By Scott Taylor
Eight years ago today I returned home to Canada after spending more than three weeks covering the bloody conclusion of the NATO intervention in Kosovo.
In total, Serbia had been subjected to 78 days of continuous aerial bombardment by the allied air force. The original NATO timetable estimated it would take just five days to force Serbia to withdraw their armed forces from the disputed province of Kosovo. In the end, despite air defences that could offer only token resistance, stubborn Serbian defiance forced NATO to a negotiated settlement.
My perspective on this conflict is unique as I was one of only a handful of western journalists granted a visa from the Belgrade authorities. As such I reported on the NATO air campaign from the Serbian perspective and witnessed the collateral damage of innocent civilians killed by errant bombs and endured the depravations brought about as a result of the destruction of the power grid and water plants.
Arriving in Pristina in advance of the NATO ground forces, I was in Kosovo when the Russian troops defiantly took possession of the Zlatina airfield and dared advancing British troops to ignite World War III. Thankfully, calmer heads prevailed and NATO yielded to the Russians, but widespread interethnic killing continued. The Serbian minority population in Kosovo fled en masse in the wake of violent Albanian reprisals conducted without intervention by NATO security forces.
Under the terms of the UN resolution 1244 ceasefire agreement, Serbian military and police forces were to withdraw from the province in exchange for Kosovo remaining recognized as a sovereign Serbian territory. An estimated 250,000 Serb civilians fled with the departing military columns rather than face revenge at the hands of the Albanians.
Of the 40,000 or so Serbs who remained in Kosovo, many paid the ultimate price in the orgy of violence that followed NATOs entry and the rest banded together in protected enclaves. The 2,700 NATO accredited journalists who rushed into Kosovo alongside the troops were quick to proclaim victory and downplay the Albanian reprisal killings as a justifiable settling of scores.
In the subsequent eight-year occupation of Kosovo, it has become apparent that the victory declarations may have been a little premature. The continual presence of NATO troops and the virtual isolation of the Serbian population from the Albanian majority has given Kosovo the outward appearance of relative stability. However, as the massive pogrom into the Serbian enclaves in March 2004 and the ongoing protests against the international community reveal, Kosovo remains a boiling pot of inter-ethnic hatred. Despite the best of intentions and a massive infusion of foreign aid, Kosovo has not developed into the peaceful, prosperous entity that was promised.
Many observers in the international community, in particular the UN police force, realize that granting Kosovo independence at this stage would be premature. While U.S. President George Bush is backing the Albanian Kosovo independence movement, this is more driven by the hard-pressed American military necessity to close the books on at least one conflict rather than on common sense.
Even UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari has recommended that any independence granted to Kosovo should still be supervised by the international community. As the pogrom of April 2004 clearly illustrated, the Albanians have no intention of allowing the few remaining Serbs to reside peacefully in their Kosovo enclaves. Should George Bush get his wish and Kosovo becomes truly independent in the near future, the final Serbian residents will be wise to depart with the last of the NATO soldiers.
If that transpires, then NATOs intervention in 1999 to prevent ethnic cleansing will have resulted in the most thoroughly ethnically cleansed region in the entire world.
A victory worth remembering.