In March 2004 violence errupted in Kosovo following the drowning of three Albanian who had been chased by dogs allegedly belonging to Serbs. Serb homes and churches were attacked by Albanian mobs and a few thousand Serbs and other community members were displaced or fled Kosovo. Albanians also suffered fatalities. The Kosovo media was seen as fuelling moods which intensified the violence. Kosovo’s political leadership failed to condemn the violence. The authority of the international community, in particular KFOR and UNMIK, was severely damaged as it failed to respond effectively to the violence, which itself was partially a result of its failure to develop inter-community reconciliation.
The March 204 riots are not mentioned in Kosovo history text books.
The March 2004 riots are not mentioned in Serbian history text books.
Ian King and Whit Mason
On 17 March 2004, thousands of Kosovo Albanians rampaged across Kosovo. Some set about murdering Serbs; others picked out Serb houses and set them alight – more than 700 Serb homes were damaged or destroyed and 36 Serbian Orthodox churches or cultural sites, some of them centuries old. Over 4,000 Serbs and members of other minority groups perceived as being close to the Serbs were forced to flee. Several Albanians were killed in clashes with KFOR and UNMIK police. In all, nineteen people died and more than 1,000 were injured, several of them KFOR peacekeepers or members of the newly created local police force.
Kosovo’s media, above all its foreign-funded public broadcaster, played a leading role in whipping up enthusiasm for this pogrom. Most of Kosovo’s new political elite, appointed with UN approval and subject to removal by UNMIK’s chief, the Special representative of the Secretary-General, offered tacit support or, at best, half-hearted condemnation. As the riots progressed, Albanian mobs turned their collective fury on their international overlords, throwing rocks at UN buildings, burning UN flags and destroying more than 100 of the administration’s ubiquitous white Toyota 4 Runner 4x4s.
During the anti-Serbian pogroms (March 17 – 21, 2004), the Albanian mobs again attacked Serbian churches and destroyed the Holy Archangels monastery in Prizren, where monks had been living l since 1998. This destruction of Serbian cultural heritage should also understood within the context of destruction of Albanian-Muslim monuments in 1998 and 1999. It should be noted that Milosevic’s extermination policy and his anti-Islamic propaganda resulted in Muslim Albanians no longer respecting Christian monuments . This respect had been created over the centuries. This explains the riots but does not justify them.
Whatever improvements had been made towards improving inter-ethnic relations, they were effectively negated in early 2004 when Kosovo suffered its worst fighting since 1999. On 16 March, three Albanian boys drowned in the Ibar. Although there was no evidence to support the story, within hours the media, including RTK, the national broadcaster, were reporting that they had been chased into the river by dogs belonging to Kosovo Serbs. It could not have come at a worse time. That same day a series of demonstrations were taking place to protest about the indictment of a number of KLA leaders for suspected war crimes committed in 1999. Thus the anger directed towards the UN was magnified and directed towards the Serbs as well. Despite the best efforts of KFOR to contain the violence, it rapidly spread across the province; aided in part by the ambivalence of local leaders. Rugova, who had forged his reputation on passive resistance, refused to condemn the violence.
The impact of the riots was enormous. By the time the fighting was contained, on 19 March, it was estimated that almost 51,000 people had taken part in at least 33 separate incidents across the province. As a result, 19 people had been killed, 8 Serbs and 11 Albanians, and over a thousand injured. Over 550 homes had been burned, along with 27 monasteries and churches. This had left approximately 4,100 people displaced. This number included not jus Kosovo Serbs, but also members of the other minorities, including the Roma. Naturally, the riots had an immensely negative effect on inter-communal relations. Whatever trust that may have been developing between Serbs and Albanians was severely undermined. The incidents also led to a breakdown in contacts between Belgrade and Prishtina. In the aftermath of the violence, the technical talks between the Kosovo PISG and the Serbian Government stopped.
However, the riots also marked a catastrophic blow to the standing of UNMIK and and KFOR. For a start, after five years of work, they highlighted just how little headway had been made towards ethnic reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians. Kosovo was certainly not on the path to becoming a peaceful multietnic democracy. It also had a profound impact on the relationship the two bodies had with both communities. The Kosovo Serbs, and the other minorities, had lost whatever trust they had in the UN to protect them. Meanwhile, reports of peacekeepers failing to prevent attacks, or fleeing in the face of violence, coupled with reports that the Kosovo Police Service had participated in incidents, had fatally determined the authority of the UN in the eyes of the Kosovo Albanians. As a report by Human Rights Watch noted several months later, ‘The international community has lost tremendous ground in Kosovo as a result of the March violence: ethnic Albanian extremists now know that they can effectively challenge the international security structures, having demolished the notion of KFOR and UNMIK invincibility.’ Many of those involved in the attacks were never brought to justice or were given unduly light sentences.
(Fehmi Rexhepi ‘Historia 9’. Prishtinë: Libri Shkollor, 2010.
Jusuf Bajraktari, Fehmi Rexhepi, Frashër Demaj ‘Historia 10’. Prishtinë: Libri Shkollor, 2011.
Đorđe Đurić and Momčilo Pavlović ‘Istorija 8’. Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2010.
Đorđe Đurić and Momčilo Pavlović ‘Istorija 3’. Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike, 2010.
James Ker-Lindsay “Kosovo: The Path to Contested Statehood in the Balkans”, London, I.B. Tauris, 2009; Oliver Schmitt ‘Kosova – histori e shkurtër e një treve qendrore ballkanike’, Prishtinë, Koha, 2012; Ian King and Whit Mason ‘Peace at any price – how the world failed Kosovo’, Cornell University Press, 2006.)