In the late fall of 1987, I was walking with a Kosovar Albanian university student outside her town of Istog in northwest Kosova.[1] We paused and looked up at the mountains, bleak in the waning fall sun. There in the foothills was an isolated Albanian homestead — I could tell it was Albanian because of the wall around the courtyard of the home. Suddenly it hit me. Anything could happen to the people in that home if the Serb authorities so chose. No one would know. That home was utterly vulnerable. Like the Albanians in Kosova, the world did not know about their situation and would not care.

    This moment was for me a defining moment of the situation in Kosova. It brought together the tensions I had experienced since I had come to the University of Prishtina as an IREX Fellow to study Albanian linguistics in the 1987-1988 academic year. This was an anxious year for the people of Kosova, for Milosevic had just come to power in Serbia, Serbian nationalism was on the ascendancy, and Kosova was about to lose its autonomous region status. Yet when I arrived in Kosova I was politically uninformed and uninterested. I knew more about Albanian verb forms than the history of region. My political education however was swift.

    From the first day there was tension in the air. Serbs who met me in Belgrade could see no reason for studying the Albanian language and spoke openly in derogatory terms about Albanians. In Prishtina at the university, Serb and Albanian faculty sat separately in the faculty lounge, both separate from a group that I later learned were considered police informants. Even in the elementary school in Prishtina where I tried to enroll my seven-year old son, the Serbian principal insisted that my son should go into the Serbian second grade classroom, rather than any of the Albanian second grade classrooms in the school. As we were living with Albanians and I was studying Albanian I thought he should be in an Albanian classroom. In the end I found another place for us to live in a school district where the principal was not a Serb (he was an ethnic Turk) and didn‘t care what classroom my son attended. This should not have been so difficult as the population of Kosova was over 85 percent Albanian at that time, but there were few Albanian principals. Further, in the late fall I was picked up by the security police in a farcical but frightening situation at the Grand Hotel, after which my mail was opened before it came to me.

    Throughout the long cold winter in Prishtina, Belgrade television broadcast to Kosova and the rest of Serbia a series of brutally memorable episodes on the rise of Serbia. For national holidays, Belgrade broadcast non-stop movies of World War II that were essentially well produced enactments of the torture and suffering of the Partisans. By 1988 Kosova was a place being primed for the imposition, or from a Serbian point of view, restitution, of direct authority from Belgrade.

    My experience in Kosova at a time of tension and transition made the outbreak of fighting in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s no surprise. Only I would have expected it to start in Kosova. During the Bosnian war, I was active raising money for medical supplies and Bosnian refugees and helping organize educational events on the conflict and on the work of the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague. With escalation of violence in Kosova in 1998, I spoke out more on the situation. As Kosova exploded in March of 1999 I gave many more talks and began working for Kosovar relief in the Balkans and more directly with Kosovar refugees in the Detroit area. All these experiences contribute to my anthropological perspective. They also guide my understanding of what were defining moments for the people of Kosova, ones that affected them profoundly in their daily life and in the direction of their communities.

    Loss of Homes for Kosovar Albanians and Serbs

    For many Kosovar Albanians, expulsion from their homes was a defining moment. Many refugees recall the exact time of day that they were forced from their homes. Others recall what they were doing, often an ordinary activity like drinking tea with their children, when they heard that long-awaited kick or rifle butt on the door. One refugee in Detroit recounted that when his father closed the door of their apartment, he felt as if he had just lost the last 35 years of his life. His mother was unable to look back at their apartment. Another refugee family told me that they themselves had decided to leave their home early one morning. They lived near the police headquarters and were rightly afraid; by that afternoon the police had taken over their home. Several days later when they were staying with friends, a frantic call from an Albanian in the same apartment building warned them that the Serb police were only three floors above them, looting and expelling Albanians, and they had better leave. Still another refugee family could not describe the moment of expulsion at all. When I asked about their departure, the father just looked down and was silent. He was a professional, knew Serbo-Croatian well and had worked professionally with Serbs for many years. Like the Jews in Germany, the indignity along with the terror was overwhelming.

    Being expelled from their homes crystallized the fears Kosovar Albanians had lived with throughout 1998 and the more general oppression they had experienced across the 1990s. During this time Serbian military and police had increased greatly in number and audacity in Kosova. Random arrests, beatings and home searches of Albanians were commonplace.[2] Refugee mothers in Detroit told me this spring that throughout the 1990s when their children went to the “improvised schools” — the only schools Albanians children could then attend — they were never sure their children would return. Kosovar Albanians‘ fears turned to terror as paramilitary and armed Serbian neighbors joined in the forced evictions, killings and burnings of their homes that characterized the spring of 1999. After the defining moment of expulsion, what followed were chaotic times as families moved from neighborhood to neighborhood or village to village, trying to stay away from the Serbian forces. The moments of expulsion were relived again and again in people‘s minds in the refugee camps and then again when refugees returned to what was left of their homes.

    To appreciate what loss of home means to people of Kosova it is important to realize that homes are not only shelters and symbols of family and security. In Kosova they also represent a whole extended family‘s savings. Under Yugoslav socialism, there were almost no ways people could invest. The only private enterprises permitted were small ones that were often taxed beyond profitability. Money in banks was swiftly devoured by inflation. So people put hard-earned money back in the home, enlarging it or buying appliances for it. Thus looting of homes was not just robbery; it was seizing of assets for which there was no insurance. And the burning of a home was destruction of families — of their pasts and hopes for the future.

    For Serbs in Kosova, leaving their homes was also a defining moment, as was their reception in Serbia after their troop withdrawals. Before the main fighting started, some Serbs had sent their wives and children out of Kosova. After the peace treaty was signed on June 10, 1999, many of the remaining Serbs in Kosova left, though more from fear than from outright expulsion. They witnessed what had happened to their Albanian neighbors, and whether they participated or not, their fear of retribution was real. They followed the retreating Serbian police and military and paramilitary north, but their reception in Serbia proper was not warm. Instead busloads were escorted back to Kosova, for Milosevic feared large gatherings of the very people on whose cause he had earlier ridden to power. Thus these Serbs lost not only their particular homes, but also any sense of Mother Serbia being there for them.

    Loss of the Yugoslavia of Tito

    Milosevic‘s rise to power in Serbia can be traced to his famous speech in support of the Serbs of Kosova. In April of 1987, standing in the town of Kosovo Polje, Milosevic made his famous vow, “No one should dare to beat you,” referring to the Serb minority in Kosova in general and specifically to Serb protestors who at that moment were being pushed back by police. It is less well-known that this speech was staged.[3] Milosevic had come to Kosova four days before for talks with Serbian leaders and agreed to return. A truck of rocks for Serb protestors to use against the local police was conveniently brought to the side of the Cultural Center where Milosevic would speak. And Belgrade television instead of the local television was brought down to cover the event.

    For many Serbs this apparently spontaneous event was a defining moment. It also helped that this speech was played over and over on Belgrade television. What this moment brought together for Serbs was the growing nationalist fervor and initiatives of the 1980s. Tito had died in 1980. As Europe‘s economy, including that of Yugoslavia, declined throughout this decade and Communism as an ideology lost potency, various nationalisms re-surfaced. With Serbian nationalism, an initiative that gave it special voice was the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, made public in 1986. This memorandum presented Serbia as oppressed by Croats and Slovenes in economic and political realms. It also presented the Serbs as facing “genocide” in Kosova. Indeed Kosovar Albanians had higher birth rates than Serbs, and many Kosovar Serbs had left Kosova in the 1980s. But the birth rate reflected economic and cultural differences, not a political agenda, and the Serbs‘ departures were largely for economic reasons. The then- president of Serbia, Ivan Stambolic, publically criticized the Memorandum as “a requiem for Yugoslavia,”[4]but the stature of the Academy had given legitimacy to the nationalists‘ agenda.

    Both the Memorandum in 1986 and Milosevic‘s speech in 1987 represented a change from Tito‘s unwritten dictum not to criticize other ethnic groups publically. But it is important to realize that not just Serbian nationalism was growing, but also Croatian nationalism, Slovenian, and to a lesser extent, Albanian. Even earlier, U-M Balkan historian John Fine recalls that his professor, Ante Babic, responded to the Croatian Language Declaration in Zagreb in 1967 with, “It‘s all starting again.” And later in the 1990s, Yugoslav writer Dubravka Ugresic described the results of nationalistic populism, war and the ensuing neo-fascism of both Croatia and Serbia as “leading their cultural centers into a torpor of cultural autism.”[5] Ugresic writes powerfully of the “culture of lies” that distorted and destroyed the Yugoslavia she had known.

    Indeed, these nationalisms tend to be closed systems in which the only message allowed in the system is “how others are out to get us,” and the only message that comes out is “see how we have suffered.” Such a system becomes self-perpetuating in that the readily justified actions against others provoke them as well and the cycle continues.[6] It is like a computer system with Read Only Memory.[7] No new information comes in. In this system there is no hope for change, no space for remorse, no possibility of a wider more encompassing vision.

    Loss of Autonomous Region Status for Kosova

    Leading the wave of Serbian nationalism, Milosevic in 1989 enacted what had long been a goal of the nationalists — the rescission of Kosova‘s autonomous region status. For Kosovar Albanians, loss of this special status in Yugoslavia was a defining moment. Thereby they lost their political voice while their police, courts and schools were all placed directly under Belgrade. This action capped a series of policies from Belgrade that had been designed to favor Serbs in Kosova and to restrict Kosovar Albanians‘ opportunities so that they would leave Kosova altogether. The decade had begun with the 1981 demonstrations by Albanians in Prishtina. These demonstrations had started as a protest of conditions at the university food service, but had been co-opted into the broader political goal that Albanians had long sought, namely, having Kosova become Yugoslavia‘s seventh republic. Albanians in Kosova wanted to be treated on a par with other ethnic groups, They pointed particularly to the Montenegrins who were less numerous than the Kosovars but who nevertheless had their own republic within federal Yugoslavia.

    The demonstrations were put down with police force and martial law, and many Kosovar Albanian professionals were fired from their positions and never rehired. Throughout the 1980s it became more and more difficult for Kosovar Albanians to secure jobs in Kosova. At the same time Serb colonists were guaranteed jobs and apartments if they settled in Kosova.

    Refkije Jakupi, an Albanian-American who was then a graduate student at the University of Michigan and did internships in Kosova, remembers the changes in Prishtina before and after the loss of autonomy. She cites gatherings in the Grand Hotel in Prishtina in the summer of 1987 when Albanians and Serbs both socialized there. But by December of 1988, the same area had become more segregated and the atmosphere tense. By the summer of 1990 even the signs in the hotel were no longer in Albanian; rather they were only in Cyrillic.

    Loss of Jobs for Kosovar Albanians and Importing of Serbs from the North

    One of the first actions of Belgrade, now directly in control of Kosova, was to fire Albanians from state-run institutions. As Yugoslavia was a socialist state, almost all institutions were state-run. Thus in 1990 Albanians who worked for the police were fired and 2,500 Serb police from outside Kosova were brought in. Albanians who worked for the media, the courts and health care clinics were also fired. In 1991 Albanian teachers, university professors and most remaining doctors were fired.

    The process through which Albanian teachers and students were excluded from public schools is telling. First, in 1990, all Serbian and Montenegrin teachers in Kosova were given salary raises, two and three times their usual salary, so that their incomes should be commensurate with those in Belgrade. The Albanian teachers were not paid at all. Serbian and Albanian students were forbidden to use the same bathrooms. The following summer Albanian teachers were told to sign loyalty oaths to the regime and informed they must teach the Serbian language curriculum. When they refused they were fired. In the fall, Albanian students were blocked from entering the schools. At the same time all 1,000 Albanian staff and 27,000 Albanian students at the University of Prishtina were expelled. A form of apartheid was thereby established in Kosova that was in many ways worse than that of South Africa where the Blacks had been allowed their own schools and universities.

    A larger goal of this apartheid policy was apparent in the way doctors at the hospitals were fired. As a Kosovar Albanian doctor who is now a refugee on the east side of Detroit explained to me, first all Albanian surgeons were fired and replaced by Serbian surgeons. The only Albanian doctors allowed to stay somewhat longer were those in specialties like psychiatry — specialties that were seen as less critical for Serbian soldiers should there be fighting. By 1993 all Albanian doctors had been fired. Later, during the terror and fighting of 1998 and 1999, Albanian doctors would be specifically targeted by Serb police.

    Canadian Albanologist Robert Elsie wrote an article, “The Last Albanian Waiter,”[8] about the situation of Kosova in the early 1990s. Like Refkije Jakupi, Elsie also focused on the Grand Hotel, the main hotel of Prishtina and a modern landmark. He described how he slowly realized that there were no Albanian patrons in the restaurant of the hotel nor in any other part of the hotel. Among staff, there was only one Albanian waiter left who served him one night. When asked where all the Albanians who used to work there had gone, the waiter called Elsie‘s attention to the Serbian crosses on the other waiters‘ uniforms. As Elsie noted, 115,000 Albanians were fired from their jobs the first year Belgrade had taken over Kosova in 1990.[9] The next night even that waiter was gone.

    For Kosovar Albanians losing their jobs was a defining moment. This was a final move in a series of governmental policies that had been passed by Belgrade to restrict Albanians‘ control in their daily lives. For professionals who often invest their identities in their careers, the loss of a job took away these identities. As one professional Kosovar Albanian told me, “we were no longer teachers or doctors or lawyers, we were just Albanians, considered by Serbs as a lower form of life.” The practical aspect enters here too. How were people to feed their families if they had no jobs? Already when I was in Kosova in the late 1980s, malnutrition and unemployment were widespread among Albanians. I remember an Albanian bus conductor who was supporting twelve people with his salary. Many Kosovar Albanians left Kosova at this time to seek work in Europe or the United States. In the 1990s, Albanians in Kosova survived on the remissions from relatives abroad or with help from the Democratic League of Kosova and from charities like the Mother Teresa Charity.

    As for Serbs in Kosova, the changing job situation meant added opportunities. Many Serbs also were brought down from Serbia proper to Kosova, particularly in police and military capacities. Serbs who had felt marginalized by the sheer numbers of Albanians — 90 percent of the population of Kosova by the mid-1990s—were reassured by this influx of Serbs in uniform. However there were cultural differences and Serbs from Kosova were sometimes made to feel not quite the equal of Serbs from places like Novi Sad or Belgrade. Earlier in the 1920s and 1930s there had been a policy of Serb colonization of Kosova and some 70,000 Serbs were brought in. This colonization effort had proved largely a failure, partly for cultural reasons. In evaluating the failure, Serb historian Vaso Cubrilovic[10] recommended instead that Montenegrins be used as settlers, along with Serbs from regions near Kosova, as they wou{ld be more similar to people there.}

    During the fighting in the spring of 1999, many Serb police and paramilitaries wore black masks to inspire fear and to hide their identities. Albanian refugees noted that the Serbs from outside Kosova were often cruel, but when they recognized their Serb neighbors‘ voices behind the black masks it was even more damaging psychologically.

    Loss of Innocence

    In the aftermath of the fighting, two features of the conflict in Kosova stand out for us in the West. One is the planned nature of the expulsion of the Albanians; the other is the brutality with which it was carried out. The first of these features should come as no surprise as there have been Serbian policies and actions to expel Albanians from Kosova throughout this century (1912-1915, 1918-1939, 1952-1966, 1989-1999). In the first three of these periods of harassment, oppression and expulsion, over 300,000 Kosovar Albanians emigrated to Turkey alone. Clearly the desire to change the demographics of Kosova is not new to Belgrade. However, the West‘s earlier adoption of Tito as the “good Communist” was transferred to Yugoslavia as a whole. Well past the time of Tito, the West was content to ignore internal matters of Belgrade, including the prominence of its security police.

    As for the brutality, it was prominent in Belgrade broadcasting and in Serbian popular novels in the 1980s. Since terror was an instrument to make Albanians leave, some brutality could have been foreseen. But the level of gratuitous brutality is difficult to explain. I can only point to Bosnia and say that it was there too, from both Serb and Croat forces. In Kosova the brutality took such forms as throwing a grenade into a basement full of women and children, burning alive the old and the disabled in their homes, executing villagers, extorting from refugees, raping their daughters, shooting children and destroying villages and neighborhoods. People say that all the commands came from Milosevic in Belgrade, but the particular brutalities were produced by individuals on the ground in Kosova.

    Our innocence in the West was that we could not even conceive of people treating other people this way. This innocence, or ignorance or fear of confronting evil has often made us incapable of pausing to absorb the horror, incapable therefore of taking a stand. It is easier just to say that all parties are at fault, as many said in Bosnia, and refuse to take the time to make crucial distinctions of policy and scale. However, as the reports of “atrocity sites” in Kosova are made public, this innocence should decrease as well.

    Occurring as it has at the end of the millennium, the crisis in Kosova could still become a defining moment for the West, for all those who missed it in Bosnia. It could pull together the horrors of our twentieth century. It could remind us of the fragility of civil society, of our capacity for evil, of the danger and imperviousness of all- encompassing ideologies. It could remind us of the need to be vigilant before such systems are entrenched among us.

    Returning to the people of Kosova, both Albanians and Serbs, this tragedy could be a defining moment for them and their leaders, an event that shocks them into realizing that new attitudes must prevail. For Serbs this would require a major change of heart. For Albanians this would mean forswearing revenge. Frankly I do not see this happening now. But if there were to be such real change, there would have to be a radically new kind of political leader on the scene. Not so much a Mandela from among the Albanians as a Willy Brandt from among the Serbs. Someone to kneel down on the cobblestones in Gjakova (Djakovica), as Brandt did in Warsaw after World War II, and acknowledge what was done and that it was wrong.

    Frances Trix, an associate professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, is also a research associate of the Center for Russian and East European Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the U-M. She received her doctorate in linguistics from Michigan in 1988. She is a specialist in discourse analysis and Islam in the Balkans, and is the author of {Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993).

      1. “Kosova” is the definite Albanian form, whereas “Kosovo” is the Serbian form in Latin letters. The Western press almost invariably uses the Serbian form. However, as 90 percent of the people are Albanian, and as I studied Albanian there, I choose to use the majority form. Even more jarring to my ears are uses of Serbian city and town names for places like Gjakova (Djakovica) or Krush e Madhe (Velika Krusa) where there were multiple atrocities committed against Albanians. return to text

      2. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Open Wounds: Human Rights Abuses in Kosovo (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993). return to text

      3. Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin, 1997): 37-39. return to text

      4. Ibid. 33. return to text

      5. Dubravka Ugresic, The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998): 162. return to text

      6. JoAnn Allen, formerly professor of social work at the University of Michigan, contributed to a discussion of such self-perpetuating systems. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson also wrote of such systems which he referred to as forms of schismogenesis, that is, systems with no natural closure. return to text

      7. I would like to thank Dr. Helen Aristar-Dry, co-founder of the Linguist List and director of Linguistics at Eastern Michigan University, for this simile. return to text

      8. Robert Elsie, “The Last Albanian Waiter: Impressions from a journey to Kosovo, 1992,” ed. Robert Elsie, Studies in Modern Albanian Literature and Culture no. 455 (Boulder: East European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1996): 173-178. return to text

      9. Ibid. 175. return to text

      10. Vaso Cubrilovic, “The Expulsion of the Albanians” (1937 Memorandum “Iseljavanje Arnauta”), ed. Robert Elsie, Kosovo: In the Heart of the Powder Keg no. 478 (Boulder: Eastern European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1996): 400-424. return to text