ROME, Italy(CNN) -- CNN's Alessio Vinci spent years reporting from the Balkans, and was Belgrade Bureau Chief from 1999 to 2001. Here he explains the background story of Kosovo's looming independence.
Kosovo's dream to become independent dates back decades, but only after NATO intervened militarily almost a decade ago did ethnic Albanians begin to feel their dream could become true.
A Serbian boy plays in the street behind barbed wire in the southwestern Kosovar town of Orahova.
I spent many months in Kosovo before, during and after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that drove Serb forces out. In fact I was in Pristina when the first bombs began to hit targets in Serbia and Kosovo, in the early hours of March 24, 1999.
At 3 am I was reporting from my hotel room over the phone, after secretly transmitting 17 seconds of greenish video filmed with a nightscope camera. Suddenly a man brandishing a flashlight and a gun kicked the door open. He began asking questions about the television equipment and left. One hour later he returned with another man, ripped the cables out, and woke up my colleague Brent Sadler poking a Kalashnikov machine gun at his nose. They both left again.
We knew that we were not welcome in Kosovo. But now, for the first time, we felt our lives could be in danger.
In the morning most journalists gathered in the main hall of the Hotel Grand to discuss what to do. Serb officials had made it clear they could no longer "guarantee our safety" and therefore it was time to leave the province. In fact they were expelling all of the journalists from NATO countries.
As we prepared to pack our gear and personal belongings, a group of six thugs approached us, and began smashing our equipment. They also set our armored car on fire. I got away with a slap in the face. Within hours a column of armored cars belonging to various media organization was headed for the Macedonian border.
Kosovo at the time was filled with Yugoslav Army soldiers, Serb policemen and, most importantly, an unspecified number of Serb paramilitaries, whose brutality was known to most of us who had covered previous Balkan wars.
They are the ones mostly responsible for what is now being described as a campaign of ethnic cleansing, which began soon after NATO began bombing. They were terrifying people, and their threats against us only ended after a group of Yugoslav soldiers showed up at the hotel to restore order.
Kosovo Albanians did not have such luck. Hundreds were killed, and hundreds of thousands began a mass exodus towards neighboring countries. People who covered their journey will never forget the terrified and desperate look on their faces.
But the images were hardly new in the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic's dream of a greater Serbia unleashed a series of wars in the 1990s that caused hundreds of thousands of people to move away from their homes. Some of them are still refugees today.
In fact Kosovo is where the disintegration of Yugoslavia began 20 years ago, when in a fiery speech Milosevic promised Serbs he would do anything to protect them. He stripped Kosovo of its autonomy, which the province had enjoyed under Tito. It was when Tito died in 1980, that the independence movement grew.
First there was a passive resistance, but that failed to achieve independence or even restore autonomy. Kosovo Albanians took up arms and with the Kosovo Liberation Army began attacking Serb interests in Kosovo. What followed was a bloody and brutal crackdown by the Yugoslav Army and Serb paramilitaries in 1998-99. It took 78 days of NATO bombing to drive Serb forces out of Kosovo, and since then the province has been under the administration of the United Nations.
Most of the ethnic Albanians who had left Kosovo returned, and there were acts of bitter revenge against Serbs. An estimated 200,000 fled their homes, and today about a 100,000 remain in Kosovo living in enclaves heavily protected by NATO forces.
What will happen to them in an independent Kosovo is still unclear. Belgrade, which opposes independence, wants them to stay there and will assist them financially to do so. If they leave, Kosovo will be lost for ever.
Some of them are scattered in central and eastern Kosovo, but a majority of them live in the northern part bordering with Serbia proper. Could they secede from a newly independent Kosovo? It's possible. Anything is possible in the Balkans.
The newly elected Kosovo leaders say they want to create a tolerant and multi-ethnic state, and how they will deal with the Serb minorities will be closely monitored by the international community.
In fact Kosovo's independence will be a "supervised" independence. The European Union is preparing to send in 1,800 officials, mainly police, justice and customs officers to ensure a smooth transition.
But today Kosovo is far from your ideal place. Crime and corruption are rampant (thus the bulk of the EU mission will be justice and police related) and there is virtually no existing economy. Unemployment is above 50%.
Kosovo becomes the sixth Balkan state to emerge out of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. It is a dream come true for most people of this tiny province the size of Lebanon, who less than a decade ago where fleeing their homes in terror. But that was 10 years ago. Today Milosevic is dead and Belgrade is ruled by pro-Western leaders who will not send in the army to prevent Kosovo from seceding.
If Kosovo and indeed Serbia hope one day to join the European Union as full members, this is an opportunity for both of them to look forward no matter how sad and difficult history may be. E-mail to a friend
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