UNDER ORDERS: War Crimes in Kosovo - 1. Executive Summary Publications


executive summary


This report documents torture, killings, rapes, forced expulsions, and other war crimes committed by Serbian and Yugoslav government forces against Kosovar Albanians between March 24 and June 12, 1999, the period of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia. The report reveals a coordinated and systematic campaign to terrorize, kill, and expel the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo that was organized by the highest levels of the Serbian and Yugoslav governments in power at that time.

Naturally, these crimes did not occur in isolation. This report outlines the historical and political context of the war, with a critique of the international community's response to the developing crisis over the past decade. Three chapters also document abuses committed by the ethnic Albanian insurgency known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which abducted and murdered civilians during and after the war, as well as abuses by NATO, which failed adequately to minimize civilian casualties during its bombing of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, the primary focus of this report is the state-sponsored violence inflicted by the Serbian and Yugoslav governments in 1999 against ethnic Albanian citizens of Yugoslavia.

The 1999 Offensive

The Serbian and Yugoslav government offensive in Kosovo that began on March 20, 1999, four days before NATO bombing commenced, was a methodically planned and well-implemented campaign. Key changes in Yugoslavia's security apparatus in late 1998, including a new head of Serbian state security and a new chief of the Yugoslav Army General Staff, suggest that preparations for the offensive were being made at that time. In early 1999, a distinct military build-up in Kosovo and the arming of ethnic Serb civilians was observed. Police and army actions in late February and early March around Vucitrn (Vushtrri) and Podujevo (Podujeve), called "winter exercises" by the government, secured rail and road links north into Serbia.

Serious violations of international humanitarian law had accompanied all previous government offensives, but the period of the NATO bombing saw unprecedented attacks on civilians and the forced expulsion of more than 850,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. For the first time in the conflict, fighting moved from the rural areas to the cities.

While the government campaign seems to have been an attempt to crush the KLA, it clearly developed into something more once the NATO bombing began. With a major offensive underway, then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic took advantage of the NATO bombing to implement a plan to crush the rebels and their base of support among the population, as well as forcibly to expel a large portion of Kosovo's Albanian population.

No one predicted the speed and scale of the expulsions. Within three weeks of the start of NATO bombing, 525,787 refugees from Kosovo had flooded the neighboring countries, according to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). All told, government forces expelled 862,979 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, and several hundred thousand more were internally displaced, in addition to those displaced prior to March 1999. More than 80 percent of the entire population of Kosovo-90 percent of Kosovar Albanians-were displaced from their homes.

Areas with historic ties to the KLA were hardest hit. The municipalities of Glogovac (Gllogofc) and Srbica (Skenderaj) in the Drenica region, the cradle of the KLA, were the scene of multiple massacres of civilians, as well as arbitrary detentions, torture, and the systematic destruction of homes and other civilian property. Mass killings, forced expulsions, and the destruction of civilian property were also common in the southwestern municipalities of Djakovica (Gjakove), Orahovac (Rrahovec), and Suva Reka (Suhareke), where many villages had long supported the insurgency. Sixty-five percent of the violations documented by Human Rights Watch took place in the above-mentioned five municipalities (see Figure 2 in the chapter Statistical Analysis of Violations).

Explanations for the abuses in other municipalities are more complex and less conclusive. The municipalities of Pec (Peja) and Lipljan (Lipjan), both of which had significant Serbian populations, were targeted for mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians, but killings were more localized, such as in the villages of Slovinje (Sllovi), Ribare (Ribar), Ljubenic (Lubeniq), Cuska (Qyshk), and the town of Pec. Although the KLA was active in the Pec municipality and present in the western-most part of Lipljan municipality during 1998 and early 1999, there is little or no evidence to tie the KLA to some of the villages in which massacres occurred. The killings were consistent with a broader pattern of operations to terrorize the population into fleeing Kosovo employing military, police, and paramilitary forces.

There was little KLA presence or violence during 1998 and early 1999 in the ethnically-mixed northwestern municipality of Istok, for example. Nevertheless the municipality suffered mass expulsions of its Albanian residents into Montenegro spurred by the burning and looting of their homes. Istok was also the scene of one of the bloodiest incidents of the war, when Serbian forces killed more than ninety ethnic Albanian inmates in the Dubrava prison in May 1999, after two days of NATO air strikes had killed an estimated nineteen inmates.

The forced expulsion was well organized, which suggests that it had been planned in advance. Villages in strategic areas were cleared to secure lines of communication and control of border zones. Areas of KLA support, as well as areas without a KLA presence, were attacked in joint actions by the police, army, and paramilitaries. Large cities were cleared using buses or trains and long convoys of tractors were carefully herded toward the borders. Refugees were driven into flight or transported in state organized transportation to the borders in a concerted program of forced expulsion and deportation characterized by a very high degree of coordination and control.

Human Rights Watch also documented the common practice of "identity cleansing": refugees expelled toward Albania were frequently stripped of their identity documents and forced to remove the license plates from their cars and tractors before being permitted to cross the border. Before reaching the border, many Albanians had their personal documents destroyed, suggesting the government was trying to block their return.

The mass expulsion of Kosovar Albanians may have served a number of purposes. First, it might have been intended to alter Kosovo's demographic composition-a policy often mentioned by Serbia's extreme nationalist politicians throughout history. Demographic shifts might also have led to an eventual partition of the province into two parts, one for Serbs and one for Albanians. Second, the expulsions might have been intended to destabilize the neighboring countries of Albania and Macedonia. Lastly, the goal might have been to tie down NATO forces in the neighboring countries, thereby hindering a ground invasion, or at least to weaken the resolve of the NATO alliance. If undercutting the international community's determination was the aim, it clearly failed, as the images of beleaguered refugees only provoked public outrage and increased calls for action.

Deliberate and unlawful killings of civilians-extrajudicial executions-were a key part of the "cleansing" campaign. Throughout the province, civilians who were clearly noncombatants, including women and some children, were murdered by Serbian police, Yugoslav army soldiers, and associated paramilitary forces in execution-style killings.

In general, the killings had three apparent motives. The first was to expedite the "cleansing" process through intimidation and fear. The second was the targeting of individuals suspected of fighting with or assisting the KLA-a distinction that was often difficult to make. Targeted individuals included some prominent political leaders, human rights activists, and wealthy businessmen. The third was killing for revenge: some massacres were committed after Serbian or Yugoslav forces suffered casualties at the hands of the KLA.

Although reliable figures are beginning to emerge, the final death toll from the Kosovo war remains unknown, and has become the focus of considerable debate. Through its own research, Human Rights Watch documented 3,453 killings by Serbian or Yugoslav government forces, but that number is definitely lower than the total, because it is based on only 577 interviews (and these interviews were not randomly sampled to allow for extrapolation of the data to all of Kosovo). At the same time, the number is certainly not as large as some Western government and NATO officials suggested during the war, when figures went as high as 100,000.

As of July 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had exhumed approximately 4,300 bodies believed to have been victims of unlawful killings by Serbian and Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. This is certainly less than the total number of those killed by government troops. Most importantly, there is incontrovertible evidence of grave tampering and the removal of bodies by Serbian and Yugoslav troops, as the post-Milosevic Serbian government was beginning to confirm in summer 2001. Human Rights Watch documented attempts to hide or dispose of bodies in Trnje (Terrnje), Djakovica, Izbica (Izbice), Rezala (Rezalle), Velika Krusa and Mala Krusa (Krushe e Madhe and Krushe e Vogel), Suva Reka, Slovinje, Poklek, Kotlina (Kotline), and Pusto Selo (Pastasel). In addition, 3,525 persons, including ethnic Serbs, remain missing from the conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The statistical analysis conducted by Human Rights Watch and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) revealed killing patterns that further expose the systematic nature of the government's campaign. When recorded extrajudicial executions are plotted over time, for example, three distinct waves emerge, as seen in Graph 5 in the chapter on Statistical Analysis of Violations. The graph is not a perfect reflection of killings since Human Rights Watch did not randomly sample the interviewees. However, the extreme nature of the waves, with three distinct surges over short periods of time, strongly suggests that the killings were not the result of random violence by government forces. Rather, they were carefully planned and implemented operations that fit into the government's strategic aims.

Likewise, the extrajudicial executions by municipality over time (Graphs 6 through 10, 14, and 15) show similar spikes in violence over short periods. Killing "sprees" tended to occur in municipalities over distinct periods, suggesting a strategic order to commit these killings in certain areas.

Rape and sexual violence were also components of the campaign. Rapes of ethnic Albanians were not rare and isolated acts committed by individual Serbian or Yugoslav forces, but rather were instruments to terrorize the civilian population, extort money from families, and push people to flee their homes. In total, Human Rights Watch found credible accounts of ninety-six cases of sexual assault by Yugoslav soldiers, Serbian police, or paramilitaries during the period of NATO bombing, and the actual number is certainly much higher.

In general, rapes in Kosovo can be grouped into three categories: rapes in women's homes, rapes during flight, and rapes in detention. In the first category, security forces entered private homes and raped women in front of family members, in the yard, or in an adjoining room. In the second category, internally displaced people wandering on foot or riding on tractors were stopped, robbed, and threatened by the Yugoslav Army, Serbian police, or paramilitaries. If families could not produce cash, security forces told them their daughters would be taken away and raped; in some cases, even when families did provide money, their daughters were taken away. The third category of rapes took place in temporary detention centers, such as abandoned homes or barns.

The destruction of civilian property by government troops in 1999 was widespread. According to a November 1999 UNHCR survey, almost 40 percent of all residential houses in Kosovo were heavily damaged or completely destroyed. Municipalities with strong ties to the KLA were disproportionately affected, in part because attacks against them began in 1998. But other areas without a history of KLA activity were also affected, such as the city of Pec, where more than 80 percent of the city's houses were heavily damaged or destroyed.

Schools and mosques were similarly affected. According to a United Nations damage assessment of 649 schools in Kosovo, more than one-fifth of the schools surveyed were heavily damaged and more than 60 percent were completely destroyed. Throughout Kosovo, Serbian and Yugoslav forces also deliberately rendered water wells unusable by dumping chemicals, dead animals, or human remains into the water. Human Rights Watch documented cases in four villages in which murder victims had been dumped into the water supply.

Endless witnesses and victims told Human Rights Watch how government forces robbed them of valuables, including wedding rings and automobiles, either at their homes or along the road during their expulsion. Police, soldiers, and especially members of paramilitary units threatened individuals with death if they did not hand over sums of money, usually demanding German marks. Such theft was mentioned repeatedly, even by members of the security forces who spoke with the international media after the war. For some of the men, it was the reason they went to Kosovo. Some volunteers said they were released from prison in Serbia if they agreed to serve with the army or police.

This report also documents the practice of forcing detainees to dig trenches or clear bunkers, as well as the use of civilians as human shields to protect troops from NATO or KLA attacks. The Yugoslav government also placed both antipersonnel and antitank landmines, especially along the borders with Albania and Macedonia, most probably in preparation for a ground invasion.

The Chain of Command

The government forces involved in the conflict were a complex combination of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs police and special police, Yugoslav Army soldiers and special units, paramilitary forces, local militias, and an assortment of gunmen from abroad, all operating under orders from the government in Belgrade.

The Yugoslav Army had overall command during the period of NATO_bombing, with the police and paramilitary forces subservient to its orders according to law, although top officials in the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs clearly exercised significant influence over the campaign. The army controlled the main roads and the borders, coordinating and facilitating the "ethnic cleansing." The police and paramilitary forces were more involved directly in the expulsion of civilians and destruction of villages, with artillery support from the army. It is during these operations that men sometimes were separated from women and children, interrogated about the KLA, and summarily executed.

According to Yugoslav law, the Yugoslav Army (Vojska Jugoslavije, or VJ) is under the command of the Yugoslav president in both wartime and peace. Until October 2000, this was Slobodan Milosevic. The controlling body of the VJ is the Supreme Defense Council, comprised of the presidents of Serbia, Montenegro, and Yugoslavia and chaired by the Yugoslav president. The chief of the army's General Staff during the war was Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, who was appointed after the war to serve as Yugoslav minister of defense-the position he held until October 2000.

The VJ is divided into three armies. The Third Army, commanded during the war by Col. Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, was responsible for Kosovo and southern Serbia. As of August 2001, Pavkovic was Chief of the Yugoslav Army's General Staff. Under Pavkovic, during the war, was Maj. Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic, who commanded the Pristina Corps of the Third Army that was based in Kosovo. Under Lazarevic were five brigades, one military police unit, and one aviation regiment. All of their commanders are named in the chapter Forces of the Conflict.

The structure of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministarstvo Unutrasnjih Poslova, or MUP), run during the war by Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, is more complicated than that of the VJ, which has a transparent chain of command. Within the MUP were the regular police in Kosovo commanded by Sreten Lukic, the special police (Posebne Jedinice Policije, or PJP) commanded by Lt. Gen. Obrad Stevanovic, and the Anti-Terrorist Forces (Specijalna Antiteroristicka Jedinica, or SAJ) commanded by Col. Zivko Trajkovic. Col. Gen. Vlastimir Djordjevic was head of the public security sector of MUP, as well as assistant to the minister of internal affairs. The new Serbian government replaced Djordjevic and Stevanovic in January 2001, but promoted Lukic to chief of public security as well as deputy minister of internal affairs.

The Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs also contains the state security service, or secret police, which played a major role in Kosovo. In addition to covert activities monitoring and harassing ethnic Albanian political activists and the KLA, state security also deployed its special operations unit, the JSO (Jedinica za Specijalne Operacije), and assisted various paramilitary organizations. Also known as the "Red Berets" or "Frenki's Boys" (after Frenki Simatovic, a key personality in the Ministry of Internal Affairs who allegedly founded the group), the JSO was commanded during the war by Milorad Lukovic, a man better known as "Legija." Until January 2001, the head of the Serbian state security was Col. Gen. Radomir Markovic. He was dismissed in late January and arrested one month later by Serbian police for his alleged involvement in a 1999 attack against a Serbian politician, Vuk Draskovic. David Gajic was the head of state security in Kosovo during the war.

Lastly, various paramilitary forces as well as foreign gunmen were active in Kosovo, largely under the control of the central government. Aside from being among the most violent forces in Kosovo, one of the paramilitaries' primary activities was looting and theft.

Although the precise lines of command and control of these paramilitary forces remain unclear, they clearly cooperated closely with the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police. Paramilitary members who spoke with the international press after the war said that local officials had sometimes given them lists of ethnic Albanians to target for murder. Some men were released from Serbian prisons if they agreed to fight in Kosovo. At times, individual members of the police or army tried to warn or protect ethnic Albanian civilians from paramilitary forces, although this was rare; more commonly, regular militias and police personnel worked closely with paramilitary units, often maintaining a cordon around targeted communities while paramilitary troops moved in.

The various units and groups within the MUP make the chain of command less discernible than with the VJ, although it is clear that ultimate authority for the MUP rested with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. According to Yugoslav law, in a declared state of war, the Yugoslav Army has jurisdiction over the Serbian police, thereby making Slobodan Milosevic the de facto and de jure commander of the police during the period of NATO bombing. Then-Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic also played an important role.

International law is clear on individual criminal responsibility for the leaders who organize or tolerate the commission of war crimes. Both the direct perpetrator of a crime as well as the military or political leaders who ordered that crime, or who fail to take steps to prevent a crime or to punish the perpetrator, can be held accountable.

As this report proves, the extent and systematic nature of the abuses in Kosovo make it impossible that the Serbian and Yugoslav leaderships were unaware of those violations, despite their public denials. In only a few cases were members of the security forces punished for having committed serious crimes, such as murder. On the contrary, the postwar period saw hundreds of promotions and awards for police and army personnel, including some of the top leadership, such as Dragoljub Ojdanic, Nebojsa Pavkovic, Vladimir Lazarevic, Obrad Stevanovic, Sreten Lukic, Vlastimir Djordjevic, and Zivko Trajkovic, as well as many of the brigade commanders in Pristina Corps. A complete list of those promoted and awarded is included as an appendix to the chapter Forces of the Conflict.

The War Crimes Tribunal

After a slow start in 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) began a full investigation into the war crimes committed in Kosovo. On May 27, 1999, the tribunal announced its most significant indictment to date: that of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four other top officials for "murder, persecution, and deportation in Kosovo" between January 1 and late May 1999. The other indictees are: Milan Milutinovic, president of Serbia and member of the Supreme Defense Council, Dragoljub Ojdanic, Chief of General Staff of the Yugoslav Army, Nikola Sainovic, deputy prime minister of the FRY, and Vlajko Stojiljkovic, Serbian minister of internal affairs. ICTY investigations of war crimes are ongoing, including a review of KLA crimes. On April 1, 2001, the Serbian police arrested Milosevic on charges of corruption. On June 28, he was transferred to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. As of August 2001, the other indictees remained at large.

The tribunal also conducted an internal assessment of NATO actions during the war, concluding that there were no grounds for a further investigation. The Human Rights Watch assessment of NATO's air campaign differs slightly. Although Human Rights Watch found no evidence that NATO committed war crimes, it did violate international humanitarian law by taking insufficient precautions to identify the presence of civilians when attacking convoys and mobile targets. As previously reported in a February 2000 Human Rights Watch report, Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign, the NATO bombing caused the deaths of approximately 500 civilians throughout Yugoslavia. Between 56 and 60 percent of these deaths were in Kosovo. NATO's use of cluster bombs, although halted in the course of the conflict, is also criticized in this report. As inherently indiscriminate weapons when used in urban areas and because of their high failure rate, cluster bombs pose a serious and disproportionate danger to the civilian population. Between March 24 and May 7, 1999, more than 1,500 cluster bombs were dropped over Kosovo and the rest of Yugoslavia.

Abuses by the KLA

As presented in the Background chapter, the KLA was responsible for serious abuses in 1998, including abductions and murders of Serbs and ethnic Albanians considered collaborators with the state. In some villages under KLA control in 1998, the rebels drove ethnic Serbs from their homes. Some of those who remained are unaccounted for and are presumed to have been abducted by the KLA and killed. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, ninety-seven Kosovo Serbs who went missing in 1998 were still missing as of May 15, 2000.

The KLA detained an estimated eighty-five Serbs during its July 19, 1998, attack on Orahovac. Thirty-five of these people were subsequently released but the others remain missing as of August 2001. On July 22, 1998, the KLA briefly took control of the Belacevac mine near Obilic. Nine Serbs were captured that day, and they remain on the ICRC's list of the missing.

In September 1998, the Serbian police collected thirty-four bodies of people believed to have been seized and murdered by the KLA, among them some ethnic Albanians, at Lake Radonjic near Glodjane (Gllogjan). Prior to that, the most serious KLA abuse was the reported killing in August of twenty-two Serbian civilians in the village of Klecka, where the police claimed to have discovered human remains and a kiln used to cremate the bodies. The manner in which the allegations were made, however, raised questions about their validity.

The KLA, which evolved between 1996 and 1999 from a scattered guerrilla group to an armed movement and ultimately to a more formidable armed force, engaged in military tactics in 1998 and 1999 that put civilians at risk. KLA units sometimes staged an ambush or attacked police or army outposts from a village and then retreated, exposing villagers to revenge attacks. Large massacres sometimes ensued, helping publicize the KLA's cause and internationalize the conflict.

Elements of the KLA are also responsible for post-conflict attacks on Serbs, Roma, and other non-Albanians, as well as ethnic Albanian political rivals. Immediately following NATO's arrival in Kosovo, there was widespread and systematic burning and looting of homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and other minorities and the destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries. This destruction was combined with harassment and intimidation designed to force people from their homes and communities. By late-2000 more than 210,000 Serbs had fled the province; most of them left in the first six weeks of the NATO deployment. Those who remained were increasingly concentrated in mono-ethnic enclaves, such as northern Mitrovica, Kosovo Polje, or Gracanica.

Most seriously, as many as one thousand Serbs and Roma have been murdered or have gone missing since June 12, 1999. Criminal gangs or vengeful individuals may have been involved in some incidents since the war. But elements of the KLA are clearly responsible for many of these crimes. The desire for revenge provides a partial explanation, but there is also a clear political goal in many of these attacks: the removal from Kosovo of non-ethnic Albanians in order to better justify an independent state.

Ethnic Albanians are not exempt from the violence. Albanians accused of "collaboration" with Serbian authorities have been beaten, abducted, or killed, notably in the municipalities of Prizren, Djakovica, and Klina. Attacks against political party activists, especially against the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), continued after municipal elections on October 28, 2000.

Role of the International Community

The slow response by the international community is partially to blame for the post-war violence; the U.N. and NATO failed to take decisive action from the outset to curb the forced displacement and killings of Kosovo's non-ethnic Albanian population, which set a precedent for the post-war period. In mid-1999, there were no more than a handful of U.N. police, leaving NATO's KFOR troops to perform civilian policing functions for which they were ill-prepared. NATO was largely preoccupied with protecting its own troops, rather than defending civilians. Two years after the war, a functioning judiciary system had not been established, which contributed to an atmosphere of impunity.

The familiar refrain from the United Nations is that poor security results from a lack of resources. It is true that there are insufficient funds to pay police, judges and prosecutors. But the more fundamental shortcoming is the lack of political will. Senior NATO and U. N. officials know that persons linked to the former KLA, including some of Kosovo's key political figures, are implicated in violence against minorities and in criminal activities, but they have chosen not to confront them.

The international community's errors in this regard are hardly their first in Kosovo. In the Background chapter, this report tracks the international community's response to the conflict since 1990. The West failed to support the Kosovar Albanians' peaceful movement from 1990 to 1998, concerned during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia with keeping Kosovo out of the headlines. The West essentially watched as the KLA emerged, the Yugoslav state responded forcefully, and the province slid toward armed conflict.

Throughout the conflict, the international community failed to develop a unified position to resolve the crisis. Slobodan Milosevic used this disharmony to his advantage, appearing to deal with one state, and then another, all the while buying time to advance his campaign. Members of the international community took advantage of the disunity as well, pointing to each other as the excuse for inaction. In the instances in which the international community strongly condemned the violence, words and symbolic action proved meaningless, with deadlines postponed, conditions abandoned, and sanctions poorly enforced or even withdrawn.

The report concludes that the international community's interest in preserving its political settlement in Bosnia and an allergy to altering international borders blinded it to the imperative of halting abuses before they escalated into open warfare. If the international community wanted to promote territorial integrity in the Balkans, it should have pressed for the national unity that comes from respect for the rights of all citizens-a respect that had been sorely lacking in Kosovo as well as in other parts of the Balkans. Permitting serious abuses to go unchallenged led to the regional instability that the international community had sought to avoid.

In the end, primary blame for the Kosovo tragedy must be placed on former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the then-Serbian and Yugoslav leadership, who not only failed to seek any peaceful compromises with the Albanians in Kosovo, but also devised and implemented a violent campaign against armed insurgents and civilians alike. As this report shows, all evidence points to their direct involvement in war crimes of the most serious nature.