Kosovo and Metohija, From the Serbian-Turkish Wars of 1876-1878

prizrenska liga

Kosovo and Metohija, From the Serbian-Turkish Wars of 1876-1878

Until Liberation From Centuries-lasting Turkish Rule in 1912

During the second half of the 19th century, Serbia led two different wars in the struggle for liberation from Turkey. The 1876 campaign failed, but the war waged between December 1877 and January 1878 ended with success when the Serbian army (composed of three corps) liberated a smaller part of Old Serbia. According to the 1878 decision of the Berlin Congress, the four major districts in the river basin of Južna (South) Morava were:

Niš, Toplica, Pirot, and Vranje. By the end of the war, the entire Niš sandzak was freed—and the Serbian army also liberated northern parts of the Mitrovica, Vučitrn and Prishtina kaza, in Kosovo. They freed the entire Gnjilane (and Preševo) kaza and came in front of Mitrovica, Vučitrn, Prishtina, Janjevo and Uroševac by cutting off the railway line in Skopje-Mitrovica, at Lipljane. The entire river basin of Južna (Binička) Morava, a part of the Ibar valley to Zvečan, and the monastery Banjska, were “died blue” from the Serbian army.

In honor of liberation and commemoration to the soldiers killed in the Kosovo battle of 1389, the strictly guarded and secret testament candles of Duchess Milica were lit in the monastery Gračanica as a sign of gratitude for the renewed liberation of Kosovo, and memorial for the killed heroes. But, as a result of the preliminary decision of the Treaty of Edirne, the Serbian army (composed partly from volunteers and local Serbian rebels) had to evacuate the entire liberated territory of the Prishtina sandzak—keeping temporarily the Lab valley, with Podujevo.

The Serbian army had been welcomed enthusiastically throughout all parts during their campaign in Kosovo, and a large solemn folk assembly was held in Gračanica. Writers Milan Rakić and Zarija Popović (by birth from Gnjilane) were contemporaries and participated in this, and other similarly big events. They worked to describe their many details while the academician, Vladimir Stojančević, scientifically presented “The First Liberation of Kosovo by the Serbian Army”. (Several other military authors, journalists, and less famous contemporary writers, also wrote about the participants, and assembly.) The well-known voivode, Radomir Putnik, distinguished himself as Lieutenant of Brigade in Kosovo in January 1878, as did the commander of volunteer detachment, Second Lieutenant Miloš Sandić. As advance guard of the regular Serbian army, Second Lieutenant Miloš Sandić commanded the volunteer detachment from Bujanovac through Izmornik, and Gnjilane all the way to Lipljan and the monastery Gračanica. It is where he was found on armistice in January of 1878 during the operation for the liberation of the Serbian people at the end of the war, in Old Serbia.

The break from Turkish military power occurred in the battlefields throughout the Balkan Peninsula: from the Danube and the Black Sea to Drina; Kosovo polje and Trachia; (with the Russian army) in Edirne and before Constantinople; the Serbian army before Prishtina and Kumanovo; and the Montenegrin in Nikšić, Bar and in the valley of the upper Lim.  The great resulting disturbances were of a primarily of a social and political nature. These led not only to movements of huge masses of the warring parties, but also to huge movements of populations from both sides of the front. In fact, the migration of people caused a real “commotion”—the likes of which had never been seen before in the recorded history of the Balkans. The Muslims, almost to the last man, abandoned the lost Turkish territories in the lands of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro. And Christians escaped into areas liberated by the Russian and Serbian army, whenever possible. Both sides of the warring factions lost thousands of civilians in the killings—during the war but also long after war operations had ceased, and many survivors lost their family’s properties. The war of 1877-1878 not only carried a trait of religious importance – the keeping of “domination of “orthodox” Muslims, (i.e., from the other side, the Christian “Reconquista”), but it was a fatefully decisive victory between two rivals whose civilizations had fought for survival on the Balkan Peninsula.

These monumental changes were eventually felt by the rearguard of the Turkish Empire, especially in the ethnically, religiously and socio-culturally eclectic surroundings of Bulgaria and Old Serbia.  They became more obvious through the activities of the newly established League of Prizren, (Arnaut Kongre of June 1878 – Spring 1881), both in Kosovo and Metohija and right up to the war in the Prizren vilayet. It was during that period when their influence in Old Serbia caused very deep changes, particularly in the life of the Serbian people in Old Serbia, and Serb-Arbanas relations in general. During the war and postwar period of 1876-1881 the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija lost what had been up until then, their ethnic majority. They also forfeited most of what was still “free real estate” and, until the end of Turkish rule in 1912, were given the status of subjugated Turkish subjects. Although Turkish state authorities broke apart the armed military-political organization, (and ordered some of the main representatives to be persecuted by the Porte authorities), the League of Prizren did manage to extend its’ influence and presence among the Arbanas. The idea was to offer some type of tribal-national autonomy to operate under the sovereignty of the Turkish Empire. (It effected a special principle of “division of power” through primarily Arbanas-Turkish relations, but also in Arbanas-Serb mutual disputes and relations that incurred after 1877-1887). The policy of the League of Prizren aspired for absolute domination of an imagined and planned territory in the future “Greater Albania”, (then of four Turkish “vilayets”: Skadar, Janina, Kosovo and Bitola!). The ideological creators were mostly members of “begovats”, those of a racial-tribal, religious-political anti-Christian, and Serbo-phobic orientation.  Many were educated in Italy.  The conservative segments caught by pan-Islamic ideas may have been expected to maintain acquired privileges (“beg” and “fis”). This was especially the case for broadening land ownership by expulsion of Christian peasants – and the creation of a kind of “latifundia”,  according to West European capitalistic standards.

Much has been written about the League of Prizren and can be found in Albanian national historiography and foreign historical archives, including Serbian historiography, as well. The most differing opinions seem to have brought about its’ origin, action and political goals. Taking into consideration Serb-Arbanas relations, however, Serbian writers Spiridon Gopčević (and historian Jovan Hadži Vasiljević) wrote the most about its effect on Kosovo and Metohija. (It can not be overlooked that historian and Croatian, Bernard Stuli, was just one of many other Yugoslavs writing about it, too.) It originated as a resistance to the territorial losses of the Turkish Empire on behalf of San Stefano Bulgaria. They comprised of the limitrophic parts of Kosovo, including western Macedonia, with mixed, mainly minor Arbanas (compared to the major Slav population), in order to cede Plav and Gusinje to Montenego according to the decision of the Berlin Congress. As the basic program of principles and declarations exposed in “Talimat” and “Kararnome”, the League of Prizen appeared as an uncompromising anti-Slav, anti-Christian, xenophobic, conservative movement. In simplest terms, they sought to maintain privileges in its framework of the Turkish state; how they went about it was anything but.

The League of Prizren was founded on June 10th 1878. The delegates were scattered Albanians living wherever they had moved to. Regarding class, the majority was composed of feudal lords but there were also merchants, intellectuals and other prominent people.

The League of Prizren had three programs. The first and second had quite a pan-Islamic character, while the third progressively sought to establish autonomy in whatever parts the Albanians were living. The unity of one “vilayet” would advance the efforts to disseminate the culture. Clerks were obliged to speak Albanian. It was to be taught in schools. An assembly was to be held every four months at which time common decisions would be made, and a greater amount of money was to be separated from state incomes for education and utilities, and other expenses.

The Albanians eventually won their autonomy by armed struggle. They expelled the Turkish clerks and disarmed the Turkish garrisons.

Because of the resistance of the Muslims to cede Plav and Gusinje to Montenegro, however, (and according to the decision of the Berlin Congress, in July 1878, and negation of the Turkish state authorities), the Porte decided to crush the Albanian national movement having noticed the potential dangers the League of Prizren was causing.

The Porte sent Dervish-pasha to crush it by any means. First, he broke the ranks of the League’s branch in Skadar (“Shkodra”), then liquidated the leaders of the League in Skopje, and finally left for Kosovo. Dervish-pasha’s army went on to defeat the units of the League of Prizren in Slivovo and Štimlje, and the area near Ćaf Dulja. Dervish-pasha entered Prizren without any resistance in April 1881. Then he conquered Djakovica—and established their rule in Novi Pazar, too.

Several causes contributed to the temporary crushing of Albanian movements, and breaking apart the League of Prizren: Dervish-pasha’s army was bigger, stronger, better organized and armed (and better disciplined) than the Albanian army which was found lacking in every way. Many domestic “begs” and “pashas” betrayed the Albanian movement and the League of Prizren. Finally, there were great powers in opposition to Albanian autonomy and independence.

During the 1860’s and the 1870’s the Turkish Empire experienced a deep state and social crisis brought on by financial ruin—the consequence of the Crimean War. It had greatly exhausted the state reserves of money, mainly because of debt payments and war loans obtained from France and England, (their allies in the three-year war against Russia). The social crisis reflected how disorganized the state administration had become through greed and corruption, but most of all because state tax duties were being usurped by provincial and local administration officials.  Not only was the economy of the country neglected as a result, the primitive level of production in rural regions suffered even more. Christian peasants were especially vulnerable because of poor security situations and uncertain and erratic agrarian yields, but there were other problems, too. Plundering companies. Expulsions of the “rayah”, both on a religious and political basis riled by poorly paid clerks in public administration, and others. Blackmail. Fines. And further plundering committed by renegades of legal authority caused these poor people to be even further oppressed.

Anarchy worsened in Kosovo and Metohija, and any contact-point made with the Arbanas-Serb population. Frequent single and mass murders of the “rayah” – Kosovo-Metohija Serbs—were reported in addition to the other factors just mentioned. Violent seizure of property, household valuables, and expulsion from a series of villages . Foreign consuls in Skadar (“Shkodra”), Janina, Skopje, Sarajevo, Vidin (in official correspondence with their governments), documented and thoroughly described the extremely sorrowful and wretched situation of the Serbian peasants in Turkish provinces and the Prizren vilayet (i.e. in Old Serbia).  The Turkish-Serb social security, economic and legal oppositions were additionally complicated by the social-religious and civil-court discrimination. (It should be clarified that “Turkish”, in this context, refers to the “Arbanas”.) In many cases, even at the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, the Christian-Turkish and Arbanas’ disputes were going to trial according to Shari’a, whereas Christian testimony had no legal value in law. A better situation for the Serbs in Kosovo was expected when the work of the Serbian consulate in Old Serbia had begun.

The Consulate of the Kingdom of Serbia was opened in Prishtina in the beginning of December in 1889 on the basis of the Consular Convention, which the Kingdom of Serbia concluded with Turkey. The first Serbian consul in Prishtina, Luka Marinković, was killed in the middle of the town on June 19th 1890, (according to the old Julian calendar), after only several months of service. Todor Stanković, from Skopje, replaced him and accepted the duties of Consul General in Skopje Vladimir Karić on June 25th. There he remained until the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgrade sent further confirmation.

Two basic tasks confronted Todor Stanković: consular legal protection of the rights of Serbs in Kosovo, and protection of Serbian schools and church-religious life of the Serbian population. He is deemed to have met the challenges successfully—the impact was felt at public level of local Serbs.

During his first consular service in Prishtina Todor Stanković spent nearly two and a half years, from the middle of 1890 into the Fall of 1892, having received jurisdiction in the territory of the Prishtina sandzak, “mutessarifluk”. He paid special attention to the security and agrarian-legal position of Serbs, educational circumstances in the schools, and to the state of the church and religious life. In his reports he cited dozens of examples of heavy plundering, murders, real estate seizures, peasant real estate incendiaries, theft of cattle, fines, and blackmail—and the kidnapping of girls and women for “Turkization”. The abuse of various tax duties was closely connected, but especially violence of the so-called “poljaks” who were supported in food and money by rural communities—the villages of Serbian population. Such negative consequences of the extremely compromised legal-security positions of the Serbs in Old Serbia were distinct in the Peć and Prishtina “mutessarifluk”.

Todor Stanković quoted an excerpt from a discussion led by a Serbian peasant from Novo Selo: “Oh, my sir, there isn’t the church of Samodreža anymore; it existed sometime ago but now a water mill is made from it…” And to the consul’s question: “How do you live here among the Albanians?” the answer was: “We are only alive, but better if we did not have such a life”.

The village of Samodreža had 50 Serbian cooperatives until the wars. In the Fall of 1891 – when this discussion took place on the occasion of Stanković’s visit to this region – there were only 4 Serbian, and 70 “Arnaut” isolated “houses” remaining. In the Gnjilane “nahiya”, the newly introduced foresters and the old institution of “poljaks” who did “all sorts of violence” against the Serbs, were a source of very great trouble for them. About this  Stanković said: “If something is not done soon in order not to place the ‘Arnauts’ for ‘poljaks’ in Serbian villages then, for sure, all the Serbs will run off and be displaced, and the Serb girls will be taken and ‘Turkicized’ ” (according to reports dated June 1st, 1892). He had reason to be alarmed. The authorities of the Prishtina “mutessarifluk” had done nothing to protect the “rayah” and  anarchy had by then become an endemic phenomenon. On May 18th in 1892 Stanković reported to Belgrade that: “eight Turk dervishes entered into Serbian villages in Kosovo and, asking for charity, said: ‘give for Saint Nicholas, and for other Christian saints’. Many gave to them out of fear. They went into peasant houses and the peasants had to treat them and offer overnight stay”.

Following the Serb-Turkish war displacement in wider dimensions occurred because of two reasons. The “Arnauts” (inhabitants of Kosovo) sought to exact revenge against the Serbs who had been their “rayah”. Upon return from the battlefields they burned houses, grabbed cattle, and deflowered members of the households. Serbs saved their heads by fleeing to Serbia across the border, which was now that much closer and therefore possible to reach. On the other hand the “Arnauts”, expelled from the new borders of Serbia, began immigrating to Kosovo en masse since the area was closest to their property left behind in Serbia. These new settlers, known under the name, “Muhadjeri”, flooded Kosovo and forcibly pressed the Serbs to make room for them. The Czar did, however, give them land on which they could build their new villages—but these places were unhealthy, and so deserted early on. A very good example of the situation was the “mud” of Sazlije and Robovac. They settled in massive numbers, dried up the waters, cleaned the reed, and then turned the swamps into meadows in order to create some property for themselves. It explains why they preferred to build near Serbian villages instead on the land the Czar was offering—they would do whatever they could to displace the Serbs and then shrewdly catch hold of their property in just this way.

The “Arnauts” were flooding Serbian villages from two directions:  from the mountains (and increasingly encroached upon Sitnica), and the others from Serbian borders. The number of remaining villages can be counted on two hands today—meaning there are no “Arnauts”. Numerous villages once occupied by Serbs kept their Serbian names, but there are no Serbian houses remaining.

The nationalities found in Kosovo today are: the “Arnauts” and “Arnauted” (Albanized) Serbs, Serbs, Osmanlis, Tscerkess, Vlachs, Jews and gypsies.

The native “Arnauts” are few, while so-called “Arnauted” Serbs make up three-quarters of the Kosovo population—and with right they call Kosovo “Arnautluk”, the “land in which they are the masters”. They live in compact villages at the foot of surrounding mountains but they have already mastered the ravines and towns. In fact, it could be said that the Arnauts have swarmed the most beautiful lands. As for being centers – according to Jovan Cvijić – Peć and Djakovica were considered to be from the towns, and regions of the Gnjilane area, Drenica.

As a region Drenica had to be a “kaza”—by law an administrative division. But the population, (unbridled and self-willed), was opposed to the implementation of that law. The village Laushi, (Lauši), was determined to be the seat to “kaymakams”. A palace was built for that purpose and the appointed “kaymakam” had already started performing his duty. But on January 14th in 1891 two thousand “Arnauts” gathered under arms and sent a command to the “kaymakam”, ordering him to move out with all his subordinates—or else be killed. The “kaymakam” cleared the “hucumet” immediately and set off for Mitrovica, while the Arnauts burnt the palace and all the other state buildings, destroying them completely. When the deputy authorities came to investigate (actually to negotiate), and met with the Arnaut chiefs they told them: “There has been no authority in Drenica for five hundred years, nor is it necessary, nor will it exist until we are alive!”

From the Turk-Greek war in 1897 to the beginning of the Macedonian Committee’s armed action in the eastern parts of the Kosovo “vilayet”, distrust of Turkish authorities and the civil population towards the whole of the “rayah” flared up again. The coming out of the Turkish authority and certain groups of Muslim society assumed a jeopardizing form of menace, and pogrom. In the Kosovo “vilayet” they began to persecute the Serbs, both as “rayah”, (e.g., the domain adequate for strengthened economic exploitation, especially in the agrarian field), and as politically undesirable subjects, (e.g., the sector of the population caught by secret irredentism, and natural aspiration to attach to Serbia). The so-called Kolašin affair served as a cause to stiffen the position of the Turkish authorities towards the Serbs. It was rather a consequence of common effect of poor Turkish administration, (oppressions, legal non-protection), economic exploitation, (increase of tax and agrarian duties), and the crushing of general civil rights (hindrance of work at schools, impedance in religious service, limitation of freedom of movement, et al.).

The Kolašin affair is understood to be the catalyst which brought about the discovery of a large quantity of arms (mostly rifles) in the Serbian settlement of Stari Kolašin—something for which the Turks accused official Serbia. Smuggling arms across its border seemed to be the proof that the Serbians intended to arm the local population for a possible rebellion against the Turkish rule. But the action taken during the Turkish search for arms was carried out with such bloody repression that it escalated into a significant interstate diplomatic conflict: the Turk-Serb relations were strained all the more because of it. And the Serb population of Stari Kolašin was submitted to continuous searches, investigations and maltreatment by Turkish civil administrative authorities, the army and “bashibozuch” armed groups. Although this event was to become central in political characteristics of the Serbian people’s entire history in Turkey during the first decade of the 20th century, local historiography barely mentions it.

Two incidents, however, brought the Kolašin affair to light again. In mid-July of 1901, the Turkish army launched raids on the mountain, Rogozna, and a group of armed Serbs clashed with the army. In exchange of gunfire, one from their group was killed and the other captured. The Turks claimed the group was made of natives, (i.e. Turkish subjects), but that they had moved from Serbia… and were armed with Serbian arms. They also said their crossing was made with the knowledge of the Serbian authorities—that their objective was, on the one side, to kill the leading Turks and on the other, to pass arms into Stari Kolašin. They presented their case by mentioning the murder of a number of Muslims at Novi Pazar, as well as the saying (testimony) of gendarmes, that two cargoes of arms had passed into Kolašin secretly, with a total of thirty rifles. The reason behind the arms supply (which the Turks ascribed to one of their emigrants, priest Mihajlo, who had settled in Kursumlija after escaping from Turkey—or so they claimed), was for conducting the whole action of arming the Kolašin Serbs from there.  Immediately following this discovery fanatical masses of Muslims, led by local chiefs, set off for Kolašin. Only in Mitrovica did a hundred or more people gather. Isa Boljetinac, Ferhad beg Draga and Adem Chaus (Adam Čauš) from Novi Pazar headed their armed units as they set off from three directions towards the Serbian villages of Stari Kolašin on July 16th. Harangued masses, thinking that arming non-Muslims was a betrayal of the Turkish Empire, were prepared for a general clash with the Kolašin natives.

The Kolašin events became the hotbed of diplomatic discord between Turkey, Serbia and Russia. The Turks accused Serbia of standing in the background, which was fueled by the fact that the rifles came from Serbia, while in Serbia a numerous anti-Turkish emigration from the entire Novi Pazar sandzak was allowed to work undisturbed, but especially the Stari Kolašin Serbs.

The national-political position of the Serbs in Old Serbia has been shown to be exceptionally difficult until the liberation in 1912. Cvijić – as has been said – found the main reasons in legal and security issues to be an unfavorable situation with the Turkish administration, (“anarchistic”), because of constant  “Arbanas” oppressions, terror and numerous murders.

He proceeded from the statement that “Turkey is a religious state, a state of the Koran”, and that “in those regions where native Muslims and Christians live the Constitution does not help…” Cvijić further stated that the main causes of the anarchistic state in Old Serbia were essentially “Arbanas’” persecution of Serbs, relative to the Turkish rule which was weak-willed, or negligent, or helpless, in protecting the Serbs: there was no authority. The Mohammedans, especially the Arnaba,s were all armed while Serbs were forbidden to carry arms. In certain areas, he said, tyrants ruled surrounded with companies of armed people and the whole country swarmed with bandits who…lived from kidnapping and plunders. “Smaller bandits grab the land from the Serbs who have their land, so that undoubtedly four fifths of the Serbs have become ‘chifchiyas’, («čifčija»), i.e., lessees of foreign land. If anyone opposes, the ‘Arbanas’ bandits kill him, often and all the members of his cooperative («zadruga») (sic). These bandits join into big detachments and blackmail rich individuals and entire villages with financial blackmails…” (sic). Cvijić mentions the violence in pushing Serbs out of their villages, to settle them. “Serb cattle breeders at high pasture mountains of Old Serbia have especially disappeared, because almost all the cattle had been stolen,” he wrote. The plundered Serbs escaped to Serbia, often carrying “deeds of their lands”. He claimed that such expelled and displaced Serbs in the Kingdom of Serbia waited for the moment to take back their property. “From 1896 until the beginning of this (1912) war there were over 150,000…mostly at the burden of the Serbian government.” In this respect, Cvijić mentioned several examples of violence against Serbs which continued to grow before the end of Turkish rule. As a characteristic example of violence committed against the Serbs Cvijić stated a case of a peasant from the Kosovo village of Ugljare “from whom the Arbanas bandits first plundered the cattle, then the beehives, and finally all the clothing from the pantry; he, having no land of his own, was left without any real estate and was a true beggar”.

Unsettled property relationships, and especially the agrarian-legal position of the Serb peasants, remained as the main problem of the Turk administration in the entire Kosovo “vilayet” until 1912. The Serb consuls in Prishtina – Petar Stanković, Milosav Kurtović, Branislav Nušić, Milan Rakić—described with many details  this unbearable situation of the Serb population. In the persecution of the Serbs, Ali beg Draga, Isa Boljetinac, the Pristhina mufti and some Vučitrn “begs” distinguished themselves especially. The violence and robbery of free lands (properties) of the last Serbian peasants continued to escalate. What had been up until then Serbian villages were being taken by armed intrusions for the violent settling of the “Arbanas” on the other side. This occurred on a massive scale during the “Arbanas” rebellions of 1908-1912 when the Porte had to grant major concessions to “Arbanas” rebels, and several thousands of Serbs had to move out of the bordering areas into neighboring parts of the Kingdom of Serbia. Despite a secret political agreement between the representatives of the Serbian government, (and the General Staff with Isa Boljetinac, Idriz Sefer and some other Arbanas fis chiefs), there was no positive result—not  in achieving Serb-Arbanas reconciliation, and not in any mutual cooperation for war against Turkey. During the war of the Balkan allies against Turkey at the end of 1912, the Arbanas were the only Balkan people who in great masses fought on the Turkish side. Their main leaders, especially from Djakovica and Peć, left after the Turkish army. During the summer of 1912 Isa Boljetinac received in excess of “ten thousand ‘rapid fires’” from Serbian military warehouses to deploy against the Turks. And he did use them – eschewing the famous “Arbanas” “besa”—when Turkey declared war – against the Serbian army.

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