Reactions to the
ERRC: Ethnic Cleansing of "Gypsies" in Kosovo
The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the situation of Roma in Europe, is writing to express deep concern at the grave human rights violations against Roma and Ashkaelia in Kosovo committed on and after March 17, 2004 and currently ongoing.
The ERRC has gathered evidence that Roma and Ashkaelia have been subjected to very serious human rights violations during the wave of pogroms on minority communities carried out in the period March 17-21, 2004 throughout the province by ethnic Albanians. ERRC field investigation undertaken in recent days has documented that, in addition to the pogroms on ethnic Serb communities, several hundred Roma and Ashkaelia have been also targeted. At least 75 houses belonging to Romani and Ashkaeli families have been set on fire. This figure may rise further, since it does not include instances of violence in localities of which we have been informed but have not yet undertaken first-hand documentation.
We appeal to you to give full attention to the human rights status of Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians and all other persons regarded by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as "Gypsies", and therefore currently under extreme threat of violence in Kosovo.
A summary of ERRC documentation in some localities in Kosovo in recent days follows:
ERRC research established that approximately 70 houses belonging to Ashkaeli persons were set on fire by Albanian attackers (referred to locally as "protesters") on March 18, 2004, in the town of Vushtri/Vucitrn, about 10 kilometres south of Kosovska Mitrovica -- the place where the pogroms on Kosovo Serbs had begun the day before. The houses were completely destroyed in the arson attacks.
According to eyewitnesses, on March 18, 2004, at approximately 17:00, a crowd of 200-300 persons gathered at the St. Elias Orthodox church in the town, which in 1999 had also been the target of assaults by ethnic Albanians in the context of ethnic cleansing of minorities in Kosovo following the end of the NATO military action in June 1999. At the time of the March 18, 2004 incident, the Moroccan KFOR unit which had been positioned to protect the site, failed to provide any protection and allegedly left. The crowd set fire to the church and the adjacent structures, destroyed some of the remaining church interior, including an altar and wall paintings, and knocked down tombstones in the graveyard located beside the church. At around the same time, a second crowd began to gather and subsequently headed toward the Ashkaeli neighbourhood. The group that had set the church on fire then joined the attackers in the Ashkaeli area.
According to the testimony of Ashkaeli eyewitnesses, during the pogrom, a crowd of ethnic Albanians came to the Ashkaeli neighbourhood and started breaking into the houses. Their intention was, according to witnesses interviewed by the ERRC, to burn the houses to the ground while persons were still inside. The first house burnt was the house of Xemail Balinca. Some of the attackers allegedly tried to rape a girl from the Balinca family. The next house broken into belonged to the Qizmolli family.
According to Mr Hamit Zymeri, an Ashkaeli eyewitness to the pogrom, neighbours gathered in the yard of the Qizmolli house in order to help the family, but officers of the Kosovo Police Service (KPS) intervened. The representatives of the Ashkaeli group alleged that some of the KPS officers acted in complicity with the attackers. Three members of the Qizmolli family were then arrested by KPS officers.
According to the testimony to the ERRC of Station Commander Martin Wenzel, a senior UNMIK officer, Ashkaeli persons allegedly fired at the Albanian crowd, in an attempt to defend their homes. According to Station Commander Wenzel, these shots were not the trigger for the onslaught and arson that followed; the attackers had allegedly already decided to evict, burn and destroy the neighbourhood. In his view, "Everything was orchestrated."
According to Officer Wenzel, when the information that Ashkaeli houses were being attacked was received, ten KPS police officers volunteered to evacuate the Ashkaeli families and bring them to the police station. Over 200 Ashkaeli people were assisted by KPS officers in fleeing their homes
and coming inside the building of the police station. At about 19:30, the last Ashkaeli individuals were extracted from the area under mob siege. The houses were subsequently burned to the ground. At approximately 2:00 AM the following morning, the evacuated Ashkaelia were transferred to the French KFOR base at Plana. Two days later, they were transported to the French KFOR military compound Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny, near the village of Novo Selo.
The three members of the Qizmolli Ashkaeli family detained at the time of the pogrom were held initially at the same police station. An AK-47 and hunting guns were seized during the arrest. The men were released two days later, reportedly on verbal order of the local prosecutor and they joined the other Ashkaeli people in the camp. According to the Officer Wenzel, the three men face charges of illegal possession of firearms. In addition, an investigation into the destruction by arson of each of the approximately 70 houses in Vushtri/Vucitrn is currently reportedly open. As of March 28, 2004, no one associated with the attacking crowd had been detained in relation to the arsons and the looting.
According to Mr Hamit Zymeri, an Ashkaeli man with whom the ERRC spoke at the French KFOR compound in Novo Selo, the total number of persons burned out of Vushtri/Vucitrn in the attack was 257; there were 87 children, 85 women, two of whom are pregnant, 13 children under 3 years of age, and 18 babies under 6 months of age. According to a medical expert from the Ashkaeli community, thirteen people have diabetes, 20 have high blood pressure, 3 have epilepsy, and one woman has hip condition and is unable to walk. The conditions in the camp, according to the Ashkaeli representatives are poor: the barracks, which accommodated eleven persons each, were damp from heavy rain and were inadequately heated.
At approximately 17:15-17:30 on March 17, Serbian and Romani communities in the town of Gjilan/Gnjilane, about 35 km southwest of Pristina were attacked by a mob of ethnic Albanians, reportedly predominantly young people in their teens. According to Romani eyewitnesses with whom the ERRC spoke, twenty-three houses belonging to Serbs were burnt. Also according to Romani eyewitnesses, the attackers were also intent on burning Romani houses. The attackers arrived at the Romani streets with canisters of inflammable liquid. Albanian neighbours, however, reportedly protected the Roma and did not allow the attackers to set their houses on fire. The attackers threw stones at Romani houses breaking windows and doors. They also insulted the Roma, calling them Majup(a pejorative word meaning, roughly, Gypsiesin Albanian). Some of the attackers broke into the house of Sulejman Demiri, in the process breaking the front door and window-panes.
The house of Milaim Demiri was also attacked with stones and some window-panes were broken. According to Mr Milaim Demiri, some of the attackers asked Roma why they did not join the protest. Also according to Mr Milaim Demiri, one Romani house in another neighbourhood, Avdulla Presheva, was burnt. The house belonged to Mr Ramadan Selimi. Roma with whom the ERRC spoke in Gjilan/Gnjilane were afraid to accompany the ERRC to
see the Romani house. They did not know the whereabouts of Mr Selimi.
According to ERRC research, the police first appeared approximately six hours after the attack. Locals told the ERRC that the town has a community of 350 Roma. The number of Roma used to be between 5,000-6,000 before 1999, but most of these fled during the campaign of ethnic cleansing of minorities in Kosovo, 1999-present.
According to eyewitnesses with whom the ERRC spoke on March 28 in the town of Lipjan/Lipljan, about 15 km south of Pristina, three houses belonging to Ashkaeli and Romani families were burnt to the ground on March 17 and March 21. The ERRC spoke with Ms Selvije Kurteshi, an Ashkaeli woman whose house was burnt down on March 21 at around 2:00 AM. Ms Kurteshi and her family were not in their house at the time it was set on fire; they were temporarily accommodated in the house of Ms Kurteshis brother, located nearby. Neighbours reportedly told Ms Kurteshi that her house was burning, but stated that they were not able to identify the attackers. Mr Kurteshi told the ERRC that all of the furniture in the house was destroyed in the fire. According to Ms Kurteshi, KFOR arrived at the scene of the attack approximately one hour after the fire. The fire was extinguished by the police, who had reportedly been called by neighbours. The other two houses burnt in Lipjan/Lipljan belonged to Ashkaeli persons currently refugees outside Kosovo. Both houses were reportedly set on fire on March 17. The Investigator of the KPS in Lipjan/Lipljan in charge of the investigation cases told the ERRC that investigations had been opened with respect to the arson attacks on the three houses. He declined to provide the ERRC with information as to whether persons had been detained or charged in connection with the attacks.
In the town of Obiliq/Obilic, east of Pristina, a number of Romani persons with whom the ERRC spoke told the ERRC that they had fled their homes on March 17 and sought refuge in the nearby Plemetina refugee camp when they saw a mob of people approaching their neighbourhood. At least three Romani families were reportedly forced to flee from their homes in Obiliq/Obilic in advance of rioters there. The ERRC subsequently observed that the building in Obiliq/Obilic where the Berisha family -- one of the families concerned -- lived was looted and that window panes in the building were broken and other damage to the exterior was visible. The building had previously housed ethnic Serbs and Roma. According to Mr Shevki Berisha and Ms Taibe Berisha, Romani victims of the attacks, no authority came to help them when the crowd gathered intent on attacking their house. As of March 28, no authority had been to visit them in the Plemetina camp. They stated to the ERRC that they did not have means to buy food and were afraid to go to Obiliq/Obilic.
In Obiliq/Obilic, the ERRC also visited a community of 19 Roma, Ashkaeli and Egyptian families, who live in recently rebuilt houses on the outskirts of Obiliq/Obilic. They told the ERRC that none of them had been attacked on March 17. However, individuals in the community stated that they feared attack and had stopped sending their children to school. One Ashkaeli man told the ERRC, We are not free to go to Obiliq/Obilic. All persons in the community were reportedly unemployed at the time of the ERRC visit; they collect scrap metal to earn money for food.
The situation of Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians and others regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo is now extremely precarious. In March 2004, Roma, Ashkaelia and others regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo have again been targeted for extreme violence as part of a campaign begun in 1999 by ethnic Albanians to expel minorities from the province, to seize their property and to do them serious physical harm. In the close to five years since an international administration was established in Kosovo, rudimentary security has never been durably established in Kosovo and minorities have been daily unable to enjoy basic freedom from fear of physical attack. A number of communities have lived for close to half a decade without effective freedom of movement.
Efforts to bring the perpetrators of the orgy of ethnic violence undertaken in the wake of the establishment of an international authority in Kosovo have not yet even begun in earnest, much less been able to show any form of significant impact. Arrests of suspects in crimes committed by ethnic Albanians against civilians are met with ethnically inspired protests by Albanians, demonstrating under the slogan, UNMIK Stop Arresting Liberators!
The ERRC notes that on at least two occasions, governments outside Kosovo (specifically the governments of Slovenia and Hungary) have arrested and then subsequently released without charge high-ranking members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, persons for whom valid international arrest warrants have been issued in connection with ethnic cleansing acts in Kosovo.
Further, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) stated on March 21, 2001, that her office had opened an investigation into "activities against Serbs and other minorities [emphasis added] in Kosovo by unidentified Albanian armed groups from June 1999 until the present..." Asking the UN Security Council to modify the Tribunal statute to cover such crimes, Chief Prosecutor Del Ponte expressed her offices belief in the importance of pursuing these allegations: We must ensure that the Tribunals unique chance to bring justice to the populations of the former Yugoslavia does not pass into history as having been flawed and biased in favour of one ethnic group against another.
Besides, if we obtain this morally justified and necessary extension of our mandate, the Tribunal might become a deterrent factor against the ongoing ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo.
As of today, the ICTY has brought no ethnic Albanians to justice in connection with the violent attacks on Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians, and other persons regarded as "Gypsies" occurring as part of the campaign of ethnic cleansing undertaken in Kosovo in the period June 1999-present.
Local courts have not, according to employees of international agencies involved in the governance of Kosovo, proven effective to date in bringing ethnic Albanian perpetrators of racially motivated crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing against Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians, other persons regarded as "Gypsies", or indeed any other minorities in Kosovo. As such, despite the international administration of Kosovo, a climate of near-total impunity for perpetrators of violent attacks on minorities currently prevails in the province. To name only one example among nearly countless racially motivated crimes occurring in Kosovo since 1999, no one has ever been brought to justice in connection with the shooting deaths of three Ashkaeli men less than 24 hours after they returned to their native village of Dosevac/Dashevc as part of a voluntary return program in November 2000.
In light of the foregoing, it is perhaps no wonder that Roma and Ashkaelia with whom the ERRC has spoken in recent days have despaired entirely of their ability ever to live with dignity in Kosovo in the future, and have spoken with near universal voice of their desire to leave Kosovo. This in itself marks a significant change from previous ERRC documentary missions
in Kosovo and among Romani refugees outside Kosovo, many of whom expressed the desire to return to their homes in Kosovo and participate in the reconstruction of a democratic Kosovo after Milosevic. Unless your offices act adequately in the next period, the international community will have on its record the oversight and administration of the ethnic cleansing of minority communities from Kosovo.
In view of the current situation in Kosovo, the ERRC urges you to act within the powers available to your offices to ensure that:
· Without delay, the security situation of Romani and Ashkaeli communities throughout Kosovo is assessed and measures appropriate to the specific situation of each community, as well as to local community perceptions of the actual and potential risks in the given community, are swiftly undertaken;
· Prompt and impartial investigations into all acts of violence to which Romani, Ashkaeli and Egyptian individuals and other persons regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo have been subjected are carried out; all perpetrators of racially-motivated acts of ethnic cleansing are brought swiftly to justice and victims or families of victims receive adequate compensation; justice is done and seen to be done;
· The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia redoubles its efforts to bring to justice individuals guilty of the persecution of Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians and other persons regarded as "Gypsies" in Kosovo;
· All governments honor the international warrants for the arrest of a number of persons wanted in connection with crimes of ethnic cleansing occurring in Kosovo;
· Sustained efforts are undertaken by all authorities in Kosovo and involved in the administration of Kosovo to ensure that no discussions of Kosovo's final status are embarked upon until such a time as all stakeholders achieve durable and lasting consensus in practice that Kosovo is a multi-cultural society in which all individuals can freely exercise in practice all of their fundamental human rights;
· Any forced returns of Kosovo Romani, Ashkaeli or Egyptian individuals to Kosovo, or to the rest of Serbia and Montenegro are rendered impossible and impermissible until such a time as authorities in Kosovo are able to demonstrate durable and lasting security and freedom from racial discrimination for all in all parts of the province; in particular, the governments of Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom should be instructed that forced returns of minority individuals to Kosovo in the present circumstances constitute refoulement and are therefore extreme violations of international law.
Persons wishing to express similar concerns are urged to contact:
Mr. Harri Holkeri
Head of Mission
Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations for
Main Headquarters, United Nations Mission in Kosovo
Fax: +381-38-504604, ext. (5406)
Mr. Holger Kammerhoff
Commander of Kosovo Force
KFOR Main Headquarters
Fax: +389 22 682752
Mr. Bajram Rexhepi
Prime Minister of Kosovo
Office of the Prime Minister
Fax: +381 38 200 140 05
Fax: +381 38 211 582
Mr. Romano Prodi
European Commission President
Rue de Geneva
Fax: +32 2 295 8532
Ambassasdor Pascal Fieschi
Head of Mission
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
OSCE Mission in Kosovo
38 000 Pristina
Fax: + 381 38 500 188
The Rt. Hon. Chris Patten
Commission for External Relations
European Commission DG External Relations
Fax: +32 (0)2 295 78 50
Mr Geoffrey Barrett
Head of Delegation of the European Union
Paje Adamova 4
11040 - Belgrade
Serbia and Montenegro
The European Roma Rights Center is an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse. For more information about the European Roma Rights Center, visit the ERRC on the web at http://www.errc.org.
European Roma Rights Center
1386 Budapest 62
P.O. Box 906/93
Phone: +36 1 4132200
Fax: +36 1 4132201