Policy or Panic? The Flight of Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, March-May 1999

Phase 1: 24 March - 6 April

The largest number of Kosovar refugees of any point in the conflict entered Albania on 27-28 March when more than 62,000 people crossed the border in 48 hours. During the period between 26 March and 6 April, more than 236,000 Kosovar Albanians entered through Morina, according to the border records and other sources.1 These refugees originated largely from the cities and villages in southern and western Kosovo. As shown on Map 2.1, many of the municipalities from which refugees were leaving also suffered massacres of Kosovar Albanian civilians by Yugoslav police, army and irregular forces.2 Although some municipalities from which substantial numbers of refugees departed were subjected to NATO bombing attacks, there are also other reasons for their departure, perhaps more compelling, as the sequence described below makes clear.

Map 2. 1: Phase 1, 24 March-6 April
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Note: Maps open in seperate windows.
Map 2. 2: Refugee flow by municipality, 24 March-6 April
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Map 2.1 shows refugee flows, and the approximate sites of NATO bombing and alleged Yugoslav massacres of Kosovar Albanian civilians. Map 2.13 is an interpretation of refugee flows in geographic context, and in the context of NATO bombing and alleged mass killings. More precise information about flows from each municipality for all of Phase 1 is presented in Map 2.2.4 For the number of Kosovar Albanians departing from each of 122 mapped points over each two-day period in Phases 1-3, see the maps in Appendix B.

The NATO bombing sites are represented with one star for each day that municipality was bombed. Greater detail - such as counting bombs or missiles - is impossible because there is no publicly accessible source of detailed information on the air campaign. The location of the stars is approximate. Any given star is located in the municipality in which it was reported, but it may not be exactly on the village in which one or more bombs fell; the greatest error of this mapping is about 10 kilometers.5

The information about the bombing comes from official Yugoslav government sources and private Yugoslav media sources, in some cases supplemented by NATO briefings. We chose to rely primarily on the Yugoslav reporting on bombing for two reasons. First, the NATO data are in most cases vague. NATO briefing officers would say that targets were struck in Kosovo, and then they would name one or two more precise spots, leaving many more unspecified.6 Yugoslav sources generally name the municipality and sometimes the village where the attacks took place. Second, we are testing the hypothesis advanced by the Yugoslav government that the bombing was a cause of Kosovar Albanians’ departure. The strongest test of this hypothesis is to use the Yugoslav government’s own claims about when and where bombing occurred.

Mass killings are noted with an “X” on Map 2.1. Information about killings was drawn from the OSCE report of 6 December 1999.7 Mass killings were defined as those in which more than five victims were reported. The OSCE report does not include all of the mass killings that occurred during the March-May 1999 period, but it is the most comprehensive source available at this time, and its findings have been corroborated by local and international non-governmental human rights organizations that documented specific incidents in some regions in Kosovo. Like the bombing locations, the locations for mass killings on Map 2.1 are approximate. The “X” markings are placed relative to the capitals of each municipality, following the village references made in the OSCE report. No placement error is believed to exceed 10 km.

Refugees did not always exit Kosovo on the same day that they leave their homes (see Appendix A, Section A3). The difference between when people left their homes and when they crossed the border meant that the total number of people leaving their homes was not the same as the number crossing the border in any period. Approximately 231,000 Kosovar Albanians left their homes during Phase 1, but 11% of these people remained in transit in Kosovo until Phase 2 or Phase 3.

To indicate the refugees’ origins and movement, Map 2.1 uses chevron markings scaled approximately to represent the number of people moving from that place during Phase 1. The chevron markings are a qualitative interpretation of Map 2.2 and of the more precise time and location maps presented in Appendix B. We do not know the refugees’ exact routes from their homes to Morina, so the paths marked by the chevrons are approximate. The paths were derived from testimony presented in the OSCE and other reports, and from interview data taken by this and other projects (see Appendix A, Section A1).

Maps 2.1 and 2.2 make clear that throughout late March and early April, the overwhelming majority of the refugees arrived at the Morina border crossing from the western cities of Pec, Djakovica, and Decani, and the southern areas of Orahovac, Suva Reka, and Prizren, as well as smaller towns and villages in western and southwestern areas of Kosovo. In addition, substantial numbers of people left Kosovska Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.8 At the peak on 27-28 March, especially heavy flows of people left Pec and Prizren (approximately 7,000 and 16,800 people, respectively).

In Map 2.2, the darker locations represent municipalities from which relatively large numbers of people left for Albania. The heaviest flows came from Djakovica, Orahovac, Suva Reka, and Prizren. Gora, Decan, and Pec have large numbers of refugees departing, although fewer than municipalities in the first group. All of these municipalities are in the west and south, as the observations made above for Graph 1.2 indicated. Other municipalities also suffered substantial outmigration, including Pristina and Mitrovica in the north-central region. Even accounting for the refugees from Pristina and Mitrovica (many of whom went to Macedonia), the overwhelming proportion of refugees who left their homes during this period were from the south and west.9

The only exception to the concentration of refugees was in the middle of the phase. On 29-30 March, migration was more widely dispersed than in any other period in the first phase. More than 1,000 people left each of nine distinct villages and cities in western and southern Kosovo. Two areas in the north and east also experienced significant outflows (see Appendix B, maps for these dates).

Human rights monitors documented heavy flows of people from southern and western Kosovo during this period. According to testimonies, Kosovar Albanians often left under threat or after acts of violence committed by the Yugoslav authorities or Serb paramilitary units.10 Refugees crossing into Albania report that Yugoslav army and paramilitary units forced them onto the highway that runs from the northwest city of Pec via Djakovica and then to Prizren.11 In the testimony below, a refugee from Pec tells how he was forced to leave his home.

The Serbs made people leave [Pec] on Thursday [April 1] at 10:00 AM. They said: “Go to Albania.” They went from neighborhood to neighborhood. They burned the houses as people left. There were trucks and busses waiting for us. We were treated like cows. Men and women together. They didn’t allow us any baggage, clothes. Just as we were. They slapped the men around a bit. They stole everything from the houses.

We drove straight to the border. Some 20 km from the border they stopped and said: “Walk. If NATO is helping you, why don’t you go and ask them for some help.”

We spent 6-14 hours on the busses. We left at 13:00, and arrived at 19:00. Then walked for about two hours. The windows were covered, it was very crowded.12

According to numerous refugee accounts, Serb paramilitary forces gave them only a few minutes to pack their belongings and leave their homes.13

During this first wave of refugees on 28 March, some Kosovar Albanians reported that Serb paramilitary units provided buses to transport them from Pec and Djakovica, while others relied on tractor-pulled wagons or cars. With the exception of refugees who crossed into Albania on foot at the unofficial border points at Tropoja and Krume,14 the majority passed through the southwestern city of Prizren, which is 15 kilometers from Morina on the Albanian border. From Prizren the refugees - the majority of whom were women, children and elderly men - crossed into Albania by foot, car and tractor-pulled wagons.15 Kosovar Albanian refugees reported that the process seemed to them to be well-organized, as this testimony suggests:

We left Djakovica on 28 or 29 March, because we were afraid. There were burnings and killings in Djakovica. In my neighborhood, Lagjje e Re, many people worked for the Mother Theresa Foundation, and their houses got burnt. [On 28 or 29 March,] the Serbian police went to [people’s] houses, and told them to go. They [the Serbs] used stolen vehicles to drive around.

We left before they came to my house. The men left before the women, but later they left as well. We went to Moglice, where we stayed for four days. But there were thousands of people from Djakovica in Moglice, and the villagers told us to leave, they were afraid they would be shelled.

So we went back to Djakovica, where we stayed for about three hours. The Serbs were positioned [in] nearby houses. When the Serbs started cleansing nearby, these people told us we should leave. Most people gathered some 500 meters away from the hospital. I found a truck owned by an Albanian, went on it, and left. My wife was about to deliver, so I left her behind in the hospital. I heard we had a baby girl.

The Serbs didn’t allow us to go to Qafa Prushit, so we went via Prizren to Morina. The Serbs guarded us all the way to Prizren with our own cars. In Bishtazhin, the police and army took our passports and other documents.16

During Phase 1, mass killings were more frequent throughout the southwest than in other areas of Kosovo. The OSCE documented mass killings in the municipalities of Pec, Djakovica, Orahovac, Prizren, and Suva Reka. The route from Djakovica to Prizren was especially dangerous, with mass killings documented in many of the small towns along the road.17 Especially in the southern areas, these killings occurred early, before 30 March, although much of the refugee flow came about a week later. Mass killings also took place in Podujevo, Mitrovica, Izbica, Kacanik, and in areas around Pristina.

NATO’s bombing efforts during this phase were concentrated in Serbia proper and in central Kosovo, especially Pristina, far away from the focus of the migration, although some NATO bombs did fall on southern and western municipalities. Graph 2.1 shows the pattern of bombs falling and people departing for four municipalities.

Graph 2.1 : Number of Kosovar Albanians leaving their homes and bombing patterns, by two-day period, for four municipalities (Djakovica, Gora, Orahovac, Gnijlane)
Graph 2.1

In Graph 2.1, a small asterisk notes when an air attack occurred. For example, NATO attacks on Djakovica occurred throughout the period from late March to early May, but the great majority of all people departed Djakovica before 6 April. If the bombing that occurred on 27-28 March was the cause of people leaving, its effect was delayed: the number of people leaving actually declined slightly on 29-30 March before increasing to a peak on 3-4 April and declining thereafter. The second NATO attack on Djakovica, on 5 April, occurred just as the first big wave of refugee flow was subsiding from more than 5,000 to fewer than 500 in each two-day period. But the refugee flow from Djakovica did not increase after 5-6 and 10-11 April, the next periods when NATO attacked. NATO bombs continued to fall on Djakovica throughout Phases 2 and 3. The NATO attack on 10-11 April was followed a week later by a small surge in refugee outflow, and the attacks on 20-21 and 24-25 April were followed by another relatively small increase in the number of refugees leaving on 26-27 April. Three attacks thereafter seemed to have little relationship with smaller and smaller waves of refugees leaving. Thus in Djakovica, timing between bombing and refugee outflow varied widely.

The pattern of refugee flow out of Orahovac was similar to Djakovica, but the bombing occurred later. Many refugees left before 5-6 April, with peaks on 29-30 March and 2-3 April. One NATO attack occurred on 31 March-1 April, immediately preceding the municipality’s highest outflow period on 2-3 April But the NATO attack that occurred on 6-7 April was followed by low outflow levels until 2-3 May when more than 1,600 people left the municipality. In Orahovac, the single largest outflow preceded the first NATO bomb attack on 31 March-1 April. From 8 April - 11 May, approximately 7,000 people left Orahovac, mostly in relatively small groups of 75-100 people per day. In the middle of Phase 3 on 2-3 May, another peak outflow occurred as more than 1,600 refugees departed Orahovac.

In Gora, in the far south, people departed in the same patterns as Orahovac, with thousands of people leaving every day until about 6 April. However, no NATO bomb attacks were reported in either Yugoslav or NATO sources during or after this period. In the eastern municipality of Gnjilane, fewer people were leaving (note that the vertical axis is in the hundreds while the other graphs are in the thousands), but the bomb-departure connection was similar to that seen in Orahovac. The OSCE report noted that although there were many internally displaced people there, and despite four periods during which there was bombing in Gnjilane, relatively few people from the municipality itself migrated either as refugees or to other parts of Kosovo.18

NATO reported that they suspended air strikes due to bad weather on 2-4 April, and this claim was not contested by Yugoslav reports of bombing in Kosovo.19 The period without NATO bombing saw the highest sustained level of refugee movement of any period during the conflict.

The period 24 March - 6 April includes the heaviest refugee flow of the entire conflict, with the migration concentrated almost exclusively in the Pec-Prizren corridor. In the far west of Kosovo, people left their homes in Decani in rising numbers toward the end of the phase, with approximately 2,200 leaving on 31 March-1 April, 4,300 on 2-3 April, and 5,300 on 4-5 April. In Djakovica, the number of people leaving rose to a peak of nearly 5,800 people on 31 March-1 April, with slight declines after that. More than 5,000 people departed from Suva Reka 29-30 March, and these numbers continued to rise to a peak of 8,000 people 4-5 April. Human rights groups reported that Kosovar Albanians in Orahovac and Suva Reka were subject to gross violations as Yugoslav authorities ordered people to leave their homes.20 In early April, one refugee said of the southwest: “[e]verywhere you go, you only see burnt homes and Serbian police or army. All of [southwestern] Kosovo is empty of people.”21

On 6 April, the Yugoslav Government announced a unilateral ceasefire on the occasion of the Orthodox Easter: “[a]ll actions by army and police against the terrorist organizations, the Kosovo Liberation Army, cease as of April 6th, at 20:00.”22 Unlike the NATO bombing suspension a few days earlier, this unilateral action did immediately affect refugee flow. Coincidentally with the suspension of Yugoslav government actions, the flow of refugees across the border at Morina dropped from more than 24,000 on 6 April to fewer than 1,000 on 7 April.


1 About 13% of the 236,000 refugees who entered Albania during Phase 1 had left their homes before 24 March. Return to Text

2 This analysis only considers the relation of forced migration to mass killings, and does not examine the relationship of migration to other kinds of violence. Return to Text

3 As with Graphs 3.1 and 4.1 for Phases 2 and 3, respectively. Return to Text

4 And for Phases 2 and 3, in Graphs 3.2 and 4.2, respectively. Return to Text

5 The source information is only rarely more precise that the representation on Map 2.1, and so we coded bombing and massacre occurrences to the municipality, not to the village. Return to Text

6 For example, on 29 March in the daily NATO briefing Air Commodore David Wilby said “Most significantly we have begun our operations against field forces in Kosovo. Major attacks last night took place at Donja Semanja, where we struck a deployed combat group - the 243rd which participated in ethnic cleansing and other deplorable activities in south Kosovo.” He does not specify where other attacks may have been made. Return to Text

7 In the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 6 Dec. 1999 report, Part 5. Return to Text

8 People from Mitrovica exited Kosovo to Albania (as reported here), but also to Macedonia and Montenegro. See OSCE 6 Dec. 1999 report, Part 5, chapter on Mitrovica. Return to Text

9 See Appendix A, Section A8, for an analysis of the generalizability of these claims from the Albanian data to the entire universe of Kosovar Albanian refugees. Return to Text

10 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Kosovo Flash, #8, 9, 11, 16. Return to Text

11 There are relatively few paved roads in Kosovo, and in interviews with this project, Kosovar Albanians frequently described rural locations in terms of the nearest “asphalt” (as opposed to dirt) road. Return to Text

12 Interview given to HRW, April 1999, Albania. Return to Text

13 Interviews conducted in Albanian at the Morina border by Fron Nazi, 26 March - 5 April. Also see 29 March press conference by NATO Spokesman Jamie Shea and Air commodore David Wilby. The OCSE report (6 Dec. 1999) noted the pattern of people being told to leave immediately; see chapters on Klina, Orahovac, and Pec. Return to Text

14 The Albanian border officials at Krume reported to this project that in late March and early April, approximately 50-60,000 Kosovars had crossed at Trepoja and another 25,000 had crossed at Krume. No records of these entries were kept except for the raw counts, which were reported to the Albanian government and to the UNHCR. Return to Text

15 “Long Lines of Refugees Hounded Into Albania,” New York Times, 29 March 1999; also, testimonies received at the Morina border by Fron Nazi, 26 March - 5 April. Return to Text

16 Interview given to HRW, April 1999, Albania. Return to Text

17 See, e.g., HRW Kosovo Flash #14, #18, and #27. Return to Text

18 OSCE 6 Dec. 1999, Part 5: chapter on Gnjilane. Return to Text

19 Briefing by Under Secretary DR Edgar Buckley and the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Marshal Sir John Day, April 2. Our data from Yugoslav sources show no bombings on 2, 3, or 4 April, although four municipalities were bombed on 1 April, and three are bombed on 5 April. Return to Text

20 HRW Kosovo Flash #24. Return to Text

21 HRW Kosovo Flash #24. Return to Text

22 Tanjug, 6 April 1999. Return to Text

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