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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo

  

 

Kosovo, 1941-1945


On March 27,1941, Yugoslav army officers (Serbs) overthrew the government that had signed the Tri-Partite Pact. In early April German and Italian forces attacked Yugoslavia, and following the quick collapse of military resistance, dismembered the country. Italy, which had taken over Albania in 1939 occupied large parts of the Adriatic littoral, and assisted Albanians in taking over Kosovo and adjoining regions. An Axis satellite, the so-called Independent State of Croatia, was set up under the Italian-sponsored Ustashi movement. Two Balkan members of the TriPartite Pact (Hungary and Bulgaria) were given parcels of Yugoslav territory. What was left of Serbia came under outright German occupation, ruled with an iron fist by the military commander. After twenty years of its existence, the state for whose creation the Serbs had made unbelieveable sacrifices was torn asunder.

Ironically, occupied Serbia overnight became a haven for Serbs from other areas. They were being killed or in other ways persecuted by the Ustashi in Croatia, the Moslems in Bosnia, the Hungarians in Vojvodina, the Bulgarians in Macedonia, and the Albanians in Kosovo. This incredible suffering of the Serbs in World War II has been the subject of a number of studies (for example: Edmond Paris, Genocide in Satellite Croatia, 1941-1945; Lazo M. Kostich, Holocaust in the "Independent State of Croatia" Herve Lauriere, Assassins au Nom de Dieu).

In Kosovo, the Albanians felt that their dream had been realized. Kosovo was annexed to rump Albania and became a part of "Great Albania," ironically by courtesy of the man (Mussolini) who in 1939 had destroyed Albanian independence. As a result of the collapse of the Yugoslav army, Albanians in Kosovo availed themselves of caches of arms, were recruited into local militia units, automatically became Italian citizens, declared themselves in support of the quisling Albanian government in Tirana, and began settling personal accounts with the Serbs in the area.

The Albanian quisling premier, Mustafa Kruje, visited Kosovo in June 1942 and publicly advocated the need of making Kosovo and Metohija a pure ethnic entity. The most efficient way of doing it, in his opinion, was by removing the Slavs from the area: old Serbian settlers moved out; newcomers liquidated. Postwar Yugoslav studies of this policy (e.g., S. Miloshevich, Izbeglice i preseljenici na teritoriji okupirane Jugoslavije, 1941-45 [Refugees and evacuees on the territory of occupied Yugoslavia]; Belgrade, 1981, pp. 53-55) indicate that between 70,000 and 100,000 Serbs were forced to leave the Kosovo area. According to a one-time member of the Central Committee of the Comunist Party of Serbia, Tito did not permit their return after the war.

Kruje's proposal was an expression of Albanian euphoric satisfaction with the fulfillment of their national aspiration. That it was achieved through the humiliating Italian occupation was of lesser significance.

The rounding up of Kosovo Serbs produced two major concentration camps, in Prishtina and in Kosovska Mitrovitsa. They served as labor reservoirs for the Trepcha mines, control over which the Nazis had retained, and for the fortification works in Italian-held Albania. Many of them also ended up as slave workers in German-occupied Europe. There were some who were transferred to camps in Serbia proper, and thereby felt relieved. Unfortunately, many of them perished in Nazi reprisal executions for acts of sabotage by Yugoslav resistance groups.

As a general rule, most vulnerable in occupied Kosovo were Serbian "colonists," i.e. those who had come to Kosovo within the past three decades, but those settlers who farmed in far away villages were also an endangered species. With Albanians on a rampage, Serbs had two choices: flee or fight. Those who decided on resistance found former Royal Yugoslav officers, just emerging as a resistance organization, their most logical choice. The Chetniks of Colonel Draza Mihailovich were, in fact, the first underground resistance group in all of Europe. Members of the communist movement were at that time still lying low, theorizing about the "war of bourgeois imperialists," which they thought the Soviet Union would sit out.

The assimilation process, especially of Serbian children, was in full swing from the very beginning of the occupation of Kosovo. Instruction in the schools was carried out only in the Albanian language. There were, however, few Serbian children in elementary schools. Parents were afraid to send them, and the authorities did not insist. In principle, high schools were not open to Serbian youngsters.

Serbs were considered Albanian citizens only in de jure matters, by virtue of their domicile, but not in other respects. The Bishop of the Rashka and Prizren diocese, Seraphim, was interned in Albania, and later died there. The abbot of the Devich monastery, near Kosovska Mitrovitsa, lost his life in resisting two raids on church property. Yugoslav historians have never attempted to estimate the material damage, the loss of life, and human suffering generally, of the Serbs in Kosovo during World War II, because it was one of the thematic taboos in postwar Yugoslav historiography. Now when it might be possible, there are no records.

In 1941, Albanians in Kosovo had no representative mass organizations of their own. The Communist Party of neighboring Albania was nonexistent. It was to be formed only some six months later. Having only a few cadres of their own in Kosovo, Albanian Communists were always part of the Montenegrin Communist organization. The regional committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia for Kosovo and Metohija was formed in 1937, but only as an extension branch of the Montenegrin committee. Insignificant as a unit, Albanians were never asked to send delegates to All-Yugoslav Communist assemblies. Even as late as November 1943 (Second Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia), there was not a single Albanian among the 146 attending delegates. The histories of Yugoslav Partisan movements in Yugoslav territories during the war years, which document in great detail various "spontaneous mass uprisings against the occupier," never mention Albanians. If they do, it is peripherally in the context of Macedonian or Montenegrin resistance.

In 1940-1941, according to available Yugoslav Communist archival sources and memoir literature, all Yugoslav Communist Party attempts to reach Kosovo Albanians were either unresponsive or unrewarding, and in some cases downright frustrating. Top Communist organize rs, such as Vlado Strugar and Svetozar Vukmanovich-Tempo, were still working on it as late as November 1943, when a regional committee of some sort was finally formed. In fact, there were in all of Kosovo and Metohija only three communist leaders from the old days who were available. Vukmanovich points out that "conditions for [starting] armed resistance in Kosovo and Metohija were worse than in any other region of the country ... the Albanian population, which made up two-thirds of the whole population, had an unfriendly attitude toward the partisans... The occupiers have succeeded in winning the Kosovo Albanians to their side by annexing Metohija and a part of Kosovo to rump Albania; the local government is in the hands of the Albanians, the Albanian language is obligatory... The Albanian population is suspicious of all those who struggle for Yugoslavia, whether old or new; in their eyes it is always less than what they have got from the occupier... " (Revolucija koja tece [Revolution in Development], Belgrade, 1971, p. 338.) Vukmanovich also asserts that he came to the conclusion that the "formation of partisan units in that region" was premature. Consequently, he decided to form Kosovo units in areas bordering on Kosovo, mainly from Serbs and Montenegrins who had either left earlier or were at that time coming over to the communists. With no base among the local Albanian population, and with the Serbs mostly sympathetic to the Chetniks, Vukmanovich had no choice but to keep a distance for a while.

There was another important consideration that slowed clown communist organizing efforts. That was the question of leadership, should it be Montenegrin (Serbian) or Albanian? This proved to be a great stumbling block. The Montenegrin communists obviously did not know how to handle it. They wanted it for themselves, but the Albanian masses would not follow a Montenegrin leader. If, on the other hand, the Albanians were to lead, the Serbs would balk. Later it was decided at a higher level that for the time being (i.e., until the end of the war), the Albanian partisans would fight under the Serbian communists. The solution was awkward, illogical, and an ever present threat to future relations.

Vukmanovich describes the mood of the population, predominantly Albanian, as "radically changed," following the annexation of these regions to Albania. "Power is in the hands of the Albanians... and this is all they see today." He depicts the city of Debar at the moment of its supposed liberation: "... all over the place Albanian flags. No Yugoslav or Macedonian flag at all. One would think that he is somewhere in Albania, not Yugoslavia... The units of Balli Combetar [Albanian nationalist group] control the city, and they are intent on using force in order to keep Debar as part of Albania. Albanian partisans, on the other hand, are no match for them, and in addition, they are not willing to oppose such intentions of Balli Combetar anyway." (Ibid., p. 370.) Vukmanovich admits that Yugoslav Communists could not force Albanians in their ranks to fight Albanian quisling troops. He even had to face an open insurrection of Yugoslav partisan units made up of Kosovo Albanians, which "resented being stationed in Macedonia" (ibid., p. 382).

There were some additional ominous signs as well. Even when the Montenegrins finally managed to form partisan units manned by local Albanians, these units were named after notorious protagonists of Great Albania. For example, the "Bajram Curri" unit was named after a prominent member of the famous nationalist emigre kosovo.netmittee in Albania, and a one time minister of interior.

The wartime situation in Kosovo was reminiscent of Turkish times, in the sense that Albanians were returned to positions of power and the anti-Slav (i.e., anti-Christian) mood prevailed once again. The irony of it was that, while the privileged status of Moslems in Turkish times was to be expected, it now seemed weird by virtue of the fact that it was being pushed by Italy and Germany. Once Italy capitulated in 1943, Germany continued to follow the policy of making Albanians the privileged nationality.

The most dreaded organization in the area (under German control) was the "Kosovo Regiment," the cloak and dagger shock troops of racist Albanianism. It had the political blessing of the so-called "Second Prizren League," the wartime assembly that hailed and legalized the activities of the "Regiment." When Italy capitulated, the bulk of the Italian army supplies went to the "Kosovo Regiment." In collusion with Balli Combetar elements, some Moslem priests, and Albanian chauvinists, the Regiment made sure that none of the acquired priviledged positions would be lost or weakened in the last turbulent years of the war, 1944-1945.

Communists were the first (and only) among the resistance groups to realize that promising some of the acquired advantages in a future Yugoslavia was the only way to win the Albanians over to their side. Moreover, the Yugoslav Communists were advocates of a new Yugoslavia, while the Chetniks were looked upon as a return to the old ways. In addition, the former promised a federal arrangement in the new multinational state. This had a great appeal to Albanians, even to non-communists. The latter were convinced that there would be some room for Albanian nationalists. Besides, as the war was coming to an end many of them concluded that of the two evils, communism looked incomparably better. Communist promises certainly seemed attractive.

The Resolution of the First Conference of the People's Liberation Committee for Kosovo and Metohija, held on December 31, 1943-January 2, 1944, reads in its most pertinent part as follows:

The Kosovo and Metohija area is a region predominantly populated by the Schipetar people, which has always as today, desired to unite with the land of Schipanija. Consequently, we feel obliged to point to the right way the Schipetar people should follow in order to reach its goal. The only road for Schipetars of Kosovo and Metohija to unite with Schipanija is to join in the common struggle with the Other peoples of Yugoslavia against the occupiers and their servants. Because this is the only way to win liberty, when all peoples, including the Schipetars, will be in a position to declare themselves regarding their fate, with the right of self determination, including the right to secession. Guaranteeing this is NOVJ [National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia] as well as closely associated NOVS [National Liberation Army af Schipnija]. In addition, this is guaranteed by our great allies, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and America.

The document from which the above was taken was published by the People's Committee of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo-Metohija, in Prishtina in 1955. The promise of self-determination, including the right of secession, would return to haunt the Yugoslav Communist regime.

One should not overlook the fact that the First Conference of the People's Liberation Movement of Kosovo and Metohija was not held on Yugoslav territory, but in the village of Bujan, in Malesia (Albania). Of the 51 delegates attending the meeting, only seven were Serbs or Montenegrins, while ten of the delegates were Albanian citizens who never lived in Kosovo or Metohija. An analysis of the names of the nine members of the Presidium shows positively that only one seems Serbian.

It should be noted that the nationalist wing of the resistance (Chetniks) could never have issued or signed such a politically flexible document, promising concessions that were not meant to be carried out. To the former Yugoslav officers such an act would have been regarded as treason.

Not so, says a man who signed the document, and at that time secretary of the Regional Committee, Pavle Jovichevich. Forty years later, in an interview with a Yugoslav periodical (NIN, December 11, 1983), he said that it was the only possible political move under the prevailing circumstances. Since Kosovo-Metohija had no "liberated" territory at that time, he says, the meeting was held in Albania. Moreover, Kosovo-Metohija was the only region where "partisans armed forces did not disarm a single Italian solider at the time of capitulation." There were a number of questions not yet clarified, such as the Party's "recognition of the annexation of Kosovo-Metohija to Great Albania, " and the idea of "celebrating Albanian flag day," which "was perceived as anti-Serbian and antiMontenegrin in essence." Another sensitive issue was the "proposal not to mention the name of Yugoslavia in any official pronouncements of the Party."

As a document of political expediency, needed to serve an opportunistic purpose, the Resolution presumably did not mean what it means today. In 1943, the Yugoslav Communist Party could afford to be generous in its promises, when the question of the future boundary between Yugoslavia and Albania seemed irrelevant. Albania itself was to be incorporated into Yugoslavia as a separate federal unit. Communists in the Kosovo-Metohija area were subsequently instructed not to enter into boundary discussions under any circumstances, but only to point out that "it will be solved in brotherly harmony and cooperation" (ibid.).

Moreover, says Jovichevich in his NIN interview, the boundary question between Yugoslavia and Albania was finally taken off the agenda once and forever in duly 1945 in Prizren, at the time when the Regional People's Committee of Kosovo-Metohija "decided to make Kosovo and Metohija part of the People's Republic of Serbia." As it has turned out, however, the boundary question may not be a burning issue, but the treatment of Serbs and their monuments in Kosovo is certain to continue as a vital issue for Yugoslavia in the 1980s. It is of interest that the Communist Party of Albania (founded and sponsored by Yugoslav Communisti) did not address itself to the Kosovo problem either in its first declaration or later, which many Kosovo Albanians interpreted as a "sellout." Albania's Communists today maintain that this was the result of a common view, i.e., that "the question ol the future of Kosovo and other Albanian regions in Yugoslavia should not be raised during the war... that Kosovo Albanians should fight fascism within the framework of Yugoslavia... that the problem will be resolved after the war by the two sister parties... and the Albanian people itself" (Enver Hoxha, With Stalin, 1 98 1, pp. 1 37-1 38).

Hoxha's statement is corroborated by Tito's letter of October 9, 1943, to Miladin Popovich, the actual founder of the Albanian Communist Party (killed in Prishtina after the war by an Albanian youth): "Do not let various A1banian reactionary elements manipulate and attract Albanian masses by playing up the question of annexation of regions such as Metohija and Kosovo to Albania ... The question of freedom, national equality, and self-determination will be justly decided only through a common struggle with the People's Liberation Movement of Yugoslavia" (Politika, November 23, 1983). In a letter to Popovich, forwarding Tito's instructions, Ivan Milutinovich (a top Montenegrin Communist) adds: "...do not ever allow yourself to take the position...which would have this part [Kosovo-Metohija] annexed to Albania... it first has to be liberated in a common struggle... " We know that Tito and his comrades were locked in a mortal struggle with Mihailovich's Chetniks, and therefore needed any and all able-bodied fighters to help tip the balance in their favor.

Mihailovich's guerrilla organization also had Kosovo very much in mind. Not only was Mihailovich's struggle a part of a general concern for national preservation, but being a professional soldier, he could never forget the strategic military value of the region. A key point in a possible Allied advance through the Balkans--which scared the hell out of Balkan communists--Kosovo was seen by Mihailovich as a communication line that would be extremely vulnerable unless held by the Serbs (and not Bulgars or Albanians). By early 1942, therefore, he had three firmly established task forces in the area, covering Metohija, Kosovo, and the Ibar river basin. In time four more brigades were formed and incorporated into two Kosovo Corps. He held a secret air strip in the area, which was used for night landings of transport planes from Cairo. The Movement deteriorated later, in the face of the steady strengthening of Albanian forces, and Tito's determination to seize power.

Vukmanovich-Tempo was apprehensive until the last moment that British and US troops might invade the Balkans. He warned the Macedonian and Albanian communists never to trust the Allies, who would "bring back the old government," and would "demand the disarmament of forces that fought against the occupier ... We will never let Allied forces to even step on our land. Only the forces which have won the victory over the occupiers can organize the elections for the new government ... " (Revolucija koja tece, p. 359.) This was music to Albanian ears, because they certainly could not have wished--after all they had done in the war--to see the Allies come and make decisions about their future.

Vukmanovich's apprehensions, however, were misplaced. The Allies abandoned Mihailovich and the nationalists, who, after waiting for four years to "save Kosovo," found themselves manipulated into a corner without an exit. In the end, they could only helplessly watch Yugoslav partisans and the army, aided by two Albanian divisions, enter Kosovo. The two Albanian units came at the explicit request (September 1, 1944) of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, sent to its sister party in Albania, to participate in common operations in Kosovo and Macedonia.

In the great chase after the retreating German forces that ensued, Serbia found itself temporarily invaded by 20 Soviet, 10 Bulgarian, and two Albanian divisions--a total of 32 foreign divisions--sent by governments, which in 1941 were either neutral or allied with Germany, at the time when the Serbs decided to say "no" to Berlin!

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