By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 30 May 2006
Few Serbs can forget the jumpy young man who scaled the Church of St Andrew in Podujevo two years ago.
Thousands of times, television screens across Serbia – including the beleaguered Serb enclaves in breakaway Kosovo – have replayed the videotape. It shows the man climbing to the burning church’s rooftop and attacking a metal cross – tugging, twisting it until it crashes down, to the delight of a crowd of ethnic Albanians in the churchyard below.
The unidentified man generated an iconic image of the pogrom that swept through Kosovo in March 2004. The three-day orgy of violence pitted tens of thousands of rioters against minority communities, Serbian Orthodox churches and their United Nations and Nato protectors.
The damage toll catalogued afterwards in a report from Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, listed 19 people killed, 954 injured, and 730 houses and 36 religious sites destroyed, some containing priceless examples of ancient Byzantine Christian art.
“The March riots” remain a vital reference point for diplomats and Nato military commanders gauging the probability of a sudden return to violence.
Since then, Kosovo’s secessionist leaders have struggled to persuade others of their commitment to the safety and human rights of minorities in Kosovo amid discussions about possible independent statehood.
“There will be no repeat of March 2004. The citizens are aware how much damage an event like that can cause,” says Fatmir Sejdiu, president since March this year.
But many observers warn that serious violence may erupt again if Kosovo’s provisional authorities do not achieve full independence from Serbia this year.
The president denies this, but he warns: “The international community has to be careful. We do not want to stimulate politics that could generate conflict. It is not good to test the citizens’ patience.”
When the UN and Nato intervened in the province, they pledged to create a safe, multi-ethnic space before determining Kosovo’s political status. It is no longer clear that this goal can be achieved. The UN initiated Kosovo’s status negotiations in late 2005 although an overwhelming majority of Serbs in the province still say their basic right to safety is trampled routinely.
A steady trickle of violent incidents against Serb communities keeps the intimidation factor high. This month alone brought several shootings and the stoning of a busload of 60 Serbs travelling to market. On May 6 gunmen ambushed a Serbian Orthodox priest, his wife and two children travelling in their family car. They narrowly escaped.
Extremists also struck Podujevo, vandalising a second church and setting back reconstruction efforts funded by the Council of Europe.
Sava Janjic, an influential monk who is the Serbian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic contact point in Kosovo, calls this “persecution”.
He says: “The Church is its people, and our faithful people, clergy and monks have been living for years without basic freedoms and dignity. In most of Kosovo we still cannot move without military or police escort, and we are exposed to everyday verbal abuses and harassments.”
Slavisa Petkovic, the only Serb minister in the provisional government, claims that open persecution ended in late 2004, when he took office, and that threats to minority communities are on the wane. “There has been a substantial relaxation of relations between most Serbs and Albanians living in Kosovo,” he says.
Yet Mr Petkovic’s own parents are among the many Serb refugees who choose not to return. More than 223,000 Serbs and other minority individuals have left the province since the war. Fewer than 15,000 have moved back, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Contradicting both UN officials and Kosovo’s elected leaders, Hilmi Jashari, the province’s top human rights lawyer, says that little progress is being made. “I would not say that the human rights environment has changed dramatically from 2004 until today. In fact, from 2000 until now I have not seen a dramatic change,” he says.
As acting chief of Kosovo’s human rights office, a public institution founded by the UN mission but independent from it, Mr Jashari says he recently reopened his file on the March riots in response to complaints that they were “never properly investigated” by local or international authorities.
A Human Rights Watch report released today sides with the complainants, lending weight to claims that neither basic safety nor legal protection can yet be taken for granted.