He went with his uncle and he died too

Zorica says that Serbs have lived well in the village mixed with Albanians. Up until 1998. At that time, she recalls, the Serbian regime uniformed the skilled Serbs in the villages as military reservists. This act frightened a lot the Albanian neighbors. The two village communities, which had once wished each other well for the feasts, which drank water from the same well, and shared the blessings of the land, suddenly wanted to “rip each other’s heads off”.

Now, after being away for more than two decades in Serbia with her family, she recalls all the unusual circumstances of her family’s everyday life on that day in September 1998. Although that day started with the same routine of her son going to the school in the morning, many things happened in the meantime, and today it seems to her that it was fated, and it all ended in the evening when her son never came back home.

Zorica Blagojevic

My name is Zorica and my maiden name is Matić. I was born and I have lived in village Bratutin until I turned nineteen years old. Bratutin is a very good village. Two nationalities were living there, Serbs and Albanians. We had a fair life with the Albanians, but things happened and those who should not suffer have suffered. We grew up together and we went to school together. We went to the same school; we just had separate classes for us. We played together, walked together, and celebrated together. When we had Easter, they would come to us and when they had Eid, we would go to them. That was the situation up until ’98. Until then life was normal and we had no problems.

            I finished primary school, but I did not continue the schooling. After I finished school, I didn’t work anywhere during the time I lived in Kosovo. I had a good childhood; I lived with my brothers, mother, and father. They were farmers. They have finished primary school to some extent, and they didn’t work for the government because they lived off agriculture.

            I had very good parents. They always lived in harmony with each other; we always had a good life. They had to work hard in order to raise us. They worked mostly in the vineyards. Dad was working hard in order to educate us, to feed us, until we grew up, and then we were able to help him too. We were in harmony with our brothers and sisters. Of course, sometimes we would argue, but God forbid we never fought with each other. Even now, we socialize and we go visit each other, we help each other, we maintain the same relationship.

            We had good communication with our parents; I loved equally both of them. I could never say that I love my mother more than I loved my father. Up until two years ago, both of them were alive. Losing both parents in less than two months was a disaster. My mother fell ill, she suffered from cancer, and afterward, my father died as well. He was five years younger than she was, he got married when he was eighteen years old and my mother was 23 years old. Times were different then, there was no one to take care of you and they got married at a young age. After my mother died my dad mourned for her and, less than three months later, he died. The burial took place here in Banja. She grew up together up with him; they had fifty-three years of marriage. My dad was only 19 years older than I was. I am the eldest of the children, and then comes Zoran, Negovan, Bobani, then Mikica, and Dalibori, the youngest brother. Boban saddened us a lot, but when my son was abducted, this killed both my parents and me.

I went to school regularly. When I grew up, I met my husband and back then, times were different, we used to go to dancing evenings and we would meet each other there. We had a little fun and we liked each other. I met him for the first time at my aunt’s house in the neighboring village, Movlan. We got to know each other there and after two or three weeks we got married. Of course, he came to my home and asked permission from my parents. I didn’t want to escape, I wanted us to do it properly.

I got married in village Reçan in Suhareka. I don’t remember the exact date when I got married, but when the child that we are talking about was born, we went to get married in the municipality. I didn’t go to the church. At that time this was not required, we just went to the municipality, we signed the papers and that was it.

I started a family and life together with my husband. He used to work and I didn’t work. I didn’t need to work because we had enough to live, we had enough land. He was a very good person; he was four years younger than I was and we had harmony among us. His family was a little bigger than mine was, he was the only son and he had four sisters. He had an uncle with his wife, who had no sons but had two married daughters.

My husband worked in “Balkan”, as the leader of the works; he worked there until the time we escaped here. After that he received that minimum wage, we had no other income, and I didn’t have any working experience. However, when we came here, I had started to work. I educated my children in Kosovo and when we came here, they continued the school. What to do, life is like that.

Srećko was born in 1985 in Prizren. It was the greatest joy in my life. It was the happiest day when you become a mother for the first time and when you hold your baby. Now, this interview is turning me back in time. I was happier then, now I am just sad. It’s very difficult, God forbid, no one can replace your child.

Then Stefan was born in ’86, followed by Jovanka some thirteen or fourteen months apart. Then two years later, the youngest daughter was born. I had five children and I don’t regret it, I am the happiest mother. I have very good children; everyone would wish to have children like mine. They are very obedient. Here they suffered a bit. Back home they were children and they didn’t have to work. But here they had to work and finish school. The social circle here was different. But the kids adapted. The eldest works in a firm, he is the head there and he has been working for twelve years there. The other son also works for a firm but he is not registered. When there is work, he works, when there is no work, he doesn’t. His wife stays at home. What to do. My daughters got all married and each has her own life. One has a daughter, the other has a daughter and a son. One of my sons has a daughter and a son, the other has a daughter. Only the youngest is still not married.

In the village, back in Kosovo, everything was fine until the situation started to get worse. We lived well with the Albanians. We always did everything together; we never parted from each other. If they were having a watermelon or grapes, it was impossible not to give to my children as well. We took water from the same well and drank it together. However, when the situation changed, then we wanted to rip each other’s heads off. All this, for what? For politics. They were not guilty and neither was I. Politics are guilty because it forces you to do things, even if you don’t want to, but have to do it. Such was the situation then. This was seen in 1998. It was the worst time. The situation started declining in ’96. It started then, not with us in the village, but in the city. They started leaving the “Balkans” of Suhareka. I don’t know what it is called now. Maybe it’s still called like that.

            Then the Albanians left their jobs, only the Serbs worked. Then the same happened at the police. Albanians did not work, but those from Serbia worked. Then they started to hate each other. However, we in the village had no problems with our neighbors. Never!

            The situation was worse in Bratutin because there were far fewer Serbs and they felt much worse. Everyone there became part of the reservists, whether you wanted to or not. They came to give you the uniform, you had to take it and then the neighbor hated you for wearing that uniform. This was the biggest conflict; the state did this to us.

            My brother, which was abducted, was a reservist. My brother who lives now in Zrenjanin was also a reservist, while the eldest was not. The youngest brother was too young, they couldn’t recruit him. And then mutual hatred was introduced.

We were worried about what would happen, but we didn’t think that we would leave from there. Never! We thought that we might die but we never thought that we would live in Serbia. I never thought of that.

            During the war in the village, a neighbor told my husband: “The situation is what it is, you better sell something. You have enough land and you should buy a house for the children to have over there. I hope that God will never let something like this happen again, but it’s better if you buy something so that you have a place to take the children away.” My husband told him: “Forget about it! How can I live there, when I have a place in the center here? How can I go and live in Serbia now, in an unknown place?” He replied, “The situation is like this, you will not do it willingly, but the time will come when you will have to leave, believe me”. He was right because so it happened. My husband didn’t want to sell anything but he wanted to leave the land to the children so they can build a building in the future.

            However, things happened as he said. “The time will come for us to leave, but it will be much worse for you because you are a minority here and there are more of us.” Then we escaped. We just got on the tractor and left. I was together with my children, my husband, the wife of my husband’s uncle because she had no children and she was with us as well as my husband’s daughter. My husband had a daughter from his first marriage. We also had a neighbor with her husband and children. All of us were in that tractor and also an old neighbor was with us. There were nine of us on the tractor, all from village Recani. We didn’t take anything else. We had some money with us and we didn’t even know where we were going. When we arrived in Suhareka, they didn’t allow us to come here. We went to Pristina and we slept one night in a hotel, I don’t remember which one and then on the third day we went to Serbia. We didn’t know where we were going, we had small children. The youngest daughter, Bojana, was then three and a half years old, four. The children were on the tractor, they were asking for milk, we had nowhere to buy it, and we didn’t know where we were going, where we would sleep. However, we had to move on; we threw a mattress and slept either on the trailer or under it. This lasted for several days.

We went to Llapova, to a school there. The children slept on the concrete, on the tiles. After Llapova we went to a village, I don’t know what it was called. We slept there and then we arrived in Kraljevo, in Adrena at a school. We stayed there for a month and a half or two. We lived in a collective center; there were over 40 of us, divided into two classrooms. The Red Cross helped us; they gave us some food, water, and mattresses to sleep on. There was no place to shower, no place to bathe, and no place to bathe the children. It was horrible. The children got sick, they had a fever, and they got a rash on their hands because of the dirt. May God not bring this experience to anyone. I am not saying that only we suffered, also your people have fled like that. I talked to our neighbor. Also, your people have suffered too, their experience was not any better than ours. Politics has done all of this.

            Then a friend came and found us a small house, here in Vrnjacka Banja. My husband started working privately. Initially, we settled in this house and we lived there for three years. Now no one lives there. Then we lived in several places here in Vrnjacka Banja and when we sold the property in Kosovo, we came to this house. Our house in Kosovo was demolished and our neighbor bought the land. We couldn’t do it otherwise, because one ar of land here is very expensive.

            On September 22nd, 1998, I wish I would forget that day, my son Srećko left for school. He went to school in Suhareka. I will never forget that day as long as I live. He left by bus in the morning. At about eleven-thirty, I saw him and my aunt coming home. She lived about four miles away from our house. He had seen her waiting for the bus to village Movlan, and he asked her, “What are you doing here, aunt?” She said, “I’m waiting for the bus, son” He asked his teacher to release him and he came together with her on foot. He accompanied her. I saw them coming and I asked him, “Why did you leave the school classes?” He told me, “I felt sorry for my aunt and I came with her.” “Good,” I said. I made coffee to drink it together with my aunt, and an hour later the bus came and she left.

My brother Boban came in a car to visit me with his wife and his two daughters. He dropped my brother’s wife, the brother who is in Zrenjanin, so we would go to visit the aunt in village Movlan. I asked him, “Can’t you see how the situation is, don’t go any further because they don’t know you, maybe someone will recognize us since we know each other as neighbors and they will release us, and you just came from Bratutin, they will certainly not let you go”.

He said, “No, now there is nothing going on. My brother-in-law went with his friend by bus, I am going too and I will be back soon.” I insisted that he shouldn’t go. He didn’t want to listen to me and he left. And then my son started crying after him, he wanted to go with him. I told him, “Son, can’t you see how the situation is, don’t go there.” He said, “Yes, but I go to school every day and no one is harassing me.” I said, “Yes, but you are going alone, as a child. Don’t go with your uncle.”

            However, when my brother saw him weeping, he turned back to take him. I told him, “Don’t take him, he can’t go.” He said, “How? I can’t leave him crying and go on my own” He grabbed him by the hand, they got inside the car and they left.

            If anyone asks me, I know what kind of pants, t-shirt, and shoes he wore that day. I remember everything.

            Less than an hour and a half later, my husband came home. He saw the sister-in-law with two children, she was also pregnant, and he asked, “Where are Boban and Srećko?” I told him, “They went to Movlan.” He said, “You will never see them again.” I asked him, “How come I will never see them again?” He said, “You will see, they will be abducted because they know who is passing by. Our people from the village will not be affected, but whoever comes from out of the village is guaranteed one hundred percent to be abducted.” and so it happened.

Then we called the SPB, and they went up, but we never found out anything, never again. They told us, “They will not touch the boy, since he is a child and the other one is older. But they will not let him go so that he doesn’t tell who they are.” They were Albanians from our village. If my son was alone, they would have released him for sure, but because of this other one, they didn’t release him.

I went to Prizren and everywhere else, as much as I could, while I was in Kosovo. Every day I went to both Pristina and Belgrade. There is no place that I didn’t go to.

Our people lived in Movlan. There were also two nationalities living there, Albanians and Serbs, and they had some passage permits. They didn’t dare tell this to us, but only to those who were from that village. They had some permission to cross, and they were able to go to Suhareka and return. We could go up there, but people from other municipalities couldn’t. So, this is what happened, because he came from Bratutin to Suhareka, which is another area and also, he was in uniform and that was the worst thing. They must have said, “Why did you come now, cop?” Maybe they thought that he wanted to kill someone.

The kidnappers were maybe from the third house away from us, because the owner of that house was some kind of an officer in the KLA. When we asked him, he said, “It wasn’t me.” He is a neighbor who works in Italy. Everyone in that family works there. He told my husband, “If I had been in that group and seen your son, I would have released him, but it was another group.”

We met this neighbor after about six years in Merdare because he bought a part of our meadow. When he came to give us the money, we had to meet with him. He brought the money; he had barely collected it and I went to sign that the meadow could be transferred to his name.

My sister Mikica was 23 years old when her husband was killed. She got married when she was young. She lived across the street from us, in Reçan, in the same village. Her husband worked as a deputy officer in the army. He had been there for years and one day he went to visit the army on the ground. They were five people in the car. He was killed in an ambush, along with everyone else in the car. She also escaped with her family when we left. Her father-in-law and mother-in-law stayed to live in Kraljevo, and after a few years, she came to Vrnjacka Banja, where her father-in-law bought a house.

I see Srećko in my dreams all the time, but I always see him as a young child. I can’t think of him as an adult because he would now be 35 years old. I can’t do that; I always see him as a child.

While I was in Kosovo, I had contacts with UNMIK members working in Prizren, I had some hope that the boy was alive somewhere. However, I had no hope for my brother because I heard that he was wounded in the car. He was a reservist police officer, so I was sure that he was not alive but I had hope for the boy. Because he, as a child, didn’t harm anyone. So, I hoped, if you don’t cause harm no harm will be caused to you. If you don’t harass anyone, no one will harass you either. If you have done something wrong, they will do the same to you. But to be honest, since I came here, I have lost all hope because many years have passed. If he had been alive, he would have found a way to call me.

We found my brother’s Lada car after a month and a half, some thirty kilometers away from the village. We found it when the army passed by. We could see where the bullet had entered. They said that the boy was sitting behind, not by the side of the driver. Now I can’t say anything, I can only guess, but I don’t know what happened.

I have been severely depressed for days. I took a lot of medicine and, even to this day when it’s my son’s birthday or when there are holidays, I always feel bad. For days, I just wait, thinking that he will come out from somewhere. Also, the other children have experienced it severely, and they agreed among themselves that whoever gets a son, he should be named Srećko and when my son became a father to his first child, I didn’t want to get involved, I stayed silent, but he named his son Srećko. This was the most painful point of my life but I feel happy when I call my grandson by that name. How to say, it’s like I see my son in him now.

Now we live normally. I have been working as a cook for years. The children work too. We managed to settle here. Children have friendships and they help each other. At first, it was quite difficult. You walk like a goose through the fog. An unknown environment.

            My husband worked in the “Balkans”, and here he got the minimum wage, which was eight thousand five hundred a month and he worked with a tractor, privately, when someone would hire him but he also worked in construction as much as he could. Then one day while he was working around the house, he fell and hit his head. He died on the spot. He slipped and fell. When I woke up in the morning, my son told me, “Dad has fallen”, I told him, “Tell him to stand up” he replied, “He is dead!”. My husband has never taken any medicine, he has never gone to the doctor, he didn’t even have a health card. He was never sick and he never felt any pain, nothing at all.

I hope to God no one will go through this kind of stress. After some time, as soon as that stress went away, my mother and father died. So, I experienced lots of stressful situations. I hope to God that no one experiences what I have experienced. I wish everyone to be good, to respect each other, to appreciate each other, to cooperate, to have a good life.

If we had some property here, I would not live in rent because we have been renting for nine and a half years. Every month, whatever you earn you have to pay for the rent. Then the rent was 120 euros, and we had to pay for the electricity, water, food, clothes, and school for the children.

            I would be the happiest if tomorrow I could do something at the place where I gave birth to my children. If nothing else, at least go during the weekends, or stay a month or two and come back. However, I cannot do it alone unless others return as well. If we could return and live in the village as we used to in the past, I would have returned one hundred percent. I also told my neighbor, “I’m sorry that my husband sold the land, now I would make a weekend cottage there and I would come at least once a month.” He said, “You can come to us whenever you want.” But that’s not a solution. It’s different when you have your own home.

            I never went back to Recan again, I just couldn’t, I find it difficult. But I met with the neighbor in Merdare. I still keep in touch with him. I keep in touch also with another neighbor. With these two we talk regularly on the phone. They were always correct. “If you need anything,” they say, “feel free to tell us.”

My youngest son goes often to Kosovo. He works with some vehicles. My eldest son goes too, but not so often. They went everywhere in Kosovo, even in Prishtina and in Peja. He makes some vehicles and then goes to Kosovo to work. They also went and visited Recan. They say that the house is covered with grass, there is nothing there. The church was demolished in ‘99 and the monuments have all been destroyed. The cemetery was destroyed as well.

            The eldest son went together with my husband while he was alive. My husband went every year to the village, but it was too hard for me. Also, the children wouldn’t let me go. They knew that I was suffering a lot and after a long time I went to Kosovo. I needed to go because of the documents. When we sold the land, I also had to sign at the notary office. Since then, I have been several times in Kosovo.

            Today I want nothing more than to know the truth. That would be the greatest justice for me. Only the truth and nothing else! Because that child didn’t know anything, he didn’t hurt anyone, neither he, nor I, nor my husband.

My son was an excellent student. Sometimes very good, sometimes excellent. He was a good person, a quiet person. What did he know? He was thirteen and a half years old then. He was not like the nowadays children with cell phones. Then there were friendships, games with a ball, everything was normal.

I saved my neighbor’s children when the village was being cleansed. These children had jumped over the fence, and they came to our yard and they said: “Please save us”. I took them to my room; I risked my life and my children’s life to save them. Children as children are not guilty of anything. They were the children of my two neighbors, one had the house behind mine and the other was living in a nearby house. I put these children in my room and I left them with my own kids. After a while, the army came and asked, “Let’s see if there is anyone here!” I told them, “There is no one here, only my children”. What if they saw these children there and someone said to me, “We are fighting, they have abducted your child and still you are rescuing their children!” I put my children’s lives and my own life at risk. However, that is stronger than me, I had to save those kids. It’s stronger than me. How can I see them crying and not save them?

Now I speak to their parents. We talk constantly, two or three times a month. That neighbor is pretty much older than I am but we talk constantly. His children work in Switzerland. He always tells me, “We are forever in debt to you. No one would do what you have done for us.” Even though I was 32 years old then, I didn’t think at all about the other members of the family, but it was very hard for me because imagine, they were just children, they were not guilty of anything. They have not harmed anyone. If you and I are guilty, they are not. They haven’t done anything to anyone.

My brother Boban was an extremely good man. He was a soldier in Croatia when the situation was the worst. He barely escaped when the war broke out there. He escaped and came to village Bratutin, and stayed here as a reservist. He was kind to everyone, he never quarreled with anyone, ever. He was not guilty because he wore a uniform. Just as your people had to go to the KLA, so did our people had to go to the army. There was no option I want-I don’t want to. You were summoned by the SPB and you had to sign and get on the uniform, without any objections. The situation was like that. And afterward what happened? We couldn’t look at each other anymore. For what reason? It’s a hard situation, but what to do?

            Then we came here to Serbia and everything was unknown for us, we had to start everything from the beginning. Here they accepted us, but they always looked at us as foreigners. This is normal. Now, we are almost half-half here in Banja, and most of us went to Kraljevo. My children have really good friends, and I also have good colleagues here, they don’t look at us like that. However, at first they did, I guess until they got to know us. Until they saw who and what we were.

            Even my youngest daughter already has her own friends. The beginning was very difficult, but now 20 years have passed and that’s quite some time.

            I mostly blame myself for not being able to save the boy. The greatest wish in my life would be to find out where his grave is.

            Now I say that it was his fate, it seems that this is how it was written, for him to go together with his uncle so that both of them would die. This is how I see it. Meeting him after school and then him disappearing from my life. He met my aunt, he walked with her for four kilometers, my brother came that day, and they left together that day and got killed the same day.

            My husband, whenever he would drink a little more, would tell me, “Your brother lost my son!” Eh, that makes it even harder. Much harder! If my brother had known, he wouldn’t have gone himself. I would suffer the most when my husband would say these things. On one hand, I lost my brother, on the other I lost my son. I wish God will never allow anyone to experience what I have experienced. To nobody! My mother and father died from sadness.

They came to us two or three times; they took our blood samples in order to check the DNA. But so far nothing. There were many people abducted in one place, not the Hoqa e Madhe but another place, where two brothers were abducted, and then a whole family of 12 members. Some bodies have been found and buried in Belgrade. However, so far, I have not been called for anything. While we lived there, they used to come and they took our blood, in case they find a body or something. After some time, we went to Kosovo to check some wardrobe in case we recognize any of it. We didn’t recognize anything. In the village where I have lived six people have been abducted; two brothers, my cousin, a neighbor, and my son, all abducted from this village. The others were abducted a month before my son. One of the abducted persons was in the military. He was ill, he went to Belgrade, and his brother and cousin went to Belgrade to bring him back to Dule, where they were abducted.

I have something to say for the Government: they should find a solution for us; they should help us find out everything about the missing persons. Both our government and yours. Even if they build me a skyscraper, I don’t need anything, I just need to find out information about my son. This is my only message. That would be the greatest wealth for me. To learn if he is dead, to light a candle for him and if he is alive, to know that he is alive. But I know nothing. Insecurity kills you; this is the worst feeling. If they have killed him, I want to know where his bones are.

            Then, I received different information like the one about the yellow house, this and that, and these things just raise my blood pressure. No one is telling the truth. I can’t say that these things didn’t happen on your side as well. Many people died on your side as well. I am aware of this. Maybe the ones who didn’t do anything were the ones who were killed. I am not talking only about my son. No. We should find information for all of them! This is my message. Let the truth come out once and for all, let the fate of those missing persons be known. So not just for Serbian or Muslim families, but for all of them.

The story is extracted from the book “Hijacked Childhoods: Accounts of children’s wartime experiences’ and is published in series as part of the framework of coordinated activities of CSO’s in Kosovo, organized to mark the International Day of Enforced Disappearances – 30 August 2023. The book is published in partnership between forumZFD Kosovo program and the Missing Persons Resource Center, and is supported by funds received from the German Federal Ministry on Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) and the Embassy of Switzerland in Kosovo. Prishtina, 2022.