Nineteen years after NATO launched air strikes to end the Kosovo war, a Kosovo Albanian recalls how he escaped a massacre but missed the victory celebrations, while a Serb remembers the bitterness of defeat.
By Serbeze Haxhiaj*
Sokol Morina had a long and sleepless night on March 24, 1999, the day that NATO began its campaign of air strikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav forces.
It was the last time that he and his big family were together in the village of Cikatove e Vjeter/Staro Cikatovo in the central Kosovo region of Drenica, and just a few hours before they learned from the radio that NATO had launched its campaign.
He recalled how throughout that night, he and his brothers kept watch in the dark and talked about how to escape the village to evade the expected arrival of Belgrade’s troops, who stepped up their own operations as NATO’s planes dropped their bombs.
“Early in the morning, the women and children departed to Drenas/Glogovac. The men stayed in the village. We knew that our days were numbered,” said Morina, who is now 63 and lives in Germany.
The family lived in constant anxiety, hidden in a cellar, until April 17, when Yugoslav forces entered the village and took away Sokol, his two brothers and two nephews.
“It was early morning when they took us to Shavarinat [a hill above the village]. There were around 30 men,” he said.
He was in the first line of captured ethnic Albanian civilians, together with his elder brothers, and witnessed his oldest brother, Tahir, fall to the ground when the first bullets were fired. Sokol rolled into a hole alive, untouched by the gunshots.
He stayed among the dead bodies until sunset. When darkness fell, he left to look for a place to hide and found his other nephew, Petrit, and another cousin, Selman, in the nearby hills.
Behind him, at the execution site, he left a pile of dead bodies. His brothers Tahir, 65, and Bahtir, 62, as well as two nephews, Florim and Afrim, were among them.
Hiding in a cave
NATO launched its air campaign against the Yugoslav military in an attempt to force President Slobodan Milosevic to accept the terms of an agreement which had been discussed for most of the previous month at the Chateau de Rambouillet in France.
The Kosovo delegation led by the Kosovo Liberation Army’s political director Hashim Thaci had accepted the terms which offered the chance to end the year of fighting and civilian displacements, while giving Kosovo Albanians substantial autonomy although preserving Yugoslav sovereignty over the disputed territory.
The diplomatic efforts failed, and after warnings to Belgrade to end its use of military force in Kosovo were ignored, NATO struck, and Yugoslav forces struck back.
In April, Morina and his relatives had been the first ones from their village to be taken to the execution site in Cikatove e Vjeter to be shot.
At the end of April, around 90 more people were taken there in two trucks. Twenty-five children were among them. Shyqyri Veliu, aged 13, was the youngest.
The remains of Morina’s brothers were found in 2016, in a mass grave in Rudnice in Serbia. But some of the remains of the other bodies have yet to be found.
Meanwhile Morina and his two relatives had taken shelter in a man-made cave – little more than a pile of rocks – not far from their houses, which had been torched.
“We heard when the trucks came, the shootings and bodies rolling into a pit,” Morina recalled.
Another village resident, Emin Morina, was left wounded in the pit.
“We took him away and placed him inside a small stone cave. After a week, his health got worse so he decided to go down into the village. The same day he was killed,” Sokol Morina said.
While NATO air strikes continued, nearly one million Kosovo Albanians were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge outside the country or in the cold and rainy Kosovo mountains.
As the humanitarian crisis deepened, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed his “deep anger” with the scale of ethnic cleansing within Kosovo. In an attempt to make the Yugoslav military stop its operations, NATO continued its “gradual escalation” strategy.
Meanwhile, in their cave hideout, the three Morinas started to struggle with hunger.
“We found some flour and used to mix it with water and salt to make noodles. We were lucky on sunny days because we dried a mixture of flour and water in the sun’s rays in order to make eating easier. Sometimes during the nights, we cooked a little porridge,” Morina recalled.
The war was not far away.
“There were nights when we heard detonations through the gaps between the stones. We were waiting for death to come,” he said.
‘A moment of defeat’
No more than 30 kilometres from Cikatove e Vjeter in the small town of Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje, Andjelka Cup’s apartment shook during the night when NATO bombs went off in a military compound near Slatina Airport in Pristina.
“Of course, for us [Serbs] it was different feeling compared to the Albanians. It was a moment of despair and insecurity. A moment of defeat,” said Cup, who is now 57.
Only two days before NATO launched its air campaign, Cup had arrived in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje from the Bosnian town of Bihac after getting a job in the Yugoslav state-owned railway company.
She said that she believed that NATO would never intervene militarily.
“I experienced terrible years during the war in Bosnia… After Bosnia, I didn’t think there would be another war,” she said at her post-war home in the village of Caglavica near Gracanica, a Serb-dominated municipality in central Kosovo.
While her male colleagues were responding to a call for mobilisation and joining the army, women and children were leaving the country. But Cup remained in her office, almost alone.
“At the beginning of the air campaign we used to hide in a basement with our neighbours, then after several days I decided to not move from my office, no matter what happens,” she said.
“Only trains to Blace were functioning,” she added, referring to the route that transported fleeing Kosovo Albanians to the border crossing with Macedonia.
“I was often told to leave Kosovo but I didn’t want to,” she said.
On June 3, 1999, Milosevic accepted an international peace plan to end the conflict and Serbian troops started to withdraw to make way for a NATO-led multinational force.
But unlike many Serbs who decided to flee, Cup brought her three children to Kosovo three days before Serbian forces pulled out.
“I remember a Serb police officer at Merdare [border crossing] said to me: ‘Where are you going? We are all leaving Kosovo,’” she said.
She explained that she was determined not to move again. “I was tired of my displaced status for years in Bosnia. I didn’t want to move anymore. I decided to stay, no matter what happens,” she said.
Mourning for a survivor
During the NATO bombing in April 1999, Sokol Morina’s pregnant wife went to a refugee camp in Macedonia with and their four children, and from there to Germany from, all the while believing that her husband had been killed.
But his uncomfortable accommodation in the improvised cave didn’t end when NATO troops came in and Serbian forces left Kosovo on June 12, 1999.
Morina and his two relatives stayed hidden until July 13 that year, a month after the war ended.
“We heard some voices outside. We thought they were Serb forces. I decided to go out of the cave. We were exhausted and I remember when I told the two others: ‘Let them kill me.’ But I saw children playing in the field,” he said.
It was then that he realised that the war was over.
A week earlier, on July 6, his wife had given birth to a baby girl in Germany. Down in the village meanwhile, his relatives had even held traditional mourning rituals for him, thinking that he was among the dead.
Instead he had survived, but when he left the cave which had sheltered him for so many weeks, it was too late to join the freedom celebrations in the streets.