Further Reading

Case Study:
Kosovo, 1998-99

[see also the separate case studies of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica.]


The genocidal assault launched against Kosovo's civilian population in 1998-99 bore many of the hallmarks of the earlier Serb campaigns in Bosnia. From a gender perspective, a strong trend was evident in the expulsion of women, children, and the elderly, the sexual assault of younger Kosovar women, and the systematic targeting of the "battle-age" male population for mass execution, detention, and torture.

The background

Map of KosovoKosovo, like Bosnia, historically demarcated a boundary between the Orthodox Christian and Ottoman Muslim populations of the Balkans. In a campaign of extraordinary brutality, the Serbs wrested Kosovo from the decaying Ottoman Empire in the wars of 1912-13. These earlier conflicts evinced a pattern of both gender-selective mass exterminations and the mass targeting of other members of the community. "The city [Prizren] seems like the Kingdom of Death," wrote Lazer Mjeda, the Catholic Archbishop of Skopje, in a report to Rome in January 1913. "[The Serbs] knock on the doors of the Albanian houses, take away the men, and shoot them immediately. In a few days the number of men killed reached 400." In his now-standard history of Kosovo, Malcolm includes mention of another massacre at Feriza, "where the Serbian commander had invited the Albanian men to return to their homes in peace, and where those who did so (300-400 men) were then taken out and shot." (Both quotes in Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, p. 254.) Tens of thousands of men likely died in this fashion, as did thousands of other victims of indiscriminate atrocities. Both strategies are amply familiar to students of the recent, supposedly more modern era of Serb foreign policy.

The authoritarian Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic made Kosovo the cornerstone of his rise to power in 1987-89. As the Yugoslav federation disintegrated, Milosevic saw the opportunity to take control by inflaming nationalist sentiments, and eventually by "ethnically cleansing" territories where Serbs constituted a majority or a large minority. Kosovo was inflated in the Serb national consciousness as essential to the nation's identity. This clashed with the aspirations of the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, some 90% of the population, who had enjoyed considerable autonomy within Marshal Tito's socialist federation, and now watched as that autonomy was stripped away. In 1989, Milosevic arranged for Kosovo's "provincial" status within the Yugoslav federation to be cancelled, and closed down the provincial assembly and government. A police state was imposed, and ethnic Albanians were fired by the tens of thousands from state and private positions alike. These jobs now went to Serbs, and the migration, especially of young ethnic-Albanian men, was strongly "encouraged." Hundreds of thousands did indeed pour as refugees and economic migrants into Western Europe and North America, creating one of the largest diaspora communities in the world. At street level, the pattern was one of constant surveillance, harassment, and detention of Kosovar men. Julie Mertus noted shortly before the outbreak of the war that "police routinely stop ethnic Albanian men"; she cites the astonishing statistic that between 1989 and 1997, "584,373 Kosovo Albanians -- half the adult population -- [was] arrested, interrogated, interned or remanded." Eventually, after nearly a decade of repression that many commentators have compared to South African apartheid, an armed guerrilla movement (the Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA]) arose in 1997. The Milosevic regime seized the opportunity, and began to plan for an epic act of genocide and population transfer that would extinguish ethnic-Albanian culture in Kosovo once and for all

As tension and violence increased in Kosovo over the course of 1998-99, there were signs that reprisal killings of males would be an essential Serb strategy in any fullscale conflict. The outbreak of mass killings in 1998 included a substantial number of women, elderly, and child victims -- nearly always according to the variable of family affiliation. The assault on the Deliaj clan in September 1998, for example, left "the bodies of 15 women, children and elderly members" of the clan "slumped among the rocks and streams of the gorge below their village ... shot in the head at close range and in some cases mutilated as they tried to escape advancing Serbian forces." Among the cases of mutilation was that of a 30-year-old woman, Lumnije Deliaj, "who relatives said was seven months pregnant. Her abdomen had been slit open." Six more elderly people (at least four of them male) were shot or burned to death elsewhere in the village of Gornje Obrinje. But four miles away from this clan killing, at Golubovac, a mass murder was being carried out, with the victims selected according to a different and more typical standard. The gendercidal atrocity that ensued was related by one man, Selman Morina, who miraculously survived. (Link to an excerpt from Selma Morina's testimony.)

The massacre at Racak, January 1999
Massacre at Racak, January 1999It was this pattern of gender-selective atrocity that again predominated prior to the outbreak of fullscale war (see the Background Information on gender-selective atrocities during this period). The crowning prewar act of mass killing -- depicted by some as "The massacre that forced the West to act" -- occurred at the village of Racak on January 16 1999. What happened was succinctly captured by Peter Beaumont and Patrick Wintour: "As the [Serb] forces entered the village searching for 'terrorists' from the Kosovo Liberation Army they tortured, humiliated, and murdered any men they found." (The Guardian, July 18 1999.) The international monitors who investigated the slaughter provided the most detailed accounting of the Racak victims:

Twenty-three adult males of various ages. Many shot at extremely close range, most shot in the front, back and top of the head. Villagers reported that these victims were last seen alive when the police were arresting them. ... Three adults [sic] males shot in various parts of their body, including their backs. They appeared to have been shot when running away. ... One adult male shot outside his house with his head missing. ... One adult male shot in head and decapitated. All the flesh was missing from the skull. One adult female shot in the back. ... One boy (12 years old) shot in the neck. One male, late teens (shot in abdomen). (Excerpts in The New York Times, January 22 1999.)

After Racak, the international community, led by the United States, stepped up the pressure on the Milosevic regime, convening a conference at the French chateau of Rambouillet in an effort to strike a peace accord that would give Kosovo autonomy, though not fullscale independence, as the vast majority of ethnic Albanians were now demanding. The abortive negotiations at Rambouillet are one of the most hotly-debated aspects of the Kosovo war (for a critical perspective, see Chomsky, The New Military Humanism). Regardless of the causes, the Serbs refused to sign the terms offered them, and withdrew to implement their "final solution" for the ethnic-Albanian "problem" in Kosovo -- Operation Horseshoe.

The gendercide

Operation Horseshoe was apparently the name given to the Serb offensive concentrated along, but not limited to, the semi-circular swath of western Kosovo adjoining Albania, which had been the heartland of KLA resistance. Beginning on March 19 1999, and then escalating with the onset of NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia on March 24, the Serbs implemented a classic "ethnic cleansing" campaign focusing upon the expulsion of most of the population, the sexual assault of hundreds of Kosovar women, and above all the gender-selective mass execution of "battle-age" men who had been unable to escape to the hills or surrounding countries. Some of the first eyewitness testimony to the gendercide was brought to western attention by Selami Elshani, a Kosovar man who survived the massacre of more than 100 non-combatant men at the village of Velika Krusa on March 26 1999. Severely burned by the fire the Serbs set to "finish off" their victims, Elshani was eventually smuggled across the border to Albania, where a Washington Post reporter interviewed him in his hospital bed.

Among the testimonials gathered by Human Rights Watch was that of a 20-year-old woman at Izbica, the site of another act of gendercide shortly after Velika Krusa. Her account made clear the ruthless gender-selectiveness that usually prevailed in the Serbs' "cleansing" campaigns:

Witness to massacre at Izbica (courtesy Human Rights Watch)When the Serbs arrived, almost all of the young men left the village. They went into the mountains to hide or fight. ... By 10 a.m. [the next morning] everyone was in the field. There were thousands of people, almost all women, children, and old people. Only about 150 men were among us. ... At about 11 a.m. they separated the women from the men. We asked them why they were doing this and they told us, in a very scary voice: "Shut up, don't ask, otherwise we'll kill you." The children were terrified. The Serbs yelled: "We'll kill you, and where is the United States to save you?" All the women had covered their heads with handkerchiefs out of fear of [rape by?] the Serbs, hiding their hair and foreheads. The Serbs called us obscene things, saying "Fuck all Albanian mothers," and "All Albanian women are bitches." They took the men away and lined them up about twenty meters away from us. Then they ordered us to go to Albania. They said: "You've been looking for a greater Albania, now you can go there." They were shooting in the air above our heads. We followed their orders and moved in the direction we were told, walking away from the men. About 100 meters from the place we started walking, the Serbs decided to separate out the younger boys from our group. Boys of fourteen and up had already been placed with the men; now they separated out boys of about ten and up. Only very small boys were left with us, one old man who had lost his legs, and my handicapped brother, who can't walk because of spinal meningitis. So they took the ten to fourteen-year-olds to join the men. The boys' mothers were crying. Some even tried to speak to the Serbs, but the Serbs pushed them [away]. We were walking away very slowly because we were so worried about what would happen to our men.
We stopped moving when we heard automatic weapon fire. We turned our heads to see what was happening, but it was impossible to see the men. We saw the ten-to-fourteen-year-olds running in our direction; when they got to us we asked them what was happening. They were very upset; no one could talk. One of them finally told us: "They released us but the others are finished." We stayed in the same place for some twenty minutes. Everyone was crying. The automatic weapon fire went on non-stop for a few minutes; after that we heard short, irregular bursts of fire for some ten minutes or so. My father, my uncle and my cousin were among the men killed. Kajtaz Rexha and Qazim Rexhepi were also killed, as were many other members of the Bajraj, Bajrami, Rexhepi, and Aliu families. Then ten Serbs caught up with us. They said lots of obscenities and again told us: "Now you must leave for Albania -- don't stop, just go." We had to leave. ... My father had given me his jacket because I had been wearing another jacket that said "American Sport" on it and he was afraid; he wanted to cover that up. Because I was pushing the wheelbarrow and wearing a man's jacket, they thought I was a man. They told me to stop and then to come over to them, but I was too afraid. It was the scariest moment of my life. Then they shined a flashlight in my face and saw that I was a woman. One of them said, "Let her go." (Human Rights Watch, "Witness to Izbica Killings Speaks: Possibly Largest Massacre of Kosovo War," Kosovo Human Rights Flash #39, May 19 1999.)

Gendercidal massacres continued throughout the war, including the largest known mass killing, at Meja on April 27. Sebastian Junger describes the grim events:

Shortly before dawn ... according to locals, a large contingent of Yugoslav army troops garrisoned in Junik started moving eastward through the valley, dragging men from their houses and pushing them into trucks. "Go to Albania!" they screamed at the women before driving on to the next town with their prisoners. By the time they got to Meja they had collected as many as 300 men. The regular army took up positions around the town while the militia and paramilitaries went through the houses grabbing the last few villagers and shoving them out into the road. The men were surrounded by fields most of them had worked in their whole lives, and they could look up and see mountains they'd admired since they were children. Around noon the first group was led to the compost heap, gunned down, and burned under piles of cornhusks. A few minutes later a group of about 70 were forced to lie down in three neat rows and were machine-gunned in the back. The rest -- about 35 men -- were taken to a farmhouse along the Gjakove [Djakovica] road, pushed into one of the rooms, and then shot through the windows at point-blank range. The militiamen who did this then stepped inside, finished them off with shots to the head, and burned the house down. They walked away singing.

A more recent estimate claims that as many as 500 men may have been killed at Meja (see Joshua Hammer, "On the Trail of the Hard Truth," Newsweek, July 9, 2000). Another largescale massacre followed near Vucitrn on May 2-3.

In the closing days of the war, grim and independently-sourced accounts circulated in British and U.S. newspapers of a Serb "factory of death" in Kosovo. It was alleged that the Serbs were using industrial sites such as the Trepca mines in northwestern Kosovo for the mass destruction and disposal of corpses (see below, "How many died?"). Perhaps the final gendercidal blast came at the Istok prison on May 20, where after a NATO airstrike, paramilitaries seized the opportunity to massacre over 100 ethnic-Albanian prisoners, all male.

How many died?

French soldier at Velika Krusa massacre site, where upwards of 100 men were executed or burned aliveThe number of ethnic Albanians -- and Serbs -- killed during the Kosovo war is a matter of ongoing dispute, and solid estimates may not be possible for several years, if ever. The Kosovo war was unique in the history of international conflict, in that human-rights and forensics teams entered the territory on the heels of the arriving KFOR troops. Between June and October 1999, the International Criminal Tribunal oversaw exhumations from some 175 graves of the 525 gravesites they said had been marked off for investigation. (How many might remain undiscovered, given the Tribunal's limited resources and Serb efforts to cover up the crimes, is not known.) Some two thousand bodies -- 2,108, to be precise -- had been exhumed when the Tribunal issued its preliminary report in November 1999. Chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte also spoke of widespread evidence of tampering with the gravesites and destruction of evidence -- standard Serb procedure throughout the Balkans wars.

A striking statistic is that up to 10,000 Kosovars are registered with the authorities as missing -- about the same number as in the entire Bosnian war, minus the massacres at Srebrenica; and this is a war that is estimated to have killed 150-250,000 people. The death-toll in Kosovo is obviously much lower, in low five rather than low six figures. A reasonable speculation at this early stage is 20,000-30,000 killed and missing, of which the overwhelming majority are ethnic-Albanian civilians. No precise figures exist on the proportion of males among these casualties, but the outgoing chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal, Louise Arbour, has spoken of "conglomerations of military-age men" at the gravesites the Tribunal has exhumed, and it is fair to presume 90 percent or higher male dead. At some of the best-documented massacre sites -- Meja, Izbica, Pusto Selo, Bela Crkva, Velika Krusa -- the Serb killers took extraordinary measures to cover their tracks. In many cases, though investigators have bone fragments, items of clothing, spent rifle cartridges, video evidence, and satellite photographs to base their claims on, not to mention the overwhelming refugee testimony, there are few or no complete bodies to be found.

Allegations that the Serbs engaged in the mass destruction and disposal of bodies at the Trepca mines and other sites have not been confirmed. Although Tribunal spokespeople state that the matter remains under investigation, they say they have found "no solid evidence" of such operations. Gendercide Watch, while strongly supportive of the Tribunal's forensic and legal efforts, is critical of the lackadaisical and cursory character of the investigations conducted at Trepca and some other locations. For an overview of the controversy, published in the e-journal Idea: A Journal of Social Issues (5:1), see Adam Jones, "Kosovo: Orders of Magnitude". The Tribunal is scheduled to wind up its investigations late in 2000.

Who was responsible?

As Madame Justice Louise Arbour pointed out, the indictment handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in May 1999 marked the first time a sitting head of state had been charged "during an on-going armed conflict with the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law." On May 27 1999, the Tribunal announced the indictment for war crimes in Kosovo of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president until he was overthrown in October 2000; Serbian President Milan Milutinovic; Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic; Dragoljub Ojdanic, Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav Army; and Vlajko Stojiljkovic, Serbian Minister of Internal Affairs. All were charged on "three counts of crimes against humanity and one count of violations of the laws or customs of war" (ICTY press release, May 27 1999). Massacres and other atrocities at Racak, Bela Crkva, Velika Krusa, Mali Krusa, Djakovica, Crkolez, and Izbica figured in the indictment, with 340 individuals given as the preliminary list of victims -- overwhelmingly men who had been summarily executed.

The specific charges against the four Serbian leaders are that they conspired to commit:

1. Murder, a crime against humanity, punishable under Article 5(a) of the Statute [of the Criminal Tribunal], and also a violation of the laws or customs of war, punishable under Article 3 of the Statute (namely a violation of Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions);

2. Persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, a crime against humanity pursuant to Article 5(h) of the Statute [of] the Tribunal; and

3. Deportation, a crime against humanity, punishable under Article 5(d) of the Statute of the Tribunal.

Many others in the mafia-ridden Serb regime played a crucial role in planning and perpetrating the atrocities in Kosovo. Down to the operational level, Yugoslav military commanders stood by as the notorious paramilitary forces, who had done most of the gendercidal dirty work in Bosnia and Croatia, were sent in to "cleanse" and destroy Kosovar communities. In many ways the strategy was that adopted, on a far vaster scale, by Nazi forces towards Jews, Soviet males, and others on the eastern front during World War Two (see the case-study of the Jewish holocaust). In both cases, the measures were designed to allow the regular military to maintain something of a "hands-off" approach to the worst of the atrocities, while still ensuring that the crimes were carried out. It is an important feature of the Tribunal indictment that Yugoslav Army Chief Dragoljub Ojdanic is among those accused of war crimes in Kosovo, just as recent scholarship on the fate of Soviet POWs and Jews has increasingly tied the regular German army to the genocides committed against those groups. The chain of responsibility for genocidal and gendercidal actions in Kosovo therefore extends from the Serb leadership down to the paramilitary units that carried out the murderous commands, and the regular army officers who looked on approvingly.

At the time of writing, it was unclear whether the Tribunal's indictment would be extended to include the charge of genocide. In the view of Gendercide Watch, the indictments should be aggressively pursued, and broadened to include the genocidal actions of the Serb leadership in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.

In October 2000, a huge mass movement succeeded in toppling President Milosevic from power. His successor, Vojislav Kostunica, became the first Serb leader to acknowledge guilt for the genocidal atrocities inflicted upon Bosnians and Kosovars, stating: "as a Serb I will take responsibility for many of these ... crimes." (See "President Admits Genocide", The Sydney Morning Herald, October 25, 2000.) Shortly afterwards, however, Kostunica issued a statement claiming he had been misquoted (see "Kostunica Denies He Admitted Serb Atrocities in Kosovo to CBS", The Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2000.)

The aftermath

For a variety of reasons, including the wavering support of its Russian allies, the granting of a United Nations fig-leaf for occupying troops, and the heavy pounding that Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure was taking from NATO bombs, the Milosevic regime chose in early June 1999 to call off its campaign of mass murder and forced expulsions in Kosovo. With almost surreal speed, the situation changed on the ground. Yugoslav forces were withdrawn (though some police and paramilitaries were reported to remain in Serb-dominated areas). A NATO-dominated force entered Kosovo on June 10, accompanied by humanitarian workers and forensics teams from the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague (ICTY). And hundreds of thousands of refugees began to return to their shattered communities.

In the aftermath of the war, more than 150,000 Serbs fled Kosovo, fearing vengeance at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Indeed, hundreds of revenge killings were carried out by KLA and Albanian mafia elements, as well as by Serbs, in the early postwar period. Especially targeted were the weak and the old, those least able to flee -- a phenomenon that Gendercide Watch refers to as "geracide" (from the Greek geras, "old age"), and which has a recent precedent in the Croatian invasion of the Serb-dominated Krajina region in Summer 1995, which killed thousands of Serb civilians. The United Nations and KFOR have proved unable or unwilling to police Kosovo effectively, although the murder rate has gradually fallen.

The political status and governance of Kosovo remains uncertain at the time of writing, but there are indications that support for the KLA has dramatically waned, and that the moderate leadership of Ibrahim Rugova is gaining ascendance. In Belgrade, the attitude of new president Vojislav Kostunica towards Kosovar autonomy or independence is unclear. It is therefore possible that June 1999 may not mark the end of the Kosovo war, but only of a particularly vicious -- and gendercidal -- phase of it.

FURTHER READING[ Further reading ]   [ Back to main ]   [ Back to top ]

Researched and written by Adam Jones.
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