The Doctor as Witness

In 1990 the Serbian government began to limit the activity of Albanian doctors in Kosovo, imposing rules that became increasingly restrictive in the following years. A doctor was not, for example, allowed to write or talk to patients in Albanian. If he or she refused to abide by these rules, the doctor was transferred or fired. To accept these rules, many of us felt, would mean complying with the Milosevic regime. And so most of us were dismissed from state hospitals, clinics, and medical faculty, and replaced with Serb medical doctors from both Serbia and Montenegro. I applied for a position in state hospitals four times, and four times I was turned down. The last time I applied, I was accused of being an enemy of the state.

For Albanian doctors, there were two alternatives: open a private practice, or leave and find work in another country. For me, there was no choice. I decided to stay, and in 1990 I opened the first private practice in Peja, Kosovo.

Private medical practice was something completely new in Kosovo. Initially, I was surprised that patients came to my clinic, because they would have to pay me for services that were free at the hospital. I soon realized, however, that the option of visiting a private physician opened new doors to people. They were able to speak their own language. They felt safer, and they received better treatment. I started with twenty patients each day. Later, this number increased to eighty, and I was soon able to employ a colleague to work with me. We opened a lab, purchased new diagnostic medical equipment, and began to provide psychiatric care as well. Every year our practice, and the care we provided, became more complete.

By 1992 I began to see signs of brutality and hear reports of abuse by Serb police from our patients. With the help of a photographer and a lawyer, I started to document the physical abuse that my patients had suffered. I also developed a cooperative relationship with two local NGOs that deal with human rights violations, the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF) and the Kosovo Medical Association (KMA). My activities as a medical doctor and my documentation work in Peja were in line with the activities of CDHRF and KMA--it was a natural collaboration. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Open Society had opened clinics in Pristina and other small towns between 1993 and 1995, and we also worked with these groups. Human rights activists throughout the region, including international organizations such as Amnesty International, referred victims and patients to my clinic. During the early 1990s I saw 4,489 patients, and in time this number increased.

I am quite sure that the local police knew about my activities, because Peja is a small town. The police came to my clinic two or three times to try to intimidate me, saying that I was not authorized to conduct such exams and document such abuse. I pointed out that I was affiliated with Amnesty International and was authorized by their headquarters in London. Nonetheless, they threatened to shut me down. But when I asked them for documents stating that my activities were prohibited, they could show me nothing. I continued to see as many patients as I could.

I started the documentation process on my own, because I felt the abuse of my patients was wrong and needed to be recorded. While I eventually came to understand human rights, I cannot say that I knew that human rights work is what I was doing all along. After working with representatives from KMA, my colleagues and I began to understand what human rights are, to learn more about the legal framework and how we can protect our human rights. We were not able to articulate specific rights according to international law, such as the freedoms of expression and movement, until we worked with some of the established human rights organizations. We read--and eventually translated into both Albanian and Bosnian--Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, as well as documents from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. We established a cooperative relationship with all of the international institutions present in Kosovo in 1993 and 1994, an arrangement that continued up to the NATO bombing. Supporting their efforts to involve Kosovars in their work, we attended regular weekly meetings hosted by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). We also met with local police and authorities in an attempt to help them make their practices more transparent and to let them know that they would be held accountable for their actions.

In March of 1999, after the OSCE mission left and the NATO bombing began, Serbian soldiers came into my clinic and said in front of my patients and staff, "Where are your friends now? You are finished." They could have killed us all. I can't explain why they did not. Four days later, my family and I, along with about 80,000 others, were expelled to Montenegro. In my absence, my clinic was completely destroyed and the building burned to the ground. My files--nine years of documentation of human rights abuses--were burned along with all of my other reports.

When I returned to Kosovo, my colleague and I began our work anew, but on a different track. I started to work on the exhumation of mass graves and the documentation of war crimes. People asked for our assistance in locating missing relatives, so we started the documentation process once again, taking photos and keeping records of our findings. We were aware that once winter came, the snow, rain, and soil erosion would wash all of this evidence away, so we spent July through October of 1999 exhuming war victims and working with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the OSCE. We exhumed around 436 bodies.

Ten years ago I worked as a doctor. My position as a doctor led me to human rights. But my involvement with human rights work was limited--it was a part-time job. Since the war it has become full-time. At first, my work involved documenting human rights violations; then it became war crimes. Now I have established an NGO called the Kosovo Center for Human Rights. We receive financial support from UNESCO and USAID for a human rights education project in Kosovo and for translating books into both Albanian and Bosnian. Our efforts are designed to include all ethnic groups living in Kosovo.

My present involvement in education stems from my belief that it is crucial to Kosovo's future. Already, our group has hired seventeen trainers and 120 teachers to instruct about 6,000 pupils in a human rights curriculum, and our partnership with UNESCO puts us in a good position to continue this project. Only by teaching human rights to the next generation of all of Kosovo's children can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Read More: Human Rights, Health, Global Public HealthHuman Rights, , Kosovo, Serbia

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