The proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the Western Balkans

A Lethal Legacy

Reforming armed forces in the Western Balkans - second episode - duration 26 minutes

Short description of the documentary

The widespread possession and uncontrolled proliferation of Small arms and Light Weapons within South Eastern Europe continues to constitute a major threat to social and economic development by fuelling episode of the series episode of the series episode of the seriescrime and insecurity. Moreover, small arms proliferation seriously impedes the security and confidence building measures being developed during the transitional period of many of the countries within the region. This 25 min. documentary aims at informing the general public not only on the general dangers of small arms and light weapons, but also on the impact on human insecurity. The documentary focuses on FYR Macedonia, Albania, South Serbia and Kosovo and illustrates the “spill over effect”, which occurs when regional conflicts are exacerbated by weapons proliferation across borders. This film is not about the causes of conflict, but the legacy of weapons proliferation during and after periods of conflict. Long after the war is over, the weapons continue to kill.

  • Full script of the documentary: see below  
  • Available in English, Serbo-Croatian and International version
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    Full transcript of the commentary and interviews of the documentary

    Pictures in the room of Natasha Kmetovska tell the story of her life. Birthdays, holidays, her first day at school.

    On 31 December 2004, like many of her friends, she went to the New Year concert in the Central Square in Skopje. But she never came back. Natasha died of a stray bullet fired at the New Year party. She was 19 years old.
  • Slavica Kmetovska, Natasha’s mother:

    “Like every mother, I saw her off to the New Year party. A huge concert was organized. Many young people went and she wasn`t a kid, she was 19. She went where she went, and she came back home dead.`

    Pictures and memories are all that are left to Natasha’s family. All they know is that a bullet from an illicit automatic rifle was fired that night from an unknown direction as celebratory fire. Three days later, Natasha died in hospital. At first, doctors didn’t know the real cause of her wound. It was only after the autopsy that they determined it was a Kalashnikov bullet.

    Slavica Kmetovska:

    “It can`t be harder. To lose a 19-year old kid… What happened happened, we can`t get our child back, but everyone should know, and especially the government, that the situation with arms is very serious. I can`t reconcile with the fact that my baby is gone, but at least I want other children to be protected.`

    Can other children feel safe? The gun that killed Natasha will probably never be found, but the real problem in Macedonian society today is that thousands of illegal similar guns are in civilian hands.

    This huge quantity of illegal weapons is primarily the consequence of the conflict in 2001. During the clashes between the government and Albanian factions, the flow of weapons spiralled out of control. Four years later, the conflict is over, but the weapons are still there.

    Tomce Nikolovski, Arms Smuggling Department, Macedonian Ministry of Interior:

    “Together with specialists from the UNDP and others, we have established the number of 60.000-100.000 illegal arms on the territory of the Republic of Macedonia. We want to point out that it is very hard to come up with an accurate figure; therefore, it is only a estimation. But we think it’s realistic”.

    The first weapons collection operation -Essential Harvest- was conducted by NATO just after the conflict, and collected approximately 3,000 weapons as part of a peace process. A second attempt to disarm civilians was made by the government with an amnesty for the voluntary surrender of weapons, which collected 7,500 weapons at very low cost. According to unofficial estimates, there are up to 400,000 illegal arms in Macedonia. Add to this the 150,000 registered firearms, and you have a massive firepower in the hands of the country’s two million people.

    Why are civilians hiding weapons at home if the war is over? One explanation is that they do this out of tradition. But that’s not the only reason.

    Biljana Vankovska, Professor of Political Science, University of Skopje

    “The major cause for this is human insecurity and weak states. We have combined two factors – on one hand citizens don’t feel secure, and don’t trust that the state is able to provide security to them, so they feel often more safe if they posses weapons, even against state laws.”

    Tetovo was centre stage of the conflict in 2001. The situation today is calm, but wounds are still there , and this can be seen in the Tetovo hospital. A team of surgeons works on a daily basis treating war wounds.

    Durmish Hasani, patient:

    (“I was injured in 2001. At the sun hillock.”)

    Dr Xheladin Elezi says the situation both during the war and immediately after was terrible. He stresses that his colleagues are still confronted with a large number of gun-related injuries .

    Xheladin Elezi
    Doctor, Tetovo Hospital :

    “Now the state has collected a lot of weapons. But, still we are treating a lot of people with gun wounds not because of the war but because of the personal conflicts that the people are having. This is a big hospital now we treat a lot of injured people.”

    The head of the local police, Lulzim Shabani, admits that a large number of weapons are still in the hands of private citizens. In 2002 and 2003, many weddings and parties ended up with tragic consequences.

    Lulzim Shabani, Chief Inspector, Tetovo Police:

    “A 60-year old woman was killed on the spot by uncontrolled automatic weapon fire.” Also, in the village of Brodec, one of the guests shot a teenager born in 1987. Another person was injured.”

    While the number of illegal arms is on the rise, throughout Macedonia, small arms and light weapons surveys indicate that a high proportion of those weapons are in Albanian hands.

    Many Macedonians think that the efforts to disarm, especially the campaigns for voluntary surrender seemed laughable.

    Vox pop in Tetovo

    «With these operations they are just trying to show that they are actually doing something. But the weapons are still there, and I mean heavy weaponry.”

    “No one should keep the guns. I think is just propaganda that the people have weapons. I don’t think there are a lot of weapons to the people’s hands. This is just propaganda. »

    « I think this is normal, if one doesn’t exaggerate with shooting. If I were making a party I would shoot to, why not. I think that this is a tradition. If you are organizing a wedding, there has to be some shooting.”

    Shooting at weddings might be part of tradition and folklore, but statistics on firearms-related crimes are ringing alarm bells. In 2003, 45 people were killed by illegal arms. In 2004, 29 people died, which is 20 times the European average.

    Aleksandar Pandovski, Macedonian National Arms Association :

    «In the operation itself more than 70 percent of the weapons were legalized, and not surrendered. I think that the emphasis shouldn’t be on legalization, but on voluntary surrender of illicit weapons, especially military weapons. The latter not only boost crime, but are also a threat to national security.”

    The circulation of illegal weapons is not only a direct threat to individuals, it also fuels criminal activity. The issue is taken very seriously by the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, who in partnership with UNDP, have a regional disarmament mission, SEESAC, to support the governments of the region in significantly reducing the availability and proliferation of small arms.

    Pieter Verbeek, Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe

    “What may happen is that one country produces for example small firearms and these weapons are then being stolen, or through corruption, they are being acquired by criminals and sold to other countries and even to terrorists for example. We would like to avoid this of course, that means that you have to control this stream of weapons and to avoid that they get not only in the hands of small children who might have an accident with it, but also in the hands of criminals and terrorists.”

    Are the arms a threat or a guarantee of security? In neighbouring Kosovo, where the concentration of weapons is possibly the highest in the region, people still believe it’s good to have an automatic gun, just in case. This exhibition in the Kosovo museum illustrates well how important the cult of arms is in Albanian society. The exhibition organiser is a former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter. He says that for Albanians, weapons carry a special symbolism: they helped the people win freedom and right to self-determination.

    Sadik Krasniqi, former KLA fighter :

    “Each time when the Albanian people tried to solve its national question through political and peaceful means, they never managed to achieve this. That’s why they decided to do the opposite: to take the arms to reach their goal.”

    Krasniqi speaks of arms with love and respect. Every gun displayed here has its story, he says, of which future generations will be proud. Since freedom has been won, Krasniqi is calling on citizens to hand over the weapons that have helped reach that goal.

    But most of the people are not ready for that. A UNDP survey in 2003 estimates that there are more than 400,000 thousand illegal weapons in Kosovo. While Albanians rely today on the UN and NATO to secure the province, they keep weapons at home, because the final status of Kosovo is still unresolved. Voluntary weapons surrender operations have failed miserably, in spite of the rewards that were offered, although registration was successful with 23,000 weapons been legally registered during the amnesty.

    Neeraj Singh, Spokesperson, UN mission in Kosovo:

    “The top three municipalities were offered community development funds of 225.000 dollars. There was a benchmark of at least 300 weapons surrendered from these municipalities to qualify for the funds. We found that out of 30 municipalities only 155 weapons were surrendered and the highest from any municipality was 34.

    Such a meager result of voluntary surrender actions forced KFOR to launch more searches and seizures of illegal arms.

    Yves de Kermorvant
    KFOR spokesperson

    “People keep weapons for many reasons. First it might be the tradition. I was told that an Albanian house without a gun is not a home. So it is a very heavy tradition”

    Tradition might be part of the explanation, but the key factor is the feeling of personal security. The current situation in Kosovo looks more like a cease-fire than genuine peace, says Albin Kurti.

    Albin Kurti, political activist:

    “Kosovo certainly has a problem of security, but I think that the main problem is the fact the security is defined only as a military matter, a matter of security forces. The security in Kosovo depends on economic development, on the educational progress and good public and health services. But UNMIK and our institutions have not done anything in this respect. And they don’t have any idea how to make progress, that’s why we have problems.”

    For Kosovo Serbs living in isolated enclaves, security and freedom of movement are the key issue. They do not trust KFOR or the Kosovo Police to ensure their protection. The reason why they keep arms is not only their uncertain future, but also the fear that organized attacks on them like the ones in March 2004 could recur at any time. And Serbs have no doubts about who is hiding more weapons.

    Slavisa Nikolic, Gracanica

    «We who are born here know that the Albanian tradition has always been to keep arms at home and that every new born child immediately gets a gun or a rifle as a gift. It has been like this before and it is especially the case today, when they have risen to fight with arms for their state. They definitely have plenty of weapons.”

    Because of heavy fines of up to 20,000 euros for keeping an illegal automatic gun or pistol, Serbs are reluctant to speak about this issue.

    Dejan Petkovic, Gracanica

    « On the record, we don’t have weapons. Off the record, I don’t know.”

    The border between Kosovo and Serbia is another risky zone. It is estimated that many Albanians living in this area rely on their own arms for protection – in case things go wrong. Here too, people are reluctant to speak.

    Mehmet Aliju, Braine, Kosovo:

    “KFOR is here and it’s protecting us. I came back here immediately after the war and never had any problems since then. I have never seen anyone crossing the border with weapons.”

    On the other side of the border, in Southern Serbia, three ethnic Albanian-majority municipalities were the scene of another armed conflict during 2000. Serbian security forces clashed with Albanian factions – a smaller scale consequence of the conflict in Kosovo. The skirmishes were quickly halted in 2001, but the distrust between Serbs and Albanians is still high. In January 2005, a Serbo-Montenegrin border patrol shot a 16-year old Albanian boy while he was illegally crossing the border with Macedonia. It provoked the fury of 20,000 Albanians, who requested that the army withdraw from the area.

    In this region, at least three major weapon caches were discovered in 2004.

    But where do all these guns come from? Due to the collapse of the ex-Yugoslav People’s army and the regional conflicts of the nineties, a lot of weapons ended up in civilian hands. But that’s only a small part of it.

    One major flow of weapons came in 1997, when the crisis of the pyramid schemes in Albania triggered a huge wave of social unrest. The government fell amidst total social chaos and anarchy. People stormed army depots all over the country, and plundered more than 520,000 weapons and many tonnes of ammunition.

    These weapons were to fuel successive conflicts in the region.

    Just a few months later, in 1998, the KLA started its guerilla operations in Kosovo. In 2000, clashes started in Southern Serbia. In the spring of 2001, the conflict ignited in Macedonia. More than one third of the weapons stolen in Albanian depots ended up in neighboring countries.

    Sadik Krasniqi, former KLA fighter :

    «It is true that the KLA, as well as the Albanian people in Kosovo led by the KLA, have been through some very hard times. One of the key factors was to ensure logistics and weapons. I can tell you that between 50 and 60 percent of our men have been killed on the border while trying to smuggle arms from Albania to Kosovo. »

    Eight years later, Albanian authorities claim to have recovered about 30 percent of the looted weapons. Elbasan is one of the cities where the collection was the most successful. The police patrol the town in search of weapons. The amnesty for voluntary surrender is still in force, and the police do not have the right to search houses but they offer people a last chance to hand in weapons without prosecution.

    In this house, a woman decided to hand over a damaged automatic rifle, which could still have been useful as a source of spare parts.

    Serjie Gorica, Elbasan

    “I have a garden and I was working there when I found this weapon in the earth. It was very dirty. I called my husband and he told me to keep it away from the children. It was hidden and now I decided to give it to the police.”

    In another home, a man decides to hand in a brand new shiny rifle that he has been keeping since 1997.

    Arben Gjeka, Elbasan

    „I took this weapon in 1997 when the army collapsed and when the weapon stores were stormed. I went there also, and took a weapon for self defence because we didn’t know what was happening.”

    Arben Gjeka says he doesn’t need the rifle for his personal protection anymore, because he thinks that the state is now stronger.

    The chief of the Albanian police claims that gun-related crime is decreasing.

    Bajram Ibraj, Director General, Albanian State Police:

    “I don’t think that what happened in 1997 can happen again. There have been significant steps in rebuilding the state and the justice system. Many criminal groups have been broken up. The people are much more aware of the need to implement the law.”

    Nevertheless, the majority of Albanians keep their arms at home – 200.000 of them may still be in circulation. The major weapons collection operation is yet to come. Some international organisations think that the government does not show enough political will to deal with the problem.

    Lawrence Doczy, UNDP Albania:

    “Its not really a completely focused effort. Lets face it, they are collecting, since we stopped, approximately 700/800 weapons per month in the whole of Albania, so if you calculate that there are still 200 000 out there, it is going to take a lot of time”.

    People need good reasons to hand in their guns. One reason is the fear of prosecution in case a weapon is found. Another reason is to receive a positive incentive. The UNDP in Albania has developed an original system. By introducing a competition among municipalities, the weapons collections proved a success. Backed by a strong awareness campaign, the action started to yield results.

    Lawrence Doczy, UNDP Albania:

    “Competition generates a community effort rather than an individual one. If I own a gun I could sell it or get a personal gain from it, but by introducing competition, than the community itself forces the individual to contribute. So it becomes a community effort. »

    About 10,000 weapons were collected in the course of this operation, and many villages in Albania got a new school, road or bridge in return. The Ndroqit municipality, near Tirana, was the first participant of the program called “Weapons for Development”. In return for weapons the UNDP built a new water distribution system, benefiting 10,000 people.

    Fatime Goge, Ndroqit Municipality:

    From the collected weapons and ammunition, a bell has been cast on the square in Tirana. The citizens call it the Bell of Peace. This collection model has been successful in the ethnically homogeneous Albania. Yet it failed completely in Kosovo, and individual incentives were used to achieve a partial success in Macedonia.

    Distrust is a key factor in ethnically mixed communities, where the police are perceived to be siding with one community or another rather than supporting the people as a whole.

    Changing the perception that weapons are a guarantee of safety to the perception that weapons are a real threat, might come with the next generation.

    Biljana Vankovska, professor of Political Science, University of Skopje

    “By educating our children we should also re-educate ourselves because in the last ten years we have learned much more about violence and wars than about peaceful coexistence that used to be part of lives not so long time ago.”

    For an ethnic Albanian in Tetovo or an ethnic Serb in Kosovo, it will take a long time before they will see the state structure as a guarantee of safety.

    But some isolated voices can be heard, even in places where safety is a primary concern, like in ethnic Serb enclaves in Kosovo:

    Suad Batic, Gracanica:

    “Bad things can happen to every man. But if he has a weapon, he will pull it out and who knows what can happen. But later when he thinks about what he has done, it is too late. So it is better to throw his weapon away and he will have nothing to worry about. One can solve many things without guns.”

    Produced by SEETV
    May 2005