While I’ve been trying to get to a blog about the friendship between an American pilot and the Serbian colonel who shot him down, a Serbian filmmaker has already finished and premiered his documentary about it. The film “The Second Meeting” — see the trailer below — has premiered in New York and Washington, as well as four cities in Serbia.

The first item I got about it is from June:

No Hard Feelings: An American Pilot, a Yugoslav Colonel, and a Filmmaker (Santa Barbara Independent, June 24, By Joan Mitric)

Two men of war – the American pilot of a Stealth F-117 shot from the sky over Serbia in March 1999, and the Yugoslav colonel whose rocket launchers brought down the so-called “Invisible” plane – are now men of peace and collaborating in a documentary about their unlikely friendship.

Both men left the military after the 1999 war and began new lives; the Serb as a baker; the U.S. pilot as a public speaker. The story of their first face-to-face meeting in Serbia six years after the March 27, 1999 shoot down is the subject of an ironic and touching documentary-in-the-making by independent filmmaker Zeljko Mirkovic called Second Meeting, or Drugi Susret.

The former adversaries met again this May to shoot the film’s final scenes in New Hampshire, where retired U.S. Air Force Col. Dale Zelko lives.

Oh, yes. The first meeting? It was on the rudimentary radar screen the Serbs fashioned from outdated Russian equipment and used in the hours before they blew the F-117 Stealth bomber from the sky.

Let’s remind ourselves of that: God was so on the side of our ungodly out-of-nowhere war against the Serbs that the “invisible” plane was visible from a “rudimentary radar screen fashioned from outdated Russian equipment.” Let me remind us of my favorite quote of all time, from Serbian media after the plane was shot down: “SORRY! We didn’t know it was invisible!”

As for film director Mirkovic, he has his own war story, one that helps frame his forgiving and rather playful present-day persona.

A native of Nis – Serbia’s second largest city – Mirkovic, 29, was riding his bike about a half block from the city’s large open-air farmers market on May 7, 1999 when NATO cluster bombs slammed the green market, the city hospital, and downtown pedestrian streets on the busiest day of the week. The day’s raids racked up the single worst civilian toll in the 78-day war: 13 people — including a pregnant woman — died; 26 others were critically wounded.

“I escaped that day, and ever since I’ve tried to think and to live differently,” said Mirkovic in an interview with this journalist a few months ago near Belgrade’s Students Square. Unlike many of his generation who remember a decade of bloody secessionist wars with former neighbors, and isolating sanctions as Serbia’s pariah status cemented under tyrant Slobodan Milosevic, filmmaker Mirkovic is not bitter, angry, or resentful towards NATO countries or the United States. In fact, many of Mirkovic’s projects speak to his hope for regional healing and the wider opening of Serbia to the world.

“Like all countries, we are not a nation of stereotypes, but a people full of all sorts of talents and energy,” said Mirkovic, who, with his dark, bristle-top hair could be tennis phenom Novak Djokovic’s older brother.

A graduate of the University of Belgrade, he has several award-winning indy films to his credit under his company’s moniker, optimisticfilm.com. One chronicles two friends – one a Serb, the other a Croat – as they travel the country once called Yugoslavia in a vintage Yugo sedan…

When he heard about the downing on the U.S. Stealth F-117 Mirkovic decided his next project would be a film about Zoltan Dani, the man who gutted the bomber and put U.S. pilot Lt Col. Dale Zelko, of New Hampshire, in a ditch near Budanovci, a village just north of the capital city and target, Belgrade.


Courtesy Photo, U.S. Stealth pilot Dale Zelko, who survived being shot down over Serbia on March 27, 1999.

The story of “Second Meeting” is full of irony. For starters, the U.S. Stealth pilot Zelko is the grandson of a Yugoslav who relocated to the United States after WWII from what is now Slovenia. Zelko had never visited the land of his ancestors before he set off in the single-seat F-117 to bomb it. He ended up ejecting from his $43 million-plus state-of-the-art bomber a couple hours from where his grandfather grew up. After the war, Zelko left the Air Force and now speaks about his survival and on themes of war, peace, and reconciliation.

In fact, it was one of these speeches, at Washington’s Air and Space Museum years ago, that brought the former adversaries together. The way [Zoltan] Dani tells it, he was down in his pastry kitchen kneading dough for donuts when his son, Timor, called him upstairs to see something he’d found on the Web.

“Timor asked me, ‘Dad, what would you say to the pilot you shot down if you ever met him?’” Dani said during an interview in Belgrade.

“I don’t know… ‘Want to have a beer?’” Dani said. Then his son showed Dani a picture of Zelko and, when he translated Zelko’s speech, that was the beginning of the idea to invite Zelko to Serbia. Along with his bakery, [Dani] now runs a tourist agency in Serbia’s Vojvodina region.

For his part, smelling a film, Mirkovic decided to facilitate the former adversaries’ meeting by sending them both small, high-density cameras so they could prepare video diaries of their everyday lives. For Zelko’s wife’s first trip to Dani’s village, his wife made a friendship quilt for the family. “We both survived the war,” she says in the trailer.

In another interesting twist, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade decided months ago to support Mirkovic’s film with a modest grant of about 6,000 Euros. This, despite the fact that the crippling of one of its premier fighting machines – only three days into the 78-day U.S.-led NATO war – was an acute embarrassment…

[Not exactly a “twist,” since Washington will do anything to make its aggression seem OK: ‘See? We’re all friends. No harm done.’ It’s the kind of mush that the State Department loves, making it all look OK that we’re (still) degrading the Serbs. See? The only “twist” here is that, in a departure from the usual — shooting at Serbs and expecting them to have open arms for us — it was the Serbian side that did the shooting down.]

The incident spawned dozens of morale-boosting jokes in Serbia which went viral on the nascent Internet – (“Sorry, we didn’t know you were invisible.”) – and immediately entered the military lore of this small country up against the Goliath of global military ability.

Today, the remnants of the F-117 rest in Belgrade’s Air Museum at the Surcin Airfield, also badly hit in 1999.

…Dani said in the weeks leading up to the war he and his group secretly re-jiggered an old Russian microwave-type radar so it could see a blip of the “invisible” F-117 as it headed south out of Hungarian airspace. “…We waited for it to get closer to Belgrade. Then I ordered my rocket launchers to fire… We knew the whole action must be completed in 20 critical seconds,” because in the next seconds the bomber would drop its load, Dani said. […]

The BBC carried a piece on the story in November:

Foes now friends: US stealth pilot and the Serb who shot him down (Nov. 5)

Dale Zelko and Zoltan Dani talk about how they forged their friendship

Breaking bread with the enemy is one thing. Making it together is a step that former foes do not usually take.

But in Zoltan Dani’s kitchen, that is exactly what is happening. Once the commander of a crack Yugoslav anti-aircraft rocket unit, the former colonel has swapped his camouflage for an apron and now runs a successful bakery.

Even more remarkably, kneading the dough beside him is former United States Air Force pilot, Dale Zelko.


From foes to friends: Dale Zelko and Zoltan Dani say they feel like brothers now

The two men were on opposite sides in 1999, when Nato air strikes rocked Belgrade and other key targets. And they were the protagonists in one of the most remarkable incidents of Operation Allied Force.

Zoltan Dani had problems of his own. He commanded a unit which was low on resources and vulnerable to attack by the F16s. But his men were not short on morale or skill.

Each night he would move his unit from place to place - operating the equipment in 20-second bursts to avoid the attention of anti-radar missiles.

Citing Serbian electronics genius Nikola Tesla as an inspiration, Zoltan had the equipment modified so it would operate beyond the usual wavelengths.

Perhaps it was this which allowed him to detect Dale Zelko’s stealth fighter.

“When it hit, it felt very, very good. Like scoring the winning goal in a football match,” says Mr Dani.

The US pilot’s perspective was naturally a little different. But once he had ejected from his now uncontrollable plane, Mr Zelko had some surprisingly generous thoughts.

“I thought about the Serbian SAM (surface-to-air missile) operator, imagining having a coffee and conversation with this guy, saying to him: ‘Really nice shot.’ I had this huge respect for him and the Serbian people.”


The wreckage of Mr Zelko’s plane is now in Belgrade’s museum

This, perhaps, helps to explain why Mr Zelko was so receptive when the idea of meeting the man who shot him down was first floated.

The initial suggestion came from Mr Dani’s son, Atila [the above report has it as his son Timor], who had seen footage of Dale online…

He contacted the now-retired pilot via the US Air Force. And for Dale Zelko it could not have been a more welcome communication.

“As soon as I read the idea of meeting the man who shot me down, my immediate reaction was: yes, absolutely - and I became obsessed with the idea. I felt I had to connect deeply and personally with this person and the Serbian people. It became a mission of passion for me.”

Several years of correspondence followed. The two former military men say they shared their stories, emotions and ideas as they worked towards a face-to-face encounter.

That finally came last year - with Zeljko Mirkovic’s camera also in attendance…

Three members of the Zelko family came to Serbia for a week of premieres of The Second Meeting. They stayed at the Dani family home in Kovin, a short distance from Belgrade.

“I had a question from the audience at the Belgrade premiere: ‘After developing a real personal relationship between the families, could you go back in a combat machine against Serbia?’ I said absolutely not, that would be impossible. You can no longer remove the human element from it.”

The pair hope their story will send a message of tolerance and understanding around the world. […]

THE SECOND MEETING - The screening in Washington DC
Embassy of Serbia, USA

…The Second Meeting traces the emotional journey of two people culturally, socially and geographically apart that are brought together by a random act of war.

[Random is the right word for that war.]

It’s a poignant, uplifting story of how the bonds of friendship can be forged on the battlefield, even amongst adversaries.

[That’s because they were never adversaries. It was a false enmity, generated by the Washington-Berlin Axis. Appropriately enough, the October screening in Washington was at the German Marshall Fund.]

…Their cultural heritage – Zelko being of Yugoslav descent and Dani of Hungarian – created the groundwork for a second meeting…

Let’s remember one of the many asinine aspects of America’s 90s wars against the Serbs: utilizing descendants from the Old Country, often the Serbs’ old adversaries, and worse: using American servicemen of Serb descent. A sick, if logical, approach: sending Yugoslavs to kill Yugoslavs. Adding to the already fratricidal nature of the war. Then again, Hungarians and Slovenians have never had a quarrel when it comes to dismantling Serbia. (Dani’s 15-percent-Hungarian region of Vojvodina is the next leg of that ongoing project. We’ll see which side of it he ends up on.)

Meanwhile, that “unforgiving, anti-American” Serbia helped with funding for the project: In addition to letters of support from The Serbian Ministry of Culture and The Serbian-American Chamber of Commerce, money came from the Serbian Ministry of Culture and from Serbia’s Province of Vojvodina and the City of Nis. (Though one supposes that, gracious losing of a defensive war aside, it doesn’t hurt to remind the world of the episode where Serbia scored a point.)

From the promotional materials for the film:

Zelko told Serbian national broadcaster RTS that when he was at Dani’s home he was feeling like at home and that Dani and his family “are people who give a lot, and forgive a lot.”

Bosnian Banja Luka info writes how after the screening in Belgrade applause lasted for a while and after that Zelko’s son played on a violin one famous Serbian tune “Svilen konac” (silken thread).

[Notice how the Slovenian-descended American ex-pilot and his family don’t seem to view Serbia or Serbs as an enemy or threat, while the U.S. stays on course with its anti-Serb coercion policies on several fronts.]

French TV5Monde reports that Zelko expresses his apologi[es] for “suffering, pain, loss and anxiety” that Serbian people felt during the bombing and adds that “a war is not carried out by ordinary people, but by governments.” Zelko’s message is “never do that again.”

French Le Figaro…quoted Zelko saying that “the war was not between him and me, it was not a personal thing, and even less between me and the Serbian people.”

British ITN reports that the documentary presents [a] “heartwarming tale, which tells the story of forgiveness and unexpected friendship.”

And that caps off the irony of it all. ITN was, after all, the network that demonized the Serb side in the first place, and got them bombed the first time, in Bosnia, when it filmed a Serb “concentration camp” for Muslims — from inside the open wire fence.

The picture that fooled the world


Photo: ITN archive

This image of an emaciated Muslim caged behind Serb barbed wire, filmed by a British news team, became a worldwide symbol of the war in Bosnia. But the picture is not quite what it seems. German journalist Thomas Deichmann reveals the full story…