An uneasy calm in Kosovo

Kosovo (© Flickr/Marco Fieber)

Until 1989, Kosovo enjoyed the status of an autonomous province within the Yugoslav Federation, with its own legal and administrative institutions and extensive local powers. But this autonomy was revoked in 1989 after Serbian President Slobodan Milošević whipped up the flames of nationalism in Serbia. Since then, an uneasy peace has reigned in Kosovo. The Serb authorities have been using a strong military and police presence, as well as heavy-handed tactics, to keep the Albanian majority under control.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 7, 1997


From the Radio Netherlands’ newsroom, this is Newsline, analysis and background reports on current affairs.

Hello, I’m Anna Holland Kemp. Welcome to the programme. Since the beginning of the war in the former Yugoslavia, human rights violations have been taking place on a massive scale. But even before then, international organisations were expressing concern about human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia. They were particularly concerned about the situation in the northern Serbian province of Voivodina, which is populated by a large Hungarian minority, and the southern province of Kosovo. 90% of the inhabitants of Kosovo are Albanian; the rest Serb, Montenegrin and other nationalities. Until 1989, Kosovo enjoyed the status of an autonomous province within the Yugoslav Federation, with its own legal and administrative institutions and extensive local powers. But this autonomy was revoked in 1989 after Serbian President Slobodan Milošević whipped up the flames of nationalism in Serbia. Since then, an uneasy peace has reigned in Kosovo. The Serb authorities have been using a strong military and police presence, as well as heavy-handed tactics to keep the Albanian majority under control. Eric Beauchemin has been investigating the situation. He begins in a small village, 40 kilometres north of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

We’ve come to the village of Polonicë, which has approximately 300 inhabitants. On the 26th of July, 100 Serb policemen and militiamen raided this village at 7 o’clock in the morning, and we’re going to visit several of the houses to speak to people about their experiences. The first house is owned by a 73-year-old man whose son was killed in a demonstration, a nationalist demonstration in 1989, and this is his story.

July 26th 1993 at 7 o’clock, I was in bed because I am unwell. The police broke in the house. They didn’t come in as people but like animals. And when they came in, they didn’t say good morning or something else. But they said: are you sleeping still? And then the police said: now, I will wake you up. Then they asked me for the picture, and I said that it’s the picture of my son who was killed in demonstrations in 1989 for the rights of our people.

Now I will give you your rights. And then police said I will tell you something. He started to hit me in my head with the butt of the gun. EB: The human rights activist is now showing the picture of the wound that the man had on his forehead when he was beaten with the butt of the gun. Then they started to hit me with the back of the gun. They kicked me and then they sent me out of the house. EB: The human rights activist is showing another picture of the old man taken immediately after he was hit by the police, and there are bruises on his back. Another group of police started to search the house. They have also beaten my older son until he became unconscious. Then they have stolen the typewriter and two cameras. I don’t want to say anything else but the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth.

I am ?? and I’m 16 years old. On July the 26th, the police came at 7 o’clock in the morning, and they break in the house. The police took me together with my brother and three of my guests. They didn’t tell us why did they took us to the police station. And they forced us to beat each other. When we refused that, they hit us.

EB: Two of the human rights activists are here with us. They have three pictures taken the day after the beatings. Here’s the picture of Boyar Yushako (sp?). We can see his back is full of butt wounds. Here’s the picture of ?? who has a wound in his left ear, and his ear is hurting still. From that time, he doesn’t hear very well.

EB: We’re still in the village of Polonicë. It’s a village in which approximately 30 houses are located. We’re going from one house to another. All the houses were searched. More than 100 people that day were arrested, and now we’ve come to a house at the end of the village, and we’re going to speak to an old woman. What’s her name? ?? I’m 68 years old. EB: Can she tell us what happened that day? Early in the morning that day, police has broke the door and they came in. They hit my husband. They hit me. But my sons escaped from the house. The policewoman caught my daughter and she put the knife to her throat. They destroyed the bags and the flour. Then they destroyed our bread we have made for that day. And they write some crosses on the bread. EB: What’s the meaning of that, making crosses? Crosses. The four SS. It’s the emblem of radical Serbs. They searched our house and after that they left and we were very afraid. EB: Is she afraid that the police are going to come back? We are all afraid, and children are also afraid and they have bad dreams about police, and we are always afraid that they will come back.

Raids by police and Serb militiamen like the one that took place in Polonicë in late July are almost a daily occurrence in Kosovo. The authorities say they’re searching for weapons, which they allege are being smuggled in from Albania. Kosovo’s Albanians, they fear, plan to use the arms to expel the Serbs and establish an independent state. The Albanians dismiss these charges, saying the raids are designed to sow terror among the Albanian majority. Because of the extreme polarisation in Kosovo, it’s difficult if not impossible to substantiate fully the two sides’ allegations. What is clear is that the Albanians’ human rights are being violated on a massive scale. The Polonicë raid was just an example of the Serb authorities’ regular and active repression of the Albanians, who form almost 99% of the population in this region. A few kilometres away from Polonicë is the city of Podojeva, home to over 40,000 people. In Podojeva, I paid a visit to one of the local human rights activists who pulled out a pile of statements and photographs of recent human rights abuses.

We have a declaration of another person. You’ll see that. EB: The picture he’s showing us right now is of a man who was beaten very, very badly with a police stick. There are wounds all over his back. His back is extremely red. He was also beaten on his arms and his face. It’s a typical case of fascistic behaving of police. EB: OK, this is another young man. He’s approximately 25 or 30 years old. He was beaten on his nose and he has a pretty bad scar. Oh, he has a broken nose.

But in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a volunteer at the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms, told me the police and Serb militias generally try to make sure the wounds and bruises are not visible so as to make it more difficult to prove that an abuse has taken place.

Most of the time, they beat not in the face. Most of the time, the visible places are not hit, but they damage kidneys and lungs.

Nonetheless, the Human Rights Council has an extensive collection of pictures and statements about the human rights abuses being committed in Kosovo, which it plans to submit to the United Nations. The Council’s headquarters has been raided on several occasions, and documentation has been seized. So the Council is in constant contact with international human rights groups like Amnesty International to make sure that evidence does not disappear and to try and improve the living conditions of the two million Albanians in Kosovo.

We are discriminated totally in every sphere of life: education, health. Every Albanian lives in fear, every day, every night. Every time the police can just drop in the house, can search the house. This firearm search, they call it like that, but it is not exactly firearm search because the Serbian government knows very well that Albanians are unarmed but they are trying to prove that there is an organised army or whatever they want to prove.

Serbia’s deputy foreign minister dismisses the Albanians’ charges of police brutality and repression. He argues that the police raids are necessary to root out terrorists and that Serbia is simply exercising its legitimate rights.

Would you approve of importing different arms, explosives, which they do undertake by using those arms illegally imported from different parts, etc. They do it, and we have the legal right to search for that, stop not only there. That is the case all around because you have war on your border, and we search not only there. We search also on the border with Bosnia, Croatia, Krajina, from Bulgaria, etc.

But while terrorism is a legitimate concern, it hardly justifies the abuses taking place almost on a daily basis in Kosovo. According to the Human Rights Council, the authorities’ tactics amount to a form of ethnic cleansing.

Yes, this is quiet ethnic cleansing. Sometimes it’s not very quiet, but it can be classified as quiet ethnic cleansing. People are leaving the country, and it is very openly on TV and in their programmes, their political programmes. They talk very openly about changing the ethnic composition of Kosovo. They talk about Albanians: half of us, we are Shiptars, and half of us are Albanians which is not true because Shiptars is how we call ourselves, and Albanians, that’s how the world calls us. They say all the Shiptars have to stay in Kosovo, and all Albanians have to go to Albania. According to them, there are 90% Albanians and 10% Shiptars. So they want to reduce the percentage of Albanians in Kosovo by 90%.

The editor of an Albanian language weekly, which has been closed down by the Serb authorities, is also categorical. Even the Serbs, he says, admit that their objective is to force as many Albanians as possible to leave Kosovo.

Mr. Borsovic, he was a former prime minister of Serbia. He said that we don’t need to have war in Kosovo, but we need to have continual police repression in all Kosovo, in the villages, in the towns, and in that way you can create some kind of panic. In that way they will try with this continuing pressure, with police action, raids and everything, to create a panic among Albanians to go Albanians out of Kosovo seeking for political asylum. More than 300,000 Albanians left Kosovo in the past two years seeking political asylum.

While the human rights violations are undeniable, Dr. Dusan Janić, who specialises in ethnic relations at the University of Belgrade, believes neither side in Kosovo is completely free of blame.

First of all, the human rights violations are facts. But both sides are manipulating these facts. President Slobodan Milošević’s regime is using repression to maintain order in Kosovo. I’d describe it as a policy of domination because throughout Kosovo’s history, domination has been the name of the game not cooperation. On the other hand, the Albanians have been manipulating and using human rights violations to try and resolve the Albanian situation and the status of Kosovo. I realise that it’s not possible to distinguish between individual and collective rights, but violations of individual human rights shouldn’t automatically linked to the question of collective rights. What’s clear is that it won’t be possible to end these grave human rights violations for the time being because of the nationalistic approach of the Albanian opposition and the overly chauvinistic approach of the Serbian government.  

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSCE, stationed observers in Kosovo for a period to monitor the situation and prevent an escalation. But the Serb authorities refused to extend the CSCE’s mandate. In mid-August, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution, calling on Serbia to reconsider its decision, but so far it’s received no response. In Kosovo itself, an eerie calm reigns despite the ongoing Serb raids in search of arms and the mounting number of abuses reported by the Kosovo Human Rights Council. As one local Albanian put it, this is neither peace nor war. The question everyone is asking is how much longer can this last?

Reporting from Kosovo, I’m Eric Beauchemin.