Kosovo and the power of myth

Kosovo: A Short History by Noel Malcolm Macmillan 492pp, £20 in UK

Kosovo: A Short History by Noel Malcolm Macmillan 492pp, £20 in UK

I read much of Noel Malcolm's new book in my shabby bedroom at the Grand Hotel in Pristina, a place of grubby carpets and no curtains, whose window I propped open each evening with a broken ashtray and whose lights I kept on all night to keep the cockroaches from the bed. After hours negotiating Serb police checkpoints and Albanian guerrilla positions in central Kosovo, staring at the burned homes of Albanian families and listening to Serbia's police chiefs telling me about their struggle against "international terrorism", I would turn with relief to Noel Malcolm's book to discover the historical reasons for the existence of the various monsters I had encountered on the highways of Serbia's collapsing province.

Informative it was; exciting it was not. How, I asked myself each night as Pristina's feral dogs howled outside my bedroom window, could anyone write so dull a book about a place of such dramatic history. How could anyone make a story of blood and treachery and courage so ferociously boring? If this seems unfair, let the reader judge for himself. Here is Malcolm explaining the Orthodox church's increasing influence in Kosovo in the early 17th century:

Another important move was the decision in the mid-1630s to send a Franciscan mission to northern Albania; one friar reached Gjakova in 1637, and in the 1640s friars were established in seven ospizi ("hospices", i.e. friars' houses) including one near Prizren. The bishopric of Prizren was reinstated in c. 1618; and in 1656 the whole area of Kosovo was removed from the archdiocese of Bar and placed within a newly constituted Archbishopric of Skopje. An able Albanian from Western Kosovo, Ndre (Andrea) Bogdani, was appointed Archbishop; when he resigned in 1677 he was succeeded, in 1679/80, by his nephew - also born in Western Kosovo, at the village of Has i Gurit - Pjeter Bogdani."


The scholarship is no doubt flawless; but this is history as it was taught - and examined - in European schools in the 1950s. When did the first friar reach Gjakova? In what year was the archdiocese of Bar placed within the Archbishopric of Skopje? What was the name of Pjeter Bogdani's uncle? I would have urged Malcolm to put this detail in his footnotes - until I discovered that there were already seventy-one pages of notes and references at the back. Then I was told, by an acquaintance in Pristina, than Malcolm had never visited Kosovo (an understandable omission if, as I was also informed, he was consistently refused a visa). This would certainly account for the dreary narrative. For this is history without passion, the story of a land which could yet set Europe afire told in words that are often as dry as the dust in the Trepca mines.

But like the silver and gold that lie within Kosovo's underground seams - and make it more valuable to its Serb masters than any ecclesiastical roots - Noel Malcolm's book has its value - firstly, in its necessarily cruel analysis of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, upon which the Serb King Lazar died at the hands of a Muslim Ottoman army in 1389. On my journeys around Kosovo, I found myself driving almost every day past the forlorn and sinister tower marking this epic defeat of Serb forces in which Lazar's holy covenant - he supposedly preferred spiritual victory to earthly conquest - doomed his armies to lose Kosovo for more than five hundred years. The covenant - good news for God but very bad news for Serbs - is exposed by Malcolm for what it was: a 19th-century creation which was shamelessly used by Serb expansionists to claim a land whose majority were ethnic Albanians.

More importantly still, Malcolm produces convincing evidence that Christian troops (from Greece and Bulgaria) fought on the Ottoman side - and that Albanian troops fought alongside King Lazar. Indeed, Lazar's wife and son accepted Ottoman vassalage and went on ruling, Lazar's daughter Olivera subsequently marrying Bayezit, son of the Ottoman commander who was also killed at Kosovo Polje. Alas, one should add, for Olivera; the Asian warlord Tamburlaine subsequently captured Bayezit - and Olivera, according to contemporary records, "in a state of nudity served the Tartar conqueror with wine at his feasts".

Equally credibly, Malcolm suggests that the "ancient hatreds" theory behind Kosovo's conflict - so beloved of our European leaders - is rubbish. Albanians once guarded Orthodox Christian religious sites and when, in the 17th century, an Austrian army invaded Kosovo, Albanians and Serbs fought as allies against it. Serbia's modern-day claim to Kosovo sounds, in retrospect, like so many other familiar demands to rescue lost lands and vulnerable minorities. France could not leave its Algerian colony because of the pieds noirs, Hitler had to "rescue" the Sudetenland Germans from the Czechs. Did not an English queen die with Calais "written" on her heart?

Malcolm reminds us that Kosovo is made up of more than Serbs and Albanians; there have been communities of Vlachs, Gypsies, Circassians and Jews - the latter better treated by the Muslim Ottomans than by the Christian states. When the Serbs did eventually recapture their "lost" land of Kosovo in 1912, they did so with fire and the sword. With foreign journalists largely forbidden to enter Kosovo - familiar story - it was left to a Ukrainian reporter to conclude from the destruction of Albanian villages that "the Serbs in Old Serbia, in their national endeavour to correct data in the ethnographical statistics that are not quite favourable to them, are engaged quite simply in systematic extermination of the Muslim population". The Ukrainian journalist was Lev Bronstein - better known as Leon Trotsky.

Wounded Montenegrins told the English traveller Edith Durham that "we have not left a nose on an Albanian up there".

Within a year 25,000 Albanians had been slaughtered. "Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred," con cluded an enquiry by the Carnegie Endowment. Almost the same number of Serbs died in their defeated army's trek across the mountains to Albania in 1915. The new post-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia settled more Serbs in Kosovo, confiscating Albanian land and displacing their owners. The Albanian population of twenty-three villages in the upper Drenica - the scene of present-day savagery in Kosovo - were dispossessed in 1935. Albanian families could hold only 0.4 hectares of land. ". . . this is and has been our aim: to make their life impossible," a Serb document admitted, "and in that way to force them to emigrate." Two years later, a member of the Serbian Cultural Club, Vaso Cubrilovic, was recommending "secretly burning down Albanian villages and city quarters". Yugoslavia and Turkey discussed the mass deportation of ethnic Albanians to Turkey.

So we know, I suppose, what the Serbs and Albanians are capable of if the comparatively minor "ethnic cleansing" and retaliation of recent weeks gains momentum. Malcolm shrewdly realises at the end of his book that Ibrahim Rugova - the Albanian leader whose moderation has probably doomed him in Kosovo but who is typically the darling of Europe and America - is finished. As usual, we ignored the Albanian demand for the restoration of the autonomy which the Serbs took away in 1989 until now; and today, when the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army demand independence, we are suddenly keen for the Albanians to have their autonomy back.

Too late. That's the old refrain in the Balkans. We kept the autonomy-demanding Albanians away from the Dayton accords and then, just when autonomy is not enough for them, we all become eager to keep Kosovo inside the Yugoslav Federation. When ordinary Serbs learn to think more rationally and humanely about Kosovo and more critically about some of their national myths, Malcolm concludes, "all the people of Kosovo and Serbia will benefit - not least the Serbs themselves". Too late. Too late.

Robert Fisk is Middle East Correspondent of the London Independent