It was long before I was born, that the violence exercised by the state over its own population began as an introduction to the war in Kosovo. The conflict itself, in its various forms, spans the entire life of my generation. Among the generations of the 80’s and the 90’s, marking of the anniversary of the NATO bombing will once again add more confusion and deepen the ignorance about the campaign and the responsibility of Serbian state for the conflict itself.
Utter the word war among Serbian youth; they will be convinced that you are referring to the NATO bombing, only a few among them will know that the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo preceded it, and more importantly – that there is a connection between these conflicts. An overall impression is that consciousness about the actual reasons these wars and the air campaign that followed took place at all is absent; not to mention awareness on reasons for war in Bosnia or Croatia, as well as awareness about how these events are related to each other. The acting government of Serbia, like many others before, is making an effort to conserve this state of mind, without missing the opportunity to imply that marking of the anniversary of the bombing is just one more token in a series of memorials used to point to the ‘sufferings of the Serbian people.’
It’s spring in Belgrade, on busiest street in the city still stand ruins of Military headquarter building complex destroyed 13 years ago during the NATO air campaign. Location of the complex fit into the notion that still casts shadows over the new generations who recognize it as a part of national and urban decor one should be proud of. Ruins are still there as a reminder that Americans (and Western Europeans) are not our allies, that they have had bombed us in order to take Kosovo away from Serbia.
In Serbian media it became usual to bring together unrelated events (such as the Allied bombing of Belgrade in 1944 and NATO intervention during 1999) with their individually distorted interpretations based on propaganda, and not historical facts, that further produces not only an irritating cacophony, but also consequently ends up in promoting the notion about innocent Serbian people, an irreproachable victim of a centuries-old conspiracy of America and the entire Western world, the Holy See, the Queen of England, and so on and so forth.
What Serbia stubbornly keeps silent about is the circumstances that led to the conflict in Kosovo and the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia. This should not be surprising; having in mind the local public has so little to say about the scale of responsibility the leadership of that period bears for wars in the former Yugoslavia, as well as for disintegration of the country. That is, among other things, due to the fact that the heirs, ideologues, associates and former members of the same leadership, are still politically active, occupying the highest ranking and the most influential public offices. This provides a general framework for creating and maintaining confusion, in which an average citizen is thrown into a vortex of conflicting information and interpretations, from which he returns tired and indifferent, all of which consequently leads to a successful cover-up of war crimes and perpetrators absolved of responsibility.
Hence, there is a veil of silence over the circumstances that led to the all sides are responsible for the wars in Yugoslavia perception constantly interpreted in Serbian media and politics. Once again, a message is sent to the new generations (who are indifferent to politics and don’t remember the wars) – including mine generation as well – that all sides are to be blamed for the ‘wars of the nineties’, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary; that the truth is out there, distant, uncertain and elusive; that history and politics are an abstract realm of life and that everything altogether is too complicated to understand. They also never fail to emphasize validity of the Greater Serbia nationalist politics, as well as the innocence of ‘our side’, through their morbid ‘celebrations’ of anniversaries of the war. Many individuals and groups, with approval from majority of the mainstream media, will not miss an opportunity to show the bombing of Yugoslavia as an unjust and unprovoked aggression against Serbia and ‘all that is Serbian’. The small part of the public, though, that speaks out the truth about the wartime past will remain silenced, sidelined to the margins of society and public sphere, unable to decisively influence the whitewashing and forging of our recent history.
For many years now, Serbian public considered the bombing to be unilateral act of violence, conspiratorial aggression of the Western European countries and the US against Serbia, and an aggression accomplished in order to ‘take Kosovo away from us’. In reality, however, things were a bit different.
Creation of the police state in Kosovo was followed by severe rule of terror, ethnic cleansing and expulsions of ethnic Albanians. It was developed in phases and produced significant abuses of human rights of Kosovo Albanians. What the local public often perceived as the ‘beginning of the end of the Kosovo crisis’, namely the bombing of Yugoslavia, had not been sufficiently observed in the light of events that preceded it and that, in a sense, represented a ground that allowed for Milosevic’s fragmentation of Yugoslavia, as well as immense crimes against civilians, that eventually led to the NATO 1999 air campaign.
At the time Tito died (1981), more than seventy-seven percent of Kosovo population was ethnic Albanian. Concurrently, the Constitution of 1974 was still in effect, an act many Serbian intellectuals reckoned ‘executioner of Serbia’, as it did not allow the authorities, on the one hand, to dominate Yugoslavia, while on the other, the broad decentralization prescribed by it, gave the northern and southern Serbian provinces Vojvodina and Kosovo capacities similar to those claimed by the Yugoslav republics; which led to frustration among political and intellectual elites in Serbia.
Talks about a reform of the Constitution emerged and became louder during 1981. At the same time, students of the University of Pristine (Kosovo’s capital) started a peaceful demonstration, in which demands for ‘Republic of Kosovo’ were brought up for the first time. Protesters demanded equal status for ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia, in terms of recognition of the Albanian nationality, instead of the then effective minority status. The federal government of Yugoslavia (controlled in large part by Serbia at the time) responded by launching an army crackdown on protesters, killing dozens of pupils and students.
In the years that followed, a military rule over Kosovo was being set-up, accompanied by mass arrests and repression against those who were in favor of independence. Simultaneously, members of the Serbian political, intellectual and religious elites revived the Kosovo myth and began spreading hate speech against ethnic Albanians, along with conspiracy theories about ‘genocide against the Serbs in Kosovo’.
Some of the illustrative examples were the 1982 Call for protection of the Serbian people and its holy shrines in Kosovo, mostly signed by clerics, as well as a Petition supported by 2,016 people from Kosovo in 1985. Dobrica Cosic (main Serbian nationalist ideologist, still actively involved in political life of Serbia) also participated in creation of the Petition. The influence Serbian nationalist intellectual elites had culminated one year later, in September 1986, when the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences was published, a document considered to be an ideological foundation, the Holy Scripture of Milosevic’s nationalist policy, with an aim to create an ethnically pure Greater Serbia. In this document, Kosovo Albanians’ demands for equality were interpreted as ‘physical, political, legal and cultural genocide over the Serbian population.’
In April 1987, as an outcome of years of campaigning, Serbs from Kosovo Polje, small town in Kosovo, organized a protest against the ‘Albanian leadership of the province’, as they named it. What followed was a staged conflict with the provincial police, during which Milosevic visited Kosovo and said his famous sentence: No one has the right to beat you and again won the Kosovo Serbs affection. The 8th session of the League of Communists of Serbia takes place later that year, Milosevic’s nationalists prevail, and he actually takes over all the power and authority of the party. Two years proved to be enough time for Milosevic to introduce himself as new leader of the nation, centralize the power and, in early 1989, forcibly abolish Kosovo’s autonomy. A state of emergency was declared in the province, with the army and the police suppressing any resistance, arresting hundreds of people. According to the Human Rights Watch, twenty-four people were killed during protests held by the ethnic Albanians, in late March 1989. Three months later, on June 28th 1989, in the course of a celebration in Gazimestan marking 600 years since the defeat of the Serbian army in the Battle of Kosovo (which makes an important part of the collective memory and national pride), Milosevic holds a fiery speech in which he puts forward notion that in order to achieve the objectives of his policy, even an armed conflict should not be ruled out. (Once again, we’re facing battles. They are not armed, although such cannot be excluded.)
Five months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Two days after deconstruction of the Wall began, citizens of Serbia gave their plebiscite support to Milosevic and elect him the new leader of the nation – he then won eighty-six percent at the republican level, ninety-two in the capital, and ninety-eight percent in the city of Nis (the second largest in Serbia). Shortly after the elections, on November 14th 1989, in an interview he gave to Reuters, Milosevic for the first time launched the Kosovo is the heart of Serbia slogan; the statement remained Serbian nationalists’ motto until the present day.
In the same time, national media continue to spread hysteria, hate speech and agitation against the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo, widely referring to them as separatists, Shqiptar terrorists, molesters and murderers. In July 1990, Milosevic forcibly abolishes the autonomy of Kosovo, while the Kosovo Parliament passes constitutional resolution declaring independence within Yugoslavia. Three days later, Serbia dissolved the Kosovo Parliament and dismissed chief public media editors in Kosovo. At that time, formation of the parallel institutions took place in Kosovo. And then, in 1991, the shadow government of Kosovo, along with the Parliament, held a referendum that lead to declaring Kosovo independence and establishing a set of parallel ruling structures (education, health, taxation, etc.), which were directly opposed to the official institutions under Serbian control.
In the years to come, focus of Milosevic’s policy was on disintegration of Yugoslavia, as well as the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, while at the same time the police state was being maintained in Kosovo. After Belgrade seized the Kosovo institutions, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were laid off from the state institutions, as well as from public companies. Most of the schools that taught in Albanian language were shut down, and the use of their mother tongue by ethnic Albanian pupils and students went deeply underground, to private homes and abandoned buildings where they held private classes. Milosevic fought any form of organization among the Albanians in Kosovo; his police routinely detained, harassed and abused them for years; while the ethnic Albanian political representatives, led by Ibrahim Rugova, offered passive, nonviolent resistance to Serbian authorities, refusing to take part in any of Milosevic’s official political structures.
Until the end of the war in Bosnia, in 1995, the non-violent strategy of resistance gained broader support among ethnic Albanians. During, and especially after the war in Bosnia, they begin to form paramilitary units and take violent actions against the Kosovo Serbs and their representatives, as well as institutions of the Serbian state in Kosovo. In 1996, clashes between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, formed in 1994) and Serbian police and civilians became more and more frequent. The fight between the KLA and Serbian special paramilitary units, that were formed during wars in the former Yugoslavia, escalated in 1998, with the so-called Kosovo war, for which the number of casualties is yet undetermined. Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Center data indicates that during the period 1998-2000 more than 15,000 people were killed or missing in Kosovo.
During 1999, Milosevic in addition to paramilitary strikes conducted an ‘identity erasure’ campaign, systematically destroying personal documents and other proof of citizenship of the ethnic Albanian citizens. The electoral polls, municipal archives and registries have also been deliberately destroyed. Consequently, many of the ethnic Albanians were left without any proof of identity. The killings and mass expulsions, accompanied by robberies and extortion, all committed by the members of Serbian paramilitary units passing through the ethnic Albanian settlements, often leaving them devastated. Serbian security forces pushed the Albanians to dig trenches, bunkers and do other sorts of hard labor, using them as human shields during the conflicts as well. At the time of the NATO campaign, Serbian security forces laid 50,000 land mines in the Kosovo region.
Over 850,000 Albanians were expelled from their homes in the course of 1998 and 1999. The first democratically elected government in Serbia after Milosevic unveiled information about a discovery of a mass grave located near Batajnica (a Serbian capital’s borough) followed by information about four more pits, with around 1,000 slain Kosovo Albanians, brought by Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo and buried in Serbia, in order to cover up crimes against civilians. According to many sources, like Fund for Humanitarian Law and other respected organizations, there may be several more mass graves located somewhere in Serbia, yet their number and location are still unknown. Massive human rights violations conducted by Milosevic regime were the main reason the international community intervened and tried to participate in peaceful resolution of the problem.
Rambouillet, bombing, Kumanovo
In the course of year 1998, the international community, now well experienced in negotiations with Milosevic, tried in many ways to stop the rampage against civilians and the ethnic cleansing that took place in Kosovo which were (in Serbian media) presented as ‘war against the terrorist KLA’. Street protest that took place in Pristine in early March 1998 lead to an outbreak of war in Kosovo. Killing of Albanian and Serbian civilians throughout Kosovo continues in an open conflict between Serbian forces and the KLA, during the same year.
In September 1998, The UN Security Council adopted the Resolution 1199, asking Serbs and Albanians to stop fighting and start negotiations. Parallel to that, NATO reports that the Alliance had prepared its combat capacities and adopted an Act of warning, as an announcement of the air operations that will follow in Kosovo. In October 1998, the announced NATO action became more certain; the US delegation, led by the Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke arrived in Belgrade, in a last effort to convince Milosevic to comply with the Resolution 1199. After several days of intense negotiations, on October 13th 1998, an agreement that delayed the NATO military intervention has been reached. According to the agreement, Milosevic was to withdraw police and special units from Kosovo. Belgrade agreed to allow access for 2,000 civilian OSCE observers, to oversee and verify implementation of the agreement.
Although the US representatives emphasized that the Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement opened up a possibility for some form of autonomy for Kosovo, Milosevic said it was a guarantee of territorial integrity of Serbia and its control over the territory. The Kosovo Albanians expressed doubts that bringing international observers would prevent further conflicts, while Kosovo Prime Minister Ibrahim Rugova asked the NATO to immediately send its troops to the region, since that was considered as the only way for the ethnic Albanians to defend themselves from Serbian special forces. On October the 5th 1998, for the first time after the Second World War, a state of an imminent war danger was declared in Serbia.
During the same month, NATO representatives visited Belgrade in order to have the agreement reached during Milosevic-Holbrooke talks. However, Milosevic never finalized the agreement, but instead tried to avoid implementation of some of its provisions. At the time, negotiations with Holbrooke were discussed at a meeting of Yugoslav Army General Headquarters, where the Chief of Staff Momcilo Perisic publicly stated that the threat of foreign military intervention in Yugoslavia ‘has not been removed’. As the end of the year approached, the Kosovo conflict escalated, and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe Wesley Clark came back to Belgrade, but negotiations with Milosevic had no tangible results.
On 15th of January 1999, forty-five bodies of the ethnic Albanians were found massacred in the village of Racak in Kosovo. Fifteen days later, the NATO Council issued a statement insisting on continuation of the negotiations and stopping violence, while giving the green light to the Secretary General to ’authorize air strikes against targets in Yugoslavia, in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster’. These were the circumstances in which the Serb-Albanian talks started in Rambouillet castle near Paris, in February 1999.
The Contact Group for the Balkans (USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy & Russia) initiated negotiations that lasted for seventeen days. Christopher Hill for the USA, Russia’s Boris Majorski and Wolfgang Petritsch on behalf of the EU were members of The Contact Group. Serbian delegation in Rambouillet consisted of thirteen members, led by the Deputy Prime Minister Ratko Markovic. At the head of the Albanian delegation was Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s current Prime Minister. The Serbian delegation refused direct ‘talks with the terrorists’, so they negotiated in separated rooms, using text messages and talking to the go-betweens. Kosovo delegation didn’t want to sign any agreement that would exclude the right to referendum on self-determination, while Serbian delegation refused to allow foreign troops on the ground as well as any vote on independence of Kosovo. Negotiations resulted in conditional acceptance of the agreement, despite the fact that the parties have not agreed on major issues. Belgrade accepted a broad autonomy for Kosovo only in principle, but explicitly rejected military annex to the agreement, whose application would as Milosevic regime saw it ‘practically mean an occupation and limitation of Yugoslavia’s sovereignty’.
On 15th of March 1999, another round of negotiations on resolving the Kosovo crisis began in Paris, but soon after these talks failed too. Holbrooke came to Belgrade for the last time. This time, his meeting with Milosevic was brief, and right after the talks, Holbrooke himself announced the negative response coming from the Yugoslav side during a press conference that followed. Holbrooke then said that he traveled from Belgrade to Brussels to inform NATO Commander Wesley Clark about what he heard from Milosevic, which meant that the beginning of the NATO bombing was a matter of days. At the end of the press conference, Holbrooke said that ‘his phone is still available and that Belgrade authorities know his number’. A bit earlier in Paris, the Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, Milosevic’s close associate, when asked if Belgrade was aware that rejecting the agreement was leading Yugoslavia to war with NATO, responded: ‘Que sera, sera.’
Two days after Holbrooke left Belgrade, on March 24th 1999, NATO began its campaign in Yugoslavia under the name Operation Allied Force, which regime in Serbia ironically dubbed Angel of Mercy Operation, the name that still intentionally resonates in Serbian media. The bombing lasted for seventy-eight days. During the eleven-week-long state of war in Yugoslavia, Milosevic’s regime also led a media war against the whole world, organizing public meetings, so called meetings of freedom, where he celebrated a ‘victory of innocent Serbian people’. By abusing media sources, he also led a campaign about ‘successes of the Yugoslav army over the NATO forces’. In an effort to further strengthen the support he had among the citizens, and at the same time in an attempt to deceive the international public with the news of ‘mass killings of civilians committed by NATO’, in addition to fierce daily propaganda, Milosevic’s regime sacrificed sixteen employees of the Radio-Television of Serbia (RTS) at the end of April, 1999. According to available information, the official Belgrade was informed that the RTS building would be bombed, but despite that, the building was not evacuated. The victims’ families have been fighting for years to find out the truth about deaths of the RTS employees. There were many other attempts by Milosevic’s regime to attribute its own crimes to the NATO; one example is a mass murder of prisoners in the Dubrava prison in April in 1999, when Kosovo Albanian prisoners were moved to premises announced to be a NATO attack target. Immediately before and during the bombing, the Milosevic continued ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo Albanians, which can be summed up in these three words – expel or kill, in Serbian public known as the Operation Horseshoe.
NATO intervention severely destroyed Serbian infrastructure, the victims have never been listed properly, even though there are estimates which say that more than 9,000 people were killed. This number is added to hundreds of thousands of casualties brought by the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The bombing ended on 9th of June 1999 after the Kumanovo Agreement was reached, that provided for Yugoslav security forces withdrawal from Kosovo, NATO’s deployment in the territory of Kosovo and implementation of UNMIK, the UN civilian mission. Milosevic, however, announced the peace treaty – which was his capitulation that opened the way for Kosovo independence – as a victory for Yugoslavia and himself personally. The next day, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244 which is still in effect.
The next year, Milosevic lost support he has had among citizens of Serbia, and that was a prelude to his final defeat in the presidential elections of 24th September 2000. However, one million eight hundred and twenty thousand citizens of Serbia still voted for Slobodan Milosevic, while Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition candidate, won only six hundred forty thousand votes more. After Milosevic refused to recognize the election results, a wave of protests started through-out Serbia and climaxed in Belgrade on October the 5th 2000. It was then that Milosevic’s rule officially ended after ten years of his dictatorship.
What it left behind, was a shattered Yugoslavia, four wars in ten years, hundreds of thousands of people killed, unknown number of abused and displaced, while, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons, about fourteen thousand people are still missing.
The facts presented in this article are not to be found in Serbian mainstream media. I believed that compiling it in one article could help readership, especially from mine and younger generations, to get familiar with the context that led to NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
These days in mainstream media we will again read and hear that NATO bombing was act of terror conducted by the West, and nobody will ask the crucial question: Why did they bombed us in the first place?; or provide truthful version of the story from which anyone would understand that Milosevic’s politics of ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians were not to be stopped in any other way. Milosevic lost all the wars he led in the region, his politics destroyed hundreds of thousands of people, it was almost foreseeable that war will come back home at some point. We still live the consequences of that politics, partially because we’re not asking above stated and other questions that deal with our own responsibility for horrors from the nineties in former Yugoslavia. Milosevic couldn’t do it without support. Majority of Serbian citizens supported his politics back in the 90’s and decided to believe that the whole world was against us, just like Milosevic’s media hype told them. Do they know what they were supporting? Do they know what price paid citizens of other countries around us in order his politics of Greater Serbia to be realized? Do they really know – why did they bomb him (us)? This article aimed to provide at least part of answer to that question.