The abandoned conscientious objectors of the Yugoslav war

Destroyed Yugoslav National Army T-72 tank at Vukovar, 1991, 29 November 1991, Author Peter Denton, Source, CC By SA 4.0

Milan was a shopkeeper from Serbia who had voiced his opposition to the war in Kosovo during a gathering that took place outside of his store. The report states that he had said that Milosevic was always pushing them to war and that as a consequence the Serbs were becoming a genocidal people. These remarks were then brought to the local police, and he was interrogated but then later released for a lack of criminal record. After his temporary arrest he was later sent a draft notice that would force him to fight in the war that he opposed. To avoid this, he first went into hiding with a friend, but the military police eventually found him and brought him to prison. During a last transfer to another jail, he managed to escape and make his way to Hungary. His family eventually joined him in Hungary. The story in the report ends by explaining that Milan and his family were waiting to know where they were going to be transferred next. We do not know what happened to him and his family after that. NATO did not reach out to help these men that were subjected to involuntary military service, and they were forgotten at the end of the war. This article will focus on how NATO and Serbia neglected the men who identified as conscientious objectors. They were left to their own devices at the end of the war and most did not want to return to Serbia where they were at risk of prosecution.

The Balkan Wars were a series of conflicts that took place in the Balkan region after the dissolution of the former Yugoslav Republic. The wars involved most of the countries in the region and led to widespread destruction, violence, and ethnic cleansing. The conflicts led to many citizens from the former republic to be drafted. Serbia was the actor that aimed to maintain the union and thus drafted many of its citizens into the army. When war broke out, calls for peace from the international community erupted and various Yugoslav peace groups joined in those calls. The group “Women in Black” organised from the beginning of the war protests in Belgrade against the nationalist and militarist attitude of the Serbian government. Population displacement and ethnic cleansing led to a massive emigration from ex-Yugoslavia as those who wanted to escape from the destruction of war did so. The wars fought during the 90s were not supported by everyone, many of those that were called up for military service deserted from the army. deserters and draft resisters were hunted by the Yugoslav forces and had to leave the country. Resolution by the assembly of the Council of Europe called upon Yugoslavia to protect the rights of those who refuse to serve. A call that was not heeded by the Yugoslav government.

                      During the war in Kosovo NATO would air drop leaflets warning Yugoslav citizens that NATO attacks were imminent and urge soldiers to defect from the army. Some of these leaflets would also actively encourage Yugoslavians to resist the draft and flee the country. A report by Amnesty International showed how NATO would use these leaflets to scare Yugoslav soldiers and convince them of their forthcoming defeat. This led to around 13000 Yugoslav soldiers to defect from the army and flee the country, many of them finding refuge in Hungary. But as the report shows NATO did not provide any help for those that resisted the draft or defected. The Yugoslav lawyers committee is cited to have stated that the conditions in the country were not safe for the return of conscripts, conscientious objectors (COs) or deserters that managed to flee the country or otherwise avoid military duty. The report describes how the authorities would bring charges against men who had evaded conscription by leaving the country during the official “state of war”. They would so by using a residence registration provision, that detailed what their whereabouts were during the war. Trials against these men are then held in closed sessions and the information about the verdicts and sentences are not made public. Around 1000 of these conscientious objectors were imprisoned at the time. NATO did not take responsibility or provide any help for these men, nor the destruction they wielded in the region and the fearmongering tactics that led to many Yugoslav men fleeing the military.

Milan’s story is not the only one to come out of the war, another man named Damir, a Seventh Day Adventist, was also called up for service but refused based on his religious beliefs. As a substitute for military service, he served as a fireman in his old brigade; but as he explains in his interview he was regularly criticised and ostracised for his decision not to serve in the army. He was also told by his comrades that his mixed background, his mother was Croatian and his father Albanian, was the cause for the NATO bombing campaign. After that, the state of war border control was lifted Damir obtained a passport and crossed into Hungary. He had been told by friends that the authorities were seeking to prosecute him if he ever went back.

                      In 2021 the Serbian defence minister stated that the idea to reintroduce conscription is being thoroughly considered. The number of people that are interested in joining the army on a voluntary basis is constantly decreasing, with 5000 professional soldiers leaving the army in the last couple of years. The sentiment seems to be that the army is not an attractive option or an ambition of young Serbian men. It then seems counterintuitive by the Serbian government to want to force back young men into the army. The evidence seems to show that it is becoming an obsolete institution and is solely withheld based on ideological commitments. The last war in the region happened almost 20 years ago. When you read the statements of these men who did not want to serve, it seems like the ambition to reintroduce military service is archaic. It would be a mistake to forget the war that so scarred the region.

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