Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



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 20th-century conditions.

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 the Albanians.

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 of principle.

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.


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