Foreign Raiders Plunder Kosovo's Heritage

Recent case of alleged treasure hunters in Novobrdo highlights poor protection of historic sites.

Four UNMIK police officers have been allegedly caught searching for archeological treasures in the medieval fort of Novobrdo in eastern Kosovo.

An UNMIK source said members of the Polish Special Police Unit, PPSU, based in northern Mitrovica, were using metal detectors and digging holes within the walls of the old mining town on which the fort was built.

Also known as Monte Argendaria, Novobrdo is in a mineral rich area. In medieval times, the town’s silver mines generated great wealth, drawing German settlers.

The PPSU has not confirmed the report and the unit commander was not available for comment. UNMIK police spokesperson, Neeraj Singh, said the matter was “under investigation”.

In the 1960s the Yugoslav authorities placed Novobrdo under protection as a site of special importance. Today, there are signs indicating Novobrdo’s protected status in English, Albanian and Serbian.

But the fort’s guard, Albanian Islam Vllasaliu who confirmed the report of IWPR’s UNMIK source, said this did not deter the policemen from digging for about three hours.

“I told them in Albanian that it is forbidden to dig in the castle, but they would not listen,” he said.

As they may have not understood each other, the guard called the Kosovo Police Service and handed them his cell phone, so they could speak to the KPS directly.

He said when KPS officers arrived on the scene the UNMIK police officers refused to hand over the objects they had uncovered, including coins.

Haxhi Mehmetaj, director of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and of the Pristina Museum, which has custody over Novobrdo, said the museum has not recovered the stolen objects.

Mehmetaj said the coins probably had some value, while the other items might be of “invaluable archeological importance”.

Veli Bytyqi, of Kosovo’s culture ministry, said the affair raised important issues about protecting Kosovo’s archaeological heritage.

“The authority of the officials in charge of the protection of our cultural heritage is not being respected,” he said. “The case of the Novobrdo guard and UNMIK police officers is a case in point.”

Cultural experts complain that objects are regularly removed and sold. Mehmetaj said he knew of “dozens” taken by KFOR soldiers or UNMIK officials, often with the cooperation of local officials.

He told Balkans Crisis Report, BCR, he had information that raiders recently unearthed a piece of Illyrian art that was more than 2,000 years old from a site near Korisha, close Prizren, and sold it to an Austrian collector.

The Roman archeological sites of Ulpiana, near Pristina, and Gllamnik, in Podujevo are also frequent targets, said Mehmetaj.

Although a Yugoslav law on the protection of cultural heritage, approved in 1978, remains in force in Kosovo, no one stops the illegal treasure hunters and the traffic in archeological objects is conducted openly.

Xhemajl Novobwrda, whose house lies close to the walls of Novobrdo, says he often observes this theft.

“I see people coming at night and digging to find old objects,” he told BCR.

Mehmetaj says the plunder started well before UNMIK assumed control of Kosovo’s administration, especially during the last, lawless years of Serbian rule.

“Many archeological objects were stolen after the 1980s,” he said. “Belgrade neglected all other heritage in Kosovo except for Serbian Orthodox monuments, as it wanted to build up a myth about Kosovo’s Orthodox heritage.”

The current authorities lack the resources to restore or to safeguard even the most important archeological sites.

“The government does not have a big enough budget,” said Veli Bytyqi, who complains that international authorities “have not given due importance to ensuring our heritage is not stolen”.

A recent donation of 40 million euro by the UN’s cultural arm, UNESCO, may help to change matters.

But it remains to be seen whether the extra money will be enough to safeguard Novobrdo, Ulpiana and Kosovo’s other historic sites from traffickers in cultural heritage.

Alma Lama is a reporter from Radio Television Kosovo and a BIRN contributor. BIRN is a localised IWPR project.


Also in this issue

Accusations of physical abuse and other irregularities knock Albania’s image as a mature democracy.
Bulgarian politicians shield public from implications of European constitution collapse.
Recent case of alleged treasure hunters in Novobrdo highlights poor protection of historic sites.
Prejudice forces young victims of the virus to live isolated lives.
Fears that Serbia might have to pay war reparations sinks plans to condemn 1995 slaughter.