In 1912, when Serbia and its allies headed off to the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire, it did so with two publicly stated war goals. Back then states went to war with honor, by declaring why they were going off to war on the front pages of the newspapers. The first war goal was expansion to the south, to Kosovo and Macedonia, and the other equally important goal was to getting exit to the Adriatic Sea through northern Albania.
At the time there was an obsession in Serbia with the idea that a state cannot survive without access to the sea. It was constantly repeated that only Switzerland and Serbia have no sea. It was clear that there was going to be a major conflict around Salonica and that this route should not be taken and, the wise leadership came to the conclusion that we can somehow get access to the sea through northern Albania. Reading the opposition reactions in the Assembly and the press of the day is still horrific, because those in the opposition were clutching their heads in disbelief, saying – ‘are you crazy? The route from Serbia to the Adriatic Sea leads through the Prokletije mountains. How do you imagine regularly going to that sea through the Prokletije. Secondly, have you ever read anything about northern Albania? You’ve got sandy beaches and the sea is 12 inches deep. How are you going to build a port from which your export is going to reach the world ?’ –which apparently was the original idea. Naturally, today we know what happened; that Tito built a railroad in the 1970’s with all the loans in the world, although not through the Prokletije, but through much lower mountains, with gradual ridges. That was the Belgrade-Bar railroad which is now defunct, because no one was doing maintenance on it. But no, they were going to build a port in that sand and they would get there somehow, it wasn’t clear how, but Serbia would a sea exit and that’s that.
The Serbian army really got through there quickly and liberated or conquered Kosovo and then a part of the Serbian army went off to liberate this coast. It is important to keep in perspective that the first intervention occurred in November 1912. Part of the troops continued toward Macedonia where the Battle of Kumanovo and the rest took place, and another part of the troops, again in November 1912 crossed the Prokletije trying to get a sea exit for Serbia. They arrived on the coast in Durrës. The world powers were in shock, they couldn’t believe what was happening. They said : ‘hold on, chums. First we told you not to bring down the Ottoman Empire, it was a question of balance of power, we made arrangements, but you still went ahead with it. Now you reached the sea and we explained to you that it is a sphere of influence of Austria-Hungary and Italy, we divided it up and you’re not a player in this situation. These people are standing on the coast and repeating – Serbia has access to the sea. The Austo-Hungarian newspapers run a declaration of war on Serbia, the Empire introduces one of the first major conscriptions, drafting some 200.000 people, bringing them to the banks of the Drina and saying to Serbia – ‘Pull back from that sea, no arrangements were made for you in this situation, we are going to declare war on you, get away from there.’ They sat on that coast for some twenty days. Russia and everyone else told them – ‘Get away from that sea.’ And after twenty days, it was already late November, early December, they pulled back over the Prokletije back to Serbia. So they’re sitting there, being nervous about this sea business, when a brotherly call arrives. All this time while they were parading up and down the Prokletije, the Montenegrins were trying to conquer Shkodër, because , I guess, it’s epic poetry – bolani Dojčin and his lot – and Shkodër somehow had to fall to Montenegro, so that was their war goal. The siege of Shkodër was not going well, and at a moment of particular exhaustion they turned to the Serbian army for help.
The Serbian side saw this as a new chance get to the sea. So in February 1913 they crossed the same path across Prokletije. All sorts of things had been happening in the meantime. The astounded Albanians were wondering what was going on, every now and again an army passes through, here and there someone attacks the army because they don’t understand what they are doing here, the army responds, there are crimes against civilians, and so on. All sorts of things were going on, not to mention how the army felt about having to set out again in February, after having got home the previous November. Each time half of the soldiers are lost just going one way across the mountains. So they arrived at Shkodër, the siege went on for a little while longer, but strengthened by the Serbian troops the Montenegrins entered Shkodër victoriously, following which all manner of war crimes took place there.
The great powers were quite shocked: ‘We told you three months ago that this will not do. In December 1912 Albania was recognized as an independent state, precisely in order to show that this was the end of the road. Secondly, we are telling you again, this is simply the interest of the European powers – regardless of the fact that we are momentarily divided into two camps – but we have strategic agreements that do not include you being here.” A conference of the great powers’ ambassadors was convened, which sent a protest note to Serbia and Montenegro demanding their prompt withdrawal. Serbia was now somewhat wiser than Montenegro, and soon retreated once again across Prokletije – in, I repeat, February. The Montenegrins remained for another ten days in Shkodër; but after the great powers imposed a sea blockade and said they would let their naval guns have a proper go at Montenegro, they too withdrew from Shkodër, thus ending the Shkodër crisis of 1913.
But this was not the end. A Second Balkan War took place in the summer of 1913. Before we had February 1913, now we have summer 1913. We went to war against the Bulgarians, another 20 -30,000 lives were lost, and so on. Then in September 1913 some troops from Albania entered the territory of Macedonia, which was now Serbian. A border incident turned sour, Serbian troops set off to defend their territory and, once in the Prokletije Mountains, found themselves unable to resist. It simply beckoned them! And so for the third time, in September 1913, they once again got to the sea, and the whole thing played itself out once more, with the great powers clutching their heads, and the Serbs again retreating across Prokletije.
There is another episode for which I cannot find proper sources. It certainly happened, but I do not have the kind of details I have for the previous three episodes. This event took place in January 1915. This was after the battle of Kolubara, which went on for almost a month. You know the epic created around it, and the extent of the casualties, which were real enough. This was a time when people were dying massively of typhus. So Serbia was in a catastrophic state, having just liberated itself from the first occupation. But they reckoned that the Kolubara battle had given them such prestige among the Allies that they could try again, in January 1915, in the midst of war, to have another go. And, of course, it all ended just like the previous episodes.
Translated by Ivica Pavlović
Pescanik, Radio B92, 03 07.2008.