Sladan Vuckovic

Portrait Sladjan Vuckovic

Sladan Vuckovic

Slađjan Vučković and his wife Dušica.
Slađjan: I was born in 1966 and grew up in Vladičin Han, a small town in southern Serbia. I went to a boarding secondary military school in Rajlovac near Sarajevo, Bosnia. When I completed my studies, I joined the army. My first appointment was the airfield of Pristina, Kosovo. Dušica: I was born in Svrdulica, a small town near Vladičin Han. I met Slađjan during the summer holidays. We had been seeing each other for five years when we got married in 1987. In 1989 we had our first daughter, Alexandra. Our second child, George, was born in 1994.

Slađjan: At the beginning of my career I was in charge of weapons, you know, stocking them, regulating bombs in aircraft and the like. After a while I decided to start training to become a pyrotechnic (a military de-miner). I received six months’ training in the field, travelling all over the former Yugoslavia, and my team was composed of people from all around Yugoslavia. At that time my wife didn’t know what type of job I was doing. I didn’t tell her because it is a dangerous job.

Dušica: I found out about his job by coincidence, when one of our friends told me. I wasn’t happy about it. I don’t like weapons, I prefer painting.

Slađjan: I was working for both the army and the police, as the police force didn’t have its own de-miners. I was based in Pristina, but because of the nature of my job I was working everywhere in Serbia and Macedonia. I knew what cluster munitions were even before 1999. They are more dangerous to defuse as you need special training and equipment. I became a trainer for other de-miners on how to defuse cluster munitions. As the situation in Pristina worsened, Dušica and the children moved back to Vladičin Han, but I remained in Pristina alone. By coincidence, the army transferred me to Nis. My family was finally reunited. We were happy and bought an apartment. I was travelling a lot, I spent some four months per year in the field while Dušica was at home with the children.

Dušica: As the kids were going to school I wanted to start working, but it was hard to find any employment at that time.

Slađjan: The NATO bombing started on 24 March 1999. At that time I was in the field and unaware of what was going on in Nis. My wife moved to her brother’s house, so when I came back I wasn’t able to find them. In that period I rarely saw my family as I was always in the field. Maybe I saw them for one day or so. On 25 April 1999 I was in Kopaonik National Park, clearing on the slopes. I had an accident that day. A bomblet exploded; it was a BLU 97, the yellow one. It was the 107th bomblet I had cleared that day. It was the last one. Normally I had assistants to help me, but I did that one alone, since all the others wanted to go home. I approached the bomblet and it exploded. I never touched it. It probably exploded from the vibrations of my steps. Somehow I was lucky because there was a rock behind the bomblet which took most of the blast. I was transferred to the closest village, Brus, and carried to the local health centre. They put bandages on my arms. They didn’t notice that my leg was injured too. I was then transferred by ambulance to Kruševac. You will not believe what happened next. The ambulance had a road accident on the way. Two tires exploded. (Laughing). A police car rescued me and drove me to Kruševac. The last thing I remember is that I told the doctors my blood type. Then I fainted. I spent two days there as Nis was under bombing and nobody could be transferred.

Dušica: One of Slađjan’s colleagues called me to inform me about my husbands’ condition. He didn’t know exactly how he was. I started thinking about how Slađjan had once told me that he would prefer to die rather than be injured in clearance activities. After that, three people from the army came to visit me. I thought my husband had passed away, because when three officers arrive it normally means that someone has died. They informed me about Slađan’s situation. I couldn’t believe he was alive and kept asking them if they were telling me the truth.

Slađjan: Once I finally reached the Nis hospital, my family was able to visit me. My wife fainted. I remember my dad asking the doctors to cut his arms off and give them to me. I told Dušica “I don’t have arms anymore”. She replied that I had her arms from now on. As I was considered a very severe case, I was transferred to the Military Hospital in Belgrade, although I didn’t want to leave Nis. I remained six months at the hospital. I had lots of operations, including plastic surgery, physical rehabilitation and so on. I had to strengthen my muscles. My son, who was six years old at that time, didn’t want to visit me. I received my prostheses after six months. They were very expensive, and were bought from Germany by the army. It was difficult to actually buy them, as it was difficult to transfer money abroad at that time. I was lucky, because on the day of the accident I was wearing a gun on the front of my abdomen. Most of the shrapnel went into the gun, but some shrapnel entered the bone next to the heart. When I had the accident I was wearing a very special necklace with two pendants, one cross and one four-leaf clover; they were given to me by Dušica and our daughter. Every time I went to the field for work I used to kiss the pendants. After the accident the mark of the necklace and of the pendant is visible in my skin, like a tattoo. (Laughing). When I was dismissed from the hospital it was very hard to readapt to everyday life, to my home. Nis is a small city and I didn’t know how people were going to look at me. I was very nervous. I didn’t want to go out, to wear shorts. I thought everyone was looking at me. When I went out I felt uncomfortable, for instance I needed a special glass to drink and I was always thinking “What if I drop it? Everyone will notice.” I was thinking that on public buses everyone will look at me and I was ashamed to ask for a seat. I needed new objects, adapted for me: A new phone, glass, spoon, etc. I wasn’t really isolated but I felt very uncomfortable. Everyone kept asking questions about the accident, my feelings, cluster munitions, etc. I was sad I couldn’t help my children with their homework. I used to be good at technical drawing. I thought that if I went to the school to pick up my kids the other children would laugh at them. I wasn’t able to take hold their hands anymore, I couldn’t accompany them to a football game. I cannot take out money from my pocket, cannot lock the door to my house with the keys; I always need the help of the others. There are lots of unpleasant situations like that. For instance, I once went to the bathroom and then wasn’t able to close my trousers. While I was trying to close the zip someone else entered and thought I was touching myself and insulted me. So I decided to only go to places where people knew me. My children have extra duties they wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had the accident. When I go out the kids help me as my wife is working now.

Dušica: After the accident I was employed by the army in Nis as a dental technician. I am very happy to have this job.

Slađjan: Nowadays I receive both a small pension from the army and compensation from the state.