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1999 In Review: Mounting Crisis Led To Airstrikes And Exodus

  • Jolyon Naegele

Nineteen ninety nine was the year the growing crisis in the Serbian province of Kosovo finally exploded in violence, destruction and a mass movement of populations. In the second of four features on the year in Kosovo, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back on the spiral of violence and failed attempts to find a negotiated settlement that finally resulted in NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After the eleventh hour peace settlement in October 1998 that allowed tens of thousands of displaced Kosovars to return to their homes and forestalled NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, the international community hoped a more permanent solution could be worked out before warmer Spring weather enabled a return to violence.

But on January 15, Serb forces massacred 45 Albanian inhabitants of the Kosovo village of Racak. The international community was incensed. The Kosovo mission chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), William Walker, laid the blame squarely on Belgrade.

In the wake of the Racak massacre, French President Jacques Chirac and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed to invite the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians for talks at Rambouillet near Paris, with the aim of reaching an agreement on withdrawing Serb forces from Kosovo and a NATO occupation of the province.

The Yugoslav negotiators ruled out any deal allowing NATO forces into the province and recently published copies of their counter-proposals at Rambouillet suggest Belgrade was not seriously interested in reaching an agreement.

The Rambouillet talks recessed until mid-March to enable UCK representatives to consult with their commanders in the field and persuade them to sign on to the plan. But during the talks and the recess, Belgrade proceeded to build up its troop strength in and around Kosovo. An OSCE spokeswoman, Beatrice Lacoste told RFE/RL on March 3 that the Yugoslav military was deploying anti-aircraft artillery in Kosovo in apparent preparation to defend the province against a NATO attack.

"We have a build-up of [Yugoslav] troops and equipment, tanks and anti-aircraft, and it's been ongoing for the last three weeks, particularly near General Jankovic Bridge [just north of the border crossing with Macedonia at Blace] and in a few other areas."

But NATO delayed making any decision on what action to take against Yugoslavia until after the March 15 deadline for Rambouillet participants to reconvene in Paris and sign the deal.

U.S. presidential mediator Richard Holbrooke flew to Belgrade in an attempt to repeat his last minute success of the previous October. Holbrooke spent eight hours in talks with Slobodan Milosevic on March 10 but failed to change the Yugoslav president's mind on permitting NATO troops to be stationed in Kosovo. Holbrooke denied he had failed:

"To call that a complete failure -- if I can be very blunt -- is completely wrong. It was a meeting which was very important, but the importance of it will not be clear until later. Now we move back to the next round of negotiations that take place in France."

When the parties reconvened, the Kosovar Albanians signed the international peace plan for Kosovo but the Yugoslav side refused. Delegation leader, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic was adamant.

"This document is a fake... an Albanian document. They signed the document which they, with their American friends, made even before Rambouillet."

Belgrade rightly presumed that NATO was far from being united or ready to launch a ground war from Macedonia and assumed that any possible airstrikes would be limited.

On March 24, NATO launched airstrikes against Yugoslavia in a bid to force an end to Serb suppression of Kosovo's Albanian majority and to enable a NATO-led occupation of the province that would restore law and order and eventually lead to free elections.

NATO Secretary General Javier Solana announced he had given the order for airstrikes after all efforts at finding a political solution had failed, in his words, "due to the intransigence of the Yugoslav government". Solana said the air strikes would be in his words "directed toward disrupting the violence and attacks being committed by the Serb army and the special police forces".

"NATO is not waging war against Yugoslavia. We have no quarrel with the people of Yugoslavia, a people who for too long have been isolated in Europe because of the policies of their government. Our objective is to prevent more human suffering, more repression, more violence against the civilian population of Kosovo."

Yugoslavia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Vladislav Jovanovic, declared Belgrade would remain defiant.

"Yugoslavia was requested to... accept one impossible condition, which is to surrender its sovereignty to foreign military units and to accept losing a part of its sovereign territory.... after three years. No state which has self respect, no sovereign state, would be ready to accept such a degrading condition for capitulation."

NATO claimed it destroyed some 40 targets the first night. The next day, the alliance's Supreme Commander for Europe, General Wesley Clark, declared in Brussels the attacks would continue until Milosevic agreed to the international peace plan for Kosovo.

"We aim to put his military and security forces at risk. We're going to systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and, ultimately, unless President Milosevic complies with the demands of the international community, we're going to destroy these forces and their facilities and support. The operation will be just as long and difficult as President Milosevic requires it to be."

The airstrikes unleashed a massive wave of violence by Serb forces in Kosovo against the province's ethnic Albanian inhabitants, 800,000 of whom fled to neighboring Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and beyond.

Serb troops routinely burst into Kosovar Albanian homes and ordered the residents to leave within minutes. Refugees were repeatedly robbed by Serb troops on their way to the border. Serbs abducted or killed men of fighting age, and systematically raped women.

The U.S. and Britain estimate Serbs killed some 10,000 civilians in Kosovo during the war. Many refugees who reached the border with Macedonia or Albania were forced to hand over all identity documents and their cars' number plates. Serb soldiers routinely demanded the key's to late model imported cars. Once the Albanian residents of a neighborhood had been largely removed, witnesses say Serb soldiers and civilians proceeded to cart off the contents of the Albanian homes -- furniture, fixtures and books.

A young Kosovar Albanian woman from Mitrovica, Shpresa Pllana, recounted how after police knocked down the door to her home and forced her family to leave at gun point, they walked some 100 kms over two days and one night. After spending two more days at the border with Albania, they were finally allowed to cross. She told RFE/RL the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo came as no surprise.

"I knew from very early on that Milosevic has said repeatedly 'I will clean out Kosovo'".

The international community proved wholly unprepared for the refugees. It took a week before the first tents and sleeping bags were delivered. The first week of the exodus saw vast quantities of Kosovar Albanians forced to wait on the Macedonian border for up to a week -- some in cars, others with no shelter whatsoever from the rain, wind and cold.

Those who ended up in Albania were shocked by the poverty and desolation they found there. They vowed they would go home to Kosovo as soon as it is was safe. A student from Pristina, who said her name was Nebehate:

"My reaction has been it would have been better to die than to leave Kosovo. Until I die, I will never lose my faith, my hopes, because my homeland is Kosovo."

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin accused Milosevic of ordering a state policy of genocide against the Kosovar Albanians.

"We have very clear indicators that genocide is unfolding in Kosovo. We are looking at a mixture of confirmed and unconfirmed reports at this time. But we don't see any need to await confirmation of genocide. Clearly there are crimes against humanity occurring in Kosovo, and our response to this criminal activity by Milosevic's forces is taking place right now."

In the smaller of Yugoslavia's two constituent republics, Montenegro, President Milo Djukanovic accused Milosevic of forcing the mass exodus of Kosovar Albanians in an attempt to de stabilize neighboring governments.

During the entire campaign, as the toll of civilian casualties mounted and the toll of Yugoslav military casualties remained a wild guess at best, NATO leaders felt it necessary repeatedly to justify their actions. President Bill Clinton summed up the international community's stance in early May.

"Kosovo is an affront to everything we stand for. Two months ago there were one point eight million ethnic Albanians living there. Now nearly one and a half million have been forced from their homes, their villages burned, their men often separated from their families and killed."

Uncertainty was growing that NATO air strikes were having the desired effect. Initially, Belgrade appeared to be winning the propaganda war, portraying itself as an innocent victim of outside aggression, spotlighting its own civilian casualties, ignoring its military losses and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians.

Yugoslav attempts to misguide NATO missiles by using decoy targets were succeeding. Not quite as many genuine targets were being destroyed as NATO initially believed. And for the first two months the weather over Yugoslavia was frequently overcast or unsettled, forcing the cancellation of many sorties. But by early May, the arrival of better weather was only a matter of days away and NATO leaders remained confident that once the skies clear they would deliver a punch strong enough to force Milosevic to capitulate to NATO's demands.