Serbian aim to kill all
Kosovans is nothing new
By Fintan O'Toole
The Irish Times
April 30, 1999
Here is the Catholic archbishop of
Skopje, Macedonia, writing to the Pope about the situation in
Prizren in the neighbouring province of Kosovo: "The city seems like
the Kingdom of Death. They knock on the doors of the Albanian
houses, take away the men, and shoot them immediately.
In a few days the number of men killed reached 400. As for plunder,
looting and rape, all that goes without saying; henceforth ...
everything is permitted against the Albanians - not merely permitted
but willed and commanded."
Or consider the testimony of a Ukrainian newspaper correspondent in
Kosovo. A Serbian officer has told him the worst atrocities are
committed by irregular paramilitary bands.
"Among them were intellectuals, men of ideas, nationalist zealots,
but these were isolated individuals. The rest were just thugs,
robbers who had joined the army for the sake of loot." He concludes
that "the Serbs . . . in their endeavour to correct data in the
ethnographical statistics that are not quite favourable to them, are
engaged quite simply in the extermination of the Muslim population."
These stories could be multiplied many times over from any number of
reports on the situation in Kosovo. But the dates are worth noting.
Both of these accounts, cited by Noel Malcolm in his book Kosovo: A
Short History, were written in 1913. The first, by Archbishop Lazar
Mejda, included an estimate that 25,000 Albanians had by then been
massacred in Kosovo. The second was written by Lev Bronstein,
afterwards known as Leon Trotsky, then an obscure journalist. Though
he had seen much violence already in Russia, he was deeply shocked
by the viciousness of the assault on the general Albanian population
which followed Serbia's invasion and annexation of Kosovo in 1912.
It is worth recalling these events because they put into perspective
what is happening in Kosovo now. It is easy to assume that the
all-out Serbian assault on the Albanian population there is a
response to NATO's bombing campaign. No one reading accounts this
week of the terrible massacre of Albanians at Mej defends what the
Serbs are doing. But many do believe that things would be better
were it not for the bombing, that the Serbs have been somehow
maddened by the air raids. This is to misunderstand the deep-seated
impulse within Serb nationalist ideology towards the extermination
of the Kosovans.
It's important, when such impulses are discussed, that we make
certain things clear. One is that what is going on is not an
inevitable working-out of immemorial animosities, some pathological
aberration bred in the Balkan bone. On the contrary, what we are
talking about is something quite recent, a 20th-century response to
And it must be stressed that all of this has no more to do with the
Serb character than, say, the Omagh bombing is an expression of the
Irish character. It's about a specific political ideology, developed
in very particular circumstances over the last century and exploited
for very particular political purposes over the last 15 years by
Slobodan Milosevic and those around him.
An analogy with Nazism is useful. There was, even in the 19th
century, a strong strain of anti-Semitism in Germany. It was what
historians call "eliminationist", geared towards the physical
removal of the Jews from Germany. But in conditions of crisis, and
under the ideological direction of Hitler and his party, it became "exterminist".
The same kind of movement is evident in the dominant strain of Serb
nationalism. A desire to get the Albanians out of Kosovo has
slipped, in conditions of crisis and ideological exploitation, into
a desire to eliminate the Kosovans altogether.
These genocidal tendencies are not a product of NATO's bombing
campaign. They were evident in 1912 and 1913, when Serbia first
invaded Kosovo. They were implicit in the policy, after the
formation of Yugoslavia, of denying the very existence of the
Kosovans: the Yugoslav government told the League of Nations in 1929
that "there are no national minorities" in what it called "Southern
Serbia". They were evident in the fierce suppression of the language
and culture of the Kosovans and the assassination of their
intellectuals and writers.
The aim, essentially, was to push the Kosovans into exile by making
their lives unbearable. In 1937, for example, the leading Serb
historian Vaso Cubrilovic wrote: "At a time when Germany can expel
tens of thousands of Jews . . . the shifting of a few hundred
thousand Albanians will not lead to the outbreak of a world war". He
recommended a series of measures: the enforcement of laws to make
economic activity by Albanians impossible, the "ill-treatment of
their clergy, the destruction of their cemeteries", and "secretly
burning down their villages and city quarters". All of these
measures were adopted.
This strain of Serb nationalism was largely buried during the Tito
years, but reemerged after the collapse of the Communist regime.
After Milosevic came to power, on the back of his promises to
"defend" the Serbs of Kosovo, Kosovo's autonomy was withdrawn and a
systematic oppression of the Kosovans was resumed. This was not
oppression for its own sake. It was aimed at the actual removal of
Arkan, the notorious gangster and war criminal, who was elected to
the Serbian assembly as a "representative" of Kosovo in elections
boycotted by the Albanian population, made this quite clear. Most of
the Kosovans, he explained, had come in from Albania in the last 50
years and they ought to be regarded as "tourists".
This claim is, of course, utterly ludicrous, even by the standards
of Serb nationalist rhetoric. But it's not meant as a rational
argument. It is an implicit demand for the mass expulsion of the
vast majority of the population of Kosovo. Tourists, after all, go
"home", in this case presumably to Albania.
All of this predates NATO's involvement. None of it was a response
to any action by the international community or, indeed, by the
Kosovans themselves who persistently sought peaceful solutions. It
has no more to do with foreign interference than Hitler's assault on
the Jews had. It was axiomatic for the dominant strain of Serb
nationalism that, sooner or later, one way or the other, the
Kosovans were to be eliminated. Their obliteration was fundamental
to the whole Serb project as envisaged by Milosevic and his allies.
The achievement of this aim was a matter of timing and tactics, not
Because of this, the international community was wrong to assume
that Milosevic would give up Kosovo after a little huffing and
puffing, and wrong not to anticipate that bombing would encourage
him to intensify the assault on the Kosovans. But justified
criticism of NATO should not blind us to the truth that a European
government was planning genocide against a European people. Unless
we can face that reality and articulate a genuine response to it,
those of us who are unhappy about the conduct of NATO's war are
taking refuge in comfortable evasions.