In-depth | History

‘Wow, we’re liberated!’

By - 12.06.2024

Stories from four people who awaited Kosovo’s liberation day.

25 years ago, on June 12, 1999, the entry of NATO peacekeeping forces into Kosovo marked the end of the war that had started in 1998. This followed a NATO bombing campaign targeting Serbian positions within Kosovo and broader Yugoslavia, alongside diplomatic efforts to bring the war to an end.

In February 1999, meetings were held in Rambouillet, France, between the Contact Group — consisting of representatives from the U.S, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Russia — and representatives of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Kosovo Albanians.

Among other things, the proposed agreement included autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia and the deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo. The Kosovo Albanian representatives signed the agreement, but the Yugoslav delegation refused.

After the talks failed, NATO began a bombing campaign on March 24, 1999 to stop the violence in Kosovo and to enforce the Rambouillet Agreement. During the 78 days of bombing, violence against Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces escalated further.

On June 9, 1999, a military-technical agreement was signed in Kumanovo, bringing an end to the NATO bombing campaign. The following day, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, authorizing the UN Secretary General to establish an international civilian and security presence in Kosovo. Consequently, KFOR, a NATO-led peacekeeping force, was deployed in Kosovo. 

The war that ended in June 1999 left many casualties. According to the Fund for International Humanitarian Law, between January 1998 and December 1999, more than 8,600 Albanians were killed, an estimated 5,000 to 6,500 others disappeared, and over 1 million were displaced. There was also extensive physical destruction.

On the 25th anniversary of the liberation, K2.0 spoke to four Kosovar citizens who awaited liberation day, asking how the end of the war was for them.

Flamur Troni

Flamur Troni

Photo: Argjent Mamaj / K2.0.

Nearly a million Albanians left Kosovo during the war, using trains, buses and cars. A large part of the country was emptied.

In 1999, 16-year-old Flamur Troni was in the village of Kovačec on the outskirts of Kaçanik. He took shelter on a mountain above Kovačec with about 70 other people, under several large oak trees that are no longer there today. He watched as citizens of Kosovo passed by the Lepenac River on their way to North Macedonia.

Troni, now 41 years old and a lawyer, takes out his phone and zooms in on the photo, focusing on a section of the mountain where they stayed. “We had a clear view of the road. But the large oak trees between the road and the mountain did not allow the Serbian army to see us. It was just a meadow; we didn’t stay there,” he said.

Although they were close to the border with North Macedonia, his father insisted that they wouldn’t leave Kosovo. “He just said we must not leave our place. We had family members in the West, and we used to say that even if they killed us, someone would continue the family’s legacy,” said Troni, laughing at their mindset at that time.

On the night before June 12, 1999, some BBC journalists visited Troni and the men hiding in the mountains with him. The journalists told them that NATO forces would enter Kosovo the next day. This news seemed unbelievable to them after everything they had experienced.

On the morning of June 12, they realized the British journalists were right.

“I will never forget the noise that came from the Kaçanik Gorge. We didn’t know what was happening; we couldn’t believe it was happening. Four helicopters appeared from the gorge, and their noise drowned out all the silence,” he said. “We hugged each other and felt immense joy. A helicopter flew towards us because we had gone out into the meadow to make ourselves visible. As the helicopter approached, we waved at them, all of us ecstatic, and a soldier waved back at us. Right then, we understood what it was like to be supported.”

It wasn’t long before the road was filled with the tanks and infantry of the Gurkha military unit of the British Army. Troni and the others who had been hiding in the mountains started running towards the road. The soldiers first checked if they had any weapons, and then they began to hug them.

“They asked us if we wanted food. We didn’t really need it. I just asked if they had chocolate, and they gave us some because we hadn’t tasted it in a while,” Troni said with a laugh. He never regretted staying in Kosovo.

Zijadin Sakmani

Zijadin Sakmani

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Zijadin Sakmani was trapped like Troni, but in his own house. “I have always been impatient,” the 77-year-old said, recalling his activism for equal rights for Albanians in Yugoslavia since the 1968 demonstrations.

Sakmani was a political representative of the Turkish community and at the beginning of 1999 he was in Istanbul. From there, on behalf of the Turkish community, he issued a statement supporting the Kosovo delegation in Rambouillet. Following this statement, he was advised not to return to Kosovo but to go to Albania.

“My little boy said, ‘Why should we leave for Albania and not stay home?’ That’s how the whole of Kosovo ended up empty,” said Sakmani, recalling the conversation that prompted him to return to Prizren. He had one son in the Netherlands, one at home and the third was 18 years old and had joined the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

No one knew that Sakmani had returned home to Kosovo.

“They [Serbian police] came once and started interrogating my wife. I was on the other side of the house, because the house was big. I had a pistol with three bullets. Ultimately, I said to myself, if they take my wife, I will resist,” he said, remembering how they lived in fear every day.

At home on June 13, 1999, he became aware of what was happening when he heard noises. He realized that NATO had entered his city.

“I didn’t even think twice. I quickly went out onto the street, just 15 steps from the house, directly onto the main road, and saw several NATO armored vehicles approaching,” he recalled. The confrontation between the NATO and Serbian forces was face-to-face. The Home of the Yugoslav People’s Army was full of armed Serbian soldiers. The NATO peacekeeping forces were being deployed right before their eyes.

“And my little boy, he went home and took an Albanian flag and placed it out front to celebrate. Many others who were hiding in their houses came out, and oh, we were liberated… a great feeling that I will never forget,” remembered Sakmani.

Ganimete Pireva - Musliu

Ganimete Pireva - Musliu

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Terrified, Ganimete Pireva-Musliu, then 28 years old, sought shelter with her family in the basement of their house. They had spent the war in the Lagja e Spitalit neighborhood in Prishtina, which looked very different from how it does today.

Ganja, as her relatives call her, was pregnant throughout 1999.

“Two nights before the bombing started, on March 22, the infantry began to shoot. The whole neighborhood went outside and I was waiting for my husband,” she said. Her husband worked as a translator with Doctors of the World. “NATO started bombing in the area where the Palace of Justice is today, oh my god, what a joy,” Pireva-Musliu recalled.

On the morning of May 1, 1999, Pireva-Musliu woke up in pain, ready to give birth. The Mother Teresa Association in the Lagja e Spitalit neighborhood had been raided the night before by Serbian police forces, leaving the two midwives she had contacted earlier with no equipment to assist with her childbirth.

“I gave birth in the basement. I know the air was cool, but the midwives only had a pair of gloves and something to measure my blood pressure. They couldn’t save anything else because of the police. I remember that sometimes I fainted, sometimes I woke up. Thank God, my daughter Alba was born,” recalled Pireva-Musliu. 

From March 22 to June 12, 1999, they stayed in that basement. At least there they could hear the news in several languages — English, Serbian and French — since her husband spoke them all. They spent their days in constant fear.

“We covered the windows with blankets. We didn’t know what was outside. Oh my God, I started to believe that someone was outside and we were so afraid. Especially on the night of the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement. All night, with my sister-in-law, who had a small child, we put the children in a cradle and rocked them so they would not cry and make noise because we were afraid of Serbian forces seeking revenge that night,” she said.

While the British troops were being deployed in Prishtina on June 12, 1999, Pireva-Musliu stayed inside the basement. She heard the voice of a woman, also trapped in Prishtina, who had seen NATO from her balcony. “She, the neighbor, was outside and was calling, ‘Come out, because they are NATO forces.’ I replied, ‘Are you sure they are NATO?’ out of fear of exposing ourselves to the Serbian police, but she swore that they were NATO forces,” said Pireva-Musliu, laughing.

“I took my husband, I left our child inside the house with the others. Imagine, I forgot about my daughter because of the joy. With my husband and I went to where the Pavarësia (independence) school is today, and we saw the NATO troops. Oh my God, such joy… we hugged each other and we were so happy, I don’t know how to describe it,” said Pireva-Musliu, now 52 years old.

Agim Berberi

Agim Berberi

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Agim Berberi, a 39-year-old man living in an apartment in the Blloku i Ri neighborhood in Gjakova, was unaware of the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement. His apartment, situated between two shrines, was like a blessing due to its proximity to the police station. Exhausted by repeated beatings from the Serbian police, Berberi, trapped in his apartment, was in a constant state of panic about what could happen. He had his young son, Atdhe (meaning homeland), with him, while his older son, Adhurim, (meaning adore), had left Gjakova.

“I adore the homeland, that’s why I named them like that,” said the now 64-year-old Berberi. A few days after the signing of the Kumanovo Agreement, he became an emblematic figure of Kosovo’s liberation in worldwide media.

The Italian soldiers had left for Peja. They were going to pass through Gjakova, but Berberi did not know this. “I remember hearing some children shouting, ‘Uncle Agim, Uncle Agim, come because it’s NATO.’ I immediately took a flag and ran down the stairs,” he said.

As NATO jeeps approached the roundabout that today leads both into the city and out to the transit routes, Berberi grabbed the red and black Albanian flag and placed it on a STOP sign, while observing the Serbian forces on the other side.

“The jeep was approaching. It was 3:15 p.m. I, along with many children in the neighborhood, started to run and jumped in front of the car, shouting ‘NATO, NATO!’ with two fingers raised. The cameraman inside the vehicle took out the camera and started recording,” he recounted today, describing a moment that was shared around the world.

The peacekeeping troops had also decided to stop in Gjakova that day, one of the cities that experienced the worst of the war.

“We were asking them to stop and save us, as a massacre was expected in the city. It lasted about 45 minutes, all of us happy they were here. They finally stopped after many conversations on their radios,” recalled Berberi, who says he cannot compare that moment to any other in his life.

“Every time the date comes around, my mind just goes back there,” he said.


Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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