Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovo Albanian Opened Champagne on News of NATO Bombing

Witness says he left his Kosovo home out of fear of Serbian forces’ attacks, not because of NATO campaign.
By Simon Jennings
An ethnic Albanian testifying in the war crimes trial of a former Serbian police chief this week challenged the defence argument that Kosovo Albanians fled the province in 1999 due to NATO airstrikes, rather than as a result of Serbian attacks.

“No one in Kosovo feared the NATO bombing,” the witness told the Hague tribunal. “We could have been a target but we did not fear. In fact, when we heard [the] NATO bombing [had] started against military targets, my wife and I opened champagne and had a drink even though it was against our religion.”

Edison Zatriqi was called by Hague prosecutors to give evidence in the trial of ex-police commander Vlastimir Djordjevic about events in his home city of Pec in western Kosovo on March 27 and 28, 1999. It is alleged that on these dates, Serbian forces set the homes of ethnic Albanians on fire and forced them to leave the town.

According to the indictment against Djordjevic, ethnic Albanians living in Pec were driven out of their homes, “forced to get on buses or trucks and were driven to the town of Pizren and then on towards the Albanian border”.

Prosecutors say that such actions were part of a “systematic campaign” conducted by forces from Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, in 1999 that led to the murder and deportation of around 800,000 Albanians from Kosovo.

The defence has questioned previous witnesses testifying in the trial – which started in January 2009 – about whether Albanians fled Kosovo in fear of Serb shelling or because of the NATO bombing campaign, launched on March 24, 1999.

“We knew that [the NATO bombing] was a good thing,” Zatriqi told judges this week.

The witness said that he was at home with his family on the morning of March 27 when Serb forces began shelling Pec, and was able to watch the attack.

“My house is in such a position that I was always able to see the direction from which shells were fired,” he said. “The shells were falling on the roof of my house.”

The attack forced him and his family, who were hiding in the basement, to leave their home, he said.

“One of the reasons I left my house was the shelling itself,” he told the court. “[Judging] by the blast and explosions, I can say it lasted for at least two to three hours.”

Zatriqi also said that he saw the Serb army shelling an area of town inhabited “exclusively by Albanians” and described the extent of the damage done to Pec during the spring of 1999.

“Eighty per cent of houses were damaged or burnt in [Pec], among them my house, too,” he said.

In the early hours of the morning of March 27, the witness said that from his house, he saw a police vehicle stop outside and a policeman talking to his neighbours before, an hour later, gun fire broke out.

“It was not my neighbours [who were shooting] but [the] persons who came out of the minivan,” he said, describing how his house came under fire. “They were dressed in police uniforms.”

Having left for his aunt’s house during the shelling on that day, the witness said that he and his family were then forced to leave the town the following day.

“At the junction [on the way out of town], there were police, armed police, who directed us towards Montenegro. There was no choice for us,” he said

“People left Pec because of fear for [their] lives and not willingly,” he added, when questioned by the prosecutor about the reason for the ethnic Albanians’ flight.

During his cross examination of the witness, Djordjevic’s lawyer, Veljko Djurdjic, sought to show that what was going on in Pec was part of an armed conflict between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, rather than unwarranted Serb aggression.

He repeatedly asked the witness about shooting coming from the area of town that Zatriqi alleged was shelled by Serb tanks.

“I could see very clearly that no fire came from [that neighbourhood],” replied the witness.

Djurdjic also persisted in trying to sow doubt on the witness’ testimony by highlighting inconsistencies between a written statement he had produced as evidence and what he actually said in court.

While the witness had stated previously that he was in his basement on March 27, in court, he had talked about moving around his house while watching the shelling that day.

The witness clarified that it was his family who remained in the basement, prompting the presiding judge to reprimand Djurdjic for his constant questioning.

“You have got all the facts from the witness, so you are pressing on [with this line of questioning] for no purpose,” Australian judge, Kevin Parker, told Djurdjic.

Another witness from Pec, Ndrec Konaj, also testified this week about an exodus from the city during March 1999, saying he and his family were forced to leave their home.

He told judges how, while leaving through the town’s streets, he, his uncle and his wife and two daughters were stopped by a group of nine men who pulled up in two cars and separated him and his uncle from his wife and daughters.

“They ordered me to walk in the direction of Montenegro. They said, ‘You have asked [Bill] Clinton to come so he should come and rescue you,’ and they cursed our mothers,” said the witness.

The men hit him on the chin and his uncle with a rifle but before letting them on their way, Konaj said.

He explained how his family then joined crowds of people on the streets who had also been evicted from their homes by Serb forces and ordered to go to Montenegro.

Asked by the prosecutor who had ordered the people to leave, he replied, “The police, the army, the paramilitaries. You could not tell who exactly but the same people who had expelled us from our home.”

As they left, they were sent to the centre of town and ordered onto buses bound for the Albanian border, he said.

“In the middle [of the city] there [were] lorries, trucks and buses [which] people got on to and they were sent in the direction of Albania,” Konaj told judges.

Asked who was on the streets during March 27 and 28, Konaj replied, “In the main street [there were] seven or eight policemen, military men, dressed in blue uniforms and they told us where to go.”

The witness said that when he and his family were dropped near the Albanian border, one of the Serb bus drivers told him to leave Kosovo.

“He said, ‘This is the right road to Albania... This is not your country, this is Serbia. Go to your own country, go straight to Albania,’” Konaj said.

He also confirmed the prosecution’s allegations that fleeing Albanians were told to leave their driving licences and identity cards at the border. He told judges that he and his family were told to throw their documents into a wooden box before crossing the border.

“I pretended to throw my identity card too, but I did not throw it and have it still to this day,” the witness told the court.

Djurdic used his cross-examination to try to shed doubt on Konaj’s testimony by pointing out minor discrepancies between two separate statements he had given to prosecution’s investigators in 1999 and in 2001.

Both witnesses who gave evidence this week have testified at the tribunal about events in Kosovo in 1999 before, in the trial of the former Serb president Milan Milutinovic.

Milutinovic was acquitted of any responsibility for crimes in Kosovo in February this year, but his five co-defendants, including senior military and police generals, received stiff sentences following convictions on several counts.

The testimony of both witnesses in the Milutinovic trial was entered into evidence against Djordjevic this week.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.