16 February 1915 – Lawless Tribal Zone

Above: published in 1915, this photo shows Albanian hill tribesmen around a small campfire.

Hasan Prishtina is already an old hand at Kosovo uprisings. When the Ottoman Empire began losing control of its Balkan territories in 1908, he lost his position as an Albanian deputy and returned home to agitate for independence. He took an active role in the 1912 Albanian uprising, which led to that country’s nominal independence; in fact, he was very nearly the Thomas Jefferson of Kosovo, promulgating a fourteen-point plan for the vilayet to become an autonomous state where tribal custom (djibal) would replace modern courts.

But the Ottoman Empire was unable to support loyalists in Albania, and as the victors of the first Balkan War turned on each other in 1913, Serbs first conquered Tirana and then held on to Kosovo when they withdrew. Having cast off their Europe-imposed German princeling with the outbreak of the Great War, Albania remained a basket case incapable of defending its own sovereignty, much less imposing its national will on the larger and better-armed Serbs.

Prishtina thereafter turned to other backers for help ‘redeeming’ the province from its Serbian masters. Financed with Austrian gold by Tukish agents, one week ago he led a force of two hundred men into the border town of Zhur, killing forty Serbian soldiers and taking eight prisoners, including two officers. Though Prishtina was quickly joined by armed residents of three Albanian villages lying inside the border, there has been no relief or support coming from Austria — or Albania, for that matter. The Luma region does not rise to his banners. Today, a force of Serbian regulars arrives, forcing Prishtina to release his captives and run for the hills.

Modern-day Zhur, Kosovo in wintertime. Note the steep terrain; in West Virginia, this would be called a 'holler'

Modern-day Zhur, Kosovo in wintertime. Note the steep terrain; in West Virginia, this valley would be called a ‘holler’

Johann von Pallavicini, the Hungarian ambassador to the Sublime Porte, has been informed that a total of eighty-six different Ottoman “emissaries” — mostly former Young Turks like Prishtina — have been sent to Albanian lands in the last two months by way of Sarajevo with the objective of fomenting a national uprising against Serbia. The Austrian consul in Scutari is just one part of the ‘diplomatic mission’ to pass out gold crowns and raise fighters.

Nor was Prishtina’s attack a total surprise, for Albanian strongman Esad Pasha Toptani is sharing intelligence with the Serbs. And why not? The Ottomans want him dead, while the Austrians and Hungarians want to drag his country into its third bloody, futile conflict in as many years. Albania is surrounded by enemies — avaricious, vicious and ambitious enemies. Born of competing imperial ambitions, this proxy war seems far from over, but Stephan Burián, the dual monarchy’s new Foreign Minister, tightens the imperial purse strings in April in an effort to keep the burgeoning Italian Empire from joining the alliance against the Central Powers.

By the time Italy has joined the war and Austrian policy changes, the Serbs have already taken matters into their own hands.

A map

Albania torn apart by the Balkan Wars. Thousands of Albanians were massacred around Üsküp (now Skopje) in Kosovo; fierce fighting and massacres also took place around Scutari. Greece occupied the southern portions; Italy held the port cities in 1915

On the 29th of May, three echelons of 20,000 Serbian troops equipped with thirty-four mountain guns and field guns, as well as sixteen heavy machine guns, advance all the way to Tirana, securing the northern portion of the country. Thereafter, the Hapsburgs and Young Turks shift their efforts to fomenting resentment and stirring the tribesmen against the occupiers. During the Serbian Golgotha in December of 1915, when most of the Serbian nation is forced to retreat from their national territory, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and helpless civilians must march through Albania — where the hill fighters will set ambushes, rob refugees of food and possessions, and commit various criminal atrocities.

Yet the Albanian center never joins any uprising. In fact, with the arrival of Austrian troops, most Albanians join the human tide of dislocation. It is a hard, hungry time in the Balkans, and the people here are unwilling to trust outsiders. One can hardly blame them, for while the Ottomans ran Albania for centuries without ever improving the roads or water supplies, they did manage to leave a legacy of ethnic cleansing behind.

Hasan Prishtina never gives up on his dream. After he is refused a place at the postwar peace conference, he will continue to organize Albanian uprisings in Kosovo until he is finally assassinated at a café in Thessaloniki in 1933.