20 years after NATO bombing campaign, mixed sentiments in Kosovo

Kosovars remember air raids to remove Milosevic’s forces as moment filled with both fear and spirit of liberation.

Gazmend Elshani - NATO vox
Gazmend Elshani, a former Kosovo Liberation Army reporter and videographer, stands on the hill in central Kosovo where he first the saw NATO planes on March 24, 1999 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Pristina, Kosovo – On March 24, 1999, NATO launched Operation Allied Force, an air campaign to compel Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to pull his forces out of Kosovo and end the conflict that had caused a spiralling humanitarian crisis. 

The bombings lasted for 78 days until Milosevic finally withdrew from the Serbian province that had been agitating for autonomy for years.

During Operation Allied Force, hundreds of civilians died and were wounded when NATO mistakenly identified refugee columns as Serbian military targets. 

Twenty years later, people who witnessed the bombings spoke to Al Jazeera.

Gazmend Elshani, 43, former Kosovo Liberation Army reporter and videographer

Someone came to us with the information that NATO had started to fly from Aviano [air base in Italy] and at that time we didn’t believe it. 

“We left our houses and went out in one field. We waited, and then I heard the noise of the jet – for me, it was unbelievable. 

“It was something like a stamp [of approval] for our dream, because all the time we were dreaming to get liberation from Serbia and when I heard the sound of the aeroplane, [I felt like] I got the stamp.

When we heard the sound of the jets, for me it was a finished war. We saw the liberation of our country. I saw everything that I dreamed before… I saw in my brain everything that I dreamed before for 23 years.

To me, everything changed in a second. I just saw freedom, the children could now play in freedom, I saw people going freely to their jobs, houses and schools.”

Bajram Kafu Kinolli, 33, vocalist and singer-songwriter

Bajram Kafu Kinolli photographed in Pristina [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]
Bajram Kafu Kinolli photographed in Pristina [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

We were having dinner and the news was on.

“They were announcing the alarms and [saying] that all the people should stay inside, close the windows.

“The alarm went off very loud in the city; then there was a lot of shooting, a lot of fire, you didn’t know where it was coming from. It was not clear to us, we were inside.

Then you also heard from the [Serbian] army, an operation on an Albanian family, or to some family there, then you also heard bombings. You didn’t know what is happening. 

After a while, we thought we should go to the basement because the house started to shake a lot from the bombing. So we went down and we stayed there all night that night. That was the first night. The second and third night, during the day, everything was normal. But then always from five in the evening until 10 or 11 in the night, it was just hell. 

Whenever we saw aeroplanes coming, we just ran inside because we didn’t know what would come after they [strike] – how precise were they being with the targets?

“I don’t like that part of my life. I don’t know how it is for Albanians or Serbs, but me being a Roma, it was not a good feeling, during and after the war.”

Ryve Hoxha, 46

Ruve Hoxha at her home in Junik, western Kosovo [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]
Ruve Hoxha at her home in Junik, western Kosovo [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

I will never forget April 14. The Serbs kicked us out of our house in Dobrosh. We saw long lines of trucks and cars ahead of us.

“The trucks were used by the elderly and the very young while us [adults] were walking most of the time. After about half an hour or so from when we started walking, NATO started bombing.

This was the moment when my hand got cut off. My two nieces died as well as two of my sisters-in-law, my cousin and his daughter.

“I lost six people from my family that day. The estimated death toll was around 150 people and many more were disabled.

I heard a very loud whistling sound and I remember falling off the tractor. The next thing I know I was waking up at the hospital.

“I heard that they had lined me up with the dead bodies. My sister came and kissed us all laying there then she told my brother: ‘Ryva is alive’. On that day the planes were very far, and I heard people say ‘We’re saved, we’re saved because NATO came here to help us’.

“We were hoping that it would be a good thing, we didn’t expect that us civilians would be victims.”

Sinan Kajtazi, 31, National Ballet of Kosovo dancer

Sinan Kajtazi pictured at the National Theater of Kosovo [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]
Sinan Kajtazi pictured at the National Theater of Kosovo [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

During the day March 24, we heard in the news that the general secretary of NATO gave the green light to start the bombing after they couldn’t make an agreement [with Slobodan Milosevic].

“I was 12 years old, I didn’t understand a lot of things, but as a kid, I had mixed feelings. Should I be happy or should I be afraid, was this going to be bad or good? 

It was dark when they started to bomb. Neighbours and families were getting in touch by phone – they said it’s better to cover the windows with blankets, to hide the light inside the houses. 

“After an hour, my family said it is better if we move to the neighbour’s house, it’s better if there are more people together. We didn’t take anything.

“It was night, [we walked] towards our neighbour’s house, around 200 metres from our house. During the middle of the way, there was a huge explosion in the air. 

“We didn’t know what it was, but everyone was afraid and panicked so we went to the neighbour’s house and we slept all together that night.”

Pranvera Firza, 40

Pranvera Firza was not frightened by the NATO air campaign [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]
Pranvera Firza was not frightened by the NATO air campaign [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

“Twenty years ago, I was 20 years old and it was an exciting night as we knew that the NATO air strikes will start. For us, it was a new hope for a new life. 

“We knew it would end the Slobodan Milosevic regime. It was the evening, around 8:30 to 9pm. 

“They [the Serbs] turned off the electricity all around Kosovo. We couldn’t see the strike, but we could hear it.

“It was not frightening, it was exciting.

For us, [NATO’s air campaign] was a moment of victory and we wanted to feel it.”

Source: Al Jazeera