The day my country died

Belgrade -- It’s June 25, 1991 and I am waiting for my luggage at the airport in Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovenia Socialist Republic, one of the six republics that make up the country of Yugoslavia, where I was born. I am a journalist working for Radio Yugoslavia and a small Parisian radio station and am surrounded by fellow passengers who just flew in from Belgrade, the federal capital.

It is two years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and for several years now nationalism, fueled by economic hardship, has been on the rise in my country along ethnic lines. The regional government in Slovenia has just surprised Belgrade by announcing its split from Yugoslavia, a day earlier than planned.

The move has left me and my fellow passengers at the Ljubljana airport in a bit of a fix -- will our luggage appear in the national section as usual, or the international section, as befits a flight from another nation?

As we wait to find out, we crack jokes about our predicament. Noone, including me, thinks that our country -- a multi-ethnic land that has lived in peace since World War II -- is about to disappear, consumed by an explosion of fratricidal bloodletting unseen on the continent since that war.

"Slovenia is independent!" reads the banner headline of the Delo daily on June 25, 1991 (AFP / Robert Rajtic)

After a while our luggage appears in the national section -- apparently the Ljubljana airport authorities have put off the practical side of independence for a bit.

I go out into the streets of Ljubljana with a colleague, the late Xavier Gautier who is working for the Figaro daily. We find a festive city, decorated already with the new flags of the Republic of Slovenia. The beer is flowing freely, laughter fills the streets, the future seems radiant. Looking back on it now, the joy we found that day seems surreal -- Slovenia’s independence was the first crack that would eventually see Yugoslavia shatter, leaving more than 130,000 people dead.

The following day Xavier and I figure that the best way to see independence is to see what’s happening at the borders of the new country. So we head to the frontier with Italy, less than 100 kilometers from the capital. We are looking forward to our day -- as we go about our reporting, we plan to end up in Italy’s Trieste, right across the border, looking out on the Adriatic and sipping an espresso. A dream ending to a dream assignment.

The federal Yugoslav army, the JNA, takes positions in a corn field at the border between Croatia and Slovenia on July 4, 1991. (AFP / Joël Robine)

At the Sezana-Fernetti border post, we see that the signs announcing entry into the Republic of Yugoslavia have disappeared. The Yugoslav flags have been replaced by the new Slovenian tricolor. There is not a hint of tension.

Around 10:00 am, we get to the Ponte Rosso square in Trieste, bathed in warm June sunshine. Our day seems to be going according to plan. And then I learn that war has broken out in my country.

“There’s gunfire back home,” an Italian tells me in Serbo-Croat.

Xavier and I run back to the car and race back toward the border crossing, where there is now a long line of cars blocked by panicked Italian police, some of them carrying automatic weapons. We won’t be able to cross back here, we have to find another border crossing, less well-known.

((AFP Graphics))

Once back inside Slovenia, we see an abandoned T-84 tank of the Yugoslav Army, the JNA on the side of the road of the first village that we pass. It is the first visible sign of the war that will grip the Balkans over the next decade.

The village children are climbing all over it, delighted at their unexpected find. The villagers tell us that the Yugoslav soldiers, 18-year-old conscripts, simply abandoned it on the road. The villagers know that I am Serb by my dialect, and the federal government in Belgrade is opposed to Slovenia’s independence and has ordered the JNA army to secure the border crossings. But the fact that I am Serb doesn’t ilicite the slightest aggressivity on their part, a startling courtesy that I would find time and again during Slovenia’s short-lived war, including from soldiers.

A few kilometers further down the road, we catch up to a column of JNA tanks, trucks and personnel carriers. We follow them. They don’t notice us until they stop in a field in front of the Italian border. “You have to leave, this will turn serious,” an officer tells us sternly but politely. We leave.

When we get back to Ljubljana, we return to a completely different city from the joyous metropolis we saw the day before. The streets are nearly deserted, makeshift barriers have sprung up at strategic intersections, sporadic gunfire is heard on a regular basis.

At our hotel, journalists are glued to radio and television news. Reports of clashes are coming in from throughout the small alpine republic.

War, an actual war that everyone thought impossible, is breaking out in the country.

The federal Yugoslav army at the border between Croatia and Slovenia, July 3, 1991. (AFP / Joël Robine)

The JNA has been ordered by Belgrade to deploy to the borders to take control and assure the territorial integrity of the Republic of Yugoslavia.

We don’t know this yet, but this strategy will fail both because of the determination of Slovenian forces, but also because of disagreements within the Yugoslav leadership. Along with Slovenia, Croatia, another republic within Yugoslavia, has also declared its independence. The night ends up being tense, punctuated by sporadic shooting.

The next morning, sirens wail across the city -- the war jets of the federal army are in the sky. Civilians run toward shelters, fear and anger in their eyes. It’s at this moment that I realize that we’ve crossed a point of no return. My country is going to disappear.

Xavier, who has covered wars before, suggests we go to the airport, as he is convinced that federal forces are going to try and take control of it. We try to reach it for hours, trying this street and that road. We finally get through in the late afternoon. The place where only 48 hours before I waited for my luggage, joking, is now deserted, except for a group of mostly local journalists. JNA’s Mig-21s fly at a low altitude, surveying the place. We watch them from the roof. We also see Slovenian troops deployed on the ground.

Federal Yugoslav army troops search for mines in a field at the border between Slovenia and Croatia, July 4, 1991. (AFP / Joël Robine)

I manage to find a working telephone and call my radio station in Belgrade. While I’m talking to them, there is a burst of automatic gunfire. I stick the receiver outside the window, so my colleagues in Belgrade can appreciate the seriousness of the situation. It’s war.

We can’t see anything amid the gunfire, which lasts for a good 40 minutes. Then silence. Nothing moves, the night falls and there begins a torrential downpour. We are stuck here for the time being.

An anti-tank barrier on the road between Ljubljana and Zagreb, July 5, 1991. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

A group of journalists sets out to find food and drinks. The remaining hacks establish a ‘base’ in the office of the airport manager, where we follow the news on television. The news makes no mention of the clashes at the airport. Xavier suggests that we spend the night here.

“If you were part of an army unit tonight, outside, under the rain, after these clashes, what would you do if all of the sudden you saw car headlights approaching -- fire first and ask questions later or the opposite?” he asks. He has a point, so we settle in.

In the morning, when we leave, the place is deserted. There is no sign of any armed forces. The only sign of the clashes the day before is a burnt out bus on the road.

The war in Slovenia would last only 10 days, after which the Yugoslav forces withdraw from the newly-independent country, with some 60 people killed. A short war and in hindsight fairly painless war.

Slovenian youth hold up the flag of their newborn country as federal troops leave on July 5, 1991, after 10 days of war. (AFP / Mike Persson)

But it was only the start of the Balkan nightmare.

Xavier and I would then head to Croatia, where a sizeable Orthodox Serb minority was opposed to the independence pushed by the Catholic Croat majority. That war would kill some 20,000 people and last until 1995. In Bosnia, more than 100,000 people would be killed. Then would come the Kosovo war and the bombing of my hometown Belgrade by NATO forces. And it all started in Slovenia, where on a warm June afternoon I wondered where to collect my luggage.

This blog was translated by Yana Dlugy in Paris. Read the original in French here.

In Ljubljana center during a ceasefire, July 6, 1991. (AFP / Mike Persson)


Jovan Matić