The Zociste Monastery was situated about five miles outside of Orahovac, a town in western Kosovo. Its church was a treasure — dating to the 13th century, the interior featured medieval frescoes and beautiful wood carvings. Dedicated to eighth-century healers Cosmas and Damian, the church filled a special role in the spiritual life of those in the region. They brought their sick to the church, hoping they might benefit from the prayer of the monks and the presence of relics.
On June 24, 1998, Richard Holbrooke, then-President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Kosovo, made an unscheduled stop to eat with a local Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader. The leader told Holbrooke the KLA — a terrorist organization formed in 1996 to resist Serbian law in Kosovo — would fight until Kosovo attained independence.
The KLA had shown surprising strength in the two years since it first appeared, claiming responsibility for many coordinated attacks on policemen and Serb civilians. In the spring of 1998, ethnic Albanian support of the KLA increased after Serbian forces failed to overrun their strategic compounds. As numbers swelled, the KLA set up barricades around target cities and prepared for an offensive. An iconic photograph showed Holbrooke with a leader of the KLA, convincing the organization that the United States would be on their side, and the military offensive commenced in earnest.
By mid-July, the KLA had captured Orahovac. In two nearby villages, all Serb males were kidnapped and later found dead. The Serbian military responded with force, regaining the city, driving the KLA back to hidden outposts and forcing them to readopt guerilla tactics. In September, even though the Zociste Monastery served both Serbs and ethnic Albanians throughout the fighting, KLA forces arrested the monks, looted the monastery and desecrated the church. Similar episodes unfolded in Kosovo through 1998 and into 1999.
To prevent continued fighting, NATO intervened with a bombing campaign and peacekeeping force. The Clinton administration would have Americans believe a simple narrative to justify U.S. involvement. As the story goes, Slobodan Milosevic, nearly a dictator, initiated genocidal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but America intervened, stopped the violence and paved the way for Kosovar independence from the oppressive Serbs. The story is attractive, especially when accompanied by the festive scene from Kosovo, of Albanian and American flags held aloft in celebration of Kosovar independence declared last Sunday.
But the reality is much more complex. A history of tension between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians set the stage for the Kosovo war, and though neither side was blameless in its military conduct, the Serbs have been mischaracterized. In particular, the suggestion that they systematically engaged in ethnic cleansing is not supported by the evidence.
Though Serbian forces did wipe out villages they deemed hotbeds of support for the KLA, they passed by the vast majority of ethnic Albanian communities. The NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo estimates that 850 of those unearthed, and some percentage of the 2,500 more missing, were victims of war crimes. In a country of 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, 3,000 deaths by war crime hardly suggest genocide. Of course, 3,000 is 3,000 too many, but recall that more than 1,000 Serb civilians, in a population of 220,000, were killed or kidnapped during the war.
Though the United States had always rejected the prospect of Kosovar independence — it will only encourage separatists in other countries to utilize terrorist tactics in their effort to secede — its military actions effectively laid the foundation for this recent declaration. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, while bound to recognize Kosovar independence, is already trying to qualify U.S. recognition of an independent Kosovo, calling the country a “special case.”
But this characterization obfuscates the reality that this recognition legitimizes separatism around the world. Perhaps even more problematic is the prospect that successful separatists do not disband. Where terrorists are fast becoming the defining enemies of the age, a newly independent state is susceptible to their ideological manipulation.
In the aftermath of the Kosovo war, it became clear the KLA was not a simple band of “freedom fighters” — they continued to terrorize the Serbs living in Kosovo. In the two years following the war, another 2,000 Serbs were killed or kidnapped by the KLA, prompting mass relocation. Serbs now make up only 4 percent of Kosovo’s population. Meanwhile, the KLA began a systematic elimination of the Serbian religious heritage in Kosovo, destroying more than 100 churches. On June 17, 1999, just six days after the end of the Kosovo war and the retreat of the Serbian military, the KLA burned and blew up the 13th-century Church of St. Cosmas and Damian.
With a new nation, the KLA has triumphed. But a single triumph never satisfies; terrorists always want another fight.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.