The outcome of the armed conflict in the former SFR Yugoslavia, between 1991 do 2001, is the violent death of 130 000 persons. Over 10 000 are still classified as missing. Serbia’s officials and institutions have, from the beginning of the armed conflict to this day, with very few exceptions, denied the involvement of the SFR and Serbian armed forces in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have also denied the existence of any war crimes on the territory of Serbia in relation to these armed conflicts.
As an antithesis to the practice of forgetting the atrocities of war, the platform ratusrbiji.rs strives to inform and educate about the existence of secret mass graves, concentration camps and torture, murders and persecution of minorities, forced mobilization, paramilitary units’ crimes, as well as the human rights breaches in the Presevo valley between 1991 to 2001. The platform does this through connecting court-determined facts, official data of state and international institutions, testimonies of witnesses, survivors and victims’ families, as well as public information gathered by civil society organizations in Serbia.
The platform ratusrbiji.rs was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany. The content and opinions featured on the ratusrbiji.rs website are those of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, and may not reflect the official stance of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa are municipalities in Serbia with a significant Albanian population. Albanians both in Kosovo and in Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa, boycotted the general population census of 1991. The estimate of the Albanian population is based on the 1981 census. Thus, the municipality of Bujanovac had the population of 49,238, around 30% of whom Serbs (14,660), 60% Albanians (29,588) and a little less than 9% Roma (4408). In the municipality of Preševo, the population was estimated at 38,943 inhabitants, 90% of whom Albanians (34,992), 8% Serbs (3206) and 1.29% Roma (505). The Federal Statistical Office did not publish the estimates for Medveđa municipality, but only the results of the census, according to which this municipality had 13,386 inhabitants, 9205 of whom Serbs and Montenegrins and 3832 Albanians.1
According to the Humanitarian Law Centre’s data,2which monitored human rights violations in these three municipalities, basic human and minority rights of Albanians were permanently violated in the 1980s, as well as during the Slobodan Milošević regime. Discrimination in education, employment, public information and other areas intensified in the late 1980s. The adoption of the 1990 Constitution of the Republic of Serbia and subsequent series of legislations aimed at the strengthening of the central government, primarily affected local self-governments in these three municipalities. For example, in the municipality of Preševo, Albanian parties had always been winning local elections since 1990, but did not have the possibility to promote collective rights of the Albanian community. At an unofficial referendum organised in 1992 by the leaders of Albanian political parties, the vast majority of ethnic Albanians from these three municipalities expressed a wish for these territories to be integrated into Kosovo.3
Until the NATO intervention in 1999, in addition to systemic discrimination, the authorities were also exercising other forms of pressure (dismissals from work, political trials, censorship of press). During and after the conflict in Kosovo (1998-1999), the forces of the State Security Service (DB) and the Serbian police (MUP) were harassing local population in a series of violent incidents that remained unpunished. The history of the state harassment in the Albanian community – due to NATO intervention and the departure of the Yugoslav Army and police from Kosovo, the beginning of internal armed conflict in Macedonia, caused many Albanians to support small groups of soldiers who started organising under the flag of the Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa (OVPBM) in early 2000 with the support of parts of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in Kosovo to attack police and military units.4
In the course of 2000 and the first half of 2001, the territory of these three municipalities was a scene of armed clashes between the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army on one side and the Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa on the other, often called “the Insurgency in the South of Serbia” or “the crises in the South of Serbia”.5
During the NATO intervention, severe human rights violations were reported, as well as open repression by the Yugoslav Army, Serbian Police and paramilitary units against the Albanian population in Kosovo and in the Preševo Valley. On the territory of Preševo municipality alone, 11 Albanians were killed under unexplained circumstances during the state of war in 1999. The cases of severe human rights violations (murders, abuse and robberies) in the municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa were similar to those taking place in Kosovo at that time. The actions of military and police authorities during the state of war of 1999 in these municipalities reflected on the harassment of the population; an illustrative example of this were the searches of the houses of the villagers of Veliki Trnovac on March 31 1999, when the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army demanded that the villagers, within the period of two hours, hand over “the NATO commandos, KLA terrorists and drugs”. Under the Military Technical Agreement signed in Kumanovo on June 9 1999, which was the basis for the arrival of international troops to Kosovo, the Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) was established as a 5-kilometers zone that extended along administrative line with Kosovo. Nearly half of this zone extended on the territory of municipalities Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa. According to the Agreement, only lightly armed police forces (MUP) had access to this area, while the Yugoslav Army had to pull out. The majority of murders have never been solved, while the new political leadership after 2000 has not shown readiness to deal with them.6
The OVPBM was officially founded in the village of Dobrosin, Bujanovac municipality, in 1999, when a group of 35 citizens of Albanian nationality gathered in the house of Ajdari Vehbi and started an organised fight against the units of the Yugoslav Army and Serbian Police.7According to the Humanitarian Law Centre’s data, the OVPBM members had their first public appearance in late January 2000, also in the village of Dobrosin, at the funeral of the Saqipi brothers. Brothers Shaip and Isa Saqipi were killed by the Serbian police on January 26 2000, as testified by their father Saqip Saqipi to the HLC researchers.8
Armed clashes and incidents particularly intensified after the police pulled out from control check points in Albanian villages in the Bujanovac municipality on November 27 2000. Their withdrawal followed an OVPMB’s attack on a police patrol, when three police officers were killed and other five injured. In the next six months, more than 100 persons were killed, injured or kidnapped, both Albanians and Serbs, including members of the Army and the police, in the clashes between the two sides.9
According to HLC data, in the period between January 1 1999 and May 31 2001, at least 40 citizens of Serbia and Montenegro were killed in the territory of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac. During the internal armed conflict between the Yugoslav Army/Serbian Police forces and the OVPMB in the period between January 26 2000 and May 31 2001, two Serbian civilians were killed in the territory of Bujanovac and their fate has not been solved yet, as well as two Serbian civilians from Bujanovac municipality in the territory of the municipality of Gnjilane (Kosovo), whose bodies were found in Donja Breznica, Bujanovac municipality. During the same period, at least seven Albanian civilians and an OVPBM commander were killed.10
According to the official data of the Ministry of the Interior of Serbia, from June 10 1999 until August 31 2001, in the area of the Ground Safety Zone towards Kosovo alone, 10 civilians were killed, five of whom were Serbs, four Albanians and one person of “other nationality”. In the same period, 25 civilians (15 Serbs, eight Albanians and two members of the UN Mission) were injured and 43 citizens (40 Serbs and three Albanians) went missing. The Interior Ministry also stated that two abducted citizens were killed, one managed to escape, 36 were released, while the fate of the remaining four is still unknown. Further, 24 police officers and members of the Yugoslav Army (15 and nine respectively) were killed, 78 were injured and two were abducted.11
During the armed conflict of 2000-2001, as well as before and after the conflict, members of the Albanian community were targeted by the Serbian Interior Ministry, Yugoslav Army and paramilitary units. Other than the data on the murders, the HLC also possesses information about numerous cases of maltreatment of Albanian villagers by the Yugoslav Army, especially members of its 7th Battalion, and the Serbian police, as well as about the mistreatment of the abducted members of the 7th Battalion and Serbian civilians at the prison camp in Donja Breznica, Bujanovac municipality, by the OVPBM. Below we present 15 incidents which HLC managed to document as serious violations of human rights in the period 1999-2001:12
According to the data of the Bujanovac Human Rights Committee, in the course of 2000, nine members of the OVPMB were killed in the fights, 11 Albanians were killed, while five citizens (two Albanians and three Serbs) were kidnapped. Around 150 Albanians gave their statements to the Committee about the abuse by the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army.14
Searches, threats and provocations by the Serbian Interior Ministry and Yugoslav Army: On June 15 2001, in the village of Končulj, while several members of the police special units were passing through the village, one of them pointed a submachine gun at the villagers who were standing in front of the store. One of the villagers testified: “We were standing in front of a store in the village, it had been opened recently. All of us knew the owner as Boss Zija. There were some 15 of us, mostly elderly. A group of armed commandos was passing by. I don’t know exactly how many of them, but I saw by their emblems that they were special units. One of them pointed a weapon at us and shouted: ‘What are you gonna do now, sisterfuckers?’ We all kept silent and he approached one of us, Fatam Osmani, who was only 15 years old, and asked him: ‘Were you in the KLA?’ He remained silent because he didn’t speak Serbian well, so the commando grabbed his arm and asked: ‘Did you hear what I asked you?’ The whole time he kept his weapon pointed at the boy. A few minutes later, the commandos who were with him called him and he walked away.”15
Summoning Albanians for interrogations: Summonses or bringing in by the police for questionings, without an explanation and without written summons were not rare. On such occasions, the police was mostly interested in information about the activities of the disbanded OVPMB or KLA. Several times, the police asked about the displaying of Albanian flags. Burim Hasani (1980) went to the police in Preševo on July 5 2001 to apply for an identity card. The police took him for questioning which lasted for four hours: ‘When I handed in my ID application, they told me to go upstairs for an interview. I entered a room with three men in plain clothes inside. One of them was an interpreter. Since I had been away from Preševo from 1999 to 2001, I knew none of them. They asked me where I had been as a member of OVPMB, whom I had killed, what my tasks had been, who had been my superior. A large segment of the questioning was about what the OVPMB had been up to in Oraovica. The chief of the Preševo Police Station, whom I remembered from before, didn’t question me himself, but he saw that I was arrested and was present during part of the questioning.” Burim was then released, but requested to come with his younger brother Naim the next day at 10 o’clock for additional questioning as a condition to get his ID. The police acted the same way when his brother Naim applied for ID three weeks later.16
In December 2000, the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Government of FR Yugoslavia established a Co-ordination Body for Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa and appointed Nebojša Čović, one of the leaders of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) and later Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of Serbia, as its chief.
On January 30 2001, at a gathering organised by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, Čović presented a plan for the resolution of the crisis in the South of Serbia, known as “Čović’s plan”. This document was published by the Vreme magazine in its entirety on February 8 2001.17
This plan consisted of three points:
1) Peaceful resolution of the crisis with participation of the representatives of both the Albanian national community and the international community;
2) Permanent preparedness of security forces to protect citizens, settlements, and communication, prevent the speeding of terrorism outside the GSZ, and conduct an anti-terrorist action if necessary and acceptable;
3) The ensuring of multi-ethnic society in the region with the respect for all civil and human rights of the Albanians and the ensuring of the basic interests of Serbs in the region, as well as in Kosovo and Metohija.
Within the efforts of new authorities to resolve the crisis politically and based on the “Čović’s plan”, on February 16 2001 “The Programme and Plan for the Resolution of Crisis in the municipalities of Bujanovac, Preševo and Medveđa” was adopted. It states a firm commitment for the crisis in the South of Serbia to be resolved peacefully and through political and diplomatic means – through the dialogue of the representatives of the Republic of Serbia and the FR Yugoslavia on one side and the representatives of OVPMB on the other, with assistance from the international community. The measures to be taken by the government following the signing of the agreement within specific time-frames were classified in three groups. They include the integration of Albanians into political, governance, and social system and the respect for their human rights in accordance with European standards; the establishment of peace and security in the region; and the economic and social revitalisation of the region and its development in accordance with the municipal projects and priorities. An integral part of this plan was an invitation to local Albanians to discuss solving the crisis in the municipalities of Bujanovac, Preševo and Medveđa. The international community was also invited to support the solution. International representatives supported this plan and the representatives of the Albanian ethnic community endorsed most of the proposed measures. The OVPMB, however, rejected the plan and on March 1 2001 presented its Joint Platform for the Peaceful Resolution of the Crisis in the Preševo Valley. Two days later, the Albanian and OVPMB representatives presented their joint “Political Platform for Halting Armed Conflicts and Solving the Crisis in the Region of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac”. NATO, EU and OSCE representatives joined in the negotiations and mediated in separate talks with the Serbian and Albanian delegations. This led to a cease-fire agreement signed on March 12 2001. The first direct encounter of the two sides happened in the British military base in the village of Livadice near Podujevo (Kosovo) on March 23 2001.18
Simultaneously with the negotiations, with KFOR permission, gradual return of the Yugoslav Army and Serbian Police to the GSZ began. The entry of the armed forces into all parts of the GSZ was completed on May 31 2001. According to UNHCR, around 5000 Albanians from the villages in this zone left their homes during the last phase of this operation.19
The negotiations resulted in signing of the Agreement on the Demilitarisation of the Villages of Lučane and Turija on May 4 2002. Under this agreement, both sides agreed to withdraw their forces from the two villages unconditionally, vacate all private facilities they occupied, enable the return of the displaced persons and grant full freedom of movement on the road between Bujanovac and Gnjilane. The Agreement became effective as of May 7 2001.20
On May 21 2001, in Končulj (Bujanovac municipality), OVPMB military leaders signed a Declaration on the Demilitarisation of the Southern and Central Part of the So-Called Sector B of the GSZ, known as the Končulj Agreement. This declaration envisaged that the first section should be demilitarised on the next day, while full demilitarisation and the surrender of weapons to KFOR should be completed by May 31 2001. Simultaneously with the demilitarisation of the region, the establishment of local multi-ethnic police started. At the recommendation of the OSCE, “Principles for a Multi-Ethnic Police Element in Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac” were adopted. This document was signed in Bujanovac on June 27 2001 by representatives of the Government of Serbia, the Albanian ethnic community and the OSCE, and it represented a first concrete step towards equal participation of Albanians in the exercise of public affairs.21
Due to armed conflicts and fear for their safety, the Albanian population from the municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa left their homes on three occasions. The first wave happened during the NATO bombing of 1999, when nearly one third of the Albanians left the area. Around 20,000 persons left the Preševo municipality alone. At the end of October 1999, there were 3000 refugees from Preševo and Bujanovac in Macedonia.22The second wave of moving out of the population from the three municipalities began in 2000. At the beginning of the conflict between Serbian security forces and the OVPBM, between February and June 2000, around 900 families left their homes. Most of them found refuge in Kosovo, in Gnjilane municipality. Displacement continued in 2001. In late May 2001, after another wave of moving out of Preševo and Bujanovac, there were around 14,000 displaced persons from the three municipalities in the south of Serbia staying in Kosovo.23
A large number of murders, enforced disappearances, property damage, and torture, both by the members of the Serbian Police and Yugoslav Army forces, and by paramilitary units, in the period before the escalation of the crises in the south of Serbia (1999-2000) have remained unclarified to date. Listed below are only some of the documented examples of human rights violations as testified by the citizens of these municipalities and recorded by the Bujanovac Human Rights Committee and the Humanitarian Law Centre in 2000 (before the conflict), during the conflict (2000-2001) and after May 31 2001 (after the conflict).
The murder of the Saqipi brothers: brothers Shaip (1968) and Isa (1964) Saqipi were killed at the outskirts of the village of Dobrosin, Bujanovac municipality, on January 26 2000. Their father Saqip Saqipi described this incident to the HLC researcher as follows: “There was a heavy snowfall that day. Together with my sons, I went to the forest to collect some firewood. Since I worked at a forestry farm, we split at the end of the village. They continued in the tractor straight ahead, along the road to the village of Lučane, Bujanovac. They wore boots and had a chainsaw. I turned right. After a while, I heard a shot from the direction of the Kosovo border and a bit later shooting from the direction from where Shaip and Isa said they were going. It scared me, so I went to my house which was located at the entry to the village, making sure nobody saw me. First I called the president of the Bujanovac Municipal Assembly, Mr Stojanča Arsić, whom I was on good terms with. I told him about what I had seen and heard and that my sons were out there and that I feared for them. Then I called the police in Bujanovac. The duty officer who answered the call, when he had heard what this was about, said: ‘They ought to kill all of you’.”24
Saqip found bullet-riddled bodies of his sons slumped over the tractor shaft in the forest along the road between Lučane and Dobrosin. The tractor tires were punctured. Adem Rashiti, president of the Dobrosin Local Community Office said that on that day the police officers came to talk with him about unpaid electricity bills and requested that all the villagers settle their debts. When a shot was heard from the direction of Kosovo, the police officers headed back towards Bujanovac. According to the data of the Government of Serbia’s Co-ordination Body, the Saqipi brothers were “citizens killed in terrorist attacks” on January 26 2000, when “Albanian terrorists […] attacked a police patrol with machine guns, sniper rifles and other automatic weapons. A police officer, Žarko Guberinić (1969), sustained a light injury.” At the funeral of the murdered brothers, four days later, members of the Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac made their first public appearance.25
The abduction and disappearance of Nebi Nuhiu: Nebi Nuhiu, owner of the “Neza Petrol” petrol station in Preševo, was kidnapped on February 2 2000. Two hours after the abduction he called his family for the last time. His fate has been unknown ever since. The kidnappers contacted the family and demanded money several times. His daughter, Flora Nuhiu (1977), talked with them and audio-recorded every conversation. This is what she told to the HLC: “At about two o’clock in the afternoon, two cars parked at our petrol station – a white Mercedes with a Vranje registration plate and an ochre Audi. Four young men came out. All of them spoke Serbian, they were between 20 and 30 years old, heavily built. One of them with a really short haircut said that they were from Montenegro and asked where Nebi was. Since our father was not there, he said that he would come back later because he needed tyres for his car. The other one spoke to our cousin who worked at the station and who later brought them the money they demanded; my younger brother was also there. Then they drove off in the direction of Preševo. At about 5 o’clock they returned. My father was there and they asked him to see the tyres. When he showed them, they asked whether he had only those ones on the display, and when he said that he had others in the basement, they asked to see them, too. One of them stayed at the door and the others went down to the basement with my father. A few minutes later, they returned and went to the car with my father. My father did not say anything, but when he sat in the car, he stuck a leg out so as not to let them close the door. One of the abductors shouted: ‘We are going to the police station in Bujanovac, we will drive him back.’ At that, my father shook his head silently. Both cars drove off towards Bujanovac. That was the last time we saw him.” The family reported the incident to the Serbian police, brought the money to the abductors, but Nebi Nuhiu has never been returned to his family.26
The disappearance of Vlada and Persa Miletić from Mali Trnovac: The only Serbian inhabitants of the village of Mali Trnovac, Vlada (1920) and Persa (1945) Miletić disappeared on June 21 2000. Bullet shells and traces of blood were found in their house. The mystery of their fate has not been solved. Fearing the revenge of the Serbian police, all the inhabitants of this village, some 500 of them, left their homes on the same day and went to Kosovo. Three days later, when a few villagers returned to pick up some things from their houses, the police, applying excessive force, arrested Avni Jakupi, Sejdi Jakupi, Nexhmedin Sopi, Shemshi Salihu and Halim Berisha.27
“A few of us returned home in the morning of June 24, mostly to take valuables, gold or money, because we left for Kosovo literally without anything. Each of us went to their own home. We were careful to remain unnoticed, because we feared that the police would abuse us. At about 10 o’clock, a group of ten police officers burst into my house. They asked me who had killed Vlada and Persa and, without waiting for my answer, they started hitting me with their hands and legs and rifle butts. Then they took me out and to the hill nearby. I saw that they had caught some of the others and that they were searching the village trying to find more. They drove me in a jeep to the police station in Bujanovac, where I and the other ones arrested were interrogated all night. They did not use force against me. All of us were released the following day at about 11 o’clock, except for Halim Berisha, who was transferred to the prison in Nis. After that we went to Gnjilane. Some of us have returned now, but many are still in fear.”28
The capture of the Petrović family and Dragan Ilić: Suzana (1974), Stojanča (1969) and Nebojša (1977) Petrović, and Dragan Ilić (1973) from the village of Donje Žabsko, Vranje municipality, were captured by the OVPMB on March 4 2000. They were held in Veliki Trnovac for one night and then transferred to another village. Stojanča Petrović told the HLC researcher29 that: “we were beaten with rifle butts, kicked, beaten with various sticks, electrocuted, had knives under our tongues, forced to kiss KLA symbols and to write statements that the State Security had sent us to plant a bomb at the mosque in Veliki Trnovac.” During their imprisonment which lasted for 41 days, the four abductees were held in five different basement facilities, mostly without daylight. The forensic medicine report on Dragan Ilić states that they were not abused during their capture, but later while they were in detention. The forensic medicine report stated the following:30
“They threw some cloths and blankets over his head and then a larger number of uniformed persons present started searching and beating him – he was beaten mostly on the body and kicked on his legs. The beating lasted for several hours with short breaks. While they were beating him, during one break, they pulled him up the stairs to the ground floor of the house, where the beating continued. He saw them ‘bashing Stojanča Petrović’s head against the floor’ while they were dragging him into the basement, and then he saw the right side of his face beginning to swell. Later he was dragged to a log and threatened to have his hands cut off with an axe.” The captives were requested to admit “who sent them to Veliki Trnovac and on what mission”. While torturing them with electroshocks, they were told that: “Suzana has already confessed”. “At dawn, they brought in a Roma man who was very drunk, and we were awaken by his screams, because they beat him too. They brought him rakija to drink and then they gave him a rubber truncheon and ordered him to ‘interrogate’ and beat him (Ilić) and the Petrović brothers. At first, ‘Fatmir’, a man who was ordered to beat them, refused, but then the uniformed persons started beating him and repeated the order. After that, ‘Fatmir’ started hitting them with that truncheon and the soldiers brought a video camera and recorded it.” On March 6 2001, the captives were forced to say in front of the cameras of TV Kosovo that they came to carry out a terrorist task. Ten days later, they were visited for the first time by the representatives of the EU Monitoring Mission and the International Committee of Red Cross. The described torture continued throughout their imprisonment. According to Ilić, a few days before being released, they started being given medicines and three meals a day. Suzana Petrović was released on March 31, but she was threatened to give a statement to the international forces in Kosovo and KFOR as they prepared it for her. The rest of the prisoners were released on April 14 2001 thanks to the mediation of KFOR.31
Judicial authorities of the Republic of Serbia have not prosecuted any of 15 presented cases of human rights violations that occurred during the internal armed conflict in the South of Serbia. Although the conflict ended, the cases of beating of three Albanians from Preševo, the murder of Agim Agushi and the opening of fire on a pupils’ field trip in the village of Strezovice, Gnjilane municipality, show that the terrorising and harassment of the citizens of Albanian nationality by the Yugoslav Army and Serbian Police continued. The replies of the Serbian Interior Ministry to the complaints submitted by the Bujanovac Human Rights Committee with regard to human rights violation indicate that the state authorities failed to conduct an objective and impartial investigation of these incidents.32
The Bujanovac Human Rights Committee began submitting applications to the Co-ordination Body of the Government of Serbia and Government of FRY for the municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa on December 21 2000. Until today, more than 120 applications have been filed to this body containing citizens’ complaints with regard to the behaviour of the police, army and state authorities. The first replies by the Co-ordination Body came four months after the first application by the Human Rights Committee. Replies to 24 out of 61 applications were given on that occasion. Each reply also contained a report on the inquiries made and the measures that had been taken. It was also said that the other allegations were being examined. Nine other replies came afterwards. Since March 2002, the Bujanovac Human Rights Committee has not received any more replies from the Co-ordination Body. All complaints submitted by the Committee were related to the incidents where Albanians were victims. Out of 33 replies, 30 referred to the incidents in the Bujanovac municipality and the remaining three to those in the municipality of Preševo. Two-thirds of the investigated incidents occurred in large settlements (Bujanovac, Preševo, Veliki Trnovac). Apart from three cases, all occurred either in December 2000 or in the course of 2001.33
Amnesty for the members of the OVPBM34envisaged under the Co-ordination Body’s Programme was confirmed on May 21 2001 in a letter sent to the then personal envoy of the NATO Secretary-General Pieter Feith by the Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of Serbia and President of the Co-ordination Body Nebojša Čović, the commander of the Joint Security Forces Ninoslav Krstić, and the commander of the Special Police Forces Goran Radosavljević Guri. They said that general amnesty would be granted to “all who put down their weapons, uniforms and all military equipment they possess illegally.”35 Due to the requests of the Albanian community that the announced amnesty should have a legal form, the Federal Parliament passed an Amnesty Law on June 4 2002, which referred to all citizens of Yugoslavia suspected of having participated in terrorist activities (but not war crimes) from January 1 1999 until May 31 2001. Amnesty was implemented pursuant to the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law that was in force at that time.36
According to the statement of the chief of police for the Pčinjski Region, Novica Zdravković, by January 13 2001. 43 criminal reports were filed to the Vranje District Prosecutor’s Office against 32 persons, for the crime of terrorism – as the activities of the OVPMB were qualified by the authorities. Also, by the decision to conduct an investigation of June 19 2000, “an investigation has been ordered against 35 persons of Albanian nationality who are suspected of having founded a terrorist organisation, the so-called OVPMB, in the village of Dobrosin, Bujanovac municipality, in the house of Ajdari Vebi”. In a reply to the Human Rights Committee, President of the Vranje District Court said that the accused had been either in detention or put on a wanted list. Such action by the judicial authorities is contrary to the amnesty granted to the soldiers of the former OVPMB. In a letter to the personal envoy of the NATO General-Secretary Robert Serry, sent on behalf of the Co-ordination Body by its President Nebojša Čović, Vice President Mića Marković, and the Police Forces commander Goran Radosavljević on February 26 2002, it was confirmed that the amnesty was in force. The Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of Serbia and President of the Co-ordination Body Nebojša Čović wrote in the letter “It is not my intention to concern myself with the investigation into the persons listed in the document of the District Court in Vranje (Ki no. 37/00 of June 19 2000) with the activities directly connected to the establishment of or participation in armed groups prior to the signature of the aforementioned document ‘Amnesty is a way out’.”37
These data show that in spite of the programme under which amnesty was agreed, the police was filing reports for the crime of terrorism against former soldiers of the OVPMB. Luan Sadiku from Bujanovac, sentenced to 7 years and 6 months’ imprisonment for the crime of terrorism, was released on March 26 2002. He spent 14 months in prison. Besim Leka (18) from Bujanovac, also convicted for terrorism, was released. Leka was arrested on November 16 2000 in a bus travelling from Pristhina to Bujanovac with 10kg of explosives found in his bag.
During the election campaign in Serbia on May 3 2012, five Albanians from the Bujanovac municipality were arrested – Elhami Salihu, Mustafa Limani, Sherif Abdiri, Nedir Sefedini and Sevdaij Emurlah. They were taken by the masked members of Gendarmerie to the main office of the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Serbia in Belgrade.38 The arrested men were handcuffed with hands behind the back. During the afternoon, at the press conference in Vranje, Interior Minister Ivica Dačić showed police documentation related to the murders of Serbian civilians and police officers by the Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa to the journalists. Dačić also shared the information that in 2000 and 2001, 18 police officers and soldiers were killed in OVPBM attacks, while 43 Serbian civilians were kidnapped. On the same day, War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukčević informed the public that this was a legally confidential investigation, while some media, referring to unofficial sources, reported that the arrested were suspected of having been members of the OVPBM who had participated in the kidnapping of two Serbian young men in 2001, whose bodies were found in the vicinity of the OVPMB camp in the village of Donja Breznica, Gnjilane municipality in Kosovo.39
All those arrested were released on May 29 2012 without a court ruling on the termination of detention. Ten days later, the arrested persons, their defence counsel, and the public could read in an interview given by the then War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukčević to the Politika daily that the Prosecutor’s Office decided to stop the investigation. Prosecutor Vukčević said in that interview that, after the Interior Ministry had filed a criminal report, the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office heard the first witness, who testified of the imprisonment of Serbian civilians in the OVPMB camp in Donja Breznica, Gnjilane municipality, their daily abuse, including electrocution, which had lasted for 40 days. The War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office found that there was a suspicion that the defendants had committed a war crime against civilian population. According to Prosecutor Vukčević, the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office established in further investigation that the suspects – former OVPBM soldiers, had been granted amnesty based on the Amnesty Law, which referred to the crimes of terrorism and associating for the purpose of hostile activities committed by the citizens of FRY on the territory of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa. However, in its press release in response to the arrest, the HLC40pointed out that neither said Amnesty Law nor any other law of the Republic of Serbia granted amnesty for war crimes. The HLC also pointed out that the Government of Serbia signed a Cease-Fire Agreement with the OVPBM (the Končulj Agreement) with the mediation of the special envoy of the NATO Secretary-General Pieter Feith. This agreement shows that the state of Serbia has acknowledged the internal armed conflict on the territory of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa in the period between January 26 2000 and May 31 2001, which is a necessary condition for the crimes committed by the OVPBM and Serbian forces to qualify as war crimes. Article 3 of the Agreement reads: “Signatories shall acknowledge and abide by the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International [internal] Conflicts (Protocol II).”41
This explanation also invalidates the arguments of the absence of legal validity of the Declaration, that is, the Končulj Cease-Fire Agreement, which are aimed at annulling the right to amnesty of the OVBMP members, thus re-fuelling tensions between Serbian and Albanian communities. These arguments on the absence of a document which has legal power emerged after an article had been published in the Politika daily on July 30 2018, titled “Serbia Has Not Signed the Končulj Agreement”,42 which contains a statement of Zoran Stanković, current President of the Co-Ordination Body, who claims that Serbia’s delegates have not signed this joint declaration. Namely, even if the Cease-Fire Agreement had not been signed, the Joint Conclusion of the Government of Serbia and Federal Government of May 23 2001 bound the FRY to regulate amnesty, which was done through the adoption of the Draft Law by the Federal Parliament on June 4, 2002.
A monument to the 27 killed OVPBM soldiers in the centre of Preševo was erected on November 16 2012 within the ceremony of celebrating 100th anniversary of the Albanian state. Only a few days later, Ivica Dačić, at that moment Serbian Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, said that the plaque, created at the initiative of the local self-government and Veterans’ Association of the Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac, would certainly be removed, willy-nilly. Such statement once again lifted tensions in the region still recovering from the armed conflict of 2000 and 2001, when the OVPMB clashed with state security forces. Dačić’s statement also has to be read in the context of Brussels negotiations between Belgrade and Pristhina that intensified at that moment, and hence the removal of the monument served to prove to the nationalist part of the citizens of Serbia that the new government did not completely give up the nationalist politics of the 1990s legitimised by the fight against “separatism”. In spite of the tumultuous reaction of Albanian politicians, the monuments was “silently” removed by the police unit of the Serbian Gendarmerie in January 2013.43
However, there are a dozen of monuments dedicated to the members of the OVPMB in the south of Serbia, but none of them have caused an uproar like the one in the centre of Preševo. In the centre of Veliki Trnovac, a nearby village, there is a monument of Ridvan Qazimi, known as Komandant Lleshi, with the Albanian flag flying above it. In Dobrosin, a village on the very border with Kosovo, where the OVPMB was founded in January 2000, there are several monuments dedicated to the “victims of Serbian terror”; the situation is similar in Končulj, Lučane and some other villages with exclusive Albanian population. In a research conducted by Nikola Lazić, a BIRN reporter, in January 2013, which was published in the Vreme magazine, it is stated that a total of 12 monuments dedicated to the police officers have been erected in the south of Serbia since the beginning of 2013.44Also, Lazić gave a clear list of nine monuments dedicated to OVPMB members, two of which have been removed in the meantime:
What only a small part of Serbian public knows is that the monument to the OVPBM soldiers in Preševo represents a kind of Albanian response to the monument to the murdered police officers the erection of which was announced for the first half of 2012 between Lučane and Dobrosin, near Bujanovac. The monument for 12 police officers was erected near the village of Lučane, Bujanovac municipality, in 2012, just before the monument dedicated to the OVPMB members in the centre of Preševo was removed. The monument to the Serbian police officers brought daily costs to the citizens of Serbia, because it was secured by the Gendarmerie and was inconvenient for the victims’ families who would like to visit. It. In July 2015, members of the Serbian Army temporarily removed the monument at the time when the then Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić was to visit the Preševo Valley.
The Južne vesti portal published the information that 27 members of the Gendarmerie had been securing the monument on a daily basis until that moment, which was an additional cost for the citizens of Serbia.46 In the end, the monument was moved to Bujanovačka Banja, in the churchyard of a nearby church. Since 2015, this monument, which can be approached by a macadam road, has been a frequent place of commemorations and visits by the representatives of Serbian Interior Ministry and Ministry of Defence. Since 2018, when the Law on War Memorials was adopted, the status of monuments erected in memory of the OVPMB members or Albanian civilians killed in the Preševo Valley is questioned from time to time, due to the provisions of this law which envisages the removal of monuments which are not in accordance with the liberating tradition of Serbian people or do not reflect territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Serbia.