By Emma Woods
BELGRADE/PRISTINA, Serbia has been trying to join the European Union, but many of its citizens still have a passionate anti-western sentiment. These feelings are largely connected to a 1999 NATO bombing campaign over the war in Kosovo. The ruins of some of the bombed buildings in Belgrade are still standing, reminding anyone who passes by of the dangers of “western aggression”.
“When every other part of the world was going through reconstruction, going towards civilization, Belgrade itself was being bombed by NATO aggression,” says Ratko Sparic. He sits in a busy café in Belgrade’s Vracar neighborhood wearing a red, blue and white sweatshirt, the colors of Serbia’s national flag. He was only two when NATO bombed his city.
Sparic belongs to the first generation of people in Serbia and in Kosovo who grew up after the war without remembering any of it, arguably the most defining period in the recent history of both Serbia and Kosovo. Born into a violent reality and forced to deal with the fallout, Sparic and his peers recently reached voting age and will decide the future of their countries.
Unlike Serbs, for the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, NATO is a “savior” which emancipated them from Serbia’s apartheid-like regime. The flags of NATO and the United States fly above nearly every building in Pristina.
“It was very necessary for NATO and for whoever else was involved to help the Kosovars,” says Plator Gashi, a 20-year-old ethnic Albanian born and raised in Kosovo. Having learned about the 1990s Balkans wars in school he cites other massacres by Serb forces in Bosnia and Croatia as the reason western intervention was necessary. “It was obvious that something really bad was going to happen.”
Gashi doesn’t remember the bombings but he remembers his family attempting to flee Kosovo to Macedonia in a large packed bus. An estimated 800,000 ethnic Albanians fled to neighboring Macedonia and Albania during the war. Gashi’s family was turned away at the Macedonian border.
“My brother is only two years older than me and he does remember a lot of things and maybe much more than other people in my family because he was young and he had a very strong memory… but I also have a younger sister, eight years younger than me, born in 2004… her knowledge is even smaller than mine,” he says.
The latter half of the 1990s brought war between Serbia’s armed forces and independence seeking ethnic Albanians in the then Serbian province of Kosovo. As violence escalated and news of ethnic cleansing circulated in the west, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in order to cripple the authoritarian regime of then president, Slobodan Milosevic.
There is still no consensus on how many refugees and deaths occurred during the bombing, and history textbooks in both regions only tell one side of the story. Gashi and Sparic have grown up in very different realities and, understandably, view the past 20 years in very different ways.
“Students just want to know what is enough for the grade they want to get so they are not interested in understanding the importance of that stuff,” says Sparic of his high school history classes. His senior year history textbook only has six pages dedicated to the last 20 years of Serbian history. The only mention of NATO is in the context of “NATO aggression” causing the death of “1,200 and 2,500 civilians… 88 of them were children.”
Gashi had a similar experience of only learning the most simplistic version of history. “It was a very simple text and it was more just like let’s say quick facts,” he says of his history textbooks. “Superficial information that you had to get done basically.”
In an ethnic Albanian history textbook for seniors it is written that after the “NATO bombings against Yugoslavia started” Serb military forces began to escalate violence in Kosovo “violently displacing Albanians from villages and cities.” The book does not mention how many people were killed by the NATO bombings but instead says that during 1999 “Serbian military killed about 15,000 Albanians.”
The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), a regional non-governmental organization, keeps records of causalities during the 1990s and lists the number of people killed by the NATO bombings as 759. Of that, 447 were civilians and the rest were members of a governmental, military or paramilitary organizations. Total of 13,000 people were killed during the 1998-1999 conflict in Kosovo, vast majority of whom were ethnic Albanians, the HLC said.
“Textbooks are the only official document on what the Ministry of Education wants us to believe that our identity should be,” says Dubravka Stojanovic, a professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade, whose research centers on history textbooks in the region.
Many current political leaders in both Serbia and Kosovo were in power during the conflict. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the country’s notorious information minister during the war, while Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was a political leader of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army.
Stojanovic emphasizes that history in the Balkans is presented as unquestionable facts, which stops students from challenging the material they are taught. This is concerning for Stojanovic because she has seen ways in which politicians manipulate the content of history textbooks in order to justify violence in the present or future.
Similarity with US history textbooks
Bias in textbook content is not isolated to the Balkans. In fact, history textbooks have been a hot topic in the United States recently. In 2010 the school board of Texas approved new social studies curriculum that garnered a lot of criticism.
According to a 2015 article published by Jezebel, an online magazine, in an eighth grade history textbook, “though the violence of slaveholders is mentioned—often with quotes by former slaves—it’s generally followed by a reminder that their lives weren’t all bad. Slavery, the book suggests, was only truly miserable some of the time.”
This is a problem for the whole United States. Texas has a large population, and is therefore one of the largest markets for textbook publishing companies, so the content the Texas board of education approves ends up being the standard content for public school textbooks across the nation.
What makes the case of Serbia and Kosovo so striking, however, is that the history in question did not happen in the 1800s, it happened roughly 17 years ago.
Stojanovic fears that the one-sidedness in history textbooks in Serbia and Kosovo will influence students negatively, and cause them to double down on the nationalism that fueled the violence years ago.
Since 2013 Serbia and Kosovo reached the so-called Brussels Agreement which lays out a plan to normalize relations between former foes, still contentious and unstable. Serbia does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, unilaterally declared in 2008, but many large powers do, including the United States and the most EU member states.
The EU-moderated Brussels talks have had some success, such as a telecommunications deal that grants Kosovo the international telephone code of +383. There have also been some embarrassments, like when the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic walked out of a meeting with Kosovo Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj, telling the press he left because of “insults” slung at him.
Bridging the gap
Despite the political instability, there are still attempts to overcome the gap between ordinary Serbs and ethnic Albanians, in particularly youngsters taught diametrically opposed versions of the recent past.
Venera Cocaj is the program director for Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Kosovo, a regional non-profit that aims to teach young people about human rights and give them an opportunity to discuss and empathize with other people’s issues.
Cocaj has seen firsthand how textbooks can breed prejudice, but through YIHR she has also witnessed how quickly those misconceptions can melt away when teens and young adults listen to each other.
In a program called Links, youth are brought together to discuss the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina and to reflect critically on the negotiations held in Brussels. The participants even critique the Brussels Agreement, and get a chance to suggest ways in which they would improve it.
“We mix the same group – half of them are from Serbia and half from Kosovo – and take them to Pristina. Pretty much it can be a shock for them, and after that they go and hangout and have a drink…Then we take the same group to Belgrade… and [they realize] okay I can party here also,” she says.
“You see the connection, many of them remain friends and many of them become better people, become better thinkers, and I think that’s very important.”
Despite two opposite sides of the history the young Serbs an Kosovars had been taught in school, Sparic is hopeful that the real life will bring them closer to each other.
“If you’re a good man or good person it shouldn’t matter what nationality you are,” he says. “I think that younger generation will be more able to get that perspective, more able to communicate, no judgements, no anything about the past events.”