Perspectives | Serbia

Our children are learning distorted stories of Serbia’s past

By - 10.04.2019

How Serbia has drawn a veil over one part of its history.

During and in connection with the 1998–99 armed conflict in Kosovo, 13,535 persons either lost their lives or went missing; this included 10,812 Albanians, 2,197 Serbs and 526 people from other ethnic groups, including Roma, Montenegrins, Turks and Bosniaks. These are all facts.

Notably, there were as many as 7,431 civilian casualties in the period from 20 March to 14 June, 1999 — which primarily overlaps with the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Again, this is an established fact.

In two cases, those against Šainović et al. and Đorđević, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that the Yugoslav Army (VJ) and the Serbian Ministry of Interior (MUP) forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, while violating the laws or customs of war. Verified, evidence-based, proved — facts.

It’s all there in black and white; a great number of the facts from this time have been confirmed — beyond any reasonable doubt.


The Tribunal established beyond reasonable doubt that Nikola Šainović, then deputy prime minister of the FRY, Nebojša Pavković, then commander of the VJ 3rd Army, Vlastimir Đorđević, then assistant minister of internal affairs of Serbia and chief of the Public Security Department, and Sreten Lukić, then head of the Serbian MUP staff for Kosovo and Metohija, had participated in a joint criminal enterprise, the goal of which was to modify the ethnic balance in Kosovo in order to ensure continued control by the Serbian authorities over the province.

Furthermore, then Chief of the VJ General Staff Dragoljub Ojdanić and then Commander of the VJ Priština Corps Vladimir Lazarević provided assistance and support to the aforementioned state officials’ criminal plan consequently put into effect by means of murder, deportation, forcible transfer and persecution.

Former political, military and law enforcement establishments of the FRY and Serbia have been found guilty for the crimes carried out in Kosovo, as stated in these judgments. Totalling 2,700 pages, the documents offer descriptions of these crimes and present us with the reasoned conclusions of the Tribunal concerning investigations, victims, survivors and perpetrators.

It’s all there in black and white; a great number of the facts from this time have been confirmed — beyond any reasonable doubt.

Courtroom chronicles

By reading these judgments, we also become acquainted with some of the victims and some of the survivors.

Take Nazlie Bala from Prishtina. On the morning of March 29, 1999, she was forced from her home and sent to the railway station by Serbian army and police forces. Having joined a large group of ethnic Albanians uprooted in the same manner, she managed to find a place to sit in an otherwise packed train heading toward Macedonia under military and police escort.

As they approached the border, Nazlie and the rest of the passengers were ordered to get off, so they continued onward to Macedonia by foot. She had to spend the night in some backyard before she took a bus to Ohrid.

Should we continue reading, we come across similar stories.

On March 28, 1999, for instance, a police officer cruised through the streets of Peja, shouting. He commanded the local Albanians to leave their homes within five minutes. Fearing for his family, Edison Zatriqi obeyed him and left with his loved ones. They quickly found themselves in the stream of people forced to flee to Albania or Montenegro. The Zatriqi family travelled by car, while others were either deported by bus or had to trek.

We also get to read about what happened to Milazim Thaçi and Mustafa Draga, who found safety from shelling carried out by Serbian forces in a field in Izbica. After meeting their families and neighbors there, they were subsequently surrounded by soldiers and police officers. Stripped of their money, the women and children were expelled to Albania; Milazim, Mustafa and the other men were kept behind — to be executed.

Fourteen men survived the execution — Milazim and Mustafa included — and escaped to a forest, where they remained in hiding until mid-June 1999. However, more than 80 ethnic Albanians, most of them elderly people, did not make it out alive on that fateful day.

But Prishtina, Peja, Izbica and Beleg are absent from the history textbooks used in primary and secondary schools across Serbia.

The judgments also state that several Albanian women were held captive in another such field located near a lesser-known village of Beleg, in the vicinity of Deçan. By the end of March 1999, some of these women were taken to nearby buildings, having been selected to be raped. The following day, they were convoyed to Albania by the army and the police in a previously planned out way. Dozens of men were left behind — and it was the last time they were seen alive.

But Prishtina, Peja, Izbica and Beleg are absent from the history textbooks used in primary and secondary schools across Serbia.

Moreover, school is not the place where one can hear the stories of Nazlie, Edison, Milazim, Mustafa, the Beleg women or of other civilian survivors and victims, of which there are thousands.

Truth be told, the following facts are the only ones Serbian pupils do learn about when it comes to the events that took place in Kosovo: NATO bombed Serbia from March 24 until June 10, 1999 following the failed negotiations at Rambouillet, where Serbian leaders had rejected an ultimatum by which “the NATO forces would have taken over the territory of Kosovo and Metohija.”

When given a test, pupils are required to demonstrate knowledge regarding the code name of this NATO operation — Allied Force — its duration — 78 days — and the corresponding number of casualties.

It should be noted that this latter figure is still disputed since this particular piece of data varies across different teaching materials. Therefore, it would be safest for Serbian pupils to answer that the NATO bombing saw between 1,200 and 2,500 civilians killed, as well as 462 military and police personnel; the actual fact that 754 people were killed by the NATO bombings — of which 454 were civillians — cannot be found in any of the text books and should therefore be skillfully left aside.

The missing data

A more curious learner might want to put this specific event into a larger context and examine its causes and genesis, primarily in order to gain a more profound insight into the current political relationship between Serbia and Kosovo.

Unfortunately, what they are going to learn when they inevitably consult their textbooks is that the only people to blame are ethnic Albanians. Their “separatist and nationalist outburst that took place in the spring of 1981” paved the way for various forms of pressure, deterrence and destruction of property, as well as numerous cases of murder and rape against Kosovo Serbs, hence their mass exodus. Accordingly, the authorities of the Republic (of Serbia) vowed to curb the secessionist tendencies quite resolutely.

Apart from the crimes committed by Serb forces against Kosovar Albanians, the other issues withheld in this narrative comprise the pre-war period, during which the crisis in Kosovo went on to escalate into a full-fledged armed conflict.

The omission of facts related to repression and widespread discrimination against Albanians has greatly facilitated the portrayal of the NATO bombing as an unexpected, unjust and unjustified act.

As is the case with the Croatian and Bosnian-Herzegovinian wars, objective presentation and contextualization of historiographic data — bearing in mind that the latter renders contemporary developments easier to understand — gives way to a self-victimizing narrative, the bitterness of which, interspersed with finger-pointing, breeds biased interpretation of events.

It is in this fashion that we have given up on history as a human science that needs not only to teach about the past but also to foster critical thinking, tolerance, democratic engagement and civic participation. Instead, we have opted for history as a subject used for the development of a national identity, among other things.

Such a history amounts to a mere weapon placed in the hands of politics. It is an instrument of manipulation and/or propaganda pushing for the perpetuation of intolerance, stereotypes, prejudice and nationalism. Its purpose is to retrospectively legitimize (wrong) moves and to manoeuvre young people into sharing worldviews with the powers that be, thereby preparing them to perform desirable actions.

Both the cases brought before the ICTY and the victims’ names included in the Tribunal’s numerous judgments are given the cold shoulder in history classes held in 21st-century Serbia.

This system is the one that, at least nominally, seeks to teach democracy and peace, to instil European values and to develop basic political culture. One of the most dangerous clogs in that sort of system is the refusal to show young people a wide variety of political and diplomatic initiatives aimed at solving an escalating crisis, such as the one in the late ’80s and early ’90s, by non-violent means. In this way, we have voluntarily relinquished the opportunity to impart knowledge and a propensity toward problem solving focused on dialogue, agreement and trust.

In fact, we fail to provide our young people with the skills to recognize patterns of behavior similar to those seen in the past within their immediate (and) socio-political environment, which could in turn compel them to put up resistance even when there is a mere hint of violence.

All in all, both the cases brought before the ICTY and the victims’ names included in the Tribunal’s numerous judgments are given the cold shoulder in history classes held in 21st-century Serbia. With the past events being poorly discussed, this teaching practice does not allow for any deeper understanding of the issues at hand, while reinforcing the deeply ingrained stereotypes about ethnic Albanians. The vastly inflated casualty figures this history purports to be true are stupefying, as is the omission of the accounts of crimes committed against Kosovar Albanians.

This history of ours blames others for eruptions of violence, stirring up animosity and generating tensions within our society. Such an approach in place of helping communities come together for the sake of building trust — which might bring about reconciliation — sets them further apart so that one’s own group is continuously kept on standby, waiting for another cycle of violence to break out.

Ultimately — according to a 2016 University of Belgrade survey, “Wars in the 90s in schools” — young people tend to believe that in war everyone loses and no one wins; this indicates their willingness to hear stories from the past.

These stories should be told on the basis of facts established beyond reasonable doubt, for in this time of rampant manipulation, negation and bending the truth, this is the only paradigm that ensures knowledge rather than myth is spread. The former should be understood with regard to its authentic context, never in relation to nationalist projections or political interests.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla.