„Courageous Kosovo“, „criminal Serbia“ and history left unsaid

Foto: Sunčica Andrejević

By Petar Ristanovic

At the beginning of June, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, called for the „state archives of Serbia to be opened“, claiming that the documents would show that the crimes against Albanians in Kosovo were not committed by individuals but an organized action of the state of Serbia. The call is a continuation of a propaganda campaign launched by Pristina with the aim of „proving“ that the state of Serbia committed genocide against Albanians in Kosovo.

Such claims have long since become commonplace in the public discourse of Albanians and are persistently being repeated in historical and journalistic pieces in Albanian. In previous years, the possibility of Kosovo filing a lawsuit against Serbia for genocide was mentioned from time to time. Until the coalition between Albin Kurti’s Self-Determination Movement and Vjosa Osmani’s Dare! was formed, allegations of genocide were primarily applied for internal use. The new regime shows an intention to change that.

In recent weeks, announcements have intensified that Kosovo, through another UN member state (most likely Albania), could file a lawsuit against Serbia for genocide and demand war damage compensation. I will leave a detailed analysis of this possibility and the possible outcome of the lawsuit to the lawyers. Instead, I will address one important segment of the campaign launched from Pristina: the dogged insistence on a narrative in which Albanians are decades-long victims and the state of Serbia is the criminal. Instead of listing the numbers the two sides have been “fighting” over for a long time, or citing examples of ethnically motivated attacks on Serbs that have been prevalent these days, I will do it in a different way, through, I believe, an illustrative example.

A session of the UN Security Council was held just over three months ago, on April 13th, at which a six-month report on the work of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was presented. At the session, the newly elected Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo, Donika Gervalla Schwartz, addressed the Security Council for the first time.

The majority of her address was dedicated to Kosovo’s relationship with Serbia and contained numerous references to recent and past (even old, ancient) history. The motives of „Kosovo’s courage“ and „Serbia’s criminal role“ dominated the address. At the same time, it was clear that by „the courage of Kosovo“ Gervalla Schwartz implied the „courage of the Albanians“ while completely ignoring the existence of the second largest ethnic community in Kosovo – the Serbs.

An important part of the address was dedicated to explaining the role of Albanians as victims. To illustrate this, Gervalla Schwartz referred to several cases. As concrete examples, she cited two female members of the Self-Determination in the Assembly of Kosovo, Saranda Bogujevci and Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman. The former, severely wounded, survived the massacre of her family, while the latter was a rape victim at the age of 16. In the face of such brutal examples, it is difficult to make any comment, but due to the topic of this text, I must point out that both crimes were committed during the war. There were similar crimes, although not in the same number, on both sides. The vast majority of those responsible have still not been punished. However, at least part of the crimes committed by the Serbian side received a court epilogue before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Five top Serbian state, military, and police officials have received long prison sentences. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic was suspended due to his death while in custody. At the same time, no Albanian has yet been punished before an international tribunal for crimes committed against Serbs during and after the war. It is not until recently, more than 20 years later, that four KLA leaders were taken into custody, while the date of the start of their trial is still unknown.

In her address, Donika Gervalla Schwartz cited two more examples. The case of the current Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kruti, for whom she said that he was convicted in a „political trial“ and that he was „mistreated in prison“. The facts show that Albin Kurti openly advocated separatist ideas, that he was a close associate of Adem Demaci and a member of the so-called political headquarters of the KLA. He was arrested during the war, in April 1999, and he stated in court that he does not recognize the laws of the state of Serbia of which he was a citizen. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released in December 2001, during the mass abolition of Albanian „political prisoners“. The attitude toward Kurti would be no different in any country facing an armed uprising of a separatist movement. Kurti did not complain about „being mistreated in prison“, and his abolition and early release were supposed to be a message of goodwill and a helping hand for some future negotiations.

Finally, as an example of systematic crimes of the state of Serbia against Albanians, Donika Gervalla Schwartz cited her own case. She told the UN Security Council: „My father, a dissident, intellectual, musician, writer, and journalist, was killed by the Belgrade regime in Germany, where we moved because of the brutality of the Belgrade regime.“

Gervalla Schwartz’s reference to family history and the murder of her father in 1982 had two goals. The first was to give another crime a name and a face, personalize it and produce a stronger impression. The second goal was to show the continuity of terror, which did not begin during the time of Slobodan Milosevic, but much earlier. However, the family history of the Gervalla family tells a different story from the extremely simplified one Gervalla Schwartz presented to the Security Council.

Donika Gervalla Schwartz’s father of whose murder she talked about was Jusuf Gervalla. However, the story should start with his father, Donika’s grandfather, Bardosh, from the village of Dubovik near Decani. In 1918, in the days of lawlessness, after the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the establishment of Serbian rule, Bardosh participated in a series of robberies. He burned down the house of the Serb Bogicevic family in the village of Dobrodol and joined a group of Kachaks, outlaws who fought against every authority at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century – first the Turkish and then the Serbian. Bardosh’s outlawing continued until 1925, when he finally surrendered, after which he was sentenced to prison.

In the meantime, in 1921, a part of Bardosh’s property was confiscated as a punishment for his illegal practices. It was one of the tactics used to force the Kachaks to respect the newly established rule. Four hectares of land were confiscated, and together with another nine hectares of state land, they were given to the family of Lek Vuksanov Saljic, from Andrijevica, who settled in Dubovik as colonists.

Shortly after the occupation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941 and coming into power of the fascist Greater Albania in the majority of today’s Kosovo, Bardosh became active again in looting and fighting against Serbs. He was at the head of an armed outfit, the master of life and death in the area around Dubovik. He drove the Saljic family from the land, and when the war ended, he submitted a request to the new government to formally allocate the land to him, because it was seized from him during the time of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The court rejected the request and returned the land to the Saljic family. In February 1948, the local authorities submitted reports to the court stating that Bardosh’s land was confiscated in 1921 because he was a convicted robber. It also stated that Bardosh „during the occupation, organized the Balli and other gangs, as an active officer in fascist organizations; that his brothers Ajdar and Zeka were also outlaws along with Bardosh, and that his brother Fazli was abroad of an unknown place of residence; and that Bardosh, due to his bad behavior during the occupation, and his brother Fazli, do not have the right to vote even today.“

During the war, Bardosh and Ajshe, his second, common-law wife, 30 years younger than him, finally managed to get the long-desired male heirs. Jusuf Gervalla was born in 1943. He had two younger brothers, Hysen and Bardosh. A few years later, Jusuf’s father Bardosh died, and young Ajshe, according to Albanian customs, married his cousin. She had another son with him, Avdul. The new husband soon left the family. Due to difficult financial conditions, Ajshe left Jusuf with her brother in Pec/Peja, where he grew up, while she went to Slovenia with the other three children, where she worked as a cleaning lady in a factory.

Jusuf Gervalla was a talented young man. He sang and played beautifully, resulting in him joining the famous Pristina choir Collegium Cantorum. He graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy in Pristina. At the age of 21, he married Suzana, a girl from Skopje, originally from a prominent family from the north of Montenegro, whose cousin was Bardosh’s first wife. The young couple spent the first years of their lives in poverty, mostly in Pristina. Their financial situation improved thanks to Suzana’s cousin, the famous Albanian poet and the first president of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Kosovo, Esad Mekuli. He managed to find Jusuf a job at the National Theater in Pristina, and then with the newspaper with the greatest circulation in Albanian, Rilindja.

At the time, during the early 1970s, Jusuf became politically radicalized, following in the footsteps of his father. At the beginning of the decade, the Gervalla brothers „gained back“ the property that had been confiscated from their father Bardosh half a century earlier due to outlawing. Jusuf’s wife Suzana described it in an interview for the Oral History Kosovo project as follows:

“When the boys grew up, Hysen, Bardh and Jusuf, they put pressure on the Montenegrins to give them back their land. So, he was forced to sell the land, and he had to first sell it to those to whom it belonged. So, Jusuf took a loan (…) we bought that land. Our land. The Montenegrin had built a house in our land, the current house, the same where mother Ajshe lived later.”

The testimony is interesting because it directly illustrates the process of mass emigration of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo, whose existence Albanians are either denying or claiming that it was economically motivated. In the period from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s, about 40% of Serbs and Montenegrins emigrated from Kosovo. The Saljic family was one of them. This is also shown by the data of the census. A total of 570 Albanians lived in Dubovik in 1961, 728 in 1971, and the number rose to 932 in 1981. During that time, the number of Montenegrins declined, with 58 of them in 1961, 50 ten years later, and 36 in 1981. Suzana Gervalla clearly says that the three Gervalla brothers „forced“ the Saljic family to sell their property (of which only a small part was the long-confiscated land of Bardosh Gervalla), on which they built a house, orchards, and a vineyard in the meantime. The house of the Saljic family, in which Ajshe moved in with her sons, has been renovated and turned into a memorial complex dedicated to the patriotic struggle of the Gervalla family.

During the second half of the 1970s, Jusuf Gervalla joined one of the illegal separatist groups in Kosovo, called the National-Liberation Movement of Kosovo and other Albanian Regions (Albanian: Lëvizjes Nacionalçlirimtare të Kosovës dhe Viseve të tjera Shqiptare – LNÇKVSHJ). The documents of this organization published today show that it ideologically followed the Albanian Labor Party of Enver Hoxha. They talked about the historical injustice done to the Albanians and the right of every nation to unite into one state. They viewed Albania as the motherland and the only truly communist country in the world while saying that Yugoslavia was a revisionist and essentially capitalist country. They proclaimed the struggle to implement true communism and national unification with Albania. They intended to fight through strikes, demonstrations and prepare an armed uprising.

The most influential member of the group was Metus Krasniqi, whose two monuments (in Pristina and Kosovska Kamenica) were erected in Kosovo after 1999. With the fame of a political prisoner and a long-term fighter for the „national cause“, Krasniqi was associated with the Albanian secret service Sigurimi and several generals in the Albanian army. Jusuf Gervalla, a journalist for „Rilindja“ at the time, was the main organizer of the group. He managed to establish several „district committees“, local cells of the organization, the largest of which were the one in Decani, under Ismail Haradinaj, and the Drenica committee, under Bajram Gashi. In that way, Jusuf Gervalla introduced the Haradinaj family to the separatist movement. Ismail Haradinaj’s son is Nasim Haradinaj, known today as the president of the KLA veterans’ association. Brothers Ramush, Daut, Shkelzen, Enver, and Luan are the sons of Ismail’s brother. By the time they were discovered, in 1981, members of the „Decani Committee“ had managed to procure weapons, ammunition, and a larger amount of propaganda material.

Jusuf Gervalla’s organization suffered several blows in 1979. Thanks to connections in the provincial police, they learned that the security service was monitoring some of their members. When Hysen Gervalla, the younger brother of Jusuf Gervalla, was arrested, he decided to flee Yugoslavia. He took refuge in Germany, with the third brother Bardosh, who worked as a social worker in Ludwigsburg. There, he quickly got in touch with Ibrahim Kelmendi, the leader of the „Red Front“, the strongest organization of the Albanian extreme emigration groups. Together they published several papers which were then smuggled to Kosovo. Gervalla also got in touch with Kadri Zeka, a fugitive leader of another separatist organization, the „Marxist-Leninist Group of Kosovo.“ They negotiated the unification of all organizations in the country and exile in the fight for the secession of parts of Yugoslavia inhabited by Albanians and their annexation to Albania. They turned to Enver Hoxha for help. Jusuf Gervalla wrote to him in 1980, emphasizing that his comrades-in-arms were consistent followers of Marxist-Leninist ideology and that they were waiting for a spark that would start the struggle for unification with the homeland.

Following the demonstrations and attempted Albanian uprisings in Kosovo in the spring of 1981, Albanian extreme emigration members organized demonstrations in more than twenty cities in Western Europe and the United States. The main organizer was the „Red Front“, with which Jusuf Gervalla cooperated at the time. During the demonstrations, Albanians were joined in several cities by members of the Croatian pro-Ustasha emigration. Thus, at the gathering in Paris, the gathered carried the flags of the Independent State of Croatia and Greater Albania. In addition to the demonstrations, members of the „Red Front“ also carried out terrorist attacks. In Belgium alone, 13 attacks were carried out from March to June 1981: bombings, arson, and attacks on Yugoslav workers’ clubs. One Yugoslav embassy worker was killed and three were wounded in the attacks.

Terrorist attacks and the connection of separatist organizations in Yugoslavia with emigrant organizations motivated the Yugoslav security services to react. On January 17th, 1982, Kadri Zeka and brothers Jusuf and Bardosh Gervalla were killed in Untergruppenbach, not far from Stuttgart, Germany. German media reported that the triple murder looked like an execution.

There was no doubt among Albanian emigrants that the Yugoslav secret service was responsible for the murder. That was probably the case. It is important to point out, however, that due to the political relations in the SFRY at the beginning of 1982, the decision on this murder could not have been made at the level of Serbia, but exclusively at the highest, federal Yugoslav level. Individuals among Albanians were probably also involved in the murder, due to the practice of the Yugoslav State Security Service (SDB) of the police that „everyone deals with their own“. Jusuf’s wife Suzana accused the leader of the „Red Front“, Ibrahim Kelmendi, with whom Jusuf cooperated, but often quarreled, that he cooperated with the SDB. Officially, the murder was never resolved.

Among the members of the Albanian separatist movement, the men who were killed immediately acquired the aura of martyrs who fell in the fight for the Albanian cause. Impressed by the events and with the active mediation of the Albanian secret service and diplomatic network, the three largest Albanian separatist organizations from Yugoslavia united in early 1982 into a single „Movement for the Socialist Albanian Republic in Yugoslavia.“ After a lot of turmoil, quarrels, suspicions of cooperation with the Yugoslav secret service, and a change of name, the „People’s Movement of Kosovo“ was formed from this organization in 1985. The radical, war wing of this organization formed the „Kosovo Liberation Army“ in 1993. In the ranks of the KLA, Jusuf Gervalla was celebrated as the ideologue and forerunner of its founders. It is no coincidence that the first KLA brigade was named after him.

The history of the Gervalla family gives a much more complex picture than the one Donika Gervalla Schwartz wanted to present by recalling the murder of her father. It is indicative that in the statements of the representatives of the Albanians from Kosovo, Serbia is often compared to Hitler’s Germany. Donika Gervalla Schwartz could not resist doing the same. The fact that her direct ancestor was a fascist soldier, responsible for crimes against Serbs, did not prevent her from calling on Serbia to „fight against fascism“ before the Security Council and pointing out that Serbia committed the greatest crimes after Nazi Germany during the 1990s.

Pointing out that her family was also a victim of criminal Serbia, she presented her father as a „dissident, intellectual, musician, writer and journalist“. She failed to mention that during the absolute political domination of Albanians in Kosovo, in the years when the province had all the attributes of a republic except the name and Albanians all the rights they demanded, her father was one of the leaders of the separatist movement, advocating an extremely retrograde Stalinist ideology of Enver Hoxha and that he wanted to achieve his goals with an armed uprising. In that, he actively cooperated with the notorious Albanian secret service, Sigurimi, which is evidenced by the fact that Suzana, the mother of Donika Gervalla, went to Tirana with her children after the murder of her husband, where she found refuge. Finally, Jusuf Gervalla and his brothers participated in the pressure on Serbs and Montenegrins that resulted in the exodus of 40% of Serbs from Kosovo during three decades of Albanian domination policy.

All these data clearly indicate that the history of Serbian-Albanian relations in Kosovo is far from the black-and-white picture that is persistently presented by Pristina. The Albanian side says that Serbs must face the mistakes of their past, but they refuse to talk about their own sins. By insisting on „courageous (exclusively Albanian) Kosovo“ and „criminal Serbia“, the gap between the two nations is only deepening, creating a foundation for new conflicts and new crimes.

Petar Ristanovic is a historian and a research associate on the project „Material and Spiritual Culture of Kosovo and Metohija“ of the Institute of Serbian Culture in Pristina/Leposavic. He is the author of the award-winning book „Kosovo issue 1974-1989“ and several scientific papers on the Kosovo issue, published in national and international scientific journals.


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