WAR IN THE BALKANS
Sixty years of ethnic cleansing
During the second world war the occupation forces set about the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gypsies - and also of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Half a century later the dismantling of Yugoslavia sparked new massacres in which each community has been both victim and executioner.
BY TOMMASO Di FRANCESCO AND GIACOMO SCOTTI
"From April until autumn the Kosovo countryside was being burned and looted... I was there. The fires and the looting continued through to mid-October. I shall never forget the terrible sight that met my eyes on 18 October. I was coming down from the mountains of the upper Ibar valley and I saw a long and wretched column of Montenegrin Serb refugees. They were coming to find refuge in the town, bringing with them the few possessions they had managed to save, loaded into wagons and handcarts or carried in bundles on their shoulders."
That account could have come from one of the OSCE observers (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe).
In fact it dates from 1941.
It is an extract from a "Report on the Yugoslav Countryside" by an Italian agronomist, Giovanni Lorenzoni (1).
It is another way of saying that ethnic cleansing has a long history in former Yugoslavia. As Slobodan Milosevic subjects the Albanians of Kosovo (80% of the population according to the 1991 census) to forced exile and ethnic cleansing, many Serbs see this as a fitting revenge: partly for the bombing of Serbia by Nato, but also for the "cleansing" to which they themselves were subjected in the past.
During the second world war the fascist and Nazi occupation forces dismantled Yugoslavia. They set up puppet states headed by fascist dictators - Ante Pavelic in Croatia, Milan Nedic in Serbia - and annexed the other parts (2): Italy turned Montenegro into a protectorate and annexed part of Slovenia, most of the Dalmatian islands and part of Croatia. Germany appropriated most of Slovenia. Hungary took another slice of Slovenia and most of Vojvodina. Bulgaria took almost the whole of Macedonia. Kosovo and Western Macedonia were annexed to "Greater Albania", under Italian control. In each of these annexed regions terrorist methods were used to put a German, Italian, Hungarian or Bulgarian stamp on them.
Germany deported hundreds of thousands of Slovenes to Serbia or to concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Slovenes and Croats, mostly intellectuals, were imprisoned in Italy. Ten thousand of them died of hunger, disease or torture. Thousands of others were shot in the annexed regions. In a memo dated 8 August 1942 General Mario Robotti wrote "We are not killing enough!". In line with a directive from Mussolini in June 1942, he issued orders: "I would not be opposed to all Slovenes being imprisoned and replaced by Italians. In other words, we should take steps to ensure that political and ethnic frontiers coincide."
In Ustashi Croatia, which had been turned into a German colony, dreadful massacres were carried out against the Serbs, and the survivors were systematically exterminated in the camps of Slano (Pago), Jadovno, Stara Gradiska, Jasenovac and others. Here at least 600,000 Serbs, Jews, gypsies and Croatian anti-fascists perished (3).
The German occupying forces also opened extermination camps in Serbia. In the Sadmiste camp between late 1941 and spring 1942 the Nazis murdered some 7,500 Jews and 600 Romanies, and then other peoples - in all 47,000. In the Bandica camp the dead numbered 80,000. Tens of thousands of other internees were deported to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau etc, where almost all died. An extermination camp for children operated at Smederevska Palanka from 1942.
According to statistics published in 1964 ethnic cleansing by the Axis powers and their collaborators in occupied Yugoslavia claimed more than a million dead.
This million included the majority of the Serb and Montenegrin inhabitants of Kosovo. Almost all were exterminated between April 1941 and October 1944 by the "balists". These were Kosovar Albanian fascist militias and nationalists of the "Bali Kombhtar". They first collaborated with the Italian blackshirts in "Greater Albania" (which included Western Macedonia) occupied by Mussolini’s troops. Then in September 1943 they put themselves at the service of the German SS. Under both masters they committed terrible atrocities against the Serbs.
With the victory of Tito’s partisans, the People’s Republic of Serbia restored its sovereignty in Kosovo. But the Serbs who had been driven out of Kosovo were not encouraged to return. The Resistance wanted to recruit the Kosovars and set about a forced mobilisation of young Albanians, sending them to the Srem front where the Germans were dug in between September 1944 and April 1945. The Albanians were enrolled by every possible means - even executions - denounced at the first congress of the Serb Communist Party in 1945.
This self-criticism did not, however, prevent a bloody wave of repression against the Albanians, carried out in the early post-war years and orchestrated by the minister of interior, Aleksandar Rankovic, whom Tito later ousted from the Politburo. Later, when Belgrade gave Kosovo its autonomy under the 1974 Constitution, the province’s Albanians were in a position to exert a real political, cultural and social hegemony in the region - to such an extent that in 1980 the Kosovo Serbs began to revolt against their "subordination". With the encouragement of the Belgrade leadership, and of Milosevic in particular, there were increasing reports of Serb violence against Albanians, and vice versa. It was this cycle of violence between opposing nationalist forces that sparked the local risings that resulted in the "ethnic rape" of Serbian women, fresh terrorist attacks and bloody repression. It led, after a state of emergency, to rescinding Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989. The groundwork for the present tragedy had been laid.
During the past ten years around 400,000 inhabitants of Kosovo have left the region. Most were escaping the poverty, but they were also fleeing the crossfire of revenge attacks between the two sides and Milosevic’s military repression. Among the emigrés were Albanians and Turks, but also Serbs who make up barely 10% of the total population. It is estimated that between 1989 and late 1998 ongoing pressures from the Albanians (and for the past three years the violence of the Kosovo Liberation Army) have forced more than 10,000 Serbian peasants to sell their lands and leave the region.
Vojvodina and Istria
Two other multi-ethnic regions, Istria and Vojvodina, also underwent ethnic cleansing in the immediate post-war period. Here too the expulsion of "unwelcome" (ie non-Slav) populations derived ultimately from Yugoslavia’s all-powerful interior minister: Rankovic was taking it out on minorities accused of collaborating with the enemy. Many of the Germans of Vojvodina (the owners of large farms mostly settled in the Backa) had been members of Nazi militias during the occupation of Yugoslavia: 100,000 - almost all of them - were expelled. Their property was confiscated and their lands handed over to poor ex-soldiers from more backward and less fertile parts of the country.
In Istria and the Quarnero the operation was less drastic, because many inhabitants decided not to live under the new regime - during the early post-war years they had already suffered attacks from people from other regions of Yugoslavia who often had no connection with the Resistance. Between June 1945 and the end of 1947, 180,000 Italians crossed the border. There were also 100,000 people, including ex-partisans and anti-fascists, who left after Stalin’s break with Tito (1948-49) or as a result of the "Trieste crisis" (4). Former Yugoslavia now has fewer than a thousand Germans and about 40,000 Italians.
Looking at the recent and more familiar ethnic cleansing that caused so much bloodshed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1991-95, we need to remember that it was preceded by a decade of incitement to hatred by the nationalist leaderships that took power in Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo after the death of Tito. Most of the media were continuously advocating the separation of nationalities, by force if necessary.
Lika to Operation Storm
In Croatia, with the reappearance of the Ustashis, the Serbs began to be persecuted in all areas. They were not slow to react. They rebelled in the territories where they were in a majority and where they had lived for centuries - Slavonia, Kordun, Banovina and Lika. They drove about 80,000 Croats out of these regions. The response came from May-August 1995: with the approval of the United States and the support of Nato, the army of Croatia’s President Franjo Tujman launched its "Operation Lightning" in Western Slavonia (5) and "Operation Storm" in the Krajina of Krin. These two operations resulted in the retaking of the region and the expulsion of 360,000 Serbs (6). Tens of thousands of Serbs were also forced to flee other towns and regions of Croatia. Tujman has in fact boasted about having reduced the percentage of Serbs in his country from 12% in 1991 to 2-3% today (7).
The only region where the Serbs remained in a majority was in Eastern Slavonia. They were initially placed under United Nations administration but were returned to the sovereignty of Zagreb in July 1997. Since then ethnic cleansing has been under way here too, but it has been silent and underground. Nevertheless it has succeeded in reducing the number of Serbs by half. They have been driven from their homes and lands by a combination of political pressure and criminal attacks by "unknown perpetrators".
In Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnic cleansing has taken place almost everywhere, and it has been very thorough. Out of the 4 million present inhabitants (compared with 5 million before the war), fewer than 1 million live in the villages in which they were born. The Croats cleansed "their" Herzegovina, driving out Serbs and Muslims.
The same kind of operation was carried out in some regions of central Bosnia and in Bosnian Posavine. Muslims drove Serbs and Croats out of Sarajevo (80,000-100,000 of them fled the town in March 1996 after Nato strikes against Bosnian Serb troops who were besieging it) as well as out of other parts of the Federation conquered militarily.
The Serbs in turn drove out Muslims and Croats from their Republika Srpska. In this process of vicious mutual ethnic cleansing, physical and psychological terror stemmed largely from the barbaric treatment inflicted in the prison camps created by both Croats and Serbs - particularly, in the case of the Serbs, the notorious Omarska camp with its raping of women. The Muslims did the same, on a smaller scale but equally ferociously, notably at Tarcin and Celebici. Furthermore, they also "cleansed" from among their own number, driving "rebel" fellow-Muslims out of the "republic" of the dubious businessman Fikret Abdic.
At least 2 million Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims are currently refugees. Some live abroad, some are in Bosnia-Herzegovina and some are in other republics of former Yugoslavia, where Serbia alone has taken in more than 700,000. All, or almost all, know that there is little chance of ever returning to their homes. All, or almost all, have been sentenced to exile, for ever.
Victors emerge from the Balkans wars, but so too does frenzied hatred and an irrepressible desire for vengeance. History is being repeated and the fighting has started all over again because past conflicts have always been "settled" by violence. But only political solutions can end this chain of horrors and ethnic cleansing.
Translated by Ed Emery
More by Tommaso Di Francesco and Giacomo Scotti
* Respectively international news editor of il manifesto, Rome; and a historian of the Balkans, living in Croatia.
(1) Marco Dogo, Kosovo, Marco publishers, Lungro di Cosenza, 1992.
(2) L’occupazione nazifascista in Europa, ed. Enzo Collotti, Editori Riuniti, Rome, 1964.
(3) Report by US Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat: US and Allied Wartime and Postwar Relations and Negotiations with Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey on Looted Gold and German External Assets and US Concerns about the Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury, ed. William Slany, Washington DC, June 1998.
(4) After the Liberation the city was run by the Allied Military Government. When this was abolished in 1953 the Allies unilaterally handed Trieste over to Italy, thus creating major tensions with Belgrade. Rome went so far as to mass military divisions on the Yugoslav frontier. The fear of war led many inhabitants to flee.
(5) The bombing did not spare even the former extermination camp at Jasenovac.
(6) Giacomo Scotti, L’operazione Tempesta, Gamberetti Editore, Rome, 1996.
(7) President Tujman’s speech to the Croat parliament in January 1999.
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