Will Serbia Truly Forgive This NATO Pilot?

11/08/2012 11:39 am ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Former NATO pilot returns as tourist to the country he was ordered to bomb.

USAF Lt. Col. Darrell P Zelko first entered Serbian airspace in his would-be "invisible" F-116A stealth bomber on a foggy night in March 1999, with a mission to destroy ground targets during NATO's war against the Milosevic regime. But that night luck deserted him. Serbian forces shot down his aircraft over the village of Budjanovci . He was not invisible to their missiles.

Now, 13 years later and as a civilian, Zelko has come to Serbia again. But this time he enters Serbian air space as a passenger on a commercial flight. He goes back to the "scene of the crime" but as a tourist - and as the honored guest of the man who shot him down, Zoltan Dani.

The sky drama from 1999 got a cinematic epilogue in 2012, as the central story in the Serbian documentary Second Meeting. It tells us the emotive story of reconciliation between two former enemies.

At times it is like a TV soap opera: a mixture of emotions, tears, traumatic memories and the ordinary every-day activities in two families on the opposite sides of the world. It leaves no room for the dilemma of whether from a Serbian point of view this former NATO pilot deserves their forgiveness or not.

It shows a harrowing testimony of weeping wives that inevitably intensifies the sense that true heroism, however, belongs to the women in the drama.

While Zoltan's wife fearfully wondered whether Zelko's missiles would destroy her husband's air defense station and her husband with it, the pilot's wife in America was praying for his safety at the moment of his disaster.

The Serbian commander became an international celebrity (and reportedly received many offers of military employment in other armies) while the American pilot remained trapped in his own dimension of mind. Even the compliments of Bill Clinton, then U.S. president, provided no solace and could not relax him.

"Even when he came back home, he still was in Aviano (the Italian Air Force base from which NATO bombers attacked Serbia)," says the pilot's wife in "Second Meeting", not hiding the pain on her face. "I wanted my husband back in total: to be with us in reality."

But perhaps the most emotive scene in the documentary is when Zelko opens the door of his children's room, directing the cam towards his sleeping kids: "This is why I find it hard every morning to go to work ..."

His "emotional problem" -- being separated from his children only for a few hours during the day -- might seem an open provocation to all those Serbian parents who are forever separated from their sons and daughters after NATO bombs killed them. What would the father of 5-year-old Milica Rakic, killed by NATO shrapnel while she was sitting on a potty, say about it?

But there is no dilemma: Zelko shows his inherent courage by coming to Balkan. He found the strength to face his own nightmares and memories. Standing in front of Serbian citizens, survivors themselves of NATO's air war, he apologizes for what he himself characterized as the crimes of his own government.

"I am sorry for your suffering. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the war. Thanks for your forgiveness," he says.

It seems like a well rehearsed speech, but a slightly trembled voice betrays him. It is spontaneous. It comes from the heart of the man who stopped his flying career after he survived being shot down in Serbia.

This time, too, Serbia was not a hard nut to crack. His very talented son, a cute boy who plays the violin, broke the ice in the hearts of audience at the documentary's Belgrade premiere, playing "Svilen Konac", one of the most famous Serbian traditional songs. He earned huge applause. Unlike the father in 1999, who sent missiles, the son sends a message of the love.

The NATO pilot asks Serbs to understand him as soldier who only followed the instructions of the own government. Pathetic phrase, but OK! Soldiers follow orders. Every soldier defends his actions as those taken in compliance with orders. But isn't a soldier also a human being with his own brain that makes him able l to say "no" irrespective of all possible risks he would expose himself to by refusing orders?

Darrell Zelko is not the first former enemy who asked for a Serbian forgiveness and neither will he be the last. Many of those with bloody hands come to the point of repentance carried by the conscience as the invisible river of the soul.

I am not against the peace. I am not against the reconciliation. But I am not sure that cinema, red carpet and Hollywood atmosphere should be modern altars for penitents.

The honest reconciliation between executioner and victim can only be found in a "face to face" meeting. If a victim's mother, sister, wife, son forgive a crime -- then that's it.

Otherwise, all is farce and Hollywood commercialism: a sorry situation in which it is possible to "forgive" only if you reduce your own dignity -- and that of your nation.