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The Book-Ends of Genocide:
Publikuar më 21 maj, 2012 nė orėn 15:20 ( ) English |
Rrit madhësinë e shkronjave
From poisoning children to burning of bodies, Serbia still has a lot to answer for

Part 1 – The Poisoning

I saw the poisoned kids…Cars from Podujevo were going to the hospitals…The poisoning existed and it was done by Serbs and I can never forgive them… (From one of numerous eye-witness accounts in “Kosovo: truths and myths…” by Julie Mertus, 1998.)

Terrible war crimes were committed by Serbian forces in Serbia’s “province” of Kosovo – as Serbian leaders then viewed it – during the 1990s. But inside today’s Serbia there is near total silence about them. It’s as if these evil acts never even happened.

We are currently witnessing yet another sinister chapter of historical revisionism and genocide denial. This is a very dangerous turn of events, especially in the Balkans, all too familiar with a long, burdensome history of genocide and cover-up.

Instead, from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, bellicose, contradictory rhetoric is the official order of the day. Waves of capricious, arbitrary, politically expedient arrests by Serbian combat-geared gendarmerie, , some based on old Milosevic-era warrants, continue to dominate the Balkan landscape. Each of these arrests carries an ugly, politically-motivated edge, and each is staged with high theatrics and shrill bombast and intimidation.

I was recently visiting Kosova and Serbia this past March, and the tension was so palpable you could feel it in the air, and see it in people’s eyes – especially in the faces of my Albanian friends. It reminded me of the bad old days of the 1990s. Back then, one never knew who the next target would be. Paranoia and fear were the brutal order of the day.

Serbia’s Gendarmerie arresting Kosovar policemen, March 2012:
Maximal humiliation…

Serbia’s media typically cover these contemporary arrests like great patriotic entertainment. Lurid photos of arrested suspects, crouching and forced into humiliated, prone positions are boldly splashed across Serbian media venues. Their cameras always appear to be ready, for full terrorizing effect.

Make no mistake. Beyond the immediate domestic political gains and manipulative electioneering, this is yet another episode of Serbia’s historical war on Albanians, once again using a mix of cynical diplomacy and none too subtle threats.

Slobodan Milosevic – Serbian strongman and architect of the most brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing since World War 2 – may be mercifully dead and gone. But the fascist mentality personified by he and his many willing executioners is still very much alive. It is no coincidence that Milosevic’s protégé and mastermind of the recent arrests, Ivica Dacic, was made interior minister and chief of police by Serbia’s “pro-western” regime.

Yet both despite and because of these extraordinarily challenging circumstances, we are demanding that Serbia’s government come clean with one of the most hidden and devastating atrocities from the Milosevic era: the mass poisoning of Albanian youth.

In the tense spring of 1990, in what is now a largely forgotten episode of racist-inspired barbarism, a deliberate poisoning of hundreds of Albanian schoolchildren transpired throughout Kosova, then ruled as a kind of colonial province by Serbian authorities.

In both primary and secondary schools, newly segregated by the Milosevic regime, hundreds of pupils – and a handful of school staff – suddenly fell ill with unexplained neurological and gastro-intestinal symptoms. Schools over a large part of Kosovo were affected, within roughly the same period of time. Nearly every victim was Albanian. It was no coincidence.

Young Kosovar woman hospitalized April 11, 1990:
Symptoms of poisoning…

This peacetime attack against Albanian schoolchildren was shocking, even by Balkan standards. Well documented images of sick and suffering children being rushed to hospital, or weakly moaning and exhibiting repeated seizures in make-shift hospital wards, can be clearly viewed today in vintage film footage from the time.

This horrifying situation pushed plausibility to its limits. Who would order such an evil action, specifically targeting children? It was an early glimpse, for those who were paying attention back then, of what Milosevic and his henchman had in store.

Not for the first or last time, this opening volley of ethnic cleansing was immediately covered up and effectively suppressed. Crucial evidence, like blood samples, was stolen or misused, and doctors – of all nationalities – who treated affected patients were quickly silenced or punished. One such Serbian doctor died soon after, under those “mysterious circumstances” that were to become one hallmark of the Milosevic era.

The Serbian media of the day, notoriously hostile to Albanians in general, became vitriolic about this latest Albanian “hoax.” The suffering of the affected children was scoffed at and widely disparaged: Watch them all act for the cameras… With Serbian authorities in tight control, the story was effectively killed.

Each time we travel through Kosova, my colleague and I encounter a myriad of adults who still vividly remember these traumatizing events, some two decades later. On a recent trip we encountered two such witnesses.

The first eyewitness, “Erion,” currently works as a shoe-maker in the capital, Pristina. His shop is located, as it happens, just down the street from his former secondary school, named after the passionate and pioneering Albanian writer and poet Naim Frasheri.

Young Kosovar man treated for poisoning symptoms: Spring, 1990

Erion recalled events of that terrifying day in March 1990 while he looked on, stunned, as fellow students suddenly fell sick, reeling. He promptly pitched in and helped to transport poisoned classmates to hospital. Erion himself was left remarkably unaffected at the time – only to be severely beaten years later by Serb forces and left partially disabled. The price for freedom never comes cheaply.

A genial taxi driver, “Enis,” proved to be our second such eyewitness. In March 1990 he was also attending a segregated secondary school, in a town called Ferizaj, some 70 km northwest of Pristina. On that infamous morning someone in class abruptly shouted “Poison”! (“Helm!”) and students and staff escaped into the courtyard. Enis’ female colleagues were most obviously affected, though Enis’ own sister remained unharmed.

Suddenly, poisoned students were falling to the ground, convulsing for periods of up to 20 minutes, unable to stop. Enis also pitched in, helping rush those affected teenagers to hospital in Pristina. It is one terrible episode in his life, he assured us, he will never forget.

And who masterminded this sordid attack on the children? The assumed culprit: Slobodan Milosevic and his special forces, who were soon to be engaged in attacks and atrocities against other civilians, first in Croatia and later, throughout Bosnia.

Bosnian young man hunted down and murdered by Serbian forces; Srebrenica, July 1995
Even children were targeted for elimination…
(Courtesy of Natasa Kandic, Humanitarian Law Center)

This time, their war crimes would be much harder to hide. The world would gradually come to witness the deadly consequences – Vukovar, Sarajevo under a brutal, 40 plus-month siege, and finally Srebrenica, where over 8,000 mainly Bosniak men and boys were systematically mowed down by Serb forces in the summer of 1995. Genocide on a scale not seen in Europe since Adolf Hitler was the predictable if horrendous result.

The actual agent of the 1990 mass poisoning remains something of a mystery, though Sarin gas is widely suspected. Sarin gas had been used by Saddam Hussein, then an ally of Milosevic, just two years before against the Kurdish people, in March of 1988. Thousands of Kurds died in that attack on Halabja, also known as Bloody Friday.
Thousands more died of complications in the following years, or continue to suffer ongoing health issues.

Ironically, the entire mass poisoning episode in Kosova has yet to be properly adjudicated. Faced with an ongoing series of Serbian-led acts of repression and an ever expanding Balkan-wide conflict, Kosovar officials and activists were understandably overtaken by more immediate concerns. By 1999, many of them were murdered or had barely escaped with their lives. Old grievances were simply put on hold. One set of atrocities superseded the last.

I first heard about the Kosovar mass poisoning during an interview I was conducting for our upcoming book about the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. I was appalled at the time, and chastised my young interview subject: how can you spread such terrible rumors?

After many months of research, I realized that it was I who deserved the rebuke.
Since that time we’ve met Dr. Hoxha from Podujevo, close to the Serbian border, who continues to treat two young women with lingering neurological problems from the 1990 poisoning. Their symptoms have persisted for over two decades.

We also met with three prominent professors of the Prisitna Committee for Human Rights: Zejnulla Gruda, Pajazit Nushi, and Vehap Shita. They assured us that the mass poisoning had indeed occurred, and showed us a cache of documentation including the results of blood samples and statements of various medical experts.

We demand that the Serbian government open all past relevant police files, and finally come clean with the truth about this appalling human rights atrocity, targeted specifically against the youth. How much longer must we wait?

Next: Part 2 – Missing persons, mass graves, and the industrialized burning of Albanian bodies…

By Robert Leonard Rope

San Francisco

Slobodan Milosevic and his family may be gone – but the Serbian nationalist mystique lingers…
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