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Opinion | Looking back at 1999 war in Kosovo: Why is the world waiting to help Syrians?

Nicole's Two Cents

By Nicole Theodore
On September 6, 2013

This summer, I woke almost every morning at 5 a.m. to go running before anyone else in Kosovo was awake. I laced up my shoes, walked out of my hotel in Prishtina, the capital of about 200,000 people, and ran the streets that would soon be busy with Kosovars going to work, street vendors haggling with customers and taxis dodging in and out of traffic. Prishtina is slowly on its way to becoming a modern city, filled with well-dressed young professionals and families looking towards a better future.

It was easy to forget that just 13 years ago innocent people were being murdered and tortured in these same streets I was quietly running on. During the 1999 war with Serbia, an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 Kosovar Albanians were killed and more than 800,000 ethnically cleansed from their homes, forced to leave maybe the only place they have ever known. Ghosts from the conflict still haunted the city - it was evident.

Running before the city was awake allowed me to see a different side of Kosovo apart from the business of it and the 24-hour nightlife.

I saw the pain in the dilapidated, burned-out buildings, I passed countless amount of graffiti condemning European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) for sympathizing with Serbians, I saw the Serbian language crossed out completely on road signs, even though it is one of the national languages.

The feelings and pain are still intertwined in Kosovo's every day life and politics; you just need to take a look closer in the quiet scars slashed across Kosovo's infrastructure and its people.

Syria began to erupt as I ran through Prishtina and worked there this summer, and I couldn't help but be bothered by it. I started to think about what happened to Kosovars, Bosnians, Croats and other ethnicities during the '90s and what is now happening to Syrians.

The UN has estimated that already 100,000 plus have been killed in Syria and now there is potential evidence of chemical weapons being used on Syrians by Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Videos on YouTube have been posted by rebel groups of bodies of children and women lying dead with no signs of blunt trauma to them, their faces tinted blue, bodies convulsing - possible signs of suffocation from chemicals.

As the United States and other Western powers struggle with what to do with Syria, more people are being killed. Most of the targets are rebel Sunnis, which is one of the largest branches of Islam. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, whatever term you want to coin this violence as, it is continuous in the country of 20.8 million. It took chemical warfare to get the United States truly invested in trying to find a solution, but how much longer will it take to help the Syrian people?

Situation rings a slightly familiar bell - doesn't it?

Let's back track to almost 20 years ago and instead trace our fingers along a map of Southeastern Europe, or the former Yugoslavia. Instead of villain Bashar al-Assad slaying innocent men, women and children and a targeted religious group in Syria, there was Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia and President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000.

He invaded Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo during the 1990s and tried to ethnically cleanse and murder an entire ethnic group - Albanians.

Where 100,000 Syrians are now dead, over 8,000 Bosniaks were tortured and murdered during the 1992 massacre of Srebrenica in Bosnia and the Siege of Sarajevo by the Army of Republic of Serbia. Srebrenica has been regarded as the worst case of genocide since the Holocaust in World War II - take a look at American journalist Ron Haviv's images and work of the war in Bosnia and Srebrenica, you will then only get a slight understanding of the devastation that occurred and a possible stomach ache from the violence he captured, risking his life to do so.

The devastation in Bosnia with Srebrenica left a strong stench of guilt under Western leaders' noses, like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who vowed not to let genocide happen again in Kosovo, now a small country of only 2.8 million, by Serbian forces. Tim Judah, correspondent for the Economist and author of "Kosovo What Everyone Needs to Know" sums up why the U.S. and NATO were ready to bomb Serbia after Srebrenica.

"This was a seminal event and its importance in changing the course of history in Kosovo is not widely understood. The fact this massacre had happened in a zone that the UN Security Council had pledged to protect was seared into the consciences of Western leaders and goes a long way to explaining why in 1999, they were prepared to move fast to bomb Serbia because of Kosovo, fearful that such a thing would happen again."

Death still crept its way into Kosovo despite Bosnia's tale. NATO began its 78 days of bombing in March of 1999 after peace talks had failed, eventually crippling Milosevic, but not without the complete threat of ground troops.

"Today, NATO's campaign in Kosovo is remembered as an air war that crushed Milosevic's resolve through precision weapons and military smarts, but that interpretation overlooks the crucial fact that the threat of a bona fide invasion played a key role in bringing Milosevic to the negotiating table," according to Elias Groll in her blog on

There is still American influence and troops 14 years later in Kosovo. The war may have ended because of a great deal of help from the United States, but in order for Kosovo to stand as an independent nation, international influence still remains today. The peacekeeping force Kosovo Force, known as KFOR, has been stationed there since the war and still remains there, patrolling Serbian pockets of villages scattered throughout. An invisible line of divide separates municipalities by ethnicities, tension still floating in the polluted air between Albanians and Serbians.

My point is, bombing a villain and fixing relations between countries or within a country doesn't just end at bombing them - it's at least a decade commitment after.

As President Obama contemplates what to do with Syria while Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hauge has made it clear that Britain and other countries still have a responsibility to act despite a possible veto from Russia and China to block a UN resolution, a diplomatic showdown is brewing. The longer a decision takes, the more people will die though.

Even though there are still flaws in the international presence in Kosovo, the United States still intervened and helped stop another genocide and further ethnic cleansing from happening. The gratitude that Kosovars still feel towards Americans is astonishing - they shake your hand, tell you how much they love America, and how happy they are to have you in their country (if you have traveled abroad in Western Europe, you really don't hear that much, if at all.) A statue of Bill Clinton sits on Bill Clinton Avenue in the heart of Prishtina because of his efforts during the 90's to help Kosovo become an independent country.

However, as demonstrated by Judah and Christopher Hill, former Ambassador to Iraq and special envoy to Kosovo in 1998, it took more than air missile strikes from NATO to come to this somewhat positive picture of a struggling independent country. Hill had worked with Europeans, Russians and other countries to come up with a solution. The United States were not standing alone, as they may be in Syria.

Could this be the future of Syria? Many would argue no, many have said Kosovo and Syria are "completely different situations," but are they really? Innocent people died throughout the Balkans and were forcibly moved out of their homes. Now the bloodshed has spread to the large country nestled between Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. When will Syrians get the same help Kosovars received from the United States?

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