“With the help of God and of the United States of America”

Albanian-American leaders share their memories of the feverish days, 20 years ago, that led to NATO’s liberation of Kosova

By Ruben Avxhiu

March 24, 2019 – 20 years ago, on this day, NATO began its military intervention in Yugoslavia to stop a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosova.

It was the fourth war that Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic had incited in the region and the patience of the international community had finally ran out.

The intervention was so successful it emboldened the advocates of the Right-to-Protect. It liberated Kosova, ended a decade of instability in the region, and opened the way to democracy and the integration of the Balkans in the European Union.

One year later, Milosevic fell from power and what was left of former Yugoslavia returned to the family of nations. Today, Montenegro and Kosova are independent, while Serbia is a member-candidate of the European Union and part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace.

It would have not happened without the leadership of the United States of America. And it may have not happened without the great contribution of the Albanian-American community, which had worked hard during the previous decades to educate US politicians, diplomats, and experts about the situation of Kosova and the greater region.

20 years later, the Albanian diaspora in US looks back with pride for the role that it played in the process. When they began their organized work to lobby and influence foreign policy debates in Washington DC, almost no one knew what “Kosovo” was.

As the Yugoslavian socialist dream collapsed, Kosova was an early harbinger of things to come. Kosova was both the first and the last victim of the rising Serbian nationalism based on medieval myths and a communist leader, like Milosevic, who replaced one ideology with another to preserve his hold on power.

The only ethnic region in Yugoslavia, to have been denied the status of Republic, Kosova was stripped of the autonomy status a well in 1989. With a population of 90% ethnic-Albanians, it was ruled with an iron hand by the Serbian nationalist regime. Ethnic Albanians lacked not only every political right, but they were denied access to public health and education systems. In response they organized to build their own parallel system.

As Yugoslavia imploded in the 1990s, the peaceful resistance of ethnic Albanians in Kosova was both a source of awe and a nuisance. It was impressive in a violent region of hateful rhetoric that Kosovar Albanians rallied behind a Ghandi-like figure like Ibrahim Rugova. On the other hand, their cause was often seen as dispensable, an unwanted complication in the international efforts to pacify Serbia and reach a lasting peace in Bosnia and Croatia.

Over the years, several Albanian-American organizations worked hard to promote the cause of Kosova in Washington DC. The Albanian-American Civic League founded in 1989, by former congressman Joseph DioGuardi became the first organized lobby organization. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Democratic League of Kosova opened its own powerful branches in the United States, which attracted thousands of Albanian immigrants and their families who had been forced to flee Kosova and Yugoslavia after the harsh years of 1950s and 1960s.

However, when the war spread in Kosova, a new organization, the National Albanian American Council, founded in 1996, had emerged as the most representative of all Albanians as well as the most professional and modern organization in Washington DC. They were also the only organization with an office in the capital.

I am writing a book about NAAC on the 20th anniversary of NATO’s intervention in Kosova. I spoke with some of the leaders about their memories of the days leading to the war.

Other organizations had paved the way with strong relationships in the US Congress, but NAAC had been the first to add to those a working relationship with the State Department and the White House administration. They organized joint events with think-tanks and appeared on the national media.

In February 1999, they traveled to Rambouillet, in France, where crucial talks between a Serbian-Yugoslavian delegation and a representative body of Kosova Albanians were taking place. Neither side was willing to sign an agreement compiled by US and international diplomats and US administration was getting nervous. Developments on the ground pointed to a potential second Bosnia if not Rwanda and NATO allies had never been so united in the determination to stop the upcoming catastrophe.

In these circumstances, a large group of Albanian-Americans led by NAAC travelled to Rambouillet with the objective to encourage the Kosovar representation to sign the document. Harry Bajraktari, a founding member, remembers a meeting with Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, as the group was preparing for the trip. She was determined that Kosovars should sign the so-called Rambouillet Agreements if they wanted a further engagement of the United States and NATO. She asked NAAC members to help them understand the importance of the document.

It was not an easy feat, as the documents seem to recognize Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosova and after a decade of severe oppression and years of a brutal war, they saw independence as the only acceptable option. However, NATO wouldn’t intervene to create a new country, but only on humanitarian grounds. It was a tough choice. On one side, they feared of betraying the population at home which had sacrificed a lot in an historic resistance against a cruel invader and colonizer. On the other hand, a humanitarian catastrophe could decimate the civilian population without necessarily gaining a new status or escaping the yoke of the Serbian regime.

Aferdita Rakipi, the 27-year old Communication Director and a formidable presence in NAAC’s Washington’s office, traveled by herself, ahead of the group to prepare the groundwork in Rambouillet.

Daughter of Albanian immigrants from Macedonia, born and bred in Michigan, she was hired full time after a summer internship and speaks passionately about those feverish days 20 years ago.

“I was in Rambouillet alone working logistics on the ground and meeting with various reporters from the international press corps a week prior to the NAAC delegation and Congressional officials joining”, she told me via e-mail. “To reiterate for the readers, I had to rent a cell phone from the airport that would function overseas. It was packed in a small hard briefcase with all its components.  Fascinating considering today we can chat through a wristwatch or a phone that slips into a pocket with ease”.

Two members of Congress, Eliot Engel, a Democrat and Sue Kelly, a Republican, both from New York and co-chairs of the Albanian Issues Caucus, traveled with the Albanian-American delegation. Engel was particularly popular among Albanians with his lifelong commitment to the cause of Kosova. He had already traveled several times to the region and in 1996 had opened a US Information Agency office in Prishtina, the capital of Kosova.

“In Rambouillet, we met with Ambassador Chris Hill who introduced us with the progress or the lack of it, in the talks, as the two groups refused to meet with each-other and remained intransigent”, recalls Harry Bajraktari during an interview over the contribution of Congressman Engel to the cause of Kosova.

The Albanian-American influence was a determining influence.

“We doubted the Serbs would sign the document anyway”, Bajraktari said recently during an interview for the Albanian language section of the Voice of America. “It would not be a decisive signature for the status of Kosova, but rather a chance for the Americans and the internationals to intervene and put an end to the atrocities”.

For three consecutive days they met with Kosovar leaders and tried to bring them together. After they left, two NAAC leaders, Avni Mustafaj, President and Ekrem Bardha, vice-chairman and then publisher of Illyria, our New York-based Albanian-American newspaper, remained behind to continue the work.

Ekrem Bardha, who had escaped communist Albania, nearly half a century ago, had built an empire of fast-food restaurant in the region of Detroit, and despite hailing from southern Albania, was passionate about the cause of Kosova. He had approached Ismail Kadare, the greatest living Albanian writer, whose books were published in more than 40 countries around the world and who lived in Paris.

“We met daily with Ismail Kadare, at the Albanian Embassy in Paris, went to dinner with Ambassador and Special Representative Chris Hill and eventually attended the official ceremony when the Kosova government signed the Rambouillet Accords,” said Avni Mustafaj who had been crucial in his work in New York with Kosova Relief Fund and would become later the longest serving officer of NAAC.

Convincing the Kosovar side to sign turned to be a nerve-wrecking effort. Nor visits from Albright herself or US Senator Bob Dole, an early supporter of Kosova, who visited Prishtina in 1990, had been sufficient to change the minds of the leaders of Kosova Liberation Army. NAAC had no alternative but to keep trying to the very end. Bardha himself had been a strong supporter of KLA from the early days and his restaurant in downtown Tirana was a place where many reporters, diplomats, KLA leaders, and Albanian-American activists have stopped to meet and talk.

Back in Washington DC, NAAC’s agenda was intensive and eclectic. Most of the duties were handled by the small army of two, composed of Ilir Zherka, Executive Director and Ms. Rakipi.

“NAAC was in high demand because we were seen as the experts who could speak to what was happening in Kosova and what should come next”, Ilir Zherka told me during an interview on the 20-th anniversary of NATO’s military campaign.

With his experience as Congressional Aide and a former employee in Clinton Administration, Zherka was an asset for the Albanian community at the time. He went on later to lead DC Vote for ten years and is today the ultimate Washingtonian, serving proudly as the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.

NAAC had become the strongest advocate of intervention and was using every opportunity to promote its views.

“The prospects for intervention seemed both impossible and absolutely necessary”, says Zherka. “So, we focused on the necessary instead and made it inevitable”.

Here some of the highest points of the March 1999 agenda, provided by Aferdita Rakipi:

March 3-  NAAC met with Jim Steinberg, Deputy National Security Advisor and other White House officials including Brigadier General George Casey, and US Special Envoy to the Balkans Ambassador James Dobbins, to asses US policy on Kosova including potential scenarios for ground forces and airstrikes.

March 4—NAAC participated in a conference hosted by the United State Institute for Peace.

March 7 – NAAC sponsors a conference on the Kosova Crisis in Chicago with Professor Nicholas Pano and analyst and expert Janusz Bugajski as featured speakers. The conference was attended by 500 Albanian Americans from the greater Chicago area.

“The evening was not only informative as to the situation in Kosova but also introduced the community to NAAC and its activities”, says the former Communication Director of NAAC.

March 9-  Ilir Zherka and Aferdita Rakipi attend the Republican National Congressional Committee Dinner in Washington, DC.  The Republican party dinner honored former US Senator Robert Dole, who remains highly popular among Albanian-Americans.

Zherka had worked for the Democratic Party campaign in the last presidential election but he said that “keeping the issue bi-partisan was key, as was speaking directly to the American people”.

March 10—Ilir Zherka testified before the House International Relations committee as part of a second panel of experts.  The first panel consisted of Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole and Gene Kirkpatrick.

March 13 – An Op-ed by Ilir Zherka is published in the Washington Post to debate a previous article written by Henry Kissinger.

As NAAC rose to prominence, says Ms. Rakipi, a Serbian publication “Dnevnik” accused the National Albanian American Council and the International Crisis group of being fronts for the CIA.

On March 18th, after two postponements, to give more time to the Serbian/Yugoslavian side, the Kosovar representatives signed the Rambouillet Agreement and war’s prospects became imminent.

There were high hopes among Albanian-Americans as the ghost of Srebrenica and other mass atrocities loomed large. Numerous mass graves found after the war confirmed that those fears were not unfounded. Milosevic had gone away with murder for the sake of the peace in Bosnia, but he had showed once again that the Balkans would never find peace and stability as long as he remained in power.

That fateful day of March 24th happened to be NAAC’s first annual Congress Day, in which over a hundred Albanian-Americans from several states gathered in Washington DC to exchange views with members of US Congress and their staff.

The event, which would become some kind of annual pilgrimage to our nation’s capital for our community to meet with friends, representatives, and officials, was a brainchild of Ilir Zherka, who had appeared the night before on MSNBC, to talk about the possibility of war, now that American diplomats had all left Serbia and NATO forces were on standby.

Twenty years later, Aferdita Rakipi remembers vividly when she interrupted that day’s luncheon to make two announcements that due to schedule changes lunch was ending in 10 minutes and that NATO bombing had begun. The room erupted with cheers. There were tears and hugs.

The feelings were mixed, nevertheless. Albanian-Americans have worked hard to make their case in Washington and their worked seems to have paid off. Ten years ago, few people even knew where Kosova was, nor that the nation was going to war there. Yet, they could not shake the sentiment of what could have been done, if their demands and concerns had been considered years ago. Maybe the war could have been avoided altogether.

And there was more to it. There was concern on what would happen to the civilian population on the ground, especially in the early days of the campaign. As it was confirmed soon, the Serbs accelerated the process of forcing nearly a million of Kosovars, mostly ethnic Albanians out of the country. Adult males were separated from families a summarily executed. When the prospect of defeat became clear, corpses of thousands of murdered civilians were transported north to Serbia proper, in order to hide the traces of their crimes against humanity. At least 800 of them were found in three mass graves near Belgrade. A van full of corpse which fell into a river shocked those who discovered corpses floating in water. More than a thousand of people are still desaparecidos.

After learning that the NATO bombing had begun, Avni Mustafaj, President of NAAC was on the way to do a press interview, when he ran into US Senator Joe Biden. “I thanked him for saving our people”, Mustafaj recalls. Biden, an expert in international relations and a supporter of military intervention in Kosova was already thinking ahead about the post-war solutions.

“He said, ‘look here young man, we have to do the right thing but, we don’t want you to behave the same way’. I responded, ‘Senator Biden, we’re not those kind of people!’”.

As he walked away, Biden replied loudly: “I’m counting on you!”

Later that evening, during the dinner NAAC was hosting in the Senate Russell Building several members of Congress came to address the gathering. Among them US Senators Mitch McConnel and Gordon Smith, Representatives Sam Gejdenson, Eliot Engel, Sue Kelly, James Moran. Joseph Crowley, and Peter King. Jonathan Levitsky, Special Advisor for the Office of the Secretary of State took the podium too.

While NAAC worked on Albanian issues that had to do with the entire region, including Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro, it was understandable that ongoing developments made the event mostly about Kosova.

A week later, a major Albanian-American rally took place in Washington DC, organized by NAAC and 19 other organizations. A representation of our community led by NAAC headed to the White House where they were greeted by President Bill Clinton.

“We were determined to ensure that the campaign was effective in ending the ethnic cleansing and ultimately, leading to Kosova’s independence”, Ilir Zherka says during an interview with Illyria, 20 years later. “On March 31, we met with President Clinton in the White House to push for both”.

As victory was not yet on the horizon, the Albanian-Americans wanted to make sure that US resolve to continue the war was strong and that all options were on the table including ground troops and the arming of KLA.

President Clinton promised that they were in it to win. And would not stop until Kosova was liberated. But he was non-committal on ground troops and the other options. Later, a bipartisan effort in the US Senate would support arming and training KLA as surrogate ground troops for NATO.

What he wanted particularly from the Albanian-Americans was to help him make the case to the American people. NAAC and other groups had been successful in educating politicians and experts in Washington DC. Now they should make the case directly to the American public opinion. Many members of NAAC, especially through Kosova Relief Fund had been doing that already for months now. Yet there was still a lot of work to do. With the end of the Cold War, the interest of Americans in global affairs had waned.

At the end of the meeting, the leaders of NAAC and other organizations spoke in front of the White House to national and international press in the most visible public event in our community history. Literally, all the eyes of the world were on us. NAAC leaders rose to the occasion. Outside the West Wing, where many world leaders, including the Presidents of the United States had addressed the nation and the world, Albanian-Americans leaders, Avni Mustafaj, Ilir Zherka, Ekrem Bardha, Harry Bajraktari and others responded to questions about the meeting Clinton, about Kosova, NATO, and the community. They made us all proud that day.

Twenty years later, we have reason to celebrate the beginning of the war that eventually ended a decade of armed conflicts and bloodshed in Southeast Europe. While Kosova and the region still face a myriad of problems, war is becoming a distant ugly memory. Peace and stability have created conditions for freedom, democracy and open markets. It remains a learning curve, but change is obvious everywhere.

Kosova, once the most oppressed region in Europe, was liberated on June 10th, 1999 and became independent on February 17th 2008, Albanian-Americans are proud today of their contribution.

“In reflecting now on the impact of the community had back then, I am both astonished and very proud”, says Ilir Zherka. “We helped to achieve the nearly impossible. Part of the reason was that most of our community was united through NAAC. We also had the collective commitment to support financially an office in Washington, DC. And people showed up for things when needed — rallies, meetings, testimony, etc.”

Harry Bajraktari, who left Kosova when he was only 12, echoes the sentiments of many Albanian-Americans when he says of feeling twice blessed. For having lived the American Dream and for the opportunity to help the people they left behind.

“My only regret today is that my father didn’t live to see his last wish come true. A free Kosova! It was a long and difficult road,” he says, “but, we made it, with the help of God and of the United States of America.”