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On March 17, 2004, violent rioting by ethnic Albanian crowds broke out in Kosovo, a day after ethnic Albanian news agencies in Kosovo reported sensational and ultimately inaccurate reports that three young children had drowned after being chased into the river by Serbs.2  With lighting speed, the crowd violence spread all over Kosovo, with the Kosovo authorities counting thirty-three major riots involving an estimated 51,000 participants over the next two days.3  Large ethnic Albanian crowds targeted Serb4 and other non-Albanian communities, burning at least 550 homes and twenty-seven Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, and leaving approximately 4,100 Serbs, Roma, Ashkali (Albanian-speaking Roma), and other non-Albanian minorities5 displaced.6  Nineteen people—eight Kosovo Serbs and eleven Kosovo Albanians—were  killed, and over a thousand wounded—including more than 120 KFOR soldiers and UNMIK police officers, and fifty-eight Kosovo Police Service (KPS) officers.

The violence of March 2004 was not the first time non-Albanians came under attack in Kosovo. During the 1999 conflict between NATO and Yugoslavia over Kosovo, Kosovar Albanians were subjected to a systematic campaign of mass murder, rape, forced expulsions, and other war crimes committed by Serb and Yugoslav forces.7  When ethnic Albanians returned to Kosovo with the entry of NATO, Kosovo’s Serb, Roma, and other minorities were immediately subjected to violence, causing a massive outflow of non-Albanians from Kosovo.8 High levels of violence against non-Albanian communities—much of it politically-motivated and organized—continued for months, with the international troop presence and U.N. administration largely ineffective in stopping the violence.

While the intensity of the violence in the immediate post-war period subsided, Serbs and other minorities continued to be regularly attacked in Kosovo. For example, on August 31, 2003, a grenade was thrown at a group of Serbs in the mixed village of Cernica/Cernice, near Gnjilane/Gjilan, killing a thirty-five-year-old schoolteacher, Miomar Savic, and wounding four other Serbs. On August 13, 2003, two Serb youth aged eleven and twenty were killed with automatic weapons while swimming in a river near the Serbian enclave of Gorazdevac/Gorazhdec.9 On June 3, 2003, eighty-year-old Slobodan Stolic, his seventy-eight-year-old wife Radmila, and their fifty-three-year-old son Ljubinko were axed to death in their Obilic/Obiliq home, which was then set alight.10 In April 2003, Amnesty International released a detailed report on attacks against minorities in Kosovo, concluding that

[a]lmost four years after the end of the war in Kosovo, minority communities are still at risk of killings and assaults, mostly at the hands of the majority community in their area. On a daily basis, they are denied effective redress for acts of violence and other threats to their physical and mental integrity.11

The insecure environment in which Serbs found themselves in Kosovo led to the flight of almost the entire Serb population in many urban centers. For example, the Serb population of the town of Djakovica dropped from an estimated 3,000 in 1999, to just five elderly Serb women prior to the March events.12 The remaining elderly Serb women, living under constant KFOR protection in and around a church, were the focus of protests in the town in March 2004. Similarly, the Serb population of Prizren—once one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in Kosovo—dropped from nearly 9,000 before the 1999 war to just thirty-six in 2003.13 All of the remaining thirty-six Serbs in downtown Prizren were burned out of their homes during the March 2004 violence. Serbs in rural villages were less likely to flee, particularly impoverished elderly who had no remaining family support networks outside Kosovo.

Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians (Roma who claim descent from ancient Egypt)—referred to collectively as RAE communities—also faced violence, intimidation, and forcible expulsion in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict. Some ethnic Albanians suspected that some RAE had collaborated with the Serb and Yugoslav forces during the 1999 conflict, and ethnic Albanians were not above the widespread anti-RAE sentiments that prevail in Europe, where RAE communities are derisively known as “Gypsies.”  In the immediate aftermath of the 1999 conflict, RAE homes were burned alongside Serb homes, and RAE communities also faced deadly attacks, kidnappings, and other forms of violence.

The Belgrade-sponsored Coordination Center for Kosovo and Metohija, which has been intimately involved in the setting up of parallel structures for the Serb population of Kosovo, estimated in 2003 that almost 130,000 Serbs remained in Kosovo, a figure that correlates with independent estimates made by the Brussels-based European Stability Initiative.14 Although population figures for Kosovo are notoriously unreliable, these figures suggest that as much as two-thirds of Kosovo’s pre-1999 Serb population remains in Kosovo. It is important to note, however, that many remaining Serbs are internally displaced to Serb-dominated areas of Kosovo.

This report attempts to reconstruct the March 2004 violence that shattered the illusion of a stable and multi-ethnic Kosovo. During a two-week mission to Kosovo in April 2004, Human Rights Watch  located and interviewed dozens of eyewitnesses and victims from the majority of the worst-affected areas in Kosovo, including Pristina, Mitrovica/Mitrovice, Obilic, Kosovo Polje, Vucitrn, Svinjare, Djakovica, Prizren, Belo Polje, Decani/Deçan) and Lipljan/Lipjan, among others. The report describes the abuses committed by Kosovar Albanians, and the impact of their actions on non-Albanian communities throughout Kosovo. The report also analyzes the role of local and international actors during the crisis, including the Kosovar Albanian leadership, the local press, the local security structures, and in particular the U.N. interim administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the KFOR.

[2] See below, Chapter V, Section C, “The Drowning of Three Boys in the Drine River,” for a detailed discussion.

[3] “U.N. Details Wide Scale of Kosovo Violence,” Reuters, March 22, 2004.

[4] The term “Serb” is used in this report to refer to persons of ethnic Serb origin living in Kosovo. The term “Serbian” would apply to citizens of the state of Serbia and Montenegro or formal entities, such as the Serbian Orthodox Church or the Serbian language. The term “ethnic Albanian” refers to ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.

[5] Some ethnic minorities in Kosovo, such as ethnic Turks, were not targeted by the violence.

[6] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Kosovo, Department of Human Rights and Rule of Law, “Human Rights Challenges Following the March Riots,” p. 4.

[7] For a detailed history of the war crimes committed by Serb and Yugoslav forces during the Kosovo conflict, see Human Rights Watch, Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001).

[8] Human Rights Watch, “Abuses Against Serbs and Roma in the New Kosovo,” August 1999. Not all departures of Serbs and other non-Albanians from Kosovo were a direct result of anti-minority violence. Some Serbs and other non-Albanians departed from Kosovo or resettled in majority Serb areas immediately after the 1999 conflict, either because they feared future mistreatment, or because they made a conscious decision they did not want to live in an ethnic-Albanian dominated state, or, for a minority of those leaving, because they feared future prosecution for crimes committed by themselves during the conflict.

[9] BBC News, “UN acts over Kosovo killings,” August 14, 2003 [online], (retrieved July 6, 2004). Beta, “Gorazdevac Victims Laid to Rest,” August 13, 2003.

[10] “Three Serbs Murdered in Kosovo: UN,” Agence France Presse, June 4, 2003.

[11] Amnesty International, “Serbia and Montenegro (Kosovo/Kosova): Minority Communities: Fundamental Rights Denied,” AI Index EUR 70/011/2003, April 1, 2003 [online],

[12] OSCE, Gjakove/Djakovica: Municipal Profile, October 2003.

[13] OSCE, Prizren: Municipal Profile, October 2003. The OSCE estimates the December 2002 Serbian population of Prizren at 194, but this includes the Serbian population of several Serbian enclaves outside the city. The actual Serbian population of the city of Prizren prior to the violence was only thirty-six.

[14] Kosovo Coordination Centre, Principi organizavanja samouprave nacionalnih zajednice na Kosovu i Metohiji (“Principles of the Organization of Self-Rule of the National Communities in Kosovo”) (Belgrade: January 2003) (estimating 129,474 Serbs remained in Kosovo in 2002); European Stability Initiative, The Lausanne Principle: Multiethnicity, Territory and the Future of Kosovo’s Serbs, June 7, 2004.

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