The Canadian Forces have been active participants in the recent NATO intervention in Kosovo, a province of Serbia bordering on Albania. Although by 1998 its population was no more than about 10 per cent Serbian, Kosovo, the site the 1389 Battle of the Field of Blackbirds, is as close to the soul of the Serbian nation as the Wailing Wall is to the Jews. It has a varied and confusing history. Prior to the First World War, it was an Albanian province. The 1919 treaties, which ignored issues of national self-determination in redrawing borders, assigned Kosovo to Serbia, one of the victorious Allies. Occupation by Italian and, later, German troops effectively ended any aspirations of independence the Kosovars may have had, and they remained firmly under Yugoslav control during Tito's administration.
Under Tito, leader of Yugoslavia from 1945-1980, however, Kosovo was granted a substantial degree of autonomy; indeed, Kosovo probably enjoyed sufficient independence to satisfy the UN Charter requirements for self-determination. Following Tito's death, however, these circumstances changed. In 1989, the president of Yugoslovia, Slobodan Milosevic, in a calculated move to gain political support by appealing to Serbian nationalism, placed Kosovo under direct Yugoslav rule. A Kosovar independence movement had been smouldering since the late 1970s and its terrorist component, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), gained a reputation in Europe for organized crime and outright thuggery. Now, however, the independence movement gained legitimacy and momentum as Serbs were systematically replacing Albanian Kosovars in hospitals, schools, universities, and the civil service. The KLA campaign continued to smoulder throughout the 1990s but received little international attention because of preoccupation with the Bosnian civil war.
By 1998, KLA pressure was such that Yugoslavia launched a major campaign with its massive paramilitary police forces. NATO diplomatic action eventually brought about a ceasefire in October 1998 but not before an estimated 300,000 Kosovars had been displaced. A force of some 500 unarmed European Union observers was deployed to supervise the truce. Despite the temporary ceasefire, violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbian forces worsened markedly in January 1999. The Milosevic regime had undoubtedly used this period of ceasefire to prepare a very thorough plan of total ethnic cleansing. The monitors were withdrawn and the Yugoslav forces -- paramilitary police, army, and paramilitary irregular units -- immediately launched their campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Kosovar Albanians.
The NATO nations had been divided over intervention. Many of these countries are also faced with terrorist separatist movements and probably would never have acted but for the process started in 1989. The sheer scale and ferocity of the Yugoslav campaign defined the issue and caused NATO to act on behalf of the Kosovars. NATO's reason for entering the conflict was humanitarian: it wanted to stop the Serbian persecution of Kosovar Albanians, whom the Serbian military systematically attacked and sometimes killed.
Like the Persian Gulf conflict, NATO's war against Yugoslavia was fought in the air. From its air base in Aviano, Italy, and from ships stationed in the Adriatic Sea, NATO warplanes, including Canadian CF-18s, relentlessly bombed Yugoslav military and communications targets. Some interesting innovations were introduced. For example, Canada's air force had equipped its CF-18s to carry laser-guided "smart" munitions. Once again, Canadian pilots proved their professionalism flying a very high number of sorties. On the other hand, their communication facilities were so outdated that other air forces were compromised by having to use a single radio frequency vulnerable to jamming, another reminder that military hardware must be constantly updated. With his country's ability to make war severely reduced, and with internal dissent on the increase, Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, finally agreed to a ceasefire when advised by the Russians that NATO was about to launch a land offensive. A multinational force, comprised primarily of NATO (including Canadian) troops, but working under a UN mandate, entered Kosovo to keep the peace. By 20 June, all Yugoslav forces had left Kosovo. In a graphic demonstration of their fiercely independent spirit, the Kosovar refugees almost immediately started streaming back to their homes against the protests of the international agencies running the camps and trying to organize an "orderly" return. The process of rebuilding their lives started, and part of the rebuilding process was their turn at ethnic cleansing -- Serbs were pressured to leave their homes with force, and Kosovar Albanians have continued to commit atrocities against the Serbs. One of the features of Canada's Kosovo peacekeeping contingent was the inclusion of a troop of five Leopard tanks (which had been used by other countries in Bosnia) and the new Coyote armoured reconnaissance vehicles that quickly gained a reputation for their unique high-tech surveillance capabilities. As part of an overall NATO plan to rationalize member nations' peacekeeping burdens, Canada withdrew from Kosovo after providing two contingents but has increased the size of its battle group in Bosnia.