Remembering The 2004 Pogrom Against Orthodox Serbs In Kosovo

By Jovan Tripkovic

April 4, 2024

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(OPINION) Last month marked 20 years since the beginning of the “pogrom” — an organized persecution and massacre — against the Orthodox Serbian minority in Kosovo. The ethnic cleansing of the Serbian population, organized by Albanian extremists, started on March 17, 2004, and lasted until the following day.

News of ethnic persecution and images of violence quickly spread around the globe. During the pogrom, the world saw horrific pictures of Serbian suffering: Orthodox churches in flames, Serbian-owned homes destroyed and columns of refugees headed towards Serbia shocked everyone.

The scene of a young Albanian man on top of the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Elijah in Podujevo, breaking the cross, became a well-known symbol. This image is engraved in the collective memory of the Serbian nation.

During the 2004 pogrom, eight Serbs were killed, and at least 170 were injured. Approximately 900 Serbian houses were destroyed, and 4,000 Serbs were ousted from their hometowns. Additionally, 35 Orthodox churches, cultural monuments, and other sacred objects were set on fire. Countless Orthodox icons and relics were lost forever. The coordinated vandalism of the medieval Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries resulted in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s decision to place these monuments on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

On the other side, 11 Albanians were killed in confrontations with members of the international security forces.

Reports published by Albanian-Kosovo media on March 16, 2004, that three ethnic Albanian boys had drowned in the Ibar River led to the ethnic violence against Kosovo’s Serbs. According to these reports, the boys were allegedly fleeing Serbian attackers. However, this claim was disputed by Derek Chappell, a spokesman for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. He denied that the boys had died while fleeing Serbs, instead suggesting that the violence against the Serbian minority was planned.

At first glance, the attacks that took place in 2004 may appear to be a spontaneous reaction of locals to the unfortunate drowning of Albanian boys and the alleged involvement of Serbian individuals in the incident. However, the ruins of Serbian homes, churches and monasteries tell a different story. The destruction of Serbian historic and cultural heritage, as well as the dozens of ethnically cleansed Serbian villages, suggests that the March pogrom was well-prepared and meticulously executed.

After the violent events of that year, 270 Albanians were arrested and 143 later convicted. Most of them received fines, and 67 were sentenced to prison for their participation in the pogrom. However, the organizers behind these horrific crimes have never been brought to justice.

In the years after the pogrom, Serbs have not been allowed to return to their homes, and the authorities in Pristina have never paid reparations for the destruction of their property.

After decades of ethnic cleansing, the Serbian Orthodox community in Kosovo is still undergoing persecution. On Nov. 28, 2023, the Serbian Orthodox church of St. Archangel Michael in the village of Rakitnica, in central Kosovo, was broken into by a group of Albanians. The group was led by Nikolla Xhufka, a self-proclaimed Orthodox priest of the Albanian National Orthodox Church.

Despite the Church of St. Archangel Michael’s history as property of the Serbian Church dating back to the 15th century, Xhufka declared it now belongs to the Albanian National Orthodox Church. This is the most recent case of blatant violation of religious freedom and property rights of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo. The Albanian National Orthodox Church is an uncanonical and unrecognized church, distinct from the canonical, autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania. The Orthodox Church of Albania released a statement condemning Xhufka’s activities.

According to the Republic of Serbia’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, there were 179 ethnically motivated incidents in Kosovo last year alone. This analysis shows an almost 20 percent increase from 2022. These incidents are escalating tensions between the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority, significantly disrupting the Belgrade-Pristina negotiations and the reconciliation process.

Twenty years later, the Serbian minority in Kosovo still endures dire living conditions. Kosovo Serbs are trapped in an endless dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, facing constant fear of violence. Forgotten by the international community and persecuted by the local authorities, Kosovo Serbs have a mission — to survive.