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THE DEATH OF BELANICA | PERSPECTIVE ON KOSOVO

Drama of Balkans Is Long, Turbulent--and Cruel

April 25, 1999|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is said that history is written by the victors. But the vanquished have their story too. And when written by them, history can be perverted into a justification for relentless revenge.

In the Balkans, one day's winner is the next day's loser. Each side has a story that lives forever, and the sheer weight of history propels a struggle over a harsh land that otherwise would seem to have little to offer.

The bleak mountains of Serbia's southern province, Kosovo, have been the stage for a long and turbulent Balkan drama of rebellion and repression, war and exodus--and occasionally, compromise and co-existence.

Graveyards for failed insurrectionists and defeated conquerors, Kosovo's hills and plains have changed hands from Ottoman pashas to Nazi collaborators and Communist strongmen. Each regime attempted to shape the lives and prejudices of its subjects, and eliminate some of them altogether.

For Serbs and Albanians, who both claim the Los Angeles County-sized region, Kosovo symbolizes themes of suffering and injustice. Over centuries, these threads have been woven together, and both peoples assert a right to the land based on ancestry, demographics and mythology.

While the events unfolding today are starkly clear--Serbian forces are brutally driving hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes--it is far less clear how Kosovo arrived at this point.

Even historians disagree on basic facts, for historical truth is in the eye of the beholder.

A community remembers those events that best suit its image of itself. A community that feels persecuted harks back to its days of lost glory and persecution, never its days as persecutor.

And so Serbs now wonder with indignation how their World War II allies, the U.S. and Britain, can possibly be bombing them--ignoring, as the Serbs do, the estrangement of the last decade as their republic became a pariah state. And Kosovo's Albanians prefer not to remember the many years when they were very much in charge of their destinies. Such recognition might undermine their self-portrait as the eternal underdog.

War in the Balkans also has been characterized by unforgiving cruelty and the expulsion or flight of entire populations.

The burden of history, however, does not mean that the people of the Balkans are destined to wage war. Nothing need be inevitable about conflict and bloodshed. Rather, Balkan rulers--and sometimes outsiders too--have managed to use history to exploit old wounds as well as raw, new feelings.

Today's war in Kosovo is about many things, but foremost it is a dispute over who should rule the land and who may live there, and with what rights and protections. It is about irredentism and power. Religious and ethnic differences are an overlay, a pretext for drawing lines and a vehicle for appealing to hatreds.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic used Kosovo to come to power. He needs to hold on to it to maintain his rule. The Albanians of Kosovo want to govern the land and eventually become a part of Albania proper--where people speak their language and share their culture.

Albanians consider themselves descendants of the Illyrians, an ancient people who originally occupied a region bordering the Adriatic Sea. As such, they say, they are the original inhabitants of Kosovo.

Serbs, however, claim that when their Slavic ancestors arrived in Kosovo in the 6th and 7th centuries, the area was largely uninhabited. The Christian Orthodox monasteries that dot Kosovo are testament to their medieval Serbian kingdom, as is the Serbian patriarchate seated in the western Kosovo city of Pec.

These arguments may seem esoteric and remote to outsiders, but they give both Serbs and Albanians cause to claim Kosovo as their home. For peoples struggling to find living space in a perpetually troubled neighborhood, such a sense of identity is a matter of survival.

For Serbs, the claim took on added emotion with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the 14th century. By 1343, the Serbs under King Stepan Dusan had conquered territory that included most of what is today Albania. But, riven by discord and divisions, Balkan rulers--especially the Serbs--failed to mobilize quickly enough to halt the Ottoman onslaught.

Epic Serbian poetry recounts the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje, the "Field of the Blackbirds." Ottoman Turks killed Serbian Prince Lazar on the battlefield and eventually spread their empire over all of Serbia. Thus began nearly five centuries of Turkish domination of Serbia and the Balkans.

As the Serbian legend goes, Lazar is visited by an angel in the form of a falcon on the eve of battle and offered a choice between a heavenly or earthly kingdom. He declares that it is better to die in combat than live in shame. He is killed, but only after entering a covenant with God that establishes the Serbs as a chosen people.

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