Operation Reka/River was not an operation at all. It was not a military action against enemy soldiers, nor did it have any military objective. The only targets were Albanian civilians from Kosovo and their property. During two days – April 27 and 28, 1999 – the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian police killed about 350 Albanian civilians in the villages around Djakovica, primarily Meja and Korenica, thousands of them were expelled, and their houses were burned. Before the murders and expulsion, all the victims were thoroughly robbed. Personal documents were singled out for burning, in order to forever prevent the return of those who were forced out.
The official reason for Operation Reka was the murder of five policemen in the village of Meja on April 22, 1999. Although they were killed by the KLA, the retaliation was not aimed at the KLA, but at civilians. At the Hague Tribunal, witnesses testified that the order to “eliminate at least 100 people and burn all the houses” was given because of the murder of Serbian policemen. The real cause of the operation was the same as with all the crimes that had been committed until then – it happened because it was allowed and desirable. And it was allowed and desirable because of a higher goal – the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo.
Operation Reka was the peak of the wave of war crimes in Kosovo. If we look only at the crimes prosecuted before the Hague Tribunal, it is evident that before the end of April 1999, a massive number of crimes had already been committed. For example, on the second day of the NATO bombing – March 25, 1999 – 59 Albanian civilians were killed in the village of Bela Crkva, among them entire families with small children. The next day, March 26, the Berisha family was wiped out in Suva Reka – at least 45 women, children and a few men were killed. On the same day, 111 men and boys were killed in Mala Krusa. Two days later, at least 132 men were killed in Izbica, including elderly and disabled men. On that day, 14 women and children from the Bogujevci, Duriqi and Lugalliu families were killed in Podujevo. On the night between April 1 and 2, 1999, 20 women and children were killed in Djakovica. The list goes on. Only a fraction of the murders of Albanian civilians in Kosovo was ever prosecuted in The Hague, and only a fraction of the crimes prosecuted in The Hague is listed here.
However, even this short list of terrible crimes allows us to understand how Operation Reka was made possible. It was simply part of the pattern. All the aforementioned murders were committed by members of the regular police and/or military forces of Serbia and FR Yugoslavia, and none of the perpetrators were prosecuted or called to any responsibility. Why? Because it was part of the plan. The plan was to intimidate the Albanian population with a wave of violence to such an extent that they would have no choice but to leave Kosovo. That plan was best described by Vojislav Seselj in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia, on the eve of the NATO intervention: “If NATO bombs us, if the Americans attack us, we Serbs will suffer a lot, but there will be no more Albanians in Kosovo.”
Murders of Albanian civilians, intimidation, rape, robbery, burning of houses, demolition of mosques, destruction of documents, all this was done with one single goal. To make all of those who survive leave Serbia. And indeed, about 800,000 Albanians from Kosovo fled to Albania and Macedonia. Not because of the fear of NATO bombing, not because of the actions of the KLA, but solely because of the terror carried out in Kosovo by the regular police and military forces of the country these people lived in.
Operation Reka contributed to a common criminal goal. Like in previous cases, no one was held accountable for the murders in Meja, Korenica and the surrounding villages. But significant resources were invested in covering up that crime. According to the Hague verdicts, 287 bodies of people killed during Operation Reka were found two years later in a mass grave in Batajnica, near Belgrade. None of those killed wore a uniform, no one carried a weapon, no one was killed under the emblem of the KLA. They were ordinary people, farmers, artisans, workers, each preoccupied with their own existential pains, often accompanied by their sons, boys taken to their deaths, preoccupied with dreaming of a better future than the one that the 1990s in Kosovo could offer them.
The crimes committed during Operation Reka were prosecuted only before the Hague Tribunal. Initially, it was included as one of the crimes in the indictment against Slobodan Milosevic, the president of the FR Yugoslavia during the conflict in Kosovo (who died before the end of the trial), then in the indictment (and verdict) for Kosovo crimes against the former president of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic (acquitted of all charges), Deputy Prime Minister of the FRY Nikola Sainovic (sentenced to 18 years in prison), Chief of General Staff of the Yugoslav Army Dragoljub Ojdanic (15 years in prison), Commander of the Third Army of the Armed Forces of Yugoslavia in Kosovo Nebojsa Pavkovic (22 years in prison), Pristina Corps Commander Vladimir Lazarevic (14 years in prison), Chief of Staff of Kosovo police Sreten Lukic (20 years in prison). Finally, in a separate case, Vlastimir Djordjevic, the head of the Department of Public Security of the Serbian police, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The Hague Tribunal prosecuted the highest-ranking officials. This was supposed to be the path that the domestic judiciary in Serbia would follow. In the Hague, military insiders and surviving witnesses were questioned, and a large number of documents were included as evidence. Serbia should have continued on that path and brought to justice middle-rank officers and, consequently, the direct perpetrators of crimes, as well as those who organised the move of the bodies from Kosovo to Serbia. This didn’t happen, and it won’t happen. Instead, the Hague convicts were all rehabilitated and promoted as heroes, lecturers at military academies and, worst of all, moral paragons of society, as soon as they were released from prison. The only thing that remains for the powerless and ever-shrinking minority in Serbian society is to remember the victims by refusing the dominant narrative, and pay tribute to them whenever possible.
In cooperation with forumZFD.
Translated by Marijana Simic