Serbeze HAXHIAJ | BIRN, Duhel/Dulje

It was June 13, 1999, and Uli Reinhardt, a photojournalist from the German news magazine Stern was due to meet his colleague Gabriel Gruener at 6pm in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.

But Gruener would never arrive for the meeting, and could not be contacted by mobile phone because Kosovo’s telecommunications system had been damaged in the war.

Earlier in the afternoon, Italian journalist Gruener, 35, German photographer Volker Kraemer, 56, and their Albanian interpreter, Shenoll Aliti, 26, had been forced to return from Prizren to Skopje in Macedonia to send their material because they couldn’t send it from Kosovo, where they were covering the deployment of German troops as part of the NATO mission in Kosovo.

It was the first day after peace had been declared, ending the Kosovo war. One day earlier, NATO’s troops had started moving into Kosovo after the Western military alliance’s 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia forced Slobodan Milosevic’s regime to pull out its soldiers and police.

While NATO’s multinational forces were entering, Serbian troops were leaving Kosovo following an agreement between the Yugoslav Army and the Western military alliance. The Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, which had waged a guerrilla war for independence from Yugoslavia, had ended up on the winning side.

While ethnic Albanians had fled Serbian repression during the war, now ethnic Serbs were fleeing, fearing revenge attacks. Journalists on the ground had plenty to cover.

At that point, Stern magazine had two teams of journalists in Kosovo. Gruener was with photographer Kraemer and interpreter Aliti, while his close friend Reinhardt, who was also the founder of the Zeitenspiegel Reportagen co-operative of writers and photographers, was deployed with another team.

Reinhardt said that when he heard the news that Gruener’s team had been hit by an attack, he headed for the village of Duhel/Dulje in the Suhareka/Suva Reka municipality, where it happened.

“When we arrived, there was a lot of blood. While we were walking around the crime scene, a few metres away we saw a body. It was Shenoll Aliti’s body,” Reinhardt told BIRN from his house in Stuttgart.

Gruener, Kraemer and Aliti all died as a result of the attack.

Earlier in the day, Gruener’s team had been recording the moment when German NATO troops had arrived in Prizren. But false rumours spread that they had actually been making a report on the discovery of a mass grave.

“There were many people who believed they had revealed a mass grave. But that was not true. They didn’t reveal any mass grave. They were here only to report on the end of the war,” Reinhardt said.

After the attack, Reinhardt and other journalists from Stern spent many months investigating the killing of their colleagues.

“We met and talked to hundreds of people, civilians and former army members. Some were present that day told us how it happened,” he said.

Initially, Stern and the men’s families had believed they were killed by Serbian forces as they withdrew from Kosovo, but the investigation revealed that the truth was different.

“We learned that in Dulje village, they encountered a convoy of Serb forces and queues of vehicles transporting Serb civilians. After the journalists’ car was stopped, some civilians asked them about KLA [guerrillas]. Shenoll Aliti said to them they had not seen any KLA group along the road,” he said.

A few minutes earlier, a fast-moving white Toyota car had hit a Serbian tank nearby and been destroyed. But the people in the Toyota were uninjured.

In the car was a young man, a Russian pro-Serb mercenary called Alexandre Tchernomachentsev, as well as a young woman, her elderly father and a baby. They saw the journalists, and the elderly man said to Aliti: “You are Albanian and you want us to be killed by the KLA.”

At that moment, the Russian opened fire.

Kraemer was killed instantly by a shot to the head and Gruener sustained abdomen injuries and was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Tetovo in Macedonia, but died that evening. Aliti, who was driving the car, was also killed instantly, and his body was found later.

In the nearby town of Suhareka/Suva Reka, Ismet Suka, who worked with the Stern team investigating the shooting of Gruener, Kraemer and Aliti, said that the journalists were killed because the people in the smashed-up Toyota wanted to steal their car.

“Firstly it was hatred against Albanians, but more than this, it was the fact that they needed a car,” Suka told BIRN.

“That team of journalists had been in Kosovo several times before, shedding light on the atrocities that were happening at that time. We should not forget them,” he added.

‘It is too late to think of justice’

Wolfgang Gruener, Gabriel Gruener’s younger brother, remembers that it was before midnight when he received a call from their youngest brother telling him that Gabriel had been wounded in Kosovo.

“He had already died, because he died at 10pm, but we still didn’t know. Several hours later someone from Stern magazine told us he died. It was shocking. His wife was seven months pregnant,” Wolfgang Gruener told BIRN from his house in Bruneck in northern Italy.

“Gabriel reported from many bloody wars. But we couldn’t believe that he could have been killed in that way; when you don’t know who to ask what happened and who to blame,” he said.

Alexandre Tchernomachentsev, the Russian gunman who Stern claims killed Gruener, Kraemer and Aliti, told Russian radio station Ekho Moskviy in August 1999 that he had been a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian Army and then went to fight on the Serbian side in Kosovo “because this war was against NATO, and NATO is an international criminal organisation which is at war with Serbia and all Slavs, and against the Russians”.

Tchernomachentsev is also believed to have joined North Macedonian security forces in 2001 during their conflict with an ethnic Albanian rebel group, the National Liberation Army.

The material from Stern’s investigation was passed on to the police, and a court in the German city of Hamburg issued a warrant in 2001 for Tchernomachentsev’s arrest. But the Russian went missing and has never resurfaced since then.

“We obtained a copy of the Russian mercenary’s passport and his address in Moscow. We realised he had earlier been a member of the Russian military intelligence service. The Russian authorities said he is dead, but we doubt that,” Reinhardt said.

Stern also claimed that Tchernomachentsev “was protected by the Russian authorities from the beginning”.

The families of the men who were killed believe that German troops in Kosovo, the Serbian authorities and the Italian government should have made more effort to investigate.

“They could have done more, but they didn’t. And now is too late to think of justice. Anyway, whatever would happen, it cannot bring back the dead or erase the pain,” Wolfgang Gruener said.

BIRN asked the NATO mission in Kosovo about the killings but it did not provide any information. BIRN also spoke to the command of Germany’s Bundeswehr armed forces, but it also did not offer any information.

‘His agenda was to prevent wars’

If you walk through the mountain village of Duhel/Dulje in Kosovo’s Suhareka/Suva Reka municipality, you will find a stone plaque set between two cherry trees with an inscription in Albanian and German.

“On June 13, 1999, the reporters Gabriel Gruener, Volker Kraemer and Senol Alit were murdered here,” it reads.

Underneath there are a few lines of verse by Bertolt Brecht:

The rain never falls upwards

When the wound stops hurting

What hurts is the scar

On the left, Kosovo’s flag flies; on the right, the flag of Germany.

Kraemer was a photo reporter who was recruited by Stern because of the pictures he took during the Prague Spring uprising in 1968, while Gruener had reported on conflicts and humanitarian crisis situations around the world. His deployment to cover a famine in Sudan led to him starting an aid campaign that raised almost 600,000 euros for starving children there.

“He wasn’t neutral. In his reports, you can read that Gruener was concerned about victims and unprotected people. The fate of children in particular affected him. His agenda was to prevent wars and bring the perpetrators before justice,” Reinhardt said.

“We have to work to save the children of war from the return of hatred, destruction and murder,” Gruener once wrote in a catalogue for an exhibition called ‘Children of War’ which included pictures from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Hearing the stories about massacres in Bosnia and looking at gruesome photos of the corpses, my brain feels like it is paralysed,” he said in an email to his wife which was published by the German magazine Brigitte.

When Wolfgang Gruener made his first trip to Kosovo to see the place where his brother had died, he said he understood better how he and other journalists were drawn to the conflict by a sense of humanitarian idealism.

“They wanted to show the world the atrocities, and how people needed help,” he said. “They were saying that this shouldn’t be repeated.”