Boban is not sure what he wants anymore. The young man wears two crucifixes around his neck and sits in a dingy employees' lounge at the grocery store where he works. "I am very tired," he confesses.
Boban fought in Kosovo with the Serb-led Yugoslav army, a reservist called to serve in the military police. His job was to escort convoys of troops and supplies, a dangerous assignment because of rebel snipers and NATO bombers. Later, he was a guard at a prison in the Serbian town of Prokuplje, near the Kosovo border.
The ugliness of the conflict seeped into Boban's war. At the prison, he listened to confessions of Yugoslav soldiers accused of desertion, looting and killing. In Kosovo, when army troops or police units entered a village and were shot at, "We would shoot anything that moved." They were ordered to clear towns, Boban said, and did not ask questions.
Did he shoot anyone? Not me, Boban said, but others did.
Sent to Kosovo by a regime they now believe misled them, to fight a war most feel should never have occurred, the young soldiers of the Yugoslav army are by turns angry, defensive, frustrated, defeated, proud, disillusioned, exhausted.
They have returned home to rebuild their lives in a broken country. They go to funerals. They sit for hours in cafes. Their wives and mothers try to get them to eat, to put meat on their bones. Some shuffle along the corridors of a military hospital in brown pajamas; others are back in dead-end jobs. And they say it is strange, how they feel. Some have begun to call it the "Kosovo Syndrome."
Belgrade politicians call the soldiers who served in Kosovo heroes in a glorious defense against NATO aggression. The West calls them looters, ethnic cleansers and worse. Many of these veterans feel they are neither. They did what they were ordered to do. Their memories about what they saw, and did, may be selective -- none of a dozen veterans interviewed in this southern city acknowledged witnessing or taking part in atrocities against ethnic Albanian civilians -- but they are beginning to tell their stories.
At the prison in Prokuplje, Boban said, there were members of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, ethnic Albanian "terrorists" and ordinary criminals. There were also a few Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian civilians jailed for looting and killing. All were treated well enough, he said. He does not know what became of them when the war ended.
He never saw the infamous paramilitary units accused of carrying out some of the war's most horrific atrocities, but he said he and other military policemen were ordered not to interfere with them. Boban said it was not his job to clear villages of inhabitants or even to hunt for the KLA -- the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group that fought for Kosovo's independence. But he remembers the accounts of soldiers who did.
"We were doing our job. When [troops] entered a village, one that was supposed to be cleared, and were shot at, the army didn't know if they were KLA or civilians," he said. "And so they'd kill them."
That is something he thinks Americans do not understand -- that the Yugoslav troops were suppressing a civil war. Boban said U.S. troops in Vietnam would do the same things. American soldiers burned villages, he said. They rounded up suspected Viet Cong guerrillas. What was so different about Kosovo, where it was just as hard to know civilians from combatants? he asked.
"The aim was not to kill civilians," he said. "The aim was to kill KLA. But one moment they were civilians, and the next they were KLA."
He said that some troops became enraged when they learned of NATO bombings in their home cities and villages. "People lose their sanity," he said. He smoked his cigarette and closed his weary eyes. "That is why you could call it a dirty war."
Boban said it is time for reform in Belgrade, for a change in government. Mostly, he said, he is just tired. He does not have the will to work. He is 28, and the doctor just told him he has high blood pressure.
His boss said it was time to stop talking and get back to his job, for which he earns a few dollars a day. Tell people, Boban said, that not all Serbs are cannibals and killers. They just want -- he paused -- "the normal things."
"We lost the war; it's a fact," he said. "A lot of lives were lost. That's what I say as a Serb. I hope the Albanians say the same thing."
"It was like movie about hell," said Vlada, 23, surrounded by sunflowers as he sat a table in his home, situated on a dirt road outside Nis. His mother brings cherry juice and looks worried, but Vlada is calm. He has that long-distance stare. His wounds are healing.
Vlada -- who like other Kosovo veterans interviewed asked that their full names not be used -- served one year of mandatory service with an army paratroop unit three years ago. Soon after the NATO bombing began on March 24, he and tens of thousands of other reservists were called back to active duty in a mass mobilization of 40,000.
Most of the reservists came from southern and central Serbia -- Yugoslavia's dominant republic -- and they were joined by special police units from the Serbian Interior Ministry, irregular "volunteers," and at least a few hardened militiamen who had taken part in earlier Balkan wars.
Vlada said he had nothing to do with special police or militiamen. "I was in the forests," he said. "Not in the villages."
He was sent to the only real front of the war, the mountainous region along Kosovo's border with Albania. His task was to repel advances of the KLA, which was staging incursions into Kosovo from Albania.
There, the Yugoslav army lived off the land. Supply routes were bad; so was the food. Vlada said the villages had already been emptied of Kosovo Albanians when he arrived; he does not call this "ethnic cleansing," but a rational move during a civil war.
"We shot the cattle roaming around and roasted them," he said. The troops also took flour and cooking oil from vacant homes and made their own meals. If this is called looting, he said, so be it. "We took what we needed to eat."
On the night of May 26, Vlada said, a column of about 5,000 KLA guerrillas came over the mountains. There was shelling from Albania and, Vlada said, NATO jets were supporting the advance, targeting Yugoslav troops who were coming out of bunkers to counter the rebels.
At dawn, Vlada and four other soldiers were sent to retrieve one of their dead; they loaded the body on a donkey. Then Vlada's war got personal.
A KLA unit was probing the forests when Vlada stumbled upon it. He took cover to protect his four comrades as they retreated. He was so close to the rebels that he exchanged taunts with them as they crouched in the underbrush. "They told me that now I would see how the Albanians fight," Vlada recalled, "and I shouted back, `Go ahead and show me.' " He paused. "I probably should not have said that, because then they opened fire."
In the next 10 minutes, Vlada emptied almost three ammunition clips from his automatic rifle into the trees in front of him -- about 70 rounds. He is not sure how many rounds the rebels fired, but he guessed it was hundreds. Vlada said his bullets hit two rebels, but he did not know if they were killed. When he stood to lob a grenade, he too was hit. "I didn't know it," he said, "until my boot began to fill with blood."
Getting up from the table at his house, he walked to a drawer and retrieved the bullet. It entered his leg below the knee, exited, entered his thigh and burrowed into his hip. His mother grimaced and scurried away to bring more juice.
Throughout the night and next day after he was shot, Vlada hid and crawled. He did not want to sleep. Yugoslav soldiers were convinced if they were captured by the KLA, they would be tortured and their throats slit. "How many Yugoslav soldiers have you heard about who were taken prisoner?" Vlada asked pointedly. At twilight of the second day, with the forests growing dark, he nearly strayed into a small KLA camp. Then he went a little crazy.
"I was fed up with everything. I was alone. I started shooting at them." When another unit of Yugoslav soldiers heard the gun battle, they came to his rescue, firing down on the KLA. He was in a no man's land between combatants. Bullets were shredding the leaves above his head. "It is a miracle that I am alive to tell you this story," he said. "I was not frightened. The adrenalin kills the pain. You just want to live or die. That is it. You do not think."
His mother said Vlada is "a brave boy" and did his duty with honor, defending the country against invasion. Whatever bad things happened in Kosovo, her son took no part. She believes Kosovo will remain a part of Serbia. Vlada said simply, "It's gone."
He is now looking for a job.
So is Misha. He is a beefy man, strong enough to easily hoist an antiaircraft missile launcher on his shoulder. He agreed to meet a reporter in a local bar, where the Stone Temple Pilots were playing on the CD machine.
"We had a saying, that death is quick, that it doesn't last long, and that it is a magnificent feeling," said Misha, another reservist called to fight in Kosovo. But now, back in the civilian world, he confessed that he sometimes feels "empty." "Once you lose the fear of death, you stop caring," he said, "about anything."
For two months, Misha, 26, was stationed in the hills around Pristina, the Kosovo capital. His unit, in two-man teams, moved from place to place, day and night looking for NATO warplanes to fire at. They were not very successful. Sometimes it seemed to Misha that the NATO pilots were just "screwing with us," seeing how low they could go. Misha slept in a trench.
For the first 15 days or so, the constant bombing unraveled him. "Sometimes the bombs hit, and the earth shook, and it bounced you to your feet." The blasts at night "made it look like an instant dawn." He said soldiers took tranquilizers but they did not work. But after a few weeks, Misha said, he felt like a warrior, like someone living for "the game" of shooting at jets.
"I don't know how to explain it, but it is this special feeling when you wait for the planes. The NATO pilots probably have the same feeling, but they are doing this for money, and for us it was the challenge. I used to say that we were becoming addicted to battle." He never hit a NATO plane, although he did fire at them. Sometimes he was used as "bait," to fire at a jet to get it to come closer so that another unit could fire at it. Misha said his unit hit one U.S. F-16, but he suspects the plane made it back to its base.
"We had technology that was 10 or 20 years old," he said. He thinks Yugoslav soldiers should be proud, but he faults the army command as being distant and incompetent.
What about the deportations of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians? The burning and looting? The mass graves? "Believe me," Misha said, "with any other army it would have been much worse." He said he saw nothing like that. This is how he saw his war: NATO planes flew over his country and dropped bombs, and he fired missiles to try to stop them. There is nothing, he said, he needs to apologize for.
Misha said he felt "a small joy" when he was ordered to withdraw, because he was going home, but "there is also a feeling of something left unfinished, something our children will have to settle."