Kosovo’s Dirty Secrets

On October 27, 1999 Budimir Baljosevic, a teacher aged 50, and four friends tried to escape from the ghetto to which the Serbs of the Kosovan town of Orahovac/Rahovec had been confined. Kosovo had been placed under interim United Nations administration in June that year, and a Nato-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, had moved in.

A Roma resident of the town, Agron N, had offered to guide them to Rozaje in Montenegro, for a fee of $840 each. His credentials justified the high price: he worked with the TMK (Kosovo Protection Corps), an organization supervised by Nato; its mission was the social reintegration of former guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA); he had already completed four successful “exfiltrations” of Serbs from Orahovac; a bricklayer by trade, he was involved in the construction of a new TMK base in the neighbouring town of Djakovica/Gjakove – where the five Serbs were last seen.

Agron N explained: “I stopped to look for my brother-in-law, who was supposed to come with us, driving in convoy. I left the Serbs in the car. When I came out of my brother-in-law’s house, someone shouted to me to hide and strangers took the Serbs. No one’s heard from them since.” He decided it was better for his own safety to spend a few months in Novi Pazar, in Serbia. Baljosevic’s brother tried many times to get news of the five Serbs, without success: “Some Italian soldiers from KFOR came to see me, and the UN police, too, but I never heard anything.”

Their fate is commonplace. Negovan Mavric keeps a small café at Velika Hoca, a Serb enclave a few kilometers from Orahovac/Rahovec, and runs the local branch of the Association of Families of Kidnapped and Missing Persons in Kosovo and Metohija. He showed me a list of the village’s dead and missing: the remains of 19 Serbs kidnapped in 1998 and 1999 have been found, but 55 Serbs and nine Roma are still missing. The first murder of a Serb civilian was recorded on May 12, 1998, when the Serbian police and the KLA began to fight for control of the district, where many Serbs then lived. The last kidnapping was on July 28, 2000, more than a year after the UN protectorate was established.

The hills around Velika Hoca are covered with vineyards; the mountains high above them mark the border between Kosovo and Albania. In the past, Albanians and Serbs coexisted peacefully in the Orahovac/Rahovec district. Since June 1999 the Serb population has fallen from nearly 10,000 to 700 in Velika Hoca, and 300 in the upper part of the town of Orahovac. The Serbs have been driven out of mixed villages such as Zociste, Opterusa and Retimlije.

The majority of the missing Serbs were kidnapped as early as July 1998, when the KLA briefly besieged Orahovac. Then a large number of Serb civilians from Retimlije were taken to a KLA base in the nearby village of Semetiste. The women were freed four days later, after the Red Cross intervened; none of the men (one just 16 years old) were seen alive again. In April 2005 some were identified among the remains of 21 people buried in a mass grave some distance away, in the village of Volujak/Valljake, near Klina.

Held on suspicion

Olgica Bozanic, a Serb from Orahovac who has taken refuge in Belgrade, is a member of the Association of Families of Kidnapped and Missing Persons. She may have lost as many as 10 relatives, including her two brothers, uncles and cousins. She heard news of one from Albanian former neighbors, who were held for several months by the guerrillas on suspicion of collaboration with the Serbian regime. They said that some Serbs from the Orahovac area were initially held near the main KLA base in the area, in the village of Drenovac/Drenovce. After the fighting stopped, they were transferred to Deva, a village in the Has mountains, near the Albanian border. It seems the KLA had occupied a base abandoned by the Yugoslav army when it withdrew in June 1999, and converted it into a detention centre. The Orahovac Serbs were then taken to Kukes, in Albania, and later to Durres, on the Albanian coast, where Bozanic’s former neighbours claimed to have seen them alive, in a KLA prison, in 2001.

Most Serbs kidnapped before the end of the war were probably killed inside Kosovo. The idea that those kidnapped after KFOR drove in were taken to Albania was put forward some time ago, but there has been no trace of them. In autumn 1999 Sefko Alomerovic, president of the district of Novi Pazar’s Helsinki Committee (a local organization, independent of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia), conducted a long inquiry, but the report has been lost and Alomerovic died in 2003. In interviews in 2000, he claimed to have visited five detention centers in Kosovo. These were small facilities – often converted garages or industrial buildings on the outskirts of towns – housing 10-50 detainees. The centers were under the authority of a Commandant “Mala” (real name Alush Agushi), a close associate of Ramush Haradinaj. Some families had tried to ransom detainees, but although large sums of money had been paid to intermediaries, none had ever been freed.

Some Serbs had been kept with a view to exchanging them for Albanian prisoners in Serbia, whose numbers were estimated at around 800 in 2000. There is no evidence that any exchanges ever took place. Some sources claim that many Serb detainees were executed in 2001, when Serbia passed an amnesty law and freed Albanians suspected of having belonged to the KLA. Some detention centers in Kosovo were used as staging camps for both Serb and Albanian prisoners awaiting transfer to Albania. Alomerovic was the first to mention human organ trafficking, suspecting that international criminal networks were buying organs supplied by members of the KLA.

Wall of silence

His revelations were not followed up and were in fact rejected by international organizations in Kosovo, including the UN interim administration mission, then led by Bernard Kouchner. Alomerovic, well known as a human rights militant and a long-term opponent of the Milosevic regime, talked of a “wall of silence”; KFOR denied the existence of any detention centers in Kosovo, in spite of evidence. Carla Del Ponte, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, has also described this wall of silence, which she encountered when attempting to investigate the disappearance of Serb civilians and rumours of human organ trafficking.

As Dick Marty has emphasised in many interviews since the publication of his report to the Council of Europe “everybody in Kosovo” knew of the disappearance of Serb civilians, and of the detention during the war of many Albanians suspected of collaborating with the Serbian regime. Since 1999 the Pristina daily Bota Sot has never stopped denouncing the elimination of sympathizers of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK, founded by the late Ibrahim Rugova), during and since the war. The paper’s editor Bajrush Morina summed it up: “Three thousand people have been murdered in Kosovo since 1999, and only 600 of those murders have been solved. There’s been a lot of talk of revenge killings by families, but most are political murders.” Two of the paper’s reporters have been killed and Morina had to hire private bodyguards for a time. Yet the stories Bota Sot publishes have always been regarded with suspicion, given its relationship with the LDK.

Bota Sot has regularly reported the existence of detention centers in Kosovo and Albania, where Albanians accused of collaboration were held. In February this year the trial of former KLA commanders Sabit Geci and Riza Alijaj began in Mitrovica. They are accused of committing serious crimes against detainees in a camp at Cahan, in the mountains of northern As from the Kosovo border.
During the war, the secluded village of Cahan was used by the KLA as a logistics centre and a rear base for volunteers going to fight in Kosovo. Local strongman Bedri Cahani admitted that the inhabitants of Cahan smuggled cigarettes into Kosovo and that he was recruited by the KLA in autumn 1997, mainly to smuggle fighters over the mountains at night. The KLA was using an Albanian army barracks, abandoned in 1992, which still stands at the entrance to the village: this also housed a detention centre, mentioned by Marty. Cahan is a secluded spot, nearly 10km by rough mountain tracks from the town of Kruma.

ZZ spent two and a half months in “hell” at Cahan, and will be a key protected witness at the trial of Geci and Alijaj. He remembers systematic abuse and serious torture. Some detainees were forced to have sexual relations with each other; others were subjected to simulated executions. But, he told me, “I was probably the longest-serving prisoner at Cahan, and I only saw Albanians.” He had also seen some of the KLA’s most important commanders in Cahan, especially Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s current prime minister.

All the detainees there in 1999 were, like ZZ, senior figures in the LDK. Most were arrested in the towns of Kukes and Kruma, which were full of refugees driven out of Kosovo by the Serbian forces. Some were members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo (Fark), a guerrilla movement rival to the KLA, started, without much success on the ground, by supporters of Ibrahim Rugova.

The Drenica Group

Marty’s report singles out as responsible an internal faction of the KLA, which it refers to as the “Drenica Group”, listing as members Hashim Thaci, Azem Syla, Xhavit Haliti, Kadri Veseli, Fatmir Limaj, Sabit Geci and Riza Alijaj. These former guerrilla commanders are all from the Drenica area; they were also members of the Popular Movement of Kosovo (LPK), a secret Marxist-Leninist organization favorable to the Albanian Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha. The movement emerged among the Albanian diaspora in Switzerland, and had an extensive network of clandestine militants in Kosovo. It was the LPK that created the KLA in 1996, bringing together a number of groups of independent militants already operating in Kosovo, mainly in the Drenica area. The best known, Adem Jashari, a great hero who is virtually worshipped in Kosovo, was killed by the Serbian police on March 6, 1998. His cousin, Gani Geci, survived and narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in 2001. Geci has never joined the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the direct successor to the LPK. He is from the family of the bajraktar (hereditary village chieftain) of the village of Llausha, in the Drenica area. He remained a member of the LDK and later of a small splinter group, whom he represented during the last Kosovo parliament.
Geci told me: “We were faithful to Ibrahim Rugova, and we had never heard of the LPK, nor of Fark: as far as we were concerned, the KLA badge united all the fighters. When the LPK people arrived from Switzerland, we made them welcome. They had money and promised us weapons, but we quickly realized they were only interested in power. In any case, they never fought the Serbs. They relied on Nato to do that. They only fought other Albanians, to gain absolute power, and, since the end of the war they have systematically bled Kosovo dry.”

His claims are largely confirmed by a recently declassified Nato report from 2003, which identifies Haliti as the “godfather” of Kosovo, controlling most illegal activities, including smuggling, drug trafficking and prostitution. As well as being a senior figure in the LPK, Haliti was notorious as an agent of the Sigurimi, the secret service of Stalinist Albania. He is a top leader of the Drenica Group, which is synonymous with the leadership of the LPK and today’s PDK.

The PDK had a powerful tool in the Sherbimi Informativ i Kosoves (Shik), an intelligence service headed by Veseli and Syla. In 2009 Kosovo was shaken by the revelations of a former Shik agent, Nazim Bllaca, who admitted having murdered an Albanian who had collaborated with the Serbian police. Under house arrest while awaiting trial, Bllaca is once more free to speak to the press. In an interview in Koha Ditore this January, he claimed that Shik had killed “600 people in the first few months after the establishment of the UN protectorate and 1,000 over 12 months”.

People are beginning to talk in Kosovo about the violence by the KLA against Albanians accused of collaboration, or those whose political persuasion differed from the guerrillas. However, nobody yet wants to talk about the fate of the missing Serbs. ZZ explained that, at the end of the war, he was transferred from the camp at Cahan to the town of Prizren, in Kosovo: “For several days, they kept me in the cellar of a house, with seven elderly Serbs and one Roma. There were two of us Albanian prisoners from the camp at Cahan, and our gaolers forced us to hit the old Serbs. In the end, some German soldiers from KFOR freed me, but the Serbs had already been taken away, I don’t know where.”

I was unable to find any evidence that, after the war was over, the camp at Cahan had also housed Serbs intended to supply the trade in human organs. However, when Cahan housed a torture centre for “dissident” members of the KLA, in spring 1999, it was visited regularly by members of US special forces.

Translated by Charles Goulden

Jean-Arnault Dérens is editor of Le Courrier des Balkan (balkans.courriers.info); his latest book, co-authored with Laurent Geslin, is Voyage au pays des Gorani: Balkans, début du XXIe siècle (Journey to the Land of the Gorani: the Balkans at the Start of the 21st Century), Cartouche, Paris, 2010.

This article appears in the Apriledition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.