A thick fog covers the Plain of Blackbirds

Julian Evans

  • Trois Chants Funébres pour le Kosovo by Ismail Kadare, translated by Jusuf Vrioni
    Fayard, 119 pp, frs 6.90, April 1998, ISBN 2 213 60180 1

Ismail Kadare knew what was coming six years ago. ‘The Albanians have kept extremely calm in Kosovo,’ he told me, ‘because they know that the Serbs are only waiting for a sign of provocation to start a terrible massacre. Milosevic is biding his time. All his plans are ready. He is encouraged by the passivity of the European nations and the US ... The Slavs are very good at these nationalistic campaigns. Someone aggressive makes a move, puts extreme pressure on a neighbour, and the civilised world, which is tired out, accepts.’ Reading his words, published in the Guardian in February 1993, you could be excused for taking them (as I did when I heard them) as an indication of great foresight. Having talked to him several times since then I would now put it differently: his remarks spring not from foresight, but from terrible hindsight. What we are seeing on our television screens and reading about in our newspapers has happened before.

Almost all the Muslims ... were expelled from the Morava valley region: there had been hundreds of Albanian villages there, and significant Albanian populations in towns such as Prokuplje, Leskovac and Vranje. A Serbian schoolmaster in Leskovac later recalled that the Muslims had been driven out in December 1877 at a time of intense cold: ‘By the roadside, in the Gudelica gorge and as far as Vranje and Kumanovo, you could see the abandoned corpses of children, and old men frozen to death’... By the end of 1878 Western officials were reporting that there were 60,000 families of Muslim refugees in Macedonia, ‘in a state of extreme destitution’, and 60-70,000 Albanian refugees from Serbia ‘scattered’ over the [Ottoman] vilayet of Kosovo ... This was not, it should be said, a matter of spontaneous hostility by local Serbs. Even one of the Serbian Army commanders had been reluctant to expel the Albanians from Vranje, on the grounds that they were a quiet and peaceful people. But the orders came from the highest levels in Belgrade.

It was from a local Catholic priest that the Daily Telegraph learned of a massacre at Ferizaj, where the Serbian commander had invited the Albanian men to return to their homes in peace, and where those who did so (300-400 men) were then taken out and shot. The fullest and most chilling account was given by Lazër Mjeda, the Catholic Archbishop of Skopje, in a report to Rome of 24 January 1913. He said that in Ferizaj only three Muslim Albanians over the age of fifteen had been left alive; that the Albanian population of Gjilan had also been massacred, although the town had surrendered without a fight; and that Gjakova had been completely sacked.

Both passages come from Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History. The first describes the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from territories taken over by Serbia in 1877 and 1878; the second the conquest of Kosovo by the Serbian Army 34 years later. In 1912, Kosovo was still under Ottoman rule but about to become an autonomous state after a revolt of Kosovar Albanian chiefs; by a horrible irony it was this Albanian revolt which, by enfeebling the Ottoman garrisons, enabled the Serbs’ anti-Ottoman campaign to be rapidly won.

Anyone who wants to look into the origins of Serbs and Albanians – Ptolemy’s Serboi in the northern Caucasus; the Albanian Illyrian-or-Thracian argument – and of their enmities should read Noel Malcolm’s brilliant account, on which I have drawn extensively in this review. The main elements of the present situation – the festering of Serb nationalism, the ideology of the ethnically pure state, the rhetoric of external threat – have relatively recent roots: as recent, in fact, as Serbia’s struggle for independence in the 19th century. On the Albanian side it was not until the events of 1877-78 and, more conclusively, the policies pursued immediately after the 1912 conquest that a thoroughgoing hostility towards Serbia was created.

The inclusion of Kosovo in Serbia’s territorial aims was in part justified by the claim that Kosovo is ‘the cradle of the Serbs’. When I spoke to him in 1993, Kadare was adamant that the claim was unfounded: ‘the Serbs – the Slavs – came to the Balkans in the eighth century, when the Albanians and the Greeks were already there.’ Noel Malcolm, who cautions against arguments conducted on the basis of which ethnicity has been where longest, nonetheless bears him out: of the eight centuries between the arrival of the Serbs in the Balkans and the final Ottoman conquest in the 1450s, Kosovo was under Serb rule only for the last two and a half.

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