Isa Boletini (15 January 1864 – 23 January 1916) was a Kosovo Albanian nationalist figure and guerrilla fighter in the Ottoman Kosovo Vilayet. As a young man, he joined the Albanian nationalist League of Prizren and participated in a battle against Ottoman forces. After this, he was loyal to the Ottoman sultan and built a power base in the Mitrovica area, where he is said to have seized property from fellow Muslims and overlooked atrocities on local Serbs. He served as the commander of Ottoman palace guards in Istanbul for four years (1902–06), returning with a land grant, officer rank and the command of the local militia. In 1909 he and other Kosovo Albanian chieftains revolted against the Young Turk imposition of taxes on Muslims. Next, he took an important role in the 1910 revolt against Ottoman rule, while in the First Balkan War (1912) negotiated with both sides, then fought against the Montenegrin and Serbian armies in Kosovo. He participated in the Albanian Declaration of Independence in Vlorë (November 1912), and was then assigned as a diplomatic agent to the British (1913), and bodyguard of Prince William of Albania (1914). He was killed during a shoot-out in Podgorica under unclear circumstances in January 1916.
Isa Boletini was born in the village of Boletin near Mitroviça (Mitrovica), Ottoman Empire. Isa's family had migrated to Boletin from the village of Istinić near Deçan, due to a blood feud (gjakmarrja) though it ultimately hailed from Shala, in northern Albania. They adopted the surname Boletini ("of Boletin"). Isa was an analphabet. The Shala tribe was the poorest tribe of Albania with a small exception of around 400 families who lived in Istinić. The Shala tribe was in conflict with Gashi tribe until they made peace in August 1879, based on sultan's order.
After the rise of the Albanian nationalist League of Prizren (1878), he took part as a young man in the Battle of Slivova against Ottoman forces on 22 April 1881. Isa built a power base in his hometown and illegally seized property from fellow Muslims. By 1898–99, he received money for protecting the Serbian Orthodox community in the Mitrovica region, and was rewarded with a medal and supply of weapons by the Kingdom of Serbia. The Sokolica Monastery, located between Albanian villages, was protected by brothers Ahmed and Isa, who lived 800m and 100m, respectively, from the monastery. It was stated in 1899, by Serbian consul in Pristina Svetislav Simić, that "not one Serb fell from his rifle, and where the power of his martini reached, the rayah was completely free from zulum". The time after 1900 was increasingly marked by ethnic tensions.
In the summer of 1901, organised atrocities on Serbs in Ibarski Kolašin were carried out under the command of Boletini, including massacres, rape, blackmail, looting and eviction of local ethnic Serbs. An earlier Ottoman investigation had uncovered arms smuggling from Serbia to Ibarski Kolašin, sent to protect the local Serb population from atrocities (constant since the 1897 war). The events led to Russia opening a consulate in Mitroviça (Mitrovica) on May 7, 1902. Schterbina was appointed consul. Boletini threatened that all Serb houses would be set upon fire if they worked with the consulate – the consul could not enter Mitrovica until the Porte sent for Boletini to Istanbul. It is reported on 29 September, according to an Ottoman source, that Boletini had given himself up to the authorities, was to be pardoned and used by the Ottomans against Mustafa Aga and his supporters. He is reported on 24 November 1902 as having arrived in Istanbul. Four days later it was reported that the Porte promised to not return Boletini to Mitrovica, and that Schterbina was soon to arrive to the consulate. Sultan Abdul Hamid II, instead of crushing Boletini, brought him to Istanbul and appointed him head of the palace guards.[b]
On 11 March 1903, the Porte denied that it planned to return Isa Boletini back to Mitrovica. Schterbina did not survive his assassination attempt on 31 May, during an Albanian riot, and died of his gunshot wounds in April 1903. After serving as the head of the Ottoman palace guard for four years, he returned to Kosovo with an imperial land grant and officer rank in the local Ottoman militia in March 1906. He was now the most famous and richest Albanian in Mitrovica. He resumed his acting as a local "protector". He was deputy of Kosovo in the Ottoman Assembly between 1908 and 1912. He was loyal to the sultan, though in 1908 he had given his initial support to the Young Turks.
The Committee of Union and Progress, within c. a month of the restoration of the constitution, decided to address blood feuding matters in Kosovo, sentencing Albanians engaged in killings. Aggressive measures was pushed by locals – Nexhip Draga and other Albanian notables, who demanded the arrest of Boletini, a nuisance to some town notables. On 15 May 1909, the Young Turks, continuing their former policy of denying the Albanians national rights, sent a military expedition to the Kosovo Vilayet to stop the growth of hostile attitudes to the government and break resistance of the peasants, who refused to pay taxes which Istanbul had introduced. Cavid Pasha, the new commander of the division at Mitroviça, was ordered to carry out a succession of military operations against the Albanian mountaineers. On account of the attempts of the authorities to collect taxes which hitherto had been paid almost entirely by the Christians, serious disturbances broke out among the war-like Muslim tribes of northern Albania. Isa Boletini, a prominent leader often honoured by the Sultan, and other chiefs of İpek (Peć) and Yakova (Gjakova), attacked the Turkish army, and numerous fights led to much bloodshed, the Turkish army also bombarding several villages. Boletini led fighting in Pristina, Prizren and elsewhere.
Boletini took an important role in the Albanian Revolt of 1910. He resisted the Ottoman army at Crnoljeva (Caraleva) for two days. In 1910, Nopcsa named him and the earlier Ali Pasha Draga the leading Albanian figures in Mitrovica. In 1910–11, the Montenegrin government encouraged northern Albanian tribes (Malissori) to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Apart from the Catholic Malissori, also some Kosovo Albanian leaders were approached, among these were Boletini. Boletini intended to use Montenegro as a base for incursions into Ottoman Albania. At first, Montenegro ignored his presence, but on 15 June, after numerous protests from the Ottoman ambassador, escorted Boletini and his thirteen followers away from the Albanian border.
1912 revolt and Albanian autonomy
On April 23, Hasan Prishtina's rebels revolted in the Yakova mountains, which then spread; on May 20, Albanian chiefs Bajram Curri, Isa Boletini, Riza Gjakova, Idriz Seferi, Hasan Prishtina, Nexhib Draga, and others, decided on a general armed insurrection throughout the Kosovo Vilayet. In springtime 1912, Boletini led a revolt in Kosovo, with surprising victories after victories against the Turks. After Albanian irregulars entered Skopje (12 August) and threatened to march on Bitola and Thessaloniki, the Turks sent troops against the rebels, who retired to the mountains but continued to protest against the government, and in the whole region between Ipek and Mitrovica they plundered military depots, opened prisons and collected taxes from the inhabitants for the Albanian chiefs; the Turks then agreed on concessions that promised autonomy for the Albanian-inhabited vilayets of Kosovo, Scutari, Yanina and part of Bitola. On 18 August 1912, the Porte replied that it was ready to concede a series of economic, political, administrative and cultural rights, but no formal autonomy. The Albanian side accepted, abandoned further national claims, and had Boletini pacified and returned to his home. The Ottoman side accepted on 4 September. This created a virtually autonomous Albanian state. While Muslim Kosovo Albanians were pleased, the Balkan neighbours and Catholic Albanians were not. The Balkan states envisaged the partition of Albania between them, and thus hastened to precipitate war. Montenegro won over the Malissori, supporting an autonomous northern Albanian Catholic entity.
In August, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević "Apis", the head of the Serbian Black Hand organisation, sent a letter requesting Boletini and his men to assist the Serbs in fighting the Ottomans. The Black Hand stimulated and encouraged the Kosovo Albanians in their revolt, promising them help; Colonel Apis visited northern Albania several times in order to get in touch with the leaders of the Albanian uprising, especially Isa Boletini. Apis declared that the Serbs only wanted to liberate the Albanians from Ottoman subjection, and that the Serbs and Albanians both would benefit from liberating the country. Succeeding in persuading the Kosovo Albanians to fight against the Ottomans, however, Apis and his men committed political murders disguised as Albanians, and eventually the Montenegrin and Serbian armies massacred Albanians, and stopped the inflow of arms to the Albanians, in early September 1912.
Balkan Wars and Albanian independence
In the beginning of the First Balkan War, the Ottoman army was supported by some Albanian volunteers and irregulars; the Ottoman authorities supplied Isa Boletini's men with 65,000 rifles. It was reported in the Serbian press that during the surrender of Albanian rebels at Lumë on 16 November 1912, that Boletini and his men had managed to escape. On 28 November 1912 in Vlora the Albanian National Assembly proclaimed independence. Ismail Qemali refused to wait for Isa Boletini and other Albanian leaders of the Kosovo Vilayet and hastily made the declaration. The southern elite wanted to prevent Boletini's plans to assert himself as a key political figure and used him to suite their military needs. Isa Boletini contributed in the protection of Vlora government, while later was part of the Albanian delegation to the London Conference (1913) together with Ismail Qemali, Albanian head of state. The Albanian delegation wanted a Kosovo within the borders of the newly founded state of Albania, however the Great Powers said no and ceded the region to Serbia.
In 1913, Boletini and Bajram Curri commanded rebels against the Serbian and Montenegrin armies. On 13 August 1913, an outbreak of hostilities took place on the Serbian-Albanian frontier. A tenacious Albanian band of fighters under the command of Isa Boletini, now Minister for War in the Provisional Government, made a successful attack on the frontier town of Debar and captured it from the small Serbian garrison, which had to retire after suffering severe losses.
On 23 September 1913, the dissatisfaction of the Albanian population at finding themselves under Serbian rule led to an uprising in Macedonia of Albanian patriots who refused to accept the decision of the Ambassadors Conference on the Albanian borders. The Albanian government organised armed resistance to recover the lost areas and 6,000 Albanians under the command of Isa Boletini, the Minister of War, crossed the frontier. After an engagement with the Serbians the forces retook Debar and then marched, together with a Bulgarian band led by Petar Chaoulev, in the direction of Ohrid, but another band was checked with loss at Mavrovo. Within a few days they captured the towns of Gostivar, Struga and Ohrid, expelling the Serbian troops. At Ohrid they set up a local government and held the hills towards Resen for four days.
Muslim uprising in central Albania (1914)
During the pro-Ottoman Muslim peasant uprising in central Albania which broke out in mid-May 1914, Isa Boletini and his troops defended Prince Wilhelm zu Wied. On 30 May, the loyalty of some northern Albanian tribes was unclear, however, the Lumë tribe was deemed to have been won over by the Albanian government, as they were under the influence of Isa Boletini and Bajram Curri, both having given their service to the government. It was reported on 5 June 1914 that the Mirdites and Malissori in Durazzo had fled and put down their weapons, and that also their leaders, among whom were Isa Boletini, had fled and stated that they were unfit to fight the more numerous enemy. The rebels had surrounded the town and stated that they would not withdraw until Prince Wilhelm left Durazzo; 300 Malissori were left dead and 250 wounded, out of whom 150 had drowned in the town's pond.
When the revolt deteriorated in June 1914, Isa Boletini and his men, mostly from Kosovo, joined the Dutch International Gendarmerie in their fight against the pro-Ottoman rebels. It was reported on 28 June 1914 that Ismail Qemali arrived in Albania to impose order, with the plan of dividing the country into cantons: The northern parts, to the Mat river, managed by Prenk Bib Doda; the central Muslim parts, from the Mat to the Shkumbin, managed by Essad Pasha; from Shkumbin to Tepelena, Ismail Qemali; Orthodox parts, Zoografos. The next day Wilhelm held an assembly in Durazzo of notable Albanian citizens from across the country, numbering some 40, among whom were Prenk Bib Doda, Ismail Qemali and Isa Boletini. Some advised the Prince to ask the Great Powers for troops, others resisted that advice and instead adviced to ask the Great Powers for garanties for the Albanian borders set out in the London Conference of 1912–13. There were manifestations in support of Wilhelm, and Boletini is cited as having said: "Despite that we did not choose Prince Wilhelm, but Europe suggested him, we are today faithfully loyal to him, and in the case that Prince Wilhelm be forced to leave us, may no other receive that mandate, because Albanians are not children with whom you can play". The assembly was viewed of as successful, as the Muslim and Catholic representatives agreed to keep Prince Wilhelm.
World War I and death
During World War I, Boletini commanded guerrilla fighters against the Montenegrin and Serbian armies.
On 20 October 1914, 1,000 Albanians, led by Bajram Curri, Isa Boletini, Bulgarian komite and Austrian officers, attacked a Montenegrin base near Djakovica, and took two hill artillery pieces with them. The Montenegrin army then surrounded and defeated them, and pushed them into Albanian territory.
On 23 June 1915, after Montenegrin forces entered Scutari, Isa Boletini and his men laid down their weapons and surrendered, traveling to Cetinje.
There are different stories about his death in Podgorica on 23 or 24 January 1916:
- Boletini became seriously ill while defending Scutari, and in order to not be taken by the Montenegrins he sought to ask for protection at the French consulate in Cetinje. He was arrested in the Cetinje Hotel and immediately interred in Nikšić, then in Podgorica. During the entering of the Austro-Hungarian army and chaos in Podgorica, the Montenegrin gendarmerie killed Boletini, his two sons, two grandsons, son-in-law, nephew and two loyal fellows, on the bridge over the Morača river on 23 January 1916. It was believed that he went to meet the Austro-Hungarian army.
- Historian Bogumil Hrabak mentioned that his death occurred "in the stir which he provoked with his threats that he would take over the city".
- Owen Pearson claims that on 24 January 1916 he was killed while "virtually a prisoner" in Podgorica, after a dispute provoked by the Montenegrins led to fighting in the town. He managed to kill eight before he died.
- A Belgrade press claimed that upon the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Montenegro, when citizens were to hand over weapons to the authorities, Isa Boletini, his son and six friends refused, entered the town courtroom where people had gathered, and tried to encourage them to resist the occupation, then shot a Montenegrin writer and two police officers (panduri). A manhunt followed, in which Boletini was killed.
- "Наше бојиште: Борба са Арнаутима", Стража (276), p. 3, 22 October 1914; "Код Ђаковице", Пијемонт (266), p. 2, 22 October 1914
- Ратни дневник (336), Kragujevac, 28 June 1915
- ^ Hrašovec 2015.
- Pearson 2004, p. 96.
- "Crnogorci rado položiše oružje", Beogradske Novine, Belgrade: 2, 20 February 1916
Boletini had several sons, who are mentioned in 1924 as living with their women and other relatives in Boletini's kula (that had been destroyed by Ottoman artillery several times) near the Sokolica Monastery "as though feudal lords, frugally and ceremoniously, but with endlessly less authority". His son Mustafa was a rebel leader in the Balkan Wars. On 27 July 1936, his grandson, Ismet, was knife stabbed by two Albanian criminals while protecting his friends, three Serbs, in Kosovska Mitrovica.
Isa Boletini was tall, well-built, and strong, with great reputation, whose deeds of bravery and escapes from Turks and Serbs had become legends in Albania. He was noted for always wearing the traditional Albanian white cap (qeleshe) and national dress. He is considered one of Albania's greatest patriots and heroes. His ideas influenced the likes of Midhat Frashëri and prominent Albanian nationalists.
During the airplane meeting in Podgorica on 24 June 1934, pilot Tadija Sondermajer wore a Montenegrin dress and the flintlock of Isa Boletini.
In 2004, Ibrahim Rugova, the president of the self-declared Republic of Kosova, awarded him the highest order, "Hero of Kosovo", along with Adem Jashari, Hasan Prishtina, and Bajram Curri.
A statue of him was uncovered in Southern Mitrovica on the 100th anniversary of the Independence of Albania and Flag Day (28 November 2012).
During the abandoned Serbia v Albania (UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying) match, on 14 October 2014, while the game was suspended, a small remote-controlled quadcopter drone with a flag suspended from it hovered over the stadium. The flag showed the faces of Ismail Qemali and Isa Boletini and a map of a Greater Albania.
Boletini was killed in a fight in Montenegro in 1916 and buried in the capital Podgorica. In 1998, his remains were exhumed and brought to Mitrovica, where they were kept in the town's mosque. They were removed in 2011, largely for security reasons in Kosovo's troubled north, and sent to the department of forensics in Pristina, where they were kept until 2015. A decision to rebury Boletini in Vlore the city in which Albanian independence was proclaimed, made by Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, sparked negative reactions among Kosovo Albanians. The Boletini family first agreed to a reburial in Vlore but then refused. On 10 June 2015, Boletini was reburied at a ceremony in the village of Boletin. Hundreds of people attended the reburial which followed a public tribute at Mitrovica's football stadium. The honouring of Boletini was condemned by Serb minority MPs in Kosovo, who boycotted parliamentary session, calling it a provocation.
The Isa Boletini Monument is a heroic statue of Isa Boletini in Shkodër, in northwestern Albania. It is 4.8 metres (16 ft) high and was erected in 1986.
- "When the spring comes, we will manure the plains of Kosovo with the bones of Serbs, for we Albanians have suffered too much to forget", 1913.
- When Sir Edward Grey met Isa Boletini in London at the British Foreign Office after having his pistol belt's ammunition removed, he uttered: "General, the newspapers might record tomorrow that Isa Boletini, whom even Mahmut Shefqet Pasha could not disarm, was just disarmed in London.", upon which Isa replied "No, no, not in London either.", he then withdrew a second pistol from his pocket.
- Paulin Kola (2003). The search for Greater Albania. London: Hurst. p. 1. ISBN 1-85065-664-9.
- Elsie 2012, p. 46.