Feature 14 Feb 13

Kosovo’s War Veterans Plead Poverty and Neglect

Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas believed they were fighting for freedom, but 14 years after the war with Serbian forces, some of Pristina’s ‘heroes’ are struggling for survival.

Edona Peci
Ekrem Pajaziti looks at wartime pictures | Photo by Edona Peci

They are seen in Kosovo as war heroes – valiant defenders who took up arms to throw off long years of oppressive Serbian rule and achieve the ultimate goal of independence.

But for some of them, the liberty they fought for hasn’t turned out to be exactly what they imagined 14 years ago.

In the aftermath of 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia to end strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic’s bloody campaign against the ethnic Albanian uprising, the UN mission which was installed to ensure post-war stability dismantled the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.

The decision significantly shaped the lives of most of the KLA’s members.

Some of them transformed themselves into politicians, others established their own businesses, but a large number of them have found themselves among the 40 per cent unemployed in Kosovo – living amid the optimism of a newborn state, but lacking hope for their own future.

Ekrem Pajaziti, who started to serve with the KLA’s 121st ‘Kumanovo’ Brigade in June 1998, now says he has no job to bring in money to take care of his wife, who is also unemployed, and to provide for his three children.

“Hard times have come. Sometimes I go downtown and wait with others on a corner - we usually hang around for someone to engage us as labourers for different kinds of work, but the requests have fallen off lately,” Pajaziti told BIRN while walking home through the Vranjevc district of the capital, Pristina.

Back at the house, he showed off old photographs which were hanging on the walls of his living room - pictures of his wartime comrades, one of whom died during the fighting. He spoke proudly about the sense of solidarity he felt at the time but less happily about his current situation.

“This isn’t even my house, it belongs to my father-in-law, but we live here because we can’t afford to pay the rent for an apartment or any other place we could live,” he said.

“Sometimes we don’t have any food and I have to ask friends or former comrades for help.”

Ekrem Pajaziti at home in Pristina | Photo: Edona Peci

Five years after Kosovo declared its independence, ex-KLA fighters have been targeting the government and the international community with their complaints about the situation and the way ‘freedom fighters’ are treated by the authorities.

Driven by “dissatisfaction, disappointment and the neglectful approach of state institutions towards former KLA members”, Pajaziti was one of around 50 ex-fighters who held a three-month protest in tents erected in front of government headquarters in May 2011.

“Our situation forced us to protest,” he said.

Veterans Used for Political Purposes

At that time, the demonstrators were urging the government and cabinet to ratify and implement the Law on War Veterans, but their views changed when the Kosovo Assembly approved the legislation last year.

The law envisages some benefits for the families of fighters who were killed or injured in combat, and also for civilian victims and their families during the late 1990s conflict.

But some ex-fighters claim that the legislation “excludes some former KLA members and their rights and does not recognise their contributions,” according to Sabit Krasniqi, secretary of the Pristina branch of the War Veterans Organisation.

Rexhep Selimi, a lawmaker from the nationalist Self-Determination Movement opposition party and a former chief of operations in the KLA’s general staff, accuses the authorities of “not fulfilling their obligations toward ex-KLA fighters”.

“KLA fighters have ended up unprotected by the state which they served. Sometimes they were protected and [financially] supported selectively, but the support was mainly for political and other reasons,” Rexhepi told BIRN.

It is believed that some politicians have supported ex-guerrillas in order to build public support, advance their careers and quell potential protests.

“Ex-KLA fighters have been hit several times so far. The worst thing is ‘the permanent hit’ which is continuing because they are still discriminated against. They were not supported and integrated [back into society],” Rexhepi added.

Two non-governmental organisations, War Invalids Association and the War Veterans Organisation, work on the problems faced by ex-fighters.

Sabit Krasniqi (counting cards at the table) with ex-fighters who are applying for official veterans' status | Photo: Edona Peci

Krasniqi of the War Veterans Organisation’s Pristina branch told BIRN that “the fact that ex-fighters who are unemployed contribute financially to the existence of the organisation is sad”.

“The problems we have today and the fact that our people gave executive power to the internationals after the war [leading to the KLA’s dissolution] cost us a lot,” he said.

How many people really fought?

The government this month will conclude a head-count of former KLA guerrillas which is intended to check how many really fought and therefore could be entitled to benefits.

The authorities launched the programme because there have been widely differing estimates of the number of wartime fighters.

After the conflict, the authorities said that some 20,000 KLA members took part in the struggle against Serbia’s security forces, but the KLA’s own veterans’ organisation insists that up to 40,000 were involved in the insurgency.

Security forces minister Agim Ceku, who is leading the government commission charged with verifying the status of ex-KLA personnel, told a press conference this week that “there have been a lot of lists since the end of the conflict, but the list that will be created after the current process is going to be the correct one”.

“This project is proof that the government has not forgotten the [veterans, invalids and fighters killed in action], and that it is committed to better conditions for them and that it has also made major efforts to protect them through the law,” Ceku said.

But he admitted that the authorities had come under pressure from Kosovo’s international backers over the head count and any potential increase in welfare benefits for veterans.

“The government has been looking into possibilities to increase the financial support for ex-fighters, but it was difficult for our international partners to understand the importance of this issue. ‘Leave the past behind’, ‘Don’t look back’, they told us,” he explained.

The War Veterans Organisation has been processing applications for the official veteran count since mid-November last year, and Krasniqi already has concerns about whether the census will deliver the truth.

“To be honest, we have are a bit concerned that this drive will cause a mess. According to the data, in our branch there are more than 2,000 fighters, but up to now, we have handed out more than 3,500 applications - 1,500 more than we have registered,” Krasniqi said.

Around two weeks before the head count was set to end, 48,729 application forms had been handed out, 32,507 of which had been filled in and returned for processing.

Once the process of verifying veterans’ status is complete, improved legislation is expected to be introduced - but even then, many of them will still face the same problems of poverty and unemployment.

Some ex-KLA fighters simply don’t have the educational qualifications needed to get a job, suggested unemployed former guerrilla Pajaziti.

But, he believes, there are other forces at work within Kosovo society that affect veterans’ future prospects – particularly “the high degree of nepotism in public institutions”.

“If you don’t know anyone, you won’t get a job,” he said.

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