Commemorating the March Riots of 2004: A Reflection 19 Years On
Each year on March 17, the Diocese of Raška and Prizren solemnly marks the anniversary of the devastating March Pogrom of 2004. The violent rioting by ethnic Albanian crowds broke out in Kosovo, a day after ethnic Albanian news agencies in Kosovo reported sensational and ultimately inaccurate reports that three young children had drowned after being chased into the river by Serbs. With lighting speed, the crowd violence spread all over Kosovo (https://youtu.be/ZOBIROAPY9k)
The recollection of this tragic event continues to evoke profound pain for the Serbian people, even 19 years later. In a series of apparently coordinated attacks, 51,000 Kosovo Albanian rioters left a staggering toll: 19 fatalities, several hundred injured, over 600 homes burned or damaged, and an additional 4,000 Serbs displaced, adding to the already exiled 150,000 refugees from 1999. Serbian Orthodox sites bore the brunt of the rioters' ire, with 35 churches and monasteries destroyed, along with countless sacred artifacts and icons. Alarmingly, this unparalleled act of destruction took place not during a conflict but under the watchful eyes of international forces, Kosovo Police, and the UNMIK administration, none of whom have ever been held accountable for their shortcomings.
Nineteen years on, the most shocking revelation is the lack of any serious investigation into these acts of violence. No organizers of the riots have been identified or brought to justice, despite highest international representatives' swift characterization of the events as organized. The 2004 OSCE Report emphasized the detrimental role played by Albanian-language media, which fanned the flames of hysteria by disseminating false information and incendiary statements from politicians who remain influential in Kosovo today. A mere handful of individuals were penalized for the devastation they wrought, such as the young Kosovo Albanians who torched the 14th-century UNESCO-protected Cathedral of the Holy Virgin of Ljeviš in Prizren, receiving only probationary sentences. This lack of decisive action has contributed to ongoing sporadic attacks on Serbian Christian sites in Kosovo and against Serb returnees in isolated enclaves. Despite efforts to ameliorate the lives of Kosovo Serbs, the risk of similar riots reoccurring remains, as the mere existence of Serbian Orthodox Christian heritage in Kosovo poses a challenge for those seeking to erase or rewrite its history. Under international pressure, the Kosovo Parliament has recognized Serbian Orthodox Church and heritage under its official name, though many Kosovo officials continue to avoid using the term or even audaciously assert that Serbian Orthodox churches are ethnically Albanian – a claim that begs the question of why Kosovo Albanians themselves would vandalize many churches in Kosovo so brutally in previous centuries and particularly after the 1999 war.
The Serbian Orthodox Church has demonstrated remarkable Christian resilience in the face of this unparalleled post-war organized attack on its sites, as it has throughout history. Approximately 70% of the churches devastated in 2004 have been fully or partially reconstructed, with Kosovo institutions being compelled to participate in the process under the supervision of the Council of Europe, due to international insistence. The restoration of the Prizren Serbian Seminary stands out as a notable success; the compound's two largest buildings, reduced to ashes in 2004, were fully reconstructed by 2010. Moreover, during the rebuilding process, the parishes of Prizren, Pristina, Peć, Uroševac, Vučitrn, and Istok have experienced a resurgence. Nevertheless, contrary to expectations, very few, if any, returnees have come back to their homes since 2004, citing a pervasive sense of insecurity and ethnic intolerance in Kosovo.
The March Pogrom of 2004 stands as a monumental tragedy for the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as a significant and shameful event for Kosovo's institutions, whose leaders continue to shape society and pursue a European future. Despite facing numerous challenges, the Serbian Orthodox Church remains steadfast in its efforts to reconstruct what was lost. Regrettably, the process has been hindered for years by restrictions imposed by Kosovo institutions, denying the Church full autonomy over the management and restoration of its properties, as guaranteed in Annex V of the Ahtisaari Plan.
Given the heightened concerns for Christian sites amid the current atmosphere of increasing ethnic and religious radicalism in Kosovo, and the apparent lack of commitment from Kosovo's leadership safeguard Serbian heritage without constant international pressure and oversight, it is inevitable that discussions surrounding the long-term protection of Serb heritage will feature in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. This is especially crucial at a time when some Pristina leaders are proposing to dismantle the protection mechanisms granted to the Church or even strip Serbian heritage of its property rights, name, historical, and religious identity.
To commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Pogrom, a memorial service will be held tomorrow, March 17, at Gračanica Monastery. The event will include a traditional procession to the town center's memorial, followed by prayers and moments of reflection on the tragic events of the past 23 years, with the hope that history will not repeat itself.
Diocese of Raška and Prizren
Serbian Orthodox Church
16 March 2023
The harrowing images of the desecration of St. Andrew Serbian Church in Podujevo (Kosovo), broadcasted by Kosovo Albanian TV on March 17th, 2004, will forever remain a somber reminder of one of the most heinous attacks on Christian sites in Europe during peacetime. As was the case in many other incidents during that time, the acts of vandalism were not committed by isolated individuals but were supported by a broad swath of the younger Albanian population. The wanton destruction of crosses, in particular, bears an unsettling resemblance to the tragic events in the Middle East.