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News 08 May 15

Russia Remembers One of Kosovo’s Last Partisans

As part of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Russia has honoured a 91-year-old Kosovo Serb for his valour in the fight against Nazi Germany.

Una Hajdari
Andrei Lisovoj greets Riste Stanojkovic in front of his house in Strpce. | Photo by Una Hajdari

As Europe marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Russia has honoured one of the last remaning survivors in Kosovo of the Partisan struggle.

The Kremlin has awarded Riste Stanojkovic, a 91-year-old war veteran, with the Commemorative Medal of Honor.

The head of the Russian office in Pristina, Andrei Lisovoj, gave Stanojkovic the medal for his contribution to fighting fascism in Europe.

“We are here today to honor a veteran of the Yugoslav Partisans for his fight against fascist Germany, which was a common enemy of the Red Army,” Lisovoj said, while pinning the medal – which bears a hammer and a sickle – on Stanojkovic’s lapel.

The medal was only one of the many – we counted 10 – that Stanojkovic already bears on his chest.

Stanojkovic recieving his latest medal next to ones he's had for years. | Photo by Una Hajdari

“The first medal I received was for bravery in 1945, when I was 21,” Stanojkovic recalled.

 The old man remembers meeting the heroes of the Partisan struggle in Kosovo.

“I remember when Svetozar Vukmanovic ‘Tempo’ came to hold a speech in Strpce, with the goal of strengthening our resolve,” he remembers.

 “I also remember Boro Vukimirovic and Ramiz Sadiku. They were both great heroes,” he continues, recalling the two famous Partisan fighters, one an ethnic Serb and the other an ethnic Albanian, who asked to be shot while embracing one another when German forces caught them.

Pristina’s first shopping mall and countless other sites were named after the heroes during the Communist Yugoslav era.

Stojankovic’s hearing has weakened, but his resolve – and devotion – to the ideals he once fought for has not.

When asked what the anti-fascist struggle meant for him, his eyes lit up. “We wanted to be free of fascist control of our country. Many people like to say we fought the Albanians, when in reality, we fought the fascists,” he said.

Stanojkovic holds a photo of himself as a young Partisan soldier. | Photo by Una Hajdari

“I remember the mother of Emin Duraku [an Albanian national hero] telling us during a plenum in Prizren that we shouldn’t lose our resolve against the fascists. We were fighting an ideological enemy,” Stojankovic says.

After Stojankovic received the Russian medal, his family invited all those present to a small dinner – including home-made traditional Sharr mountain cheese and dried meat.

“We all followed in our father’s tradition – all of us were party members, and had red membership booklets,” Riste’s son, Predrag Stojankovic, said.

Stojankovic and his family continued living in Strpce after the war, where he held various positions at the local level. “I continued to live and work in Strpce and worked for the municipality for 40 years,” he explained.

As he gets older, he has a harder time remembering everyday events. But the events from the war that ended 70 years ago are as clear “as if it was yesterday,” he says.

“I remember everything clearly. I remember having to be brave,” he says. When asked if he was scared – he joined the struggle on the side of the Tito’s Communists at the age of only 16 - Stanojkovic laughs. “I was scared the first five minutes. Then it all sounded like a crows cawing,” he joke

After Kosovo was liberated by the Partisan forces, it became an autonomous province in Socialist Yugoslavia, gaining wider autonomy in 1974. It lost its autonomy during the era of the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, a development that prompted a nationalist revolt among Kosovo Albanians.

A significant proportion of the Serbian community has since fled Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

Stanojkovic remembers the WWII days clearly. | Photo by Una Hajdari

About today’s independent Kosovo, Stanojkovic says his only hope is that the Serbs will have the same rights that Albanians in Kosovo had during the Yugoslav period.

“The only thing I hope for is for us Serbs to have the same rights the Albanians had during Yugoslavia,” he says.

Kosovo’s wartime history was every bit as tumultuous as the events of the 1990s.

Following the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, parts of Kosovo were assigned to Italian-ruled Albania, while the rest was divided into Bulgarian and German occupation zones.

The Albanian and Serbian population was divided on the future. Many Albanians were glad to see the end of Yugoslav and Serbian rule, while others fought for the Yugoslav Partisan forces, as did most of the Serbian population.

I examine the other badges on Stanojkovic’s chest. One commemorates the 30th anniversary of the end of WWII, which was awarded to him by the Yugoslav state. I ask him whether he had ever expected to live to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. “I didn’t think I’d be alive. Yet, I have outlived the Yugoslavia I fought for, and even some of my children,” he observed.

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