Ah, Kosovo. It simultaneously means so much and so little to us Europeans, never mind the rest of the world. But it means a lot to me. Kosovo just declared its existence as an independent state today, and it is an independence that has been snatched from the jaws of fascist oppression; an independence that I do not feel can possibly be sustained for fifty years. This tiny, beautiful Muslim nation has been born into the world by European midwivery. But the wolves are outside the door of the nursery, and the success of humane values on our continent rests on our ability to keep them outside.

Kosovo's recent history is marred by violence and ethnic cleansing. These Kosovars are no angels, but they do not live in a part of the world where one can afford to be an angel. Kosovo used to be part of a country called Serbia, which was itself part of a bigger country called Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia started to fall apart in the late 1980s, and the leader of Serbia - Slobodan Milosevic - decided that he was not going to take this lying down. Serbia was the strongest part of Yugoslavia, and it believed in its right to inflict its will on the other countries which used to form part of the federation - it believed in its right, especially, to own anywhere that the Serbian people were a majority upon the land.

Thus began the Balkan Wars. Serbian soldiers and a thuggish Serbian militia spent years raping Bosnia and Croatia - destroying their monuments and their history, massacring their young men in concentration camps - yes, concentration camps, camps designed to kill - and raping their young women until all fled in their path. Then they moved Serbs into the homes of the dead and those who wished they were dead. And for years we Europeans sat by and we did nothing, and then we sent a UN force which could really do nothing but watch the bloodshed unfold. And it did this most infamously in July of 1995, when a vicious bastard known as Ratko Mladic (he still walks free) led the murder of 8,000 Bosnians in the town of Srebrenica as the Dutch "peacekeepers" fled and the Americans watched the mass graves be dug by satellite.

If you will permit me to extend my digression, as I assure you it is relevant, let me say this: The crimes committed by the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s were amongst the worst of the last century. Pain, bloodshed, even genocide, are far more common in this world than any of us can bear to contemplate. But this is Europe. We were supposed to be past the point where we would tolerate concentration camps in Europe. We were supposed to have learned that sometimes war is necessary to confront evil. Evil, yes, a trite word - but I would like to know what else you would call the attempted elimination of an entire people just because of the lineage of the blood in their veins.

And yet for years we did nothing but twiddle our thumbs and endure theoretical lectures about pacifism and the evils of armed intervention. Atrocities, it was said, had been committed "on all sides". Meanwhile, the death, the rape, the destruction of their national fabric, fell almost exclusively on the Bosnians. And all this amidst the new, integrated Europe! For which of our leaders in the 1990s did not want to talk about "Europe"? A beautiful, optimistic concept - "a new era of integration, peace, humane values, and human rights on our continent!", our leaders said. And what of the Bosnians? What of the concentration camps and the fascism, of the things we sacrificed everything to banish from our midst in the 1940s? "This interview is over."

Enough about Bosnia. Eventually, after shameful years, we hammered out a half-cooked agreement that eventually stopped the killing there, at least for now; the Croatians, unsung heroes of our generation, did much to fight the Serbs back. We left Serbs in Bosnia with their own massive enclave cut right from the heart of that country; their knives are still bloody from the operation. And this might have been the fate of Kosovo too, the poorest province of Serbia, if we had not stopped it. In 1999, the Serbs were back to their old tricks, this time closer to home - full-scale ethnic cleansing of Muslim Albanians that lived in this part of Serbia.

The Serbs want Kosovo despite the fact it is economically useless and that they hate the people who live there and their Islamic faith. They want it because for a country that had become so unsure of itself and a place in the world - that felt itself rejected and shunned by the world, and had been bombed by it - it was sure of one thing: "Serbia is Kosovo", as the nationalist statement goes. Kosovo was the site of an ancient battle between Serbs and the Ottoman Empire, and even though it was a crushing defeat for the Serbs, the general feeling is that nothing brings a people together like a good defeat, and the Serbs see it as the start of their nationalism. And largely because their ancestors forged their national identity there by getting slaughtered, the Serbs were willing to slaughter again to hold onto the one piece of their identity they could be sure about.

To be sure, the Kosovars provoked it - they were tired of their second-class status, tired of having no real say in how Serbia was run, and not even been considered real citizens of Serbia. Their guerilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army, killed Serbs - it even killed civilians. I do not condone this. But if you treat a people like beasts rather than dignified human beings, then beasts they will become. Just ask the Israelis. The Kosovars saw what had happened to their fellow Muslims in Bosnia and that the perpetrators of those crimes walked free in Serbia's halls of power, and they did all they could to be free; the Serbs responded again with the deliberate and systematic massacre of civilians. I have no problem telling you who were the biggest criminals here and telling you that I will continue to support this cause for so long as blood was spilt for it under those conditions - though not if the Kosovars spill more now.

A massive NATO bombing campaign came soon, and provoked the Serbs to attempt to speed up the job; but they failed, and instead the KLA kicked them out of Kosovo. A vast majority of the ethnic Albanian population which had fled over the borders - half had been driven out by the Serbs - were able to return, and many Serbs were driven away by the KLA. Such was the Serbian war machine that it had forced nearly a million people from their path; the KLA displaced about 100,000. Numbers are not everything - or even anything at all - when it comes to war crimes, but the Kosovars knew that the continued presence of ethnic Serbs on their land would give an excuse for continued Serbian intervention in the future. And so many fled and some were forced away - the KLA murdered perhaps 1,000. About 100,000 remain.

I do not wish to dwell on the moral specifics. My mind is repulsed by such calculations. Suffice to say, the murder of hundreds of thousands and displacement of millions by the side that could grossly over-power the other was halted at the cost of the displacement of 100,000 - mostly out of fear, not due to actual violence - and the murder of 1,000. And as a result, the fascist regime of Slobodan Milosevic fell and that country had a chance - which it largely squandered - at building a better future. And Kosovo became a UN protectorate, guarded by several tens of thousands of international troops.

And Europe, it seemed, could breathe freely again. We have not solved any of the underlying issues in Kosovo - the Serbs still want it back and unless they direct their nationalism and their shame somewhere productive, they always will. Their country has been responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands and for again introducing the most savage barbarity into the heart of Europe, and yet they have not apologized; they are not sorry, they think they are the victims. They forge their nationality through defeat, remember? And they will have to continue to do so for as long as tens of thousands of European troops stand guard over Kosovo. But my mind is also repulsed from thinking about what might happen if these troops cease to be there.

Kosovo has become the symbol of our European dreams. The world has always been a cold, dark place and it always will be. But this is Europe. Europe is not supposed to tolerate the crushing of a small people by their larger neighbour, and those of us who realize that Auschwitz is not so far away will define the success of our little post-modern wonderland through its ability to prevent such things from happening, not through per capita growth. Yet Kosovo means so little to so many; will my countrymen die for it, if needs be? Will the French, the Germans, the Italians? Would I? What happens if our priorities shift, if the troops are withdrawn? Yes, Kosovo has its independence, yes, we can exult in the success of our policy. But can we trust the people who took years to destroy the concentration camps in Bosnia to keep Kosovo free for ever?

For the Serbs, this is nothing but a waiting game. They have played it before.

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