The Yugoslav Wars were a series of related wars of independence, ethnic conflicts and insurgencies taking place in former Yugoslavia in 1991-2001. They lead up to and continued after the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in 1992. The 1998-1999 genocide and gendercide in Kosovo was a part of this dynamic.
Understanding the context
The country Yugoslavia, which means South Slavic Land, came into existence after the end of World War I, but was then called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. This new state was the result of a merger of the provisional State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (all territories from the former Austria-Hungary Empire) with the Kingdom of Serbia. Previously, the region had been dominated by two powerful but now defunct empires: The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Now, a sovereign union of South Slavic people was formed, headed by Peter I of Serbia as its first ruler. In 1929, the name of the country was changed to Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis power during World War II. The king went into exile, and after the end of the war the monarchy was abolished. A communist government came into power and the communist leader Josip Broz Tito ruled the country until his death in 1980. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was comprised of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Within Serbia were the two autonomous provinces Vojodina and Kosovo. After the death of Tito and financial problems in the 1980s, the federation, step-by-step, broke up along those internal borders, and the region suffered through the Yugoslav Wars in 1991-2001.
Historically, Bosnia and Kosovo demarcated a boundary between Ottoman Empire Muslim populations and Orthodox Christian populations in the Balkans. Today, circa 85% of the population in the Republic of Serbia are Orthodox Christians, and another 6% belong to other branches of Christianity. In the (partially recognised) Republic of Kosovo, over 97% of the population are Muslims.
As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the early 20th century, the Serbs took control of Kosovo through the wars of 1912-1913.
In his rise to power in the late 1980s, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic promoted the idea of Kosovo being essential to Serb nationalism and identity, a sentiment which clashed with the ethnic Albanians who comprised circa 90% of the population in Kosovo and had enjoyed considerable autonomy under Tito.
As the Yugoslav federation crumbled, Milosevic continued to promote Serb nationalism and, eventually, the “ethnic cleansing” of territories where the Serbs were in majority or constituted a large minority.
In 1989, ethnic Albanians were fired by the tens of thousands from both state and private positions, and their jobs went to Serbs. Simultaneously, ethnic-Albanian migration out of Kosovo was strongly encouraged, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic-Albanians migrated to Western Europe and North America.
The police began to routinely stop Kosovo Albanian men. Professor Julie Mertus notes that between 1989 and 1997, half the adult population of Kosovo Albanians experienced arrest, interrogation, internment or were remanded. (Source: Julie A. Mertus, “Kosovo. How Myths and Truths Started a War”, University of California Press, 1999.)
As a reaction to the state-sanctioned discrimination, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed in 1997.
The genocide of 1998-1999
In 1998, violence increased in Kosovo and the Serbs carried out mass killings based on family affiliation. Here, not only battle-age men were the victims – a substantial number of women, children and elderly (of both sexes) were killed too.
One example is the Serbian attack on the Kosovo-Albanian Deliaj clan in September 1998, which left the corpses of 15 women, children and elderly slumped among the rocks in a gorge below the village. They had been shot in the head at close range. Three men, including a paralysed 95-year-old man, were instead killed by setting their houses ablaze. (Source: Jane Perlez, “Massacres by Serbian forces in 3 Kosovo villages”, The New York Times, September 30, 1998.)
Early gender-selective killings
The gender-selective attacks on Kosovo-Albanian males occurred early, which is a pattern we recognize from many other genocides, where battle-age males are the early-stage targets, before a more complete root-and-branch extermination campaign is put into action.
One notable example from Kosovo is the mass killings that took place in the village of Racak on 16 January, 1999, an event that was later dubbed “The massacre that forced the West to Act”.
“As the [Serb] forces entered the village searching for ‘terrorists’ from the Kosovo Liberation Army they tortured, humiliated, and murdered any men they found.“(Source: Peter Beaumont and Patrick Wintour, “Kosovo: the untold story”, The Guardian, July 18, 1999)
On January 22, The New York Times published a chilling account of the event, including information about the victims. The article was comprised of excerpts from the ”Special Report: Massacre of Civilians in Racak,” which had been compiled by international monitors who were in the village before and after the January killings.
“Twenty-three adult males of various ages. Many shot at extremely close range, most shot in the front, back and top of the head. Villagers reported that these victims were last seen alive when the police were arresting them. (…) Three adults [sic] males shot in various parts of their body, including their backs. They appeared to have been shot when running away. (…) One adult male shot outside his house with his head missing. (…) One adult male shot in head and decapitated. All the flesh was missing from the skull. One adult female shot in the back. (…) One boy (12 years old) shot in the neck. One male, late teens (shot in abdomen).” (Source: “Charting a Massacre: The Monitors’ Report”, The New York Times, January 22 1999.)
The failed peace-accord of Rambouillet
After the massacre at Racak, the international community, led by the United States, arranged a conference at Rambouillet, France in an attempt to broker a peace accord. The suggestion was to give Kosovo autonomy, but not full-scale independence from Serbia, and also give NATO very far-reaching rights to keep troops in Kosovo and move such troops through other Yugoslav territories.
The Serbian regime refused the suggestion, and instead withdrew to implement Operation Horseshoe.
The suggested peace-accord has later come under harsh criticism for asking for too much on behalf of NATO and deliberately setting the bar higher than what the Serbs could be expected to accept.
Henry Kissinger went as far as calling it a provocation.
“The Rambouillet text, which called on Serbia to admit NATO troops throughout Yugoslavia, was a provocation, an excuse to start bombing. Rambouillet is not a document that an angelic Serb could have accepted. It was a terrible diplomatic document that should never have been presented in that form.” — Henry Kissinger, The Daily Telegraph, 28 June 1999
The international monitors from The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were withdrawn on 22 March in fear of anticipated bombing by NATO. The following day, the Serbian assembly issued a resolution that condemned the withdrawal of the OSCE monitors, and accepted the principle of “autonomy” for Kosovo and the non-military part of the peace accord.
- Herring, Eric (2000). “From Rambouillet to the Kosovo Accords: NATO’S War against Serbia and Its Aftermath” (PDF). The International Journal of Human Rights. 4 (3–4): 224–245. Page 227.
- “Conclusions of Serbian parliament”. Serbia-info.com. Serbian Government. 24 March 1999https://serbia-info.com/news/1999-03/24/10030.html
Genocide and gendercide: Operation Horseshoe
The Serb offensive focused on (but not purely limited to) the semi-circular swath of western Kosovo adjoining Albania became known as Operation Horseshoe. This was considered the heartland of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
From March 19, 1999, the Serbs carried out a classic ethnic cleansing campaign against the ethnic-Albanians. Generally speaking, it was largely Kosovo-Albanian men and adolescent boys who were massacred to death during the campaign, while Kosovo-Albanian women and children were told to leave for Albania.
One of the early eyewitness reports came from Selami Elshani, a man who managed to survive when a group of non-combatant men were executed in the village Velika Krusa on March 26. After being severely burned by the fire set by the Serbs to finish off the attack, Elshani was smuggled into Albania where he received hospital treatment and was interviewed by Washington Post. (Source: Peter Finn, “ ‘If I Could Not Talk, Nobody Would Know’ “, Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page A1.)
Even though Kosovo-Albanian women were much more likely to escape execution than men, it should be noted that gender-selective sexual assault on women was common as a part of Operation Horseshoe.
Operation Horseshoe in Izbica: Testimonial from Velika Krusa
The testimonial from Velika Krusa, a Kosovo-Albanian woman who lived in Izbica, paints a horrifying picture of what happened when the Serbian forces reached her village. Her testimonial was gathered by the Human Rights Watch, and published in “Witness to Izbica Killings Speaks: Possibly Largest Massacre of Kosovo War,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #39, May 19 1999.
Her account show how the early-stage gender-selection of battle-age men as victims in Operation Horseshoe caused a dynamic where many battle-aged Kosovo-Albanian men left for the surrounding mountains as the Serbian forces drew near, and also how the Serbs carried out additional gender-selective steps once they arrived to the village.
“When the Serbs arrived, almost all of the young men left the village. They went into the mountains to hide or fight. (…) By 10 a.m. [the next morning] everyone was in the field. There were thousands of people, almost all women, children, and old people. Only about 150 men were among us. (…)
At about 11 a.m. they separated the women from the men. We asked them why they were doing this and they told us, in a very scary voice: “Shut up, don’t ask, otherwise we’ll kill you.” The children were terrified. The Serbs yelled: “We’ll kill you, and where is the United States to save you?” All the women had covered their heads with handkerchiefs out of fear of the Serbs, hiding their hair and foreheads. The Serbs called us obscene things, saying “Fuck all Albanian mothers,” and “All Albanian women are bitches.” They took the men away and lined them up about twenty meters away from us. Then they ordered us to go to Albania. They said: “You’ve been looking for a greater Albania, now you can go there.” They were shooting in the air above our heads. We followed their orders and moved in the direction we were told, walking away from the men. About 100 meters from the place we started walking, the Serbs decided to separate out the younger boys from our group. Boys of fourteen and up had already been placed with the men; now they separated out boys of about ten and up. Only very small boys were left with us, one old man who had lost his legs, and my handicapped brother, who can’t walk because of spinal meningitis. So they took the ten to fourteen-year-olds to join the men. The boys’ mothers were crying. Some even tried to speak to the Serbs, but the Serbs pushed them. We were walking away very slowly because we were so worried about what would happen to our men. (…) We stopped moving when we heard automatic weapon fire. We turned our heads to see what was happening, but it was impossible to see the men. We saw the ten-to-fourteen-year-olds running in our direction; when they got to us we asked them what was happening. They were very upset; no one could talk. One of them finally told us: “They released us but the others are finished.” We stayed in the same place for some twenty minutes. Everyone was crying. The automatic weapon fire went on non-stop for a few minutes; after that we heard short, irregular bursts of fire for some ten minutes or so. My father, my uncle and my cousin were among the men killed. Kajtaz Rexha and Qazim Rexhepi were also killed, as were many other members of the Bajraj, Bajrami, Rexhepi, and Aliu families. Then ten Serbs caught up with us. They said lots of obscenities and again told us: “Now you must leave for Albania — don’t stop, just go.” We had to leave. (…) My father had given me his jacket because I had been wearing another jacket that said “American Sport” on it and he was afraid; he wanted to cover that up. Because I was pushing the wheelbarrow and wearing a man’s jacket, they thought I was a man. They told me to stop and then to come over to them, but I was too afraid. It was the scariest moment of my life. Then they shined a flashlight in my face and saw that I was a woman. One of them said, “Let her go.” – Velika Krusa
Source: Human Rights Watch, “Witness to Izbica Killings Speaks: Possibly Largest Massacre of Kosovo War,” Kosovo Human Rights Flash #39, May 19 1999.
The Izbica massacre on 28 March, 1999, was one of the largest ones of the Kosovo war. After the end of the war, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) reported that about 93 Kosovo Albanians died from the massacre; mostly non-combatant males between the ages 60 and 70.
The massacre at Meja: Another example of gendercide during the Kosovo war
The massacre at Meja on April 27, 1999
Serbian army troops kidnapped Kosovo-Albanian men, while telling the women to move to Albania. Around noon, the first group of men were led to a compost heap and gunned down. A few minutes later circa 70 men were forced to lay down, before being machine-gunned in the back. The remaining circa 35 men were taken to a farmhouse, pushed into a room and shot at through the windows. Militiamen then entered the room, finished the men off with shots to the head, and set the building on fire. A recent estimate claims that as many as 500 men were killed at Meja.
Source: Joshua Hammer, “On the Trail of the Hard Truth,” Newsweek, July 9, 2000
End of the genocidal campaign in Kosovo
In early June 1999, the Milosevic regime called off its ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo. The decision is believed to have been prompted by a combination of factors, including decreased support from Russia, the NATO bombings, and how the events in Kosovo was used to justify both NATO and United Nations involvement in the conflict.
A NATO-dominated force entered Kosovo on June 10, 1999, alongside humanitarian workers, and forensic teams from ICTY.
In the aftermath, over 150,000 Serbs fled Kosovo, fearing revenge attacks from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The fear was not unfounded, as the KLA and the Albanian mafia carried out hundreds of revenge killings.