Two decades after the bloody wars of the Balkans, a key question remains: what became of the waves of warriors who participated, fighting for one side or another? Most of those in positions of command ended up on trial, either at The Hague tribunal or in local courts. But the majority of soldiers returned home. Their lives took different trajectories -- some tragic, some mundane. But virtually all face a common challenge.
"With nearly all former combatants still of a working age, the stagnant economic situation has severely hampered their reintegration. Many were deprived of the sort of educational opportunities that they could have expected to enjoy, and have been left to improvise careers," Ian Bancroft, founder of the organisation TransConflict, which works on the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the region, told SETimes.
Bancroft adds that the respective states have catered poorly to those requiring informal education opportunities, leaving many dependent on benefits systems that countries simply can't afford to maintain; particularly given the number of false claimants.
"There is also a tendency to focus on the economic dimensions of reintegration, meaning that instances of post-traumatic stress have not received the attention required."
Kosovo political commentator Belul Beqaj, a university professor, tells SETimes that international groups organised training opportunities for the former fighters. "Some are integrated in the police … some started businesses. Many have remained forgotten."
Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi tells SETimes about 1,500 former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were integrated into the Kosovo Police. "Those who applied and met the criteria were accepted and they are in the Kosovo Police now."
Maliq Ndreca is a veteran who now works as a guard at a superstore. "The integration was done more individually. Some of the former fighters went abroad, some found jobs on their own, many even repented for participating in the war because they fought for ideals, not for anything else," he told SETimes.
Beqaj believes that there is not much danger these former warriors would play a role in any future unrest in the region. "They can start any adventure, but cannot continue and conclude if the disappointed citizens, who are not happy with the high level of unemployment and poverty, do not join them," Beqaj said.
Bancroft agrees there is little desire among former fighters to see combat again. "Many struggle to cope with the trauma of the last war; for which they receive very little assistance. Most now have families and, indeed, mortgages. Many feel deceived and disappointed by what they fought for in the early-1990s, and would be extremely reluctant to take up arms once more," he explained.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) began working on the rehabilitation of the former fighters in 1999. According to KosovaPress, a Kosovo news agency, the IOM registered more than 25,000 former fighters in Kosovo and helped to get them engaged in the rebuilding process after the war. Initially, about 4,500 former fighters became part of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF). But the KSF itself has been undergoing a period of transformation and professionalisation.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), NATO got involved. Balkan Insight reported in May 2010 that the Alliance was launching a new trust fund worth 4.6m euros to assist former Bosnian soldiers re-integrate into civilian life.
"The funding, including half a million euros provided by the Bosnian government, had been earmarked for use in the period from 2010 to 2012," the agency reported. It added that the new trust fund "will provide assistance to soldiers made redundant by the ongoing transformation of Bosnian Armed Forces as they re-enter civilian life."
In neighbouring Serbia, the OSCE estimates 15% of the male population are veterans of the Balkan wars. They are a very diverse group, including former regular army, police and the paramilitary group members.
The War Trauma Centre, a Serbian NGO, has been working with them based on a model called "Veterans Support Group", which contributes to the psychological stabilisation of both veterans and their families, as well as promoting a quality reintegration into society. The programme also contributes to the wider societal process of facing the war past and building sustainable peace.
The Veterans Support Group gathers people who share similar war experiences and those who have common concerns and problems in everyday life in order to help each other overcome difficulties. "Veterans are marginalised," according to the centre.
Bancroft says that more needs to be done to harness the peace building potential of former combatants.
"As the example of ex-political prisoners in Northern Ireland demonstrates, former combatants can be leaders in their respective communities, making an important contribution to conflict transformation."