Funeral in Novi Sad

`I had heard the shots that killed Boban. I had met the KLA commander who ordered his murder. I had met the young British Army officer who had dragged away his bloody corpse. And now I was in his home, with his father and his brother, on the day that they buried him'
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It was one of those moments of history that will always remain in the mind. British armoured vehicles pelted with roses and a crowd of Kosovo Albanians emerging from the darkness of fear and persecution, their faces convulsed by that dangerous joy that can so soon turn to fury. They cried "Nato" and they wrote "Tony Bler" on the main road running through the Pristina suburb of Vranjevac where they had lain in hiding for two months. And when the Serb army drove up the street on its way out of Kosovo - and when the terrified Serb civilians, foot on the accelerator, their cars crammed with wives and children and bedding and kettles and toys, swept through between the Yugoslav army trucks, the Albanians cursed them and threw stones at them.

And that's when I heard the shots. It was mid-morning on Sunday 13 June; several bursts of automatic fire from up the road where the Irish Guards should already have deployed with their Warrior armoured vehicles - but which they hadn't yet reached amid the adulation of the crowds. A French reporter drove down the highway and shouted at me: "There's a lot of shooting up there - someone's killed a soldier." Two soldiers, to be exact, and a Serb policeman. We saw the terribly mutilated body of one of them on television that night, a bloody corpse beside a Yugoslav army truck - shot while "looting", according to the reports on Sky TV.

Next day, by chance, I was back in Vranjevac, outside an old high school named after the wartime Albanian partisan, Zenel Hadjini. There was a pathway lined with piles of red roses and bleak young men in black T-shirts, and inside I found the local Pristina commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, newly arisen from the hidden, brutal world of all guerrilla leaders. "Commandant" Sali Mustafa was prematurely bald with a narrow, intelligent face and a half-growth of beard, his eyes obscured by tinted glasses, his blue and red track suit and runners ordinary enough to give him an oddly sinister appearance. And I asked him, by chance, if he knew anything about the killing of the three Serbs the previous day.

"These people were looting in the area and started shooting," "Commandant" Mustafa replied. "So we intervened. Their bodies were taken away by Nato." Just like that. A law and order man, the "Commandant". And a student at the history faculty at Pristina university, imprisoned for four years by the Serbs for "terrorism" while advocating an independent Albanian Kosovo.

But quite by chance - and coincidence plays an extraordinary role in this story - as I was leaving "Commandant" Mustafa, I found outside the school a British army jeep and standing beside it a young officer in the Irish Guards. It was he who had been sent to retrieve the bodies of the Serb policeman and the two soldiers. "There were some household goods in their vehicles but we were very suspicious and we thought it looked as if they had been planted there," he told me. "One of the Serbs had been shot and the back of his head had been blown off, and the second had been shot in the chest. We couldn't find out how the third one was shot because he had so much blood over him."

Far from looting, the Serbs had been coldly murdered. And, of course, the world didn't care. But I wrote the British soldier's words in my notebook. And almost a week later, hundreds of miles away in the city of Novi Sad, far north of Belgrade, one of those moments of fate occurred which turn incident into tragedy. I had gone there to discover how Serbs were reacting to the end of Nato's war against Yugoslavia. And in a local newspaper, the following notice caught my eye: "Ilija Jelicic (Boban), 21... Funeral today at 1pm in Futok cemetery. Sad-hearted, our beloved son and brother, the soldier Ilija Jelicic Boban, born 1978, tragically lost his life defending his homeland... The place of mourning is in Nikola Tessla Street at No17. Mother Boja, father Nikola and brother Zoren."

I was too late for the funeral. But dare I show up at the home of a newly dead Serb soldier, I from a Nato country, he a victim of Nato, perhaps of a British aircraft? I drove to Nikola Tessla Street. No17 was a modest two-storey home and in the garden beside the house, friends and relatives of the dead soldier were sitting on wooden benches at trestle tables, eating soup and pork and drinking brandy to his memory. A cousin spoke to me outside. I asked if I could meet Boban's family, and held my breath until he returned very solemnly and told me I could join the funeral party.

I was given a glass of brandy and invited to drink it "for the soul of Boban" and I sat at the table, watched with deep suspicion by the other guests. One was a soldier who sat down opposite me and asked the name of my newspaper. "In-De-Pen-Dent!" he muttered angrily, using the plosives as a sort of condemnation. I concentrated on the dish of pork. Then the cousin returned. "You may speak to Zoren," he said. And so I was taken into the kitchen of No17 Nikola Tessla Street to meet a tall, well-built, thoughtful young man with stubble on his chin, dressed in a black T-shirt and black trousers, chain-smoking a pack of Marlboros.

I told him I wanted to hear about Boban's life because I thought that the dead should never be statistics but should be made to live again in words. And for this reason alone, he told me quietly, he would speak of his brother. "Our family originally came from Bosnia-Herzegovina after the Second World War," he said. "I am seven years older than my brother. Boban was born on 11 November 1978 in Novi Sad. He spent all his life here in Futok before he went to serve in the army on 23 June last year. He graduated at the high agricultural school in Futok. He came from a family of workers. My mother used to work in a shoe factory until it went bankrupt three years ago, and now she is unemployed. My father is a plumber. I help to manage the vegetable market in Novi Sad."

I noted how Zoren still spoke of his dead brother in the present tense, how Boban was born on the day the world commemorates the end of the war that began in his family's land of Bosnia. Boban had been born while his parents were building their home with their own hands, a house without electricity. Boja had to leave at four o'clock every morning to take Boban to school before starting her shift at the shoe factory. The family had been given a chance to leave for Australia. "The papers were ready at the embassy but at the last moment my parents just gave up and didn't go," Zoren said. "I don't know why."

It had been a hard life. The upper floor of the house had been built for the families of the sons when they married. "Boban was a social type, he started going to discos when he was 15. He liked girls very much and they loved him. He is a bit shorter than me but very solid with dark hair, cut very short and coloured blond. He is very interested in electronics, he adores computers. When he was smaller, we used to joke that he would take everything to pieces to learn how it worked. He was always coming home from parties when I got up in the morning. He likes techno music. I used to say to him, `Boban, you are going to break my head with this music'."

His words were still in the present tense. Nikola Jelicic walked into the kitchen, a beard of white stubble beneath tearful eyes. The father listened to Zoren for a while then almost staggered out of the door in grief, holding the doorframe for support. "Boban's girlfriend Diana loved him very much and she spoke at the funeral today," Zoren continued. "She gave the eulogy and said, `My beloved Boban, you'll stay with me forever'."

And slowly, the last days of Boban unfolded. The army had transferred him to Prizren in Kosovo on 15 September. On his last leave home, he had broken a front tooth while eating lunch. He liked cars and Zoren had been ready to repair an old Yugo for him to go to parties in when he came home on 8 June. But his return was delayed - Boban was a driver so the Yugoslav army needed him to transport its troops in the withdrawal from Kosovo. He had called all his friends on the phone the week before he was killed. Zoren had said to him: "You just take care of yourself - God will take care of you and after you come back, everything is going to be easy."

Then, on 15 June, the Jelicic family received a call from Boban's best friend in the army. "He said his truck had been hit, that he was wounded but that Boban's condition was not serious, that he was in hospital in Pristina and going to be transferred to Belgrade," Zoren said. "And then our suffering started. My mother and father went to search for Boban and then the day before yesterday, they were asked to go to the Military Academy hospital in Belgrade and given tranquilliser injections before identifying him. They were told he was dead but that it would be better for Mum and Dad not to see him, to identify him from his possessions. But my Dad said he didn't want to ask himself all his life whom he had buried, so he went to see Boban. And he could only identify him from the front tooth he broke at lunch. I am grateful to God that I didn't see his body and that I can remember him as he was. But our parents, what they saw will remain in their minds all their lives."

Nikola had returned to the kitchen, tears running down his cheeks. And by now I realised the truth. Nato had not killed Boban - not directly, anyway. He had died on 13 June in Pristina - yes, in Vranjevac, Zoren said to me when I looked searchingly at him - at the hands of "terrorists", beside the truck he was driving. I had heard the shots that killed Boban Jelicic. Then I had met the man who ordered the murder of Boban Jelicic, then the young Briton who had dragged away the corpse of Boban Jelicic - covered in blood - and now I was in Boban Jelicic's home, next to the father who had identified his broken body.

I told Zoren all this but left out the bit about "Commandant" Mustafa. "What can I say about this war?" Zoren asked me. "As a Serb, it was important that Kosovo remain a part of Serbia and Yugoslavia because you can't give up something that belongs to you. But is there any war that brings nice things? I think that maybe this time, it would have been possible to solve everything without a war, without bombing, without destruction. And the most tragic thing for us is that Boban was killed after the peace settlement."

I thought again of the KLA man in his track suit. And I asked a terrible question of Zoren. What did he feel towards the men who murdered Boban? "Even if they brought the men who did this to be executed here in this yard of our home in front of me, it would mean nothing to me," he said. "I was never interested in politics, and my brother was the same. No, even if they brought the `Shipters' [Albanians] here and executed them in front of us, it can't bring my brother back. It's what I said to my mother. I said, `What's done is done'."