KFOR tanks in Serb’s garden

KFOR troops yesterday searched the garden and house of Aleksandar Jovanović in the village of Bresja near Kosovo Polje.

At about 6 p.m. they cordoned off the road in the village, said KiM radio from Čaglavice.

Jovanović’s son Radoslav told the radio station that KFOR soldiers turned up in their garden at about 2 p.m., though later reinforcements of a further six or seven tanks arrived.

According to unofficial reports received by radio KiM, the KFOR troops searched the house for illegal weapons.

Kosovo Police Service deputy spokeswoman Sabrije Kamberi was unable to confirm whether a house search was involved, and added that the police had no information regarding the operation.

While we don’t have any facts of this particular case, following is a likely explanation for what just happened here. When I was in Israel recently with the American Council for Kosovo, the group’s director Jim Jatras told me the following about how cleansing works in Kosovo: When Albanians in a given village suspect that a Serb home may have weapons in it, they firebomb the house. They then call police or KFOR to come and investigate. Generally KFOR arrives and handcuffs the occupants while searching for weapons. If weapons are found, they are confiscated and the Serbs are released. The Albanians then know for sure that the house is unarmed (or disarmed), and is safe to ransack and burn — and that the Serbs will most likely leave at that point. This is how they have been cleaning out Serbian neighborhoods. Supposedly, Jim told me, only the Serbs of Mitrovica aren’t sitting ducks, and still have arms. That would be the Mitrovica which Rep. Dan Burton recently singled out as the place where, not coincidentally, “most of the remaining Serbs enjoy relative security.”

A few months after Jim told me this, I began reading Hiding Genocide in Kosovo. The method Jim described started in 1999, the year of our invasion. From page 15:

Miomir’s diary notes that when a Serb house ws attacked or damaged in an explosion, KFOR would come and search the damaged house. This had become an everyday routine…KFOR continuously detained Serbs from the village [of Cernica] after searching their houses. One US KFOR officer admitted to one of the Serbs from the village that KFOR was following up on allegations by Albanians from the village against their Serbian neighbours.

On July 22, 1999, two hand grenades were thrown into the yard of Milosrad Simic, one exploding and the other later being removed by KFOR. Soon after, KFOR raided the houses of two Serbs Svetislav and Milivoj Spasic. They damaged their properties and forced the family members, including five children ranging in age from three months to four years, to wait outside their house from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. while they were allegedly searching their houses for weapons…

As July turned into August the attacks continued; gun attacks, bombs, theft, destruction of property. Still, KFOR only arrested Serbs and on occasions even arrived at Serb houses to carry out raids accompanied by Albanians from the village. The sound of rocket propelled grenades smashing into Serb houses became a nightly chorus in the village of Cernica throughout the summer and early autumn of 1999.

In his 2006 article Behind Kosovo’s Facade, Russell Gordon describes a similar picture:

The northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica is particularly instructive. There, the town is divided by the Ibar River into a multi-ethnic North, and a “pure” — cleansed — Albanian South. In the predominantly Serb North, 4000 ethnic Albanians, plus Roma, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats live side by side with Serbs in relative normalcy — as they had during the times of Tito’s Yugoslavia…

Moreover, Serbs in the North suffer insecurity due to provocations and raids by Albanians who cross over from the South to bomb, knife and shoot Serbs with impunity. Recently, a 16 year old Albanian youth crossed over from the South and threw a hand grenade in a multi-ethnic café, wounding several people. He was arrested, but soon liberated. And while UN and NATO troops stage frequent raids of Serb houses to confiscate the last vestiges of arms for self-defense, few such operations are undertaken against the heavily armed Albanians.

On that last point, here is another paragraph from my former source soldier’s final letter:

We’ve rarely had an occasion where a Serb has had in his or her possession a weapon or bomb making materials, but the Albanians will stock pile weapons as if war was coming tomorrow. And their excuse is always the same — “self defense”. Honestly, do you need a mortar tube and a few dozen rounds to protect your family from a thief? Or a belt fed machine gun? A bazooka? I used to believe they did this to protect themselves from the Serbs, but the more I think about it, they’re drawing a bead on us with a finger slowly caressing the trigger.

Back to Mitrovica. Here is how author Chris Deliso described the scene to me in an email:

about 80,000 Albanians looking interestedly across the river at 10,000 Serbs… not good. Still, the latter could hold their own given that 1) they had weapons 2) NATO didn’t forcibly stop them.

But this latest weapons search by NATO happened to a Serb home in Kosovo Polje, according to the dateline in the first news item above. Unlike the Serbian stronghold of Northern Mitrovica, Kosovo Polje proved a simple task for NATO to help cleanse. Here is how that went, again from Hiding Genocide in Kosovo:

In the course of the cleansing of Kosovo Polje, it is interesting to note that KFOR actually mapped the progress of the cleansing; they produced maps showing each house in Kosovo Polje marking each with a colour denoting ethnicity. The first map for April 2000 shows very clearly that the majority of houses were inhabited by Serbs, with Albanians in the minority. Six months later by September 2000 the map showed a completely different pattern with Albanians in the majority. The map of 2003 shows the process was almost complete. By 2004, the mission was accomplished. The markers indicating where the Roma households were, have also vanished. These maps were given to me by a priest who was forced to flee his church and house in Kosovo Polje and he in turn received the maps from a Norwegian KFOR soldier.

The first KFOR contingents to arrive in Kosovo Polje were British; the MILAN platoon of the Irish Guards and a contingent of the Green Howards Regiment. The latter were led by Major Simon who was to become notorious among Serbs for his blatant antipathy towards the Serbian population. Later Norwegian KFOR took up position in Kosovo Polje. KFOR employed several interpreters, both Albanian and Serbian, and some of the Serbian interpreters shared their experiences with me.

One Serbian interpreter recalls that he often accompanied the British soldiers on their patrols. He noticed that the British soldiers swallowed everything they were told by Albanians, especially in the beginning. Right away he began to notice a pattern. He realised at an early stage in that summer of 1999, all the Albanian interpreters suddenly appeared with mobile phones, a rare site in those days. None of the Serbian interpreters had such luxuries.

The strategy was simple: a British KFOR unit would leave their base planning a routine patrol or in response to news of an incident and then one of the Albanian interpreters would phone and tip off the perpetrators. Other tactics employed by the Albanians were equally simple but effective.

An Albanian who wished to take possession of some Serb house would start by provoking the Serb owner. This harassment could last a few days or even weeks but it would culminate in British KFOR arriving at the scene just in time to arrest the Serb who may or may not have had a gun in his possession trying to defend his property. Another tactic was to falsely accuse a Serb of stealing some household item. In due course, British KFOR would search the Serb’s house until the owner could provide some documentary evidence that he or she had purchased the item in question. Who at the point of a gun can find a receipt even if they kept it in the first place? This apparently did not seem out of place to KFOR.

The above type of provocation ended in many Serbs just packing up and leaving. It was obvious to Serbs by then that the Albanians wanted their property. However, there was one young British army lieutenant who tried to address the issue in particular by creating a mechanism by which the rightful owners could return to their property. He drew up a plan to create a list of who the rightful owner of each property was and allow the return of only the people from the list. But he was not supported by his superiors. In actual fact he was transferred to another location and his plan was never implemented.

The Irish Guards were seen by the Serbs as more neutral than the Green Howards. For instance, on one occasion they stopped a car coming from Pec which was occupied by two men in UÇK uniform, although officially by then the UÇK was supposed to have been disbanded. The British found a rocket propelled grenade launcher with several rockets under one of the seats of the car and confiscated them. They even forced them to remove their uniforms and sent them back to Pec driving away in their underwear. Incidents like these inevitably meant that the Irish Guards unit was withdrawn from Kosovo Polje soon after. One source explains there were some good officers and soldiers in the Green Howards unit, trying to act objectively, as did the Irish Guards. However, some were totally partial and pro-Albanian and regarded the Serbs as their enemy from the very beginning. In general, Norwegian KFOR were seen as more impartial or at least less anti-Serb than their British counterparts.

One source began working with KFOR in June, 1999. His job as an interpreter meant he went home twice during the first month and a half to his house in the town and during that time he experienced many incidents. He remembers that one of the Albanian interpreters working with the British was particularly vociferous in her propaganda campaign against the Serbs. She really tried to poison the minds of the KFOR soldiers against all Serbs. She was having an affair with one of the senior Green Howards officers and was obviously in a position to influence procedures. Ironically, this interpreter was a member of the family that had opened the Albanian separatist café in the 1990s where the owner had actually worked for the Serbian secret police.

As is often the case, the children of people like this have to prove themselves and show they are more extreme than anyone else.

KFOR H.Q. seemed to be unaware of what was really going on in Kosovo Polje. Major General Dannett on 18 June, 1999 told international journalists at a briefing:

“Further out beyond Pristina itself, out in the Kosovo Polje area, the Green Howards Company is doing good work amongst the Serb civilians in that area to try and reassure them.”

This does not tally with what [was] actually happening on the ground. For instance, one of the houses that the British army commandeered as a barracks belonged to a Serb living just off the main street that runs through Kosovo Polje. It was later used by Norwegian KFOR. At least the Norwegians paid him rent money. The British contingents, regardless of how long they occupied the house, paid no rent; and to add insult to injury left without paying a telephone bill of more than 6,000 Deutschmarks (€ 3,000). Ironically, one of the British soldiers, then Sergeant Major Steve Bennet, placed a picture in the regiment’s newsletter posted on the web which showed members of the platoon proudly posing outside the house, above a caption which stated that: “We have just liberated this house”.

The fact that this family had lived for generations in this area seemed, in the excitement of the moment, to have escaped the minds of the liberators. It begs the question: who were British KFOR liberating the house from? Because since June 1999, this family has been subjected to the most horrible existence at the hands of the UÇK; they have spent the last years watching their neighbours disappear one by one; they have seen their Health Centre burnt to the ground, they have seen their church destroyed; they have very limited freedom of movement and they are trying desperately to hold on to their property and dignity until the end. Like myself the reader might well wonder whom Sergeant Major Steve Bennet was liberating the house from and for whom?

On one rare occasion the interpreter witnessed the arrest of an Albanian man armed with an AK-47 and two Molotov cocktails while walking through the town of Kosovo Polje, in the vicinity of a Roma house that just happened to have been set on fire half an hour earlier. He was released shortly after his arrest due to lack of evidence.

As one source explains, the Serbs had very few guns to defend themselves with and those they had were kept in the house or some place nearby where they could be obtained quickly. At this stage Serb households expected an attack at any time. Thus, British KFOR searching houses for guns usually found them inside a Serb house. They almost never found them in Albanian houses because, not expecting to be attacked themselves, and usually being informed beforehand of searches by the Albanian interpreters, they could afford the luxury of hiding them more securely such as burying them in the garden. In just one case, that our source is aware of, following the report of shots fired, two rifles and some grenades were found in the gravel pit outside an Albanian house.

The cosy relationship between most of the British KFOR contingent in Kosovo Polje and their Albanian interpreters meant that whether they were aware of it or not, British KFOR were being used by the Albanians to help them ethnically cleanse the town and its surrounding villages. On numerous occasions, an “anonymous” Albanian would report that there were weapons in a specific Serbian house. Very soon afterwards, British KFOR would search that house and remove any offensive items, but later that night the Albanians would know the house was now “clean”, and the house could be torched, usually the same night. In such circumstances most Serbs decided to leave.

Every Serb detained by KFOR in those days would end up in jail, often with no charges. A Serb man, who tried to defend his home against three armed Albanians, shot one of the attackers and was himself wounded on his doorstep. All four were put in custody, the Albanians being released the next day. The house was burned the same evening and the unlucky owner spent the next several years in Mitrovica prison without a court trial. In 2005 he was released without charges and left Kosovo. His house is now illegally occupied by the same Albanians who attacked him.