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28. 01. 2020.

Author: Jelena L. Petković ???source???: UNS

The Murder of Stern Magazine Journalist Crew in Kosovo in 1999

The report by Associated Press was brief and shocking – two German journalists had been killed in Kosovo. The news came from Kosovo on 13 June 1999, one minute after 8 PM. Just after midnight, Stern magazine’s editorial board received the confirmation they had feared – the murdered journalists were their colleagues Gabriel Grüner and Volker Krämer. The search for Senol Alit, the driver and interpreter who had been part of their crew, lasted throughout the day. His body was found in a bush near the crime scene, at the Dulje Pass. The Mercedes in which they had headed for Macedonia from Prizren was nowhere to be found.

Stern magazine’s editorial board made tremendous efforts to uncover the truth behind this tragic event. The investigation by journalists Joachim Rienhardt and Uli Reinhardt lasted 18 months, with the two reporters following various leads, conducting field investigations and interviewing potential witnesses. They presented their findings to the Hamburg police crime investigation department, which launched an official investigation.  

On the day the crime took place, Sunday, 13 June 1999, Stern’s reporters had been in Prizren to report on the arrival of KFOR’s peacekeeping forces to Kosovo. About 5 PM, they took Senol Alit’s Mercedes, on which they had written the letters “TV” with duct tape, and headed east, aiming to return to their hotel in Skopje and send their text and photographs to the Hamburg head office from there.  

They took the longer route, across Suva Reka and the Dulje Pass, which was the better route for travelling at the time. As Stern’s investigative journalists discovered, the road was heavily congested, since it was the route used by medical doctors and paramedics at the time, as well as by numerous Serbian military vehicles, including a convoy of eight military freight lorries. They claim Serbian army officers had stopped the convoy at the crest of the Dulje Pass.  

At the same time, according to the statements obtained by Stern’s investigative journalists, a stolen Toyota driven by Aleksandar T.  had been travelling up the serpentines of the Dulje Pass at high speed. 

“The Toyota barrelled out of a curve at about 80 kilometres per hour and slammed into a lorry at the back of the convoy”, said one of the two Serbian soldiers, whom the investigating journalists marked as the key witness for the public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg. An older man and two children came out of the Toyota, while the driver engaged the reverse gear and applied full throttle, losing control of the vehicle and wrecking it in a ditch.  

Senol Alit stopped his car and asked through a rolled-down window: “What is happening? Why aren’t we moving on?” The older man who had emerged out of the Toyota approached them, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, and explained the convoy had been stopped by Serbian army officers and was being returned to Suva Reka. The older man then said: “But that’s impossible. KLA forces are there, they are shooting at everything”. Alit said in Serbian he had not seen any danger in Suva Reka. 

The article published by Stern on 22 March 2001 further states: “Alit’s accent – he was a Macedonian of Turkish descent – apparently irritated the old Serbian man, who was boiling with hatred. ‘You Albanian pig’, he yelled at him, ‘you’re lying, you want to lure us into a trap’. The old man was running through his jacket pockets and barking threats: ‘I’ll throw a bomb inside your car! I’ll kill you!’. He jumped on top of the Mercedes, apparently looking for a fight. The woman who had been with him in the Toyota then pulled him away. In the meantime, the driver, who had crashed the car, had returned to the road and was listening to the fight. According to witnesses, he grabbed the Kalashnikov from the old man and, without hesitation, shot through the open window inside the Mercedes from a distance of two metres.”

“What happened next has been corroborated by testimonies of witnesses. The Serbian soldiers reported from the spot that Aleksandar T. had emptied the entire magazine of the Kalashnikov. They stood so close that they felt as if the bullets were flying around their heads. When they stood up again, these two witnesses saw the shooter first dragging Gabriel Grüner from the front passenger seat and throwing him down on the road. According to the witnesses, Gabriel Grüner cried ‘Help!’ in English, and the shooter then pulled Senol Alit, a rugged former boxer, out of the car, dragged him across the road and then pushed his lifeless body down a cliff. According to the Serbs’ statements, the man then dragged Volker Krämer out of the car and tossed him to the road. He then sat in the Mercedes used by Stern’s reporters and headed alone towards Štimlje. A Serbian officer ordered the convoy: ‘Move! To Štimlje, immediately!’ He then gave instructions to his men in case they were subsequently interrogated by KFOR troops: ‘Say the KLA had ambushed the men and shot at them’,” Stern’s investigative journalists wrote.  

They claimed the crime police and the public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg considered the testimonies by these two men, Serbian reserve servicemen, tape-recorded by Stern’s investigative journalists, to be truthful.  

“Their statements are corroborated by the information Stern had obtained earlier with the help of British soldiers. A reconnaissance unit of the King’s Royal Hussars cavalry regiment had set up a checkpoint that day at the eastern end of the Dulje Pass, in Štimlje. The officers who had been interviewed recollected that evening in detail from their notes. About 7 PM, a convoy of Yugoslav military lorries which had been descending from the crest of the pass stopped at the checkpoint. Serbian soldiers informed the British about the lethal gunshots, allegedly fired by KLA fighters. Among the civilian vehicles that had joined the military convoy, the British noticed a light commercial vehicle with damage from a collision at the back. Accounts as to the vehicle’s colour vary in the statements of eyewitnesses, with some stating  it was green and others claiming it was blue. According to the British, the passengers on that lorry looked shocked and were extremely nervous. They yelled ‘They hit us!’ and ‘They killed a man at the pass!’”, the text states.  

It is also stated that three М-80 243 tanks from the Uroševac brigade had remained at the Dulje Pass. 

“One soldier came out of a tank, approached Gabriel Grüner and dressed his wounds. At that point, paramedics from Médecins Sans Frontières turned up. The soldier handed them Gabriel Grüner’s press ID and told them in bad English: ‘German journalist. Hospital’, before returning to his tank. The Médecins Sans Frontières determined Volker Krämer could not be helped. Gabriel Grüner was carried to the medical tent of a Canadian unit stationed nearby. The Stern reporter was fully conscious when paramedics changed his bandage. He said the Serbian army had been on the spot. ‘But they had not intervened’, he said. Serbian civilians shot at him and his fellow passengers. He kept repeating: ‘Why? Why were civilians shooting at us?’”, Stern reported.  

After an emergency surgery that lasted two and a half hours, he succumbed to his wounds at 10:02 PM at the British field hospital Brazda in Macedonia, with coroner’s report in Hamburg confirming eyewitness statements that the fatal shots had been fired from a Kalashnikov rifle at close range.  

All accounts obtained by Stern’s investigative journalists point to the conclusion that the alleged killer was Aleksandar T., a Russian who had “apparently joined the Yugoslav Army as a volunteer in 1998”. They also claim that an eyewitness recognised the man several days later in his Serbian hometown and that “after the war, Aleksandar T. stayed for a while at an army barracks together with many other Russian volunteers”, before allegedly disappearing. Later that same year, in 2001, Stern also reported Aleksandar T. was back in Moscow and working as a security guard.  

Joachim Rienhardt, one of the two journalists who had investigated the circumstances surrounding the death of their colleagues, has spoken to the Journalist Association of Serbia 17 years after writing the report with shocking discoveries. The investigation has not progressed since then.  

Rienhardt says that, at the time of the murder, everything in Kosovo was uncontrolled, unsafe, without much accurate information, and no police investigation was conducted. He says this prompted them to conduct an investigation of their own several days later. He added they had been to Kosovo more than 200 times to investigate, obtain details and interview all potential sources they could connect to the events, so as to piece together a picture of what had happened there. He says they eventually found two eyewitnesses, the two Serbian soldiers.  

They cooperated intensively with the German Federal Foreign Office, to obtain the execution of an international warrant issued to Russian prosecutors for the arrest of Aleksandar T. German officials later relayed to them they had been informed by Russian authorities that the person they were looking for had passed away, but Rienhardt doubts the veracity of that allegation.  

After being approached by the Journalist Association of Serbia for comments, the German Federal Foreign Office replied that “at this point in the proceedings, the FFO is unable to provide any information.” 

“Please refer your inquiries to the State Prosecutor’s Office of Hamburg, as the responsible legal institution. As the Russian authorities are conducting an investigation, I advise you to contact the Russian Embassy”, replied the German Federal Foreign Office.  

The Journalist Association of Serbia sent an inquiry to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation a year ago, but we have received no reply to date.  

“Regarding the case you have mentioned, please be advised of the following: a criminal investigation of this case was initiated by the State Prosecutor’s Office of Hamburg in June 1999. The investigation included autopsies of the two murdered journalists. In addition, several witnesses were questioned and an investigation was conducted in connection with a car that had been parked near the crime scene.” In addition, the Journalist Association of Serbia was told the Principal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Hamburg had sought legal assistance from Serbian authorities. 

“On 16 March 2001, the Higher Regional Court of Hamburg issued a warrant for the arrest of the accused Aleksandar T. for suspected murder and robbery with homicide. On the basis of it, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Hamburg issued an international wanted notice in April 2001, followed by an arrest warrant for the accused Aleksandar T. in April 2005.
“To date, the accused could not be questioned because his whereabouts have remained unknown. In 2010, we heard it had been posited that the accused might no longer be alive. However, as there is no reliable evidence to support that, the search for the accused continues”, the Journalist Association of Serbia was told by the Principal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Hamburg.  

At the time of his murder, Mr. Grüner was 35 and had worked as a foreign correspondent for Stern for nine years. Mr. Krämer was 56 and had been with Stern for 30 years as a photojournalist, known for his photos of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, after which he went on to report from numerous crisis areas around the world. 

Their colleagues have not forgotten them. A memorial plaque was placed on 14 December 2006 to mark the spot where they were killed.

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