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A Historical View of the Conflict in Kosovo


A War of Generations

Being creatures of such a young nation, it's more than a little difficult for Americans to understand the conflict in Kosovo. Unlike American wars, Kosovo's armed conflict is not defined by a generation, it's an heirloom passed down from generation to generation. Today's conflict in Kosovo is a child of centuries of conflict. Kosovo is a chronicle of refugees fleeing and returning to the area over generations. There have been dozens of wars over hundreds of years. Each generation remembers the wrongs done to the last and passes the bitterness to the next.

Albanian Claim to Kosovo

Kosovo holds value for both Albanians and Serbs historically and culturally. The Albanians base their claim to Kosovo on their status as descendants of the ancient Illyrians – a people who are believed to have occupied the Balkans some time before the ancient Greeks and 1,000 years before the Slavs. The Albanian language, Shqip, derives from the Illyrian tribes and is unlike any other known language. The Serbs, however, disagree and consider Kosovo their ancestral homeland.

Serbian Claim to Kosovo

Kosovo has long occupied a central place in Serbian mythology. Kosovo is known as the cradle of the medieval Serbian empire – the most powerful and civilized state in the Balkans – with a rich cultural tradition that is expressed in the vibrant frescoes of Serbian Orthodox monasteries such as Decani and Gracanica. This state was effectively annihilated on June 28, 1389, a day as important to Serbs as July 4, 1776, is to Americans. According to myth, the Serbian army assembled on Kosovo Field at dawn to do battle against a vastly superior Turkish force. Their heavy armor, iron halberds, and maces weighed down the Serbian troops. When the battle began, the more mobile Turkish cavalry hacked through the Serb army. The Turks captured the Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, and ceremonially beheaded him. The famous poem, "The Battle of Kosovo," paints the losing Prince Lazar as a hero. This poem describes Saint Elijah coming to Lazar in the form of a gray falcon with a message from God in his beak. The letter offered Lazar a choice between an "earthly kingdom" and a "heavenly kingdom." If he wanted an earthly kingdom, the prince should build up his armies; if he wanted a heavenly kingdom, he should build a monastery. Lazar chose a heavenly kingdom, building the monastery at Gracanica. While he might well have been able to keep his throne by negotiating some kind of deal with the Turks, he steadfastly refused to compromise with the enemy, "Then the Turks overwhelmed Lazar, and the Tsar, Lazar, was destroyed. With him was destroyed his army of seven and seventy thousand soldiers. All was holy, all was honorable, and the goodness of God was fulfilled." This legend still burns deeply in the Serbian collective soul. John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, said of the Serbians, "Every peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for. When he was a baby, his mother greeted him, 'Hail little avenger of Kosovo!'"

Shifting Power

The Ottoman Empire controlled Kosovo for centuries until the First Balkan War in 1912. After the war, Serbia claimed Kosovo, and Serb forces killed and expelled ethnic Albanians from the region.

The tables turned during World War I when the Serbs were driven out and the Albanians wreaked their vengeance on the Serbian troops.

Power shifted once more in 1918 when the army of what had become Yugoslavia returned to Kosovo, and the government began to try to bolster the Serb population.

During World War II, Kosovo formed part of a Greater Albania under Italian control. Germans and Bulgarians occupied other parts of the province, and thousands of Serbs were forced to flee. In an attempt to recruit Albanian fighters, Yugoslavia's leader, Josip Broz Tito, promised that, after the war, Kosovo would be permitted to join Albania. Sadly, for the mislead Albanians, this was a lie. As a result, in 1945, Albanians staged uprisings to protest the deception.

In 1974, Kosovo was granted full autonomy within Yugoslavia, putting it almost on a par with Yugoslavia's six republics. By this time, a high Albanian birth rate and serious Serb emmigration had made the Serbs a clear minority within Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians constituted 90 percent of the population, as they still do today.

Slobodan Milosevic

In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic, the then leader of the Serbian Communist Party and present Yugoslav president, gave a speech at Kosovo Polije on the anniversary of the 1389 defeat, saying, "Nobody, either now or in the future, has the right to beat you." To the Serbian mind, the parallels between past and present are clear. The Turkish Ottoman Empire was the superpower of the 14th century. Just as Prince Lazar's knights were no match for the Turkish cavalry, the Yugoslav army has only a fraction of the military power available to NATO. In 1988, a coffin purported to contain Lazar's mummified remains was taken on a triumphal tour around Serbia. Milosevic used this outpouring of emotion to repackage himself as a national leader. On the 600th anniversary of Lazar's defeat, in June 1989, Milosevic was hailed as the reincarnation of the fallen prince at a rally on Kosovo Field attended by more than one million Serbs.

The Last 10 Years

Over the last ten years, the tensions surrounding Kosovo have exploded. In 1989, escalating tensions between Serbs and ethnic Albanians and fear of secession prompted Milosevic to strip Kosovo of its autonomy. The army and police were sent in to keep order. In 1991, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, triggering ethnic fighting between Croats, Muslims, and Serbs. A year later, all-out war broke out in Bosnia. Shortly after, Kosovo's Albanian majority voted to secede from Serbia and Yugoslavia and indicated a desire to merge with Albania. Three years later, in 1995, Serb forces massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims and carried-out "ethnic cleansing" by expelling Muslims and other non-Serbs from areas under Bosnian Serb control. Late that year, President George Bush warned that the United States would use force if the Serbs attacked Kosovo. In December 1995, peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio produced the Dayton Accords, signed by the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. The Dayton agreement confirmed the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Muslim/Croat Federation and the Serb-led Republika Srpska within Bosnia's previously recognized borders. The concerns of the Albanian majority of Kosovo, however, were never on the agenda in Dayton. Some Albanian leaders offer this as proof that violence was the only way to attract the attention of the West, pointing to the Bosnian Serbs who were seemingly rewarded for their program of ethnic cleansing with their own republic. Then, in 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began killing Serb policemen and others who collaborated with the Serbs. The KLA also established areas from which the Serbs were driven entirely.


Finally, in Febuary of 1999, Milosevic sent troops into the areas controlled by the KLA, destroying property and killing 80 Kosovars. The KLA seized control of 40 percent of Kosovo in July and August before being defeated in a Serb offensive. In September, Serb forces attacked central Kosovo, where 22 Albanians were later found massacred. The UN Security Council called for immediate cease-fire and political dialogue. October brought NATO authorized air-strikes against Serb military targets and Milosevic's agreement to withdraw troops, facilitate the return of refugees, and accept unarmed international monitors.


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