Slobodan Milosevic’s quest for a “Greater Serbia” has been going on in the mostly ethnic-Albanian province of Kosovo since 1989. In the summer of that year, he made history in Kosovo Polje. Milosevic was there to reawaken a nationalist spirit held dormant by years of communism. In an impassioned speech— declaring Kosovo the heart of Serbian civilization—he reminded his Serb brethren that they had paid for Kosovo with the blood of their ancestors, who were defeated on that very day, 600 years before, by invading Ottoman Turks in the battle of the Field of Black Birds.
Up until 1989, Kosovo was an autonomous province of Serbia. After Milosevic’s famous speech, he began a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, stripping Kosovo of its autonomy, and declaring all those opposed to his policy as terrorists. The majority population of ethnic Albanians was now being ruled by the minority Serbian population in a kind of Balkan apartheid (prior to the war in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians outnumbered Serbs 9-to-1 in the province). The Albanian language was declared unofficial, and school curricula changed to reflect Serb history, culture, and language.
By 1991, a separatist movement was in full swing with Albanian Kosovars organizing their own political parties and holding elections. Ibrahim Rugova, an academic, was voted their president. In that same year, the de facto Albanian Kosovar government declared Kosovo independent of Yugoslavia. Consumed with the war in Croatia, and then Bosnia, the declaration was given scant attention by Belgrade.
By 1996, violence in the region began to escalate as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)—Kosovo’s separatist rebel army—regularly clashed with Serb police, and claimed control of nearly a third of the region of Kosovo.
In the spring of 1998, Milosevic responded by intensifying his campaign of ethnic cleansing, routinely using force against the civilian population, leveling villages, and driving people from their homes, causing a humanitarian disaster with over 300,000 Albanian Kosovars internally displaced. Anyone seen as the opposition, or in collaboration with the KLA, became fair game to Serb forces. In January 1999, 45 Albanian Kosovar civilians were massacred in the village of Racak. Milosevic claimed that they were all members of the KLA, despite the fact that they were unarmed and dressed in civilian garb.
Nearly ten years after Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Polje, in the spring of 1999, leaders of NATO, the KLA, and Serbia, met in Rambouillet, France, to try to arrive at a peace agreement. Having failed to adhere to an earlier cease-fire agreement, this was Milosevic’s last chance. Prior to Rambouillet, NATO had made numerous threats to intervene in Kosovo and was beginning to lose face. Although the KLA agreed to the terms outlined at Rambouillet, the Serbs eventually walked out, and on March 24, 1999, NATO began an air war against Serbia in an effort to bring Milosevic back to the bargaining table and protect Albanian Kosovars from Serb police and armed forces.
What happened as a result was a refugee crisis of massive proportion. Milosevic’s police and army raided villages throughout Kosovo, forcing families to flee, and in many cases murdering men that they accused of being affiliated with the KLA, or who they thought might leave and come back fighting for the KLA. Although men considered to be of fighting age were most likely to be killed, in many instances women, children, and the elderly were also victims. According to a published report in The New York Times, with statistics provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the 1.8 million ethnic Albanians residing in Kosovo, close to 800,000 were displaced throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia, with more than half the total number absorbed by Europe’s poorest country, Albania. The NATO bombing campaign and the exodus lasted 72 days before Milosevic gave in and efforts began to repatriate Albanian Kosvars.
In The Field of Black Birds: Kosovar Refugees in Albania and Italy by Emile Wamsteker was exhibited at the Light Work Gallery from November 1 to December 17, 1999. Wamsteker is a freelance photo- grapher and lives in New York City.