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Events in Kosovo: Prizren
HITS: 2802 | 18-08-2004, 22:34 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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Prizren is about as far from Kosovska Mitrovica as it is possible to get in Kosovo. This south-western city of medieval Orthodox churches and Ottoman mosques was one of the worst affected parts of the province by the anti-Serb pogrom. Although Western media reports routinely attributed the March 2004 Albanian on Serb violence to a reawakening of the desire for revenge as a result of Albanian sufferings at the hands of Serb forces in 1999, the mass attack on Serbs in Prizren casts doubt on the idea of revenge as the psychological root of the violence.
Contrary to common assumptions, Prizren did not suffer from brutal ethnic cleansing in the spring of 1999. Local Albanians there could not have harboured barely repressed anger against any erstwhile Serb persecutors in 1999 because the city was not the victim of ethnic cleansing. As television footage of the arrival of German troops on 12th June, 1999 revealed, large numbers of Albanians of all age groups and both sexes were in the city to welcome their liberators.
Prizren survived the 78-day NATO war against Yugoslavia almost undamaged. At the outbreak of the NATO bombing campaign radical Serb nationalists blew up the League of Prizren monument in the city. The building symbolised the emergence of Albanian nationalism in 1878. According to local Albanians (including a KLA commander) who discussed the destruction of the monument with BHHRG observers in November, 1999, the Yugoslav Army commander intervened to prevent further acts of destruction by Serbs after the destruction of the League of Prizren building. About three Albanians were killed by Serb radical para-militaries on the first night of the war. Then the Yugoslav authorities prevented further attacks. The mosques in the city, including most notably the Sinan Pasha mosque survived the war. Between the first night of NATO bombing and the arrival of the German KFOR there were no murders in the city, though the Germans shot two Serbs trying to flee Prizren as they arrived.
Even Human Rights Watch which rarely missed a chance to echo NATO claims (when it hadn’t pre-empted them) reported that “the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Prizren was carried out with a lesser degree of violence and fewer wanton attacks than in many other parts of Kosovo”. Thus, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea was either exaggerating or misinformed when he stated on May 17, 1999, that Prizren was the city that "has probably suffered the most over the last months in the whole of Kosovo."[1] The late Sergio Vero de Mello contributed to Shea’s wartime propaganda portrait of Prizren as a ghost town. In late May, 1999 the Pentagon reported, “A U.N. commission, led by Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Sergio Viera de Melo, has entered Kosovo to investigate the situation there. Shea reported that after visiting Prizren, a member of the U.N. team was quoted as saying "the silence of the city is frightening."[2]
With the arrival of German KFOR troops on 12th June, 1999, some acts of violence and vandalism were directed at the remaining Serbs, their property and cultural monuments, but remarkably little damage was done. In effect, the architectural heritage of Prizren survived the war intact. Although most of the town’s Serbs left after the arrival of KFOR, a few hundred, including some priests, remained in enclaves particularly on the hillside south-west of the city centre. Protected by German KFOR troops, Prizren’s important Orthodox sites remained secure - at first.

Force Protection not Public Security

Despite almost five years of an international military and administrative presence, genuine security has not been created in Kosovo. All the province’s residents suffer from the crime associated with a widespread black economy which in turn feeds off the stagnant nature of the official economy. But Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities were left particularly vulnerable to violence because of the failure of UNMiK and the Albanian elite to promote reconciliation in any meaningful way. In addition, the scaling back of the security patrols by KFOR (in part because of the redeployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan as higher NATO priorities) meant that isolated Serb ghettoes were very vulnerable to attack By March, 2004 guards had frequently been withdrawn and the absence of KFOR troops outside Serb ghettoes and religious monuments meant that they could be attacked with minimal risk to the assailants or vandals.
On 17th March 2004, almost all the Serbian Orthodox churches and Serbian properties in Prizren were attacked; many were destroyed; all were damaged by fire and acts of vandalism. The remaining Serb inhabitants of the city were taken into protective custody by the German KFOR troops. But, the German media have accused their troops of failing to protect Serb civilians and property adequately. UNMiK police have been quoted to the effect that the Bundeswehr KFOR contingent failed to back up the forces of law and order. [3] In informal conversations with both German and US members of KFOR the importance of the doctrine of “force protection” was repeatedly emphasised to the BHHRG observers. “Force protection” elevates the avoidance of risk to military personnel to the top of the priority list and relegates protection of civilians, their property and cultural treasures to a lower priority.
For instance, the Church of St. George in central Prizren was burned out and its domes collapsed under the effects of the fire. When representatives of the Group visited Prizren for the first time after the war in November, 1999 the church was intact and under protection from German KFOR troops. Elsewhere in Kosovo in the eighteen months before the riots on 17th March, 2004, KFOR troops had been progressively withdrawn from protective functions. However, they remained in a small number of important places.
Sadly, their presence did not restrain or impede the mob. Der Spiegel reported, “A company of KFOR soldiers, guarding the Serbian church of St. George from behind barriers of sandbags, fled with the clergy and the remaining Serbs into the barracks. The demonstrators applauded, set fire to the church and 56 more houses and, in the end, the Orthodox church of the Holy Virgin of Ljevis, not far from the municipal building. German defence minister Struck once had said that this church is ‘a symbol of lasting peace brought by our mission’.” However, German soldiers insisted to journalists that protecting an “old church” was not part of their mandate. In this they were backed up by Foreign Minister, Joshka Fischer and other government leaders even though destroying cultural heritage is regarded as part of a genocidal campaign as prosecuted against Serbian political leaders at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague.[4]
Other KFOR contingents showed more courage elsewhere in Kosovo. For instance, at Lipljan near the capital Pristina, students from the (Albanian) university marched the five miles to the edge of the Serb ghetto, which also houses the magnificent monastery of Gracanica, and tried to burn down the church bordering the main road between Priština and Macedonia to the south. Scandinavian peacekeepers prevented the rioters from doing more than superficial damage to that church and from progressing to Gračanica itself.
While it is reasonable for officers to avoid putting their men at unnecessary or futile risk of injury or death, the fact that KFOR’s Scandinavian contingents seem to have provided effective riot control in contrast to the abandonment of police and Serb civilians to their fate in other places suggests that a more effective (if still non-lethal) response to the disorders after 17th March was available to the German and US contingents if their commanders (and political masters) had willed it. Their mantra about the lack of mandate recalled the sorry days of the EU’s foray into peacekeeping in Croatia and Bosnia more than a decade ago when it was the Croat or Bosnian victims of Serb paramilitaries who went unprotected because no-one authorised their defence by the tens of thousands of NATO soldiers on the ground. Now in Kosovo it is the Serbs turn to suffer from the mandate-syndrome.

Locking the Stable-Door

Even when non-lethal options for frustrating the mob existed, they were not taken. For instance, the Monastery of the Archangels is situated by the road to Strpce outside Prizren below a ruined fortress on Mount ara. It was in a defensible position situated between the fast flowing river Bistrica that sweeps down from the high mountains that divides Kosovo from Macedonia and protected by a steep cliff. Two bridges linking the monastery site to the Prizren road were easily blockable by the heavy military vehicles at the German army base next to one of the bridges. Ironically, the Monastery of the Archangels was one of the few Orthodox sites in Kosovo where a permanent KFOR base was still stationed. Sadly, the proximity of the German base did nothing to protect the monastery. Since the rampage the Bundeswehr soldiers have adopted an aggressive approach to anyone approaching the site, as the BHHRG’s observers experienced during a visit in late April, 2004. However, on 17th March they did not prevent the 500 or so Albanians from crossing the bridge and attacking the whole monastery complex. As if to emphasise their new no-nonsense approach to peacekeeping in this south-western corner of Kosovo, the German KFOR troops had put up signs afterwards proclaiming: “This building/site is protected by law. Any act of vandalism and looting will be considered as a criminal offence of the utmost gravity” and “KFOR Area - Prohibited Area ! Danger authorized use of firearms.”
In its long history, the Monastery of the Archangels had been destroyed once before. Originally built in the mid-fourteenth century it was largely demolished by the Ottomans to provide stone for the elegant Sinan mosque in the centre of Prizren in the early seventeenth century. Sinan Pasha ordered that a mosque be built in Prizren and that stone from the Monastery of the Archangels be used in its construction. Unlike twenty-first century vandalism, Sinan Pasha’s devastation of the monastery at least produced the fine mosque still standing in central Prizren within which were incorporated many of the monastery’s neo-Byzantine capitals and pillars. [5] The monks only moved back in 1998 - hardly the most auspicious moment to re-establish monastic life there. But their newly built church and cells survived the collapse of Serbian rule in June, 1999, unscathed. That is until the 17th March 2004 when the monks received a mobile phone call from an Albanian (as they judged from his accent in Serbian) warning them that a mob of 500 Albanians were marching up the road from Prizren three miles away. Already the churches of Prizren and scores of Serbian houses which had survived the 1999 war were on fire.
German troops had guarded the monks since 1999 and had built the broad bridge across the river to carry their heavy vehicles and supplies. At the other end of the monastery a high gate blocked access by the traditional route across the river. However, though the Germans loaded the monks into an armoured car and took them to safety (for which they were very obviously grateful), according to their sergeant they had “no mandate” to block the bridge or to use force against the arsonists who poured into the monastery grounds. Helping themselves to fuel from the KFOR camp supply, the crowd set fire to the church and monks’ cells. One of the monastery’s cats was badly burned in the conflagration.


[1] See http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/kosovo/undword-11A.html,
[2] See Linda Kozaryn/American Forces Press Service, “More Planes, Better Weather means More Strikes”
http://www.dod.gov/news/May1999/n05261999_9905261.html,
[3] See “German Soldiers: The Rabbits of Kosovo”, Spiegel Online,
http://www.spiegel.de/ 3rd May, 2004,
[4] See, Spiegel Online, ibid.,
[5] The history of the Archangels’ monastery is well set out in Gojko Subotić, The Art of Kosovo. The Sacred Land translated by Vida Janković & Radmila Popović , Monacelli Press, New York, 1998, pages 220-231.

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