Schmidle in Kosovo: Anti-Albanian Libel Comes To “The New Yorker”

These are the graves of Adem Jashari and 55 members of his extended family in Prekaz i Poshtëm. The entire family, including children and elderly members, was killed on March 5, 1998 by Serbian forces. Jashari had been one of the founding leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and he widely considered a national hero and martyr by many Kosovo Albanians. The Republic of Kosovo maintains an honor guard at the site. Photo: Ian Thal
These are the graves of Adem Jashari and 55 members of his extended family in Prekaz i Poshtëm. The entire family, including children and elderly members, was killed on March 5, 1998 by Serbian forces. Jashari had been one of the founding leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and he widely considered a national hero and martyr by many Kosovo Albanians. The Republic of Kosovo maintains an honor guard at the site. Photo: Ian Thal
These are the graves of Adem Jashari and 55 members of his extended family in Prekaz i Poshtëm. The entire family, including children and elderly members, was killed on March 5, 1998, by Serbian forces. Jashari had been one of the founding leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and he widely considered a national hero and martyr by many Kosovo Albanians. The Republic of Kosovo maintains an honor guard at the site. / Photo: Ian Thal

An earlier draft of the letter below was submitted to The New Yorker via their website on May 5, 2013.

To The Editor:

Ian Thal in Prizren
Ian Thal talks to Kosovo television in Prizren in 2012. Photo: Yvan Tetelbom

It was with great interest that I began reading Nicholas Schmidle’s report from Kosovo (“Bring Up The Bodies” May 6, 2013), as only a year prior, I too, had visited the country as a guest of the Writers’ Union of Kosova. Well aware that, as a guest, much of what I saw was determined by my hosts, I am always curious about accounts of others that might add to my understanding of the many things I saw while I was there.

However, Schmidle seems to be less concerned with reporting the facts than concocting a story based on rumors and innuendo. He opens by uncritically repeating Slobodan Milo≈°eviƒá’s claim that Kosovo’s Albanian majority had been enslaving ethnic Serbs, when the context of this statement was to justify the pre-war oppression against the Albanian population, which included the purging of ethnic Albanians both from state jobs as well as from the faculty and student body of the University of Pristina. These efforts were coupled with the barring of the use of the Albanian language from broadcast media and classrooms. These attempts to destroy the Kosovo Albanian community economically and socially were eventually followed up with a campaign of ethnic cleansing that resulted in the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (K.L.A.) and NATO intervention.

Schmidle devotes the rest of the article to the rumor that K.L.A. personnel shipped Serbian prisoners across the border into northern Albania for organ-harvesting. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has repeatedly rejected these accusations for lack of evidence, as has the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) in Kosovo. Schmidle offers no new evidence that would force anyone to reevaluate this judgement. Instead he relies on the classic trope of conspiracy theorists who insinuate that the inability to demonstrate that a atrocity had occurred is proof that an atrocity has been covered up.

Of course, organ harvesting of prisoners would be a grave war crime, and any commanders in an organization are morally and legally culpable whether they order or tolerate such atrocities. The problem for Schmidle is that, like Michael Montgomery, Carla del Ponte (who despite being Chief Prosecutor for the ICTY, saved her accusations for the memoirs she published after her retirement) and Dick Marty before him, he has yet to substantiate that the crimes his sources describe in gruesome detail ever took place, let alone that the hypothetical perpetrators had K.L.A. or Albanian Mafia connections. He is even forced to concede that his sources are less-than-credible.

Indeed, the only concrete example of criminality that Schmidle does offer (“An Organ-Trafficking Conviction in Kosovo” April 29, 2013) is the successful prosecution of Pristina-based urologist Lutfi Dervishi and co-conspirators of engaging in illegal trade in kidneys over a period of several months in 2008-roughly nine years after the end of the Kosovo War. Schmidle ignores that the kidney donors in the Dervishi case were promised payment and had been defrauded-which made the victims willing participants in an illegal operation-quite unlike the alleged war crimes of the “Yellow House” case. Schmidle can only establish a connection between this crime to Tha√ßi and other former K.L.A. leaders by using innuendo and prejudicial statements.

Serious accusations demand serious evidence, and try as Schmidle might to imply otherwise, the persistence of unfounded rumors does not give them validity. As with the persistence of the “blood libel” as an article of faith amongst many anti-Semites, these tales appear to represent only a desire by some to demonize the K.L.A. or by extension, the Kosovo Albanians and Albanians in general, if not somehow normalize, and justify, the very well-documented atrocities that Serbian forces committed against the Albanians during the war.

Ian Thal

All bigotry, especially of the sort that led to the atrocities that were seen during the break-up of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, has a specific content.

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In 1998, like most Americans, I did not know what else beyond the desire for a greater Serbia in Kosovo compelled Milo≈°eviƒá’s ultra-nationalists to strip Kosovo Albanians of their basic civil rights, and then proceed to engage ethnic cleansing. To the best of my knowledge, I had neither met an Albanian, nor had I been subjected to any stereotypes about the people. When I did travel to the Republic of Kosovo in June of 2012, the Albanians that I met were a proud, generous and hospitable people, whose enthusiasm for America and America’s highest ideals were rivaled only by that of some Israelis.

It was only after I returned to America that I became aware of anti-Albanian bigotry-and its precise content. With alarming regularity, when I visited an English-language webpage that posted content related to Albanians-even humorous (and somewhat ignorant) video about the pro-american attitudes of Albanians-I would see vicious comments attributing criminality to the entire ethnicity. The only parallel I had was the anti-Semitic comments that visitors often post to Jewish oriented websites.

In 1989, Milo≈°eviƒá’s government had stripped Kosovo of its autonomy within Serbia; in 1990 it had purged 80,000 ethnic Albanians from public sector employment. That same year, the Albanian-language state media like the newspaper Rilindja was banned, Radio Prishtina and TV Prishtina were shut down. In 1993, the private-sector Albanian-language media that had come into existence to fill the vacuum also faced crack-downs. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians were forced to go abroad either to find work or fleeing political oppression. There was massive unemployment for the Serbs who stayed behind. These were the conditions of the Albanians whom the Serb nationalist leader claimed to be Serbia’s oppressors even before the Kosovo War broke out in 1997.

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In retrospect, especially in comparison to similar events in other countries, the genocidal intent of Milošević and his followers is quite obvious. Given my interest in Holocaust studies, I also began to see some parallels between anti-Albanianism and antisemitism.

National Library of the University of Kosovo/Biblioteka Kombëtare dhe Universitare e Kosovës.
National Library of the University of Kosovo (Biblioteka Kombëtare dhe Universitare e Kosovës) in Prishtina. The domes provide natural lighting during the day and are generally believed to represent the traditional Albanian hat known as the plis. Ironically, at the same time that Slobodan Miloševic claimed that Kosovo Albanians were enslaving Serbs, ethnically Albanian students and scholars were barred entry, much as they had been dismissed from the University, and much as Milošević intended to cleanse them from Kosovo. / Photo: Ian Thal

The Blood Libel, to which I alluded in my letter to The New Yorker, is the recurring accusation that Jews engage in ritual slaughter of human beings. Historically, the archetypical Blood Libel was made in 1144 CE against the Jews of Norwich, England, allegedly as part of a larger conspiracy theory by international Jewry to ritually sacrifice a Christian child annually in order to facilitate a return to the Holy Land. Further permutations of the Blood Libel included the notion that the Christian blood was used to make matzoh, that it was a reenactment of the Crucifixion (and thus tied in with the Deicide Libel) or that it was manufacture a medicine for the treatment of some alleged blood ailments that were unique to the Jewish people as divine punishment for the Crucifixion (see Joshua Trachtenberg’s 1943 classic The Devil and the Jews for greater detail.)

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The Blood Libel, when invoked, was invariably followed by violence. Local authorities might torture or execute Jews accused of the crime, in some cases, dozens. Pogroms against local Jewish communities might occur. In some cases, whole communities would be killed, or driven from their homes. While it is tempting to dismiss the Blood Libel as a medieval superstition, it is still evoked today, barely altered from its earliest forms in both Russia and the middle east, by politicians, media institutions and religious authority, but persistence of a libel does not make it less a libel.

In more recent years, the Blood Libel has mutated. On August 17, 2009, the Swedish tabloid, Aftonbladet claimed that Israeli troops harvested organs from Palestinians it had had in custody. In February of 2010 Baroness Jenny Tonge, who at the time represented the United Kingdom’s Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, made a series of public insinuations that Israeli relief workers in Haiti of harvesting organs after the earthquake. Knowing that she lacked evidence, she perpetuated the libel in the form of rhetorical questions, which eventually led her to be fired from her position as spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats on health issues. It was only in 2012, that party leader Nick Clegg ushered her out of the party. How someone with such well documented animus to a single nationality could ascend to a leadership position of a relatively centrist political party in a pluralistic democracy is quite another question.

Schmidle notes that the K.L.A. was an “improvised affair” and that this may explain acts of criminality. However, anyone who has taken the time to read about genocide, terrorism, and other atrocities, understands that when an affair is improvised, the perpetrators are particularly bad at covering up evidence, especially when there are many perpetrators. It is particularly difficult to hide atrocities in a region being scoured by war crimes prosecutors.

These prosecutors, despite the fact that many are from from the very same NATO countries that liberated Kosovo, have shown a willingness and ability to successfully prosecute former K.L.A. personnel for war crimes, as in the recent guilty verdict against the three members of the Llapi group for their detention and torture of Kosovo Albanian civilians.

In the 21st century, the libel of organ harvesting is now directed at both Israelis and Albanians, and it does not matter to Schmidle or his editors at The New Yorker, in the case of the Kosovo Albanians, or Baroness Tonge and the publishers of Aftonbladet in the case of the Israelis whether there is any evidence to support the accusations. Schmidle, of course, is just honest enough a journalist to admit that the evidence he presents does not add up, especially when Dr. Prem Shekar of Harvard Medical School dismisses the testimony of Schmidle’s witness as “medically implausible”, but it becomes clear that he wants a guilty verdict against the K.L.A., the Republic of Kosovo, and Prime Minister Hashim Tha√ßi, and is just hoping to find the smoking gun, or worse: that the reader will imagine that the smoking gun exists.

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One only has to look at the closing paragraph of Schmidle’s piece on the recent conviction of Lutfi and his co-conspirators for his peacetime organ-trafficking activities:

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As he was leaving the courtroom today, Jonathan Ratel, the Canadian prosecutor who headed the case, called me. He was out of breath, sounding both ecstatic and relieved. “This proves beyond any doubt whatsoever that trafficking in persons has taken place in Kosovo,” he said. “There is absolutely no doubt about that now…. Trafficking persons and the removal of their organs took place in [this] country for a lengthy period of time.” An hour after we spoke, he announced, through a press release, that he had widened his inquiry to include eight more individuals for possible charges of “organized crime, trafficking in persons, abuse of authority, and related offenses for activities in the Medicus clinic and outside Kosovo.” The question remains whether investigators will be able to trace the illicit organ-harvesting activities back to Thaci’s K.L.A.

Ratel is head of Kosovo’s Special Prosecution Office (SPRK), a section within EULEX whose jurisdiction is organized crime and government corruption. The problem, of course, is that Schmidle is quoting Ratel rather selectively. Nowhere in the telephone soundbite or in the press release from which Schmidle cites does Ratel mention war crimes or suggest Lutfi’s crimes to the K.L.A.-Had Ratel or his office said anything of the sort, Schmidle would have used the quote. Instead, the connection between Lutfi, Tha√ßi and the K.L.A. are entirely Schmidle’s supposition.

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Schmidle, unlike Milošević may not have any animus against the Kosovo Albanians, or their national aspirations, but at the same time his desire for a scoop has him playing a lapdog to those who would want to normalize the criminality of the Milošević era. And why not? The Albanian-American community is small, and most Americans, from my experience, were at the time too wrapped up in Monica Lewinsky to get a clear understanding of the successful U.S.-led NATO mission to save Kosovo, so to defame the Kosovo Albanians in a major national magazine carries little risk to his career.