March 29,1999

Well, it is springtime and the United States, as a member nation of NATO — that’s the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — is at war with Yugoslavia

Now we’re hearing a lot of criticism about President Clinton’s decision to join in this effort. I call these critics “America first-ers.” They say, “We don’t have defined goals, we don’t have an exit strategy, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.”

What bothers me most is how many people who do not have a clue about the situation in the Balkans still have abundant opinions about what should be done over there.

And, in fact, I wanted to learn more myself. It has been an interesting trip trying to learn about Serbia. I checked it out on the Internet and there were several sites that I tried to open, but when I got there it was “access forbidden.” Forbidden by the Serbian government, that is — which kind of brings it all home.

In the last week, I have met two Kosovars, both with family still in Kosovo. Imagine being a Jew in the United States in the ‘30s and ‘40s and knowing that you had family in Germany or Poland and knowing what Hitler wanted to do with them. That was what it was like talking to these two men.

Should we care about the fate of people other than our own? Given the fact that we tend to show so little care about the less fortunate among us even here at home, that is a difficult question. So my answer is this: I care. Who knows, some day in history it may be you.

Some great philosopher once said, “First, they took away the Jews who yelled for help and I did nothing. Then, they took away the Catholics who yelled for help and I did nothing. Then they took away the Gypsies who yelled for help and I did nothing. Then they came for me and I yelled for help, but there was nobody left to help me.”

So today, we are going to do a little history lesson. (If you don’t like history, switch to an FM station and listen to oldies and forget that you live on this planet.)

Why are we at war in the Balkans? Maybe there are American economic and strategic interests there. Personally, I think Clinton is just saying that to get the American people to believe we have some sort of self-interest that compels us to be there. He does not trust that we would support sending our youngsters to war for purely humanitarian reasons. We would not have done it to help the Jews in Germany during World War II, so why do it to help the Albanians in Kosovo?

I think the truth is that this is, in fact, a purely humanitarian effort.

In order to understand it, we might want to know a bit about the history of the area known as the Balkans. It has what is quite possibly the most convoluted history of any part of the world.

To start, the Balkans is a region that encompasses Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary. Most of these countries were, at one time or another, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

The region gets its name from the Balkan Mountains, which kind of run through the whole region and divide it into subdivisions that creates these small countries.

There are more than a dozen ethnic groups in the region. There are the Albanians — they first showed up about 1200 BC and have remained ever since, either in Albania or in Yugoslavia.

There are about three million Albanians in Albania and two million in the Kosovo region of Serbia. Although, as of late, about 200,000 of those are newly homeless refugees, mostly in Macedonia.

Then there are the Romanians, about 18 million of them. Their language comes from Latin. They belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which, like all of the region’s orthodox churches, is not part of the Roman Catholic Church.

There are also the Rom, who we know as Gypsies. Their language descends directly from ancient Sanskrit, which makes it a very interesting language.

Then there’s the Slavs; they reached the Balkans about the same time as the barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire.

There are different groups within the Slavs, defined by where they settled. Southern Slavs, for instance, became known as the Slovenes, the Croatians, the Serbians and the Bulgarians.

The Slavic Croatians fell under the control of Charlemagne in the mid-700s A.D. This turned Croatia into a Catholic country, while the Serbs became Eastern Orthodox. For a long time, Croatia was ruled by the pope.

So you can see, going way back we had very different peoples in this area. Today, three and a half million Croats live within their traditional borders and another million in Bosnia and Slovenia.

Now back then, all of this was considered the Serbian empire. It was feudalism at its best: lords, rulers and a lot of serfs. The big change came when the Ottoman Empire came along and the Serbs lost a battle on the fields of Kosovo in 1389.

This battle of 1389 is part of what is motivating the Serbs in their slaughter of the Kosovars, or the Albanians of Kosovo. As a way of rallying the Serbs, Slobodan Milosevic held a big rally at the site of this ancient battle.

After World War II and the creation of the second Yugoslav state, Kosovo was given a high degree of autonomy, but not the right to secede.

There has been significant discontent among the Albanians over the years, as thousands of them were jailed by kangaroo courts for advocating Kosovo secession and/or annexation by Albania. The latter idea is now recognized as having been a bad one, given how awful the communist regime of Albania was. But the Yugoslavs kept imprisoning these folks, who at the time believed in non-violent resistance.

In 1981, ethnic Albanians held peaceful demonstrations calling for a Kosovo republic. These demonstrations were violently crushed by the Yugoslav government, and about 300 Kosovars were killed. At the time within the Yugoslav communist leadership, was an apparatchik named Slobodan Milosevic.

The Serbs complained that the Yugoslavian constitution — which had given autonomy to Kosovo — actually weakened the Serbs. They also cited Kosovo as the heartland of the Serbian kingdom.

In the late 1980s, Slobadan Milosevic came to power — first as president of the ruling league of communists, and then as president of Serbia. He relied on his heavy nationalist program and focus on retaining Kosovo for the Serbs. In 1989, he succeeded in abolishing Kosovo’s autonomy.

At first the Kosovars boycotted the Serbian political systems and declared an independent republic of Kosovo. They established a parallel government, as well as their own health and educational institutions.

This was something of a necessity: by the early ‘90s, Albanian workers were being dismissed en masse from their jobs. The teaching of the Albanian language was eradicated from the Yugoslav national education system.

So all in all, Milosevic started a process of fully disenfranchising and denying rights to the Albanians of Kosovo.

The ethnic Albanian leadership, under president Dr. Ibrahim Rugove, followed a practice of non-violent opposition to the Serbian rule of Kosovo.

Unfortunately, this did not work — Serbia’s repressive policies and violations of human rights just grew worse.

In the face of ever-increasing repression, an armed opposition party calling for an independent Kosovo emerged. The Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, first made its presence known to Serbia in 1996 when it began to take back territories by force.

By 1998, the KLA controlled a fair amount of territory. In response, the Serb army, along with a number of paramilitary Serb groups, began moving in and slaughtering anything that moved in these territories. Their tactics were brutal: they would regularly take men away from their families and kill them.

This started a mass migration out of Kosovo by ethnic Albanians whose villages and cities were being torched.

Milosevic has used the existence of the KLA as an excuse, but it is clear that his army was engaged in full-scale ethnic cleansing.

Just before the bombardment by NATO, Milosevic moved 30,000 armored troops up to the Kosovo border.

A recent peace agreement that was signed by ethnic Albanians called for autonomy for Kosovo, but not secession. In some ways, it would have granted Kosovo the same autonomy it was given under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.

Some U.S. politicians argue that the bombing by NATO is increasing the repression of the ethnic Albanians, but this is denied by the Kosovars I have talked to.

Now, it is true that there really is not any international law that allows this action by NATO. Keep in mind that NATO was formed as a mutual defense organization to protect member nations from the old Soviet Union.

But look at it this way: there was no international law to protect Native Americans from the genocide of the Europeans.

There was no international agreement to protect the Jews from Hitler.

How would you feel if we just let people get slaughtered?

Sometimes doing the morally right thing is more important than adhering to the law. Kosovo is one of those situations.

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