History of the war in Kosovo
Written April, 1999
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
Written by Glenn Ruga with help by Julie Mertus.
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.