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Thursday, May 20, 1999 Published at 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK

World: Europe

Desertion: Lessons of wars past

Most Serbs are not necessarily prepared to die for Kosovo

By Balkans expert Tim Judah

The news that Serbian units have begun to desert the front in Kosovo and that there have been anti-war demonstrations led by the wives and mothers of soldiers in central Serbia comes as no surprise. These events follow a pattern set during previous conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

Kosovo: Special Report
Within days of war breaking out in Slovenia in June 1991, coachloads of furious Serbian mothers arrived in Ljubljana, the Slovene capital, to demand that the Yugoslav Army release their conscript sons.

The army quickly realised that frightened young conscripts were little use as soldiers and so, for the next round of fighting, in Croatia, they mobilised older reservists, mostly from central Serbia.

Throughout the summer of 1991, these troops plus reservists from Montenegro, were used to seize up to one-third of Croatia.

The Croatian Army was barely formed and poorly armed at this stage, so Serbian casualties were relatively light.


All that changed, however, during the brutal siege of the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar during the late summer and autumn of 1991. Here the Croats put up major resistance and for the first time significant numbers of Serbs began to die.

[ image: Young soldiers were mobilised to invade Slovenia]
Young soldiers were mobilised to invade Slovenia
As a result, whole units began to desert and other units mutinied, refusing even to be sent to Croatia.

In Belgrade, thousands of young men hid in different flats every night, frightened that the military police would find them and send them to the front.

Although most Serbs were sympathetic to the cause of the Serbs in Croatia and later Bosnia, few were prepared to die for them.

In the most famous desertion of all, a man drove his armoured personal carrier away from the frontline and down the motorway to Belgrade.

Dodging the toll-booths he refused to halt until he got to the federal parliament building in the city centre.


Central Serbia is the Serbian heartland and the area from which Slobodan Milosevic draws most of his political support.

[ image: The Croats put up a strong resistance against the Serbs in Vukovar]
The Croats put up a strong resistance against the Serbs in Vukovar
In 1991, when it was clear that soldiers from here were not prepared to die in the mud of Vukovar, Mr Milosevic promptly switched tactics.

Within weeks he had ended the war in Croatia, agreed to a cease-fire and to the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force.

After that ordinary reservists were never sent to fight in Croatia or Bosnia again. The bulk of the fighting was done by local Serbs backed either by volunteer paramilitaries from Serbia or by professional soldiers or special police units.

Not willing to die

What has happened now is that the reservists from Serbia have had to be mobilised again. This is because Kosovo is part of Serbia and because there are so few Kosovo Serbs, there are not enough of them to fight for the province without help.

However, while the vast majority of Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their civilisation and holy land - it still does not mean that they are prepared to die for it.

By contrast, thousands of ethnic Albanians who live abroad are returning to fight and die for Kosovo because, unlike the Serbs of Serbia proper, their homes and families are there.

One of the lessons of all of the wars of the former Yugoslavia is that unless they are paid professionals, most ordinary mobilised men are only willing to sacrifice their lives for their own families, home towns and villages.

Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia published by Yale University Press.

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