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

Kosovo on the Brink

Day of ethnic conflict dwarfs anything seen in the region since Serb withdrawal over four years ago.
By Marcus Tanner










Caglavice village, Kosovo, 17 Mar 04
Photos © Afrim Hajrullahu

Violence exploded throughout Kosovo today, March 17, after at least seven people were killed in Mitrovica in riots following the discovery of the bodies of two Albanian children in the river Ibar dividing the northern town.


As UN police and NATO peacekeepers lost control over simmering ethnic hatred, Serb villages came under sustained attack from angry crowds, forcing women and children to flee to larger, better-protected enclaves for safety.


The violence spun out of control in several different flashpoints. In one small enclave in Caglavica, near Pristina, Serbs fled burning homes and took refuge in the nearby villages of Laplje Selo and Gracanica.


In Lipljan, eastern Kosovo, three bombs were thrown at the local Serb Orthodox church, Borivoj Vignjevic, the town's Serb deputy mayor told IWPR.


In western Kosovo, 25 houses belonging to Serb returnees in the village of Belo Polje, near Pec, were set on fire and the inhabitants evacuated to Pec by Italian troops, Ranko Manojlevic, a local Serb leader of nearby Gorazdevac, told IWPR.


The Serbian church's seminary in the southern town of Prizren was also attacked and set on fire, according to Fr Benedikt, a monk of the Serb Orthodox Holy Archangel monastery in Prizren.


Even in Pristina the situation was volatile as angry crowds of Albanians blocked UN headquarters, trapping an IWPR reporter in the building alongside UN staff.


"It felt like 1999 all over again," said Jeta Xharra, IWPR's project manager in Kosovo reported from Merdare, where crowds of Albanians were blocking the main road to Serbia. "We have gone four years backwards in the course of one day. All the feeling of security that has been built up since then has evaporated."


Tanja Matic, IWPR project coordinator, who was blockaded inside the UN headquarters in Pristina, said, "The situation is out of control. Every moment we are getting calls from all over Kosovo from Serbs saying they are under attack.


"UNMIK has lost control over Kosovo and its credibility too. Only today, Harri Holkeri (the UN special representative in Kosovo) was on the television saying Serbs and Albanians want to live peacefully together. That now sounds incredible. The UN stands to lose whatever credibility it has left."


Trouble started in Mitrovica at around 11 am local time. The town has been a tense flashpoint between Serbs and Albanians, following the discovery of two dead Albanian children earlier in the day.


After the Albanian media reported that the children had been chased into the river by Serb youths on the northern side of the town, angry crowds demonstrated near the bridge separating the Serb and Albanian sectors.


Exchanges of gunfire soon left several dead and at least 200 wounded. At least 13 French soldiers were also injured.


Hospital sources on either side gave the names of four of the dead: Serbs, Jana Tucev and Borivoje Spasojevic; and Albanians, Isak Ibrahimi and Feriz Chitaku.


While bewildered French peacekeepers doused the ethnic warfare in Mitrovica, clashes in and around smaller Serbian enclaves in Kosovo multiplied and threatened to increase the death toll.


The next major flashpoint was at Caglavica. There, angry crowds demonstrating in solidarity with the Mitrovica Albanians broke through peacekeepers’ cordons into the enclave, trashing and setting on fire Serb homes. They forced panicked UN police to retreat into the village to safeguard the thousand or so inhabitants.


As Serbia’s government in Belgrade went into emergency session to discuss the deepening crisis, Holkeri told Serbian premier Vojislav Kostunica that he was sending reinforcements to Caglavica.


However, a UN police spokeswoman, Angela Joseph, said, “The situation in Caglavica is out of the control’’ and Momcilo Trajkovic, a local Serb leader, said local women and children had been evacuated to the nearby larger enclave of Gracanica for safety.


As darkness descended, relative calm was restored to Mitrovica where UN forces imposed a curfew from 7 pm local time, vowing to shoot anyone seen on the streets after then. But as Mitrovica’s violence subsided, the other flashpoints in Kosovo remained turbulent.


Ethnic tension has been increasing in Kosovo for several days now, especially after a drive-by shooting earlier in the week in Caglavica, in which an 18-year-old Serb was badly wounded.


Local Serbs then protested against what they said was an ethnically-motivated attack by blocking the main road from Pristina to Skopje. The discovery of the dead Albanian children in Mitrovica appears to have triggered today's vicious cycle of violence.


UN and NATO forces in Kosovo have clearly been taken by surprise by the scale of the violence in Kosovo, which has dwarfed anything seen in the region since alliance airstrikes forced a Serb withdrawal in 1999.


The violence threatens to torpedo halting UN moves to normalise relations between the Albanian majority and the Serb minority in the province. It also threatens to complicate further relations between the UN in Kosovo and Belgrade, where increasingly powerful nationalists are vowing to restore Serb rule over Kosovo.


“This is a dark day for Kosovo,” said Holkeri. “ Incidents of recent days, the drownings last night and the violent deaths today are profoundly shocking and disturbing.


“They must all be investigated fully and rapidly. But there is no excuse for further violence. It is essential that people remain calm and do not add to the tension and general insecurity.”


Marcus Tanner is IWPR’s editor/trainer in the Balkans.