A Quarter Century since the NATO Bombing Began: Twenty-five Years Devoured by Villains

The current state of affairs best suits the stabilocratic despot Aleksandar Vučić, who, against the backdrop of a gaping vacuum, creates narratives that suit his ongoing need for capital enlargement. In spite of the fact that the current President of the Serbiatrics department is an honored guest and friend of the very people who were leading NATO countries during the bombing (Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder), he doesn’t shy away from presenting himself to his voters and the public at large as a man who will stand up for the fatherland and bare his teeth to the enemy, just like he did before (he didn’t!).

On that rainy night in Prokuplje, at the ceremony marking a quarter century since the start of the three-month NATO bombing campaign over the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić gave a thunderous speech accompanied by lots of arm waving, about “1,139 killed heroes (soldiers and police officers, auth. note) who are weaved and carved into the bedrock of Serbia’s future.” “This rain is also a sign – a sign for the rebirth of Serbia! Twenty-five years ago, it was a lovely day, meteorologically, the most beautiful day imaginable”, said the President, looked up at the sky, and then turned his gaze back toward the soaking wet auditorium: “That’s when they started killing. Today it is raining, enough of your murders, we have a bright and grand future ahead of us, and before you is a Serbia that will know how to protect itself, that will know how to defend itself!” The whole affair seemed like a well-staged show built of apparent sorrow, pain, and suffering. From the stage, among other things, one could hear the President of the Republic of Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Porfirije (aka Prvoslav Perić), which made the event seem to all who dutifully followed the proceedings on their TV screens as a glorious act of unity and concordance among so-called Serbdom.

There is nothing strange or new about this, however. They have played the same tune every year since 1999. The political grandees, along with the academic community and churchmen, all lament together, promoting the three-month-long NATO bombing campaign into the ultimate moment of martyrdom of the Serbian people. The ascension of the Serbian Progressive Party to the top of the political pyramid in Serbia marked the beginning of a wholesale effort at recycling and facilitating an official rehabilitation cycle for all war crime monsters and ghouls. In her piece titled Žrtve NATO bombardovanja: između laži i patetike[1]]Isidora Stakić notes that “Central state commemorations of the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) have been taking place since 2015.” “They are part of the official memory politics, based on a populist narrative of ‘restoring pride’. According to that narrative, the government, headed by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and Aleksandar Vučić, is restoring pride to the Serbian people, which had hitherto been forced to be ashamed of its heroes and its victims from the wars of the 1990s. This kind of memory politics serves as one of the sources of legitimacy for the current government”, she writes. The opposition also never fails to commemorate March 24th, along the lines of “it should never be forgotten” and “this government wants to finish what the bombing started”. Amidst all of this, the propaganda megaphones of the ruling party, and even media outlets striving for professionalism, fire off casualty numbers on that day, as if it were a game of Bingo, thus showing that all of them are possessed of a deep misunderstanding of why and how Milošević’s Yugoslavia was attacked by the NATO alliance.

The Evolution of a Crime

What preceded March 24 1999 were wars in neighbouring countries, with Serbia acting as a discreet protagonist in all of them. Even though SPSerbia[2] claimed that it had never participated in the war, Belgrade supported, aided, and incited Serbian inhabitants in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to take up arms. It also gathered various scoundrels and thugs from far and wide, organizing them into paramilitary units (officially state units, but they had to be called paramilitary), and sending them to sow fear, death, and desolation among the non-Serb population.

In those days, a whole palette of crimes began to develop: from leveling Vukovar to the ground in 1991 through the four-year-long shelling of Sarajevo, all the way to the genocide in Srebrenica. After Serbia was defeated in all theaters of war, the war hammer swung toward Kosovo and the Albanian population, which had already been subjected to systematic repression. Milošević’s cronies wanted nothing more than to implement a final solution on the Albanian population. After the failed negotiations in Rambouillet and the crime in Račko, when 45 Albanian inhabitants were killed, the bombing of the rump Yugoslavia began.

The Hague War Crime Tribunal convicted Deputy Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, Nikola Šainović, the Commander of the Third Army of the Yugoslav Army (VJ) Nebojša Pavković, the Chief of the Serbian Police for Kosovo Sreten Lukić, the Commander of the Pristina Corp of the VJ Vladimir Lazarević, the former Chief of Police for Serbia Vlastimir Đorđević and the former VJ Chief of Staff Dragoljub Ojdanić.

The Serbian Progressive Party set in motion a monumental wave of reconstructing Serbia into a place where convicted killers, rapists, and criminals would become relevant interlocutors on topics of public importance. Thus, on March 19 this year, just before the anniversary, convicted war criminal Nebojša Pavković held a book promotion event at the Moskva hotel for his biography – though he couldn’t be there himself, as he was serving his sentence. This is not an incident, but an unbreakable continuity of rehabilitation of all those who placed themselves in the service of solving the Serbian question back in “those days”. Back in 2021, the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) also “published the facts about the actions of the former Commander of the 37th Motorized Brigade during the war in Kosovo, as well as the Tribunal’s evidence on the war crimes committed in Commander Ljubiša Diković’s zone of responsibility.” The retired general, who had ended his career as the Chief of Staff of the Army of Serbia, enjoyed a life of comfort under governments led by the Democratic Party and the Progressive Party alike.

The Dead are Just Numbers on Paper

Though little is known in the mainstream about those three months, except what gets retold through personal memories, nobody is afraid to reach for numbers – including President Vučić – and these go up to 2.500 killed. Each year, the ruling parties and the opposition alike, along with most of the media, propaganda outlets, intellectual elite, as well as the public at large, talk about how the whole world united against Serbia, but at no point does anyone question the source of those numbers.

“The Serbian state has never compiled an official list of NATO bombing victims. A list of the victims’ names was published by NGOs – the Humanitarian Law Center in Serbia and in Kosovo in 2014 as part of the RECOM reconciliation project.  According to that list, 756 people lost their lives in the NATO attacks – 452 civilians and 304 members of the armed forces. A total of 261 people were killed on the territory of Serbia, 10 in Montenegro, and 485 in Kosovo, according to the Humanitarian Law Center. Of the civilian casualties, 206 were ethnic Serbs or Montenegrins, 218 were Albanians, 14 Roma, and 14 civilians of other nationalities. The bombing killed 275 Yugoslav Army and police personnel, 29 members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)” writes Radio Free Europe.

The Humanitarian Law Center also stated that “the most egregious crime was committed by Serbian forces on April 27 in the village of Mejë.” “At least 300 men were separated from the column of Albanians banished from villages in the municipality of Gjakovë, detained, and then shot, and their remains transported to Serbia, buried in seven mass graves on the SAJ[3] police field in Batajnica near Belgrade.”

Not a single newspaper, political speech, national television station, or any other medium will mention the fact that, according to information from the Humanitarian Law Center, 7.000 Albanians were killed during those three months, whereas 10.500 people were killed in total during the war in 1998 and 1999, 8.700 of those being civilians. The refrigerator cars transporting the corpses of Albanian civilians around Serbia – women, children, the elderly, in an effort to hide them from NATO troops that could invade – are also rarely mentioned. 

Additionally, nobody is willing to say that, while the bombs were falling, hundreds of thousands of Albanians were being banished from Kosovo. It is estimated that the number goes up to 800.000, according to Human Rights Watch, as that is how many came back after the arrival of international forces.

None of this fits in with the nationalist victimhood narrative that has been embraced with open arms by the population essentially seeking someone to blame for all the suffering and poverty.

An Official History of Insanity

A whole chapter full of blood, evil, and pain was tailor-made to suit the needs of all future political narratives forever by governments that took over after the fall of Slobodan Milošević, by presenting the wars of the 1990s, including the bombing, as victories in the history textbooks, to hide or minimize the defeat. As history professor Dubravka Stojanović explains in her book “Prošlost dolazi” (t/n: The Past is Coming), this strategy was implemented to cover up the defeats of the Serbian side in Croatia, Kosovo, and in the confrontation with NATO.

“The authors have done all they could to avoid providing an understanding of why Serbia was in the war in the first place. Slobodan Milošević’s war program was not explained, and neither was the ‘state in which the entire Serbian people would live’ […] The policy towards Kosovo and Kosovo Albanians during Milošević’s regime was likewise not explained, nor were all the factors leading to the NATO intervention, so the loss of Kosovo and the banishment of Kosovo Serbs remain completely inexplicable. Instead of having Serbian society face its defeats and erroneous policies after the fall of Milošević and trying to learn how not to repeat the same mistakes again, these failures were not only covered up, but have been made into a cult of heroism promising revenge for the past ten years”, notes professor Stojanović in her book.

According to her, a vacuum or grey zone can be detected that becomes fertile ground for anyone wishing to abuse and manipulate this issue. The right wing presents the NATO bombing as an absolute and final battle of good and evil – on one side there was the unarmed and brave Serbian people fighting against the whole world; but a large portion of the left also sees the NATO bombing in terms of an anti-imperialist struggle. Unfortunately, both sides see March 24 as a new order, a ground zero with nothing preceding it, just as nothing happened after it. This leaves the impression that we are still living that date, that it represents a formative essence of our identity – the identity of a small people who stood up to the evil empire.

This state of affairs best suits the stabilocratic despot Aleksandar Vučić, who, against the backdrop of a gaping vacuum, creates narratives that suit his ongoing need for capital enlargement. In spite of the fact that the current President of the Serbiatrics department is an honored guest and friend of the very people who were leading NATO countries during the bombing (Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder), he doesn’t shy away from presenting himself to his voters and the public at large as a man who will stand up for the fatherland and bare his teeth to the enemy, just like he did before (he didn’t!).

This Thing of Ours

Aleksandar Vučić’s rule has become the embodiment of tension. In defense of big capital, cartels, and deep connections to the criminal milieu, his machinery reaches for the most painful topics. Counting bones has been a hobby since the Radical Party days, but he used to do it with a fiery chauvinist passion, whereas now he uses it as a front for what is actually going on. Investigative journalists keep catching his associates red-handed, so stupefying the masses by counting the dead from the NATO bombing and recycling villains from that period comes easily to him. The NATO bombing means nothing to the Progressive regime on an emotional level, as can be deduced from the above, but it is serving as the primary bulwark for the perpetuation of their terror by stabilitocracy.

Nikola Krstić is an editor, journalist, and correspondent working at the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS)

The article is republished with permission from the Heinrich Böll Foundation Office in Belgrade and the authors themselves. This is part of a cooperation between Heinrich Böll Foundation Office in Belgrade and forumZFD Western Balkans Program

[1] Victims of the NATO Bombing: between Lies and Pathos

[2] t/n: Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia

[3] t/n: Specijalna antiteroristička jedinica  – Special Antiterrorist Unit