Interview by Joana Zula

War Story Interview with Sorin Ardelian, Veteran from the Serbian Army

by Joana Zula (12/4/03)

Q: Tell me some basics about when you served in the army, what army was it, were you drafted, how long did you serve and whatever else you think is important about it.

Well, I served in the Serbian army on and off since 1997.  I went only during the non-farming season, which is from mid October to mid-March, around there.  We were more like extras, people to be trained in case they were needed.  We had no choice not to go, so you can say I was drafted.  But most of us were farmers; they did not keep us in the months that you had to do the work around the farm except when it was necessary and when the whole war took place. They kept us a little longer then.

Q:  So you had to go every year, what would have happened if you did not go?

You would have had to leave the country–many did, they left for Romania as soon as they received the notice, but there is a likely chance they wont be able to return to the country-I can’t do that,  I need to take care of your sister and my family.  The once that are unmarried do it a lot.  Most of them however do not have to serve, if you are a student, they try to let you in school as much as possible, but you have to go to the training in the summer, and when school is off.

Q:  What is this training, I mean, do you train with guns? Like learn how to shoot? What does it include?

It is basically intense, both self-defense and arms practice and survival in the wilderness training.  You learn about the guns, you practice survival, stand guard mostly, we stay in at a base (not completely sure if that is how the word would be translated – it’s basically a training camp, military, especially for the purpose of training).   We all do duties around there: cooking, cleaning, oh, pealing potatoes is the worst…we do like 40 kilograms of potatoes, then your hands are like sandpaper and all brown for the next three days.  No one wants that duty; it is one of those things that you always try to throw on someone else, make bets on and laugh about, usually the person who looses at chess when we play is made to do it. We play chess a lot, at night.  There is not much to do, we have a little TV but we get only the government owned channels and there is usually nothing on there worth watching.  The compound is located in the mountains, so lookouts and scouting is also something we do a lot.  We run around a lot that is basically all we do.

Q:  Are you guys ever in danger, have you ever been attacked?  Have you ever been involved in a fight?

Our compound was under attack a few times by different forces.  We were attacked by the Bosnians once, Albanians once of twice…. A few times it happens, but it was very small, non involved thing.  The people on the lookout took care of it; by the time we got out they have already been captured. It was not a major attack, terrorist groups for the most part.  It was just a few gunshots being fired, no big forces. You can’t get tanks up there or heavy artillery, the roads are not built for it because of the reason that it is only a training camp. There is also a military base not far at the base of the hill, more on the outskirts of the city; we would have to drive down there if we were needed in combat.  The compound is up in the mountains, it is easily defendable.  It was never anything big, we were never really in danger except when US started bombing.

Q:  Where you at the compound when the US started bombing?

Yes.  We were all made to stay.  They told us we might be needed.

Q.  Were you scared?

At first I was confused, the governmental TV is much filtered, and we did not know what was going on.  No one told us anything, and then they brought some heavier ammunition up there.  We were not instructed on how to use them, the military people came.  We knew something serious was going on but at that time all connection was prohibited for our safety. I could not contact your sister to tell her anything or to hear from her.  Finally, a few days before the war started, we were informed of what was going on.  The US and NATO were going to attack, US emphasized.  I don’t recall ever seeing such fear or feeling such fear.  At first it was almost disbelief, a shock, and then the fear took over.  No one said much, everyone just walked around anxious going about our day.  There was something about Milosevic having to sign an agreement, at that time we did not know what exactly it was, but it did not look like he was going to do it.  There were talks of repetition of something like the WWI ultimatum, impossible and one that would likely not to be signed.  I admit I was not looking forward to this war.  I was scared!  I saw US bombing before, we have CNN at home and they always have trouble somewhere and bomb someone.  We stood no chance; I wanted to leave, we all did.

Q: Do you remember the date or around what days this happened? Was it close to the beginning of the actual war?

Oh, I don’t really know, maybe the 22, the war started two days later I think.  We were up the whole time, no one slept, so it was hard to keep track of the exact dates.  There was a TV station located up on the mountain (or hill, rather, I think) so we were a prime target.  They told us we were safe, but then they told us we were a prime target.  Military bases that is what they said.  A couple of us made plans to run away and make it across the border to either Romania or Hungary.  We never got the chance.  In the next day or so Belgrade started being bombed.  The sirens were the worse part.  They were the only sound you could hear.  Ours was always the first to go off.  It was on the whole night.  I can still hear that whinny sound.  I think its embedded in everyone’s memory.   The distress was enough.  It was an air attack; there was nothing we could have done to stop it.  We were not told much, most of what I know I have learned after.  The next few days were the worst.  Nothing happened.  We put the siren on every time a plane came by and they came by a lot.  The borders closed; there was no way to leave.  At night, we saw the bombs over Belgrade, but we did nothing but watch.  There was nothing to do.  I don’t think we had the proper ammunition to attack even if we wanted to. We had no orders, we were just told to stay put.  None of us were inside, we stayed on the hill, our officers wanted us to do so in case a bomb got dropped on top of the buildings.  We had an underground shelter but they did not want us to use that.  The building was old and our officer believed that the shelter would cave in if the building collapsed. We took some of the ammunition down there but there was not much that we had.  It was mostly formality. We had a few runaways, but at that time, I don’t think the officers cared.  They wanted to get us all out; I think they mostly wanted out themselves.  In pula mea (swearwords I do not care to translate), why would we protect the building with our lives.  It did not make sense.  The officers closed an eye on the deserters, but the officer main officer was my friend.  We often played chess together before that, or cards.  He had a family too, I wanted to leave, but I felt bound to him.  He told me to go; I think that is why I stayed.  None of the men from my town left, there were four of us there at the time.

Q: Only four?

Yes, school was in session at this time, the ones that still went to school were not there, others were across Serbia, some in Montenegro, it depends were you were stationed.

Q: Sorry, go on.

Well, technically what happened is that we got warned, well, the base down sent us a warning that we will be bombed in a day or two.  Two officers went down to negotiate the situation, they sent us all home.  Something along the lines that we if we can’t catch the bombs when they fall, we are close to useless.  I think dracii were trying to be funny in the situation.  So we left.

Q: They just let you go?

Yes, pretty much that is what happened.  At home, we did much the same.  It was better because I was with Mariana (wife) and Fabian (son). But the sirens kept going on.  We sow the compound burn.  You know how if you look in the horizon, you see the hill with the TV antenna?  We saw them both burn.  I think it was two days after we left. I was angry, there was nothing there. Everyone cried.  I think at home the situation was worse.  Grandma was hysterical.  So were a lot of the old people.  They made reference to the end of the world, punishments….  The kids were scared.  Schools were all cancelled, no one went to work.  Everyone was in a state of just fear and panic. When the sirens went off, we just huddled and hoped none of the cluster bombs missed.  The government TV stations were basically all burned down, but we had some private ones that showed buildings, bridges, monuments bombed down.  We cried, everyone did, in disbelief mostly.  We saw Belgrade in flame, Virset in flames, I mean, places you go to on a weekly bases, familiar places burned down.

Q: You saw all this information on television? Like the private stations?

Television, radio mostly.  This is when we had electricity. Maybe for two, three hours a day.  They were struggling hard to keep fixing it but the centrals kept getting knocked down.  We get out power from the border, (with Romania) so we had it better then most places because they could not bomb in Romania where most of the centrals are.

Q:  I know you said you had CNN. Did you watch that at all?

Only when we had the patience.  It was not often.  It was infuriating to watch!

They made it out to look like nothing ever happened.  You did not see any of the dead, anything.  When we watched it we shouted at the TV, the men especially.  Your sister also put restrictions on us, when the kid was around.  Especially around the times when all the accidental bombings happened.  They made it seem like it was no big deal.  In pula mea, they killed so many people.  The whole bombing of Nis, they struck a hospital and a marketplace.  I don’t even remember if CNN had anything on that.  Our private station showed pictures of the marketplace, including the dead.  The village is not far from ours.  There were so many reports of bombs missing their targets.  It was scary because you did not feel safe in the house.  No one did.  But we are farmers, we still had to go out and feed the animals, they too were so anxious with the sirens being on for most of the time, especially at night. No one really slept.  We all kind of just stood huddled, talking, whispering, and laying in bed.  There was nothing to do.   The fear was draining.  As the time passed, the people became more like zombies.  No one went to work.  Some stores started opening up, business was going bad, but people needed things.  No one went into the fields or to the gardens (the village is structured so that houses are in the village and vegetable gardens and vineyard further, on the outskirts of the village.  The fields are probably a good 10 minutes to 20 minutes car ride or longer with a tractor).  The market was not held (open market every Thursday where people go to buy and sell goods: produce, eggs, milk, all necessities).  Food supplies were running low and we live on a farm.  It was worse in the cities, no farmers dared to go sell their goods.  We at least had food stored, smoked and preserved.  The situation wasn’t good.  None of that was shown in the media; the US people did not see any of how the whole situation affected the people.  That was what made us mad.  Everyone is on the side of their country when something like this happens.  We did not want the US or NATO in.  The country was already exhausted of all its resources from the years of sanctions.  This war was not good for the economy or for the county.

Q: But what about Milosevic? Did you not want him out of the country?

It’s good to have him out.  No one wanted him in power especially with all the things he did.  But the situation currently is not much better. All leaders are the same, they want the same things and that is power.  They don’t care about the people.  The people wanted Milosevic out partially because they wanted America out and they wanted peace.  The people did not care because all leaders are exploiters.  Clinton too, he also looked for his best interests.  All of them do.  But then, in order to eliminate leaders, people get hurt. This is what happened in Yugoslavia.  I mean, how many people were killed by NATO, and they were civilians?  There was the bus, the train, the embassy, a few houses; I don’t even remember them all.

Q: So you think it was wrong for United States to attack?  What about Kosovo?

You know the situation with Kosovo.  You know how it happened with all the other republics with splitting. Do you still need me to tell you about it?

Q:  Yes please, if you can just mention the stuff with the whole “ethnic cleansing”

OK.  Well, you know most of it.  It never affected us personally as you know; it just went around in the other republics.  But the whole idea of ethnic cleansing is not what CNN makes it out to be.  They make it out to be that the Serbs are the only ones expelling everyone else but mostly the Muslims out of Kosovo.  But there is history involved here.  Years and years of Balkan history.  This ethnic cleansing was not done only by the Serbs.  More Serbs have been “cleansed” out of the other republics in the past 13 years then any other nationality out of the republics of the Former Yugoslavia.  The atrocities were committed on all sides.  For more then forty years after World War II, the many nationalities that made up Yugoslavia lived together in peace. In the civil wars, which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, there was much bloodshed and human-rights violations on all sides. But still, the biggest single act of “ethnic cleansing” was the forced removal of hundreds of thousands Serbs from the former Yugoslav Republic Croatia by the U.S.-trained and armed Croatian military in 1995. Most of these Serbs  resettled in Kosovo, only to be made refugees again by NATO bombing. The situation is very complicated; do you know more that you can add? I don’t even know a lot of what was going on with everything it is hard to follow.  Is this good enough?

Q:  Sure.  I’ll ask more if I can think of anything. Will you tell me more about the reactions, the feelings of the people at this time?

Angry, mad and upset pe dracii who bombed us.  We were made to look like monsters on television, all the people.  The Serbs as a whole were made to look like murders, the entire population.  There was no distinction.  It was almost as if the whole county was walking around killing all non-Serbs.  I mean, we are non-Serbs, most of Yugoslavia is non-Serb.  Like what is the percentage, about 20% Serbs and the other all minorities?

You know how most reacted.  Should I talk about this? I mean, most cheered when the US bomber that was supposed to be “invisible” to radar went down.  They were invading out county after all…we wanted them out.  They probably cheered over there when they struck our museums down and our cultural centers and universities that they though were harboring and ammunition with no proof.

Q:  So you think that this war was wrong? How would you define war?

Hmm….according to whom? America?

Q: No, just a question I need to ask, like what do you think war is, what would you say it includes, what is war?

Well, America sure does it often enough and Serbia sure does it too.  I mean, we have been at war for what now, more then 10 years with different republics? I would have to say that war is killing massive amounts of people, military or civilian, bombing of land, taking over of territory, burning down of villages, anything like that is war.  Ethnic cleansing most definitely, trying to take over territories, expelling the people from their land to take over it, kind of like the cowboys did to the Indians in America.  Just anything that threatens the life and freedom and the property of another individual.

Q: Has your definition of war changed over the years?

Well, yes, certainly.  At first war appeared distant, in school we learned about WWI and WWII, but we never saw them. At first, I believe I thought war was necessary, now that I have seen it for so long, I think it is pointless.  I see no results from any war.  I see only destruction and the place left to try to get back on its feet.  I mean, we have a new president now, the US is happy, but the country and the economy are a mess.  Most of the places that were burned down are still not rebuilt because of the lack of money.  They stay there as monument of war now, charred and burned.  I think I see war as an exhausting thing, constantly bearing down on the innocent people who in the first place had nothing to do with the war.

Q: Do you think this war was just?

Which one, the one in 1999 with US or the other ones?

Q: All.

No.  I don’t think any of them were just.  Yes, it is true that Serbia fought the war with the other republics so they don’t break apart, but that was civil war.  Didn’t America do the same ting?  I think I read somewhere that they burned to the ground the states that wanted to separate in that US civil war?  Am I right or am I just making this up?

Q:  They did not burn all the states down, but yes there was burning of cities involved and there was a civil war.  So do you think it was justified because Yugoslavia wanted to keep its autonomy?

No, not at all.  Wars are always fought for the wrong reason and nothing justifies what happened.  I don’t know why the US attacked Serbia and Kosovo, actually.  We have a little oil, enough for maybe 20 tractors (laughs).  No, I think this war was certainly not justifiable.  In the end, most people in Kosovo ended up running as refugees not because of the Serbs but because of the US bombs.  Just like us, they were not afraid of the enemy, they were afraid of the bombs.

Q: Do you think of the war often? What memories come to you?

I don’t really have to think about it.  It is in the news everyday.  Just because the US left, it doesn’t mean there is peace.  The KLA is still around.  And memories, I see them all over when I go into the city.  They are constant reminders.

Q: Do you still go back to the training thing?

No, we don’t have that anymore.  The effort was left to the real army.  It is nice to spend the winters at home.

Q:  Do you still meet up with the people from the compound? Do you guys talk about the war?

Yes, we still meet.  The officer that I was telling you about has become a good friend.  We made a chess club during the winter, we get together when gas is available and it doesn’t cost a week’s worth of food.  Yes, we talk about the war.  He likes to discuss world politics; he has a computer so he reads everything on the internet.  He especially got involved with the recent war with Iraq; he sees the situation repeating itself with big powerful countries attacking little ones.  He always brings back the same stories about how the Serbs build those wood airplane models that looked like bombers and the US kept bombing those instead of the real ones.  Or another of his favorites is how they tried to bomb underground bunkers but they never got through the cement because when the bombing ceased, the Serbs would fill the hole made with more cement so that the bombs never got to the underground bunkers.  He is very proud of his country.  We laugh at him when he gets drunk.

Q: What stories do you guys not like to share? Do you share any other stories when you get together?

Well, one of the guy’s wife got killed in Nis in the marketplace, and then another’s daughter got killed in a building that was bombed.  I think she was three or something like that.  We don’t like to talk about things like that, any of the deaths that happened.  It usually is not pleasant.  We mostly talk about funny stories that happened while in training.  For example, this is the one that the guys like to share a lot.  I was standing guard one night and they decided to scare me.  One of the guys was making noises in the bushes around.  It was night and in the winter, you usually are too cold to even think.  The other guy that stood watch with me left to go somewhere, I was not paying attention to what he said.  But the rustling was moving around in the bushes not far, the mountain has bushes and undergrowth that stayed leafy, or too matted to really see properly.  I called out and no one answered.  I went toward the noise, tried to see, but he was wearing all black, and we did not have too much lighting as not to attract too much attention to the compound.  As I was poking around, another one of them jumped from a three behind me where he was hiding, yelling, and this other one jumped from the bush yelling.  I almost shot them!!!  I was so afraid I could not stop screaming myself and it took them several moments to convince me it was them before I put my gun down.  Has there not been two of them there and have I not been confused from the direction of both screams, I think I could have killed one of them.  We all had a scare that night from each other, but we still roll laughing every time we tell the story.

Q: I know you did not actually fight in any of the wars and that you were just kind of a reserve, but did you ever meet the enemy face to face?

Who is the enemy?  I mean we talk to Albanins, Croatians and Bosnians all the time.  I talk to you, you are American now.  Are you my enemy?  No, I think the enemies are the government leaders and the presidents that make the wars, but I have not met many of them yet so don’t think I have met an enemy face to face yet.

War Interview Analysis
The person I choose to interview for this assignment was my brother in law. He has been a reserve in the Serbian army during the non-farming seasons since 1997 and witnessed the 1999 NATO attack on Yugoslavia. The stories that he shared both reflect some of the ideas common in war literature that we have read and also refute others. I find some of the stories that he told important to share because I feel that many people are not necessarily aware of the situation in Yugoslavia and do not have a good picture of the situation nor the complicated story behind the war.

As I was interviewing my brother in law, the themes that he was talking about and the feelings he shared kept echoing Howard Zinn’s skepticism of governments and war situations in which the rights of the people are represented. Zinn asks in “A People’s War?” if the “country’s wartime policies respect the rights of ordinary people everywhere to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” My brother in law made some comments about the United States not protecting the rights of all the people in Yugoslavia during the attacks. The country that constitutes predominantly of minority groups, but the entire country was attacked to force the very small percentage of Serbs into submission. He also, like Zinn, is worried about the suffering of the civilians as a result of a war that is fought between governments “not for minority rights but for national power.” He was also very concerned with the air strikes and the affect it has on the civilian population. This concern was echoed in many of the works we read, starting with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five where he shows the effects of Dresden on the innocent civilian population. More recent works that deal with this bombing of capitals are Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Hum Bom” and Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “Jabberwocky” that deal with the attacks that took place during the Gulf War. These left thousands of civilians devastated due to the destruction of power lines, water supplies, schools and other important and critical centers such as hospitals. She also complains about media selling the war and only showing the people what they want, not the whole reality of war. This was also my brother’s concern. The media goes through pains to limit the publicity of errors that occurred during the war so that public is not alarmed by its inhumanity and driven to protest the war.

The interview also revealed some of the experiences of the seasonal soldiers that we have not read about before in class. In our readings, we did not encounter such groups of reservists that were there on hand and trained as extras in case a war broke out. This idea of farmer-soldiers sounds old to me, from the early Roman times, but I believe it was an exception made so that students and farmers do not completely have to leave their work and are still able to serve the country at the same time. The country is also very agriculture based in its economy due to the sanctions, so the farmer becomes a great commodity. Also, the idea that a soldier is sent home at the break of a war was not encountered in any of our readings. We usually see drafts that want people to participate in combat and enlist, but are not familiar from any readings with the experience of a soldier that is sent home because he is hopeless and powerless in the advent of a powerful attacker. Still, at a point in time such as this, I feel that it was the right choice for the officers to make. If the lives of civilians were speared by having them sent home, and since they could not have interfered or helped in any way, it was better for them to go home.

After the interview, as an interviewer, I feel that there are many stories that I would like to share. First of all, I think it is important to share some of the stories of the media portrayal of war in Yugoslavia and the coverage of the media on American television. The media is the people’s window of the world. We only see what we are shown, and it is common knowledge by now that the mainstream media will only show us the minimum and the basics of events. Media is also use as propaganda very often. For example, in Yugoslavia, the media was used as a vehicle to infuriate the people against the attackers, inflate nationalism and increase resistance. This was accomplished by showing dead bodies of innocent civilians slaughtered by cruel bombs. At home, the media was used to show the cruelty of the Serbs towards the Albanians in order to increase support for the war, making it a struggle of Good against Evil.

Another story I think it is important to share is the experience of the civilians in their homes during the bombings. Feelings are usually not attributed to people during these times, or at least we as the public are not allowed to know them. The sound of the dreadful sirens always going on, the sound of planes and bombs in the distance and the question of wheatear the bombs will hit the right target are all events that can leave a lasting impression on a person. Just the sounds themselves can drive fear deep into the hearts of people, but especially young children.

It is also important to share some of the anger people felt at the situation. I think more people will realize what really happens when we bomb a country if emotions were shared. Often, the question arises of “why do they hate us?” If we put ourselves in their positions, maybe we can better understand why so many nations are frustrated with the United States acting like the police of the world.I also feel that the aftermath events of the war need to be shared. It seems to be a common theme that when there is a war that is not necessarily important, talks of rebuilding are minimal. As a result, the country that was attacked, most likely poor in the first place, it going to suffer further economic losses. This is what happened in Yugoslavia after the old government war overthrown, and the country is still struggling to get back on its feet, while the citizens are suffering as a result of the losses.

I feel that this interview has helped me understand better the war that took place in 1999. Although I have had some personal experiences with this conflict, it helped a great deal to talk to someone about the events and their experiences with it. My brother in law has also had a great deal of time to sit back and reflect upon what has happened. I also think that he most definitely got involved with politics more since he meets with his friends that were present at the compound with him. His views of the war along with our readings in class have helped me develop a more evolved picture of the war and the civil wars that took place in the Balkans.

I also feel that the aftermath events of the war need to be shared. It seems to be a common theme that when there is a war that is not necessarily important, talks of rebuilding are minimal. As a result, the country that was attacked, most likely poor in the first place, it going to suffer further economic losses. This is what happened in Yugoslavia after the old government war overthrown, and the country is still struggling to get back on its feet, while the citizens are suffering as a result of the losses.

I feel that this interview has helped me understand better the war that took place in 1999. Although I have had some personal experiences with this conflict, it helped a great deal to talk to someone about the events and their experiences with it. My brother in law has also had a great deal of time to sit back and reflect upon what has happened. I also think that he most definitely got involved with politics more since he meets with his friends that were present at the compound with him. His views of the war along with our readings in class have helped me develop a more evolved picture of the war and the civil wars that took place in the Balkans.