The conquest/ liberation of Kosovo in 1918 and the Albanian armed uprisings of 1918-1924

Azem Galica and other soldiers

           During the First World War, as in other Albanian territories, Kosovo turned into an area of combat, occupation and re-occupation by neighbouring Balkan states and the Great Powers. In the autumn of 1915, Serbian and Montenegrin armies, decisively defeated by Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies, were forced to withdraw from Albania and Kosovo.

By 26 October 1918 the Yugoslav army had conquered all ethnic Albanian lands. Its military units carried out terrorist attacks on the Albanian population throughout the area from Perpellac to Prespa, that is in line with decisions of London Ambassadors’ Conference in 1913. Serbian conquerers were quick to set the “civil power” in re-occupied Albanian territories because they were afraid Kosovo would be part of the Peace Conference agenda. During the initial months of the Serbian rule, under the pretext of not having any prisons, courts passed death penalties, and that is the reason why Albanian considered all Serbian courts as “death courts.”

In late-1918 and during 1919, to alleviate the occupation, Belgrade’s political circles established a new administrative partition of Kosovo and other Albanian lands to keep them divided and the Albanian population disunited.

The “National Defence of Kosovo” Committee was established on 1 May 1918 in Shkodra. Its programme set out to resolve two main aims: to gain the independence and territorial integrity of  Albania and unify Kosovo and other occupied Albanian territories into a single national state, as a prerequisite for the political, economic and cultural development of the Albanians. Hoping as other nationalist organisations that Peace Conference in Paris would also solve the Albanian Question, the Kosovo Committee conveyed a series of memoranda in which they demanded respect for Albania’s independence and to resolve the injustices made to Albania at the London Conference.

The National-Liberation Movement was organised and directed by “National Protection of Kosovo” Committee. In order to realize its essential purpose, to liberate Kosovo and other Albanian territories under Yugoslav occupation and to unify them with Albania, they decided to used armed action by trained rebel groups as well as diplomatic activity. The Kosovo Committee had supported this idea for resistance since spring 1919 when they approved the “Uprising programme” which stated Albanians’ war principles for freedom, based on the fundamental principles of  international law.

The National-Liberation Movement, known as “kaçak (guerrilla) movement” was carried out between 1918-1928 and its aim was to fight for the national liberation of Kosovo Albanians from the Yugoslav occupation. At its centre, it was a battle to be organised by armed Albanian groups called “çeta” (gangs) which spread out through most of Kosovo.

The Kosovo Committee in order to organise the resistance, demanded that the groups’ leaders implement these decisions in accordance with the 1919 “Uprising Programme”: “No rebel is to harm local Serbs except for those who fight against Albanians’ freedom; no rebel is to set fire to houses; no rebel is to destroy churches or rob non-Albanians.”

The uprising expanded in spring 1919. It began in Plava and spread into the entire administrative area of the following prefectures: Vushtrria, Llap, Drenica, Podrima, Rugova, in the Morava Valley up to Skopje and Kumanovo where it linked up with Gostivar gangs. The gangs everywhere objected to Serbia’s policy of evicting Albanians from Kosovo. In April-May 1919, the movement improved its organisation and managed to transform into a general revolt in which more than 10,000 peole took up arms.

After the Junik Neutral Zone, between the Albanian-Yugoslav border, was destroyed, Azem Bejta reached an agreement with Zhika Laziç, a representative of Yugoslavia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. In accordance with this pact, Azem Galica was granted free movement in three villages: Galica, Mikushnica and Lubovec of Drenica. An autonomous zone with Drenica as its centre was therefore established, known as the Lesser Arbania, and was controlled by guerrilla forces of Azem Galica.

In the summer of 1924, Belgrade’s military forces directed campaigns against the Lesser Arbania. Azem Galica himself was seriously wounded by a projectile. Despite continuing to exist for some more years, the National-Liberation Movement clearly went into decline flowing his resulting death.

On 18 December 1918, the Xhemijet (Unity) was founded as an Albanian political party at a meeting in Skopje, where 64 delegates took part and its statute and programme were approved. All  Xhemijeti’s activity was focused on a typically national Albanian policy and fought for Albanians’ rights. Serbian ruling circles attempted to deter it from its national programme. In 1920, Xhemijeti approached the Serbian Radical Party whoes programme “granted” broad municipal autonomy and the right for political initiative in local administration. Xhemijeti hoped to acquire the right to use the Albanian language, of education in Albanian, the freedom of belief and citizen freedoms. Nevertheless, all these citizen rights remained unimplemented whilst Albanians’ standards of living were constantly deteriorating.

After the First World War, Yugoslav local authorities in Kosovo and other Albanian territories, including in Serbia and Montenegro, resumed their policy of national oppression, terror and total violence. For this reason, the so-called “Agrarian Reform” was put in place. This reform was executed by a corrupt administration, prepared to intensively segregate most of the native population. This entire rural policy, was aimed at and implemented with distinct nationalist purposes, and worsened the living conditions of Albanian villagers. According to the 25 February 1919 provisions, invalids, families of people lost in the war, Serbian soldiers and all those who had “merits for the Yugoslav cause” were given priority in the land allocation. The Agrarian Reform affected around half of the Albanian population or approximately 62,000 families.

Serbian circles not only failed to take any initiative to open Albanian schools in Kosovo, but they also closed those opened by Austro-Hungary between 1916 and1918. From data obtained from Yugoslav archives, it can be seen that about 50 Albanian-language schools were closed with about 4,000 students taught by nearly 100 teachers.

Akademia e Shkencave e Shqipërisë. Historia e Popullit Shqiptar III. (Tiranë, Toena, 2007), 443-491.

           Immediately after the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established, the colonisation of Kosovo, Dukagjin and Macedonia
with Serbs was a top-priority task. For many Serbian politicians and scholars, Albanians represented a serious problem which required a solution.

In his study “Problems of our internal colonisation,” published in the “Letopis Matice Srpske” review (Novi Sad, 1925, book 303, page 3), Anton Melik states that “Albanians have reached the absolute majority in some areas, because according to our statistics from 1920, in the Kosovo district they form a majority in the population of 63.9% in Zveçan, 60.5% in Prizren 65.9%, whilst in Dukagjin as high as 80.8%. The main responsibility must be to break Albanian unity by predominantly colonizing Kosovo Fiel area and Dukagjin.”

In his doctoral thesis, “The Agrarian Reform and the colonisation in Kosovo 1919-1941” (Prishtina, 1981), Milan Obradoviç emphasizes that one of the main causes that created tensions and discontent amongst the Albanians was the way Serbian rule implemented the colonisation with Serbs. “The Great Serbian bourgeoisie wanted to break Albanian villages’ consolodation by bringing colonizers. (…) The proud Albanian could not tolerate being humiliated by aggressive colonisers and that is the reason for the killings and the creation of new guerrilla groups. (…) Gendarmes also contributed to the bad relations between colonisers and Albanians. When carrying out their work, they made misappropriations, encouraged the colonisers to antagonize the Albanians, stole whatever they wanted and killed for no reason.

Petrit Imami. Serbët dhe shqiptarët ndër shekuj I. (Beograd, Samizdat B92, 2016), 464-465.

           The situation that would be in existence until the dissolution of the first Yugoslavia in April 1941 had been evident since the autumn of 1918: the Serbian state did not want its Albanian citizens, and the latter had denied the state since its outset. Although it was officially called the Kingdom
of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, it is objectively more correct, particularly for Kosovo and Vardar Macedonia, to talk about a Serbian state, because the two other parts of the “nation with three names” (that is, Slovenes and Croats) made no impact in the two southern regions. Moreover, Croats soon appeared to be targeted by Belgrade’s nationalist government. Foreign diplomats, too, like those of Great Britain, spoke at the beginning of the 1920s of a “Serbian” government and did not consider the existence of the two other nations, the Slovenes and Croats.

The south-eastern historian, Holm Sundhaussen, has raised the question as to whether the occupation of Kosovo and Vardar Macedonia
was a crucial turn and highly incorrect decision of  Serbian policy in the 20th century. In 1918, Serbs constituted one-third of Kosovo’s population; in Macedonia, most of the Slavic population was of Bulgarian identity. The resources needed to manage these two regions, highly opposed to the Serbian occupation, absorbed the maximum of Serbia’s capabilities and absorbed extraordinary amounts of money for the army and gendarmerie administration and colonisation.

Between two world wars, the Serbian governments followed a defined purpose: they wanted to alter the ethnic structure in favour of the Serbs, and they were willing to use all state and sub-state instruments of authority to do this. The Albanian population merely remained an object of this policy; it was not intended to integrate the Albanians in to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Nor was Kosovo considered to be an administrative unit. The territory of present-day Kosovo was further divided into regions (Serb. odblasti): Kosovo, Vranja, Rashka, Zeta and Skopje (1922).

Oliver Jens Schmitt. Kosova një histori e shkurtër e një treve qendrore ballkanike. (Prishtinë, Koha, 2012), 144-146.

           The culmination of armed incursions from Albania (1918-1924) found the authorities of the newly formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SCS) torn between its legal provisional period, through which the country was passing, and the unresolved interethnic relations. The situation was aggravated by the state of post-war anarchy, the mistrust of the population in the new authorities, open borders with Albania and Bulgaria, the unconsolidated administration and the synchronous operation of the Kachaks and Komitas.

Under the influence of a strong Albanian movement, the withdrawal of allies from Albania began in the spring of 1920, after which Serbian troops occupied a demarcation line extending from the area south of Debar, across the Black Drim to the northern periferies of Skadar and the confluence of the river Bojana into the Adriatic Sea. In July 1920, Albanian units commanded by Ahmed-beg Zogu and Bajram Curri raided Debar and Djakovica, prompting the Third Army District Command to request a state of emergency. In September 1921, the Albanians inflicted several defeats on the Yugoslav forces at Aras and a counter-attack ensued because it was argued that the prestige of the Yugoslav army was under threat. The Conference of Ambassadors was ongoing and its decisions were in favour of the SCS Kingdom, which is why (Nikola) Pašić accepted the proposed border adjustment and promised the withdrawal of troops. As early as March 1922, there was a formal normalization of Yugoslav-Albanian relations, which was calculated to receive the best possible treatment by the newly formed Border Determination Commission. This Commission met in Florence from 1922-1926, when the issue of the Yugoslav-Albanian border was settled after several territorial problems and mutual concessions. At the samr time, the Neutral Zone (Junik, Batuša, Molići, Morina, Brovina, Ponoševac, Šišman, Popovci) was also established, over which a definite border was to cross, but it served more as a refuge for the groups of Bajram Curri and Hasan Prishtina, which generated strong pressure in influencing the work of the Commission.

Italy’s plans to destabilize the SCS Kingdom not only intended to introduce  Kacak units, but also the formation of more separatist movements. In his Diary, Count Ciano correctly estimated that a permanent irredentist problem in the Balkans could be a “knife pointing to the spine of Yugoslavia”. To this end, the area of Bari and Brindisi was an oasis for the refugee Albanian champions in 1922 who agreed with the VMRO leaders to form a joint committee consisting of the Albanian, Macedonian and Montenegrin sections. During 1924, a joint action of Çeta and Komita groups was agreed in Valona, but it could not be realized because of internal instabilities within the VMRO.

Vladan Jovanovic, Kačaci na Kosovu, Peščanik, 24. April 2013

Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929-1939) administrative map

Territorial Division of Yugoslavia1929 – 1939


Ivo Banac. The national question in Yugoslavia. New York, Cornell University Press, 1984), 58. (libër elektronik)


Dokumentary – Azem Galica.

Dokumentary – An Albanian Joan of Arc.