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The Violence: Ethnic Albanian Attacks on Serbs and Roma

Was the Violence Spontaneous or Organized?

The March violence in Kosovo involved more than 50,000 rioters, and international officials quickly described the violence as organized by ethnic extremists. UNMIK spokesperson Derek Chappell described the acts of violence as having “a degree of organization behind them.” On March 23, during a visit to the violence-affected city of Obilic, UNMIK head Harri Holkeri stated that Albanian extremists “had a ready-made plan” for the violence.62 During his March 22 visit to Kosovo, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer described the “unacceptable” violence as “orchestrated and organized by extremist factions in the Albanian community.”63 Visiting Kosovo just days after the March violence, the European Union’s foreign policy representative Javier Solana also described the violence as organized: “It may have been a moment of spontaneity, but ... a lot of people (were) organized to take advantage of that moment of spontaneity.”64 Admiral Gregory Johnson, the commander of NATO forces for Southern Europe, a command which includes the NATO-led KFOR troops in Kosovo, stated that there was a “modicum of organization” behind the violence and described the violence as “essentially amount[ing] to ethnic cleansing.”65 In his report to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that “the onslaught led by Kosovo Albanian extremists against the Serb, Roma and Ashkali communities of Kosovo was an organized, widespread, and targeted campaign.”66

In fact, the March violence in Kosovo was both spontaneous and organized. A major reason why the demonstrations grew so quickly and became so violent is that many Kosovar Albanians, especially young people, were frustrated and, in the words of one Pristina-based diplomat, “in the mood to demonstrate.”67 The main component of most of the crowds were young ethnic Albanians, many of whom came of age after the 1999 conflict, and who feel deeply marginalized and frustrated by the lack of opportunities provided by Kosovo’s stagnating economy. The fact that many ordinary ethnic Albanians rapidly went out in the streets and joined in spontaneous violence against their ethnic Serb and Roma neighbors presents an even greater challenge to the possibility of a multi-ethnic Kosovo than the alternative scenario of ethnic violence organized by a minority of ethnic Albanian extremists. Disturbingly, the 1999 conflict has left behind a large number of individuals deeply familiar with ethnic violence, both as victims and perpetrators. In other words, all too many individuals in Kosovo know well how to burn down their neighbor’s house—with or without organization behind such violence.

Yet while the majority of the ethnic Albanian rioters probably came to join the protests spontaneously, there is little doubt that some ethnic Albanian extremist elements worked to organize and accelerate the violence. As with the 1998-99 actions against Serb and Yugoslav forces by KLA, most of these extremist elements organized on the local rather than the regional level, and their affiliations varied from town to town. Some were radical members of ethnic Albanian political parties, others had belonged to the KLA, and some were members of fringe groups such as the shadowy “Albanian National Army” whose initials (AKSh, Armata Kombetare Shqiptare) were often found spray-painted at the sites of rioting.

Both the spontaneous and organized elements behind the violence acted with a common purpose: to get rid of remaining ethnic Serb and other minority communities in Kosovo. Once the violence began, it swept throughout Kosovo with almost clinical precision:  after two days of rioting, every single Serb, Roma, or Askaeli home had been burned in most of the communities affected by the violence, but neighboring ethnic Albanian homes were left untouched.

The Mitrovica and Caglavica Clashes

The violence in Kosovo started, as it had many times before, at the Mitrovica bridge which divides the ethnic Serb north of the town from the ethnic Albanian south. Although violence was a predictable outcome of the preceding events, KFOR and UNMIK appear to have been caught unprepared on the morning of the 17th.

An international newsphotographer explained to Human Rights Watch that when he arrived in Mitrovica at about 10:45 a.m., a demonstration of ethnic Albanian school children was marching up and down the road leading to the bridge.68 A symbol of the town’s division, the bridge has been a flashpoint in past violence. The march was organized by Albanian teachers to protest the alleged drowning of the three children the day before.69 KPS officers and a few UNMIK police were manning a small crowd control barrier blocking the road to the bridge. Suddenly, a large crowd of Albanian men came from behind the children, shouting “To the bridge!  To the bridge!” and ran towards the bridge, immediately overwhelming the KPS/UNMIK barrier. The KPS and UNMIK officers attempted to regroup on the bridge, using their truncheons to beat back the crowd, and were joined by a group of fifteen or so Jordanian UNMIK riot control police. The international news photographer explained what happened next:

I began to run with the crowd, and as we approached the bridge I could see an incomplete barricade of crowd control barriers, and a handful of police, KPS and UNMIK. As the crowd came onto the bridge these police tried to stop them from crossing but were totally outnumbered, I then noticed that there was nothing behind this handful of police to stop the crowd. It would be usual in these situations in Mitrovica to have KFOR troops blocking the bridge, but on that day there was not a single soldier on the bridge. The Albanian demonstrators seemed as surprised as I was and many of them faltered halfway across and seemed pretty unsure what to do, but the ringleaders were shouting them forward, so they went on to the Serb side.70

Once across the bridge, the Albanians began to attack the Dolce Vita restaurant adjacent to the bridge on the north side, and nearby cars. The restaurant was a popular hang-out for the Serb nationalist “bridge-watchers” in the immediate post-war period.  Serb residents of Mitrovica quickly came to fight the Albanians, and UNMIK also regrouped to push the Albanians back across the bridge about fifteen minutes later. KFOR did not arrive in the area until after the Albanians had been pushed back across the bridge.

At the same time, a group of several hundred Albanians had gone onto a second bridge and begun throwing stones at Serb homes. They were unable to cross the bridge completely because of the presence of permanently stationed KFOR troops on the bridge, reinforced with UNMIK police. At least one grenade was thrown from the Serb side, wounding at least seven Albanians and some French KFOR troops. Almost immediately, two armed Albanian men ran towards the bridge with AK-47s assault rifles and started shooting at the Serb side.71 Intense exchanges of gunfire followed, leaving four Albanians dead and many more wounded, and further inflaming Albanian sentiment across Kosovo.72 UNMIK police sources later claimed that the French soldiers had refused to use their stun grenades to stop the crowd, and had no ammunition to return fire when the two Albanian gunmen approached the bridge and began firing.73

The Serb blockade of the Caglavica road was the next flashpoint, as Albanians from the central region of Kosovo reacted to the news of the fighting and deaths in Mitrovica. Students from the University of Pristina received flyers encouraging them to join the protests in Caglavica. Some of the heaviest clashes between Albanian crowds and international KFOR and UNMIK troops took place at Caglavica, as KFOR and UNMIK tried to keep thousands of ethnic Albanians from entering the village and the large Serb enclave around it. On the main highway, a battle continued from early afternoon until late evening, and the international troops took significant fire from the Albanian side. Swedish KFOR troops were reinforced by U.S. Marines towards nightfall, and the international troops were able to prevent the ethnic Albanian crowd from reaching Caglavica—barely.

The heavy fighting at Caglavica continued the next day. Albanian militants continued to clash throughout the day with the reinforced KFOR troops—who had now barred the road with razor wire. KFOR troops were regularly fired upon, and four Albanians were shot dead by the KFOR troops.74 In the evening, Prime Minister Rexhepi and several of his cabinet ministers went to meet with the crowd, appealing on them to stop, and the crowd dispersed just minutes later.75

Attacks against Serbs and Roma, and the Failure to Protect

The fighting in Mitrovica and Caglavica received significant media attention, creating the impression that most of the fighting in Kosovo was between ethnic Albanians and international UNMIK and KFOR troops and that the international community had responded robustly to the violence. However, at the same time, a massive wave of violence was sweeping across Kosovo, targeting Serb and other non-Albanian communities. Unlike in Caglavica where the international troops mounted a sustained defense, non-Albanian minorities throughout Kosovo were often left at the mercy of the attacks by ethnic Albanians, without significant protection from KFOR or UNMIK troops.


Almost no Serbs continued to live in the capital Pristina after the 1999 war, except for a few isolated elderly Serbs who chose to continue living in their homes, and several dozen Serb families who lived in the so-called YU Program apartments in the Ulpiana district of Pristina. The families living in the YU Program apartments included Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, for whom the apartments were originally built in the mid-1990s, as well as Serbs displaced after the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, and some Serbs who were working for various international organizations in Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanian protests from Pristina appeared to have been well organized on March 17, although they initially focused on exhorting ethnic Albanians to join the protests at Caglavica rather than on Pristina itself. At the University of Pristina, students found leaflets in their dormitories urging them to join the protests, signed on behalf of the “organizing council.”  At the municipality buildings in Pristina, university officials including the President of the Independent Union of Students of the University of Pristina (UPSUP) Gani Morina and University of Pristina Rector Zejnel Kelmendi addressed thousands of students, “alterna[ting] between exhorting and placating the crowd’s emotion.”76  Throughout the day, the momentum of the protests continued to grow.

When the crowds began to return to Pristina in the evening from the pitched battles at Caglavica with KFOR and UNMIK troops, they focused their attention on the YU Program apartment buildings that housed most of Pristina’s remaining Serbs. Shortly after 7 p.m., Milanka Stefanovic was preparing to put her eight-year-old daughter to bed when she heard a crowd of several hundred Albanians gather outside, yelling “UCK, UCK (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves; the Albanian name of the Kosovo Liberation Army),” telling the residents to “Go to Serbia,” and threatening to kill them.77  The apartments came under sustained attack from the crowd, until the last Serbs were evacuated sometime around 1 a.m. The crowd shot at the building, set apartments on fire, and beat and stabbed some of the Serb residents.

Trapped in a few apartments, some with reinforced doors, the Serbs living in the YU Program apartment building could smell the smoke from the burning apartments below them. One of the residents, Dragan Smiljanic, was caught by a group of ethnic Albanians while fleeing his apartment, and stabbed in the face.78  Outside in the hallways, Serb residents heard ethnic Albanian crowds rampage through the building, looting the apartments and setting them on fire. Zivka Savic, a forty-seven-year-old woman, recalled:

Albanians were coming from everywhere, arriving even in taxis. We heard pistol and rifle shots. Meanwhile, we kept calling for help, but no one would come. My grandchild was lying down and a bullet came into the room, hitting the ceiling and then his mattress. The crowd was destroying everything, and we didn’t know what would happen to us.79

It took KFOR and UNMIK until at least 10 p.m. to respond to the calls for help from the trapped Serbs. Many of the YU building residents were not evacuated until around 1 a.m., six hours after they had first come under attack.

All of the Serbs interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained that they repeatedly telephoned UNMIK and KFOR, as soon as the attack began, and made further calls during the evening, begging UNMIK and KFOR to come rescue them. Two Irish KFOR vehicles managed to make their way through the hostile crowd and reach the besieged YU Program apartment building, sometime after 10 p.m., three hours after the attack started. Irish KFOR temporarily dispersed the crowd by firing in the air.80 The KFOR troops managed to evacuate the children and other vulnerable persons, but could not evacuate all of the residents.81 A combined KFOR and UNMIK police evacuation team was subsequently beaten back several times by the ethnic Albanian crowd,82 and only managed to return to the building after 1 a.m., six hours after the attack began. The ethnic Albanian crowd attacked the vehicles that were evacuating the Serbs, stoning the vehicles and attempting to block their path with overturned garbage containers.83

Violence against Serbs and Serb buildings in Pristina continued on March 18. On the evening of March 18, a crowd of ethnic Albanians, most of them young people, attacked the St. Nicolas Orthodox Church in the old part of town. KPS and Italian UNMIK troops mounted an ineffective and uncoordinated defense of the Church, with Italian UNMIK accidentally firing tear gas at the KPS officers and also shooting a KPS officer three times.84  At about 8 p.m., the Italian UNMIK was able to disperse the two hundred or so ethnic Albanians surrounding the church by firing in the air, but then immediately began to evacuate the priest of the church as well the five Serb homes on the street nearby.85  Almost immediately after the Italian UNMIK departed, the ethnic Albanian rioters returned and burned the church. In the following days, the evacuated Serb homes were progressively looted. When sixty-eight-year-old Stefanka Tisma returned to check on his evacuated home two weeks later, he found that his home had been completely looted, that all the electrify wires had been cut, and that the looters had flooded the house by turning on the water taps.86


Protests began in Lipljan around 4 or 5 p.m. on March 17, as large crowds of ethnic Albanians began to gather at a downtown high school. The crowd initially tried to enter the Serb village of Suvi Do but were stopped by KFOR, then turning their attention to the Serb neighborhoods of Lipljan.

Most Serbs in the Lipljan area live in nine exclusively Serb villages around the town, but the town itself has two significantly Serb areas, the exclusively Serb neighborhood of Kisa located around the Serb Orthodox Church and the mixed Serb-Albanian neighborhood of Bestin. Like Pristina and Obilic, Lipjan also has a YU Program apartment building located in Bestin, originally built in the mid-1990s to house Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, but now inhabited mostly by displaced Serbs from Kosovo.

Although there were Finnish KFOR troops and KPS police officers present in the Kisa on March 17, the ethnic Albanian crowd overwhelmed them and began attacking Serb homes and the Orthodox Church, throwing stones through the windows of the homes. KPS officers remained passive until two hand grenades exploded, one in the churchyard and another in the yard of a neighboring home. Almost immediately, the KPS officers moved to arrest the Orthodox priest and his neighbor, accusing them of throwing the hand grenades, even though both were bleeding from wounds received from the grenades and told the KPS the hand grenades had been thrown by the Albanian crowd.87  However, the Finnish KFOR managed to regain some control over Kisa, assisted by the fact that the area was permanently sealed off by razor wire, and managed to prevent the whole-sale burning of Serb homes in Kisa.

Worse violence took place in the mixed Bestin neighborhood in the town. Joka Vesic, a seventy-year-old Serb living on the fourth floor of the YU Program building, could see clearly what the crowd was doing:

Three KPS officers were walking behind the crowd, with their hands behind their backs. The KPS officers didn’t take an active part, but they also didn’t stop them. There was no KFOR or UNMIK presence. ….The crowd passed through the main road towards where our building is located and the Serb houses are. They immediately started burning the Serb homes while the Albanian homes were marked with red paint saying “UCK”  I clearly saw them light the bottle [gasoline bomb], then they broke the window, and threw it in through the window.88

Rioters killed one Serb, fifty-four-year-old Nenad Vesic, as he was trying to flee his home with his family. According to his cousin Joka Vesic, who watched the killing from his fourth-floor apartment, Nenad Vesic was shot as he exited from his home, in front of his sister and mother.89 KPS officers were nearby at the time of the shooting, according to Joka Vesic, but did not arrest any suspects.

After attacking the Serb homes in Bestin, the ethnic Albanian crowd began attacking the YU Program apartment building. Unable to enter because of the armored doors in the building, the Albanians then went into an adjacent apartment building inhabited by ethnic Albanians, and were able to gain access to the YU Program building via the roof. At that moment, KFOR troops arrived to evacuate the trapped Serbs at the YU Program building, taking them to the now secured Kisa neighborhood.90  Finnish KFOR also evacuated the Serbs from their homes in the Bestin neighborhood, moving them to the yard of the Kisa church compound.91

The next day, Albanian arsonists burned all the remaining Serb homes in the Bestin neighborhood, apparently unimpeded by KFOR, UNMIK, or KPS. Twenty-eight family homes were burned in Lipljan.92


The village of Svinjare was among the worst affected by the March violence. Svinjare is an ethnic Serb village located just south of Mitrovica. According to a count by French military officials, all 137 Serb homes in Svinjare were destroyed by ethnic Albanian rioters. The destruction of Svinjare is particularly shocking in light of the fact that the main French KFOR logistics base, Camp Belvedere, is located only some five hundred meters from the village. French KFOR failed to make a serious effort to protect Svinjare, even though the ethnic Albanian crowd that destroyed the village walked right past the base.

Trouble began in Svinjare around 3 p.m. on March 18, when several hundred ethnic Albanians began walking towards Svinjare after burning a Serbian Orthodox Church in South Mitrovica. Milos Antic, a forty-eight-year-old Serb farmer, recalled watching the ethnic Albanian crowd approach the village: “We saw that the huge mass was approaching from the [road past] the barracks, the French military base. I’m not sure what the soldiers were doing, but [the ethnic Albanian crowd] passed right by the base.”93

When the ethnic Albanian crowd reached Svinjare, only two KFOR vehicles— manned by some fifteen Moroccan soldiers—were present in the village. The KFOR troops received orders to intercept and stop the protesters, and moved to the edge of the village nearest to the approaching Albanian crowd. Just before the Albanian protesters reached Svinjare, the Moroccan troops were joined by several UNMIK police vehicles that had raced ahead of the crowd in an attempt to prevent it from entering Svinjare.94  Despite the reinforcements, the protesters simply ran around the combined KFOR and UNMIK position and began setting Serb homes on fire: “The Albanian mass couldn’t use the main road, so they went off the road and started burning the homes with molotovs [gasoline bombs]. I saw how they were lighting the molotovs and throwing them at the houses.”95

At this early stage of the attack on Svinjare, the number of rioters was still relatively small, around 400 to 500 people. When a Polish UNMIK Special Police Unit arrived to reinforce the embattled KFOR and UNMIK troops, they were able to temporarily disperse the Albanian crowd and extinguish the flames in the six or seven Serb homes already set on fire.96 Still, the French KFOR soldiers at the nearby Belvedere Base did not assist in the defense of the village.

After the ethnic Albanian group was temporarily forced to disperse, the Serb villagers from Svinjare were shocked when the Polish UNMIK SPU commander and an American UNMIK police commander told them they would have to immediately evacuate Svinjare. The Polish UNMIK SPU commander told the Serb village leaders that there were problems all over Kosovo, and that his unit had only half an hour in Svinjare before they would have to leave to respond to other crises.97 According to Dragan Bjelica, who was a participant in the meeting, the Serb leaders requested to meet with the KFOR commanders at the nearby Belvedere Base to beg for protection. At the base they met a Belgian KFOR colonel who threw up his hands when they explained their homes were being set on fire and asked for security assistance. The Belgian colonel then suggested he could send fifty troops to Svinjare, but insisted the troops would have to stay together at the center and at the school in Svinjare, rather than spread out and protect the Serb homes.98

By the time the village leaders returned to Svinjare, unable to secure the KFOR assistance they needed to protect their homes, the ethnic Serb women and children had already been evacuated. As darkness began to fall, the Moroccan KFOR troops insisted that the men also had to leave the village, and evacuated them to the French base. Almost all of the Serbs of Svinjare left without having time to collect even the most basic of possessions.

When the last Serbs left Svinjare on March 18, most of their homes were still intact. During the night and the following day, the Albanian crowd was allowed to loot and burn the Serb homes of Svinjare without interference from the nearby KFOR base. In the end, every single Serb home in Svinjare was looted and burned, and their livestock killed. One Serb leader in the village bitterly described how the international community had failed him in a time of need:

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?99


In many areas of Kosovo, ethnic Albanian crowds attacked Serb residents for hours before international KFOR or UNMIK troops came to their assistance. Slatina, a small village located just southeast of Mitrovica with only thirteen remaining Serb homes at the time of the violence, is a case in point.

Vladimir Savic, a sixty-nine-year-old resident of Slatina, described how a small group of ethnic Albanians—many of them he recognized as fellow residents of Slatina and knew by name—began to gather around the Serb homes on the morning of March 18. Soon, a group of seven young Albanians from Slatina—including several sons of a local former KLA commander—began to throw stones at the Serb homes, almost all of them inhabited by elderly, retired Serbs. One of the sons of the former KLA commander from Slatina came to Savic’s home and told him: “Go to Serbia!  Kosovo is mine!  We cannot live together.” Savic tried to reason with him, explaining that he too had been born in the village, but was ordered to go inside his home. The homes came under increasingly fierce attack at about 2:30 p.m., and several of the elderly Serbs were beaten severely. Eighty-year-old Govoljub Savic lost an eye to a stone, and a second elderly Serb was badly wounded when he was hit on the head with a spade.100

KFOR failed to come to the assistance of the embattled elderly Serbs in Slatina. When the crowd first began to throw stones at the homes, a convoy of four French KFOR vehicles passed through the village, and the Serbs attempted to flag it down. The last KFOR vehicle briefly slowed down, and told the Serbs that they could not stop because they were on their way “to more serious trouble.”101 Shortly before 5 p.m., the Serbs were finally able to contact UNMIK police, which immediately responded by sending three cars.

The arrival of the UNMIK police had a dramatic effect on the behavior of the ethnic Albanian crowd: “The Albanians stopped putting houses on fire as soon as the police came.”102  After evacuating the wounded Serbs, the UNMIK police said they would stay the night, and were joined by KFOR troops shortly before nightfall. No further attacks occurred while UNMIK and KFOR were in Slatina.

The next morning, at about 10 a.m., the Serbs were told they would have to evacuate their homes. The remaining nine Serbs were evacuated in a single UNMIK police vehicle, effectively preventing them from taking any possessions because of space restrictions. The UNMIK officers reassured the Serbs that the evacuation was only temporary, and that KFOR troops would protect their homes. That promise proved empty. Only three homes had been burned by the time of the evacuation, but over the next days all thirteen of the Serb homes in the village were looted and burned to the ground.


Ethnic Serbs were not the only victims of the March violence. In many areas of Kosovo, Roma, Ashkali (Albanian-speaking Roma), and other non-Albanian minorities also faced violence. Among the most severe attacks was the burning of at least sixty-nine Ashkali homes together with a Serb Orthodox Church in Vucitrn. The town of Vucitrn is located south of Mitrovica. Even though Vucitrn is in close proximity to two major French KFOR bases—“Belvedere” and Novo Selo—KFOR or UNMIK did not take an active part in the defense of the Ashkali community in Vucitrn. The only security force that played a significant role during the violence in Vucitrn was the predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo Police Service (KPS). While some KPS officers assisted in the evacuation of Ashkali residents, it appears that other KPS officers played an active part in the violence, arresting and abusing Ashkalis who attempted to defend their homes. According to some Ashkali, some KPS officers participated in the burning of Ashkali homes.

Before the 1999 war, some 350 Ashkali families lived in Vucitrn, many of them engaged in the butcher trade. After the war, many of the Ashkali were attacked by ethnic Albanians. At least five Ashkalis from the town were abducted and “disappeared” and more than a hundred Ashkali homes burned. Almost the entire Ashkali community of Vucitrn fled, with only ten to fifteen families deciding to stay. However, Ashkali families began to return to Vucitrn in 2001, and by March 2004, some seventy Ashkali families were again living in Vucitrn. Because of their prominent role in the butcher trade and the remittances of relatives working in western Europe, many of the Ashkali had significant wealth and built large homes, making them a target for criminal opportunists.

The violence in Vucitrn started at about 4 p.m. on March 18, when a group that included former KLA fighters burned and desecrated the St. Elias Serbian Orthodox Church in Vucitrn before joining up with a second group, reportedly led by ethnic Albanian criminal leaders, and attacking the Ashkali community.103 The crowd numbered about 400-500 and was mostly male, but continued to rapidly grow in size. The Moroccan KFOR contingent guarding the Orthodox Church had evacuated during the attack on the church, leaving Vucitrn without a KFOR presence.

As soon as the ethnic Albanian crowd reached the Ashkali neighborhood, they began burning homes:

They had all kinds of weapons—wooden sticks, axes, gardening tools, and bottles of petrol. I saw when the first Ashkali house was attacked. They pulled all the people out of the house and set it on fire. They ran immediately to the second house which had three stories. It had a tall wall and strong gates. They managed to jump the wall and open the gates, and the crowd came inside. …The members of that family fled to the second floor and locked the doors. The crowd immediately set the car on fire and then set the house on fire, while the family was still inside.104

Many of the Ashkali recalled the terror they felt when their homes were set on fire with their families inside and no-one came to help them. Nejib Cizmolli, a thirty-seven-year-old Ashkali butcher, recalled being trapped on the second floor of his burning home with eleven people, including children aged three, eight, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen.105

Almost all the Ashkali made repeated telephone calls to KFOR, UNMIK, and the local KPS police requesting assistance. Njazi Pllavci, a forty-seven-year-old Ashkali father of four who returned to Vucitrn from Serbia in November 2003, broke down in tears as he recalled the lack of KFOR or UNMIK presence: “We called the [KPS] police station maybe twenty times, asking them to come secure our houses as soon as possible. We asked for UNMIK and KFOR, but the KPS said they had left….If KFOR would have sent troops or tanks, what happened would not have happened.”106  The Ashkali village leader, Abdush Cizmolli, was equally scathing of KFOR and UNMIK: “Nobody is more to blame than KFOR and UNMIK. If they wanted to, with one tank they could have saved us—it would not have come to all these problems.”107

In private conversations with Human Rights Watch, French KFOR troops explained that the decision not to deploy to Vucitrn had been based on their conclusion that the Ashkali community was “militarily indefensible,” and that most French KFOR troops had been committed to the defense of northern Mitrovica. The view that Vucitrn was “militarily indefensible” points to a common problem with KFOR highlighted during Human Rights Watch’s research in Kosovo. KFOR contingents tend to see their engagement in traditional military terms rather than in more appropriate policing terms. In the case of Vucitrn, it is unlikely that KFOR would have had to militarily engage the largely unarmed Albanian crowd by opening fire or otherwise; crowd control tactics commonly used by civilian police could have had a significant impact. Furthermore, the Ashkali community in Vucitrn was easily defensible from a crowd control perspective, since Ashkali homes in the town were closely grouped with only a few access points.

The failure of KFOR and UNMIK to come to the defense of the Ashkali of Vucitrn left the security situation entirely in the hands of the ethnic Albanian KPS police. Ashkalis interviewed by Human Rights Watch consistently claimed that the KPS had refused to respond to the burning and rioting until some Ashkalis fired their rifles into the air to protect their homes. Almost immediately after the shooting, KPS officers came—to arrest and abuse Ashkalis they suspected of firing at the Albanian protesters. Xhemal Kelmendi, who lived in the house next to the home from which the shots rang out, was among those arrested and abused:

I was alone in the garden, my family was inside my house. Then I heard a big noise at my gate, and it was forced open by the crowd. I was very happy when I saw it was the KPS police, but I was soon disappointed. I thought with the arrival of the police, everything would stop. But the police ordered me to raise my hands and lay on the ground. They tied my hands, and while I was on the ground they hit me two or three times. They pulled me up and asked for my machine gun. I said I didn’t have a weapon. One of the policemen swore at my mother: “I fucked that Gypsy mother of yours,” and hit me again….They kept hitting me and asking for weapons. I kept saying I had no weapons. They took me to the police car, and they kept hitting me with their fists and boots…. When the police took me out of my house, the crowd applauded.108

Other Ashkali men arrested that night faced similar beatings and abuse. By contrast, according to the Ashkali who were taken to the KPS police station, the KPS police appear not to have arrested a single ethnic Albanian in Vucitrn that day, despite the fact that it was the ethnic Albanians who were attacking and burning Ashkali homes. In some cases, it appears that the KPS officers were actively colluding with the Albanian crowds. When Xhemal Kelmendi was being taken to the police car, a group of Albanians attempted to attack him. The KPS officers ordered them to stop, saying “We had an agreement,” and the men retreated.109 Another Ashkali recalled that when the crowd stoned the KPS vehicle he was being evacuated in, the KPS police officer stopped, telling the crowd, “You know you should not throw rocks at the police,” and the crowd stopped—a bizarre admonishment while the crowd was burning Ashkali homes.110 One Ashkali woman who lived next door to the home of the Ashkali village leader, Abdush Cizmolli, told Human Rights Watch that she had personally heard the police telling the crowd to go ahead and burn the house, saying “They are out now, set it on fire.”111

Soon after the arrests of several Ashkali men, allegedly for shooting at the Albanian crowd, the KPS police returned to evacuate the remaining Ashkali families. As soon as KPS arrived, the Albanian crowd stopped burning homes and retreated, allowing the KPS to cordon off the main Ashkali Street. The KPS went from house to house, ordering the Ashkali to evacuate immediately and stating that they could not guarantee their safety: “If you want us to guarantee your lives, you must come with us.”  The evacuation happened so fast that most families had no chance to take any possessions with them. As soon as the Ashkalis were evacuated, the entire Ashkali neighborhood was burned. Thirty-seven-year-old Ferida Myftare recalled: “I wasn’t even out of our street when I saw my house burning. I left my house with nothing.”112

The evacuated Ashkali were first taken to the grounds of the KPS police training institute in Vucitrn, and then to the main KPS police station. At the main KPS police station, many of the Ashkali were surprised to find approximately 100 KPS officers, most of whom had not responded to the calls for assistance from the Ashkali community.

The failure of UNMIK and KFOR to respond to the plight of the Ashkali in Vucitrn certainly contributed to the massive destruction. The limited KPS response did have a significant impact on pushing back to Albanian crowds, lending credence to the Ashkali view that a strong UNMIK and KFOR response could have prevented the destruction of their homes. The KPS response in Vucitrn was deeply problematic, focusing more on punishing Ashkali for defending their homes rather than fulfilling their obligations to protect all residents on a nondiscriminatory basis. The allegations that some KPS officers in Vucitrn actively participated in the violence certainly deserve further investigation.

Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove

Kosovo Polje, located about eight kilometers southwest of Pristina, was approximately 25 percent Serb prior to the 1999 conflict, but the Serb population dropped drastically after the war. Most of the Serbs and other minorities left Kosovo Polje for the nearby all-Serb villages of Ugljare, Kuzmin, and Batuse, but over one hundred homes in Kosovo Polje continued to be inhabited by Serbs. Unlike other towns where Serbs tended to live in tightly knit neighborhoods, the Serbs of Kosovo Polje were more dispersed, living alongside their ethnic Albanian neighbors.

Kosovo Polje, which translates as “field of blackbirds” occupies an important place in Serb history, as it was the site of the historic 1389 battle between Serb and Ottoman forces. Slobodan Milosevic also launched his nationalist career with a fiery speech at Kosovo Polje on April 24, 1987.113  Although the Serb population of Kosovo Polje had dwindled, it continued to be an important administrative center for Belgrade: it was one of the few places were Kosovo residents could renew Yugoslav passports.

Trouble started in Kosovo Polje in the early afternoon of March 17. According to several sources, Albanian extremists from the nearby Drenica region, the birthplace and stronghold of the KLA and Kosovar Albanian nationalism in general, began to arrive in Kosovo Polje by car and bus.114 The crowd quickly grew larger, and soon included many ethnic Albanian residents of Kosovo Polje, in particularly youths between fourteen- and twenty-years-old. Several of the Serbs interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that they recognized some of their neighbors among their attackers.

The rapidly growing crowd, numbering several thousand strong by early afternoon, gathered in front of the Serb hospital and the nearby St. Sava School in Kosovo Polje and set them alight, completely gutting the structures.115 They then fanned out through the nearby neighborhoods, carefully locating and burning the Serb homes that were interspersed with the homes of ethnic Albanians.

None of the Serb witnesses or ethnic Albanian KPS officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw any presence of KFOR troops on the streets of Kosovo Polje during the rioting—apparently, the KFOR troops were either redeployed elsewhere at the time, or simply failed to respond. Many of the UNMIK police were unavailable, as they had been asked to assist at Caglavica.116 In effect, the defense of Kosovo Polje—with over one hundred Serb homes spread out over a substantial town—was left in the hands of just a few dozen KPS officers, assisted by a handful of UNMIK police.117 KPS officers lacked tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear, and many other essential supplies to deal effectively with a dangerous and volatile crowd.118 The absence of KFOR and a lack of a substantial UNMIK presence left the KPS with extremely limited options.

The performance of KPS varied widely in Kosovo Polje. A small number of KPS officers acted bravely throughout the crisis, trying to stop the crowds from attacking Serb homes and evacuating Serbs when the security situation became too severe. Some of the KPS officers worked tirelessly to evacuate and protect Serb residents. Many others simply stood by and refused to intervene in the violence. In some cases, KPS officers may have taken an active part in the violence.

Even when KPS officers attempted to act professionally, they were so outnumbered by the crowds that they had almost no impact. Dejan Jovanovic, a thirty-two-year-old Serb who used to work at a multi-ethnic radio station, explained that he watched an ethnic Albanian crowd he estimated at 5,000 to 6,000 people burn the St. Sava school and the adjacent clinic. The crowd then began to loot and burn Serb homes in the area. Initially, a group of KPS and UNMIK police arrived in three cars, and tried to reason with the crowd. The crowd responded by attacking the police cars and continued to loot and burn. Jovanovic and his grandmother soon faced a group of fifty to seventy rioters, most of them young men, who set their home on fire:

When they first came in the garden, they smashed all the windows in the first house and set it on fire. Then they came to the second house where we were. They saw me and my grandmother and ran to us, with knives and sticks. They were calling on us to come out, but I blocked the door with a stove. They came into the house, but I stopped them from coming into the room. I saw their faces through the windows—there were many people I recognized as my neighbors, from the block of flats behind our house.119

As the protesters set the house on fire, two KPS officers arrived. The KPS officers attempted to stop them, “but it was no use,” Jovanovic explained because “they would force some out and others would come.” Finally, the protesters went on to other homes, and the KPS officers helped Jovanovic put out the fire. As Jovanovic and the KPS officers were attempting to extinguish the flames, a number of protesters came back and began beating him, simply running around the KPS officers even though the latter had drawn their guns on the protesters by this stage. Jovanovic saw more protesters arriving with bats and other weapons, so was forced to flee with his grandmother back into his home, which was again set on fire. The KPS officers finally were able to evacuate Jovanovic and his grandmother, leaving behind their burning home.120

Nevenka Rikalo, a forty-seven-year-old worker at the multi-ethnic municipality in Kosovo Polje, told a similar story of an overwhelmed KPS. At about 4:30 p.m. on March 17, a group of ten youngsters aged between fourteen and seventeen attacked her home, and began beating her seventy-year-old mother with wooden sticks. Two KPS police officers came and gave chase to the boys, ultimately arresting two of them. However, when the KPS officers put the two boys in their police car, ethnic Albanian protestors attacked the car, and the KPS officers were forced to release the two boys. In the meantime other rioters had climbed over Rikalo’s fence and were setting the house on fire from the roof. The KPS officers told the family they had five minutes to evacuate, and the family was forced to flee with only the clothes they were wearing. After being taken to the police station, Nevenka assisted the KPS police throughout the night, taking calls from Serbs under attack and helping the police locate their homes. She saw only three international UNMIK police at the station, and explained that almost all of the evacuations had been carried out by just a handful of KPS officers.121

In some cases, KPS officers did little if anything to protect Serbs under attack. Fifty-three-year-old Zivorad Tonic left the KPS police station to go check on his home at about 5 p.m., and encountered a crowd of about 200 Albanians armed with wooden and iron stick who began to beat him severely. Several KPS vehicles occupied by officers were parked just meters away, but the KPS officers did nothing to try and stop the beatings. Tonic had to fight his way to the KPS cars and went inside one of the cars to stop the beating, without any assistance from the KPS officers. When the KPS officers finally drove away with Tonic in their car, Tonic was in such a bad condition that the KPS officers initially thought he had died.122 Another Serb, sixty-two-year-old Zlatibor Trajkovic, was beaten to death in Kosovo Polje around the same time.

Ruzica Stevanovic, a thirty-four-year-old mother of three with a bedridden mother-in-law, similarly received no assistance from KPS officers present as her home was being attacked. An ethnic Albanian crowd set her house on fire, and she had to push her two sons through the bathroom windows to help them escape. Her bedridden, sixty-nine-year-old mother-in-law was trapped inside the burning home. As her home and neighboring homes were burning, a group of KPS officers arrived—but then stood by and refused to help her:

When the KPS cars approached, the crowd saw them and stopped burning and began to disperse. The KPS officers entered the crowd, shaking hands with some of them and putting their hands on their shoulders in greeting. Because things calmed down a little, we got some courage to leave our houses and went to see what happened to my mother-in-law. We broke a window and found a room filled with smoke and saw her inside all the smoke, with the door on fire. We somehow took her out through the window—she was conscious.

[We started extinguishing the fire]. In the meantime, the KPS officers were sitting with some Albanian civilians. I called them a few times to come help us, but they refused to respond to my calls for help. None of them ever even came in our yard. They came in five vehicles, two or three [officers] per vehicle. Some of them were busy dispersing the crowd, but five or six of them were just sitting close to our homes talking to the Albanians, they paid no attention to us.123

After Stevanovic extinguished the fire at her home (her mother-in-law’s home was in full flames by now), two KPS officers approached and told her that it was time to evacuate. She left with only one bag of belongings. After she left, her home was again set on fire, and completely destroyed.

In at least one case, KPS officers are accused of participating in arson in Kosovo Polje. Dusan Arsic was the owner of one of the largest homes in Kosovo Polje, and rented out several rooms in his home to UNMIK police officers. At about 5:45 p.m., as Serb homes in many other parts of Kosovo Polje were already ablaze, two KPS officers arrived at his home and told him he had to evacuate immediately because a huge Albanian crowd was approaching. The KPS took four of Arsic’s relatives in their car, and said they would return for Arsic and his wife. Arsic and his wife got into their own car and started driving towards a relative’s home, but noticed the KPS officers return to their home, probably looking to evacuate them. They saw the KPS officers enter the home and search for them, and then noticed flames coming out of the home five minutes later. As the KPS officers were the only persons at the home at the time, Arsic is convinced they set his home on fire.124

The destruction of the Serb community in Kosovo Polje was complete: every single Serb home and almost every Serb institution in a town once known for its vibrant Serb community was burned. Among the buildings burned, according to KPS sources, was the main post office—one of the few multi-ethnic ones operating in Kosovo, but hated by Albanians as one of the few places they could renew their Yugoslav passports, the Serbian St. Sava school, the Serbian hospital, and at least one hundred homes.

The chaos in Kosovo Polje soon wound down. On the morning of March 18, the First Battalion of the British Grenadier Guards, a unit with extensive riot control experience, was mobilized from their base in the United Kingdom, and by the same evening they were patrolling the streets of Kosovo Polje. The commander of the unit, Major Carew Hatherley, explained to Human Rights Watch that he was convinced his soldiers could have controlled the crowd if they been on location at the time. The problem, he explained, is that few KFOR troops have riot control experience or equipment: “For the average KFOR soldier, there is nothing in between standing there and taking it from the crowd, and firing.”125


The town of Obilic, located a few kilometers northwest of the capital Pristina, continued to be home to several hundred Serbs and Roma after the 1999 conflict, although the Serb and Roma population fell dramatically from pre-war levels.126 The remaining Serbs lived in several neighborhoods around Obilic, including the Todorovic neighborhood, the Cerska Ulitsa settlement, the Rudnika Kolonija neighborhood, as well as the high-rise YU Program apartment buildings which housed mainly displaced Serbs from other villages.

From 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. on March 17, hundreds of ethnic Albanians, most of them between 10 and 18 years old, took part in a demonstration down the main street of Obilic, yelling slogans and throwing stones at Serb homes. KPS police officers were present during the protest march, but did not interfere with the protesters, merely ensuring that they stayed on the main road. The protesters listened to several speeches in front of the municipality building, and briefly stoned a Norwegian KFOR contingent that happened to pass through Obilic on its way to Pristina. The crowd also stoned the YU Program apartment building in Obilic, which houses displaced Serbs and is located right across the street from the combined UNMIK and KPS police station. Again, KPS police officers made no attempt to disperse the crowd or stop the violence. Around 4 p.m., the crowd dispersed, having caused only limited damage to the Serb homes.127

The next morning, April 18, Serb residents in Obilic watched Albanian schoolchildren arrive at school as normal at 8 a.m. However, less than an hour later the schoolchildren all left the school, together with their teachers, and began attacking and burning the Serbian Orthodox Church. Olgica Subotic, who lived on the fifth floor of the YU Program building overlooking the school, recalled:

The school children participated together with their teachers. I saw that the school children went to school, but after a half hour they came out together with their teachers. I recognized the teachers, if you show me pictures I can identify them. Seven or eight teachers were organizing the crowd.128

A second witness gave a similar account: “All of the Albanian children went to school at 8 a.m., making some plan and then stepping out of their school building together with their teachers at 8:15 a.m. or so.…Then this huge mass started immediately burning our church together with the teachers. I know the teachers and saw them there.”129  Also leading the crowd were three young ethnic Albanian men who were former KLA fighters.130

The crowd initially focused on burning the church, but had difficulty setting it alight because it was mostly constructed from concrete. The crowd then set alight the neighboring house of the Serbian church caretaker, as well as the building of the Belgrade-sponsored Coordination Center for Kosovo and Metohija before moving on the Serb neighborhood of the extended Todorovic family. Sreten Todorovic, a resident from the Todorovic neighborhood, watched as the crowd began setting some of the houses on fire:

My family and people from six other houses gathered in one home in our neighborhood. As they were setting my house on fire, I watched from ten meters or so away. This is how they did it: two guys would lift another unto the roof. This guy would take out some roof tiles and throw a Molotov cocktail [gasoline bomb] into the house.131

After burning some of the homes in the Todorovic neighborhood, the crowd returned to the Orthodox Church and again tried to set it alight by dragging flammable materials into the church. They then attacked the YU Program apartment building, and moved on the other Serb areas of Obilic, including the Cerska Ulica and Rudnicka Kolonija areas, continuing to burn homes.

All the Serb residents of Obilic interviewed by Human Rights Watch were unanimous in stating that the KPS police in Obilic had not taken any steps to prevent the crowd from attacking Serb homes. Denka Savic, herself a former KPS officer, explained: “I know the KPS officers who were standing there. They were just walking behind the demonstrators and did nothing to prevent them from doing these things. But they did not help them actively either.”132 

Other residents said they had personally witnessed KPS officers taking an active part in the violence. According to one: “[t]he police were just standing by doing nothing. Later on, the police became actively involved in the demonstrations. I saw KPS officers bring tires to burn the church and later help destroy homes in the Todorovic neighborhood….I saw with my own eyes the KPS officers with the crowd, whatever they could find they threw inside the church and put on fire.”133  Another witness reported seeing a KPS policeman throwing a Molotov cocktail back at the church after it had bounced off the wall.134

As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the KPS officers failed to arrest any of the Albanian demonstrators. However, when a seventy-four-year-old Serb, Stojan Arsic, threw an explosive device to ward off Albanian demonstrators who were trying to burn his home, KPS police arrived within minutes to arrest the elderly Serb.135  There are approximately ten Serb KPS officers in Obilic, but they did not take part in the response to the riot: the Serb KPS commander for Obilic was in the U.S. for training, and the Serb KPS officers stayed inside the police station of Obilic, fearing for their own safety.

Several witnesses saw KFOR and UNMIK troops in the center of town during the rioting. KFOR troops were also deployed to protect the YU Program apartment building from attack. However, the outnumbered UNMIK and KFOR troops did not take any steps to prevent or stop the rioting itself, limiting themselves to rescuing the besieged Serbs. According to Stojan Todorovic: “At no point did KFOR, UNMIK, or KPS use loudspeakers to tell the crowd to stop, and they didn’t use tear gas or rubber bullets. There was not attempt to stop the protest.”136

Ultimately, the Serb and Roma residents of Obilic were evacuated from their homes by a combined force of American UNMIK police, Irish KFOR, and some KPS officers.  When the Serbs left their homes, many of them were still intact. Over the next days, Albanians were given a free hand to continue burning homes, destroying some ninety homes and forty apartments belonging to Serbs, and looting the homes of the Roma who had been forced to flee.

Belo Polje/Bellopoje

Belo Polje was a pilot project in re-creating a multi-ethnic Kosovo community and recognizing the right of Serbs to return to their former homes and villages, many of which had been inhabited by their ancestors for generations. Belo Polje is a small Serb village located just south of the city of Pec, in the western part of Kosovo. The village was home to some three hundred Serb families before the 1999 war, but all of them fled to Serbia and Montenegro in the immediate aftermath of the war, after several persons from the village were murdered. In July 2003, after protracted negotiations with UNMIK, KFOR, and the provisional Kosovo government (also known as the PISG), it was agreed that twenty-five homes would be rebuilt in the village, and thirty-four Serbs returned. The village was considered safe for returns because the main Italian KFOR base, Villagio Italia, is located only a kilometer away.

On March 17, Belo Polje hosted several representatives of former Serb residents of the village who were also considering returning to the province, and were being shown around. “As we finished the meeting, we walked around the village to look at the new houses and to see where we could build more,” Momcilo Savic recalled.137  At about 2:30 p.m., several KPS police officers ran up to the group of residents and visitors, and advised them that a big Albanian crowd was coming towards Belo Polje. The officers urged the Serbs to take shelter in their rebuilt Orthodox Church.

An ethnic Albanian crowd had gathered in the center of Pec, growing from several hundreds to thousands as protest leaders using megaphones urged others to join. The crowd first marched on the local UNMIK and municipality buildings in Pec before heading to Belo Polje.138  Momcilo Savic and the other residents of Belo Polje watched the crowd approach: “We saw a huge column of people, maybe as many as 5,000 people. They were shouting “UCK, UCK,” and insulting us in [the] Albanian [language].”139

Even though the main Italian KFOR base was only a kilometer away, fewer than one hundred Italian KFOR soldiers responded to the crisis in Belo Polje. The Italian KFOR troops refused to approach the Church where the Serbs were sheltering, forcing the residents to walk some one hundred and fifty meters through the hostile crowd before they were evacuated.140 A group of ten or fifteen UNMIK police, most of them American, had to form a cordon to try and protect the fleeing Serbs as they passed through the hostile crowd.

The KFOR and UNMIK troops were completely overwhelmed by the ethnic Albanian rioters: “KFOR had shields and were pushing people back, but the mass of people acted like they didn’t exist.”141 According to several Serb witnesses, there were between fifty and one hundred ethnic Albanian KPS officers at the scene, but they refused to carry out their duties: “There were also fifty KPS officers but they had their arms crossed and were just looking on.”142  Another witness recalled: “The KPS were standing with crossed arms, almost one hundred of them. There were lots of KPS vehicles and they moved them to allow the protesters through.”143

When the Serbs were ordered to evacuate, the lack of adequate security personnel and the refusal of Italian KFOR to approach the church where the Serbs were sheltering almost resulted in tragedy. The fleeing Serbs were attacked by the ethnic Albanian crowd, and several were stabbed and injured. Only the fatal shooting of one of the Albanian attackers by an American UNMIK policewoman stopped the attack:

The American [UNMIK] police made a cordon of two lines of police, and we had to run from the church to the vehicle for about 100 meters. A mass of Albanians, about one thousand, came to try and block our way. … There was a killer who knifed an old man three times near his heart. Rocks were flying everywhere and hitting us. When the killer was not satisfied with stabbing one person, he went to try and stab a boy. A policewoman pulled out her gun and said “Stop!” three times in English. The killer still approached. The American woman shot in the air and then at him, and he fell down [dead]….Only one group of people managed to make it to the truck and go to the base. Some of us had to lock ourselves back into the church.

They were throwing Molotov cocktails [gasoline bombs] at the church, we were lucky that there was no wood floor or we would have burned down. … The Americans [UNMIK] saw what was happening and came with their shields. We opened the door and they removed the [burning] cocktails. An armored vehicle was waiting for us outside so we ran for it. As we were moving towards the armored vehicle, we were all hit with rocks and injured.144

The Serbs were evacuated to the nearby Villagio Italia KFOR base. Eleven of thirty-four evacuees required first aid treatment for their injuries. Three seriously injured Serbs had to be hospitalized in the Prizren hospital. All of the recently reconstructed homes in Belo Polje were burned down.

The next day, March 18, Ali Lajci, the Democratic League of Kosovo’s (LDK) municipal president of Pec, led a substantial ethnic Albanian crowd from Pec to Belo Polje, where he and other Kosovar Albanian officials laid flowers at the site where the knife-wielding attacker had been shot dead by UNMIK police the previous day.145


The town of Djakovica, located in the south of Kosovo near the Albanian border, was home to some three thousand Serbs before the 1999 war. By the time of the March 2004 violence, the Serb population of Djakovica had been reduced to just five elderly women. The women lived around the Serb orthodox church in Djakovica, under constant guard by Italian KFOR troops to protect them from attack. Seventy-five-year-old Nada Isailovic, one of the five elderly women, explained to Human Rights Watch how difficult their life had been:

Everyday I walked from my house to our Church with the Italian soldiers as an escort. The Albanians would throw eggs and tomatoes, they did anything they could to destroy us. They did not want to see a Serb or a Serb house [in Djakovica]. I had Italian soldiers living in my house for five years. It was surrounded by barbed wire, as was the church. …We could not buy food from the Albanians because they refused to sell to us. Thanks to the Italians—we could give them a list of our needs and they would buy it for us.146

Like many other towns in Kosovo, there was a major pro-KLA protest in Djakovica on March 16. The protest in Djakovica was particularly well attended partly because so many Albanians remain missing from the 1999 conflict, in addition to the hundreds who were killed in Djakovica during the 1999 conflict.147

On the evening of March 17, at about 6 p.m., a large group of ethnic Albanians descended on the tiny remaining Serb community in Djakovica—essentially a single Serb home and a Serb church, protected by Italian KFOR. The Italian soldiers immediately evacuated the five elderly Serb women from the home and placed them inside the church, which they then tried to defend from a crowd of several thousand attackers. According to two of the Serb women interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the thirty to forty Italian soldiers had orders not to use their guns on the crowd, and lacked riot-control equipment such as rubber bullets or tear gas.148  The Italian KFOR soldiers outside the church came under fierce attack from the stone-throwing crowd and had to retreat to inside the church, where the elderly Serb women helped treat several Italian soldiers wounded by rocks. At about 8 p.m., the Italian peacekeepers evacuated the Serb women to their airport base outside Djakovica. Italian KFOR soldiers attempted to continue defend the church, but were soon forced to abandon their positions.

The Serb homes and Serb Orthodox church in Djakovica were utterly destroyed by the ethnic Albanian rioters after the residents were evacuated and Italian KFOR withdrew. When Human Rights Watch visited the site a month later, even the rubble of the church and home had been carted away from the site, leaving only an empty area and erasing the last evidence of a Serb presence in Djakovica. There were no Serbs left in Djakovica after the March 2004 violence.


Like many other cities and towns, Prizren had seen a substantial protest on March 16 by KLA supporters, particularly because some Prizren-based former KLA commanders had been arrested in February 2004.

Violence broke out in Prizren around 3 or 4 p.m. on March 17. According to a Serb witness, two buses came to downtown Prizren and stopped in front of a hotel in the center of the town. Ethnic Albanians descended from the buses with placards and Albanian flags, and began shouting slogans in Albanian.149  A crowd gathered rapidly. According to witnesses, the crowd initially appeared confused about what to target, initially attacking the UNMIK building across the street and burning some UNMIK vehicles.150  However, they soon changed direction, crossing the river to the hillside Serb community.

During the attack on the Serb community of Prizren, most of them living in the historic Serbian seminary and nearby buildings, the German KFOR seemed to melt away. None of the Serbs interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw a single German KFOR soldier in the area during the attack. According to Ljubisa Pleskonjic, a Serb who lived at the seminary with his wife and two young children, “[t]he whole time, no one from UNMIK, KPS, or KFOR came. Normally we would see thousands of them driving through the streets. Only once the seminary and other buildings were burning, a group of UNMIK and KPS came, but the crowd was so strong that they ran away.”151

In the security vacuum created by the failure of German KFOR to respond, most of the Serbs in Prizren were left at the mercy of the crowds. Ljubisa Pleskonjic, together with his pregnant wife, and their two young children, found themselves trapped in their burning apartment inside the Serbian seminary:

They came to our door and tried to smash it. I put a bench against the door and was pushing back. Then they tried to break the door with an axe. When they saw they couldn’t smash the door, they poured petrol on it and set it on fire. Everything was soon on fire.

There was a window in the bathroom, thirty centimeters by thirty centimeters. I managed to push my wife and children out of the window unto the roof, but I couldn’t make it [because of my size.]  I kissed my wife and children goodbye—I thought I was going to die.

I went back to the burning kitchen. I smashed the refrigerator into the wall and cracked a hole in the wall, and went out this way. I found my family.…The crowd started attacking [a group of UNMIK and KPS police who had come] and the police ran down the road in panic and left us behind.

There was a small shop with rubbish bins, and we went to hide there until 5 a.m., without shoes or anything. I had to keep the children quiet because they wouldn’t stop crying. At 5 a.m., I went out in the street and saw an Albanian KPS car. I spoke to them in Albanian and they took us to the German base.152

Several elderly Serbs were beaten at the seminary. One elderly Serb, sixty-one-year-old Dragan Nedeljkovic, died in the burning of the seminary, and fellow residents of the seminary claimed they heard him being beaten during the attack.

The response of the German KFOR in Prizren presents one of the most fundamental security failures during the March 2004 riots. Even though one of the largest German KFOR bases is located right on the outskirts of Prizren, the German KFOR commanders refused to effectively mobilize their troops during the worst attacks, repeatedly ignoring pleas from their German UNMIK police colleagues for assistance.153  UNMIK police commanders in Prizren are convinced that a stronger KFOR response could have prevented the whole-sale burning of fifty-six Serb houses and five Serb orthodox churches of historic importance, as well as the terror faced by a Serb population abandoned to their fate by the international community.

An UNMIK official who asked for anonymity explained to Human Rights Watch that the UNMIK police commanders in Prizren had repeatedly requested for the deployment of German KFOR troops during the worst rioting. He firmly believed that if one tank had pulled up during the beginning of the rioting, “the demonstrators would have left.”  According to the UNMIK official, some four hundred German KFOR soldiers had prepared themselves to leave the base and respond to the riot situation, but never received orders to deploy. He blamed the failure of German KFOR to respond on “commanders who don’t want to make mistakes that could end their careers.”154

The failure of German KFOR troops to respond to the rioting in Prizren left the security situation in the hands of about three hundred and fifty poorly equipped KPS police—most of them with only a few years experience—and several dozen UNMIK police. The Prizren-based Argentinean UNMIK Special Police Unit had been called to assist with crowd control elsewhere in Kosovo.155 The remaining KPS and UNMIK police simply did not have the equipment to deal with the crowds: “We don’t have the necessary equipment. No tear gas, no rubber bullets, no razor wire, no water cannon. We were simply not prepared for this,” an UNMIK police commander told Human Rights Watch.156

Even though they were clearly overwhelmed by the massive violence faced in Prizren, many KPS and UNMIK officers conducted themselves professionally. Eighty-year-old Mladen Gligorijevic, who lived in a private house in Prizren with his seventy-year-old wife, his sixty-nine-year-old sister, and his daughter, explained that KPS officers came to check on his family four times during the riot, reassuring the family and urging them to stay inside their home. On the fourth visit, at about 5 p.m., the same KPS officers came again, telling him, “Uncle, get ready to leave in a few minutes,” and took the family away in their car. “All of the time, it was only the KPS, the same group of KPS came each time. UNMIK and KFOR never came,” Gligorijevic recalled.157 

Seventy-five-year-old Milos Necic, who lived in an isolated Serb home by himself, had a similar account of KPS courage. An Albanian crowd was breaking down his door, a group of four or five KPS officers scaled over his wall and told him they would have to evacuate him. Unable to take him out of the front door because of the huge crowd, the KPS officers had to climb with Necic over the roofs of two neighboring Albanian homes, using their shields to protect Necic from rock throwing. The KPS were then forced to call a taxi to go back to the station, because the crowd was attacking KPS cars as well.158  None of the Serbs in Prizren accused the KPS of involvement in the violence, although it appears that many KPS officers did not report for duty during the events.159

In addition to destroying the Serb homes and churches in downtown Prizren, ethnic Albanian rioters also attacked the fourteenth-century Monastery of Holy Archangels located in the Bistrica/Lumbardhi river gorge several kilometers outside Prizren. It was the only surviving Serbian Orthodox Monastery in the German Sector. The monastery’s only access point was a narrow road through the gorge; as such, it should have been easily defensible. When a group of about 200 ethnic Albanians arrived around 8:45 p.m., there were only fifteen German KFOR soldiers guarding the ancient monastery. According to the Serb monks, as the ethnic Albanian crowd approached, the German soldiers simply stood on the bridge without attempting to stop them.160  The crowd then slowly approached, wading through the river around the soldiers on the bridge, and began throwing Molotov cocktails at the monastery. “The Germans didn’t use their truncheons or tear gas, and didn’t even fire in the air,” one of the monks recalled.161  As soon as the crowd began attacking the monastery, the German peacekeepers ordered the monks to get into KFOR armored vehicles and drove them away, leaving the monastery to be burned down by the ethnic Albanian crowd.162

Rioters in Prizren destroyed virtually every significant Serbian Orthodox monument in the area, including a number of 14th-century churches. Among the Serbian Orthodox structures destroyed or severely damaged in Prizren was the modern Seminary of Saints Cyrillus and Methodius College; the nineteenth-century Saint Georges Cathedral and its adjacent Bishop’s residence; the fourteenth-century Church of Saint Savior; the fourteenth-century church of Saint Nicholas; the fourteenth-century Church of the Holy Virgin Ljeviska; as well as the Monastery of Holy Archangels mentioned above. The ancient churches in Prizren housed some of the most significant frescoes in Kosovo, and their loss is a significant one for the Serbian Orthodox church.163

[62] Nebi Qena, “UN accuses Kosovo violence instigators of ‘crimes against humanity,’” Agence France Presse, March 24, 2004.

[63] “NATO chief says Kosovo violence was ‘orchestrated,’” Agence France Presse, March 22, 2004.

[64] Paul Ames, “EU’s Solana says violence could delay decision on Kosovo’s future,” Associated Press, March 25, 2004. Solana also warned that ethnic violence should not be rewarded: “If some people think that with violence they can precipitate the decisions of the international community, they are wrong…You cannot imagine moving toward a decision on status if the standards have not been reached ... burning churches, burning schools, chasing people out of their homes is [sic] not the type of standards that the European Union is defending.”

[65] “Kosovo violence could have been organized—top NATO official,” Agence France Presse, March 18, 2004. John Nadler, “’Ethnic cleansing’ under way in Kosovo, NATO leader warns; Hundreds of troops dispatched in effort to end ‘thuggery, mob violence,” Ottawa Citizen, March 20, 2004.

[66] United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo,” April 30, 2004, para 2. U.N. Doc. S/2004/348.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat, Pristina, March 18, 2004.

[68] Email communication with international news photographer Andrew Testa, May 2004.

[69] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 44.

[70] Email communication with international news photographer Andrew Testa, May 2004.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 45.

[74] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 49.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, April 19, 2004.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with Milanka Stefanovic, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with Radojka Raskovic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Zivka Savic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004.

[80] Ibid. Several other witnesses claim that the first evacuation occurred only at 12:30 AM, and the second evacuation at 2:30AM.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with  Radojka Raskovic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004.

[82] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 46.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Zivka Savic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004; ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 46.

[84] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 49.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with Stefanka Tisma, Gracanica, April 10, 2004.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with Brother Randal Denic, Lipljan, April 17, 2004.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Joka Vesic, Gracanica, April 10, 2004

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksandar Vasic, Lipljan, April 17, 2004.

[92] Ibid; Human Rights Watch interview with Brother Randal Denic, Lipljan, April 17, 2004.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Antic, Mitrovica, April 8, 2004.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Human Rights Watch interview with Dragan Bjelica, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Antic, Mitrovica, April 8, 2004.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview with Vladimir Savic, Zvecan, April 9, 2004.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Ibid.

[103] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 51.

[104] Human Rights Watch interview with Xhemal Kelmendi, Novo Selo, April 14, 2004.

[105] Human Rights Watch interview with Nejib Cizmolli, Novo Selo, April 14, 2004.

[106] Human Rights Watch interview with Njazi Pllavci, Novo Selo, April 16, 2004.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdush Cizmolli, Novo Selo, April 16, 2004.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview with Xhemal Kelmendi, Novo Selo, April 14, 2004.

[109] Ibid.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview with Fedaim Kelmendi, Novo Selo, April 16, 2004.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Zaida Cizmolli, Novo Selo, April 16, 2004.

[112] Human Rights Watch interview with Ferida Myftare, Novo Selo, April 16, 2004.

[113] Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 37-39.

[114] Human Rights Watch interview with Dusan Arsic, Gracanica, April 10, 2004; ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 47.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Dejan Jovanovic, Kosovo Polje, April 16, 2004.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with KPS official, Kosovo Polje, April 16, 2004.

[117] There are only 55 KPS officers in Kosovo Polje, including some Serbs. However, only a few dozen reported for duty. Others were away at training courses or simply did not report for duty.

[118] Human Rights Watch interview with KPS official, Kosovo Polje, April 16, 2004.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview with Dejan Jovanovic, Kosovo Polje, April 16, 2004.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Human Rights Watch interview with Nevenka Rikalo, Ugljare, April 17, 2004.

[122] Human Rights Watch interview with Zivorad Tonic, Gracanica, April 10, 2004.

[123] Human Rights Watch interview with Ruzica Stevanovic, Gracanica, April 10, 2004.

[124] Ibid.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview with Major Carew Hatherley, Kosovo Polje, April 16, 2004.

[126] According to a 1998 UNHCR estimate, Obilic had a population of 11,000 “that was 41 per cent Albanian and 27 per cent Serb,” the remainder being other minorities. Cited in OSCE, Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen As Told, chapter on Obilic/Obiliq, December 6, 1999 [online], (retrieved June 25, 2004). Those proportions would place the pre-war Serb population at approximately 3,000 and other minorities at around 3,500.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview with Olgica Subotic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004.

[128] Ibid.

[129] Human Rights Watch interview with Stojan Todorovic, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[130] The three KLA leaders were identified by name by several Serb residents of Obilic, who personally saw the three KLA leaders leading the crowd. The names of the KLA leaders, and of the residents who identified them, are on file with Human Rights Watch.

[131] Human Rights Watch interview with Sreten Todorovic, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[132] Human Rights Watch interview with Denka Savic, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[133] Human Rights Watch interview with Olgica Subotic, Gracanica, April 17, 2004.

[134] Human Rights Watch interview with Streten Todorovic, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[135] Ibid.

[136] Human Rights Watch interview with Stojan Todorovic, Mitrovica, April 9, 2004.

[137] Ibid.

[138] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 47.

[139] Human Rights Watch interview with Momcilo Savic, Decani Monastery, April 11, 2004.

[140] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 47.

[141] Human Rights Watch interview with Raiko Savic, DecaniDecani Monastery, April 11, 2004.

[142] Human Rights Watch interview with Momcilo Savic, Decani Monastery, April 11, 2004.

[143] Human Rights Watch interview with Rajko Savic, Decani Monastery, April 11, 2004.

[144] Human Rights Watch interview with Momcilo Savic, Decani Monastery, April 11, 2004.

[145] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 51.

[146] Human Rights Watch interview with Nada Isalovic, Decani Monastery, Kosovo, April 12, 2004.

[147] Human Rights Watch research documented approximately two hundred killings by Serbian police and paramilitary as well as Yugoslav soldiers in Djakovica city alone, in addition to other killings in neighboring villages. Some 1,200 ethnic Albanians were missing from Djakovica at the end of the 1999 conflict, the highest number anywhere in Kosovo by far. See Under Orders, Chapter 6.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Nada Isalovic, Decani Monastery, Kosovo, April 12, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with  Poleksija Kastratovic, Decani Monastery, Kosovo, April 12, 2004.

[149] Human Rights Watch interview with Ljubisa Pleskonjic, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[150] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 47.

[151] Human Rights Watch interview with Ljubisa Pleskonjic, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[152] Human Rights Watch interview with Ljubisa Pleskonjic, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[153] Human Rights Watch interview with UNMIK official, Prizren, April 12, 2004; Renate Flottau et al., “Deutsche Soldaten: Die Hasen Vom Amselfeld,” Der Spiegel (Germany), May 3, 2004.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview with UNMIK official, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[155] Ibid.

[156] Ibid.

[157] Human Rights Watch interview with Mladen Gligorijevic, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[158] Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Necic, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview with UNMIK official, Prizren, April 12, 2004.

[160] Human Rights Watch interview with Brother Bojan Dejanovic, Decani Monastery, April 12, 2004.

[161] Ibid.

[162] Ibid.

[163] For a description of the destroyed churches of Prizren, see Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Serbia, Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija (Belgrade, 2002), pp. 109-129.

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