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There is a very old region of Europe, going all the way back to the sixth century BC, which only became a country in 2008. A bit smaller than Connecticut and historically the ancient kingdom of Dardania, the new country is called Republic of Kosovo. Kosovo is a landlocked part of former Yugoslavia which today lies between Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia. With a population under 2 million Kosovars, for the most part little Kosovo is ethnically Albanian (88%) and even more Muslim (97%). There are 193 countries in the world, and to date less than half of them (93) have officially recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Kosovo has been recognized by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and most of Europe.
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Rather pointedly, Serbia has not recognized the sovereignty of Kosovo since it broke away in 2008. There’s a deep reason: the Field of Blackbirds, also known as Kovoso Polje, located near Kosovo’s capital city of Pristina. “Kos” is Serbian for blackbird, and Kosovo Polje is Serbian for “Blackbird Field.”

My Dad had a peculiar experience a few years back. He was traveling the east coast and swung by a small rural town in Virginia hoping to take a picture of an old ancestor’s gravestone. He stopped to ask some locals for directions to the graveyard. When they found out who he was and why he was there, they started telling him stories about that old ancestor from more than 200 years ago! But that’s how it was with the locals there, they have a collective memory about their history which is shared by the entire community.

And that’s how it is in Europe as well, especially Central and Eastern Europe, only their collective memories go back many more centuries. Their memories are still “alive” in the sense that even today they’re willing to fight and die for the same ground that caused wars so long ago. Which brings us to the Field of Blackbirds, probably the most poignant military loss in the long history of Serbia.

Fought on June 15, 1389 (St. Vitus’ Day), the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds was a fierce contest, one of the bloodiest battles in Medieval Europe. Located in the eastern part of today’s Kosovo, the battle engaged an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Christian soldiers serving the Serbian Principality under Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic who were opposed by an even larger force of around 30,000 Ottoman troops under Sultan Murad I.

The fighting ensued when Ottoman archers opened fire on the Serb heavy cavalry. Enraged, the Serbian cavalry charged the Ottoman lines and made tremendous inroads along their left flank. A furious counterattack by the Ottoman army from the center drove the Serbs back, and there the battle continued more or less as a stalemate with neither side gaining a decisive edge.

That is, until the Kosovar warlord Vuk Brankovic, who had been fighting on the Serbian side, decided it was pointless to continue a battle which could not be decisively won, especially after Prince Lazar had been killed, and unilaterally withdrew with his 5,000 troops. Of course that was a mortal blow to the Serbians that were still engaged in the fight, and the Ottomans proceeded to wipe out almost all the Serbians to a man. Despite their victory, the cost to the Ottomans was extreme with Sultan Murad’s army almost equally destroyed, and Murad himself killed.

With his father dead and a rather pyrrhic victory over Serbia secured, the Sultan’s son Bayezid withdrew from the Field of Blackbirds, hurried back to Adrianople (modern Edirne), killed his brother Yakub, and laid claim to the Ottoman throne. Although the Ottoman army had been mostly destroyed, the Serbians were even worse off and the Balkans soon succumbed to Ottoman rule, opening the pathway for their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Ottoman rule over Serbia did not end until the 19th century.

When Slobodan Milosevic celebrated the 600th anniversary of the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds in 1989, he made a solemn vow that his nation (still Yugoslavia at the time) would never relinquish Kosovo and the Field of Blackbirds where so many ancestors had died valiantly defending the nation. His vow resonated with the Serbians: the battle was still front and center in the collective consciousness of the Serbian people. And as you can guess, they still harbor hatred against the Kosovars for the way Vuk Brankovic abandoned the Serbs to their deaths on the Field of Blackbirds. Almost nine thousand Kosovars were killed by the Serbs and around 230,000 people displaced during the Kosovo War that broke out in 1998-99. A court of the United Nations in 2001 ruled that the Serbs had conducted "a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons, and severe maltreatments” against the Kosovars. The atrocities finally ended with the intervention of NATO forces.

But memories there are still very much alive.
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