war in europe

hashim thaci

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of hashim thaci
He is a former Kosovar Albanian student leader who helped to found the underground movement that became the KLA. Nicknamed "Snake," he returned from Switzerland in 1998 to fight against the Serbs. At the Rambouillet peace conference, the 30-year-old Thaci garnered international attention as the KLA representative who stubbornly refused to compromise the rebel group's agenda. Since the war, Thaci has served as the prime minister of the KLA's self-styled provisional government.
Can you explain the reason behind the rebellion of Albanians?

Consider the situation that was going on in 1991-1992 in Kosovo, when Milosevic's regime was only deepening the violence towards Albanians in Kosovo, and the national segregation was happening in Kosovo. The Albanians had no prospects or future under those conditions and circumstances. The legal politics of the Albanian legal parties in Kosovo were not dealing with the national issue, but with promoting so-called political pluralism. At that time, people of Kosovo started thinking about armed resistance, so they could free themselves from Serbia.

Which people?

These are the people who today are at the top of the political and military structures of the Kosovo Liberation Movement.

Was it an organization on its own, or was it a combination of two factors--the big Serb pressure--and a militant enthusiasm to put an end to all of what was going on?

Enthusiasm was not a factor, and neither was it only the Milosevic regime. It was simply a necessity to free and democratize Kosovo. Nothing happened accidentally, neither the organization, nor the beginning of the armed struggle.

How was the Kosovo Liberation Army created?

The Kosovo Liberation Army was created in accordance with the already-existing organizational structures of that time. Later, the resistance only got more powerful and stronger, so that it could transform from the peaceful "active" resistance into an armed resistance. Naturally, there were difficulties.

What was the goal of the KLA?

A liberated, independent Kosovo, and naturally, the democratization of Kosovo.

How did you communicate in order to engage the people inside the KLA as you moved towards mobilization?

The organizing of the KLA comes from grassroots organizing. It is an organizing that really had scientific elements, a science that really requires a deep study--not only by Albanians, but also by different experts of military, political, sociological, and psychological institutions. From the beginning, we were legal in the eyes of the Kosovar citizens. The Kosovar citizens were convinced that we are the sons of this people, and for this reason, they supported us, helped us, and gave us shelter and food. That was notwithstanding the political attitude of the legal subjects, which supposed that we are not Kosovars--that we are manipulated, unorganized groups, or that we are organized by Serbian secret service. But the fact that we achieved an understanding from the international community shows to what extent our determination for the liberation was right.

Were there critics or political oppositions during the development of the KLA?

The KLA was never an organization. It was an army, and understandably the citizens of Kosovo respected it as an army. The KLA has passed into important phases. They were at times successful, at times difficult, and sometimes they were really terrible. Still, the stubbornness, the organizing, the strength and the support of the citizens of Kosovo and international community was what influenced the continuance of armed resistance. As far as the opposition is concerned, some people said soon after the offensive of the summer of last year, "We cannot fight against Milosevic, or against the Yugoslav army. We are destroying and burning Kosovo. We should give up arms." That was a line that was determined in Belgrade, and channeled from their people in Pristina.

The massacre of Obrinje was, in fact, the end of the summer offensive of the Yugoslav army on Kosovo and Drenica. In what way did that offensive damage or influence the KLA?

From the moment NATO made the decision to intervene, I believed  this war will be won by the KLA and NATO. This massacre and the quick informing of the international public opinion made a turn in international politics. The international community began to understand even more that there is a war going on in Kosovo. Although it was very clear before, still, this massacre brought people together. It brought a higher level of organization, and made the resistance more powerful. Compared with others, this massacre echoed more. It was terrible; I experienced it myself, because I visited the place. I was four or five kilometers away from the place when the massacre happened.

After the summer offensive, the agreed cease-fire by Holbrooke happens. You never signed that cease-fire. Why not?

That agreement had some positive effect. But still there were leaks in it, because we were not consulted enough about the agreement The Yugoslav side did not want us to sign the agreement. But because we wanted to contribute to a quicker peace in Kosovo, we declared our restraint, a restraint that we respected, although the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement had unclear elements that later were reflected after OSCE arrived here.

Do you think that the fact that you were not considered during this agreement shows the international attitude towards the size and influence of the KLA in that time?

At that time, things were still not defined. The international community didn't have a clear idea of what was going to happen in Kosovo and how will they behave. This was because there wasn't a real unity inside the political and military structures of the international community.

Then came the winter offensive, which started Christmas night 1998, and culminated with the massacre of Racak. Do you think they entered Racak and killed 45 Albanians as revenge for the actions that KLA had taken on the Serbian security forces?

All the Serbian forces in Kosovo were occupying forces in Kosovo. We were continually defending ourselves from the attacks they made in specific regions of Kosovo. In accordance to this, there is the case where we took nine Serb soldiers as hostages in one region. I consider that a turning point, because not only was the international community recognizing the KLA, but so was the Yugoslav government. Eventually, they had to enter negotiations with us to exchange prisoners of war. I think this was a turning point in recognizing that the KLA is a credible force in Kosovo.

But during the Racak massacre, were there a lot of actions?

There were continuous confrontations, and I consider that it was really an organized massacre. It was a massacre that influenced the international public opinion a lot, and it clarified the positioning of the international community about what should they really do in Kosovo.

Were you surprised, in the beginning, with the massive organizing of the Rambouillet conference? Had you thought that maybe it would not be too important?

Speaking honestly, the Rambouillet conference in the beginning did not leave an impression that it is that serious. But still, we were prepared. We presented our opinions concerning what and where should we start. The first weakness of the Rambouillet conference is that our proposal for reaching an agreement between Albanian and Serbian party with the protectorate of the third international party was not respected. We had accurate information.

. . . We presented our proposal for the cease-fire agreement, to be signed first. Then we could discuss the peaceful agreement, because we were convinced that a more aggressive confrontation would happen in Kosovo--and it actually started later.

How did you value the reactions of Washington at that time?

The reactions were such that they were supporting the fact that we must consult with the people in Kosovo. We must consult all the politicians and the citizens of Kosovo, and we must not forget that I had about 20,000 armed people in Kosovo who asked for explanations. I respect the duty I was given, though this did not influence the situations created later.

NATO started the bombing, but it seemed like there was no success to finally end the war. When was the moment that you believed that this might all fail?

From the moment NATO made the decision to intervene, I believed that this was a point of no return, and this war will be won by the KLA and NATO.

How important was the NATO bombing?

Without NATO bombing, the world shame would still have been going on in Kosovo. Even bigger tragedies would be happening here. I'm glad that the world understood. General Clark especially was very determined, and of course he had the international political support, though I consider that we did our important duty on the ground.

Did KLA had continuous contacts with NATO? What about specifications of the targets?

I believe that NATO knew very well the positioning of Serbian troops in Kosovo. Naturally, our contacts were official communications with political structures of international community. The communications were in accordance with the conditions and the reality created in Kosovo.

Did you ever directly contact General Clark, during the bombing?

We talked with people from political structures, but we don't exclude the possibility that we have might have talked with military structures of NATO.

Was there any sort of strategic coordination that you could confirm?

KLA and NATO had the same goal--to get the Serbian troops out of Kosovo. This common objective influenced the strengthening of our ground resistance and NATO bombing. NATO had all the possibilities to find out about the positioning of Serbian military forces in Kosovo.

For a long time, key people, like yourself, in the KLA leadership kept their identities secret. You had fighting names. Why was there a need for such a closed society?

The Serbian Secret Service was very active and very professional in Kosovo. If it wasn't for this secrecy, we wouldn't be successful. We weren't that secretive after 1997, because we had decided to make an open war. So we all were known by name. We waged a legal war, and we were all known for the public opinion.

Robert Gelbard, a state department special envoy for Kosovo, called you terrorists.

That was a personal evaluation, and not a US evaluation.

How did you feel when your activity was called a terrorist activity?

I wasn't too upset. It was a coordination of evaluations from Mr. Rugova, Mr. Gelbard, and from Milosevic. At least, there was a parallel in those evaluations, anyway.

How successful were the Yugoslav Army's attacks against the KLA?

There were successes of Yugoslav Army, but they were relative successes.

In what aspect were they successful?

I cannot speak of "success," because the Yugoslav army offensives were based on killing and massacres of women and children--on complete destruction, looting and burning--and not by confronting the regular forces of the KLA. So that we would protect the civilians, we were often put in a situation to use tactical withdrawal to save them.

Do you think that by attacking civilians, they achieved the goal of making the KLA lose support among its people?

That was the objective-- a complete destruction of civilians, to cause fear and panic and turn citizens of Kosovo against the KLA. On the contrary, this was followed by a continuous growth, and even a more powerful KLA.

How do you value the definitive peace agreement -- KFOR entering Kosovo, and the process of demilitarization of the KLA?

There will be other agreements signed in Kosovo, because it is an open process. We will certainly have an agreement when the process of KLA transformation is complete.

Do you think that it was a high price for the people to pay during the war? Do you think it was worth it?

Well, the people who fight are meant to spill blood. There is no freedom without blood, though we tried maximally to spill as little blood as possible.

Do you think there was another way?

Without war, Serbia would have never left Kosovo.

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