According to the Serbian government, the Albanian riots of March 17-19
in Kosovo resulted in 9 Serbs killed, 143 wounded, 15 missing, and 3,205 displaced.
Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and 15 towns and villages ethnically cleansed.
Most important of all for Serbian culture, 35 churches and monasteries were
destroyed and 3 cemeteries desecrated.
Eyewitness reports indicate that the Albanian mobs were armed with machine
guns, AK-47's, pistols, rifles, and hand grenades, not to mention rocks and
improvised cluster bombs (Molotov cocktails filled with nails). An informed
source claims that four of the Serbs killed had been shot by illegal "dum-dum" bullets that
fragment within the body, causing an excruciatingly painful death. Others were
knifed or burned alive by the rampaging mobs made up of Albanian men from their
early teens into their 80s.
After discussing the riots' organization and goals, I will give the reader
a glimpse into the human side of the catastrophe, by citing testimony from some
of the refugees I met last week in Kosovo.
The Riots: Organized or Not?
Despite the media
whitewashing and contrary to other
conjectures, the Kosovo riots were not the spontaneous outcome of the Albanians'
righteous rage and grief. Rather, they were well-planned, well-supplied terrorist
attacks masquerading as popular marches, carried out with the complicity of
the Albanian KPS (Kosovo Police Service) and with the blessings of top figures
in the Kosovo Albanian leadership, organized by the successor organizations
of the Kosovo Liberation Army and its various youth factions.
Both Macedonian and Serbian intelligence officials have detailed evidence to
support this assertion. Eyewitness testimony also confirms that Albanian KPS
officers actively participated in leading the riots. The range of weaponry
employed, and the fact that buses, vans, and taxis were all mobilized to
transport tens of thousands of Albanian rioters reveal the organized nature of
International officials agree. "Let's be realistic," Tracy Becker, the UNMIK
regional media officer in Mitrovica told me last week. "It's impossible to have
Kosovo-wide riots without organization." Another UN spokesman said the same
back on March 18, according to the Scotsman:
"…this is planned, coordinated, one-way violence from the Albanians against
the Serbs… nothing happens spontaneously in Kosovo."
The Strategy of the Pogrom
Oliver Ivanovic, a member of the Kosovo Parliament
Presidency, told me on Wednesday that the riots were "…very well organized.
Simultaneous attacks on 15 different places can only be done if you have strong
logistics and coordination. It was all in accordance with a plan."
The plan, according to Ivanovic, was strategic:
"…first they threatened to attack North Mitrovica, which they never intended
to take – too many Serbs are there. But this maneuver did succeed in pulling
the international soldiers north, and leaving central Kosovo empty and undefended.
The Albanians were thus able to attack those Serbian settlements much more easily."
The city of Mitrovica, divided by the Ibar River, is the borderline between
the Albanian-dominated bulk of Kosovo and the purely Serbian northern corner
of the province bordering on Serbia proper. The population of the northern side
has swelled from 8,000 to 12,000 in the last five years, as Serbian refugees
from other parts of Kosovo flock there. Even though they are heavily armed and
vastly outnumber the Serbs, the 60,000 Albanians of the south know that they
cannot take it, and therefore don't try.
Yellow areas indicate where Serbs lived in Kosovo at the time of the 1999 NATO
Remaining areas with Serbian population as of March 20, 2004.
Areas in bright red were ethnically cleansed of Serbs during the riots.
"Cleansing" Central Kosovo
Thus, rather than concentrate their attack on
the northern Serbian stronghold, the Albanian mobs chose to devastate isolated
Serb settlements populated mostly by poor, elderly farmers left entirely defenseless
by five years of UNMIK weapons collections. Yet the colonial administration
does not dare to disarm the Albanians, for fear of provoking retaliatory violence.
Several examples from this latest wave of ethnic cleansing support the
theory. South of Mitrovica, the Serbian population of the farming village of
Svinjare was expelled, with 140 houses ruined. The scene was "absolutely
heartbreaking," said one international official, who added that local Albanian
perpetrators had started spray-painting their names on the charred ruins to mark
their new "property."
I saw an example of this in Obilic, a village further south, near Pristina,
where an Albanian man had spray-painted his name on a burned Serbian home. All
around were charred ruins of houses, smashed furniture, and dead pigs, everything
of value stolen. Out of the wreckage a playful dog ran up to me, yapping in
front of what was once his master's home. He was guarding it from intruders,
perhaps. But there was no longer any need.
The once ethnically-mixed village of Obilic is littered with the ruins of Serbian
A lone dog keeps watch in front of his master's burned house, waiting for
him to come home.
Obilic was once an ethnically mixed village; directly adjacent to these
destroyed houses were the untouched homes of Albanians. I saw one Albanian boy,
no older than six, looting firewood from the gutted home of his former neighbor.
In the street, we were met by the long, suspicious stares of grouped men
defiantly proud of their crimes and unwilling to tolerate any mention of
Purging central Kosovo of Serbs was important because the second-largest
grouping of enclaves is located there. The village of Caglavica, which was one
of the first places attacked, has good soil, and is on the main north-south road
from Pristina to Skopje. It is also the first village that guards the largest
remaining Serbian enclave in the area, that of Gracanica and its outlying
villages. The area has strategic position, comprises a large area of
high-quality farmland, and remains a chronic thorn in the side of Albanians
striving for an ethnically pure Kosovo.
Other villages in the Pristina area that were decimated include Ljiplan and
Kosovo Polje (though some Serbs remain in one corner of the latter town, under
KFOR protection). In the capital, Pristina, the entire remaining Serbian population
was completely expelled. Although before the NATO bombardment of 1999 some 40,000-50,000
Serbs lived in Pristina, by 2004 only about 150 remained. These survivors were
relegated entirely to one apartment block. The mobs took care of them on March
The riots devastated many Serb homes in Kosovo Polje, as well
as the hospital and post office.
The First Goal: Sever Connections with the Outside World
According to Ivanovic, this pattern of ethnic
cleansing indicates that the Albanians' goal was "…to push the remaining Serb
settlements away from the major roads and railways, and so isolate them from
the outside world. This is very easily seen when you look at exactly which villages
With train service suspended for almost two weeks because of the riots, Priluzje's
few shops are running out of supplies.
The Serbian villages of central Kosovo that were spared, such as Priluzje
(located a few miles north of Obilic), have, however, lost contact with the
outside world. As of last Tuesday, the train connecting them with the town of
Zvetcin to the northwest of Mitrovica had been suspended for 10 days. This train
represented their only means of getting supplies from Serbia proper. Now, no one
knows when the train will resume, but the villagers fear they cannot travel
safely without UN police escorts. Some Greek police were present on the train
for two years, villagers said, but recent NATO downsizing has meant the
elimination of that program.
Meanwhile, shop supplies dwindle, and listless teens file up and down the
village's dusty main street. "We have all finished our high school studies,"
said one 17 year-old boy, "But we can't work, and we have nothing to do."
When asked whether he planned to stay and fight when the inevitable Albanian
attack comes, the teen wistfully replied, "…we would like it if you could take
us to America with you." So much for that much-feared
In Caglavica, some refugees are being housed in tents, placed right in front
of their destroyed homes.
The Second Goal: Prevent Any Returns by Destroying Churches
One of the main promises of the UNMIK administration
is that all refugees will be returned to Kosovo as part of its "Standards Before
Status" conditions for eventual independence. "Yet what's strange," adds
Oliver Ivanovic, "is that there were 35 churches destroyed in 2 days. In the
5 years before that, 118 churches were destroyed. All of the churches in Prizren
were destroyed, because its previously displaced Serbs are supposed to be brought
back there this year."
In this light, the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from hardcore KLA country in the
south near Prizren and in the west near Djakovica and Pec become more
understandable. Since a mark of any civilization is the presence of cultural
monuments, the massive destruction of Serbian churches in this area shows the
true intent of the Albanian militants. The western half of Kosovo is known to
Serbs as "Metochia," a Greek word denoting church property. The wholesale
destruction of Serbian churches and monasteries since 1999 and which
accelerated last month betrays the desire to eliminate a whole people's history,
culture, and right to exist.
Prizren, which had featured age-old mosques next to churches and a beautiful
historic town, was
hardest hit. It was described to me as a "little Jerusalem" by one resident
Arab, and as "the most beautiful town in the former Yugoslavia" by a Serb. In
2002, it was listed as one of the world's 100 most endangered sites by the World
Monument Fund. Among the other priceless churches destroyed was the
14th century cathedral of The Holy Virgin Ljeviška, one of the
world's most important monuments to Byzantine art. On March 26, Bishop of Kosovo
"…how can people destroy a city in which they themselves are living? How can
they calmly sit on benches and nonchalantly stroll in front of burning churches
whose ruins stink of urine and feces left behind by the attackers? Where did
such barbarity at the dawn of the 21st century come from, barbarity
promoted not by some small group of extremists but by thousands of people who
destroyed centuries of culture and civilization in their campaign of
Ths Serbian Orthodox church in Pristina was one of the 35 attacked across Kosovo
during the riots.
Some of the 150 Serbians expelled from Pristina
on March 17 are currently being housed in an elementary school gym in Gracanica.
The scene there is gloomy; cots lined up against the walls, black plastic bags
of donated clothes and provisions, tinny music emanating from a little clock
radio. Old people lay crouched in their beds while the few small children try
to shoot baskets to entertain themselves. My local guide and I sat down to talk
with one group of refugees, and instantly hospitality materialized in the form
of Turkish coffee made on a plug-in burner. In Kosovo, even people who have
nothing left want to give.
According to the refugees, who were all living in the same high-rise
apartment block on the western edge of Pristina, the trouble began shortly
before dark on Wednesday, the 17th of March. An old woman recalls
standing on her balcony and seeing smoke and fire in the distance. She ran to
her neighbor to tell her "Something is burning in Kosovo Polje!" This inferno
and the arrival of a crowd of Albanian toughs at around 7:30 frightened the
Serbs. "And so," the refugee went on, "we began to gather the most necessary
items and documents, just in case."
By 8:30, the mob had multiplied to several hundred. It was made up of armed
men and boys of all ages. They were chanting the standard rallying cry of the
former Kosovo Liberation Army ("UCK! UCK!"), and soon had broken the windows of
all the first-floor apartments with rocks and shotgun shells. Witnesses saw
taxis and vans continually bringing more and more Albanians in, some of whom
they recognized from the neighborhood. According to the refugees, the rioters
were enabled by four or five Albanian KPS officers, who invited them to come
closer and also threw Molotov cocktails at the trapped Serbs. When someone
desperately rang up the UN Police to report the emergency, the officer who
answered "…just laughed and said, 'we have a patrol in the area.'"
The situation became much more serious after the power was mysteriously cut
at 9 PM. This seemed like a cue for the rioters to begin charging the building.
They blocked off all the entrances, and began firebombing Serb-owned cars outside
the building and then the structure itself. When the power came on again at
10 PM, the people trapped in the building turned off all lights and lay on the
floor, intermittently peeking out the windows to see what was happening.
These refugees from Pristina are being sheltered in an elementary school gym
in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica.
Surviving the Siege
"Was it just a coincidence that the electricity
was cut at the same moment they started their attack?" asks another refugee,
Tanya Vudatovic. Until the riots, Vudatovic had been working in a Pristina NGO.
It was difficult, and sometimes dangerous, but she felt safe enough. Not anymore.
"For five years," she recounts, "we were locked inside a building and
subjected to constant surveillance and hostile stares from our Albanian
neighbors. Even if you went downstairs to a shop, they were constantly watching
you. We didn't even go out after dark. Yet even through all that, we still
thought maybe we can live together. Not now."
Despite nearly having been killed by the Albanian mob, Vudatovic and the
others are this evening enjoying a laugh with an Albanian colleague working to
develop multi-ethnic radio. He had happened to be visiting them on the night of
the riots, when Vudatovic and 32 others huddled inside an apartment barricaded
by metal bars and marked by an OSCE sign. "Hiding behind such signs has been one
of our tricks for survival," said Vudatovic. The presence of the metal bars, she
is convinced, is the only reason they survived the attacks.
At around 11 PM, KFOR arrived with 2 vehicles. They passed across the front
side of the apartment building and, while they remained, the crowd fell back.
This detachment was soon replaced by a UN armored vehicle. The Serbs thought
that they had been saved, and some made the mistake of opening their doors. But
the peacekeepers inexplicably left after 15 minutes, and the mob regained
strength, breaking into the building and baying for blood.
All in all, the rioters ransacked around 30 apartments and burned 4 others,
according to the residents. Incredibly, no Serbs were killed, probably because
they had taken shelter together in a few well-fortified apartments, placing
tables, chairs, and anything heavy in front of the doors. However, had the
peacekeepers not returned around 1 AM, many people would surely have died of
fire and asphyxiation.
The arriving UN police soon found themselves under attack. The mob was
furious at being stymied in their attack. But the police managed to break
through the rioting crowd and started sweeping from the top floors down. A young
mother named Vesna reveals the vital role American policemen played in the
"…one of them took my son, and the other, a female officer, tried to run with
me towards the bus. She shielded me with her body, because the Albanians were
shooting at us from all directions. When we got to the bus she pushed me down
against the vehicle, blocked me from the bullets and saved my life."
Meanwhile, Vudatovic and the others in the barricaded apartment below waited
it out. "Even now when I lie down," she says, "I can still hear this roaring
sound in my ears… it's very hard to explain what it was like, sitting in a
corner in the dark, begging God to help you." When I ask for her to attempt a
description anyway, she recounts:
"…we could hear the mob gathering outside the door. They were calling for me
and my sister, shouting, 'Where are the two Serbian bitches?' We were covering
the mouths of the children so they wouldn't scream. Out of the people in the
apartment, only 4 were men, and all were unarmed. The Albanians would have killed
all 33 people inside that room.
…then we heard someone screaming for help. After a few minutes of hearing his
cries, one woman said, 'I can't stand it, we have to help him.' So we removed
the furniture blocking the door, went out in the hall and found a 34 year-old
Serbian man covered in blood. He had been stabbed in the head. At that moment
three Irish KFOR soldiers came running up the stairs. It was just a matter of
seconds. They said to us, 'We don't have time! Go, go!' But the entranceway
was engulfed in flames, and we had to run through the fire in order to get out."
Thirty-three people escaped certain death by hiding from the mob inside this
barricaded apartment in Pristina on the night of March 17.
The Story from Kosovo Polje
A few miles west of Pristina, in the little town
of Kosovo Polje, Albanian rioters burned the post office, a restaurant, a hospital,
and scores of houses, driving the Serbs away from the main road bisecting the
town and railroad station. A British SFOR tank hastily imported from Bosnia
now stands guard over the town's imperiled church, although it's unlikely that
this nominal force of teenaged soldiers will be able to stop any determined
One refugee, a middle-aged man whose house was located behind the Post Office
recounted what he saw:
"…first, they took my nephew's car from the garage and burned it. We saw how
they were throwing rocks at the Serbian houses. We all stayed indoors. But one
old man who was caught outside while cleaning his house with his wife was kicked
down by the mob. The Albanians let his wife go, but they lit the man on fire and
burned him alive right there."
This witness, whom I encountered in a "safe" part of the (still)
ethnically-mixed town, was remarkably composed considering what he had
witnessed, and considering that the perpetrators were less than a mile away. He
"…my elderly uncle was stabbed by Albanians as he was trying to run from a
neighbor's house into his own. Luckily we were near enough to see him, and we
saved him. But the KPS Albanian police saw them attack him and did
Eventually, the Serbs were evacuated by three of their ethnic kin who
happened to work in the KPS. But these policemen could not save their homes from
the Albanian mobs that moved methodically from house to house in groups of 30,
looting, pillaging, and burning.
I asked the Kosovo Polje man, standing with some friends outside a little
shop in the protected end of the town, what he envisions for the future. After
all, he told me that he also owns an apartment in Belgrade – but has nevertheless
chosen to remain in Kosovo:
"…after these five years, we thought it might be possible to live together.
We had started to shop in Albanian stores, to walk more freely in the streets.
Now there is no chance for that. Still, we had imagined the mob would stop at
burning vehicles and big buildings – not houses or people. KFOR has taken all
our weapons from us – only if they allow the Serbian police to return can we
Serbs trapped in enclaves like Priluzje have few opportunities in the new Kosovo.
The End for Obilic
In the village of Obilic, as in Pristina, the
entire Serbian population was expelled. I met several refugees from the village
now being housed in Priluzje, a Serbian village a few miles to the north. One
middle-aged woman made homeless by the riots gave her testimony:
"…at 10:30 AM on Thursday the 18th we left our house, my daughter
and I. A neighbor took us in the van with them. We didn't have time to take
anything, only the clothes on our back. There were over 1,000 Albanians coming
towards us, burning and shooting."
I asked the woman whether she hoped to return to her village someday. She
replied, "No, I have no wish to go back to Obilic. I will stay here if Priluzje
survives, and if our Serbian army and police arrive to protect us, since KFOR
does not seem able to do so."
A very old man, bearded and with a gravelly voice, recounted how he has been
expelled from Obilic 4 times since 1999, when his home was first burned by
Albanians. After that, he moved into a neighbor's house. When that was burned
down, too, he was moved into a new building, and then into a camp in Pristina.
He claims that since the camp was also used by KFOR for storing gasoline, "…the
smoke choked us, we felt sick, and I got an infection in my veins."
Like many other refugees, the old man declares that "What I'm wearing now is
all that I have." Nevertheless, there is some of the old Serbian obstinacy left
"…I will go back to Obilic if there is safety, and if they rebuild our
houses. But if they're not capable, let us bring in our own security and police
Another elderly man, Slobodan, is temporarily housing these Obilic refugees
in the home of his children and grandchildren. "I am 83 years old," he says, "I
have lived through 3 wars, and it has never been harder for the Serbian people
than it is now. In the past, our enemies weren't killing children, women, and
old men, and destroying churches. How can we live if we aren't allowed to defend
ourselves, and no one else will?"
The next day, back in Gracanica, my guide and I give a lift to a Serbian man
carrying a heavy box of humanitarian supplies. Turns out that he's a refugee
from Obilic too, being sheltered now within the enclave. When we describe the
ruins we'd photographed in Obilic, the man recognizes one as being his former
house. "Did you happen to see my dog?" he asks, hopefully, and describes the
same mutt that'd been yapping around my feet the day before. "Ah! He lives
still!" beamed the refugee.
Now, the UN administration in Kosovo claims that the peace has been restored.
But no one can know for sure. For Serbian victims of ethnic cleansing and for
those others whose villages survived the latest attacks, waiting is the only
option. Yet since everyone knows the NATO forces are too few, and the Serbian
minority too vulnerable, there's little reason for optimism. Their safety can
only really be guaranteed by re-introducing Serbian troops to Kosovo. However,
such a decision would cause instantaneous all-out war from the Albanians. And
so, since no one is willing to risk the unthinkable of war for the sake of a few
straggler Serbs, their gradual elimination will forestall the need for any such
decision. And so will that other unthinkable – ethnic cleansing in the heart of
Europe – be quietly tolerated by the West's would-be guarantors of civil society
and human rights.