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Center for Balkan
Development

2 CLOCK TOWER PLACE #510
MAYNARD, MA 01754
Tel: 978-461-0909
Fax: 978-461-2552
info@balkandevelopment.org
www.balkandevelopment.org

History of the war in Kosovo
Written April, 1999

Historical Background

The NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia beginning on March 24, 1999 did not occur in a vacuum but rather followed ten years of regional conflict and aggression inspired and orchestrated by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Until 1991, Yugoslavia was one nation comprised of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Serbia was further divided into two autonomous regions; Kosovo and Vojvodina. Each republic and both autonomous provinces in Serbia had a seat on the federal presidency and had a considerable amount of autonomy in local affairs. With one notable exception--Bosnia--each of the republics roughly represents a distinct ethnic group. Today each of the republics of the former Yugoslavia use their own language, but they are all Slavic languages similar to Serbo-Croatian.

(Click here to see information about each republic.)

The Rise to Power of Slobodan Milosevic

Slobodan Milosevic came to power in 1987 with the rise of Serbian nationalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism. He became a hero overnight in Serbia when in 1987 he went to Kosovo to qualm the fears of local Serbs amid a strike by Kosovar Albanian miners that was paralyzing the province. In a famous speech televised throughout Serbia, he told the waiting crowd of angry Serbs, "You will not be beaten again." Few Serbs were either beaten or oppressed in Kosovo (a few incidents were blown way out of proportion), but this did not matter to 8 million Serbs who felt deep historical grievances and welcomed a strong figure, such as Milosevic, who might restore their place in history.

By 1989, Milosevic was firmly in control of the Serbian republic and embarked on a campaign to consolidate his power throughout Yugoslavia. On the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo�where the medieval Serb kingdom was defeated by Ottoman forces�Milosevic presided over a massive rally attended by more than a million Serbs at Kosovo Polje, the exact location of the historic battle fought on June 28, 1389.

One of his first acts following this historic event was to rescind the autonomy enjoyed by Kosovo and institute draconian martial law in the province. Kosovar Albanians were fired from their jobs, their schools were closed, they were denied access to state-run health care, and they lost administrative control of the province. The situation also effectively gave Milosevic additional votes in the federal legislature.

This ushered in a decade of hell for the south Balkans. Milosevic and other Serb ultra-nationalists embarked on a campaign to create a Greater Serbia, unifying under one nation all areas where Serbs lived and driving out all minorities through a genocidal process euphemistically called �ethnic cleansing.�

The Disintegration of Yugoslavia

By 1991, the republics of Yugoslavia began clamoring for independence, inspired partly by watching Milosevic�s grab for power in the federal capital of Belgrade and also by their own historic desires for independence.

Slovenia--the republic closest to central Europe--was the first to go in the summer of 1991. With almost no Serbian minority, Belgrade put up only brief resistance before backing off after a six-day war and allowing Slovenia to secede from the federal structure.

Unfortunately, this was not the case with Croatia. While 79% of the republic was Croatian, 12% was Serb and this group was not ready to become a minority. The Croatian Serbs had legitimate concerns, especially in light of the Croatian leaders using inflammatory nationalist rhetoric. The Serbs of Croatia suffered terribly during WWII, and for every contemporary provocation by the Croat nationalists, the Serbs saw unreconstructed Ustashe (Croatian fascists allied with the Nazi occupiers during WW II).

The Serbs responded in a manner that was to become commonplace during the next eight years. Their response was completely disproportionate to the problem. In Croatia, they declared their own mini-state and began a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Most infamous was the siege of Vukovar, where more than 10,000 civilians were killed and the first major war crime of the ensuing wars was committed. Serb paramilitaries emptied the Vukovar hospital of Croatian patients and executed them in a nearby field.

With a cease-fire negotiated in the fall of 1991 by U.S. diplomat Cyrus Vance, the Serb forces partially pulled out of Croatia and began repositioning their troops and heavy weapons in neighboring Bosnia. While the Serbs refused to abide by the terms of the cease-fire in Croatia and return territory, they simultaneously embarked on the most bitter assault to gain control of Bosnia.

As noted earlier, Bosnia has a sizable (31%) Serb minority with close ties to Belgrade. Milosevic by this time was in firm control of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), the fourth largest military in Europe. He also supported a UN-engineered arms embargo on the region, preventing the newly formed governments of Bosnia and Croatia to procure weapons, while Milosevic had complete control of the arsenals of the former Yugoslavia.

On April 6, 1992, the Bosnian Serbs launched a campaign of aggression against Bosnia with the siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing of the Drina River valley and the Bosnian Krajina (north and northwest parts of the country). The Bosnian government, headed by Alija Izetbegovic, was ill prepared to defend the country with no army and only a poorly equipped territorial defense force.

During the next three and a half years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the support of Milosevic in Belgrade, laid waste to large parts of Bosnia, killing more than 200,000 civilians and forcing half the population, two million people, to flee their homes. Tens of thousands of women were systematically raped. Concentration camps were set up in Prijedor, Omarska, Trnopolje, and other areas. Civilians were shot by snipers on a daily basis in Sarajevo, a city left without heat, electricity, or water.

Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist and poet originally from Montenegro, became president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, with Ratko Mladic as his military commander. Both have since been twice indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for their command role in genocide.

At the height of their power, the Bosnian Serbs controlled more than 70% of Bosnian territory. The failure of the UN to stop the killing in Bosnia seriously compromised its credibility as it neared its 50th anniversary in 1995. The UN already had UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) troops in Sarajevo at the outset of the war because it was their base of operation for the UN mission in Croatia. The UN hoped that their presence would discourage the spread of the conflict to Bosnia. But when Sarajevo came under attack in 1992, the UN forces pulled out to avoid casualties, leaving behind only a small and lightly armed contingent of �peacekeepers.� As the situation deteriorated, the UN struck a deal with the Serbs, allowing them to control the Sarajevo airport. In reality, the Serbs allowed the UN to use the airport under de facto Serb control. During the next three years the airport was the scene of hundreds of casualties. UN humanitarian flights were repeatedly fired upon and Bosnian civilians were killed by sniper fire as they attempted to escape across the tarmac.

Srebrenica

The worst act of the war occurred in the summer of 1995 when the Bosnian town of Srebrenica came under attack by forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. Srebrenica was a UN-declared safe area and guarded by a lightly armed Dutch contingent. This did not deter Mladic, who was intent on taking over the enclave. During a few days in mid-July, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim males were executed by Mladic�s troops. The rest of the town�s women and children were
driven out to nearby Tuzla.

Dayton

With a failed UN mission, the credibility of NATO waning, and facing a retreat of UN peacekeepers, President Clinton took the lead in August 1995 and launched a limited bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb positions. This, coupled with a Croatian offensive against the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, forced Karadzic and Mladic to agree to peace negotiations commencing in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995.

The outcome of Dayton gave the Bosnian Serbs 49% of Bosnian territory and established the Bosnian-Croat Federation to control the remaining 51%. The Bosnian Serbs were also obligated to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal and allow refugees to return to their homes. To this day, they have done neither. While no one criticizes the peace brought by Dayton, many recognize that it is unjust for allowing the Bosnian Serbs to control territory that they took through a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign.

In addition, many commentators criticize the structure of the constitution created by the Dayton Agreement, which cements an ethnic divide. Among other measures, what was once the sovereign state of Bosnia Herzegovina is now divided into two entities, one Serbian and the other Bosnjak (Muslim) and Croatian. A non-functioning federal umbrella is headed by a three-member presidency: Serb, Bosniak and Croatian (people must declare themselves as one of these three groups in order to run for office or vote). The way the

government is structured, any ethnic group can block the workings of another group, often simply by not showing up at the legislature. Given all of these and many other problems, it is little surprise that Bosnia Herzegovina presently does not function as a unitary country and that intragroup tensions continue to run high.

Kosovo

During the long years of war in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, Kosovo remained under the tight control of Milosevic. The Kosovar Albanians responded by setting up a parallel civil adminstration, schools, and healthcare facilities. They also resisted the Milosevic regime with nonviolent, Gandhian
tactics under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova.

All this time, the Kosovar Albanians hoped the international community would recognize their plight and come to their aid. Despite periodic reports by human rights investigators and international diplomats on gross and systematic human rights violations against Kosovar Albanians, the international community did nothing. The final straw for the Kosovar Albanians was Dayton, when the international community had the upper hand with Milosevic yet completely ignored the problem in Kosovo. The Kosovars even attempted to attend Dayton, but were not allowed to leave their plane and were sent back across the Atlantic. This demonstrated to the Kosovars that the international community was not going to come to their support. It also demonstrated that nonviolent tactics were not going to get the world�s attention. Only tremendous human rights abuses as suffered by the Bosnian Muslims would force the world to intervene.

With the situation in Kosovo only getting worse, and tit for tat retaliations by the Serb forces, finally in November 1997, at a funeral for slain Kosovars, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) stood up publicly and asked for support from the Kosovo Albanian community. The response by the crowd was overwhelming support. The familiar Serb response was disproportionate retaliation. If a Serb policeman was shot by the KLA, the Serbs would respond by torching a whole village and killing civilians. The first major massacre occurred in the Drenica region in the spring of 1998 when 51 members of an extended clan were killed by Serb forces in retaliation for a KLA provocation. Again, despite detailed reports of human rights investigators, the international community did nothing other than issue Milosevic an empty warning.

The U.S. has a particularly long history of warning Milosevic over Kosovo. As early as 1992, President Bush had warned Milosevic against a crackdown in Kosovo. Clinton reaffirmed the warning upon assuming the presidency and again at periodic stages during his terms. Throughout 1998 Milosevic increased his troop strength in Kosovo and began a scorched-earth policy of destroying whole villages in his attempt to wipe out the KLA. But for each village destroyed, more KLA members would sprout up in defiance. The Srebrenica of Kosovo occurred in January 1999 when Serb forces killed 41 civilians in the Kosovo village of Racak. While international mediators called it a massacre, Milosevic claimed that the slain villagers were actually KLA terrorists in civilian clothes. International forensic experts were soon to prove this untrue.

Rambouillet

In October 1998, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, using the threat of NATO air strikes, negotiated with Milosevic to allow 2,000 unarmed verifiers into the province under OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe) control to monitor the human rights situation and to attempt to forestall further violence. In the end, they proved no more effective than UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. The violence continued to escalate. Finally a group of nations known as the Contact Group (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia) brought both Kosovo and Serb negotiators together in Rambouillet, France, in March 1999 to agree to a peace plan. The agreement called for the KLA to disarm, for Milosevic to drastically reduce his military presence in Kosovo, for autonomy to be restored to the province, and for a NATO peacekeeping force to be introduced. This was too little for the Kosovars, who wanted guarantees for full independence, and too much for Milosevic, who wanted to maintain complete control of the province and would not consider an outside military force on Serb soil.

While negotiations were going on in Rambouillet, Milosevic continued to pour heavy weapons and troops into Kosovo.

NATO, for its part, threatened to bomb the Serbs if they did not sign, or completely abandon the Kosovars if they did not accept the plan. In a tense standoff, the Kosovars finally said they could not immediately sign the document and needed time to present the plan back in Kosovo. Upon returning to Rambouillet, the Kosovars agreed to sign. Milosevic refused.

The international community pulled all monitors out of Kosovo in late March. This was the green light Milosevic was waiting for and he began preparations for a massive sweep of Kosovo as his forces saturated the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. still hoped that Milosevic would give in. Even as the killing had already begun in Kosovo, Richard Holbrooke made one last, unsuccessful attempt to convince Milosevic to sign, explaining in detail what NATO would do to his military infrastructure if he refused.

NATO Bombing

After years of hollow threats against Milosevic and years of Milosevic destroying much of Bosnia and part of Croatia, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and responsible for escalating human rights abuses in Kosovo, NATO was finally determined to move ahead. While always hoping that Milosevic would finally back down with the credible threat of force, NATO did not posses much credibility at that decisive moment. On March 24 NATO launched an air campaign against Serb military targets in Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

Milosevic�s forces responded by an all-out campaign to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian population, driving hundreds of thousands across the border into Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. Heavily armed Serb paramilitary forces, infamous for their tactics in Croatia and Bosnia, descended on Kosovo. At gunpoint they forced thousands of people from their homes, burning their towns and villages afterward. Many civilians were summarily executed. Most had all their money taken and their documents destroyed. Without any independent journalists and human rights monitors left in the region, it is impossible to tell the full extent of the atrocities though many, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, have called it genocide.

As of April 20, 1999, over a half million refugees have been forced out of Kosovo. NATO is continuing to bomb Serbia while Milosevic is fighting a war against both NATO and the defenseless population of Kosovo. The only possibility to stem the killings and expulsions is the introduction of ground troops, which the U.S. and NATO oppose. Meanwhile, if NATO achieves its objectives of securing the province, Kosovar Albanians would be forced to return to a land run by Milosevic. President Clinton still maintains that Kosovar Albanians should be returned to a Kosovo that would remain part of Serbia or Yugoslavia. Kosovar Albanians want to return but not before they would feel safe. International law expressly prohibits any country from sending refugees back home when they would be in danger. Who could possibly suggest that after all that has happened, Albanians would ever feel safe in a land overseen by Milosevic?

April, 1999

Written by Glenn Ruga with help by Julie Mertus.

Postscript
The war finally ended in June with Milosevic accepting most of the earlier terms of Rambouillet including the pull out of all Serb forces from Kosovo and the entry of NATO troops. There is now no provision for a referendum on the political future of Kosovo. Much of Kosovo had been destroyed as well as important Serbina civilian infrastructure including bridges and oil refineries. Six months after the end of the war, there have been numerous retaliatory attacks and killings of Serbs and Roma by Albanians in Kosovo. Much of rural Kosovo is without adequate shelter, and the country is littered with landmines laid by both sides during the war. To find out more about the current situation, see the links page of the Friends of Bosnia web site.