The Bad Blood of Kosovo
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The old Montenegrins, tall as their mountains, their rocky faces ravaged by an unforgiving weather define "osveta" thus:
"Osveta, that means . . . a kind of spiritual fulfilment.
You have killed my son, so I killed yours; I have
taken revenge for that, so I now sit peacefully in my chair."
Milovan Djilas, who helped Tito become Tito and then was imprisoned for trying to be Djilas wrote in his book "Land Without Justice" (Harcourt, Brace 1958):
"Vengeance - this a breath of life one shares from the
cradle with one's fellow clansmen, in both good fortune and bad, vengeance
from eternity. Vengeance was the debt we paid for the love and sacrifice
our forebears and fellow clansmen bore for us. It was the defence of our
honour and good name, and the guarantee of our maidens. I t was our
pride before others; our blood was not water that anyone could spill. It
was, moreover, our pastures and springs - more beautiful than anyone else's
- our family
feasts and births. It was the glow in our eyes, the flame in our cheeks, the pounding in our temples, the word that turned to stone in our throats on our hearing that our blood had been shed.
It was the sacred task transmitted in the hour of death to those who had just been conceived in our blood. It was centuries of manly pride and heroism, survival, a mother's milk and a sister's vow, bereaved parents and children in black, joy and songs turned into silence and wailing. It was all, all."
And this is what Margaret Durham had to say in her celebrated ethnography of Albania, a long time ago ("Some Tribal Origins of Laws and Customs of the Balkans" - Allan and Unwin, 1928):
"A certain family had long been notorious for evil-doing
- robbing, shooting, and being a pest to the tribe. A gathering of
all the heads condemned all the males of the family to death.
Men were appointed to lay in wait for them on a certain day and pick them off; and on that day the whole seventeen of them were shot. One was but five and another but twelve years old. I protested against thus killing children who must be innocent and was told: 'It was bad blood and must not be further propagated.' Such was the belief in heredity that it was proposed to kill an unfortunate woman who was pregnant, lest she should bear a male and so renew the evil."
In the second century BC, Kosovo was populated by people with picturesque names: the Iliyrians, Thracians, the Celts. The whole area was under Roman rule and was subjected to the industriousness and meticulousness of Empire. Roads were paved, cities built, populations moved and commerce flourished. This lasted two hundreds years. Slav tribes descended from the Carpathian mountains and ended it in orgies of blood and fire. Until this very day, serious Greek politicians invoke this primordial invasion in their effort to convince an incredulous world that the (current) Macedonians are not the (True) Macedonians. "They are the off spring of invading Slavs" - they claim, passionately, as is the habit in the Balkans. It took another two centuries and a Byzantine brief occupation to force the reluctant Slavs to settle along the Sava river and to form the poor semblance of a civilization in the making. Roving "saints" of fervent disposition taught them a new alphabet. Cyril and Methodius were succeeded by disciples all over Central and Eastern Europe - from the period of Kliment Ohridski in today's territories of Macedonia and Bulgaria to Amos Comenius, the 17th century educator, considered in the Balkans to be their spiritual descendant in the Czech Lands.
This ability to cast their myths in paper in the vernacular, to hand the national memory down the generations, the new found Christian religion - all coagulated into an emergingly distinct culture. Come the 12th century, Kosovo was entirely Slav.
Or, to be more precise: entirely Serb. The Slavs fractured into three groups. The Croats and Slovenes, baptized by Rome, became ardent Roman Catholics. The Serbs - introduced to the faith by Byzantium - remained Eastern Orthodox. This division was to last a thousand years as the Croats and the Slovenes came under the influence and rule of the Catholic Habsburgs while the Serbs were subjected to the crumbling Ottoman chaos. Geography mirrored a tormented topography of mentalities, religious persuasions and political affiliations. The Serbs occupied today's Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia Herzegovina. The Croats and Slovenes occupied the rest of latter day Yugoslavia. The Tito generated unity of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was but a brief and false note. It could not have lasted - and, indeed, it hasn't.
The Serbs established a principality in Kosovo - the nucleus of what later came to be known as the Serbian Golden Age. It was situated in the rustic but magnificent valley of Ibar and controlled most of the Sandzak. Gradually, the whole of hitherto empty Kosovo became theirs and they felt sufficiently at home to form a Serbian Orthodox Church with its seat in Raska, just north of Kosovo. It took 19 years (1200-1219) to complete this feat of independence and all this time Kosovo was fought over by Serbs, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romans and Byzantines. Hundreds of years of strife, veiled conspiracies, invasions and rotting corpses in sun drenched battlefields.
To the Serbs it was a Golden Age. Under the Nemanje dynasty, luck struck thrice in the figures of kings Stephen (1169-89), Milutin (1281-1321) and Dusan (1331-55). Workers were brought in from Transylvania to mine the wealth of the land. Ever more prosperous, Kosovo became the throbbing heart of Serbland. The splendid royal court, ravishing in gold and red, radiated power north of Kosovo and unto today's Slovenia, upto the Adriatic Sea, making Pec the new seat of the Serbian Orthodox church. When Dusan died, history held its breath, the nation poised precariously on a precipice of internecine conflict. But the stability was fake. The question of inheritance, translated into the currency of power plays, tore the land apart. The Turks were there to pick up the pieces in the masochistically celebrated battle of Kosovo Polje in June 28th 1389. But not for another 70 years did they exert real control over this newly gained territory - so powerful and ferocious were their Serb adversaries even in their decline. Besieged by Mongols from the east, the Turks, already the sick man, retreated and left the Serbs to their own self-destructive devices.
All this time, there are no Albanians in the historiography of this cursed land. It is, therefore, almost startling to find them there, sufficiently armed and organized t oppose the ... Turks!
Having dealt the Mongols some mortal blows, the Turkish beast shifted its attention to another bruise in its by now writhing body, to Kosovo. The Turkish armies conquered Prizren, driving before them the dilapidated and depleted Serb forces. It was an Albanian king, Skanderberg, who rebelled against them there. Albanians then were Catholics (as many of them are to this very day), their war against their future allies, a holy war. This was in 1459 and only 250 years later did the Turks embark upon a policy of actively encouraging the (by now Muslim) Albanians to emigrate to Kosovo - not before the Serbs were expelled following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1690.
This Turkish propensity was nothing extraordinary. Empires throughout history settled "loyal" populations where they displaced restive ones. But in Kosovo a confluence of fault lines led to especially bitter sediments which went on to poison the waters of co-existence for centuries to come. Converted Moslem Albanians versus Christian Serbs; Albanian collaborators and traitors (as perceived by the Serbs) versus Serb mythical heroes (again as perceived by the Serbs); a nation of the ascendance versus a nation dispersed and the last European defence line against Islam traitorously compromised by fellow Christians and Christian kingdoms. Serbs fleeing from Kosovo, from Serbia itself, from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia - moved due north, to refugee camps set up by the Habsburg empire. Serbs settled in Vojvodina and Krajina, thus sowing the seeds of 20th century conflicts with Croatia and Hungary. And all this time they carried with them a baggage of hatred and revenge, a lethal, bloodied promise to be back and to exact the price of betrayal from the Albanians. In 1737 they established a Serbian homeland in Vojvodina. In 1738 they rebelled, again to be defeated in the scene of their national trauma, in Kosovo Polje. Another wave of immigrants followed and another wave of Albanians took over their abandoned property in Metohija. The Turks abolished the seat of the Serb church in Pec in 1766. It seemed that the Serb nation has been all but eradicated.
But this was not to be. In one of the more magnificent sleights of hand that history is so famous for - the Russians forced the beaten Ottoman empire to grant the Serbs an autonomy. It was nothing like the hallowed past sovereignty and glory of the Dusan court but it was a step that rekindled nationalistic sentiments in the most humble and humbled Serb throughout the land. This flame has since never been extinguished and it is at the blazing heart of the Milosevic Yugoslav Wars of Inheritance. That - and the belief that history is cyclical and that there is always hope.
Kosovo was by now entirely "Alabanized". Pristina was the hub of transport and the seat of the administration. Names of places which resounded both in the 14th century and at the close of the 20th recur. In Prizren in 1878 the Albanians established their first national movement. There they came of age. The infancy of Serbhood and the adulthood of Albanianism clashed in the same region, the prelude to the tragedy of 1999.
Under the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, Serbia became de jure an independent country. Its anguished delegation, eager and paranoid, gave up Kosovo in dealings behind the gilded scenes. It was a tactical move which the Serbs reversed in the First Balkan War (1912) - when they regained Kosovo - and in the Second Balkan War (1913) when they regained Macedonia. In these bloody rehearsals of the World Wars, the Serbs succeeded to redefine the borders - but also to give birth to Albania. It is an irony of history that Serb bellicosity and nationalistic dreams gave rise to the modern Albanian state. But then this IS the nature of the Balkans - a hazy nightmare in which enemies give birth to one another. An intricate commerce of Christian death and resurrection, the gifts of death and life exchanged among Gregorian chants and the prayer cries of Muezzins. In 1926 the Serbs and the Albanians drew the border line between their sovereign states. It was a bad invention, this line of demarcation. It separated close to 600,000 Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia from Albania proper. The disgruntled populace did not engage in acts of terror or in gestures of nationalistic indignation. Instead, they emigrated to Albania and to Turkey - tens of thousands of Albanians, perhaps as many as three hundred thousand, or half the population. And the Serbs came in their stead. The wheel has been reversed, or so it seemed.
Nothing in the Balkans is what it seems to be. Every surface is teeming underneath with hidden meanings, obscure interpretations and exegetic excesses. They who are up go down, bringing in their wake, through the sheer force of their own fall - the rise of their adversaries. Delicate laws of conservation preserve all grudges balanced, all the accounts settled and all agony equally distributed. It is an entropy of history itself, slowly decaying into chaotic repetition.
And thus when Italy conquered Kosovo (it, with Ethiopia being the only thing it ever conquered) - it gave it to Albania. Germany which dominated Yugoslavia, consented. For a brief four years, the Albanian nation was completely united, territorially, at least.
But this did not last long. After the war, Yugoslavia re-acquired Kosovo and the communist regime embarked on a Turkish-like brutal suppression of the Albanian population. For twenty one years, secret units of the police hunted, executed and mutilated free spirited Albanians all over Kosovo. In more ways than one, Albanians were the first true dissidents in all the communist bloc. How ironic, if one recalls the Albanian Enver Hoxa, the leader of next door Albania and the fiercest of all communist leaders. In 1968 Albanian students joined their colleagues the world over and demonstrated against Serb repression. These particular outbursts were easily squashed but in 1974 Kosovo was made an autonomous province of Yugoslavia by constitutional reforms. School instruction in Albanian was legalized. During all this period, Serbs - especially battle hardened war veterans - were economically encouraged to migrate to Kosovo. Albanians were encourage to go the other way and many did. About 200,000 Albanians left between the years 1954-7 alone!!!
By now, these human waves and military tramplings left Kosovo dilapidated to the core, a backwater both economically and culturally. People left Kosovo in this period because it offered no present work and no future prospects. One hundred thousand Serbs left between 1961-87. Much later many would claim that they were harassed by the Albanian majority but this sounds fake, a re-writing of history. Albanians left as well. Everyone who had a choice, chose to leave impoverished Kosovo.
Then Tito died and nothing was the same. The 1981 riots in Kosovo led to the imposition of martial law. as students from Pristina University rampaged in the streets, the government sealed Kosovo off, sent in the militia to restore order (which it did with vehement cruelty and bestiality) and closed down educational institutions. Pristina University was always a hotbed of nationalism - witness its Maoist-Marxist graduate, the head of the KLA and the self-appointed Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci. But that particular spring was exceptional. Public disorder was coupled with grave acts of economic sabotage. The students demanded an end to discrimination and certain freedoms but really they demanded jobs commensurate with their training, jobs, which they believed went to the Serbs.
Five years later, an hitherto obscure communist leader (he was just elected Serbia's party secretary) visited Kosovo. In a chance encounter with angry Serb mobs in the streets of Pristina he accused the Albanians of genocide. "No one should do this to you" - he said, grim faced, visibly shaken, cunningly calculating.
His name was Milosevic.