What Do You Know About Kosovo?

What Do You Know About Kosovo?

What Do You Know About Kosovo?

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***The following article— “What Do You Know About Kosovo?” by Ashley Elizabeth Wood is not an official Albanian Voices article. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of their author and do not necessarily represent the views of Albanian Voices or any of its partner organizations.***


Kosovo haunts me. And I’m not the only one.

kosovo war by steve shelton

Kosovo war aftermath from the Gjakova destruction. Photo by Steve Shelton

I’m pretty sure I had never heard of Kosovo until President Clinton uttered its name in the late 1990s. The news networks showed us photos. I didn’t want to watch. All I knew was that one group was killing another in a genocidal, holocaust-type fashion. I was both too young and too innocent to understand anything like that, especially something that was so far removed, so far from home. For me, ever since that time the name “Kosovo”  has evoked images of blood-stained shirts and mass graves, contrasted against a grey Post-Soviet landscape. Grey and blood-red.

I don’t know why my mind always connects one color with each major war I’ve learned about. It is as if it is trying so hard to not connect with what is actually going on, that it just focuses on an overall color palette instead. When I think of Iraq, I think of the color of dried dirt – like a burnt beige. When I think of WWII, I think of dark green. When I think of Kosovo, I think of grey; which is stupid because it’s not even accurate.


Italian NATO troops entering Kosovo town of Stimje. Photo by Noam Chomsky and ZMagazine.

Kosovo haunts me. And it won’t stop. Its eerie ghost looms over the Balkans as a constant reminder of tensions between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs. Its beautiful hills and quiet mountains hold terrible secrets of what happens when people prioritize land and ethnicity over the value of human life. The streets of its capital buzz with new construction, cute coffee shops, enterprising businessmen and people dressed at the height of fashion, but it feels like there is something I’m not understanding.

The more I learn, the more complicated it becomes. If anyone says they can explain Kosovo to you over a cup of coffee, they are lying. In my experience, Kosovar Albanians are very private, closed off and secretive. It is estimated that during the war in the late 1990s, 20,000 Kosovar Albanian women were raped by Serbian military forces as an intimidation and ethnic cleansing technique. Only 5 women have ever talked publicly about their experience – all of them anonymously. It is one of the few recent conflicts where there have been clear human rights violations and rape as a war crime has been used, yet, no one will talk.

What else don’t we know?


Refugees leaving Kosovo.

The identity of the Kosovars is confusing, even to Albanians. What is a Kosovar? Are they Albanian? Are they independent? Do they “belong” to Serbia? Do they speak Serbian too? Why do they fly two flags (Kosovo’s and Albania’s)? Why do they celebrate two independence days? What really happened in the 1990s? Why won’t anyone talk?

Sometimes I feel like we don’t know a thing about Kosovo. We turn away when we hear the facts. I’m sure that makes the Kosovars feel unheard and misunderstood. I’m sure that when we turn away from them, they want to turn away from us. However, I want the Kosovar Albanians who feel ignored to remember – ignoring pain is a human coping mechanism. It’s hard to hear about pain and suffering; we want to hear about triumph. Nonetheless, those who turn away from the history of Kosovo because they want to spare themselves the bloody details don’t realize something. The history of Kosovo is not only a story about pain and suffering, but a story about triumph as well. It is the story of how an ethnic group, that so many others have tried to eliminate, has not backed down. It’s the story of resilience.


A Kosovo Red Cross volunteer looks at 46 coffins draped with Albanian flags containing the remains of ethnic Albanians killed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war in capital Pristina on Monday, March 24, 2014.

Kosovo haunts me. It is like a painting in a museum that I cannot get close enough to touch. I have met dozens of Kosovar Albanians in the United States and in Kosovo. They talk to me; they talk to us; but they do not talk to the media. I have heard harrowing stories of love and loss – of luck both good and bad, but I have not gotten permission to share most of that on the Albanian Voices website. Frequently, we get a commitment for an interview or permission to publish something, but then it is revoked as quickly as it was given – and the person disappears, never answering my emails or text messages again. I have never been invited into a Kosovar home for dinner. Sometimes, I feel like the secrets will remain locked away forever.

These days, most of Kosovo’s population is ethnically Albanian. Although they share a language and culture, the similarities between Albania and Kosovo end there. While Albania experienced a North Korea like isolation for 50 years under the regime of Enver Hoxha, Albanians in Kosovo enjoyed the freedoms of a greater Yugoslavia, being able to travel all over Europe, learn about other countries and speak other languages. Even though both countries were communist, Albania suffered from a much harsher regime. The Kosovar Albanians experienced a bloody war only 15 years ago; a war that may not even be over yet. The pain is fresh and the Kosovar Albanians are guarded, distrusting and cautious. And I can’t blame them.

AlbaniansOutsideAlbaniaWhen I began the project of Albanian Voices with the goal to record Albanian oral history, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Albanian Voices cannot represent the voices of Albanians in Albania the same way it does for Albanians in Kosovo (not to mention a dozen other groups in the diaspora that I haven’t even begun to discuss here such as Albanians in Macedonia or Albanians in Greece, for example). To understand the history of Albanians is to consider the history of many different countries. And well, good luck with that.

Even the name of Kosovo is a fascinating topic. In Serbian it loosely means “field of the blackbirds” and the region was named after the field where the 1389 Battle of Kosovo was won (defeating the Ottoman Empire). In Albanian, they use the term Kosova for the definite form and Kosovë for the indefinite. This is of little importance to English speakers, as we do not distinguish between definite and indefinite forms of a country’s name (i.e. we do not say “the Kosovo”). In most other languages, we use the word, Kosovo. In Serbian Cyrillic, the name of the country is written as Косово, pronounced like the English. The use of these spelling variants is a highly sensitive political issue for both Serbs and Albanians, who regard the use of the other side’s name as being a denial of their own side’s territorial rights.



In order to understand the history of Kosovo, I had no choice but to break it down – to split the history lesson into chew-able chunks, in a feeble attempt to understand a culture as old as the hills that surround it. Luckily, I’ve done most of the work for you. I’ve read the history books and sifted through hundreds of pages of details. I’ve condensed what I read into manageable chunks, so if you want a bullet-points history lesson on Kosovo, you’ve got it.

These are the absolute basics to understand:

  • The history of Kosovo is inextricably linked to that of its neighboring regions.
  • The region belonged to the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages.
  • Then it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
  • In 1913, Kosovo was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbia, which in 1918 became part of Yugoslavia.
  • In 1963, Kosovo gained autonomy under Josip Broz Tito’s rule, but lost it in 1990.
  • In 1999, UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) stepped in to protect Kosovo in response to human rights abuses by Serb forces.
  • On February 17, 2008, Kosovo’s Parliament declared independence.

But you want to know more, right? I hoped so! I find it best to split up the history into parts. That way it doesn’t get too overwhelming.


The Battle of Kosovo, 1389. Photo from Wikipedia.

First I think about the ancient history and the foundation that it laid for the relations between Serbia and Albania. Here’s what you need to know about that:

  • The Albanian national movement was inspired by various reasons. During the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war, the Serbian troops invaded the northeastern part of the province and deported 160,000 ethnic Albanians from 640 localities.
  • The Treaty of San Stefano in 1878 marked the beginning of the persecution of the Albanian people in the Balkans, whose lands were to be given from Turkey to Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria.
balkan wars image by roger viollet

The Balkans Wars. Image by Roger Viollet

Then I like to put things in the context of the 20th century. It makes it more manageable in my head. Here’s what you need to know about the early 1900s.

  • An Albanian rebellion in 1912 was the pretext for Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria beginning the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire.
  • After the Balkan Wars, most of Kosovo was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbia, while the region of Metohija, which in Albanian is the Dukagjini Valley was taken by the Kingdom of Montenegro. At that time, Kosovo was split into four counties: three being a part of the entity of Serbia (Zvečan, Kosovo and southern Metohija); and one of Montenegro (Northern Metohija).
titos lands

Yugoslavia 1945-1991, Tito’s Federation.

After I’ve got that straight in my head, I move on to the middle of the 20th century. Considering that the World War II was properly named, and involved the whole world, I like to know where Kosovo stood during that time. Here is what you need to know about Kosovo during WWII:

  • During WWII, when the Axis powers took Yugoslavia in 1941, most of Kosovo was assigned to the Italian-controlled Albania, with the remainders being controlled by Germany and Bulgaria. This caused a three-dimensional conflict between inter-ethnic, ideological and international affiliations. Many people were killed.
  • After the war, in an attempt to stop the terrible cycle of revenge and ethnic conflict, the new Communist government of Yugoslavia prohibited the return of 50,000-70,000 Serbs and Montenegrins who were expelled from their homes by Kosovo Albanians during the war, while conversely 70,000 settlers from Albania moved to Kosovo to replace the expelled Serb population. Subsequently, the ethnic balance of Kosovo shifted strongly in favor of the Albanians.

Ok, now I’m ready for the modern times. Personally, I split that up in my head by categorizing it as “pre-Clinton” and “post-Clinton”. Here’s what you need to know about Kosovo the 1980s and early 1990s, before Clinton and the U.S. got involved:

  • In the 1980s, tensions between the Albanian and Serb communities in the province escalated. Albanians wanted more autonomy for Kosovo, while Serbs wanted closer ties to Serbia.
  • There was no (and has never been an) interest in Kosovo’s unification with Albania.
  • In 1989, politics shifted and a new constitution was drawn up. The Albanian-language media in Kosovo was suppressed. The constitution also transferred control over state-owned companies to the Serbian government (at the time, most of the companies were state-owned).
  • In September 1990, up to 12,000 Albanian workers were fired from their positions in government and the media, provoking a general strike and mass unrest.
  • At the Prishtina University, which was seen as a center of Kosovo Albanian cultural identity, education in the Albanian language was abolished and Albanian teachers were also fired en masse. Kosovo Albanians were outraged.
  • ibrhim rugova

    Ibrahim Rugova

    In February 1990, due to the protests, a state of emergency was declared, and the presence of the Yugoslav Army and police was significantly increased to quell the unrest.

  • Unsanctioned elections were held in 1992, which overwhelmingly elected Ibrahim Rugova as “president” of a self-declared Republic of Kosovo; however these elections were not recognized by Serbian nor any foreign government.
  • In 1995, thousands of Serb refugees from Croatia settled in Kosovo, which further worsened relations between the two communities.
  • Ibrahim Rugova initially advocated non-violent resistance, but later the opposition took the form of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or in Albanian, the Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës or UÇK.

U.S. President Bill Clinton beside Gen. Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explaining the U.S. and NATO mission in Kosovo on April 1, 1999. (Win McNamee/courtesy Reuters)

Then the United States started paying attention. Here’s what you need to know about that time:

  • The KLA launched a guerrilla war and terror campaign, characterized by regular bomb and gun attacks on Yugoslav security forces, state officials and civilians known to openly support the national government, this included Albanians who were non-sympathizers with KLA motives.
  • In March 1998, Yugoslav army units joined Serbian police to fight the separatists, using military force. In the months that followed, thousands of Albanian civilians were killed and more than 10,000 fled their homes at gunpoint.
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 460,000 people had been displaced from March 1998 to March 1999.
  • There was violence against non-Albanians as well. In March of 1999, the UNHCR reported that over 90 mixed villages in Kosovo were being emptied of Serb inhabitants. They were being displaced in other parts of Kosovo or fleeing into central Serbia.
  • NATO intervened on March 24, 1999 without United Nations authority. NATO launched a campaign of heavy bombing against Yugoslav military targets and then moved to wide range bombings (like bridges in Novi Sad).
  • libarmy

    Kosovo Liberation Army

    A full-scale war broke out as KLA continued to attack Serbian forces and Serbian/Yugoslav forces continued to fight KLA among a massive displacement of the population of Kosovo, which most human rights groups classified as an act of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the government forces.

  • A number of senior Yugoslav government officials and military officers, including President Milošević, were subsequently indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes. Milošević died in detention before a verdict was rendered.
  • The United Nations estimated that during the Kosovo War, nearly 40,000 Albanians fled or were expelled from Kosovo between March 1998 and the end of April 1999. Most of the refugees went to Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, or Montenegro.
  • The war ended on June 10, 1999 with the Serbian and Yugoslav governments signing the Kumanovo agreement which agreed to transfer governance of the province to the United Nations.

But that only gets us up to 1999. So, many people say to themselves, “Ok, the war ended by 2000, but why wasn’t Kosovo declared independent until 2008? What happened in between?” Here’s what you need to know:

  • In 2002, Serbia and Montenegro reported hosting 277,000 internally displaced people (the vast majority being Serbs and Roma from Kosovo). The largest concentration of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo is in the north of the province above the Ibar river, but an estimated two-thirds of the Serbian population in Kosovo continues to live in the Albanian-dominated south of the province.
  • photo_verybig_143104International negotiations began in 2006 to determine the final status of Kosovo, as envisaged under UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which ended the Kosovo conflict of 1999. Whilst Serbia’s continued sovereignty over Kosovo was recognized by the international community, a clear majority of the province’s population sought independence.
  • The United Nations-backed talks, led by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, began in February 2006. As of early July 2007 the draft resolution, which was backed by the United States, United Kingdom and other European members of the Security Council, had been rewritten four times to try to accommodate Russian concerns. Russia, which holds a veto in the Security Council as one of five permanent members, has stated that it will not support any resolution which is not acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina.
  • Kosovo_03_24_09_Sennott_Anniversary_EditOn February 17, 2008, Kosovo’s Parliament declared independence, to mixed international reactions.
  • On July 25, 2011, Kosovar Albanian police wearing riot gear attempted to seize several border control posts in Kosovo’s Serb-controlled north trying to enforce the ban on Serbian imports imposed in retaliation of Serbia’s ban on imports from Kosovo.
  • Tense situations, protests and negotiations related to the above-mentioned historical instances continue in Kosovo to this day.

kosovo22Kosovo is my lost city of Atlantis. It’s the country I will never be able to see in the daylight – to photograph all of its folds and creases, its nuances, its secrets, its history. It’s a country I will never “pin down” mentally, partially because it is not a country in the eyes of all members of the international community. Kosovo needs time to heal. We cannot rush it. Maybe we will never understand the full story. Or maybe the issue is that the full story will never be published. People always talk to friends who listen without judgement, so this means it is all of our jobs to collect information on Kosovo. We have to take the time to talk to our friends, colleagues and neighbors who are from Kosovo, in order to understand them and for them to feel understood. If we create a safe place for them to share their experiences, we might finally get to learn about their unique and challenging world.

If you read to the end, urime! (congratulations!). You are a warrior and a champion for human rights. Now share this article with a friend and spread the knowledge!


Florian Bieber; Židas Daskalovski (1 April 2003). “Understanding the War in Kosovo.” Taylor & Francis. p. 58

Hysni Myzyri (2002). “Kryengritjet shqiptare të viteve 1909-1911,” Historia e popullit shqiptar: për shkollat e mesme. Libri Shkollor: Prishtinë. 195-198.

Mojzes, Paul (2011). Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the 20th Century. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Zejneli, Amra (May 29, 2014). “How Long Can You Keep A Secret? For Kosovo’s Wartime Rape Victims, The Answer Is: Maybe Forever.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. http://www.rferl.org/content/kosovo-wartime-rape-victims-kept-secret/25403115.html. <Retrieved February 16, 2015>

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