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Yugoslavia: Plans Made To Preserve Kosovo's Cultural Heritage

The United Nations mission in Kosovo is in the process of transferring control over reconstruction efforts to the Council of Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on the first efforts since the arrival of NATO-led forces last June to save Kosovo's cultural monuments.

Prague, 1 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe is developing a plan to preserve Kosovo's cultural heritage, the destruction of which is defined by the UN's war crimes tribunal as a war crime.

The move follows more than six months of virtual neglect by the UN administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) of the province's war-damaged monuments, museums, and libraries.

The Council of Europe and the European Commission have agreed to establish a high-level group of experts to prepare a detailed survey of the damage and destruction to the architectural and archeological heritage of all ethnic and religious groups throughout the region.

Once they complete the survey this spring, they will establish a list of priorities and set up teams of experts from local, provincial and federal (Yugoslav) levels, representing all groups in Kosovo, to develop proposals by this summer for action.

Since the arrival of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, last June, protection for cultural monuments has been limited to Serbian Orthodox churches. Nevertheless, more than 50 churches in Kosovo have been damaged by vandalism since June.

By far the most thorough survey to date has been conducted by a Harvard University librarian, Andras Riedlmayer, and two architects, an American and an Albanian. They spent three weeks in Kosovo conducting a survey of architectural monuments, libraries, historical archives, public records and museums.

Riedlmayer says that Serbian forces in 1998 and 1999 caused widespread destruction to some 500 villages in Kosovo and severely damaged or destroyed more than 200 mosques, or one in three Muslim houses of worship. The Serbs also gutted the overwhelming majority of some 500 defensive stone towers known as kullas, traditionally inhabited by large Kosovar Albanian families.

One of the survey's goals is to assess damage and reconstruction efforts and to identify projects and institutions in need of assistance.

Riedlmayer says the destruction of Serbian Orthodox village churches in Kosovo since the end of the war is a tragedy. But, as he puts it, "It is also wrong to ignore...the massive and deliberate destruction of Albanian religious and cultural heritage by Serbian police, soldiers, and paramilitaries."

Another purpose of the survey is to gather evidence to support investigations of the Office of the Prosecutor of the UN's war crimes tribunal at The Hague, into war crimes allegedly committed by Yugoslavia's indicted President Slobodan Milosevic and five others.

"As you know, the deliberate destruction of cultural property without overriding military necessity is a war crime. And the indictment against Milosevic actually specifies among the charges the destruction of cultural and religious heritage. On the other hand, when we talked to the prosecutor's office at The Hague they told us that they had no one with either the time or the expertise on their side to look into this."

The Hague tribunal last May indicted Milosevic and five other senior Serbian and Yugoslav officials with "criminal responsibility for violations of the laws or customs of war." The tribunal's statute says this includes "seizure of, destruction, or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity, and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments, and works of art and science."

Riedlmayer's survey team visited some 80 sites and collected documentation on a further 120 sites. Riedlmayer's preliminary report in mid-December alleged that there was a clear pattern of systematic targeting by the Serbian forces of mosques in Kosovo -- including a number of important monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the survey's words: "In the majority of cases, it was evident...that this was not collateral damage from fighting between Belgrade's forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) rebels, nor the result of NATO's bombing."

"Given that on any kind of population basis, Belgrade's claim to sovereignty over Kosovo is rather weak...and so heritage has played a disproportionate role in the politics of Kosovo, at least since the 1980s... Then when Belgrade took over direct rule in 1989 and 90, one of the first things that happened was a revision of the listed monuments in Kosovo."

Riedlmayer says the California-based Packard Humanities Institute has given a grant of $24,000 to pay for material and labor to conserve Kosovo's 100 most-endangered buildings until funding for reconstruction becomes available.