index  |  next>>


For the last five years, so many internationals have come to study our problems that I can’t even count them anymore, and they have produced tons of reports and recommendations. In the end, the result was that I lost everything I have built for forty years, while the international community watched from a few hundred meters away. I don’t even have a single photograph left from my life. And now they tell me to go back and rebuild my life—how can I trust them?

- Displaced Serb resident of Svinjare

We always knew that Kosovo would not be invaded. KFOR is in Kosovo to protect against civil violence, disturbances, and ethnic violence. They don’t need tanks but riot gear and shields, and soldiers trained in dealing with public disorder. If KFOR was not prepared for such civil disorder, then why the heck not?  What did they think they were in Kosovo for?

- Senior UNMIK official

On March 17 and 18, 2004, violent rioting by ethnic Albanians took place throughout Kosovo, spurred by sensational and ultimately inaccurate reports that Serbs had been responsible for the drowning of three young Albanian children. For nearly forty-eight hours, the security structures in Kosovo—the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), the international U.N. (UNMIK) police, and the locally recruited Kosovo Police Service (KPS)—almost completely lost control, as at least thirty-three major riots broke out across Kosovo, involving an estimated 51,000 participants.

The violence across Kosovo represents the most serious setback since 1999 in the international community’s efforts to create a multi-ethnic Kosovo in which both the government and civil society respect human rights. From the capital Pristina/Prishtine,1 to cities like Prizren and Djakovica/Gjakove, to small villages like Slatina/Sllatine and Belo Polje/Bellopoje, large ethnic Albanian crowds acted with ferocious efficiency to rid their areas of all remaining vestiges of a Serb presence, and also targeted other minorities such as Roma, including Ashkali who are Albanian-speaking Roma. In many of the communities affected by violence, in attacks both spontaneous and organized, every single Serb, Roma, or Ashkali home was burned. In the village of Svinjare/Frasher, all 137 Serb homes were burned, but ethnic Albanian homes were left untouched. In nearby Vucitrn/Vushtrii, the ethnic Albanian crowd attacked the Ashkali community, burning sixty-nine Ashkali homes. In Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove, one Serb was beaten to death, and over one hundred Serb and Roma homes were burned, as well as the post office, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian school, and the Serbian hospital. Even the tiniest Serb presences were a target for the hostile crowds:  ethnic Albanian crowds attacked the Serbian Orthodox Church in Djakovica for hours, ultimately driving out five elderly Serb women who were the last remaining Serbs in Djakovica, from a pre-war population of more than 3,000.

The March violence forced out the entire Serb population from dozens of locations—including the capital Pristina—and equally affected Roma and Ashkali communities. After two days of rioting, at least 550 homes and twenty-seven Orthodox churches and monasteries were burned, leaving approximately 4,100 Serbs, Roma, Ashkali, and other non-Albanian minorities displaced. Some 2,000 persons still remain displaced months later, living in crowded and unsanitary conditions—including in unheated and unfinished apartments, crowded schools, tent camps on KFOR military bases, and even metal trucking containers. The future of minorities in Kosovo has never looked bleaker.

The security organizations in Kosovo—KFOR, UNMIK international police, and the KPS—failed catastrophically in their mandate to protect minority communities during the March 2004 violence. In numerous cases, minorities under attack were left entirely unprotected and at the mercy of the rioters. In Svinjare, French KFOR troops failed to come to the assistance of the besieged Serbs, even though their main base was just a few hundred meters away—in fact, the ethnic Albanian crowd had walked right past the base on its way to burning down the village. French KFOR troops similarly failed to respond to the rioting in Vucitrn, which is located in between two major French bases. In Prizren, German KFOR troops failed to deploy to protect the Serb population and the many historic Serbian Orthodox churches, despite calls for assistance from their UNMIK international police counterparts, who later accused German KFOR commanders of cowardice. In Kosovo Polje, UNMIK and KFOR were nowhere to be seen as Albanian crowds methodically burned Serb homes. The village of Belo Polje, rebuilt on the outskirts of Pec to house returning Serbs, was burned to the ground even though it was almost adjacent to the main Italian KFOR base. Italian KFOR soldiers refused to approach the besieged Serbs, forcing the Serbs to run for several hundred meters through a hostile Albanian crowd, before KFOR evacuated them. Several Serbs were wounded in the process. Even in the capital Pristina, Serbs were forced to barricade themselves into their apartments, while Albanian rioters shot at them and looted and burned the apartments below and around them, for up to six hours before KFOR and UNMIK came to their assistance.

The failure of UNMIK international police and KFOR to effectively respond to the violence left much of the security in the hands of the Kosovo Police Service (KPS). The locally recruited KPS, many of them only recently trained, were poorly equipped to deal with the violence. Some KPS officers acted professionally and courageously, risking their own lives to rescue besieged Serbs and other minorities in many towns and villages. However, many other KPS officers stood by passively as the ethnic Albanian crowds burned homes and attacked Serbs and other minorities, even when those attacks took place just meters away. Some KPS officers showed a clear bias by arresting only Serbs and other minorities who were defending their homes, while ignoring the criminal behavior of ethnic Albanians occurring in front of their eyes. In a few cases, KPS officers were accused of taking an active part in the burning of minority homes.

The international community appears to be in absolute denial about its own failures in Kosovo. While international actors have been universally—and accurately—critical of the failures of the Kosovo Albanian leadership during and after the crisis, the dismal performance of the international community has escaped similar critical scrutiny. Instead, the leadership of KFOR and UNMIK seem happy to continue with “business as usual,” rather than putting in place the reforms needed to prevent a recurrence of mass violence—and a renewed collapse of the security institutions in the future.

An exhaustive and transparent review of Kosovo’s security institutions, resulting in a drastic overhaul of its inefficient structures, is urgently needed. Kosovo’s security institutions need to be adequately staffed with personnel who are well trained and adequately equipped to respond to riot situations. A coordinated security system must be developed between KFOR, UNMIK, and the KPS, putting an end to inter-institutional tensions and rivalries. KFOR in particular must develop a unified command structure and a common response system to violence in Kosovo, abandoning the decentralized structures and widely disparate national doctrines that contributed to the chaos of March 17 and 18. Ultimately the security of minority communities will rest in the hands of locally created institutions such as the KPS—just as it did in many locations during March. It is essential to the future of minorities in Kosovo therefore that the KPS is developed into a truly professional, impartial, well-trained police service that sees protection of minorities as one of its core mandates.

The international community has lost tremendous ground in Kosovo as a result of the March violence: ethnic Albanian extremists now know that they can effectively challenge the international security structures, having demolished the notion of KFOR and UNMIK invincibility; and ethnic minorities have lost almost all of the remaining trust they had left in the international community. Time is running out for both the international community and minorities in Kosovo, and now is the time for resolute and transparent action to rectify the all-too obvious shortcomings of the international community’s security structures in Kosovo.

[1] For the sake of clarity and consistency, Human Rights Watch provides both the Serbian and Albanian name at first mention of location. Subsequent references are in the Serbian language only, since this is the English language practice (for example, Pristina and not Prishtine).

index  |  next>>July 2004