war in europe

commander nebojsa pavkovic

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of commander nebojsa pavkovic
As commander of the Yugoslav 3rd Army, Gen. Pavkovic held overall responsibility for the prosecution of the war in Kosovo. Since the Serbian withdrawal, Pavkovic has claimed that NATO did only minimal damage to Yugoslav troops and has repeatedly threatened to renew fighting in Kosovo. A Milosevic loyalist, he is now the Yugoslav army chief of staff.
What does Kosovo mean to you, as a Serb?

I think that the whole world knows what Kosovo means to Serbia. . . . It is its cradle. . . . Serbia is in Kosovo, and Kosovo is in Serbia. Serbian roots are in Kosovo, and everything that is connected to the Serbs throughout the past centuries is there. Every Serb is intimately connected to it.

You have been an officer in Kosovo since 1994. When did you first hear about the KLA existing as an organized army?

I think it was in the first half of 1998. . . . Until then, there were some isolated, sporadic actions, mainly directed against the units of MUP, [Yugoslav police] as well as state security units and Serbian people. Around April, it started to escalate, and the first signs of KLA emerged, first in the region of Drenica . . . and later it started to spread. . . . They were the first uniformed and masked units . . . There were incidents where a local Serb or a policeman would be killed, and it was normal that we saw those incidents as the acts of terrorism. There isn't a state in the world that would tolerate this.

. . .

So that was the purpose of taking action against them. . . .

As far as Gornje, Donji, and Prekaz are concerned--that was their nest. I have known this for a while. One particular family was up to no good in the region, and one action was about capturing their leader, which was a successful action. That followed with the liquidation of a few members, a consequence.

Later, during the summer of 1998, the first serious Yugoslav Army actions commenced, as well as the first NATO mention of the use of military force in the region. Did you believe NATO when they said they would use military force?

During that time, the terrorist activities escalated, especially in the areas where they were not challenged. Their aggressive actions against the Serbs, the police, and the state security, was a daily occurrence. As far as NATO's threats were concerned, we didn't have any valid reason to believe them. They had no reason to protect the terrorists, and they had no reason to get involved in the internal politics of another country, so we couldn't believe them.

There was that agreement with the monitors, and it looked as though the West preferred to talk, as opposed to intervention. Did you believe that the Holbrooke effort would succeed?

If it ever came to face-to-face ground war, it would have been us as the winners.  We were prepared to die for Kosovo.  There would have been terrible casualties. We knew NATO was not prepared to risk that. We expected that Holbrooke would assess the situation properly, and act accordingly. With his arrival, we came to know that he was actually supporting the terrorists, and was there to help them. After all, he saw them and had talks with them, and they were illegal, in terms of state law. He didn't talk with the proper, legal state authorities who lawfully represented the state--on the contrary. From that moment on, the real Holbrooke mission was apparent.

And that's when you started to doubt the "good intentions" of the international community, and thought that there might be hostilities . . .

It was a clear sign to us and to the Serbian people, if someone is coming to deal with the terrorists, flirt with them, and so on, it was clear . . .

Practically, that's when the Yugoslav Army started taking the situation seriously?

The decision was made to protect the members of the YU Army, various strategic structures, and the people of Kosovo from the terrorists. We simply couldn't stand by and watch our people being kidnapped, and the army attacked. It wasn't acceptable.

There is one sensitive issue around the time that there was mention of the infamous "Operation Horseshoe." The German secret service came out with it in the autumn of 1998. According to it, there was a plan to ethnically clear the Albanians from northern part of Kosovo. Did such a plan exist?

I don't know how they might have called it or whatever, but such a plan never existed. The arrival of the monitors' mission confirmed that the government in Serbia never planned any such thing. There were various actions against the terrorists to protect the people and strategic structures. There is absolutely no evidence to prove ethnic cleansing. The only thing that was going on was the fight against the terrorist activities.

Later on, the problem was that there were pictures of large numbers of Albanian refugees that were leaving the region. That was the most important factor in justifying NATO action.

Those pictures could have been manufactured in many ways. Of course, there were movements in those regions where there were actions being taken. We have information that there were a number of incidents, where people would try and run from the various terrorist activities.

Did you believe that your army could defeat NATO?

I never said that that was the case, nor did I think that it would come to that in the end; but I was also always convinced that we could defend our country successfully. I never said that we were fighting against the whole world, nor that we should do so. But to defend our country, we have a duty to do so.

But in that period between October and March, you didn't believe that a peaceful solution was possible?

All the signs were pointing towards enormous pressure that was going to be applied, so that we should accept NATO on our territory, and that would have constituted capitulation.

There was a very important on January 15. Some would say it was the turning point, or decisive point, in the development of the events that led to NATO's intervention. OSCE leader Bill Walker was shown some bodies that were the alleged Albanian victims in Racak. This report was shown around the world. The Serbs say that it was an Albanian plot. Albanians say it was the Serbs that killed those people. In any event, it was an important moment in the development . . .

Well, the international community was always looking to tie itself to something like that. There was another village, then there was Racak, where a group of terrorists were active against both the local Serbs, as well as the Albanians. The liquidation of that group was dealt with in a responsible and professional way. There was no crime. It was a clash of the MUP forces and the terrorists. . . .

You were in Pristina when the war started. Did you know that it was going to start?

Well, we hoped that reason would prevail, but it didn't. There was a moment when my mobile rang, and a voice that spoke in bad Serbian informed me that the bombing was about to start--that it was going to be a lot more intense than Iraq, and that I had a chance to save the Serbian people. There was another call like this soon afterwards, and that's when we knew that it was about to start.

When it started, how long did you think it would go on?

We used to study their possible strategy, etc. We knew that they wanted to scare us into surrender--intensely bomb us, and after three days, they would be ready to invade.

Did you think that it would go on for 78 days?

I didn't think that it would last for 78 days, but we were ready to defend our country for even 780 days if necessary.

What was your reaction to the apparent invasion strategy that was being analyzed at the time?

We knew that the main terrorist forces were centered and being gathered in Albania. Some of them were recruited from all over the world. We knew that the same was happening in Macedonia, as well as the fact that that was the possible route of entry in terms of invasion. We knew their locations. As things were at that time, it was not possible for them to invade. We had 150,000 men, and it would have taken them at least twice that much to successfully invade. If it ever came to face-to-face ground war, it would have been us as the winners. We were prepared to die for Kosovo. There would have been terrible casualties, and we knew that NATO was not prepared to even risk that. They basically supported the ground activities of the terrorists.

Did you actually wish for the invasion to happen?

Yes, I did, because it would have meant that the pressure on the rest of the country would have subsided. Of course, we knew that it wasn't going to happen, because of the casualties. Another thing is that they would have lost any advantage the minute they committed their troops, because of air superiority. We knew the land, and we were well prepared in the event of the ground war. I am also convinced that in no way was our soldiers' equipment inferior--if anything, it was better than NATO's. We were not afraid of the ground war.

What happened when the bombing started? From all the relevant sources, one story was being exploited, and that was that large numbers of the Albanian population was forced to leave their homes, and everybody is wondering about the purpose of such an action.

First, when the bombing started, the targets were exclusively military structures. They hit the buildings we couldn't move, and all of them were empty, and therefore it was a miss. When they saw it had no effect, they started to hit civilian targets, which is when the movement of the civilians started to happen. As far as the ethnic cleansing was concerned, the idea is not in our favor. We knew that, even if all of the Albanian people were to leave, we would have been left totally exposed to NATO attacks from the air. The combination of air strikes and terrorist activities brought that about. We even had a problem of keeping them in the region.

Many still say that there was ethnic cleansing--paramilitaries, MUP forces, etc. . . .

There was only the fight against the terrorists. Walker contributed to their growing 10,000-12.000 strong. So, when the bombing started, we attacked the terrorists, and at the same time started to defend their region.

There were many ways you managed to fool NATO's radars, etc. ?

When you are preparing to defend, you naturally bring everything you know into it--instinct of the soldier, his experience. They really didn't succeed militarily. They spent tons of bombs, destroyed lots of buildings, and that's it. They never hit one command center nor any of the units. The biggest losses we ever had in one day were when we lost eight soldiers on two occasions at the beginning.

Do you know how the F117 was hit?

It was discovered and it was hit and downed. That's how. It was supposed to be invisible, well, it was not .and it was hit with the efforts of our anti-aircraft units.

Did you, at the time, meet with your political counterparts, like President Milosevic?

Of course. I was present as a member of top brass on many occasions, and I can tell you that there was a feeling of unity in the headquarters and amongst the people.

What impression did Milosevic give you?

He is the top command, and as such, he knows the political and the military climate very well. He gave optimism to us soldiers as well as the people.

He didn't leave Belgrade.

I heard that when there would be an explosion or something like that, he wouldn't even blink.

Not only that, but we were also making decisions and having meetings in the cabinet during some of the worst bombing.

Did you expect that President Milosevic would accept the Ahtisaari proposal?

We had a meeting at the top level, and there were Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin. There was this proposal, or more like an ultimatum, or a threat. We should accept the UN forces in the territory for a period of one year, with guarantees that they would secure the borders, and protect the Serbs, and also to disarm the KLA. There would be no referendum on that partition of Kosovo. If we didn't accept that, they would continue and intensify the campaign. So you had the choice of total destruction of the country, or the plan guaranteed by the biggest world organization, the UN. With that, we decided to accept. We could have gone defending Kosovo. Of course, the story now is different.

Are they not practically a NATO force?

Yes, they are, but with the mandate of the UN and their insignia. The situation is so bad because they are NATO down there. They didn't secure the borders, didn't protect the Serbs, didn't disarm the KLA. . . . The laws of Yugoslavia with its constitution are under suspension. Instead of law and order, they installed terror and chaos.

When Milosevic signed the Ahtisaari proposal, it was seen as capitulation in the West.

He did sign the plan, but he signed the plan that guaranteed what I mentioned. What can you expect if such an organization does such a thing? Was he supposed to doubt them and not sign? We didn't capitulate. We defended Kosovo until the moment the guarantees were given. Not a single NATO soldier entered the region until we said OK. That is a victory, not a capitulation.

So now, in the aftermath, you still regard it as a victory?

Why shouldn't I regard it a victory, when we didn't allow NATO to step into Kosovo for 78 days? They tried to push the terrorist units to infiltrate everything, and they didn't succeed. . . . Their strategic bombers failed in one particular mission. . . .

And what about the Yugoslav Army soldiers that were killed?

They were constantly saying that we were suffering great losses. . . . Of course, we regret the loss of every man. If you take the total numbers of people, you will see that it was not even 1 percent, in fact, it was well below that. That is our great victory, that we managed to save our men as well as our machinery.

Did you partake in the military planning of the pullout?

No, but I was in constant touch with the team that did. No decision could have been put through without our participation

The talks didn't go smoothly?

Smoothly? It was a battle. Their proposal was that the bombing should stop once we are out of Kosovo, and we got them to agree that it should stop when we start to pull out. You can't get a unit to start pulling out, while they are trying to bomb it.

How did you feel when the pullout started to happen?

It wasn't the best feeling, but we had to obey the order, and it made sense--that was the only solution--and the one that was guaranteed by the UN. We were afraid for the security. We knew that their forces wouldn't provide much. It wasn't going to happen exactly according to what was on the paper. But if that's what they were guaranteeing us, then . . .

So, what do you think is going to happen now? An independent Kosovo?

No, it will not become independent. It was said so in the resolution in front of the whole world. A few days ago, the general secretary of the UN mentioned it again. Whatever they try to do, they can never take Kosovo and move it to America. Kosovo is in Serbia. It was under the Ottoman empire--the Turks--for 600 years. But it still remained Serbian.

So, we are treating Kosovo as temporarily invaded?

It is ours, with the UN troops inside, who will allegedly solve the Kosovo problem. We will return when the UN mandate expires, which is in a year, or if their mission fails. Who can say that the balance of the world order won't change, and the stance of the international community towards Kosovo with it?

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