Soldiers of Misfortune

Mirko Rudic Belgrade, Zagreb and Paris

Serbia’s veterans struggle against the legacy of wartime defeats and denials, while their victorious counterparts thrive.

An injured leg brought Zeljko Vukelic home from the war. Back in Serbia, injured pride placed him on another warpath. Like a scar, the frontline has followed him.

“It’s just like the Krajina,” he says, comparing the battlefield where he faced Croatian forces 20 years ago to his stand-off today against the government in Belgrade.

“You sit there and wait for something to happen, but then you lose your patience and say: ‘Let’s just kill each other.’”

The men who once carried arms for the Serbian cause are now up in arms against the Serbian state. They accuse Belgrade of betraying them by withholding wages and welfare benefits.

A Serbian reservist sleeps on a park bench in Belgrade in 1993. (photo:Drasko Gagovic)

“In two hours, I can gather 20 men who would be ready to be killed if I said so,” Vukelic says, underscoring his comrades’ desperation. He is the secretary of the SVS, the country’s largest veterans’ organisation, which has been campaigning for more rights.

Across the border, Croatian veterans’ leader Mirko Ljubicic listens straight-faced to the news of the campaign, occasionally clicking his tongue in sympathy at his wartime enemies’ woes.

The head of the Zagreb chapter of HVIDRA, a powerful association of former servicemen, Ljubicic is proud of his organisation’s clout.

“Only veterans can gather over 50,000 people at a public square,” he says, referring to a recent protest in Croatia over plans to introduce signposts in the Serbian Cyrillic script.

In stark contrast to Vukelic, Ljubicic praises his government’s policy towards its former soldiers. He says the next step for Croatia’s veterans, as “proven patriots”, is to enter the upper echelons of business and politics.

He even suggests his former foes could learn lessons from his organisation. “Please feel free to recommend our actions to the veterans in Serbia,” he says.

Zeljko Vukelic says his stand-off with the Serbian government reminds him of the battlefield.

This report by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reveals how Serbia’s losses – and its denial of a direct role in much of the fighting in the 1990s – have shaped its attitude towards its veterans.

Sympathy is in short supply for the hundreds of thousands of Serbs who fought in the Balkan wars. Their image abroad is linked indelibly to thuggery and atrocity. But even the Serbian veterans’ compatriots can seem ambivalent about them.

Ljubicic and his comrades are hailed in Croatia as “branitelji”, or “defenders” – a term with positive connotations. Serbs, who speak the same language, describe their former soldiers in more neutral terms – as “veterani”, derived from the English word, or as “borci”, meaning “fighters”.

Outside the law

In the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia, the territories that secured greater autonomy or nationhood – such as Croatia, Kosovo, Slovenia and the Republika Srpska segment of Bosnia – would ultimately claim victory.

The veterans who fought for these territories now enjoy generous pensions, benefits, social approval and a measure of political influence.

Their welfare exacts a heavy toll from weak economies. Nevertheless, the politicians have usually chosen to pay up, however grudgingly, rather than irk men whom the electorate regards as freedom fighters.








Bosnian Serb entity

Budget for veterans

(in euros)

135 m


759 m

29 m


19 m

9 m

78 m

Number of citizens with veteran status

No official figure*




No figure given


Number of disabled veterans receiving state help







*Unofficial estimates say Serbia has between 400,000 and 800,000 veterans.
**Kosovo is currently calculating the size of its veterans’ population. 

Sources: Government departments and ministries responsible for veterans.

Serbia’s moribund economy is certainly ill-equipped to meet its veterans’ demands. But successive governments have also failed to push through any laws that recognise the veterans as a distinct category – a prerequisite to awarding them benefits.

Serbia emerged as one of the biggest losers from the 1990s. Over the course of that decade, the leadership in Belgrade – and its allies – fought against Croats, Bosniaks, Kosovo Albanians and, ultimately, the NATO alliance.

The area under Belgrade’s control – once the entire federal republic of Yugoslavia – would eventually be reduced and renamed through war and partition, leaving behind the modern state of Serbia.

By the end of the 1990s, Croatia and Kosovo had taken over large tracts of territory where Serbs had lived for centuries.  The people who fled those defeats – including many former combatants – have clustered within Serbia, giving it the largest population of refugees in the Balkans. Serbia's government estimates that the total number of displaced is around 300,000 – or roughly 4% of the population.

Yet of all the conflicts in that decade, Belgrade has only officially recognised one as a war – the brief confrontation with NATO forces in 1999.

State records refer to the other engagements as insurrections, clashes or military exercises – in keeping with Belgrade’s argument that it was fighting only to preserve the union of Yugoslavia.

For the men who did the fighting, this has left behind a problem. They cannot easily claim war veterans’ benefits for wars that never officially happened – and from a state that did not exist in its present form at the time.

Moreover, there is no universal definition of a Serbian veteran, as the combatants were recruited in a variety of capacities.

Mirko Ljubicic, head of a Croatian veterans' group, says his country has honoured its former soldiers.

The international image of the archetypal Serbian fighter may be dominated by warlords such as Arkan – but militias of the type he led were a minority, comprising criminals, football hooligans and hardcore nationalists.

Much of the fighting was done by irregular forces and paramilitary groups recruited from Serbian communities inside Croatia and Bosnia. They were backed up at times by a Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, comprising conscripts and some professional soldiers.

However, Serbia – unlike Croatia, for instance – does not have a single, over-arching law that applies to the vast majority of these men. The veterans have no special status or rights, except as citizens.

Nor is there any reliable estimate for their number. Veterans’ groups say it is 800,000. Olivera Markovic, a sociologist and expert on the former fighters, says it may be anywhere between 800,000 and half that figure.

Traumatised and isolated

In Serbia and Croatia, the veterans are organised into hundreds of smaller associations, which are often at odds with each other. While some of these groups are close to nationalist parties, they do not exercise direct political power.

An Afternoon Among the Veterans

On the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the members of a veterans’ association met for a commemoration in Belgrade. An elderly veteran turned to me, glass of schnapps in hand.

“Are you a poet?” he asked. He thought I resembled the 19th century Serbian poet, Vojislav Ilic. “No,” I replied. “I’m a journalist.”

“Oh, nice,” he said. “I’m a poet, you know. Can I recite my favourite poem?”

I nodded. He looked to the sky and began the first verse: “I’d go back to Kosovo again....”

I had to leave the poet in mid-flow when a priest began to address the gathering. Later, the poet joined me in front of a memorial to fallen comrades.

I asked him if he had any poems about the war in the Nineties. He seemed not to hear my question. “Listen young man, you really look like Vojislav Ilic.”

He turned to the memorial. “You see these guys? They are bigger patriots than me – they died in the war.”

He resumed reciting his poem: “I’d go back to Kosovo again...” No sooner had he begun than the president of the veterans’ association called me for an interview. I left the poet again, alone with his schnapps.

On my way out, the poet called out to me. He was sitting on a rock, looking somewhat worse for the wear.

"So, you are a journalist,” he said, his expression turning childlike. “Will your story have space for my poem?” I had no answer. He looked me in the eyes and began: “I’d go back to Kosovo again....”

Rather, the veterans’ influence over politics appears to be proportional to their status in society. In Croatia, they are generally regarded as heroes – and therefore few politicians will risk antagonising them.

“The veterans act as defenders of tradition whenever radical changes are looming in society,” says Ozren Zunec, a sociologist at Zagreb University, citing the recent protests over the proposal to introduce road signs in Cyrillic.

According to Markovic, Serbian society still associates the veterans with their country’s wartime leader, Slobodan Milosevic. Neither his supporters nor his critics have much affection for the former soldiers.

“For those who were against Milosevic’s policies, the veterans are his killers,” she says. “For those who loved Milosevic, the veterans lost the war.”

In April this year, a veteran in a Serbian village shot dead 13 people, including his family members. The massacre, as well as a series of high-profile suicides, have reinforced a popular prejudice of the veterans as troubled outcasts. Many of the former soldiers have health and financial problems. Few have access to benefits or care.

Ljudevit Kolar, a former army medic who helps treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, says most of his old comrades are at odds with society.

“They have gone through terrible things that still haunt them,” he says. “No one understands them.”

Kolar was tasked with identifying corpses. He too was traumatised, he says, spending “more time drunk than awake” when he returned from the front.

Dragan Milakara, a former soldier who lives in Novi Sad, says he does not talk of the war. “What should I say? That I saw a bullet shatter a wooden beam near my head? People would look at me as if it had shattered my head,” he says.

Milakara does not expect any support from the authorities. “There is no state,” he says. “The veterans are going to face the same fate as madmen in a psychiatric institution. You pretend you’re treating them, but in fact you’re just waiting for them to kick the bucket.”

The veterans reserve their deepest scorn for the government in Belgrade, which they see as the successor to the authorities that enlisted them in the 1990s.

“We’ve been rejected by everyone,” says Mile Milosevic, the chairman of SVS, Serbia’s largest veterans’ organisation. “By our families, our neighbours, our colleagues – and worst of all, rejected by our country.”

Serbs flee a 1995 Croatian assault on the self-proclaimed republic of Krajina. (Photo: Drasko Gagovic)

The SVS is fighting the Serbian government for overdue wages. The dispute arises from the 1999 conflict over Kosovo, which ended with a NATO intervention.

The claim is being heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – an irony for Milosevic, who has been following the proceedings.

“I saw 17 judges from 17 European countries, almost every one of them a member of the NATO pact. They bombarded us and now we have to ask for their protection from our own country,” he says, thumping the table with his fist. “Man, that’s insane!”


Until 1999, Belgrade did not acknowledge any of the Balkan conflicts as wars. However, it provided military assistance, funds and personnel to the Serbian communities that were fighting in Croatia and Bosnia.

Defeat and Denial in France

In 1954, Algerian guerrillas began an armed struggle for independence from French colonial control.

France responded with a massive military campaign. Half a million people were killed and some two million displaced before Algeria eventually declared independence, in 1962.

The conflict had polarised French society, and the defeat was seen as a national humiliation. For decades afterwards, France referred to its engagement in Algeria as a “law and order maintenance operation”.

In 1999, the parliament in Paris finally conceded that the Algerian campaign had indeed been a war. The admission was seen as a moral victory for some 1.5 million French veterans, who had been fighting for greater recognition.

“Everyone who can prove that he was at the front has all the rights,” says Jean Raymond, a former soldier who now works for a veterans’ organisation in Paris.

The official denial of direct involvement in the fighting complicates Serbian veterans’ attempts to claim greater rights today.

“It seems they tried to make a mess out of the veterans’ issue from the very beginning of the war,” says Milan Zivic, a former soldier who now lives in the town of Backa Palanka.

Zivic says he was called to the front while the stamp on his army report card stated that he was taking part in “military exercises”. The stamp served as proof of a soldier’s record and affected his right to future benefits.

After a spell at the frontline, Zivic and his comrades held a protest. As a result, they each received an additional stamp, stating that they had been on “war service”.

According to Predrag Ivanovic, the president of an association of invalid war veterans, many former soldiers are unable to prove that they were wounded in combat, because their report cards lack the critical “war service” stamp.

The Serbian defence ministry did not answer BIRN’s calls to comment on the misleading stamps in the report cards.

Among Serbian communities in Croatia and Bosnia, the call-to-arms did not always come from a state. Often, it was issued by local strongmen and backed up by the threat of rough justice.

“I wasn’t interested in war. What war? Why? But they forced me,” says Milakara, the veteran who now lives in Novi Sad. He describes a public announcement in his old hometown of Glina, now part of Croatia.

“A ruddy, Rambo-type fellow – Browning machine gun in one hand, scarf with pirate skulls covering his head – stood on a military vehicle,” he says.

“He demanded that all men between the ages of 17 and 77 present themselves at a specific date, a specific place. The ones who refused would be shot on the spot. So there you have it. Dare to resist?”

Defensive measures

Some analysts have suggested that Belgrade has not met the veterans’ demands because doing so could be taken as an admission of liability for the wars.

At the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Croatia and Bosnia have sought damages from Serbia by arguing that the state itself – rather than its leaders – bears responsibility for atrocities on their territory.

Former army reservists stage a hunger strike in front of the Serbian parliament in 2008. (Photo: Milovan Milenkovic)

The dispute with Croatia has yet to be resolved. Serbia’s defence in the case includes the argument that it did not exist as a state during the 1990s – and therefore cannot be sued as one today. In theory, this argument could also be applied to any claim for pensions from the veterans.

In the case brought by Bosnia, resolved in 2007, the judges concluded that Serbia was not directly responsible for genocide, although it could have done more to prevent it.

During that trial, lawyers for Bosnia argued that the Serbian state was culpable because money from its coffers had flowed to fighters on their territory. However, the judges did not accept that this demonstrated that the state itself was responsible.

According to Phon van den Biesen, a Dutch lawyer who was on the Bosnian team, the rejection of the Bosnian argument could allow Serbia to pay its veterans – without necessarily admitting liability for the wars.

After all, he tells BIRN, if wartime payments to fighters were not accepted as proof of the state’s culpabibility, why should pensions for veterans be taken as such today?

The Serbian government did not answer BIRN’s calls to comment on whether the failure to meet the veterans’ demands was linked to its denial of a direct role in the Balkan wars.

According to a lawyer who has defended Serbian leaders on war crimes charges and who spoke on condition of anonymity, Belgrade’s desire to join the European Union may also influence its policy towards the veterans.

A settlement with the former soldiers might play badly in Western capitals, where it could be taken as a sop to nationalists and as a tacit acceptance of involvement in the Balkan wars. The state arguably finds it easier to ignore its veterans than to explain why it is paying them off.

“The Serbian government is probably less concerned about the legal issue than it is about the perception,” the lawyer says.

Honoured by the law

Belgrade’s reasons for sidelining the former soldiers may also be based on a political calculation. It does so simply because it can afford to.

Unlike their counterparts in Croatia, the Serbian veterans do not have much place in the public’s affections. Politicians have deferred their claims to the public purse without any fear of outcry.

At least three drafts have been made of a law that would accord the veterans greater rights. None has been ratified.

Milan Zivic's army report card carries contradictory stamps, saying he was on military exercises - and at war.

An attempt by the SVS, modelled on Croatian legislation, was submitted to parliament and went no further.

Another draft, drawn up by Sasa Dujovic, the leader of a small veterans’ political party with links to the governing Socialists, is also awaiting parliament’s attention.

“I was assured… that the bill will be on the agenda in October,” Dujovic tells BIRN. “However, I don’t know whether or when it will be enacted.”

The highest official directly responsible for the veterans, state secretary Negovan Stankovic, says a government council has produced a third draft bill, which may be ready for parliamentary approval by the end of the year.

While Serbia’s former soldiers are in legal limbo, their Croat counterparts have been assured a place in their country’s history.

“Their names will live on for eternity. We want to honour these people in a special way,” says Predrag Matic, Croatia’s minister for veterans.

Matic stresses the importance of having a broad law – of the kind that Serbia lacks – which regulates the veterans’ relationship to the state.

“The statutory definition of who can be a war veteran is important in that it protects people who participated in the war, their wives and children,” he tells BIRN. “Ultimately, it means resolving the health, social and economic problems which these people face after war.”

Croatian veterans are entitled to preferential treatment if they apply for public housing or for education and employment. Those who were disabled in the wars can expect to receive a monthly allowance worth €800.

The state also gives its former fighters a minimum monthly pension of €260 upon retirement. The sum is close to the average for Croatian citizens – but its greatest value lies in the guarantee.

Serbia does not offer any such guaranteed minimum pension to most of its veterans, except those who were injured or who served as professional soldiers.

“I wish I had been wounded, I would at least have some income now,” says “Vanja”, who volunteered for the war at the age of 19.

He fought in Serbian paramilitary units in Bosnia and Croatia and now begs for alms in the town of Backa Palanka. Destitute and afflicted by trembling hands, he asked not to be quoted by name.


Mirko Rudic is a Belgrade-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.