative context is very difficult in Kosovo. Even when people acknowledge that there were civillian casualties caused by the bombings they are always quick to add that “they saved us.”

It’s difficult to find a proper way to react toward a process that has contributed toward both saving a nation but also leaving some parts of that nation crippled. To this day there are traces of NATO’s bombings, in the shells of some buildings — but particularly in people’s minds.

But alongside these traces lie the memories of how it was because of those actions that a nation was saved; lie the memories of saved lives and the possibility of making plans for the future. Generally, according to most in Kosovo, the benefits outweigh the costs.

But despite everything, the most important question 20 years after the bombings took place is: While navigating the past 20 years of smoke, did we as a nation learn anything from those 78 days of fire?

The feature image is a present day view very similar to that from the author’s 1999 apartment. Photo: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0, adapted by Besnik Bajrami.