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1999 In Review: Dramatic Events Led Up To 1999

  • 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 this first of four features on the year in Kosovo, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele explores the precursors to the dramatic events of 1999 which, while not inevitable, were forecast years in advance.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo is where then communist party official Slobodan Milosevic first played the nationalist card in the late 1980's. In May, 1987, speaking to a crowd of Kosovar Serbs protesting over a beating by local Albanian police, Milosevic pledged that "no one will ever beat you again".

Twelve years later, following Yugoslav President Milosevic's capitulation to NATO, panic-stricken Serbs fled en masse from the province, just the latest exodus in six centuries of Serb flight from Kosovo. These Kosovo Serbs were not beaten but afraid of retribution by Kosovar Albanians for a decade of martial law and 16 months of violent suppression of the province's Albanian majority by the Belgrade regime.

The refrain of a wartime Albanian pop song celebrates the Kosovo Liberation Army, the UCK:

Gjakova greets the UCK,

Prishtina greets the UCK,

Gjilan greets the UCK,

All Drenica is talking about the UCK,

UCK from hill to hill,

The UCK is shedding blood.

In the days and weeks after Milosevic capitulated and NATO ended its 78-day aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia, this song blared across market places and bazaars throughout Kosovo, an audible warning to all Serbs that what they had called the cradle of Serb civilization for generations was Serb land no more.

The roots of this latest exodus goes back to the rise of Serb nationalism in the 1980s, which Milosevic seized on as a vehicle to power. In early 1989, Serb authorities repealed Kosovo's autonomous status and renewed Belgrade's century old on-again off-again policy of colonizing Kosovo with Serb and Montenegrin settlers. In Serb eyes, the end of autonomy meant Albanians were no longer the nearly 90 percent majority of Kosovo's population of almost two million, but merely a small minority in a much larger Serbia.

The sentiment is expressed in a Serbian nationalist song, sung for generations. The words go like this:

Who says, who is lying that Serbia is small?

It's not small, it's big.

It fought three wars!

The song blared from loudspeakers at Serbian nationalist rallies during the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the biggest rally the Balkans has ever witnessed on June 28, 1989. On that day, Saint Vitus Day, between one and two million Serbs converged on the battlefield outside of Pristina where 600 years earlier the Ottoman Turkish army defeated a Serb-led Christian army, heralding more than five centuries of Turkish Muslim domination of the west Balkans.

Milosevic addressed the massive crowd more than a decade ago, emphasizing the imperative of Serbian unity and warning that more battles might be in store.

"The heroism of Kosovo has been inspiring our creativity for six centuries and feeding our pride and does not allow us to forget that we were once a large, brave and proud army which remained undefeated (cheers). Today, six centuries later, we are engaged in battles and stand before battles, not armed battles, although such things cannot yet be excluded."

While Milosevic claimed the chief battle was to bring prosperity to Serbia, the large number of tanks and armored vehicles that ringed the Serb crowd that day offered quite a different message. Milosevic trusted neither Kosovo's Albanian majority who remained at home that day nor the Serbs attending the ceremony.

Milosevic proceeded to subject Kosovo to a substantial buildup of military and special police forces and instituted de facto martial law. Many elementary schools were segregated while secondary schools for Albanians were shut down. Virtually all Albanians working for the state or in state-owned enterprises were fired.

Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the Yugoslav federation in June 1991 and the following Spring, Bosnia descended into three and a half years of violence in which some 200,000 people were killed and some 1.5 million made homeless.

The new democratic leadership of President Sali Berisha in neighboring Albania became convinced that once the fighting ended in Bosnia and Croatia, Milosevic would turn his attention back to Kosovo for a final solution. Albanian political, military, health and civil defense officials told visiting reporters in March, 1993, that they expected that sooner or later Milosevic would resort to expelling ethnic Albanians from Kosovo en masse into Albania.

During the NATO strikes last May, Berisha, now an opposition leader in Tirana, reiterated to RFE/RL his belief that Belgrade's Operation Horseshoe, to expel a sizable part of Kosovo's Albanian population, was predictable.

"I was not surprised. I didn't know the name of 'shoe horse operation' (sic), but I was very convinced that Milosevic, on behalf of Serbian ultra-nationalism with huge military arsenal which he assembled and inherited from ex-Yugoslav federation, is going to deploy this phase. At that time I said it would be phase three of the war in the Balkans."

Berisha notes that he repeatedly called on NATO six years ago to bomb Milosevic's military machine, because in Berisha's words, he was already using it to kill unarmed nations in this region".

Despite the Milosevic regime's oppressive policies in Kosovo throughout the 1990's, which included murders and abductions largely directed at the general populace, particularly in the countryside, Kosovo's Albanian population established a civil society of its own. Parallel to official structures, it was led by the moderate Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Throughout the 1990's Rugova faced pressure from more radical Kosovar Albanians who argued that pacifism was leading nowhere, that negotiating with Milosevic led only to unfulfilled promises.

A leftist Pristina student, Hashim Thaci, is believed to have founded the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) as early as 1993. But the movement remained shrouded in secrecy until two years ago when it began claiming credit for attacks on Serbian police officers and Kosovar Albanians whom the UCK suspected of collaborating with the Milosevic regime.

The die was cast for Milosevic's bid to cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian majority at the Dayton peace talks in late 1995. The international community failed to overcome Milosevic's intransigent stand that Kosovo was Serbia's internal matter and non-negotiable. The international community accepted Milosevic as a "peacemaker" who enabled the Dayton agreement, effectively confirming the results of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia.

Despite repeated assurances by Milosevic that he wanted to find a mutually acceptable solution with the Kosovar Albanians, his actions spoke louder than words. He broke promises to reopen Albanian schools and in early 1998, in response to the growth in UCK activity in Kosovo's central Drenica region, Belgrade deployed special forces backed by tanks and helicopters. On February 28, 1998, Serb forces killed 29 Albanians in the village of Qirez and several days later killed 58 more Albanians, mainly women, children and the elderly, in two other Drenica villages. Among the dead were UCK co-founder, Adem Jashari, and his family.

A spiral of violence had begun that would gradually force the international community to do more than merely look on and protest the violations of basic civil rights.

The UCK launched a rebellion in Drenica and the Dukagjin district to the west. Serb forces surrounded and destroyed village after village, sending surviving residents fleeing to the cities or to neighboring Albania.

The international community responded with the threat of possible NATO air strikes. U.S. presidential mediator Richard Holbrooke repeatedly visited Belgrade for talks with Milosevic and finally reached agreement in October of last year. Just before the onslaught of winter weather the Holbrooke-Milosevic deal enabled some 75,000 displaced Kosovar Albanians to return to their homes, many of which Serb forces had torched. The deal enabled the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to establish a verifying mission in Kosovo (KVM). But KVM was slow in deploying and faced constant harassment by Serb forces.

The chief of the UN mission, U.S. Ambassador William Walker, arrived in Pristina on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1998, to plan the start-up of a 2,000-strong mission to verify the Milosevic/Holbrooke peace deal. But rather than marking the end of a conflict, it would be prove to be the beginning of the conflict's culmination.