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June 27, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 351
The armed forces and parents

The stench of helplessness

by Zoran B. Nikolic

While Spomenka Pejic cried, resting on a gray, metal fence in front of one of the Defense Ministry’s buildings on Prince Milos Street, the flash bulbs of about 10 photojournalists snapped.  Mrs. Pejcic burst into tears when amidst the twenty people who gathered together in front of the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army on Monday, June 22, in order to find their sons, grandsons, and brothers serving the military in Kosovo, Divna Babic arrived and pulled from her purse a picture of her late son Bojan who was killed on the Macedonian border at Prizren in September of last year.  “They told me that it was an unfortunate case,” said Mrs. Babic.  “What you are doing doesn’t help, but go to the barracks, take your child by the hand, and go home,” she appealed to women who tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears.  “But they’ll go to jail,” said one old woman, upset with protesters.  Divna Babic calmly answered, “They’ll get out of jail, but never from the grave.”  The mothers assembled mainly repeated that they raised their sons for the military, but not for war.

Protests began on June 13 with the gathering of about 100 parents of soldiers from Kragujevac in front of the local corps headquarters.  Stories of massive transfers began a few days earlier, a few news reports followed in relation to that.  Unsatisfied with the answers of military representatives, Kragujevcani gathered on June 14 and decided to go to Kosovo in order to see their children.  Although they left Kragujevac at 10 o’clock in the morning, representatives of the police and the army stopped their buses and held them so long that darkness awaited them in Kosovski Mitrovic.  There, they spoke with Major General Gradimir Zivanovic, chief of information services of the General Staff of the Yugoslav Army and Zoran Andjlkvic, Serbian minister for sport and youth.  Afterwards, they returned home without getting anything done.  Around ten parents protested in Nis on June 16, 17, 18.  Then, with the help of the Belgrade Center for Anti-war Action, parents organized a large gathering of parents from all over Serbia in front of the General Staff  on June 18.  About a couple hundred people showed up.  Approximately 30 parents who came from Vojvodina recently assembled in Novi Sad at the invitation of the Social Democratic League of Vojvodina.  Mayor Josef Kasa of Subotica and federal representative of Vojvodina’s Hungarians to the Federal Parliament came from Subotica.  Parents from Nis and Krafujevac came.  General Zivanovic came out in front of the building and said to them that, “young recruits aren’t in Kosovo,” upon which those gathered called him a liar.  Then, he suggested that they go to the barracks in Topcider in order to speak peacefully, which the parents refused.  They asked him to appeal to General Momcilo Persic, head of the General Staff.  In accordance to that, General Zivanovic invited the delegation of parents to talks at the General Staff without the presence of journalists.  He explained to them over coffee that Persic alone doesn’t have the authority to pull the army out of Kosovo.  In the end, the group of parents handed over a written demand that their children be returned from Kosovo within a deadline of 48 hours.  One Novo Sadian spilled that “military” coffee on Zivanovic’s uniform, but the remaining agreed to come again on Friday.  That same evening, General Zivanovic announced that on June 17 a soldier named Zoran Andelkovic of Vranje, who had come to Kosovo only five days earlier, had been killed.

No one wanted to receive the 30 people who had gathered on the same spot the following day.  After a few hours, they went to the Federal Parliament where they were permitted to give a written demand calling for the withdrawal of troops from Kosovo to a petty clerk, but no one wanted to speak to them.  The same thing occurred at the federal government, who they visited afterwards, announcing themselves unexpectedly by forcing the threshold.  The only result of the meeting held on Monday in which the parents asked to be received by Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic was the announcement of a large protest rally on Friday, June 26, at which “1,000 parents from all over Serbia will appear.”  Until now, not even a thousand people have gathered together at all the protests held by parents.  Around 10,000 recruits are in Kosovo for the moment, and even though a large number of their parents don’t know where their children are (some of their sons haven’t called for two months) it looks as though the majority doesn’t believe in the efficiency of organized protest rallies, so they try to pull their sons out via personal contacts.  Perhaps there is some truth to the stories concerning “ransoms” of a couple thousand deutsche marks that one needs to give to the right person in the chain of command.  Yugoslav Army officers have really tried to calm parents.  Commander of the Kosovski Mitrovic garrison, who on June 15 greeted parents from Kragujevac in Leposavic, said that in Kosovo, “he can’t guarantee them freedom of movement,” but that their “golden children” are safe.  That same day General Zivanovic announced in Kosovski Mitrovic that there had been “shooting” but the problem was “only” in movement.  The general stated that parents and soldiers are completely safe as long as they don’t move, especially towards each other.  Colonel Mirko Starcevic made parents from Nis happy with the pubic disclosure of the following precautionary measures:  he said, the children are camping outside of the barracks so they won’t be trapped in the barracks.  The soldier Zoran Andjelkovic was killed in the supply column, the only one to find itself in “field training.”  To send soldiers outside the barracks today in Kosovo only to ensure their personal safety is illogical because it would only lengthen the already threatened line of supply. Probably, the reason is the federal government’s decision to increase security of the state border in Kosovo where, as every patriot knows, war isn’t being waged against guerrillas who threaten the border watchtowers in which there are more wounded and killed everyday, rather it’s about border incidents that challenge terrorists  with the same number of casualties.

The current wave of parents’ protests challenges the transfer of the March military class who began around June 7 in Kosovo.  The reason for this transfer is that last June’s class finished their tour of duty.  Under normal circumstances, they would have been replaced by this year’s June recruits, but not even the Yugoslav Army command would dare send to that oasis of safety young men who still don’t know how to properly put on a uniform.  As the number of Yugoslav Army members in Kosovo fell suddenly by ¼, the General Staff sent March recruits from barracks all over Yugoslavia, including sailors from Bar.  These men just finished the basic infantry training that all recruits go through. They’ve just gotten used to the military regime, but they still haven’t lost their fear of the officers as have older soldiers.  Except for that, they are all still focused on school unity, so there is no need to ruin the departure of the June class, and thereby losing the operative unity spread throughout the homeland.

It is indisputable that the border is threatened, and so therefore increasing the military presence in Kosovo is necessary, but the way in which they complete this increase of the Kosovian units throws a shadow on the entire affair.  The transfer is carried out secretly.  Until departure, soldiers aren’t told where they are going, yet they suspect it due to preparations.  They arrived in Kosovo by train and bus, windows closed for fear that someone might jump out.  Many parents still have no idea as to where their children are, and others in place of the command have found out through personal contacts.  The Yugoslav Army has communicated that only to those unfortunate ones whose children died, along with news concerning the death.  When they arrive in Kosovo, recruits receive new uniforms, arms, and battle ammunition and quickly head out to the terrain for “exercises” and “field training.”  Some recruits succeeded in telephoning their families .  After the protests, these last few days telephone communication with their sons became possible, but parents say that such conversations only increase their concern because their children tell them almost nothing, telling them that they are “fine” as if they don’t dare say anything more.  On Sunday, the General Staff announced a  telephone number that is usually busy through which parents can obtain information about recruits.  When you get through, they tell you the same thing no matter who you ask for, even when the name is fictitious (we tried).  “He’s fine and isn’t on the list of wounded.”  In some letters that have made their way home, these young men say that not only are they fired upon, but also they are often half-starved because it is difficult for supplies to reach their location.

Due to the fact that it has seen that parents aren’t satisfied with what they were offered, the General Staff has lost all interest in the whole affair.  On Monday, parents waited in vain in front of the General Staff building, but a number of military policemen (the courtyard of one building in the General Staff complex, visible from the street, was full of vehicles designating this type of soldier) behave toward them with scorn.  One of them scornfully laughed through the window in the hall at the sobs of one young woman who came  to inquire for her brother’s fate.

Perhaps the Yugoslav Army is defending the borders, but they don’t behave like it.  The current composition of the Yugoslav Army and the police isn’t satisfied with resisting almost two million citizens who have decided that they don’t want to be a part of the Serbian state.  If it is all possible and necessary to seriously settle accounts with them, a mobilization of additional people would be required and along with it recognition of the seriousness of the situation.  The army receives its framework for operations from politicians who know that it would come to a foreign military intervention that would drastically reduce their careers. The regime has tied the hands of the army by not allowing it to do what is necessary if it wants a preservation of its “territorial integrity,”  but won’t allow it to withdraw from Kosovo.  Just as the international community won’t permit Milosevic to keep armed forces in Kosovo, nor surrender territory to the KLA.  The result is that about 10,000 young men are dressed in dangerous uniforms and armed just to infuriate their opponents--not to defeat them.  They share the same position of the Serbs who can’t abandon the province—hostages to the regime.  Thanks to them, a lot more that just Kosovian Serbs or refugees are hostages—it’s all of Serbia.  A number of high officers tried to enter through the main entrance to the General Staff, but obediently left to find another entrance per the instructions of the military police even though the number of parents was small and they didn’t incite any kind of incident.  In spite of that, the gentlemanly officers acted as though they didn’t notice the gathering.

A little before one o’clock on Monday, a gentleman in a gray, civilian suit appeared between two military policeman who the parents prevented from climbing the stairs to the General Staff entrance.   Judging from the fact that his instructions were immediately carried out by the present captain of the military police, he was a high officer of the Yugoslav Army.  When the mother of one young soldier, tired of waiting in the sun, asked when Minister Bulatovic would receive them, the gentleman cleverly answered “somewhere around 4:48.”  That challenged parents to begin running for the door.  In the crowd that remained, parents were pushed aside.   A mother in close  contact with him smelled the stench of alcohol.  Reporters were convinced of it after the gentlemen mentioned told them he was “the replacement of the head of the General Staff.”  He wasn’t sure of his feet, his hands were trembling, and he quickly vanished.  Above all else, the desire to disappear is the same symptom noticed in many of his colleagues.  For that reason it isn’t necessary for them to be under the effects of alcohol.

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