British troops march through a cornfield on the border with neighbouring Macedonia, headed into Kosovo on 11 June 1999 as part of a NATO ground force
Pristina (AFP) - Twenty years ago tears were flowing in Kosovo – of joy or of despair depending which side you were on – as NATO troops rolled in, ending the war with Serbia.
For Kosovo Albanians, June 12, 1999 was a day of liberation from Belgrade’s repression.
But for the Serb minority, it was a loss that ushered in a new chapter of fear and uncertainty.
As US president, Bill Clinton was one of the political leaders commanding the NATO entry into Kosovo two decades ago
This Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of that turning point. Kosovo’s government will celebrate with fanfare, in a ceremony featuring a speech from former US president Bill Clinton, a core ally during his time in office.
NATO’s three-month intervention ultimately halted the violence between Albanian separatists and Serb forces under the direction of strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Serb residents leave the region, driving past burning houses as NATO forces take over, eventually handing control to the ethnic-Albanian majority in Kosovo
But while the violence was ended, the two sides have never fully reconciled. Relations between Kosovo’s Albanian and Serb communities remain fraught.
Memories of June 12 trace that split.
Shpresa Gashi, a 68-year-old Kosovo Albanian singer, recalls the “explosion of emotions” after news arrived that the international troops had entered Kosovo.
Over the course of a year and a half, the conflict had claimed 13,000 lives – the vast majority Kosovo Albanians.
At the time, Gashi was one of the hundreds of thousands of people who had fled to neighbouring states as war broke out.
A young man waves Albania's national flag in Pristina in February 2019 during a parade marking the 11th anniversary of Kosovo's declaration of independence
“It was the first time I saw joy among refugees from Kosovo,” she recalled.
Esat Rexhepi, a 72-year-old living in Pristina, also cherishes the memory of that “wonderful day”.
“I put on my best suit, put on a tie and went out to welcome NATO troops,” he remembered, smiling.
For Edita Brajshori, a 40-year-old Pristina hairdresser, what lingers is the sound of music pouring out of apartment windows that had been shuttered for months.
“It was possible to hear loud music in Albanian for the first time after so many years,” she told AFP.
- Fear and exile -
But fear and bitterness still dominate the memories of Kosovo’s Serbs, a community caught up in the crossfire.
Serbs have lived for centuries in Kosovo, a southern region considered a cradle of their Orthodox Christian faith.
A convoy of some 160 people, most of them Serb university professors, pull out of Pristina in June 1999 under escort by British soldiers. They left after the murders of a Serb professor and two workers in a university faculty
After the war, many were pressured to either flee or sequester themselves in enclaves.
There was also a series of revenge attacks on their community, seen as score-settling after years of oppression suffered by ethnic Albanians under Milosevic.
According to Belgrade, 200,000 Serbs ultimately left Kosovo to take refuge in Serbia. Around 120,000 remain, mainly in the north near the border.
“I was crying…. I watched our army withdraw and foreigners arrive,” said Dobrosav Jakovljevic, a 73-year-old Serb who now lives in Kosovo’s north, a poor region.
He blames Serbia’s ruthless leader Milosevic for the war, but still feels his people got badly done by.
“Albanians are getting what they want, we lost everything,” he lamented.
Kosovo Serbs protest in the northern town of Mitrovica in November 2018 following Kosovo's move to slap Serbian imports with a 100 percent tariff
Slavisa Jokic, 45, recalls having to flee his home in western Pec after “bandits” started attacking Serb houses.
“People were killed in broad daylight without them (NATO) moving a finger,” he said.
Djordje Jovanovic, a 46-year-old teacher in the Serb half of the city of Mitrovica, also remembers the sadness that crept in as he watched Serbian army and police retreat while NATO troops took their positions.
“This will never be Serbia again,” he thought at the time.
Serbia effectively lost control of its former province two days before June 12, when Kosovo was put under international protection by the UN.
Kosovo graffiti reading 'Thank You NATO' still stands in the Kosovar village of Stagovo
But Belgrade has never accepted the independence Pristina went on to declare in 2008.
That has left Kosovo in geopolitical limbo, supported by the US and much of the West but its independence rejected by Belgrade and its allies Moscow and Beijing.
Tensions continue to run high among the former war foes, and around 4,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops remain in Kosovo today.
Now, Jovanovic feels the presence of the international soldiers is essential.
“Let them stay. If they did not exist, there would be a new war here.”