Patriarchate of Pec monastery


The Story Behind the Story

Ancient peoples inhabited the lands that now make up Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro, including Kosovo and Metohija) for millennia before Rome conquered the region in the first century AD. Archeological findings reveal that during the Paleolithic period (ca. 200 000 - 8 000 BC) man hunted and foraged in the mountains, valleys, and interior plains of today's Yugoslavia.

Slavic tribesmen poured across the empire's borders during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Slavs spoke an Indo-European language and organized themselves into clans. In the sixth century, the Slavs allied with the more powerful Avars to plunder the Danube Basin. The Avar incursions proved key to the development of Yugoslavia because they immediately preceded, and may have precipitated, the arrival of the Serbs and Croats. The Serbs occupied large parts of the land toward the end of the twelfth century.


In 1170 Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjic dynasty, rose to power and started renewing the Serbian state, expanding his state seizing territories east and south, and newly annexed the littoral and the Zeta region. Along with his governmental efforts, he dedicated much care to the construction of monasteries. Stefan's youngest son Rastko became a monk and took the name of Sava, turning all his efforts to spreading religiousness among his people. Since the Curia already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan used these propitious circumstances to obtain his crown from the Pope thus becoming the first Serbian king in 1217. In Byzantium, his brother Sava managed to secure the autocephalous status for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. Thus the Serbs acquired both forms of independence: temporal and religious.

Ancient Serbia - including Macedonia, Raska, Kosovo and Metohija - enjoyed a high political, economic and cultural reputation in Medieval Europe, and reached its apex in mid-14th century, during the rule of Tzar Stefan Dusan. Soon afterward, however, the period is marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turk sultanate gradually spreading from Asia to Europe and conquering Byzantium first, and then the other Balkan states.

The Kosovo Battle

Why Kosovo is remembered?

The Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbian army in two crucial battles: on the banks of the river Marica in 1371 - where the forces of noblemen from Macedonia were defeated, and on Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Plain - "field of the black birds") in 1389, where the vassal troops, with Bosnian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian and other allies, commanded by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic - the strongest regional ruler in Serbia at the time - suffered defeat. The Turks barely defeated Lazar, and both Lazar and Sultan Murat (stabbed in his tent by Milos Obilich, who posed as a deserter) were killed. The defeat did not bring immediate Turkish occupation of Serbia, but during the centuries of Turkish domination that followed, the Serbs endowed the battle with myths of honour and heroism that helped them preserve their dignity and sense of nationhood. Serbs still recite epic poems and sing songs about the nobles who fell at Kosovo Polje; the anniversary of the battle is the Serbian national holiday, Vidovdan (St. Vitus's Day), June 28.

The Turks persecuted the Serbian aristocracy, determined to physically exterminate the social elite. Since the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic theocratic state, Christian Serbs lived as virtual bond servants - abused, humiliated and exploited. Consequently they gradually abandoned the urban centres to withdrew to the mountains. Serbia (and most of the Balkans) was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries. In this period, about two-thirds of the Albanian population, including its most powerful feudal landowners, converted to Islam.

War between Muslims and the Holy Alliance

During the Great War (1683-1690) between Turkey and the Holy Alliance - created with the sponsorship of the Pope and including Austria, Poland and Venice - these three powers incited the Serbs to rebel against the Turkish authorities, and soon uprisings and guerrilla war spread throughout the western Balkans. However, when the Austrians started to pull out of Serbia, they invited the Serbian people to come north with them to the Austrian territories. Having to choose between Turkish vengeance and living in a Christian state, Serbs massively abandoned their homesteads and headed north lead by their patriarch Arsenije Carnojevic. Many areas in southern Balkans were de-populated in the process, and the Turks used the opportunity to Islamize Raska, Kosovo and Metohija.

In retaliation, after the defeat of European forces in 1690, the Ottomans and the Muslim Albanians, exposed the population to mass reprisals and, essentially, to the first large-scale ethnic cleansing, including in Kosovo and Metohija where some 1 400 Christian monasteries, churches, and other monuments covered the area. (The Patriarchal Monastery near Pec, Kosovo served as seat of administration for Serbian Orthodox Church from thirteenth to eighteenth century.)

Serbian resistance to Ottoman domination, latent for many decades surfaced at the beginning of 19th century with the First and Second Serbian Uprising in 1804 and 1815. The Turkish Empire was already faced with a deep internal crisis without any hope of recuperating. Resulting from the uprisings and subsequent wars against the Ottoman Empire, the independent Principality of Serbia was formed and granted international recognition in 1878.

The Balkan wars 1912 - 1913 terminated the Turkish domination in the Balkans. Turkey was pushed back across the channel and national Balkan states were created in the territories it withdrew from. With the end of World War I and the downfall of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire the conditions were met for proclaiming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians in December of 1918.

The new troubled era

At the beginning of the 40's, Yugoslavia found itself surrounded by hostile countries. Except for Greece, all other neighbouring countries had signed agreements with either Germany or Italy. Hitler was strongly pressuring Yugoslavia to join the Axis powers. Public demonstrations against Nazism prompted the Luftwaffe to bomb Belgrade and other cities. In April 1941 the Axis powers occupied Yugoslavia and disintegrated it. The western parts of the country together with Bosnia and Herzegovina were turned into a Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and ruled by the Ustashe. Serbia was occupied by German troops, but the northern territories were annexed by Hungary, and eastern and southern territories to Bulgaria. Kosovo and Metohija were mostly annexed by Albania.

Following the Nazi example, the Independent State of Croatia established extermination camps and perpetrated an atrocious genocide, killing over 750 000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. This holocaust set the historical and political backdrop for the civil war that broke out fifty years later in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992.

During World War II, communist-led partisans waged a victorious guerrilla struggle against foreign and Croatian fascists, and supporters of the prewar government. While the war was still raging, in 1943, a revolutionary change was proclaimed with the abolition of monarchy in favour of the republic. Josip Broz Tito became the first president of the new socialist Yugoslavia, established as a federal state comprising six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro and two autonomous regions - Vojvodina and Kosovo-and-Metohija. The two autonomous regions were an integral part of Serbia. This led to the rebirth of Yugoslavia as a socialist federation under communist rule on November 29, 1945, and when Kosovo first received its official name, it previously known only as the Kosovo Plain (or, Kosovo Field).

Under Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslav communists were faithful to orthodox Stalinism until a 1948 split with Moscow. At that time, a Soviet-bloc economic blockade compelled the Yugoslavs to devise an economic system based on Socialist self-management. To this system the Yugoslavs added a nonaligned foreign policy and an idiosyncratic, one-party political system. This system maintained a semblance of unity during most of Tito's four decades of rule. The trend to secure the power of the republics at the expense of the federal authorities became particularly intense after the adoption of the 1974 Constitution that encouraged the expansion of Croatian, Slovenian, Moslem and Albanian nationalism and secessionism. Soon after Tito's death on 4 May1980 long-standing differences again separated the communist parties of the country's republics and provinces.

Trouble revisited

In May 1991 Croatian voters supported a referendum calling for their republic to become an independent nation. A similar referendum passed in December in Slovenia. In June the respective parliaments in both republics passed declarations of independence. In January 1992 Macedonia declared independence, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina in April. Ethnic violence flared almost immediately, with thousands of Serbians being forced from the new independent states in a form of ethnic cleansing. The largely Serbian-led Yugoslav military reacted by pounding the break-away Bosnia and Herzegovina, leading the UN Security Council in May 1992 to impose economic sanctions on the Belgrade government.

Serbia and Montenegro had opted to stay on in the federation and at the combined session of the parliaments of Yugoslavia held on April 27 1992 in Belgrade, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was passed (with Slobodan Milosevic as its leader). The new government, however, is not recognized by the United States as the successor state to the former Yugoslavia.

Economic turmoil and the re-emergence of an old conflict between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo fuelled a resurgence of nationalism. In 1990, demands for greater autonomy were rebuffed by Serbia, which imposed direct rule and rescinded its status as an autonomous region. Albanians were repressed and Serbian migration into the region encouraged. In response Albanians pressed for Kosovo's complete independence, and in 1992 elected a nominal parliament and boycotted Serbian elections. In 1996 the militant Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) begins attacking Serbian policeman. In February 1998 Milosevic sends troops to Kosovo to quash unrest in the province. A guerrilla war breaks out. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced to flee their homes.

NATO was reluctant to intervene because Kosovo - unlike Bosnia in 1992 - was legally a province of Yugoslavia. Proof of civilian massacres finally gave NATO the impetus to intervene for the first time ever in the dealings of a sovereign nation with its own people. In an October 12, 1998, truce brokered by American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, and under the threat of a military air strike - for which there was little enthusiasm among several NATO countries - President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to the withdrawal of military forces. Fighting continued, however, and neither side accepted Washington's proposal for the province - the ethnic Albanians demanded full independence while Serb leaders would agree only to limited autonomy.

Kosovo in perspective

Before WWII, about 50% of Kosovo's population was Serbian. By the 1990's, Albanians had emigrated to the area to total about 80% of the population. To the Serbians, giving up Kosovo would be the same as US citizens handing over Florida (or California) because of the increase in Hispanic population there.

Serbs leaving Prizren in June 99
Serb civilians evacuated by German KFOR from Prizren in June 99

Kosovo today

In February 1999, Serbia and the Kosovo separatists were forced to the negotiating table in Rambouillet, France, by six mediating nations: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Italy. The United States threatened air strikes if Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic continued to reject a plan by NATO officials to station international troops in Kosovo to enforce a peace agreement. Negotiations went awry, however, when both the Serbs and the KLA rejected the terms of the agreement. The US had been counting on the KLA signing and the Serbs walking away - which would then have paved the way for NATO air strikes against Serbia. But the KLA refused to sign unless the agreement promised them future independence, not simply self-rule, which was not on the NATO negotiators' agenda.

The KLA's all-or-nothing position in effect meant that they preferred to continue their ground war against the Serbs - with NATO essentially operating as the KLA's air force. Washington, ready to play hardball with Serbia, was in particular frustrated by the ethnic Albanians' narrowsighted intransigence. Finally, on March 18 the KLA signed while the Serbs again refused, adamant that NATO troops would not be stationed in Kosovo. On 24 March 1999, NATO began it's air strikes against Yugoslavian targets, flying thousands of sorties against Serbian targets for 71 days, often firing depleted uranium (DU) munitions.

By July 1999, the Serbian forces were forced out of Kosovo and some 40 000 NATO-organised KFOR troops were sent in. Ethnic Albanians returned to Kosovo, and immediately started to attack the Serbian Kosovars, dumping Kosovo back into a yet another era of conflict. Between July - when Nato troops entered Kosovo - and November 1999, Albanian Muslims destroyed more than 80 centuries-old churches - including the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Musutiste, built in 1465 - along with 16th Century icons which included the icon of the Apostle Thomas. In affect, the Albanian Kosovars launched Kosovo's ninth stage of ethnic cleansing.

Original text: Kosovo - A Story Behind the Story