|It is alleged terrified prisoners were taken to a farmhouse where their organs were removed|
Al Jazeera’s correspondent investigates allegations Kosovan fighters kidnapped Serbs during the Kosovo war, removed their organs in Albania and sold them.
We’re deep in the mountains of Albania, driving slowly up a very bumpy mud track.
Looking up the valley ahead, we can see a pretty white farmhouse, built of stone, surrounded by trees, and fields full of grazing sheep.
It’s an idyllic setting, and it’s hard to believe that this house is at the centre of allegations about some of the most grotesque crimes of the Kosovan war.
That war ended a decade ago, but hundreds of missing people – ethnic Serbs and Albanians – have never been accounted for.
We came to this valley to see if there were any links between the farmhouse, and some of the missing people.
It was Carla Del Ponte, the former United Nations war crimes prosecutor, who drew attention to this farmhouse in her recently published memoir, looking back at her time in the former Yugoslavia.
She describes how “credible” sources had told her that, during the war, Kosovan ethnic Albanian fighters had taken hundreds of prisoners over the mountains, into the neighbouring country of Albania.
The sources said that some of these prisoners had been taken to the farmhouse, which had been turned into a makeshift operating theatre.
|The story would probably have been forgotten without Del Ponte’s memoirs [GALLO/GETTY]|
Here, so the story goes, their organs were removed, and then carried to an airport near Tirana, to be flown out of the country.
Meanwhile, the terrified prisoners were killed.
Del Ponte goes on to describe how a UN team was sent to the house, to see if there was any truth to the macabre stories.
Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of their report which was written in 2004.
The investigators could find “no conclusive evidence” of criminal acts in the farmhouse.
But they did find traces of blood in two rooms, and, in a stream that runs nearby, they found syringes, plastic intravenous bags, material that looked as if it had come from surgical overalls, and empty bottles of medicine.
These included one used as a muscle relaxant during surgical operations.
Angry villagers prevented them from digging at the local cemetery, where victims had purportedly been buried.
The report was never acted on, and, until the publication of Del Ponte’s memoirs, the whole story would probably have been forgotten.
We approached the farmhouse with some trepidation, but the owner, Mersin Katoci, agreed to talk to us.
Katoci’s parents built this house more than 50 years ago and the family lived here throughout the war.
They say they never saw any sign of fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
|Katoci denied that his house had ever been used for atrocious crimes|
Katoci denied that his house had ever been used for atrocious crimes, and dismissed the findings of the UN team.
“They found absolutely nothing here; we live here with our family and they were just provoking us, looking for groundless accusations,” he said.
I asked about the equipment found in the nearby stream.
“There are no doctors in this area, so we just throw away our drugs and needles, but we are not capable of doing transplants here,” replied Katoci.
His elderly mother, her head covered in the traditional Albanian headscarf, watched the interview with a stony stare.
Katoci was becoming increasingly agitated as I persisted, but his real fury was directed towards Del Ponte, whom he would like to take to court for causing his family such trauma.
Katoci was perplexed why the former United Nations war crimes prosecutor has bought the case to public attention through her book so many years after she had first investigated the claims and reached no conclusive results.
Katoci is a farmer, who suddenly has the international media at his door, asking him bizarre questions. His exasperated protestations of innocence struck me as genuine.
|Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister, is dismissive of the allegations [AFP]|
In Tirana, the Albanian capital, government officials are vehement in their statements that these alleged crimes never took place on their soil.
Ina Rama, the state prosecutor, refused to talk to us, but she has said there is insubstantial evidence to merit an investigation.
In Pristina, the Kosovan capital, there are more furious denials.
After all, the alleged crimes would constitute a terrible “original sin” by the former KLA fighters who now govern Kosovo – an area still struggling to gain acceptance as an independent state.
Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister and a former KLA fighter, was dismissive when I asked him about the allegations during an interview late last year.
Meanwhile, in Serbia, not surprisingly, the reaction to Del Ponte’s book has been very different.
Serbs are used to being cast as the villains of the Balkan wars. Here, for once, they are being portrayed as amongst the victims.
Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor, is a man of integrity who has received death threats from hard-line Serbs, unhappy with some of his investigations into atrocities committed during the wars of the 1990s.
|Vukcevic’s file links supposed body organ smugglers with wealthy recipients in Europe|
He told me that he believes there are “between 300 and 540 people still missing” from the time of the 1999 Kosovo war, who had been kidnapped and taken to Albania.
Vukcevic has built up a file of evidence, which he would not show me in detail, but which links the supposed body organ smugglers with wealthy recipients in Western Europe, and criminal gangs involved in prostitution, drug smuggling and human trafficking.
Late last year, Vukcevic flew to Tirana to meet Rama and discuss his findings.
The meeting was cordial, but Vukcevic says that, thereafter, the Albanians would not co-operate with him.
Vukcevic is frustrated, but now pinning his hopes on a new investigation into the disappeared of the Kosovo war, being carried out by the Council of Europe, an organisation which lays particular emphasis on legal standards, human rights and democratic development,
The investigation is led by Dick Marty, a Swiss prosecutor, who made his name with a report on extraordinary renditions and alleged secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.
Marty likes to operate in a secretive, low-key way and his office will only say that his investigation is making progress.
Del Ponte is now the Swiss ambassador to Argentina, and will not talk about the alleged body-organ trading.
We left Matoci in his farmhouse still cursing Del Ponte, and hoping that Marty will clear his name.
Driving back down the valley, the clouds were closing in, and it had started to rain.
It is difficult to imagine that such complex crimes could have taken place out here, and that such a beautiful place could have witnessed such horrors.