Imagine a kaleidoscope in which the pieces of colored glass represent ethnic, religious, national, and geographic groups. Then imagine that for centuries, various conquerors spin the kaleidoscope and recombine the pieces to form new communities, new alliances, and new enemies. That is the essence of the history of the Balkans. The modern result of ever-changing rulers and boundaries are citizens with sometimes uncertain and often complex sets of loyalties.
The state of Yugoslavia, which means union of southern Slavs, was created in the wake of World War II, uniting a diverse group of peoples — Albanians, Bosnians, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs — into one country, nominally allied with the Soviet Union in the eastern bloc. Although the various peoples adhered to different religions and had aligned themselves with opposing factions during the war, they all accepted their inclusion into the union of south Slavs. All of them, that is, except the Albanians.
Unlike the rest of the country’s nationalities, Albanians are not Slavs and never wanted to be a part of Yugoslavia. Rather, they wanted to be part of Albania, the neighboring country that was home to the majority of their brethren. But the land they inhabited, a diamond-shaped region in the south-west of Yugoslavia known as Kosovo, was contested property.
The Serbs viewed Kosovo not only as an integral part of Serbia, but as the cradle of Serbian civilization. The Serbian Orthodox Church was founded in Kosovo, and the Battle of Kosovo Polje — a day that has gone down in Serbian lore as one of the most sacred in the country’s history — was fought there. The Albanians counter that they were in Kosovo centuries before the Serbs, that they helped build the monasteries, and that they fought along side Serbian troops in the Battle of Kosovo Polje.
By the time Yugoslavia was created, the predominantly Muslim Albanians made up the vast majority of Kosovo’s population, but because Kosovo had been incorporated into Yugoslavia, the Christian Serbs were in charge. Intent on quelling Albanian separatism, the Serb rulers implemented an oppressive regime that forbade Albanians from studying in their own language and regularly discriminated against them. After decades of clamoring for self-rule, Kosovo was granted autonomy in 1974 and the Albanians were able to take charge of the province’s schools, banks, police and judiciary.
Soon, however, the Serb minority in Kosovo began complaining that their rights were being violated by the newly-empowered Albanians, who often overlooked Serbs for promotions or failed to punish crimes committed against them. In the late 1980s, as Slobodan Milosevic began his rise to prominence in Yugoslav politics on a wave of Serbian nationalism, he seized on the issue of Albanian discrimination against Serbs and in 1989, he revoked Kosovo’s short-lived autonomy. As part of his larger plan to unify his people in a “Greater Serbia,” he fired Albanians from all state jobs, outlawed the teaching of Albanian in schools, turned the province’s university into a Serb-only institution and shut down Albanian television. When the Albanians protested, Milosevic sent in the army to squash their demonstrations and set up an apartheid state. As Yugoslavia’s other nations fought, Kosovo Albanians waged a pacifist resistance, created a shadow government and set up their own schools and hospitals.
Not long after Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy, the Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union imploded and the communist regimes across the region collapsed. For most of Eastern Europe, the demise of communism resulted in democratic elections and the creation of a free-market economy. But in Yugoslavia, communism’s collapse brought about a nationalist resurgence. Yugoslavia’s various peoples, who had managed to get along with one another so long as they had an authoritarian ruler to keep them in order, began clamoring for independence. The Slovenes, followed by the Croats, then the Bosnians and eventually the Macedonians declared independence and in the early 1990s, the country descended into war.
Fearing themselves powerless against Serb forces, and aware of the destruction and death plaguing the rest of the country, Kosovo Albanians decided not to provoke the Serbian regime, but rather to carry on with their pacifist resistance in the hope that whatever peace agreement would eventually end the wars raging elsewhere in the country would also solve Kosovo’s status. The fighting went on for four years until the United States brokered the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. But although the peace plan put an end to the fighting elsewhere in Yugoslavia, it did not address the trouble in Kosovo.
Kosovo Albanians, disappointed by the international community’s reluctance to address the increasingly intolerable situation, decided to take matters into their own hands. Just weeks after the peace plan was signed, in February 1996, Albanian insurgents acting as part of the Kosovo Liberation Army began attacking Serbian police and military positions. Each time they staged an attack, Serb forces retaliated and by February 1998, Kosovo too had descended into war.
Over the next year, Serbian forces, seeking to put an end to the growing insurgency but showing little regard for civilians, destroyed hundreds of Albanian villages, displacing tens of thousands of Albanians. In an effort to stop the ethnic cleansing campaign, NATO intervened in March 1999, bombing the region for 78 days until Milosevic agreed to pull back his troops.
In June 1999, NATO forces moved into Kosovo and the United Nations took control of the province, but Kosovo’s status — whether it was an independent state or still an integral part of Serbia — was left unanswered. The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was given a mandate to help Kosovo transition to democracy with the idea that while democratic institutions were being created, Kosovo’s status could be resolved. However, today, six years on, little progress has been made and the Albanians are growing increasingly impatient. Some, like those seen in The Brooklyn Connection, say they are willing to fight again…
Stacy Sullivan is the author of Be Not Afraid, For You Have Sons in America. She is currently an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a non-profit organization that trains journalists in countries recovering from war. She covered the Balkans for Newsweek from 1995-97, and her articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Men’s Journal and others. She lives in New York City.