March riots in March 2004

Violence in Kosovo in March 2004 led to 19 people being killed, more than 900 injured and the destruction or damage of around 800 houses and over 20 churches/monasteries.

           In this period, a wide conflict between Albanians and Serbs took place throughout the entire territory of Kosovo. Events swiftly began and developed on 17-18 March 2004 but signs of an inter-ethnic Serbian-Albanian conflict had appeared earlier. On 17 and 18 March, an inter-ethnic wave of fights erupted, and embraced all the Serbian settlements.

According to estimates, 50,000 Kosovo Albanians took part in the violence. Protests were initially started by the Albanian inhabitants of Prishtina and Prizren. A TV news report on 16 March about the manner in which some Serbian boys drowned three Albanians children in River Iber was enough for Kosovo to be drawn into protests and ethnic clashes. Mitrovica became the most threatened part in Kosovo because both sides, the Albanians in the south and Serbs in the north, set up barricades separating themselves. During this unrest, 21 civilians lost their lives; 19 of them were Albanians, and one thousand others were injured. As a counter action, the mosque in Belgrade, a sixteenth-century heritage monument, was burnt to the ground on the evening of 17 March. This event provoked Albanians to burn and destroy Serbian churches and monasteries in Kosovo. Seventeen churches and monasteries were destroyed on 18 March. In essence, the primary causes of these clashes and protests of 17 and 18 March should be sought more deeply. Because of the Serbian brutality in Kosovo, Albanians and Serbs continued to maintain a hostile attitude and a deep mutual hatred. The Serbian government’s provocations and extremist attitude regarding the Albanians’ decision to establish their own independent country exacerbated the level of this enmity. Although closely monitoring the situation, KFOR was completely taken by surprise at the Albanian response. Peace-keeping forces were criticised by different groups for their “inability” to prevent the events and for not reacting. Nevertheless, an armed reaction against hundreds of thousands of highly mobilised people demonstrating against Serbian provocations was impossible.

These events followed on from other ones. A trial against Fatmir Limaj, Hajredin Balaj and Isak Musliu had started in The Hague on 27 February; they were accused of ‘war crimes’ in Kosovo. These actions were regarded by Albanians as part of the international community’s tendency to put them on a par with the Serbian terror. Meanwhile, they saw a preference of The Hague Special Prosecution to maintain a one-sided attitude when assessing incidents during the war. Serbia’s War Prosecution simultaneously issued international arrest warrants for the KLA’s main leaders, Hashim Thaçi and Agim Çeku, while Serbian criminals inside Serbia remained unpunished. On the other hand, the UN mission, UNMIK, instead of carrying out its role to administer Kosovo, often implemented Serbia’s advice,  particularly regarding privatisation. KFOR came to be seen as the sole non-prejudical force by Kosovo Albanians. This was presumably another reason why its command did not act to stop ferocity of the violent protests of 17-18 March.

Kosovo was politically procrastinating because of the Western countries’ contradictory attitude. The ‘Standard before the status’ platform had announced. The European Union and the Contact Group had set Kosovo conditions before initiating the dialogue for its political status. Serbian PM, Vojisllav Kostunica formally negated Kosovo’s right to self-determination, contested its territorial integrity, demanding it to be divided into cantons without any political, national or human rights.

Furthermore, high levels of unemployment, lack of economic development, absence of investments, and privatisations by UNMIK placed Albanians in quarantine. If you add to this the fact that the population had a considerable number of weapons and munitions, it was clear the situation in Kosovo was volatile.

KFOR found itself powerless in solving the political problems caused by UNMIK’s unilateral policy and by some other European countries favouring Serbia and Russia. On 16 March, peaceful demonstrations were organised in 27 Kosovan cities demanding  the release of KLA commanders from arrest. On 17-18 March, however, they transformed into violent protests and brutal confrontations whose objective was revenge against the Serbian minority in Kosovo. A ‘Central Protest Committee’ was announced as being the organiser of demonstrations without being constituted as a political, non-political or non-governmental organisation.

Enver Bytyçi. Diplomacia imponuese e NATO-s në Kosovë. (Tiranë, Instituti i Studimeve të Evropës Juglindore, 2012), 296-299.

           In March 2004, a number of protests, and acts of civil disobedience occurred in Kosovo. Between 17 and 19 March of that year, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse, as a wave of riots swept through Kosovo.

These riots appeared to have been sparked by events of the previous day. On the 16th of March, three Albanian boys drowned in the Ibar River, near Çabrë/Čabra, Zubin Potok municipality. The media reported that a fourth boy, who had been with them but survived, claimed that the four boys had been chased into the river by Serbs from a nearby village and a dog. On the night of 16 March, Kosovo media reported the disappearance and presumed drowning of the three boys. Despite appeals for caution from UNMIK Police, television reports quickly and firmly attributed the deaths to an attack by Serbs, giving this incident the immediate potential to heighten already tense ethnic relations in Mitrovicё/Mitrovica and elsewhere in Kosovo.

On 17 March, protests over these deaths began in Mitrovicё/Mitrovica and soon escalated into an inter-ethnic conflict between Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs near the main Ibar river bridge, which connects the divided northern and southern areas of the city. By the end of the day, related protests in every major town in Kosovo had transformed into violent riots against members of minorities, law enforcement authorities, and security forces.

According to UNMIK police reports, 33 major riots were counted, in which it is estimated that approximately 51,000 persons were involved. The persons involved in these riots were of a variety of ages and social statuses. However, the majority of those who were charged with criminal offences and minor offences were young people, mostly unemployed, and of low educational background. In the majority of cases, the age of persons charged with riot offences is around 18 – 19 years old, with the oldest being 77 years old and the youngest 15 years old; furthermore, their educational background varies from illiterate to, in very few cases, higher education.


Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2004   Failure to Protect – Anti-Minority Violence in Kosovo, March 2004

           On March 17 and 18, 2004, violent rioting by ethnic Albanians took place throughout Kosovo, spurred by sensational and ultimately inaccurate reports that Serbs had been responsible for the drowning of three young Albanian children. For nearly forty-eight hours, the security structures in Kosovo-the NATO – led Kosovo Force (KFOR), the international U.N. (UNMIK) police, and the locally recruited Kosovo Police Service (KPS) – almost completely lost control, as at least thirty-three major riots broke out across Kosovo, involving an estimated 51,000 participants.

The violence across Kosovo represents the most serious setback since 1999 in the international community’s efforts to create a multi-ethnic Kosovo in which both the government and civil society respect human rights. From the capital Pristina/Prishtine, to cities like Prizren and Djakovica/Gjakove, to small villages like Slatina/Sllatine and Belo Polje/Bellopoje, large ethnic Albanian crowds acted with ferocious efficiency to rid their areas of all remaining vestiges of a Serb presence, and also targeted other minorities such as Roma, including Ashkali who are Albanian-speaking Roma. In many of the communities affected by violence, in attacks both spontaneous and organized, every single Serb, Roma, or Askaeli home was burned. In the village of Svinjare/Frasher, all 137 Serb homes were burned, but ethnic Albanian homes were left untouched. In nearby Vucitrn/Vushtrii, the ethnic Albanian crowd attacked the Ashkali community, burning sixty-nine Ashkali homes. In Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove, one Serb was beaten to death, and over one hundred Serb and Roma homes were burned, as well as the post office, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian school, and the Serbian hospital. Even the tiniest Serb presences were a target for the hostile crowds: ethnic Albanian crowds attacked the Serbian Orthodox Church in Djakovica for hours, ultimately driving out five elderly Serb women who were the last remaining Serbs in Djakovica, from a pre-war population of more than 3,000.

The March violence forced out the entire Serb population from dozens of locations-including the capital Pristina – and equally affected Roma and Ashkali communities. After two days of rioting, at least 550 homes and twenty-seven Orthodox churches and monasteries were burned, leaving approximately 4,100 Serbs, Roma, Ashkali, and other non-Albanian minorities displaced …

The security organizations in Kosovo-KFOR, UNMIK international police, and the KPS-failed catastrophically in their mandate to protect minority communities during the March 2004 violence. In numerous cases, minorities under attack were left entirely unprotected and at the mercy of the rioters. In Svinjare, French KFOR troops failed to come to the assistance of the besieged Serbs, even though their main base was just a few hundred meters away-in fact, the ethnic Albanian crowd had walked right past the base on its way to burning down the village….

OSCE Report, The Role of the Media in the March 2004 Events in Kosovo

…The situation created on 17 March and during the following days, cannot be separated from the TV reporting on 16/17 March. In particular, TV journalists and their editors failed to behave according to the ethics of their profession, acted emotionally and put their “patriotic” duty, as they saw it, first.

The Kosovar Albanian TV media decided to qualify the incident of the drowning of the three children as cases of death caused directly and beyond any doubt by hostile, local Serbs. No evidence was offered to support this and the child interviewed never claimed this, as was clearly and vigorously presented by the media. The coverage of the riots created a new dimension of biased reporting when references to the violence were preceded by “justifications.” The strong visuals used were there not to appal but to incite…

           The aftermath of March 2004 was an opportunity to demonstrate the existence of the rule of law in Kosovo. Instead, it seems to have confirmed the erratic nature of justice in the province. It has highlighted the inability of the police to successfully investigate difficult cases, and raised concern about the ability of the police to investigate allegations of abuse within their own ranks. It has demonstrated an unwillingness or inability of prosecutors to embrace fully their new role as investigative prosecutors, and confirmed accounts of case mismanagement and a lack of oversight within the courts. It has underscored a lack of clarity about responsibilities within UNMIK’s many departments. And it has shown a fundamental lack of respect for individual victims. In short, the aftermath of March 2004 was an opportunity lost.

The failure to bring to justice many of those responsible for the violence and destruction of March 2004 compounds an earlier lack of accountability for the war crimes and serious anti-minority violence of 1998-2000. Human Rights Watch research indicates that the lack of progress in delivering justice for these serious crimes has hampered Kosovo’s progress toward a functional state. There is a real danger that if the status quo on impunity continues, Kosovo risks becoming a “failed state” in which lawlessness and arbitrariness, not transparent, democratic rule will reign, regardless of the identity of the future leadership of the province.

The gap in justice has further contributed to the diminishing respect majority and minority populations alike have for the international presence in Kosovo. It is vital that the international community seize its last opportunity and address its failings in this important aspect of its administration of the province.

Human Rights Watch, Not on the Agenda, The Continuing Failure to Address Accountability in Kosovo Post-March 2004, May 29, 2006

Pogrom – Kosovo and Metohija, March 17, 2004

It has been 13 years since the ethnically motivated violence against Serbs in March 2004.
Crime without punishment!

During three days of Albanian violence against the Serbs on 17, 18 and 19 March 2004, 10 Serbs were killed, 35 churches and monasteries were demolished and set on fire, 935 Serb buildings, of which 738 were Serb houses, 10 public buildings, schools, post offices and health centers. Precisely 4,012 Serbs were expelled from six cities and nine villages. – Two villages were totally obliterated, Slatina and Svinjare. False, sensationalist and tendentious reporting by the Albanian media was condemned by all sides.

It has been 11 years since the ethnically motivated violence and persecution of the Serbs by Albanians on 17 and 18 March 2004. In front of the eyes of the international military and civilian mission in Kosovo and Metohija, embodied in KFOR and UNMIK, there was an unheard-of terror against and persecution of the Serbs. At that time, there were 38,000 KFOR soldiers from 39 countries in Kosovo and Metohija, as well as 8,000 UN police officers from 52 countries. This was the second major persecution of Serbs from Kosovo and Metohija before the eyes of the entire world since June and July 1999.  Moreover, the KFOR soldiers and UNMIK police were armed to the teeth.

False reporting!

The consequences of the March violence have not yet been rectified and the most tragic part is that some places no longer have any Serbs remaining in them, and not even five percent of those expelled have returned to their homes! It all began with sensationalist, tendentious and untrue reporting by Albanian, first electronic and then print media, later condemned by the OSCE, about the drowning of  three Albanian boys, on 16 March, in the River Ibar near the village of Čabra in the Zubin Potok municipality in northwestern Kosovo and Metohija. Without any facts and arguments for this, the Priština media declared the Serbs guilty. Sensationalist and false reporting by the Albanian media that Serbs with their dogs had forced the Albanian boys to jump into the Ibar and drown, prompted Albanians to physically attack Serbs, Serb property and Serbian churches and monasteries in all parts of Kosovo and Metohija. The escalation, as it was soon proven by international representatives, of a planned and motivated violence, first began in Kosovska Mitrovica, then in Čaglavica near Priština, Prizren, Peć, Đakovica, Obilić, Podujevo, Gnjilane, Svinjare and almost all places south of the Ibar where Serbs lived.

KFOR and UNMIK had a “prepared” response to the mass violence, stating that they were taken aback by such massive and brutal violence by the Albanians against the Serbs and that this was the reason for their inadequate and untimely reaction!
UNMIK police and KFOR later reported that 60,000 Albanians had taken part in that Albanian violence against the Serbs on 17, 18 and 19 March. It has been recorded that, at that time, 4,012 Serbs were expelled from six cities and nine villages. More than 550 Serbs were expelled from Obilić, more than 100 from Priština, 60 from Prizren, 300 from Gnjilane, 200 from Kosovo Polje, four elderly Serb women were expelled from Đakovica… and the villages of Slatina near Vučitrn and Svinjare near Kosovska Mitrovica with more than 160 households, were raised to the ground in front the eyes of KFOR and UN police because all of their Serb inhabitants were expelled!?

Helicopter as a lifeguard!

Five Serbian women were evacuated from the parish building of St. Nicholas Church in Đakovica and, by the French KFOR helicopter, nuns were also evacuated from the Devič Monastery near Srbica, before the arrival of more than 2,000 violent Albanians. German KFOR rescued the monks from the Monastery of Holy Archangels, which was completely burnt down, by evacuating them in armored and battle transporters, fleeing alongside the Prizrenska Bistrica River. In the returnee Serb village of Belo Polje near Peć, about 40 Serb returnees found shelter in the parish building, as hundreds of Albanians threw themselves at them and their newly-built houses were set on fire. On the second day of the violence, on 18 March, when the Albanians set off with the specific intention of setting fire to them in their parish building, an American female police officer from the UN, warned them by firing a gun in the air, not to approach the terrified Serbs in the building. However, this shot in the air did not stop the perverts, but they started moving towards the building with even more determination. The UN police officer then shot and killed the leader of the obsessed mob of Albanians! Only then did the perverts stop and then the Italian KFOR evacuated the Serb returnees from the village with armored vehicles in a hail of stones that were being thrown at them.

Shots of an American woman!

Not wanting to perform the role for which they came to Kosovo and Metohija, KFOR and UNMIK police even advised the Serbs to leave their homes – making it clear that they would not be protected!. The bare-headed Serb people had no other choice but to start running away under the violent threats of the enraged Albanian mob. The consequences of the great March persecution of the Serbs are still felt today, and not even five percent of the total number of those expelled have returned to their homes. Thus, today there are 40 Serbs in Priština, 18 in Prizren, two in Uroševac, three in Đakovica, 20 in Obilić…

Afterwards KFOR and UNMIK announced that 242 people, mostly Albanians, had been indicted for the March violence and 157 were brought before court. While 350 Albanian perpetrators of the ethnically-motivated violence against Serbs in March were arrested, few of them were convicted and brought to justice. Like so many times before, the organizers are beyond the reach of the law!

Injured on all sides!

The March ethnic-Albanian violence against Serbs saw more than 954 injured, including more than 40 KFOR members, 65 members of the UNMIK international police force and 58 members of the Kosovo Police Service. The Albanians destroyed 72 UNMIK vehicles. Eleven Albanians were killed (mainly by KFOR snipers firing at those Albanians who carried and used firearms in public) and ten Serbs were killed by Albanians. Across Kosovo and Metohija, 935, mainly Serb, facilities were destroyed and damaged, including 10 schools, post offices and health centers – according to the OSCE official data.

Publication of the Serbian Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans and Social Affairs, 16 March 2017—kosovo-i-m%D0%B5tohija-17.-mart-2004.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has never in its history, in such a short time, suffered a severe blow on the territory considered to be the Serbian Jerusalem.  At its very centre, in Prizren, there are no Serbian sites which were not destroyed, burned or desecrated. The systematic destruction of the Church of the Holy Virgin of Ljeviš went on for hours, and the people who set fire to it brought old car tires into this historical monument which is on the UNESCO list, so the fire could ingest some of the most beautiful paintings from the first half of the 14th century. The paintings with vivid colours, new dynamics and feelings, which had waited centuries to have the plaster and lime of the Ottoman conquerors removed, once again fell into darkness and night on 17 March. Today, with agonising pain, the master strokes of the painter Nikola and Astrapas are being revived on the face of the Mother of God of Prizren, who nourished the hungry. But this is not the worst thing that has happened to Prizren. The city there has disappeared, the city’s spirit, its multiethnicity, the old Serbian core of the city, the oriental and noble one have been destroyed. Serbs, for the first time, have ceased to be the city’s people and have become internally displaced persons in their home city, at the German KFOR base.

Nine years after the March pogrom of Kosovo Serbs, Nova Srpska Politička Misao,17 Mart 2013

Jeton Mikullovci cartoons  in the Koha Ditore newspaper on the situation in Kosovo during the riots of March 2004

Nis, Serbia, March 18, 2004. A group of Serb setting fire to the city mosque  (Reuters, 18 March 2004)

Documentary films

Associated Press:  KFOR and protesters in Mitrovica, March 2004

KLAN Kosova: Interview with the parent of one of the children drowned in the River Ibar

MOST film: Mitrovice protesters clash with KFOR, 17 March in Mitrovice.