EFEBy Fernando Prieto Arellano Madrid

Symbolism is an entrenched feature of warfare. The Kosovo War (1998-99) was no exception to this rule; in fact, it was rather exemplary.

For Serbs, Kosovo represents the cradle of their nation, both spiritually and physically.

Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia and Yugoslavia during the war, capitalized on that ideology as an instrument of agitation and, later, destruction.

One of the key narratives in Serbian nationalist discourse can be traced back to June 1398, when the Serbs lost the Battle of Kosovo at the hands of the Ottoman forces, under whose rule they would remain until the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878.

It came to symbolize the tragic tale of the time Serbia lost its independent and rightful reign over the territory.

Kosovo, which hosts the oldest Serbian Orthodox Christian monasteries in the world, was the point Islam drove into the heart of Europe like a wedge 64 years before the fall of Constantinople.

As a result of this, Kosovo has become an Islamized land inhabited mostly by Albanians, a non-Slavic ethnic group probably of Ilyrian origin.

At the Battle of Kosovo, which took place at Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Field), an army of heavy-armored knights under the command of Prince Lazar charged against well-organized Ottoman ranks under the command of Sultan Murad.

Legend has it that, on the eve of the battle, Lazar said: "Anyone who is Serbian and Serbian by birth and does not come to Kosovo to fight battles against the Turks, do not let him have male or female offspring, do not let him take from the harvest."

It chimes with the old Serbian saying: "Only Unity Saves the Serbs." This slogan sits upon the coat of arms on the national flag in its Cyrillic initials: CCCC.

And what of this unity, albeit an anxious one? What does it consist of? What binds it?

To put it simply, in a land like the Balkans, where the vast majority of the population is Slavic, safeguarding identity has always been an arduous task.

Languages in the region are the same, if not very similar save some differences in dialect.

People are physically similar as well, so how does a Serbian identify as different from the rest of people of Slavic origin?

The answer can be found in religion, which is now considered a differential national marker.

A recurrent theme of Serbian nationalism, which when pushed to its most extreme triggered the fragmentation of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, is that "Serbia is any place where there are Serbians."

And how do they know they are Serbian?

Because they are Christian and because they have their anchor in Gracanica, in Pec and in Kosovo Polje; that is, in Kosovo.

But as occurs with many nationalisms, Serbians have accepted their lost battle with "enthusiasm and pride," sociologist Mira Milosevic said in her book titled "Los tristes y los héroes: historias de nacionalistas serbios," ("The sad ones and the heroes: stories of Serbian nationalists"), an enlightening account of what frenzied nationalism can do to a nations' psyche.

"The Serbian nationalism that emerged in the 1980s was born of a bitterness over past humiliations and a fear of future ones," Milosevic said in her book.

"Those who suffer as a result of humiliation or because they believe they have been humiliated have only one goal: to demonstrate that their alleged inferiority is an invention of others, of those who have humiliated them."

And this message, as journalist Hermann Tertsch said in his book "La venganza de la historia" (The revenge of history), was proclaimed on June 28, 1989 on the sixth centenary anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Field by the then president of the Socialist Republic of Serbia (one of the six republics of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), Milosevic.

"What is happening in the rest of Eastern Europe, where state apparatus is collapsing, will not happen in our country. We have an alternative way," he said. "And that is Serbia, national and socialist."

The rest is recent history.

fpa/jt/ch