Alush Gashi, a Yugoslav surgeon, made the rounds in Washington in October trying to get someone to pay attention to a chilling story. He made no secret about his mission, even though he fully expected to be thrown into prison when he returned home.
He was right. On Oct. 26, in Pristina, Yugoslavia, Gashi was attacked and beaten by a dozen or so police officers armed with machine guns. Then he was pushed into a car and driven to a detention center where he was again beaten and detained for four hours. He has been fired from his job as dean of the University of Pristina medical school, and says that 1,000 of his colleagues have also been fired -- all because of a story that the Yugoslav government says is a lie, concocted by the Albanian majority in the Kosovo region to embarrass the Serbian government.
If Gashi is not lying, someone tried to poison hundreds of Albanian schoolchildren in Yugoslavia and then cleared the hospitals of Albanian doctors so they could not prove what had happened.
Albanians and Serbian ethnic groups in Yugoslavia are not above blaming each other for all the ills that befall either, but Gashi swears the poisonings were not mere rumor.
It happened on a day in March when 400 Albanian students flooded hospitals in the Kosovo region complaining of nausea, stomach cramps and breathing problems. Over the next few days, more children came in with the same ailments. Federal medical experts came from Belgrade to investigate and found no traces of poison. They concluded that the children were faking it.
But a well-respected French doctor and human rights advocate, Bernard Beneditti, was not convinced. He traveled to Yugoslavia to do his own investigation. It was harder than he had anticipated. Serbian police guarded the doors to the hospitals, confiscating the passports of foreigners and forbidding anyone from removing documents or blood samples from the hospitals.
Beneditti managed to slip out enough blood samples which, when he studied them back home in France, convinced him that the children had been exposed to a poison similar to one used in pesticides.
He now claims that nearly 3,000 Albanian children were poisoned between February and May by someone who tossed canisters of toxins into the schools during the hours only Albanian children were present. (Yugoslav schools are segregated.)
Barend Cohen, a Norwegian human rights advocate and physician, took his own blood samples and found no traces of poison, but he will not rule out Beneditti's findings. And Cohen told us that it would have been impossible for the Serbian authorities to do adequate testing on all the children and conclude in just a few hours that there was nothing wrong with them.
Whatever the truth may be, mistrust runs deep in the region. The epidemic has never been satisfactorily explained. A spokesman for the Yugoslav Embassy in Washington told us the story was manufactured for political reasons.