The Past of the Kosovo-Metohija Serbs 1912-1918

The Past of the Kosovo-Metohija Serbs 1912-1918

The liberation of Kosovo and Metohija in 1912 marked the beginning of a new era in its history and folk life. After centuries-lasting Turkish rule the central area of historical Old Serbia was freed. The difficult and painful past of the Kosovo-Metohija Serbs was illuminated as national community life integrated with other populations of the liberated Kingdom of Serbia.

The Turkish rule had been a complex legal, internal economic, and cultural-educational system. Substituting institutions (which were in effect, the Serbian state) opened the way to compensate and improve the general situation of the Serbs. But it also affected other nationalities in Kosovo, since the legal order impacted newly freed regions of Old Serbia and Macedonia, too. The state legislation of the Kingdom of Serbia, based on modern democratic principles of Europe of the time, guaranteed full civil rights to the population of Kosovo, (e.g., Metohija entering Montenegro), but especially the public security and religious equality of Albanians and Turks. The first legal measures on regulating agrarian-legal relations were put into practice as refugees and expelled Serbian families returned from the last decades of Turkish rule.

The events of World War I during the summer of 1914 thwarted a successful start to the evolution of new life in Kosovo and Metohija. Renewing a three-year state sovereignty of Serbia was kept short-term in exchange for more immediate results of the Serbian administration’s efforts to process European influence in the Kosovo-Metohija geographic-economic region. After the fall of Turkey (which was, technically speaking, the collapse of Turko-Albanian rule), liberated Serbs in Kosovo were freer to share a wider socio-political, economic, and cultural community life of the Serbian people.

Besides military administration (because of the war in 1913), parallel civil rule based and practiced on Constitutional principles and positive legislation of post-1903 Parliamentarian Serbian democracy came into existence in all newly freed regions of Serbia, (that, in 1912). This, it shared with the newly forming Albanian state.

The military administration in Kosovo had primacy (limited by law) over civil administration—which in the civil sphere kept its full administrative-court jurisdiction. The Serbian courts resolved all civil disputes, and especially legal-property relations, by law.  The identities of citizens of both religions, Christian and Muslim, were highly revered.  Disputes over property deeds previously legalized in Turkish courts prior to 1912 were revised and heirs came back into what was theirs. The estates of master “begs” (“chitluk”) oligarchy, seized from the Serbs free peasants, were returned to Serbs holding deeds to real estate that had been usurped by force and transformed into “chitluks”.

Civil disputes of mixed trials were held according to the Civil Code of the Kingdom of Serbia. Trials for Albanians and Turks involving Muslim property, marriage and other cases were held according to the Shari’a legislation as an obligation of justification in Serbian courts. In a word, public civil order was established by principle. Institutions of European civil order, civilization achievements of European legislation were held in the jurisdiction of the “plecnije” Albanian peace judges. General principles of modern legal science and scientific legal thought were heard, including inter-Albanian disputes and the “right to trial” of the so-called Code of Leka Dukadgin. (The Serbian legislation did not belong to the jurisdiction of such court decisions, unless there were complaints from their litigants)

One of the first measures taken by the Serbian government at the end of the war with Turkey, and conclusion of the London Peace Treaty in the spring of 1913, was to regulate the state administration. According to standards of the Kingdom of Serbia, the liberated territory of Old Serbia in the composition of the Serbian state was divided by the outburst of the First World War in 1914. The state administration regularly convened during spring and summer of 1913. It divided Kosovo into districts, municipalities, towns and townships (as internal self-managing municipalities) and municipalities (general). There were three districts in Kosovo: Zvečan seated in Mitrovica, Kosovo with the center in Prishtina, and Prizren in Prizren. (In the old Rascia region there were the districts of: Prijepolje and Rascia – with Novi Pazar). This was in contrast to the boundaries under Turkish rule –i.e., the Peć district-“sanjak” with Djakovica in the area of the administrative division of Montenegro)

The districts in their composition contained municipalities, towns and villages, which possessed certain organs of authority. They belonged to the Ministry of Interior in the civil sphere of administration. A detailed administrative-territorial division of the district offered the following composition and number of inhabitants:

► Please take note of the graph below, third column.



Municipality place and

No. of municipalities



Zvečan Vučitrn Vučitrn 10 103 32.405
Drenica Lauša 7 79 23.821
Mitrovica Mitrovica 12 149 16.063
Kosovo Gnjilane Gnjilane 18 234 78.284
Gračanica Prishtina 15 165 36.950
Lab Podujevo 12 95 27.084
Nerodim Uroševac 11 85 51.019
Prizren Gora Vranište 12 52 28.117
Podgora Suva Ruka 10 42 34.551
Podrimlje Orahovac 17 57 43.962

There were 21,244 inhabitants in Prizren.

In all three districts in Kosovo there was a total number of:

81,643 inhabitants in the Zvečan district,

193,337 in the district of Kosovo and

124,121 in the Prizren district.

The Serbian official census cited a number of monasteries according to municipalities and districts in each district.

In Kosovo there were:

Gračanica, Devič

St. Gabriel in Drenica municipality

St. Mark in Prizren municipality (Sara Mountain)

Holy Trinity in Podgora of Prizren

With the exception of Gračanica, erbian authorities found these monasteries in poverty and lacking even basics. But they nevertheless won the respect of a very pious people whose gifts and aid to the monasteries were in proportion to their ability to give. Upon establishment of Serbian rule in 1912, these religious and spiritual holy places experienced a renewal but soon after suffered much during the occupation of 1915-1918. The imperial “laura”monastery, “Visoki” Dečani, and the Peć Patriarchy, were under Montenegro administration at that time.

declaration of war

          Austro-Hungary declared war and attacked Serbia on July 29th in 1914, setting off World War I.  It soon expanded to a large part of Europe and transformed the war into two military-political blocks, “Entente” and the Central Powers. The Kingdom of Serbia stood unanimously in defense of freedom and independence and the Serbian army defeated the Austro-Hungarian invasion armies in famous battles on Mt. Cer and the river Kolubara  at the end of summer and late fall 1914. These were the allied armies’ first major victories of “Entente”. In the beginning of fall in 1915, however, the German army under the famous army commander, August von Mackenzie, attacked Serbia on the wide front from Belgrade to Djerdap, and the Bulgarian army along the whole eastern border of Serbia. Before a multiple superior enemy, the Serbian army withdrew towards Kosovo together with a large number of civil population from the north and central areas of Serbia. From Kosovo, the last free territory, the Serbian army and numerous civil refugees retreated through Montenegro and northern Albania to the Greek island of Kerkyra in the Ionian Sea. This was in part a survival tactic, but also facilitated transferring rehabilitated Serbian soldiers in the spring of 1916 to the Thessaloniki front, while civilians crossed into western allied countries, (mainly in France).

          Occupied Serbia was divided between the Austro-Hungarians and the Bulgarians—the western part went to Austro-Hungary, and the eastern and southern to Bulgaria. The Bulgarian army and police occupied all of Kosovo and Metohija by the Austro-Hungarians. The border line of the two occupational zones followed along the river Velika (Big) Morava, then to the watershed of the river basins Ibar, and  Južna (South) Morava. Mitrovica remained in the possession of the Austrians, and Prizren of the Bulgarians. In both zones a military-police administration was established in spring of 1916—in the Bulgarian zone, even the mention of a Serbian name was officially forbidden. The Kosovar Serbs (including the Serbian population of the areas of Južna Morava and state territories of Old Serbia and Macedonia) were declared as Bulgarians by the Bulgarian government. By terror, murders and massive internment of Serbs, through general plunder of their property and system of contra-requisition and merciless tax policy, the Bulgarian occupational administration imposed a stern and cruel course of policy of Bulgarization of the Serbian population. This included Prishtina, Prizren, Gnjilane, as well as other Kosovo townships and more affluent villages such as Uroševac, Lipljan, Suva Reka and settlements Sirinić, and rich Izmornik. The entire region of Kosovo in the Sitnica valley was harshly pressed by state clerks and especially the armed “comitadji” companies. Dimitar Vlahov, the first district head of the Prishtina region (who became President of DFJ after World War II!), particularly distinguished his career. He was the son of General Bojadzijev, one of the commanders of the Bulgarian invasion army against Serbia. (He himself was the notorious “comitadji” Duke Jurukov.) Kosovo and the Kosovar Serbs were the most jeopardized of the Serbian people, in national, political, and demographic aspects of the three-year foreign administration. Their area included the neighboring region of Južna Morava, and the acts committed against these Serbs seemed intent to decimate them, and drive out any national-political identity in formation.

The Serbian intelligence and the clergy, state administration clerks and military officials, especially teachers, were – officially – put on the list of the biggest enemies and opponents of the Bulgarian occupation, and official policy of the Bulgarian government for the Bulgarization of Kosovo. Policies against Serbian schools, churches, and monasteries because of famous Serbian holy objects brought about the complete destruction of the Seminary (Bogoslovija) in Prizren. Gračanica and Devič were heavily damaged, numerous churches desecrated and closed, and Serbian schools completely abrogated and their inventory destroyed. In late 1915 and in early 1916, the Bulgarians and Austro-Hungarians took almost all of the churches’ values and reliquaries—and even dug monastery hiding places and monks’ graves primarily to plunder and destroy the documents and monuments of Serbian spiritual-church culture and medieval civilization of the Serbian state. In this respect, even scientists and professors from the University were engaged but also representatives of the Bulgarian Exarchate. The religious-church organization of the people’s lives of the Serbs in Kosovo was to be completely erased, and the Kosovar Serbs were to become members of the Bulgarian schismatic Exarchate. At the head of this illegal and non-canonic proselytized, violent action of religious-political conversion and denationalization of Serbs stood the schismatic Metropolitan of Skopje Neophyt who went to Prishtina, and forced the Serbs to accept the Exarchate because of that.

As the most brutal act of religious-national intolerance towards the spiritual archpriest of the church-religious organization of the Serbia Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian occupational military-political (and certainly church-exarchate) powers was the treacherous murder of the Prizren Metropolitan. Arrested, maltreated, and sentenced to internment in Bulgaria, the Skoplje Metropolitan was killed together with his monk-clergy accompaniment. They were going by foot into exile on the martyred way of innocent sufferers—as victims of pathological criminogenene hatred towards Serbia and the Serbian people. As the initiator and spiritual murderer of the Skopje Metropolitan Vićentije, the newly posted Exarch Metropolitan Neophyt was considered!

There are many chilling accounts of numerous murders of Serbs. They represented a violation not only of regulations of international war convention (envisaged in the Hague Conventions from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries), but also of humanitarian provisions from the Geneva Convention and internationally accepted regulations of the Red Cross in Geneva. Contemporary witnesses cited numerous examples – which at the end of 1918, and early 1919, were polled from the autopsy of Vioka committee and allied criminologists and social pathologists – of whom the most famous was Swiss Archibald Rice, professor of the University in Lozano.

 Two or three very characteristic and striking cases of the general social, security, and psychological situations after the Serbian army retreated were given as examples. Janićije Popović wrote, “the first night after the fall of Kosovo, two Turks from Prishtina in the company of some Albanians, wandered into the house of Naća from the village of Skumanovo. The night was cold. Snow was falling. Everyone was closed in their houses. No one dared to set off and help the other. Each was left to ‘God’s will’. Naća closed his house and was sleeping with his children. They penetrated with force and then Naća, his child, and an uncle were tied and although naked and barefoot, were expelled from the house. Their wives followed them, weeping and wailing, but they were turned back with bayonets … After three months, the river Sitnica threw their corpses (showing) innumerable stabs from the bayonet!” The other example was more horrible and brutal: In the monastery St. Mark, near Suva Reka, “a captain with junior officers came along with about 150 soldiers. At dawn, the Albanians besieged the monastery and asked to surrender. The captain started to negotiate and got the ‘besa’, (word), that they would leave them safe and sound—if only they handed over their arms. A hundred armed Albanians entered and immediately canceled the ‘besa’. They closed the soldiers into rooms, and officers and refugees in another room. They carried off the arms and then batch by batch of soldiers they took them out of the monastery and by ‘salvos’ an end to their lives was made!… The captain immediately bitterly regretted for not resisting, but it was just too late. After the soldiers, he paid with his life together with the other officers… “

Even in the first days of occupation both peasants and townsmen suffered equally, and the refugees passed the worst. Only in Prishtina were there several thousands from all regions of  “pre-war” Serbia (1912). The Bulgarians, Austrians, and the Germans from various directions almost simultaneously entered into Prishtina. Bulgarians outnumbered the others, although “Slavic brethren” showed themselves to be more brutal than their German allies. They did not kill the prisoners, nor did they inter them, but they did take away food from the peasants on the route of their march, and plunder state and private property in town settlements. Prishtina fell into the hands of the occupier on November 10th, and Prizren somewhat later. The Bulgarian terror against the Serbs started from the first day, as they searched for any remaining Serbian soldiers although by then most were wounded—over 900 of them.

Some were cared for in the division hospital, while others in private houses, and emptied offices. On the second day upon the entering the city, the Bulgarians gathered all the males from house to house aged 16-60 years old, and locked them in barracks. The people were terrified—especially the refugees. They were in despair having left the families they had moved here—and with what? But the Bulgarians had no regard for them; they were, after all, from the ranks of “war prisoners”.

There was an uproar the day they gathered the people for internment. The soldiers, like bandits armed with knives on rifles, rushed furiously into the streets and in the houses, swearing. People hid in the attics and jumped over walls, just to escape. At night they separated the elders, women, and children and left them to go home. The following day, without food but with a strong guard, they went on to Leskovac. Along the way they pursued them with forced march but didn’t provide any bread or so much as a drop of water. Whomsoever lagged behind was killed immediately before the eyes of the others, by stringing up. But the more they went further, the lesser they were…The first night was spent under cloudy sky, and snowstorms. Some of them died, some succeeded in flight, and others went on to Leskovac where they were put to through the sieve. Healthy commoners went to  Bulgaria, and the clerks – to the slaughterhouse. The number killed is unknown. Priest Stanko Dimitrijević, from the Kosovars’ village of Livadja, and the monk Cyrillo from Gračanica, were then killed. Whomsoever could return home, or hide somewhere else and escape internment, was hidden for along time to come.

State officials, teachers, and priests were on the main list for internment. The Bulgarians considered them as holders of “great Serbiasm” and the main hindrance to successful Bulgarization of the Serbian population under their occupation. They were especially afraid of the clergy in Kosovo. That is why – besides the abovementioned “right from the first day of their entrance”—they killed old priest, Jovan Nerodimov, and in Lipljan, priest Deno Debeljković whose studies about Kosovo Serbs had been published by the Serbian Royal Academy.  (Priest Ariton, from Prishtina, barely managed to escape internment because he brought “a pie, round bread, fried chicken and baklava” to the local commanding General Topaldzikov with a note that he was freed temporarily “until further order”). In St. Mark’s monastery at Suva Reka the monk, Danilo, was in trouble with the Albanians because of the Serbian soldiers he received while retreating to the monastery.

Janićije Popović was a Kosovo Serb, native born, and national worker. He was also a teacher during the last of Turkish rule. Immediately following the end of World War I, he wrote a booklet about his experience, perceptions, and knowledge gained about the time of the conquest. He published it under the title, “Kosovo in Slavery Under the Bulgarians from September 1915 to October 1918”.

In the difficult situation of the tripartite occupation of Kosovo after the departure of Serbian authorities, three pestilences hit the Serbian population very hard – both the natives and thousands of refugees en masse—especially in Prishtina and Prizren, but also in Lipljan, Uroševac, Gnjilane, Suva Reka, Orahovac and refuge areas in Nerodimlje and Drenica. 1) Massive numbers of dead from hunger and disease in difficult climatic conditions of a rainy and windy cold fall. 2) Systematic plundering of the remaining Serbian state, (but especially private property), and deprivation of food or right to herd  cattle. 3) Interment of Serb males and subsequent military conscription, whether or not civilian. The most arrogant of the lot were Bulgarian military-police officials, the fanatic Turk townsmen of Prizren and Prishtina, Albanian “bashibozuk” gangs controlling the villages.

The Bulgarian occupational rule’s revenge against the Serbs was a reaction to the political intention to create a lasting unification of the Serbian state, and Bulgarization. It included ethnic territories where Slavs had populated the areas east of the river Velika Morava, and south of the Mountain Jastrebac, i.e., in the so-called Morava and Kosovo occupational-organizational region. The Turks and Albanians, too, were bent on their desire for revenge because of what their empire had lost—including their own privileged existence until the Balkan War in 1912 brought their rule to its’ end.  They reacted by joining the Bulgarian authority, serving in the gendarmerie as field police, or village mayors – representatives in Serbian village municipalities in the Bulgarian occupied territory of Kosovo.

Together with the Bulgarian komitadji companies from the VMRO organization, they performed single and mass murders of Serbs, particularly during the termination of the Toplica rebellion in the first half of 1917. From the first days of the occupation in 1915, masters of the Serbian “rayah” were also in control over the  life or death of the Serbian population of Kosovo. Quite a few examples were characteristic for the residential occupant and his domestic (Muslim) helpers – Turks and Albanians. Especially in ethnically mixed Serbian-Albanian villages, the Serbs were exposed to severe terror and plundering of their property – often up to the last agrarian (food) products (supplies), and home furnishings up to the smallest thing.

Professor Ljiljana Čolić published (in Kosovo-Metohija Collection 2, Belgrade 1988, pp. 75-90) a significant census of victims from the ranks of the clergy besides other territories. It included the territory of Kosovo and Metohija during the Bulgarian-Austro-Hungarian occupation 1915-1918, according to the manuscript of archpriest of the Zvečan district Boža Jovanović. This census contains a very large number of people – priests, monks, archpriests and other church officials. As was quoted, the murders were accompanied by tortures of various kinds and in a very brutal way. Their intention was to destroy as many religious-church organizations of the Serbian church as possible. The hatred of both occupational administrations towards the Serb clergymen was made apparent in the unhidden desires to lead the Serbian Orthodoxy in those regions to destruction. In this respect, persecutions and crimes of Serbian clergy were worse and even more difficult than at any time during Turkish rule, until 1912. Destruction done to the Serbian Church and religious representatives carried on until 1912. Thus the ways in which priests were killed, including the villages of Sečanica and Bistrica, and priest of the Rascia district Toma Popović in the Austro-Hungarian occupational zone of Kosovo and Metohija. There are a few names known to have been interned in the camps of Nežider and Boldogasonje: priest Vukajlo Božović from Ibarski Kolašin, and priests from the Zvečan district – from Mitrovica, Banja and Vučitrn. Monks from the monastery of the Peć Patriarchate were interned: “ieromonk” Boris Ladjarac, “ieromonk” Milentije Vuković, prior Theofan Djoković, then the members of the Peć Consistorium: priest Kosta Lješević, priest Kosta Popović and priest Gligorije Ristić, parish priests from Peć and Djakovica, Podujevo and several more from the Kosovo-Metohija villages.

In the Bulgarian occupational zone, sufferings of clergymen were even more numerous, and painful. The parishes of the villages were without their priests, most of whom had been massacred in Surdulica: Livadje, Nerodimje, Zoočiste and the priest of the “Prizren district Kosta Jovanović; the heads of the monasteries Holy Trinity, near Prizren and St. Mark, were killed. Many priests of the Gnjilane were killed. Several clergymen from Kosovo were killed during the Toplica rebellion in 1917, including priests from Draganić and Crepulje.

Priest Josif Spasić, priest Apostol Popović and Petar Popović, from Prishtina parishes were in the same way interned from Bulgaria to Eski Dzumaj. Priest Stevan Dimitrijević, president of the Prizren Seminary, and professor Vojislav Katić, priest Petar Lazić, member of the Spiritual Court and priest Manojlo Čemerkić from Prizren, were interned to Paničarevo camp in March 1916 and from transferred to Eski Dzumaj in June 1917, from where they were freed in 1918 after restoration of Serbia. Priest Trifun Radivojević from Prizren was interned into Karlovo in Bulgaria on January 1st 1916 and died on July 12th the same year in the same camp. Priest Danilo Isailović, member of the Spiritual Court in Prizren, was interned on March 16th 1916 into Paničarevo camp in Bulgaria where he died on April 19th 1917;  priest Ljubomir Repić from Prizren; priest Milan Surčević from Orahovac and priest Svetislav Bogdanović from Sevic—all from the Prizren district, from prison torments, beatings, and molesting by the Bulgarian authorities died in 1917. The first was interned to Orahovac, the other to Prishtina, and the third to the Sevic prison. From Bulgarian camps (Sliven, Paničarevo and other), to forced labor – under difficult conditions of climate, food and health – many thousands of civilians were sent to the construction of the so-called Kičevo railway. From there, after the war, very few were to return to their homes. The breach of the Thessaloniki front, and the unconditional Bulgarian surrender, saved the Kosovo Serbs from further genocide destruction.

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