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Witness Tells of Destruction of Muslim Religious Sites

Cultural expert rejects claims mosques damaged by NATO air strikes or Serb-KLA clashes.
By Aleksandar Roknić

An expert on cultural and historic monuments testified this week at the trial of six former high-ranking Serbian officials about the devastation suffered by Islamic religious monuments in Kosovo during the conflict there.

Andras Riedlmayer, an expert on Ottoman cultural heritage from Harvard University, told the judges that of the 607 mosques which stood in Kosovo before the 1998-1999 conflict, approximately 225 were destroyed or damaged.

On trial are ex-Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, former deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav army, VJ, chief of staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, and police and VJ officials Sreten Lukic, Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic. The former deputy minister of the interior, Vlastimir Djordjevic, was also indicted with the men but has been on the run since 2004 and is thought to be hiding in Russia.

The six stand accused of responsibility for war crimes committed in Kosovo, including the forcible deportation over 800,000 Kosovo Albanians to Albania, and for causing “destruction or purposely devastating damage to Kosovo Albanian’s religious objects”.

According to the indictment, “forces of the FRY [Former Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia engaged in a deliberate and widespread or systematic campaign of destruction of property owned by Kosovo Albanian citizens”.

“This was accomplished by the widespread shelling of towns and villages; the burning and destruction of property, including …cultural monuments and religious sites,” it continues.

Serb and former Yugoslav forces are accused of the “wanton destruction of Kosovo Albanian religious sites, and the systematic damage and destruction” of cultural monuments and Muslim religious sites. “Mosques were shelled, burned and dynamited throughout the province,” in several towns and villages, including the village of Bela Crkva.

In Riedlmayer’s report, The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Kosovo, 1998-1999, he also described how during the conflict, nine Roman Catholic churches and close to 80 Serbian Orthodox churches were either damaged or destroyed.

During three days of testimony, Riedlmayer explained to judges that he and his colleague from Harvard, an expert on architecture Andrew Herscher, investigated the allegations of Yugoslav authorities contained in the “White Book: NATO Crimes in Yugoslavia”, a book based on the research carried out by Yugoslav federal and local government agencies.

The White Book advances the theory that some mosques and Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo were destroyed by the NATO air strikes.

That claim simply isn’t true, said the witness.

Riedlmayer visited Kovoso three times between 1999 and 2001, inspecting mosques throughout the region.

He said that from the damage he observed, he concluded that most of it had not been caused by air strikes. This was partly because there was no damage to the buildings surrounding the mosques.

He also rejected the defence claim that mosques were destroyed during clashes between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.

The witness said that during his three investigations in Kosovo, he had also talked to people from the local communities who had witnessed attacks on the mosques.

Those civilians told him that much of the damage was the result of Serbian police and military attacks, and the minarets were mostly destroyed with dynamite and grenades.

Several were then razed to the ground, or flattened with bulldozers, he was told.

Riedlmayer described how he had entered one damaged mosque in the village of Crnoljevo, and inside found 20 Islamic books which had been destroyed and urinated on.

The defence teams of the six accused tried to show that Riedlmayer was biased, and claimed his report was not objective, because it focused mainly on damage to Islamic cultural objects in Kosovo.

Riedlmayer denied that allegation.

During his cross examination, Aleksandar Aleksic, the defence lawyer for Nebojsa Pavkovic, who at the time of the alleged crimes was commander of the Third Army of the VJ, tried to prove that some mosques became a target because the KLA was inside them.

That was why they were attacked, a theory supported by the battle scars visible on many of the mosques, said Aleksic.

Riedlmayer also testified about the destruction of Kosovo’s Islamic heritage at the trial of late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in April 2002.

His testimony was followed by that of Sabri Popaj, a Kosovo Albanian, who told the court how his two young sons, aged 13 and 17, were killed in a massacre along with 55 others in Bela Crkva in Kosovo.

The victims of the massacre, which took place on March 25, 1999, the day after NATO air strikes began, included men, women, children and the elderly, as well as Popaj’s two brothers.

He told the court how Serb military and police entered Bela Crkva, before plundering houses and setting them on fire.

Popaj said that he and his family fled their home and went along the Belaj River, but ran straight into Serb police who lay in wait for them.

The witness then described how he saw the police gun down 12 civilians, including eight children.

He then watched as Serbian police surrounded 40-50 Albanian men and boys next to a bridge over the river, including his brother and 17-year-old son. Police robbed the men and ordered them to lie on the ground, before shooting them.

He later discovered that his younger son and another brother had also been in the group of men that were killed.

The trial continues next week.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.