Monthly update on ethnic minorities in Kosovo (February 2000)
The very precarious situation of minorities in Kosovo was comprehensively documented in the joint UNHCR/OSCE Fourth Assessment of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo, covering the period from November 1999 to January 2000. Subsequent to this report, the events which occurred during the month of February 2000 reveal a picture of similar patterns of human rights abuses. The violent attacks and harassment against minorities continued throughout the province, and in some areas the situation deteriorated. Impunity continued to contribute to the violence. Although UNMIK succeeded in appointing a significant number of prosecutors and judges at the end of December 1999, an effective and independent judicial system is not yet in place.
The month of February started with the attack on a UNHCR-sponsored bus service which killed two Serb passengers, and ended with a landmine attack on a commercial bus which usually transports Serbs; fortunately this time there were no passengers onboard. During the period under review, there were some positive developments, including the convening of the first round table discussion of Roma leaders in Kosovo. This initiative, hosted by the DSRSG for Humanitarian Affairs who is also the UNHCR Special Envoy, provided Roma community leaders an opportunity to articulate their concerns and views as to how they can work together to address their protection and humanitarian assistance needs.
Events in Mitrovica dominated as the divided city became the stage upon which excesses of ethnic intolerance were played out. Violence elsewhere in Kosovo received less attention given the focus on the crisis in Mitrovica and the international efforts to bring it under control.
The first wave of violence erupting in Mitrovica began on 3 February, killing nine Albanians and injuring some 15 Serbs. The escalation of violence and harassment in north Mitrovica, forced some 1900 ethnic Albanians to flee from the northern part of the city to the south. During and since the time of violent outbreaks in Mitrovica, there was an upsurge in grenade attacks against Serb enclaves elsewhere in Kosovo. At the end of the month, new progress was made towards the possible participation of the Kosovo Serbs in the Interim Administrative Council (IAC). Immediately afterwards, attacks against the Serb community occurred, which were believed to be aimed at preventing moderate Serbs from joining the IAC. This included the killing of a prominent Serb politician and well-respected medical doctor in Gnjilane; the attack on a Serb Orthodox Monastery in Decane; and a bus used by Serbs between Mitrovica and Zvecan hit a landmine suspected to have been planted on the bus route. Developments during the month of February therefore seemed to confirm, first that harassment and intimidation in one place can bring retaliation and instability in another; and second that at least some of the violence takes place not only in retaliation, but is also inspired by political motives.
Minorities suffered from intimidation, grenade attacks, arson and murder. In addition to the incidents mentioned before, the following incidents, drawn from UNMIK Police, UNHCR and KFOR reports, attempt to illustrate the scale and frequency of such attacks: on 4 February, a 50-year old Serb man was shot by masked assailants in his home in full view of his wife; on 5 February, an unoccupied Serb household in Kosovo Polje was discovered ablaze; on 6 February, two elderly Serb women were left shaken but uninjured after a grenade exploded in their front yard in Lipljan; on 7 and 8 February, grenade attacks took place on an Albanian household in North Mitrovica, a Roma household in Mali Alas and a Serb market in Gnjilane; on 10 February, a Goran male was shot dead in Dragash and the following day a Muslim Slav (Torbesh) in Prizren; on 15 February, the stabbed body of an elderly Serb woman was recovered from her burnt out home; on 18 February, another body of a Serb man was discovered in his car near Podujevo with gunshot wounds to the mouth and eye, the seatbelt of the car wrapped around his neck and his ID card pinned to his chest; and the bodies of two Serb men were recovered from the woods near Oklap after they had disappeared.
Law enforcement officials were also targeted. When violence again broke out in Mitrovica on 13 February, two KFOR soldiers were shot and injured by unidentified snipers. In the ensuing exchange of fire, KFOR killed an ethnic Albanian. Similarly, on 17 February, KFOR soldiers on static guard at an Orthodox Church in Belo Polje were fired upon. On 13 February, a UNMIK police officer was injured by shattering glass after he came under attack by small arms fire on the Kosovo Polje to Zvecan train.
In response to the crisis in Mitrovica, UNMIK Police and KFOR heavily reinforced their presence in the city to restore order and to ensure physical protection to some 800 remaining Albanians in the north and 20 Serbs in the south part of the city. Immediate security measures, including joint patrols, aggressive weapons searches and measures to isolate and remove agitators from both sides were integrated into a broader strategic programme to reunite Mitrovica. The redeployment of police forces complicated requests for a greater police presence in minority hotspots elsewhere.
Freedom of Movement
The suspension of the UNHCR-sponsored bus services in various parts of Kosovo was a harsh blow for the minority communities for which these buses represented the only regular lifeline between their isolated locations and the outside world. Despite the obvious risks involved, many communities urged that the service start up again as soon as possible. After a careful review of the situation, and based on additional security measures by KFOR, UNHCR decided at the end of the month to restart the bus lines initially on the Pristina and Gnjilane routes only. Meanwhile, commercial bus services continued to run across the provincial boundary, linking Serb enclaves to locations in Serbia, despite stoning incidents.
The inter-agency Ad Hoc Task Force on Minorities, chaired by the DSRSG for Humanitarian Affairs, examined the issue of utility billing for minorities, highlighting the following issues: that allegedly inflated utility bills were being presented to some minorities and that affected individuals needed a mechanism to lodge complaints; that persons who have not paid their utility bills for justifiable reasons should not have services disconnected without recourse and determination of the reasons thereof; that a clarification is needed as to the modalities in place to ensure that social cases showing no means to pay for services could benefit from relief exemptions as was announced by UNMIK; that persons, mainly minorities, having access only to Dinars will not be discriminated against when settling utility bills in this currency by the levying of surcharges on transactions and, that bills as per established regulation should all be printed in three languages - Serbian, Albanian and English. While this issue may be viewed as mild in comparison to the violence perpetrated against minority populations, it is yet another obstacle for minorities to access public services which needs to be addressed.
As part of the overall response strategy to establish security in Mitrovica, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General adopted, on 15 February, a regulation enabling him to appoint international judges and prosecutors to the courts in Mitrovica. The first international judge and the first international prosecutor were sworn in shortly thereafter. This effort in addition to the appointment of a significant number of local judges and prosecutors, including from minority groups, was considered an important step forward in the establishment of a fully independent, fair and transparent justice system. Meanwhile, efforts to increase minority representation on the bench suffered a setback with the resignation of three recently appointed judges, two Muslim Slavs and one Kosovo Serb. The resignation letter of one of the judges revealed the sadness and frustration felt by its author at the rejection by colleagues unwilling to accept a person of a different ethnic origin.
Kosovo Protection Corps
New members of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) walked out en masse from a swearing-in ceremony in Prizren when a Serbian translation of official speeches was provided. The ceremony could only continue when assurances were given that Albanian would be the exclusive language used. This incident put into question the KPC's commitment to basic principles of ethnic tolerance, as well as a possible future role for the KPC to undertake projects for the benefit of minorities.
Two-way returns figure prominently in UNMIK's comprehensive and phased plan to improve the situation in Mitrovica and to build a united city. Considerable pressure was exerted by Kosovo Albanian leaders on KFOR, UNMIK and UNHCR to start implementing returns of ethnic Albanians to the northern part of the city at an early stage. While supporting fully the right to return, on a voluntary basis, UNHCR has had to insist that more work needs to be done to make such returns safe and sustainable.
1 March 2000