Twenty-four years after NATO air strikes killed six people, including three children, in the Montenegrin village of Murino, the victims’ families have received no compensation and say consecutive governments have done nothing to help them.
When the first bomb exploded on April 30, 1999 at a bridge near near the Montenegrin village of Murino, 19-year-old Slavko Mirkovic was chatting with his friend Darko Mijovic in the local shop.
Two girls who were at the shop, Julija Brudar and Olivera Maksimovic, tried to run, but moments later another bomb dropped by a NATO warplane hit the bridge, which was just ten metres away.
“In a second, everything collapsed. Slavko and Darko survived as the wooden counter stopped the bomb shrapnel, but the two poor girls and another boy, Miroslav Knezevic, were lying dead under a pile of bricks,” Slavko Mirkovic’s father Milan told BIRN.
“People were running in panic while the planes continued to bomb the bridge. To this day I think that only God saved my son who was injured that day,” he said.
Milan Mirkovic is head of a local NGO called the Association of NATO Victims 1999, which represents families of those killed and injured in the deadliest attack on Montenegro during the Western military alliance’s air campaign against Yugoslavia, which was aimed at forcing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his military repression in Kosovo.
That day in April 1999, NATO’s air strikes killed two pensioners in Murino, Milka Kocanovic and Manojlo Komatina, who were both 69. They also killed 40-year-old Vukic Vuletic and three children – Julija Brudar, aged 10, Olivera Maksimovic, 13, and Miroslav Knezevic, also 13.
Eight others were wounded when ten missiles hit the bridge on the river Lim, near Montenegro’s border with Kosovo in the country’s north. The casualties were a major tragedy for Murino, which only had 462 inhabitants.
NATO considered the bridge in Murino to be a ‘legitimate military target’ because it was believed to be one of the main transit routes to Kosovo for Yugoslav Army troops stationed in Montenegro.
The Western alliance’s air strikes were launched without the backing of a UN Security Council resolution and were justified by NATO as a humanitarian intervention. They finally ended on June 10, 1999 after Milosevic agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. Around 500 civilians were killed during the 78 days of attacks, according to an estimate by Human Rights Watch.
As Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia at the time, several army camps near the capital Podgorica and the town of Danilovgrad were bombed by NATO planes, but the deadliest attack was in Murino.
In March 2021, one of the wounded, Darko Mijovic told Dan newspaper that the trauma caused by the attack was still haunting him.
“I was with my friend in the store when the bomb fell. I don’t know how we stayed alive. I saw the bodies of the children who died that day, one was right at the door,” Mijovic said.
“They say that time heals everything, but some of these wounds remain forever,” he added.
The legal battle for compensation
In May 2008, victims’ families from Murino filed a lawsuit against the state of Montenegro, seeking compensation in individual amounts ranging from 13,000 to 20,000 euros.
They cited an article in the Law on Obligations which says that the state is liable for deaths, bodily injuries or damage caused by acts of violence or terror if state institutions were obliged under the country’s legislation to prevent them.
In the lawsuit, 28 victims’ relatives accused the Montenegrin authorities of failing to detect attacks by NATO aircraft over its territory and to warn the public of possible impending dangers. They claimed that the authorities had been informed by NATO about every target that would be attacked.
Velija Muric, a lawyer representing the families, argued that the Montenegrin authorities were obliged to warn villagers in Murino before the bomb attack by sounding alarms or issuing a public warning.
“NATO forces announced every raid and overflight for humanitarian reasons, they claimed. Montenegro is to blame for the fact that neither the local authorities in Murino, nor the police or the army, made it known that people should take shelter. The state authorities are responsible for not doing it, both morally and in humanitarian terms because these victims were innocent,” Muric told BIRN.
In August 2010, the Basic Court in Podgorica ruled that the state should pay 69,000 euros in compensation to five family members of Manojlo Komatina, one of those who was killed in the bombing. After the state appealed to the Higher Court in Podgorica and the case was heard again twice, the ruling was confirmed and the compensation was paid.
But in July 2015, the Supreme Court annulled the ruling, asking the victims’ relatives to return the compensation and pay court costs.
Another six cases for compensation were thrown out in September and October 2014 by the Higher Court, which ruled that “the claims are out of date”.
In February 2020, lawyer Velija Muric and the Human Rights Action NGO called on the government led by Dusko Markovic to come to a settlement with the victims’ families. This proposal was also put to subsequent governments led by Zdravko Krivokapic and Dritan Abazovic, but there was no response from any of the three administrations.
The head of Human Rights Action, Tea Gorjanc Prelevic, argued that Montenegro still has a moral obligation to pay compensation. The total amount claimed is around 500,000 euros.
“The total amount of the compensation would represent a negligible burden on the state budget, especially compared to the importance that the settlement would have both for the victims and for Montenegro,” Gorjanc Prelevic said.
NATO opponents use bombing as symbol
In June 2015, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited Montenegro and described the Murino bombing as a “tragedy”, although he did not explicitly apologise.
“I want to express my condolences to the families and all those who lost loved ones in 1999,” Stoltenberg told a press conference.
How exactly the attack ended up killing the civilians in Murino has never been properly explained.
Murino became a symbol for opponents of NATO and was used as an argument against Montenegro joining the Western military alliance, a topic that was hotly contested in the small Balkan state.
Despite this, however, parliament voted in favour of membership in April 2017 and the country joined the alliance a couple of months afterwards.
Milan Mirkovic said that the Association of NATO Victims 1999 has had several meetings with NATO member states’ ambassadors over the years, but hasn’t had the opportunity to meet any Montenegrin government representatives officially, a fact that angers him.
“Children and innocent citizens died in Murino and the state didn’t even try to protect them. It’s offensive that the authorities have not taken this seriously even to this day,” Mirkovic said. “Murino is a tragedy for the whole country, which somehow behaves strangely as if nothing happened,” he added.
Since the bombing, only two prime ministers have visited Murino. In October 1999, then premier Filip Vujanovic opened a new bridge over the river Lim and said that the state should take care of the victims’ family members.
During a commemoration on April 2020, premier Zdravko Krivokapic described Murino as a symbol of suffering and promised that the state of Montenegro would never forget those who died.
BIRN approached current outgoing Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic’s office and the Justice Ministry to ask about a possible compensation settlement with the victims’ families, but received no reply.
Despite the changes in government in Montenegro in recent years, Gorjanc Prelevic said that the authorities have been continuing to disregard the emotional suffering of the relatives of the six people who were killed back in April 1999.
“It is a big disappointment that the new authorities, as well as the old ones, have equally ignored the families of victims killed in the NATO bombing,” she said.