NYT - Serb rejects dead son's medal, and the whole war


December 24, 1999

KRALJEVO, Serbia, Dec. 22 -- Last week, eight months after his 20-year-old son was killed in Kosovo, Dusan Vukovic hit out at the man he holds responsible: President Slobodan Milosevic.

When he was presented with a posthumous medal for his son, Aleksandar, at a televised ceremony in his home town, Mr. Vukovic refused to take it, and demanded that it be sent back to Mr. Milosevic.

"I told them to take that medal and give it to Milosevic to give to his son, because as far as I know, war decorations are given to war heroes who are standing up," he said in an interview today in this small town in southwestern Serbia. "My son is lying down and I cannot put it around his neck."

Mr. Vukovic's angry rejection of the medal was virtually the only public protest since the end of the war by relatives of fallen soldiers. But it touched a raw nerve and exposed a groundswell of bitterness among ordinary families.

Overnight, Mr. Vukovic became a local hero. Several newspapers even proposed that he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He says he has received hundreds of telephone calls from people all over Serbia and abroad.

"They said, 'Thank you, you have done a good job to stop this, to stop us losing our kids, and to show what people are thinking,' " he said.

Even the president of Montenegro, Serbia's sister republic within Yugoslavia, sent a message commending him, he said. As secretary of the local veterans' organization, Mr. Vukovic has now become a rallying point for many Serbs who lost relatives in the war to suppress Kosovo Albanian separatists and who say they will make similar protests.

It was the scrap of cheap paper that was brought round to his home last week that started Mr. Vukovic's protest. The paper, a standard military form used to call up conscripts to military service, was headed: "The Fatherland Calls You." But this paper called him to a reception at noon the following day to receive a "decoration for your dead son, Aleksandar."

To Mr. Vukovic, 49, a factory worker and organizer of the local soccer fan club where his son played, this was an insult. "Is it appropriate to call the father of a son who died on toilet paper?" he asked, holding up the flimsy brownish paper.

It summed up everything that he was angry about: Mr. Milosevic's politics, the indifference of the system and the senseless war that took his son's life. Aleksandar died from bullet wounds in northern Kosovo on April 13, apparently shot by ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army, although his father is still awaiting the results of the forensic analysis.

Aleksandar had been in Kosovo just three days, sent in with the rest of his tank unit from its base in Nis, in southern Serbia. "He did not have time to see a gun, or to shoot anyone," Mr. Vukovic said. "He did not want to shoot anyone. A kid of 20 does not want to be in a war."

Aleksandar telephoned his parents the night before he left for Kosovo. "He told us to take care of ourselves," his father recalled. "He said this guy will destroy us," a reference to Mr. Milosevic.

"He always told us: 'Do not vote for him because you will destroy the kids,' " Mr. Vukovic said.

About 7,000 people turned out for Aleksandar's funeral at the New Cemetery on the edge of Kraljevo two days after his death. The family still visits the grave everyday, whatever the weather, sitting for hours on a nearby bench. "My wife cries all the time," Mr. Vukovic said.

He brushed the snow from the grave, revealing the grass underneath that he had laid to resemble a soccer pitch. A tall black granite headstone bore a full-length picture of his son as a young soccer player, his foot poised on the ball. On each side was the grave of another young man, each also a victim of the war in Kosovo.

"Since Milosevic came to power, Kraljevo has lost 75 sons in 10 years of wars," Mr. Vukovic said. More than half of them -- 41 men from the town and its surrounding districts -- died in Kosovo, 7 apparently from NATO bombing and the rest in the conflict with the Kosovo Liberation Army, he said. About 95 men were wounded.

So when Mr. Vukovic received the invitation to the ceremony for his son, he made his plans. He prepared his speech and took along a local television crew and an Agence France-Presse journalist, Miroslav Filipovic.

"Milosevic's family is together at breakfast, lunch and dinner, while my family has breakfast and dinner at my son's grave," he told the colonel from the Defense Ministry who presented the medal.

Then he criticized the army, which he said had failed to protect his son and sent young, inadequately trained conscripts to war. "They do not react in the right way to protect the youth of this country," he recalled saying. "They churn out these decorations daily, but one decoration means nothing if you do not have your boy."

"And I refused the medal because they did not call the other 40 families to participate in that farce of a decoration ceremony," he said. "They will do it one by one, so that people do not see how many here are wearing black."

Mr. Vukovic's speech in front of the military officer, who stood as if turned to stone, was broadcast on local television and, in a rare incidence of free viewing in Serbia, was picked up by the national television network and shown around the country.

It was particularly striking for its criticism of Mr. Milosevic, who is usually praised on the nightly news by loyal regional figures who repeatedly call for him to be awarded medals for his leadership of the nation during the 11-week NATO bombing campaign to force Serbian forces from Kosovo.

It also reminded local residents of the tumultuous events in June, when Serbian troops returned home from Kosovo, angry, humiliated and disillusioned, and took up armed positions in the town, aiming the weapons on their armored vehicles at the local police headquarters. The standoff lasted several days and the ringleaders were eventually arrested, but feelings in the town clearly have not changed.

Mr. Vukovic admits he is confused about the war in Kosovo. He has no love for the Albanians and believes Kosovo should remain part of Serbia. But he strikes a chord among all Serbs when he denounces the government's attempt to resolve the issue by war. "This war was pushed by Milosevic," he said. "It was not the will of Serbian or Albanian people. It all could have been agreed in a democratic, humane way. No one has kids they can waste."

Standing in the snow by his son's grave, he said: "When you ask if he did not want to go to war, none of them did. All of them were against this war."


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