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Kosovo Reflects on Bloody Riots

  • Barry Wood

Thursday, March 17, 2005, marks the first anniversary of anti-Serb rioting throughout Kosovo. Several ethnic Albanians and Serbs were killed, hundreds of Serbian homes were destroyed and some centuries-old orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged.

It began when three ethnic-Albanian children drowned in the Ibar river that divides the predominantly Serb and Albanian parts of Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo. A fourth boy, aged 13, survived. He told the news media that the boys had walked past a house and that two Serbs appeared. There was a dog. The boys ran into the river. Three of them drowned.

Bob Gillette, an American media executive, heads the United Nations unit responsible for the media in Kosovo. Mr. Gillette says Kosovo's public television sensationalized the tragedy.

"Public television took this story and said, therefore it is clear that Serbs attacked these children and caused them to drown. They turned this vague story, in which the boy never said there was an attack, into an assumption that became a fact in their reporting. And then they hammered away at it through the evening of the 16th, a year ago today, stopped all normal programming, shifted to symphony orchestras to emphasize the gravity of this tragedy," said Mr. Gillette.

As Albanian anger rose throughout the territory and with citizens glued to their television sets, Mr. Gillette says the reporting continued to be distorted.

"And then they brought the father of one of the boys who had drowned, just as the body had been found, on to the screen, who said the Serb Chetnik [nationalist] hordes have killed my child in the most horrible way. We are way beyond fact [now]. This is journalism at its worst," he added.

Within hours there were anti-Serb protests in Mitrovica and Pristina. They quickly turned violent.

"Two or three days later, 19 people were dead," said Bob Gillette. "Four-thousand people, mostly Serbs, have been driven out of their homes. Thirty-some churches, historic, mostly Serb churches, have been burned."

In April, a month after the violence, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blamed reckless and sensationalized reporting for the rioting. A subsequent judicial report by the U.N. administration found no evidence that Serbs were in any way connected with the tragedy at the Ibar river.

A law student at Pristina University, Behlul Zeka, is among a minority of Albanians willing to say publicly that the rioting may have had nothing to do with Serb provocations.

"Well actually those scenes were shameful for everybody in Kosovo. Because burning and attacking of civilians and innocent people, I mean, it was not good. Those people who went on the streets, I do not know, it was terrible," he recalled.

The ferocity of the events one-year ago shocked both the U.N. administration and the outside world. Ethnic Albanians, victims of Serbian repression less than a decade ago, were now seen in a different light. Passions have cooled in the past 12 months but March 17th is an anniversary that brings pride to no one.