After Kosovo declared independence, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Carla Del Ponte raucously quit her position at The Hague. She slammed the door so loudly behind her that the ceiling plaster cracked at parliaments across the European Union. After her exile to Argentina as Switzerland's ambassador, Ponte said the new Kosovo was run by butchers who made a fortune trafficking organs extracted from kidnapped Serbs. In her book titled, "The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals," Ponte describes how a black organ market formed during the Kosovo War. Meanwhile, she says, the European Union played dumb paying no attention to the crimes. KP journalists went to Kosovo to learn more about the crimes.
Iron Carla's revelation
Hardly a day goes by without fragments of Ponte's book hitting Belgrade newspapers. Here is a commonly quoted section that details the horrors of Kosovo organ trafficking:
"According to the journalists' sources, who were only identified as Kosovo Albanians, some of the younger and fitter prisoners were visited by doctors and were never hit. They were transferred to other detention camps in Burrel and the neighboring area, one of which was a barracks behind a yellow house 20 km behind the town.
"One room inside this yellow house, the journalists said, was kitted out as a makeshift operating theater, and it was here that surgeons transplanted the organs of prisoners. These organs, according to the sources, were then sent to Rinas airport, Tirana, to be sent to surgical clinics abroad to be transplanted to paying patients.
"One of the informers had personally carried out a shipment to the airport. The victims, deprived of a kidney, were then locked up again, inside the barracks, until the moment they were killed for other vital organs. In this way, the other prisoners in the barracks were aware of the fate that awaited them, and according to the source, pleaded, terrified to be killed immediately.
"Among the prisoners who were taken to these barracks were women from Kosovo, Albania, Russia and other Slavic countries. Two of the sources said that they helped to bury the corpses of the dead around the yellow house and in a neighboring cemetery. According to the sources, the organ smuggling was carried out with the knowledge and active involvement of middle and high ranking involvement from the KLA (ed. Kosovo Liberation Army).
"A few months after [October 2002] the investigators of the tribunal and UNMIK reached central Albania and the yellow house which the journalists sources had revealed as the place where the prisoners were killed to transplant their organs. The journalists and the Albanian prosecutor accompanied the investigators to the site.
"The house was now white. The owner denied it had ever been repainted even though investigators found traces of yellow along the base of its walls. Inside the investigators found pieces of gauze, a used syringe and two plastic IV bags encrusted with mud and empty bottles of medicine, some of which was of a muscle relaxant often used in surgical operations. The application of a chemical substance revealed to the scientific team traces of blood on the walls and on the floor of a room inside the house, except for in a clean area of the floor sized 180x60cm.
"The investigators were not able to determine whether the traces they found were of human blood. The sources did not indicate the position of the grave of the presumed victims and so we did not find the bodies."
However, Serbian journalists began conducting their own investigations into the purported organ trafficking. Correspondents from the Press newspaper were said to have found the barracks described by Ponte. However, they refused to share detailed information with KP. The tabloid published several photos related to the incident, but many local media representatives believe their authenticity is dubious.
"They wanted to fabricate this huge story, but they ended up with a piece of crap," said Aleksandr Bechich, deputy chief editor of the Pravda opposition newspaper. "Press has been caught lying on more than one occasion. But there is truth to the article. Many Serbs heard about these crimes even before the book's publication. Serbia's Justice Minister Vladan Batich gave Ponte numerous materials about executed and kidnapped Serbs. There was also evidence, but no one was sure if the organs had actually been trafficked. I originally heard about this 5 years ago from Serbia's former head of Military Intelligence. But no one listened to special agents at the time. The Serbian special forces had documents that certified that medical equipment had been brought to camps in Albania. This evidence was given to Western intelligence agencies. 'We can't work in Albania,' they said. 'Help us with this.' But no one did a thing. U.S. and German special forces knew that Serbs had been kidnapped in 1999. As they didn't do anything to fix the situation, we should assume they were also were involved in the trafficking network. How was the system organized? The KLA received huge sums of cash for the organs. This money was used to buy drugs from Afghanistan, which were later sold in Western Europe. The KLA bought arms using this money. Enough facts had been dug up to indict Kosovo's former Prime Minister Ramush Kharadinay, current head of state Khashim Tachi and other prominent Albanians. But as opposed to being sent to prison, Kharadinay was released from The Hague in early April even though he had been charged with murdering Serbian civilians. They said he wasn't guilty. But we have documented facts proving that Kharadinay personally executed 60 Serbs and ordered 300 more to be killed. Kharadinay's release was a severe blow for the families of the deceased."
The tribunal's decision to set Kharadinay free was as hurtful for Serbs as when the West recognized Kosovo's independence. The KLA's field commander was the equivalent of an Albanian Shamil Basaev — cruel and uncompromising. Nine witnesses were lined up to testify against Kharadinay at The Hague. But they were all killed under various circumstances during the trial. Two were killed by a sniper, one died in an automobile accident in Montenegro, two were stabbed, two were burned to death in their car while serving in Kosovo's Police and two were killed in a village cafe in Kosovo.
Many people in Serbia believe that Ramush Kharadinay was a key figure in the organ trafficking network.
"Tachi was a criminal," Deyan Mirovich, a radical party deputy in Serbia's parliament, told KP before our trip to Kosovsku-Mitrovitsu. He spouted off his version of a brief history of modern-day Serbia. "First, Tachi was involved in drug trafficking, then he headed a gang and later a terrorist group. Now he's a U.S. and EU ally. Kharadinay is the same story. He was a bouncer at a night club and ended up running a terrorist organization. In the forward to his book 'Peace and Freedo,' he wrote: 'I've killed Serbian policemen. I've killed civilian Serbs and Albanians who were disobedient.' This is why I believe everything Ponte wrote. We know all about this in Serbia. Kharadinay had a camp on Lake Radonich in Metokhia. People were taken there from Prizren, Pecha and Djakovitsa. Many were executed. People were also selected for so-called medical centers. They were kept captive while their organs were systematically extracted. You want proof? Look for their relatives in Kosovo. That's the only way. All the other evidence is destroyed."
Nothing to lose for Serbs in Kosovo's enclaves
Many people have heard the phrase "humanitarian catastrophe," but few have actually seen one. Serbian enclaves in Kosovo fall into this category. Homeless children roam the streets. Adults loiter in the sun, or wait for clients who never come in self-styled cabs. Piles of trash lie by the roadside. Disfunctional state services that won't do anything even if they're asked to.
KP traveled to the Kosovsku-Mitrovitsu enclave in north Kosovo to learn more about the enclave phenomenon. Our journalists sat in a dilapidated cafe waiting for the Kosovo Serbian rally to begin. The cafe's windows were covered in bullet holes. The rally was to commence at 12:44. The number has a special subtext. It's the number of a UN resolution on Kosovo declaring the territory an indelible part of Serbia.
Romanian soldiers from the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) took the cover off the machine gun on the small armored car. They knew they had to be ready. Meanwhile, we drank coffee behind the UN courthouse. Shrapnel had killed a Ukrainian peacekeeper there only a week before. He had been on a peacekeeping mission to introduce constitutional order in the country. But Serbian lawyers weren't a part of that order. They had been asked to leave the courthouse and were later replaced by Albanians. Those who refused to leave were arrested. The peacekeepers hadn't realized Kosovo Serbs had been on the edge of an explosion for several years. They had nothing to lose. Their country had been taken from them, and they had been left in poverty waiting for a miracle. As we were told numerously, many Kosovo Serbs consider a miracle to be 250,000 Russian volunteers. Russian journalists, like us, were taken for spies or advanced detachment.
"Sweet life" of guardian's of the east
Mitrovista isn't really an enclave. It practically borders Serbia, but a bridge divides the city into Albanian and Serbian sections. Unofficial guards man the Serbian side. This small detail shows who is the aggressor in the situation and who is on the defense.
Forty last names of deceased Serbs are written on an obelisk on the Serbian side. The Albanians have tried to annex their section of the city on numerous occasions. The bridge served as a stage for bloody wars. It's quiet on the Serbian side. Muscular men sit in a pink 24-hour cafe. They're officially called the bridge's guardians, as their job is to stop Albanians attacking from across the bridge. They greeted us cautiously. The waiter approached us slowly and indifferently.
"One coffee, one bottle of water," we asked in Serbian, adding in Russian that we were Russian journalists writing about Kosovo Serbs. The demeanour of the waiter and the guards changed immediately. They offered us the table with a view of the bridge. Soon after, the leader of the local branch of National Serbs Union, Neboysha Iuvovich, came to the cafe and greeted us.
"Many politicians are straying from their positions and writing about the truth," Neboysha said. "Carla Del Ponte didn't want to write about what really happened before because she would have had to launch investigations into crimes connected with organ trafficking. It would have been career suicide for an EU politician in Kosovo. We have enough facts to prove genocide. We have information confirming 1,200 Serbs were kidnapped and 1,700 killed. No one can say for sure. Serbs were kidnapped all over Kosovo. People disappeared — and not farmers but doctors. Several were kidnapped. One was the famous surgeon Andrea Tomanovish. His body was never found. Try going south to the Albanian border. Don't think about talking about this with the Albanian administration, though. You'll disappear. And only speak English with the Albanians."
In the morning we saw we were almost in the mountains. The enclave was overtaken by a thick icy mist. They came to pick us up. A red jeep poked through the clouds. The numbers on the Kosovo license plate were cardboard. Our driver, Dushko, a Serb, took off the numbers before crossing the bridge onto the other Albanian side. Two-hundred meters, barbed wire fences, a KFOR outpost... Then everything changed. All the sudden we saw clean, swept streets, bright signs, shop Turkish- and Roma-style windows. And U.S. flags. The new Albanian Kosovo is still celebrating victory.
Read part two of this story in our next issue.