Serbia + 1 more

Failure to protect: Anti-minority violence in Kosovo, March 2004


Vol. 16 No. 6 (D)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To the Contact Group governments:

The Contact Group countries (France, Germany, Italy, Russia, U.S. and U.K), along with NATO, and the U.N. Security Council, should increase their engagement with Kosovo to improve the security of minorities. A thorough review and reform of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) structures is urgently needed, and will require attention and support at the highest levels to be effective. The overlapping, and at times competing, roles of various international institutions are hampering Kosovo's recovery, and it is important that the Contact Group acts in unity to carry out the necessary reforms in Kosovo. Therefore, Human Rights Watch is making recommendations to the Contact Group as a whole, rather than the individual institutions in charge of component elements of Kosovo's governance and security.

  • Carry out a thorough, independent, and impartial review of the response of KFOR, international UNMIK police, and the Kosovo Police Service (KPS) to the March violence, focusing particularly on the failure of Kosovo's security organizations to protect minorities from ethnically motivated violence and the shortcomings of coordination between the various security organizations in Kosovo.

  • Review the command structure and make-up of KFOR, with a view to creating a KFOR with a unified command structure able to respond quickly and uniformly to Kosovo-wide violence, by ensuring uniformity of response to security incidents, and being free of restrictions by national contingents of their "rules of engagement - commonly referred to as "caveats" - on troop deployment that hampered the KFOR response to the March 2004 violence.

  • Expand the size of KFOR and international UNMIK police to ensure an adequate number of security officers to address the security situation in Kosovo.

  • Ensure that KFOR troops and UNMIK civilian police deployed to Kosovo are experienced in riot-control situations, including graduated use-of-force response to riot situations, and have the necessary equipment to respond to riot situations and other mass disturbances.

  • Together with Kosovo's Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG), take immediate steps to improve the living conditions of those still displaced from the March 2004 violence. Address the continuing security concerns of the minorities displaced by the March 2004 violence in full conformity with the U.N. Guiding Principles on the Internally Displaced; ensure adequate consultation with the displaced and provide them with options, including reconstruction of their homes or relocation if the security situation so requires.

  • Take the lead in initiating and institutionalizing a dialogue between the PISG, Kosovo Serb leaders, and the government of Serbia to improve the security of minorities in Kosovo, end discrimination in the provision of public services, and resolve the issue of parallel institutions.

  • Seek accountability for ethnically motivated crimes in Kosovo, by prioritizing the strengthening of impartial investigative and judicial mechanisms in Kosovo.

  • As requested by UNMIK, increase the number of UNMIK investigators, prosecutors, and judges to give UNMIK adequate capacity to investigate and prosecute criminal acts committed during the March violence, in accordance with international standards.

  • Continue to make clear and forceful public statements that a multiethnic Kosovo in which the rights of all inhabitants are respected is one of the principal objectives of the international community.

  • Provide international protection to ethnic minorities forced to flee Kosovo for fear of persecution. Ensure that those fleeing to neighboring countries or elsewhere in Western Europe have access to full and fair asylum determination procedures and are treated humanely with full respect for their human rights. Asylum seekers from Kosovo who had their applications rejected prior to the March violence, or those who sought to voluntarily return to Kosovo, should have their applications reconsidered in light of the March 2004 violence and the changed security conditions in Kosovo.

  • Prioritize the strengthening of a credible, professional, and impartial Kosovo Police Service by improving training programs and ensuring adequate equipment for KPS officers (including riot-control equipment). Salary packages for KPS officers should be increased to professional levels to ensure the recruitment and retention of quality personnel.

    To Kosovo's Provisional Institutions of Self-Government:

  • Commit Kosovo to a multiethnic future, and make clear that attacks against minorities will be vigorously prosecuted.

  • Take responsibility for the security of minorities in Kosovo, and make the security of minorities in Kosovo a strategic priority for the PISG. Carry out the necessary reforms within the PISG and KPS to ensure security for minorities in Kosovo.

  • Acknowledge that Kosovo's institutions - political leaders, the media, and the PISG - were partly to blame for the outbreak of violence in March 2004 by initially making inflammatory statements, and institute reforms to prevent future anti-minority violence in Kosovo.

  • Seek dialogue with Kosovo's Serb leadership and the government of Serbia and Montenegro to improve the security of minorities in Kosovo, end discrimination in the provision of public services, and resolve the issue of parallel institutions.

  • Seek to increase the multiethnic nature of institutions of governance in Kosovo, and act determinedly against discrimination in the provision of public services.

    To the Government of Serbia and Montenegro:

  • Seek dialogue with both the PISG and the international institutions in Kosovo to improve the security of minorities in Kosovo, end discrimination in the provision of public services, and resolve the issue of parallel institutions.


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

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