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

Mitrovica Albanians Furious with French

Albanians in the riot-hit town of Mitrovica no longer trust French peackeeping troops.
By Llazar Semini

Albanians who fled ethnic riots in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica two weeks ago have added weight to claims that French KFOR troops failed to protect them.


Up to 300 Albanian families abandoned the Serb-dominated district earlier this month after a terrorist attack on a United Nations bus and a Serb café unleashed a wave of street violence. Two Serbs were killed in the bus attack while around 10 Albanians are thought to have died in the ensuing riots.


French KFOR troops were later accused of ignoring a plea from local police to take decisive action against rampaging Serb gangs - a charge they strenuously denied.


Halit Berani, head of the Council for the Defence of Human Rights in Mitrovica, said French soldiers had lost the trust of the local population and should be replaced by units of mixed nationality.


The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has meanwhile dramatically stepped up its military presence on the roads into Mitrovica. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers have been stationed on the bridges across the Sitnica and the Iber rivers whilst reinforcements have been posted at vital checkpoints.


But this has done little to quell Albanian anger over KFOR's behaviour during the riots. Berani cited the case of Avni Haredinaj, hit by a sniper as he crossed the Iber River with a friend. "If they had treated him at a French field hospital, they could have saved his life," said Berani. "By the time they got him to the Maroken hospital, it was too late."


An Albanian resident of northern Mitrovica, Sherme Peci, had a similar story to tell. "We were in the Boshnjak quarter on Sunday morning [February 6] when a group of Serbs threw a grenade. At first we thought it was a stone. Seven of us were injured."


Peci claimed that French troops who arrived on the scene seemed to take the side of the Serbs while the wounded Albanians were turned away from the French hospital.


The tension between French forces and Albanians was reflected in initial statements earlier this week by KFOR spokespersons suggesting that sniper attacks against French soldiers in Mitrovica had been the work of Albanians. But in a notable back-tracking, a few days later, spokespersons were taking great pains to stress that the ethnicity of the snipers was unknown.


Although the majority of Mitrovica's Albanians are desperate to return home, the fear from the riots is still fresh in their memories. One elderly Albanian woman, Zeliha Kalaja, said that, as the violence escalated, a gang of Serbs made repeated attempts to break down her door.


"They shouted, 'Where are the Albanians? We've come to strangle them!' After they had tried to kick the door down, they started shooting at the lock with a pistol." she said. "We left the next morning. Some of the French soldiers tried to hold us back but we just pushed our way through."


Isa Syla said he and his wife fled their home after Serbs made three attempts to smash their way through the front door. "We spoke to the UNMIK police," he said, "but they told us to leave our home as quickly as possible as they were unable to guarantee our safety. A unit of Italian policemen took us across the Iber Bridge this morning."


Ismet Pestova, leader of the Albanian Republican Party in Mitrovica, said local people were told by the KFOR troops that they were obliged to protect the Serbian minority in northern Mitrovica. "But it's the Albanians who are in the minority here," he said. "And when they call the police, it can be up to four hours before anyone arrives."


Pestova said the situation in Mitrovica could be "resolved in 24 hours". "They should first disarm the Serbian paramilitaries and then enforce the law. Serbs who have lived here for years can come back and live in peace.


"We have nothing against living with Serbs who have not stained their hands with Albanian blood," he said.


Llazar Semini is IWPR's Kosovo Project Manager.


More IWPR's Global Voices