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The Sparks That Caused a Fire

While the March violence in Kosovo took almost everyone—local and international—by surprise, it did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. Deep dissatisfaction within Kosovo society about the lack of progress in resolving the final status of the province, continuing economic stagnation, and deepening concerns about Belgrade’s attempts to consolidate political control in some parts of Kosovo left the province ripe for unrest. The socio-economic and political conditions in Kosovo that contributed to the March violence have been detailed in a report by the International Crisis Group.34  The fate of the 3,430 persons missing since the end of 1999 war also remains an open wound in Kosovo. The issue of the missing is also a symbol of wider grievances, particularly among ethnic Albanians, who blame the lack of resolution on intransigence by Belgrade and inaction by UNMIK.35

Lack of progress toward accountability for post-war attacks on minorities—evidenced by the limited number of successful prosecutions of ethnic Albanians for violence against minorities—helped ensure a climate of impunity for political violence in Kosovo.36 At the same time, UNMIK arrests of former KLA commanders implicated in violence against other ethnic Albanians have frequently provoked large protests. Tensions rose further when a grenade exploded at the home of Kosovo’s President Ibrahim Rugova on March 12, causing damage to the home but no injuries.37 Against this simmering backdrop, several events converged in mid-March, greatly raising tensions in Kosovo, and ultimately exploding into open violence.

The Shooting of Jovica Ivic in Caglavica

At about 8 p.m. on March 15, unknown attackers fired from a car at an eighteen-year-old Serb, Jovica Ivic, at the Serb village of Caglavica on the outskirts of Pristina. Ivic was seriously wounded, with gunshot wounds to the stomach and arm. Ivic claimed that he knew the attackers were ethnic Albanian, because they had shouted at him in Albanian-accented Serbian prior to the shooting.38 In response to the shooting, Serb villagers blocked the main Pristina-Skopje road that passes through Caglavica, as well as the Pristina-Gnjilane road that passes through the Serb enclave of Gracanica. Some Albanian drivers passing through the area were reportedly attacked and beaten by Serbs, as was an Irish KFOR contingent that tried to dismantle the Caglavica roadblock.39

The blocking of the main Pristina-Skopje highway, an economic lifeline for Kosovo, enraged the Albanian public, as evident from the statements by Albanian political leaders who criticized the inability (or unwillingness) of the international community to deal with the blockade. When the violence erupted in Kosovo, many ethnic Albanian leaders focused on the blockade—defined as interference in the “freedom of movement” of ethnic Albanians—as a key cause of the violence. For example, Arsim Bajrami, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) caucus leader in Parliament, stated during the parliamentary debate on the violence on March 17: “We are dissatisfied with how UNMIK operates, especially with the inability to establish full freedom of movement in Kosovo.”40  The blockade at Caglavica proved to be one of the first focal points for the ethnic Albanian demonstrators on March 17 and 18, and the site of some of the heaviest clashes between KFOR and ethnic Albanians (see below).

Why did the blockade provoke such strong sentiments?  The issue of the blockade in Caglavica and Gracanica cannot be separated from growing concerns among the ethnic Albanian community about the rise of Belgrade-sponsored “parallel” institutions in Serb enclaves. Over the past few years, the Serbian authorities in Belgrade have effectively maintained control over most of the majority Serb enclaves in Kosovo, establishing “parallel” courts, schools, education, security structures, and medical facilities that operate outside the control of UNMIK.41 Even though the creation the parallel institutions is a direct challenge to UNMIK’s mandate in Kosovo, the response of UNMIK to this fundamental undermining of its mandate institutions in Mitrovica, Gracanica, and other Serb enclaves has been weak. The failure of UNMIK to effectively challenge the creation of “parallel” institutions seriously worries the ethnic Albanian leadership, who fear that Belgrade is trying to create facts on the ground that would make its aim of cantonizing Kosovo an inevitable result. However, the Albanian viewpoint ignores the reality of life for many Serbs in Kosovo, who find access to Albanian-dominated essential services almost impossible because of discriminatory practices.42

The Role of the “War Associations”

On March 16, 2004, the so-called “war associations”—three interconnected organizations representing the KLA’s war veterans, KLA invalids, and the families of the missing—organized widespread demonstrations in almost every ethnic Albanian city and town in Kosovo to protest the arrest and detention of former KLA leaders on domestic and international war crime charges. The demonstrations gained a particular vigor because of the February 2004 arrests by UNMIK police of four former KLA commanders, including the Prizren commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps,43 General Selim Krasniqi, on charges relating to the murder of fellow Albanians during the 1998-9 Kosovo conflict.44 

During many of the rallies, speakers came close to inciting the crowds to rise up against UNMIK in protest against the detention of KLA leaders. The head of the disabled war veterans association of Mitrovica, Faik Fazliu, told demonstrators in the town on March 16 that “the continuation of the discriminatory policy of UNMIK towards the members of the former KLA will destabilize this region and that situation might get out of control as a result of citizens’ revolt and indignation.”45 Faton Klinaku, the head of the three war associations, told a crowd in Pristina on the same date that with the arrests of the KLA members, “the neo-colonialists called UNMIK are supporting organized crime and are continuing the same politics applied by Serbia.”46 Nexhmi Lajci, the president of the association of war veterans in Pec/Peja, came close to calling for a new war, telling the audience, “Kosovo has been occupied [by UNMIK] as it used to be once [by Serbia] and there is a fear that it is moving towards a new war.”47 The ugly mood of the pro-KLA protests, which were attended by some 18,000 protesters Kosovo-wide, was perhaps well-summed up by a headline in the nationalist newspaper Epoka e Re, which splashed a slogan heard at the rally on its front page: “UNMIK beware, KLA will burn you down.”48 During the protests in Prizren, demonstrators stoned the UNMIK headquarters, wounding one UNMIK civilian police officer.49

While the pro-KLA protests of March 16 did not directly lead to the March 17-18 violence, they did help lay the foundation for the protests that followed the next day, after the sensational reports of the drowning of the three Albanian children reached the public—reports which appeared in the same issues of the newspapers that reported on the pro-KLA protests. With their vast organizing structures throughout Kosovo, and the fact that they had organized Kosovo-wide protests throughout Kosovo, the war associations were uniquely positioned to direct and capitalize on the violence that followed.

The Drowning of Three Boys in the Ibar River

The March 15 shooting of Jovica Ivic in Caglavica and the Serb road blockade that followed, combined with the pro-KLA protests on March 16, significantly raised tensions in Kosovo. As the pro-KLA protests were winding down, the ethnic Albanian media began broadcasting inflammatory reports that three young Albanian children had been chased into the Ibar River by Serbs on the afternoon of March 16, and had drowned. As a detailed report by the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media later showed, the ethnic Albanian media played an irresponsible, inflammatory role, broadcasting information that was still unconfirmed: the surviving ethnic Albanian boy never publicly stated that the group were chased into the river by Serbs, only that the young Albanian boys had been sworn at by Serbs from a distant house. The interpretation that the boys were chased in the river by Serbs came from other sources, such as Halit Berani, a Mitrovica-based ethnic Albanian human rights activist (see below). Such subtleties didn’t matter to the private and public state-funded media, who began broadcasting and printing unequivocal reports that the ethnic Albanian boys had been chased into the river by Serbs.50

Moderating voices, such as the UNMIK spokesperson Tracy Becker, who warned that an ethnic motivation for the incident had not been established, received almost no airtime, while “experts” who denounced the Serb “bandits” were given unfettered and unchallenged access. For example, Halit Berani, the chairman of the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms in Mitrovica—an ethnic Albanian human rights group with a strongly nationalist agenda—was given more than 4 minutes of the RTK news broadcast, compared to the 12 seconds given to the moderate UNMIK spokesperson (see above). Berani, who had not witnessed the incident, told the audience:

Today around 16:00 in the village of Cabrё (Cabra in Serbian), Zubin Potok municipality, while six children from the above mentioned village were playing, a group of Serb bandits attacked these children, the Serb bandits also had a dog, and [were] swearing at their Albanian mothers, they forced the Albanian children to run away. Two of them managed to hide in the roots of the willow trees by the river Lumebardh (Ibar river in Serbian), whereas the other four fell into the river. It is known that the Lumebardh river, apart from being very deep, has very cold water and is fast-moving. Most probably, the children couldn’t swim well. There is no information about the fate of three of them, whereas one survived after making it to the other side of the river…

We are used to these Serb bandits….We think that it is in revenge for what happened in Caglavica [i.e. shooting of Serb], the case that showed what the Serbs are willing to do when the situation is getting calm in Kosova.51

The sensational reporting on the Serb “bandits” drowning young Albanian children set off a firestorm of protests and violence across Kosovo. However, while the drowning of the three children was a tragedy, a thorough investigation by the United Nations and a respected ethnic Albanian judge from Kosovo casts serious doubt on the allegations of Serb complicity in the drownings, citing inconsistencies in the accounts given by the surviving boy, and a lack of corroboration of the boy’s account by the two other surviving children and an elderly Serb who was working in the area. The U.N. investigative team did a thorough search of the area where the drownings took place, and could not find any Serbs who fitted the description given by the surviving boy.52

[34] International Crisis Group (ICG), Collapse in Kosovo, April 2004.

[35] UNMIK Office of Missing Persons and Forensics, OMPF Statistics, June 9, 2004 [online], (retrieved June 23, 2004). According to UNMIK, 2,564 of the missing are ethnic Albanians, 570 and Serbs and 206 from other groups.

[36] An analysis of the functioning of the justice system in Kosovo is beyond the scope of this paper. For a discussion of some of the shortcomings of the judicial system in Kosovo see:  OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Department of Human Rights and Rule of Law, “Human Rights Challenges following the March Riots,” May 25, 2004, pp. 7-14.

[37] United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo,” April 30, 2004, para 7. U.N. Doc. S/2004/348.

[38] “Angry Serbs Protest Shooting of Teenager,” Agence France Presse, March 16, 2004.

[39] Conor Lanny, “Kosovar Serbs Stone Irish UN troops,” Irish Times, March 17, 2004.

[40] OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklós Haraszti, “The Role of the Media in the March 2004 Events in Kosovo,” April 2004, p. 8.

[41] See OSCE Mission in Kosovo - Department of Human Rights and Rule of Law, Parallel Structures in Kosovo, October 2003.

[42] See OSCE and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Tenth Assessment of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo (Period covering May 2002 to December 2002),” March 2003.

[43] The Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) was created following the 1999 war to absorb demobilized KLA members. See Background section of this report.

[44] Shaban Buza, “UN Police Arrest Four Kosovo former Guerrillas,” Reuters, February 16, 2004.

[45] UNMIK Media Monitoring: Local Media, March 17, 2004 [online], (retrieved July 6, 2004).

[46] KosovaLive, “UNMIK applying Serb Laws to Punish Fighters, Say Protesters,” March 16, 2004.

[47] UNMIK Media Monitoring: Local Media, March 17, 2004.

[48] OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklós Haraszti, “The Role of the Media in the March 2004 Events in Kosovo,” April 2004.

[49] United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo,” April 30, 2004, para 6. U.N. Doc. S/2004/348.

[50] RTV 21, an independent broadcaster, led their evening report on March 16 with the following: “Two Serbs chased four Albanian children today around 16:00 in the village of Caber and, while trying to escape from them, the Albanian children jumped in the Ibar river.”   RTK, the public broadcaster, began its news with the following: “Three Albanian children, Florent Veseli, 8 years old, Avni Veseli, 11 years old, and Egzon Deliu, 12 years old, went missing in the waters of the Ibar river, meanwhile Fitim Veseli, 14 years old, has been found. They are victims of an attack by a group of Serbs in the village of Caber…”  See OSCE, “The Role of the Media,” pp. 7-8.

[51] Ibid, p. 10.

[52] UNMIK Press Briefing, April 28, 2004 [online], (retrieved July 6, 2004). The U.N. investigators canvassed the houses in Donje Zupce village, where the two young Serb men had reportedly come from, and found that the residents were predominately elderly Serbs: “The residents of the village are primarily older Serbs, and, with their children accounted for, no young Serb males fitting the descriptions provided were identified.”

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