Arson and vandalism after 17th March, 2004
Introduction and a precedent for violence
On 17th March, 2004, rioting spread across the UN-administered province of Kosovo. At least nineteen people, mainly Serbs trapped in village ghettoes since June, 1999, were murdered. Many Serb houses were damaged or destroyed by fire. A number of important historical monuments also came under attack. BHHRG has sent observers to Kosovo on numerous occasions since the end of the NATO air war in June, 1999. In March 2003, the Group had warned that the steady withdrawal of KFOR troops from Serb enclaves left both the ghettoised population and their cultural monuments at risk if the Albanian majority turned on them. At that time, a Swedish KFOR contingent had pulled its tanks away from the world famous orthodox monastery at Gračanica outside Priština.
Ostensibly, the violence broke out when local Albanians were enraged by reports that three teenage boys had been chased to their deaths in the River Ibar by a gang of Serbs accompanied by savage dogs. According to the initial reports, these events took place near the ethnically-divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica in the north of the province which had been a flashpoint for violence in the past. The truth of the claims about the three Albanian boys was disputed and no universally accepted version of the events sparking the rioting has emerged since. It has even been alleged that the entire story was untrue and that no such incident took place. In other words, black propaganda may have been spread to provoke the violence and vandalism which followed the broadcasting of the news of the three boys’ deaths by Kosova television and radio stations. For instance by mid-July, a BBC radio documentary described the claims that Serbs had drowned the boys as “now widely discredited”.
Coincidence or Cause?
It may be that the violence was a spontaneous outburst of inter-ethnic hatred. Perhaps Albanians in Kosovo only needed to hear media reports or rumours of a Serb atrocity to embark on their own violent spree. However, some observers on the ground questioned the idea that mobs of Albanians had spontaneously gathered across the province at the drop of a hat and simultaneously set about attacking Serb ghettoes across Kosovo. For instance, it was reported that “A senior international United Nations police official said: “The situation is not under control. This is planned, co-ordinated, one-way violence from the Albanians against the Serbs. It is spreading and has been brewing for the past week.” Apparently he added, “Nothing in Kosovo happens spontaneously.” This official, UN police spokesman, Derek Chappell, was “transferred” from his post days later without any reason being given.
Although the Western media, egged on by the OSCE communications desk in Pristina emphasised the alleged incident with the three boys and the dogs as the cause of the rioting, simultaneously a highly-sensitive extradition was underway from Kosovo to Macedonia. On the same day as the disorders broke out, it was reported that a local Macedonian-born Kosovo Liberation Army commandant, Xhemail Iseni , was to be deported to Macedonia where he had been convicted in December, 2003, of a variety of offences including sabotage of the Skopje-Belgrade railway line. Mr Iseni used the notorious nom de guerre, “Jamie Shea” in honour of the NATO spokesman who became briefly famous in 1999 for his frequently inaccurate briefings during the 78-day air war. Iseni was an infamous figure in the guerrilla wars waged by the KLA against the Serbs in 1998-99 and later by the NLA against the Macedonians in 2001.
Iseni and others had been convicted by a court in Kumanovo for planting a bomb on the railway line near Vaksince in Macedonia. By an ironic coincidence, the crime took place on 17th March, 2003, exactly one year to the day before the rioting in Kosovo. On 2nd December, 2003, he was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. However, Iseni managed to escape from the jurisdiction of the authorities in Macedonia and flee to Kosovo where he handed himself in to the US military, with whom he had cooperated in the past. He was held at the US base Camp Bondsteel. On Friday, 12th March 2004, the authorities in Kosovo announced that Mr. Iseni would be extradited to Macedonia. The rioting broke out 5 days later. After the situation calmed down , on 30th April, after requests for his extradition from the authorities in Macedonia, “Jamie Shea” and an accomplice were ferried by US helicopter to Skopje. Maybe Mr Iseni’s deportation was just a coincidence and had nothing to do with the outbreak of disorder but in the past a similar case had been conflated with another child murder.
Previous attempts to return ethnic Albanians accused of mafia crimes in Macedonia to stand trial or complete their sentences there had caused trouble in Kosovo. Most notoriously, four years earlier another child murder case had been politicised by Albanian supporters of the ostensibly defunct KLA to pressure the US military to reverse the decision to extradite a senior KLA commandant wanted for mafia-style crimes in Macedonia.
A Precedent: The Hasani Case in 2000
On 13th January, 2000, Frank Ronghi, a staff sergeant in the 82nd Airborne division in Kosovo apparently raped and murdered an eleven year old girl, Merita Shabiu, in Vitina. Ronghi’s unit had already earned a reputation for its heavy-handed methods while interrogating Albanians suspected of violence against Serbs or black market activities. Lieutenant- General Riccardo Sanchez, the US commander in Kosovo, had reproved Ronghi’s commanding officer:
“You’re a seasoned commander and you could have and should known what was going on in your unit and tried to prevent it.”
General Sanchez had no doubts where command responsibility lay when he was in charge of US forces in Kosovo four years ago. According to the Washington Post’s defence reporter, Dana Priest, in her book, The Mission, extolling the American military’s role in the post-Cold War world, Sanchez was responding to a litany of charges of brutality culminating in the rape and murder of the eleven year old Kosovan girl in January, 2000. Much of the routine beating of detainees to get information and the occasional minor sexual assaults reported to Sanchez then sound like a preview of the Abu Ghraib charges today. Yet, apart from the murder charge, they got little or no publicity outside Kosovo.
Although Dana Priest’s book incidentally records routine brutality towards suspects in Kosovo during General Sanchez’s command, what is of immediate significance here is the fact that immediately before the rape and murder of Merita Shabiu, Ronghi’s unit had arrested a leading former member of the KLA and alleged local mafia boss, Xhavit Hasani. What followed Hasani’s arrest on racketeering related charges revealed a lot about the nature of the relations between liberator-occupiers in Kosovo and the local Albanian politico-military elite.
Priest claims that: “Hasani’s arrest created a significant crisis for the United States and UNMIK. Both feared that Hasani’s detention would provoke a violent retaliation by Albanian rebels against KFOR troops throughout the province.” It is striking how it was assumed that Hasani’s arrest would trigger Kosovo-wide trouble. Could such universal trouble be spontaneous? Priest reports that back in 2000 “After several weeks, Brigadier General Sanchez wanted to release Hasani.”because of mass protests among the local Albanians ostensibly about the murdered girl.
Another KLA commandant, Skender Habibi, came to General Sanchez and told him, “We can make this all go away if you release our compatriot, Mr Xhavit Hasani”! He added, “The family will not blame KFOR.” In other words, the girl’s murder could be written off if the US army released a KLA man involved in organised crime. Despite General Sanchez’s reported desire to deal with the former KLA over the Hasani case, the UN refused to cave in. Priest reports, “In March, 2000, the UN finally handed Xhavit Hasani over to authorities in Skopje, Macedonia. His imprisonment there shook the Macedonian government. Albanians in Kosovo threw up a series of roadblocks.” KLA gunmen in Macedonia kidnapped 4 Macedonian soldiers and as Priest reports “in a secret deal with the Macedonian authorities, the masked men exchanged the soldiers for Hassani” who returned in triumph to Kosovo.
The importance of this episode is that it reveals – as only a privileged US insider-reporter could – the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealing between para-military mafiosi, KFOR and UN authorities (UNMiK). Maybe in four years time, another enterprising journalist will publish an expose of the “Jamie Shea” case and any links it had to the politicisation of alleged child murder.