Via the invaluable B92 website comes a nasty little story from Albania.
In her book, â€œThe Huntâ€, to be published in Italy on April 3, the former Hague Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte states that, during investigations into war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, against Serbs and other non-Albanians, the prosecutorâ€™s office was informed that persons who disappeared during the Kosovo conflict were used in organ smuggling operations.
Yah, that’s right. Organ smuggling.
More below the cut.
First thing is, understand that this is all hearsay. There’s no evidence; it’s del Ponte’s recollection of what people told her some years back, plus what her investigators found when she looked into it.
That said, here’s the story:
The office obtained information that UNMIK investigators and officials had received from groups of so-called reliable journalists, according to whom, Kosovo Albanians had transferred 300 Serb and other non-Albanian hostages in trucks to northern Albania in the summer of 1999.
Those prisoners were first imprisoned in camps in places like Kukes and Tropoje.
According to journalist sources, the younger and fitter prisoners were examined by doctors, got food and were not beaten. After that, they were kept in custody in other centers in Burel and the surrounding area.
One group was held in barracks behind a yellow house some twenty kilometers to the south of that town, states the former prosecutor.
One room in that yellow house, according to the journalists, served as an operation room where doctors extracted prisonersâ€™ organs.
Afterwards, the organs, according to the sources, were sent abroad from Rinas airport near Tirana where they were used in transplantations for patients who had paid for it.
Daily VeÄerenje Novosti brings more details from the book, which says that the Hague and UNMIK investigators, and several journalist, along with an Albanian prosecutor, made a trip to the yellow house in 2003.
“It was now white,” Del Ponte writes. “Despite the fact that investigators discovered traces of yellow paint on it, the owner denied it was ever repainted.”
In its vicinity, investigators also found pieces of gauze, used syringes, two plastic IV solution bags, “petrified in mud”, empty medicine bottles, including muscle relaxants used during surgeries.
Inside the house itself, forensics discovered traces of blood on the walls and on the floor in one of the rooms. A section of the floor, sized 180 by 60 centimeters, was clean.
“The owner of the house offered a series of explanations to the investigators when it came to the origin of the blood traces. First, he said that his wife gave birth in that room many years ago. But when the wife made her statement and said that all their children were born elsewhere, he claimed that his family used the room to slaughter animals in order to celebrate a Muslim holiday,” Del Ponte writes.
As for the Albanian prosecutor who accompanied them, the former chief Hague prosecutor says he at one point bragged he had cousins who were KLA members.
“There are no graves of Serbs here,” the Albanian official said. “But, if they took the Serbs from the Kosovo border and killed them, they did the right thing”.
Describing detailed information she has on the matter, Del Ponte writes that detectives had had to give up on this case because further investigation had proved “impossible”.
If you check out the story at B92, you’ll find a 100+ comment thread with Serbs and Albanians screaming at each other. (I wonder if there’s a forum where Serbs and Albanians go for friendly, low-key chat with each other. I haven’t seen it.)
The Serbs have bought this story wholesale. No surprise; it punches about six different buttons all at once. (Serbs as victims; Serbs in mass graves; Albanians as monsters; Albanians involved with smuggling; Albanians involved in stuff that’s creepy and bizarre; Albania as a nightmare land where horrors happen; the KLA as organized crime. I’ve probably missed a couple.) Not just the Serbs on B92, either — this was front page news in the Belgrade dailies. A lot of people in Serbia really want to believe this story.
Okay, then. How believable is it?
One, “300 Serbs” is more than half of all the Serbs unaccounted for from all of Kosovo. Depending on who you talk to, the number of Serbs who went missing in 1999 is between 200 and 400. So, for this story to be true, you’d have to figure most or all the missing the Serbs ended up in this one place.
Two, you’d also have to figure that the Albanians managed to keep this a deep secret ever after. This seems unlikely. The Serbs killed hundreds of Albanians in 1998-9 and then went to great lengths to dispose of the bodies — dumping them into the Danube in freezer trucks, tipping them into industrial incinerators. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the Milosevic government (and the sullen disinterest of certain governments since), the story came out. To believe this happened — hundreds of Serbs brought into Albania and kept in multiple camps, some or all of them dissected, and then all killed without a single survivor telling the tale — happened and then was kept secret ever since, you’d have to believe the Albanians are more competent and organized than the Serbs. I mean no disrespect to the Albanians when I say this seems unlikely.
Three, Albania seems to be missing a mass grave. Disposing of 300 bodies — about 15 tons of human remains — is no small thing. (As the Serbs and others discovered in the 1990s.)
Four, the story pretty much requires the Albanian government to be complicit. This is unlikely.
Successive Albanian governments had a complicated, love-hate relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army. They wanted Kosovo out from under Belgrade, but they didn’t want a major war with hundreds of thousands of refugees (a reasonable fear, since that’s exactly what they ended up getting) and they didn’t want a lot of heavily armed guerrillas running around Albania getting up to God knows what. The Berisha administration kept the KLA on a very short leash in Albania, including throwing a number of its leaders in jail for up to a couple of months at a time — just to get the point across. Things loosened up somewhat after Berisha was forced out of office in 1997, but no Albanian government was going to let the KLA run a concentration camp on their turf.
Five, organ-legging is… well, let’s say it’s also pretty unlikely. Albania has a pretty primitive medical infrastructure even today. In 1999 it was much worse. Now, in theory you wouldn’t need much to get organs out of someone: a good doctor, a couple of assistants, and some basic equipment would do it. The problem is, once you have the organs out the clock starts ticking. Some bits keep better than others — corneas can last for days — but for kidneys, lungs or a heart you’re talking less than 24 hours, even with freezing and preservatives, before it’s just so much bad meat. This is why organlegging isn’t a major threat around the world. Good fresh organs are worth a lot, and there are probably plenty of evil people who’d be willing to kidnap folks and cut them up. But it’s that last leg that’s the kicker.
In developed countries, there’s a whole infrastructure for moving fresh organs around fast fast fast. In Albania… umm.
I note in passing that Burel — where this supposedly happened — is the middle of nowhere, a couple of hours up a bad mountain road. (Not that Albania has a lot of good mountain roads, but you get the idea.)
Okay, so the story is pretty unlikely. But on the other hand, del Ponte’s people did find… something. A house that had been repainted; a homeowner engaged in obvious lies; blood traces and medical supplies. (N.B., while I disagree sharply with Carla del Ponte about a lot of things, and have a low opinion of her judgment generally, I don’t think she lies much. So I’m willing to believe that the facts were as she describes them.) So what was going on there?
I don’t know, and I doubt we ever will. But I can make a couple of guesses.
One, it was a KLA field hospital. Burel isn’t far from the border. The KLA was in Albania in force around this time; the closest thing to a pitched battle that they fought was along the Albanian border, against JNA, the Serb/Yugoslav army. Wounded KLA guerrillas were carried (literally) back up the mountains and over the border. If the yellow house was being used to treat KLA fighters, that would explain the blood, the medical supplies, and possibly the owner’s reticence as well.
That’s the most benign explanation. A less pleasant one is that it was a KLA torture center, where Serbs (and possibly some troublesome Kosovar Albanians — the KLA liquidated a number of “collaborators”) were taken to be dealt with. I think this is less likely, but only because it’s hard to see why they’d drag people over the mountains into Albania — there was a war on, and they were perfectly capable of doing torture and interrogation fast and in the field. But I think it’s a possibility. Long time readers of this blog know I support Kosovar independence, but that doesn’t mean I think the KLA were a bunch of Boy Scouts.
The long and the short of it is, we’ll probably never know. We can say with pretty high confidence that the story of “300 Serbs” being held “so that their organs could be sold” is probably bullshit, but that doesn’t mean we’ll ever know the truth.
And in a way it doesn’t matter. The story has already entered Serbia’s mass consciousness; a large minority of Serbs have completely accepted it, and many more are at least affected by it. (Well, surely something horrible happened there…) The already poisonous atmosphere has become some small bit more envenomed.
One interesting loose end is what Carla del Ponte thought she was doing by telling this story. But, as noted, I have a pretty low opinion of her judgment. So I’m not really inclined to guess.
Okay, I think I need to post something about the Balkans that’s upbeat and cheerful now. Hmm.