THE YUGOSLAV STATE AND THE ALBANIANS, part III
LIBERATION AND REBELLION
As the dawn broke on September 15, 1918, from the position of the Second Serbian Army, after a whole day of military preparation, the Thessalonica front was breached – and with that the military denouement in the southeast of Europe. After a couple of days, on September 21, 1918, the Serbian troops reached the Vardar river, cut off the Djevdjelija – Skopje railroad and forced the German corps from the vicinity of Bitola and Ohrid to withdraw towards Skopje. Advancing along the right coast of Vardar the units of the French Eastern Army entered Skopje on September 29, while the Second Serbian Army penetrated to the Bulgarian border front and the First Serbian Army reached the important Skopje – Kumanovo connection. The rapid retreat of the Austro-Hungarian corps from Albania enabled an easy advance for the Italian troops. The unrestrained penetration of Serbian units caused the quick capitulation of Bulgaria: The Military Convention on ceasefire was signed in Thessalonica on September 29, 1918, according to which fights of a larger scale on the territories under its control were left out. The massive desertion of Turks and Albanians relieved the movement of joint French-Greek detachments from Skopje, through Kačanik, towards Kosovo.
The arrival of the French forces in Stari Kačanik (October 4, 1918), with advance guards in Lipljan and Štimlje, the entrance of the Ohrid detachment, which was in the composition of the French Eastern Army, into Debar (October 5, 1918) and the breakthrough of the First Serbian Army into the Leskovac ravine (October 7, 1918), indicated the coming liberation of Kosovo and Metohija. The Serbian troops had a command to treat the Albanian population especially carefully, except if they offered resistance. It was requested of the commanders of the armies in the military operations of “the towns and generally settled places to spare as much as they can from destruction and damage”. From the officers, maximum responsibility, compensation for every bit of damage done to the local population as well as the severe punishment of culprits was asked.
Not accidentally, the French-Greek troops stepped across the area of Kosovo and Metohija. The French flag fluttered on October 9, 1918 in Prizren and then, in the following five days, also in Uroševac, Lipljan, Priština, Mitrovica, Peć and Djakovica, arousing illusionary hopes among the majority of Albanians that these areas would not belong to Serbia. There was almost no resistance to the French units. This coincided with the dislocation of the troops of the Second Serbian Army in the purpose of broadening the military operations towards Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Several days later (from October 16 – 22, 1918), when the last resistance quietened, units of the Second Yugoslav Regiment, composed of Yugoslav volunteers, were disposed at the main city centers of Kosovo and Metohija. By agreement of inter-ally commands in Paris from October 7, 1918, the control of Albania (except from Shkodra, Korçë and Elbasan) was left to the Italian troops. Under pressure from the Italian and French governments the Serbian troops had to leave Shkodra on November 3, 1918, but, despite the desire of the allies and their secret agreements (the secret Italian-French Agreement from November 20, 1918), they remained in the areas of Beli Drim, in Peshkopi, in the districts of Golobrdo, Gornji Debar and Donji Debar – along the so-called “Demarcation line”.
On the freed territories the army met with mixed feelings of the local population. Their arrival, followed by “tumultuous manifestations of enthusiasm” for the Serbian and Christian population meant final liberation. Part of the Albanian and Muslim population welcomed their arrival with relief and hope that the unbearable anarchy, plunder and insecurity would cease. Part of the population considered the return of the Serbian army as a “temporary phenomenon” and hoped that their presence would be short term. For others, however, this was an act which definitively destroyed all hopes, illusions and expectations of establishing an Albanian state. Many were those who out of fear of punishment for crimes committed during the years of the occupation (1915-1918) were forced to take armed resistance against the new authority.
The first agitations, followed by the resistance of the Albanian population to the new authority, started in the middle of October in the vicinity of Debar. At the spot, it was stated that in the districts of Golo Brdo, Donji Debar and Galica “all Arnauts jumped to arms and do not acknowledge any authority”, that “among the Arnauts in the vicinity of Debar a certain movement in the purpose of looting and massacre of Christians” was felt and that general anarchy and plundering were on the increase. In order to prevent the retroactive wave of anarchy, the army was forced to intervene.
The military commanders in Kosovo and Metohija had instructions to provide food for the units by buying supplies from the contingent of seized state reserves, to restore telephone connections between the main town centers, to organize hospitals in places of permanent garrisons, and “to set up temporary authorities until the arrival of permanent ones”. The cited measures were in the function of keeping order, increasing security and improving the quality of life of the entire population. The necessities of the front allowed, with the usage of “kuluk” (unpaid forced labor), repairs of the main road communications. However, the same day when the units of the Yugoslav Regiment took over the rule from the French battalion (October 22, 1918), the provisional head of the Kosovo district reported to the Supreme Command that “because of the restless spirit of the Arnaut population in the district, as well as in Ljuma and Šam” he organized “provisional police authority” and asked that in “Prizren one infantry regiment with artillery be constantly positioned”. Being a particularly adept expert of the Kosovo circumstances the district head warned that “negative consequences” could occur in the Prizren and Djakovica areas if the Albanian leaders felt that the state was weak and indecisive. As soon as October 25, 1918, news had already arrived that that in Priština, upon the request to hand over state property, “the Turks and Arnauts resisted, they deposed our municipal authorities and deprived them from arms”. News that came from the Debar, Galica, Gostivar, Tetovo, and Ohrid areas spoke about a retroactive wave of anarchy, terror and plunder. Undoubtedly the “Serbian authority” established on October 22, 1918 had not time to provoke riots with their actions. The situation of anarchy in which they had lived for decades and a priori rejection of any authority, especially “Serbian”, was the explanation.
The Serbian Government strived to organize civil authority as soon as possible on the entire area of Macedonia, Kosovo and Metohija. Military-territorial commands requested that they establish administration – both locally and on the territories controlled by the allies, while the allies requested that they aid the building and functioning of local authorities. Attempts were made for state clerks to be sent into districts in which they had worked before. It was believed that the presence of gendarmes, clerks, teachers, and priests in places in which they worked until 1915 would certify by way of personnel the continuity of the Serbian state in “new regions” and indicate a return to the former state of legality. Care was taken that the municipal authority be composed of “prominent townsmen” and closer cooperation was asked from military and civil authorities with “prominent local people towards whom they had to be considerate and generous”.
In efforts to restrain every-day terror the civil authorities sought from the military commanders to “prevent Arnaut violence”. The villages in the Bitola region were devastated by groups of 100 to 150 “kacaks”. In Djakovica, Istok and Dečani the authorities did not have strength to prevent pilfering and the destruction of state property. In Peć gangs looted commercial and trade shops “out of revenge”. Dramatic conditions in Devič and Vučitrn required that military units be sent with the task to “disarm the Arnauts” as the civil authorities were not able to do so. In Drenica armed Albanians “deposed the mayor” and sent a message that only Albania could place state clerks in that area.
In the typology of resistance that can be noticed in the first days after liberation in regions with a heavy Albanian population, the attacks against institutions of authority and state clerks represent a special feature. Anarchy, with each new day, gained an increasingly political profile and organized form. In the beginning of November, a rebellion of the Albanian villages on the left coast of Sitnica followed by armed attacks on Serbian villages was registered. Behind it was the intention for the right coast of Sitnica to be marked as a boundary up to which Serbian rule spread. Reports from Istok explained that “movement is felt and there is a plot between the Arnauts from Radovac all the way to Rudnik not to recognize any authority…”. The widely-spread rumors “that Serbia will give up”, “that the Serbian authority will not be here for two or three more days”, and “that these areas have to belong to Albania” had the same function. The appearance of emissaries from Albania who traveled around the districts of Metohija, Kosovo, western Macedonia and eastern parts of Montenegro and the intensified activity of the “kacaks” indicated rebellion on a larger scale.
The action of the state organs went in two directions. Local authorities were ordered “not to provoke resistance or dissatisfaction by any means” of the local population. At the same time, everyday terror and its visible political background forced the Supreme Command to approve of the usage of infantry and artillery “for forced disarmament on the left coast of Sitnica”, and in the areas of Drenica, Devič, Rudnik and Istok. The disarmament was carried out from November 9 – 15, 1918. Grenades were set off in villages which offered armed resistance to disarmament, while others were partly destroyed and burned. According to the estimations of the military authorities the action of disarmament increased the authority of the state but also revealed its numerous weaknesses (the unreliability of local authorities consisting of Albanians; the lack of discipline and brutality of the gendarmerie; unusable topographic maps).
During the disarmament the leadership of the resistance and part of the population found refuge in Has and joined the activities organized by the Kosovo Committee from Shkodra. Its final objective was to join part of the territories where Albanians settled to Albania. To that end, the Albanian propaganda manipulated the number of 50,000 fighters ready to offer help to their compatriots in Metohija. Outlaw detachments began to amass rapidly along the frontier. The danger of rebellion caused armed action to be taken by Serbian troops and entry into Albanian territory for “preventative” measures. The Kosovo division area troops, upon orders given by the commander of the Second Army, Stepa Stepanović, defeated detachments of the Malisori tribe on November 22 and occupied their positions in Kruma and Bican.
The beginning of the work of the Peace Conference in Paris awakened anew the hopes of the patrons of Great Albania that the territories of Kosovo, Metohija, eastern Macedonia and western Montenegro would be joined to Albania. Only one single incident was lacking – which would cause a propagandistic reverberation that would attract the attention of the representatives of the great powers to the “Albanian issue” – and accordingly determine the political destiny of the entire area set by the “frontiers” of Great Albania. And the incident was found in the rebellion which resulted from the attempt of the Yugoslav authorities to intensify the war readiness of the company of soldiers in Plav on February 8, 1919.
The depth of the event became visible to the authorities only later. The warning news from late January 1919 about the dissatisfaction which “especially grew in Plav and Gusinje” and the public manifestations of “Arbanas’ Mohammedans” with the aim to break off from the Yugoslav state caused fear and drew the attention of the military authorities. But, besides this, the speed with which it developed; the violence, shrewd negotiating and passion of the rebels; the area it encompassed (Plav, Gusinje areas and Metohija districts); the military organization and number of the mass of rebels of the event from Plav surprised the authorities and pointed out to the real political essence of all of the existing resistances and dissatisfaction. As the negotiations with the rebel leaders did not produce any results an order was brought to unblock the detachments in Plav, expelling the rebel Arnauts from the occupied areas in Rugova, while state authorities were to be established. Plav was liberated on February 20, 1919; “the town was not burned”, the rebel leaders hid in Gaš and Krasnić, part of the rebel mass escaped to Malësia, and the expected help from Albania never arrived. The tally of victims was never precisely defined although Albanian and Italian propaganda strived to present the whole event as a massacre, for such an argument was to strengthen their negotiating position at the Peace Conference.
The second focal point of rebellion, which was not crushed during the course of 1919, was at Drenica and Metohija. This was an area where – even in earlier times – plunder was a means of earning money and survival; the state of anarchy and rebellion a constant; the idea of Great Albania a framework; the Italian and Albanian propaganda a stimulation; engagement in warfare and the propagation of outlaws a tradition. Data such as the gathering of around 300 “kacaks” around Sadik Rama; the planned attack of 1,000 “kacaks” against Lab and the expulsion of the Serbian population by use of “cruising detachments” consisting of 60 outlaws each that operated in Istok, Vučitrn, Podujevo, Mitroviai; the gathering of up to 2,000 fighters in Gaš and Krasnić for attacking the border; the presence of 360 “kacaks” in the district of Vučitrn, 500 in the Zvečan district and 600 in the district of Peć speak convincingly about the quality of everyday life – that was filled with terror and conflict. Their major protagonists were the old “kacaks”, rebels and renegades; people “of dangerous craft” Azem Bejta, Sadik Rama and Ramadan Shaban; leaders of the Plav – Gusinje rebellion Medo Ferović, Smako Nikočević and Shaban Redžepagić; shady political leaders concentrated around the Turk-Arnaut Committee in Mitrovica Ferat bey Draga, Ibrajim Deva, Riza Efendija and Tafir bey; revered political authorities; and patrons of Great Albania Bedri bey Pejani, Hasan Prishtina and Bajram Curi. People of different backgrounds, origins, age, experiences, energies, morals, knowledge, destinies and political and material principles were assembled by the common political idea of Great Albania. Their complex and layered interrelation built the contours of the organization that managed the military and political side of the resistance and rebellion. The renewal of the old and settling and preparation of new, future relations, channels and acquaintances exceeded the borders of the Yugoslav state and outlines of the Balkan area and reached the centers of power in European capitals – from where the political and military action of adherents to the Great Albania idea was supported by means of propaganda and financially.
Written by Djordje Borozan, Ljubodrag Dimic