Foes become friends: U.S. Air Force pilot meets Serbian commander who shot him down

Nadine Bells
Good NewsNovember 7, 2012

On March 27, 1999, U.S. Air Force pilot Dale Zelko's F-117 Stealth Fighter was shot down in Kosovo.

After ejecting from his plane, Zelko's thoughts toward his attacker were "surprisingly generous":

"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," Zelko told BBC News.

The man who shot him down, Serbian rocket colonel Zoltan Dani, was indeed celebrating his good shot.

Dani now considers Zelko a friend.

After the war had ended, Dani's son, who had seen footage of Zelko online, convinced his father that he should arrange a meeting with the American pilot. Dani, now a successful bakery owner, wrote a letter to Zelko, who immediately welcomed the idea:

"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," Zelko said.

The two men began a years-long correspondence, culminating in visits to each other's homes. Their meeting was filmed by Zeljko Mirkovic, and became a subject matter for Mirkovic's documentary The Second Meeting, which premiered in Serbia last week.

"Let's not ever do this war again, let's do everything possible to work out any sort of problems or differences with mutual respect and admiration for each other," Zelko said at the Belgrade premiere, apologizing for the war.

"Our three families — Dale's, mine, Zoltan's — shared the same values, about believing in the family, believing in peace," director Mirkovic said. "We all believed we had the right to send the message — hope, peace — which could be accepted universally."

Zelko and Dani hope their story will inspire tolerance and peace.

"We found a solution to this problem and we're showing other people how to do it. We're saying to people that peace is much better than war. The most important thing is that we communicate and become very good friends — share emotions and feelings," Dani told BBC News.