The long awaited and feared Serb assault on the Muslims of Kosova was feared to have begun earlier this month. In scenes eerily reminiscent to the beginning of the Serb assault on Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serb police and military sealed of the region of Drenica in north-western Kosova and launched a series of attacks of Kosovar towns and villages at dawn on Thursday March 5, which developed into murderous sweeps across the region over the next four days.
Information was slow to seep out of the region, but it quickly became clear that a major assault on the civilian population was taking place. Refugees’ reports of the use of tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and helicopter gunships are inconsistent with Serb claims that they have been undertaking limited police operations to arrest isolated groups of terrorists. Whole villages appear to have been ruined and dozens made homeless. The final death toll will certainly run into the hundreds.
However, the operations appeared to end on Sunday March 8, although information was still hard to obtain as we went to press, suggesting that the Serbs had limited, strategic objectives at this stage.
However, the experience is unlikely to have discouraged them from further actions in the future as the episode demonstrated once again the unwillingness of the west and the inablity of anybody else to prevent Milosevic doing his will in Kosova. Despite strong words, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Contact Groups on Former Yugoslavia -- a six country grouping which discusses the west’s position on Balkan affairs -- in London on March 9 failed to agree any substantial response, effectively giving the Serbs a green light.
The Serb operations in Kosova included many well-established Serb tactics previously seen in Bosnia, such as the surrounding of villages and towns to prevent the population leaving and then shelling them into submission. People who try to escape have either been sent back into the village or arrested. Refugees who have escaped the effected towns have also described another classic Serb tactic, that of singling out the menfolk for murder.
That similar tactics to those seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina should also be seen here is not surprising. It is believed that some of the same Serbian paramilitary units which saw did the Serbs dirtiest work in Bosnia, such as the notorious black-uniformed SAJ, are also deployed here.
These operations follow an earlier round of operations on the weekend of February 28-March 1, in which some 30 Kosovars were killed in the same region and in Central Kosova, including 10 men from one family in Quirez. These had been the most serious Serb atrocities against the Kosovars in nearly ten years, since Kosova’s autonomous status was revoked by Slobodan Milosevic in 1989.
These earlier killings, which (in hindsight) were more like the Serb claim of ‘limited police operations’ -- albeit it murderous police operations -- than the later ones led to widespread protests in Kosova’s capital Pristina, other towns, and also among Albanians in Albania and Macedonia.
The Serbs have claimed that these protests have proved the existence and influence of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), which they claim to be an armed terrorist group, and that it is this group which they are acting to suppress. The Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), which has effectively been ruling Kosova through an unofficial ‘parallel government’ since 1989, and which is firmly committed to a pacifist path, has always maintained that the KLA is a figment of the Serbs’ imagination, deliberately dreamt up to discredit the Kosovars and justify their oppression.
The latest operations do confirm that Kosovars in some areas are armed and equipped to resist the Serb military operations, even though they clearly remain hopelessly disadvantaged in terms of equipment. It has become commonplace in recent months to talk of Drenica, for one, as an effective no-go area for Serb police and to point out that the Serbs, represented in Kosova only by forces of repression without any civil government presence, ‘control only the ground they stand on’.
This is clearly the situation the Serbs are now acting to reverse. However, it should be emphasized that this does not disprove the LDK’s long-established position that the KLA is a Serb invention. There are few signs that the Kosova operations amount to anything more than isolated local resistance to the Serb operations, and the evidence which the Serbs bring of Kosovar terrorist operations is clearly faked. The fact some Kosovars have equipped to defend themselves come the Serb onslaught is hardly surprising, given that the attacks have long been regarded as inevitable. But this does not amount to evidence of any organised armed group.
In this case too, the contemporary Kosovar situation is similar to that in Bosnia at the beginning of the war there. Prior to the Serb invasion of Bosnia, the government of Alia Izzetbegovic had been reluctant to organize any defences against Serb aggression for fear of provoking and justifying precisely such an aggression. When it came, therefore, independent of any provocation or reason, the Bosnians were hopelessly unprepared. The Kosovars’ position now is depressingly similar, except that it is even more disadvantaged.
It is too early yet to be sure that the present operations mark the beginning of the Kosovar war. They may simply be isolated operations, as the Serbs say, albeit isolated massacres of innocent civilians rather than isolated anti-terrorist sweeps. Or they may be the early, apparently isolated operations which will gradually develop into all out war and genocide, slowly and quietly enough for others not to respond. Either way, the prospects for the Kosovars are grim.
The LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova, the Albanian government of Sali Berisha, Albanian opposition groups, Albanian leaders in Macedonia, the Muslim leadership in the Sandzak, and the Bosnian government, have all called in the west to prevent the present operations developing into war. This too is reminiscent of the Bosnian experience. But the west’s example in Bosnia hardly inspires confidence, at least for the Kosovars -- Slobodan Milosevic is probably quite encouraged by it.
And the early signs for western assistance to prevent the Serbs attempting a genocide of Kosova Muslims are not encouraging either. The US has spoken strongly for public consumption, while quietly assuring everyone that military action is not an option. Europe is even more reluctant to act.
The Germans, under Chancellor Kohl, are more concerned about the possibility of Kosovar refugees entering Germany than the lives of the Kosovars, while the British, historic allies of the Serbs, have already indicated their willingness to prevent any effective anti-Serb action whatsoever.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was in Belgrade on March 5, as the operations in Drenica unfolded, but before the contact group meeting, supposedly discussing the Kosova situation. But even in the context of the Drenica killings, his words -- intended to sound firm and concerned about events -- no doubt comforted the Serbs. He referred repeatedly to the need to ‘counter terrorism’, thus supporting the Serb version of events, and spoke of maintaining ‘Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity’.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1998