It was March 24, 1999. The first bombs were dropped at 8 p.m. and the sirens could be heard everywhere.
NATO's air force began a campaign against military and police targets of what was then Yugoslavia, in an attempt to prevent an ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbia’s then president, Slobodan Milosevic.
Today, 12 years later, emotions are still mixed. For Albanians the anniversary is always regarded as a celebration of hope; among Serbs though, there is anger. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci speaking to RFE/RL today, said: "NATO's intervention in Kosovo was the only solution. It was humane, just, and in support of freedom for Kosovo's people and its efforts for independence."
Bearing in mind the divisions among the ethnic Albanian and Serbian communities, he acknowledges that "reconciliation among them must happen." But in areas inhabited by the Serbian majority, such as the northern part of the country, protests were held today to mark the anniversary, which by some Serbian community leaders is seen as an attempt to break up Serbia and create an "Albanian state."
Krstimir Pantic, a Serbian leader in Mitrovica, a city still ethnically divided between its southern and northern parts, said during today’s protest that "regardless of the attempts, northern Kosovo will not integrate." Since the end of the bombing campaign, northern Kosovo is one of the main challenges facing the new country, which declared independence on February 17, 2008.
International bodies and local authorities overseeing the country's transition have struggled so far to draft a number of strategies for integration of the north, but there have been few results.
The atmosphere is different in central Kosovo, where Serbs have accepted gradual integration. Dragisa Krstovic, a politician from Gracanica, 6 kilometers east of the capital Pristina, acknowledges that the problems in Kosovo were very serious 12 years ago. "But still I think the bombing was not necessary," Krstovic adds.
Kosovar Albanians disagree. Halil Matoshi, an analyst, says the concept of intervention was and is right. "From today's perspective, it can be easily said that the concept of powerful Western states was just. The humanitarian intervention was worth undertaking," Matoshi says.
These conflicting viewpoints are being passed on to the younger generation. In schools where Albanian children attend, history books teach them about a humanitarian operation by NATO to prevent ethnic cleansing. But in Serbian history books the intervention is regarded as "aggression."
Still, there is one point both sides agree on and that's the need for NATO's presence on the ground in accordance with its mission to maintain a “safe and secure environment.”
-- Arbana Vidishiqi