GIJC 2011: Organ Harvesting in Kosovo

Niet alle verhalen draaien om datasets en spreadsheets, ook al draaien veel workshops tijdens GIJC 2011 om het werken daarmee. Soms kom je een pareltje tegen, simpelweg door op het juiste moment nieuwsgierig te zijn waar anderen doorlopen. En dan moet je volhouden, soms wel tien jaar lang. Neem Michael Montgomery, van het Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in Californie, en zijn verhaal over de nasleep van de oorlog in Kosovo.

door Margo Smit

This last August, the European Union named American prosecutor Clint Williamson to head a task force investigating alleged crimes, including organ-trafficking, by serving leaders during Kosovo’s 1999 war.

Montgomery: ‘That was a major step, for there were allegations for a long time but no hard evidence. For me, it was long overdue, and I tell you why.’

Montgomery has covered war crimes and the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal in The Hague for CIR in the past. And then he picked up a story he had a hard time believing.

During and after the war in Kosovo in 1999, between 100 and 300 ethnic Serbs (mainly men) went missing from amongst others the villages of Kukes and Tropoje. It was said they were abducted across the border into Albania and kept in detention camps. Why, Montgomery and colleagues at CIR were asking themselves.

‘We heard seemingly preposterous stories from sources, low level KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) fighters, about the men being further moved inland into Albania and how the youngest and fittest came under the watch and care of doctors,’ Montgomery said.

‘Some died and their kidneys were extracted. It seemed preposterous. But then these low level guys had knowledge of transplantation procedures that seemed strange for them. It sounded like science fiction.’

CIR is a tiny organization; and there was no journalism collaboration like today, so they soon hit a dead end. They did some research in Albania, and did find a house where this allegedly happened. But that was it.

‘There was really no story to pursue for us,’ Montgomery said.

Even though some evidence of alleged institutionalized organ harvesting was there, it wasn’t enough.

‘We then gave what information and documents we had (for we had some, but most was from these low level fighters) to the UN, which turned out to be a fateful decision.’

The UN went on a probing mission to find out more in 2004, which Montgomery filmed, and they did find some evidence of medical waste at the site of the house CIR identified, but it wasn’t enough to pursue, apparently.

‘And then the evidence they found somehow went ‘missing’ at the war crimes tribunal. So we thought the story died.’

Until 2008, when after leaving the War Crimes Tribunal former head prosecutor Carla Del Ponte wrote her book, and one of CIR’s documents was in it.

‘We were not named but she mentions she had gotten information from journalists. So in a way we were beaten by her on our own story. And after that some of our documents were leaked to the Serbian government, assumingly from the UN, about the Kosovars being in involved in organ harvesting.’

Montgomery got the chance to go back to Kosovo at that time, when an infamous doctor from Pristina was arrested. This doctor seemed to have strong ties with organ trafficking ánd to Kosovo leader Hacim Thaci . And this apparently empowered some people who had not come forward in the past.

‘Our dead story came to life again and this time we could find witnesses and people that were held at the detention camps. And finally we could do the story from ten years earlier.” Montgomery produced several stories for radio, TV and the web.

‘We were accused of being part of a Serbian plot against the Kosovo leadership,’ Montgomery said.

Nevertheless, police arrested some men in 2009 for capturing and torturing ethnic Serbs.

And then, in December 2010, The Guardian broke the story about a EU-report, for two years in the making, by Dick Marty that corroborated all of CIR’s allegations about Thaci and organ trafficking.

Marty was heavily criticized for the report being biased, and again, the probe into the role of the Kosovo leadership seemed to end. But it didn’t, and it also didn’t for Montgomery’s story.

‘Early this year our entire dossier from years back somehow got leaked to Serbia, with UN coding on the documents. And now finally the EU is doing a serious probe into this issue.

All in all, it took 12 years to come around. There were many missing pieces in our investigation; it was by no means complete or flawless. But it is gratifying to see that something is done at last.’

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