Remember why NATO spent 78-days bombing Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999?
There was the ethnic cleansing. The atrocities. The refugees chased out of Kosovo by the Serb army. The mass graves. The heaps of bodies tossed into vats of sulphuric acid at the Trepca mines.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said there were 100,000 Kosovars unaccounted for.
If you’re like most people, you have at least a vague recollection of something that seemed to approach a modern-day Holocaust.
Problem is, none of it happened.
NATO’s original estimate of 100,000 ethnic Albanians slaughtered, later revised downward to 10,000, turns out to be considerably exaggerated.
Dr. Peter Markesteyn, a Winnipeg forensic pathologist, was among the first war crimes investigators to arrive in Kosovo after NATO ended its bombing campaign.
“We were told there were 100,000 bodies everywhere,” said Dr. Markesteyn. “We performed 1,800 autopsies — that’s it.”
Fewer than 2,000 corpses. None found in the Trepca mines. No remains in the vats of sulphuric acid. Most found in isolated graves — not in the mass graves NATO warned about. And no clue as to whether the bodies were those of KLA fighters, civilians, even whether they were Serbs or ethnic Albanians.
No wonder then that of all the incidents on which Slobodan Milosevic has been indicted for war crimes, the total body count is not 100,000, not 10,000, not even 1,800 — but 391!
That’s 109 lives fewer than the 500 Yugoslav civilians Human Rights Watch estimates were killed by NATO bombs — and far fewer than what the death toll will eventually be once those who have yet to die from cancers induced by the terrible environmental devastation of the war are finally carried off as late — and unaccounted for — casualties.
And it’s equal to the number of Palestinians who have been killed so far by the IDF — the Israeli army — in the latest Palestinian uprising. The difference is that the IDF, under the direction of Ehud Barak and now Ariel Sharon, is an occupying army, while the Yugoslav security forces, under Slobodan Milosevic, were conducting an counterinsurgency operation within their own borders.
But Barak, mistakenly portrayed as a peace-nik, and Sharon, the architect of a long string of atrocities, including the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres, aren’t under indictment for war crimes. Nor are they ever likely to be — not as long as the United States wields a veto at the UN.
What’s more, there’s some question as to whether at least one of the war crimes Milosevic is accused of ever happened. And then there’s the revealing issue of when they happened.
It seems that all of Milosevic’s war crimes, but one, happened after the bombing — highly curious, since the bombing was said to be necessary to stop a genocide, that, it seems now, NATO had no evidence of. (If they did, why haven’t they brought it forward?)
Moreover, the one pre-bombing incident, the Racak massacre — which the United States cited as a major reason for the bombing campaign — is more likely to have been faked by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the guerilla army the Serbs were ensnared in a bloody civil war with, than to have represented the cold-blooded killing of ethnic Albanian non-combatants, as the KLA, and Washington’s man in Kosovo at the time, William Walker, alleged.
It was Walker, at the time head of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) who, on the morning of January 16, 1999, led the press to the Kosovar village of Racak, a KLA stronghold. There some 20 bodies were found in a shallow trench, and 20 more were found scattered throughout the village. The KLA, and Walker, alleged that masked Serb policemen had entered the village the previous day, and killed men, women and children at close range, after torturing and mutilating them. Chillingly, the Serb police were said to have whistled merrily as they went about their work of slaughtering the villagers.
It was a horrible tableau, sure to whip up the indignation of the world — and it did.
Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as eager to scratch her ever itchy trigger finger as her boss was to scratch his illimitable sexual itches, demanded that Yugoslavia be bombed immediately. Albright, like a kid agonizingly counting down the hours to Christmas, would have to wait until after Milosevic’s rejection of NATO’s ultimata at Rambouillet to get her wish.
Bill Clinton, not to be surpassed in expressing indignation, said, “We should remember what happened in the village of Racak…Innocent men, women, and children were taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire — not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were.”
But not everyone was so sure that Walker’s story was to be believed. The French newspaper La Monde had some trouble swallowing the story. It reported on Jan. 21, 1999, a few days after the incident, that an Associated Press TV crew had filmed a gun battle at Racak between Serb police and KLA guerillas. Indeed, the crew was present because the Serbs had tipped them off that they were going to enter the village to arrest a man accused of shooting a police officer. Also present were two teams of KVM monitors.
It seems unlikely that if you’re about to carry out a massacre that you would invite the press — and international observers — to watch.
The film showed that as soon as the Serbs entered Racak they came under heavy fire from KLA guerillas positioned in the surrounding hills. The idea that the police could dig a trench and then kill villagers at close range while under attack troubled La Monde. So too did the fact that, entering the village after the fire fight to assess the damage and interview the villagers, the KVM observers saw no sign of a massacre. What’s more, the villagers said nothing about a massacre either.
Yet, when Walker returned the next day with the press — at the KLA’s invitation — there was the trench with the bodies.
Could the police have returned later on and carried out the massacre under cover of darkness?
That seems unlikely. Racak is a KLA stronghold. Serb police had already discovered that if they were going to enter the village they would have to deal with the guerillas. How could they torture, mutilate and cold-bloodedly kill villagers at close range while harassed by KLA gunfire?
And why, wondered La Monde, were there few signs of spent cartridges and blood at the trench?
And now there’s a report that the Finnish forensic pathologists who investigated the incident on behalf of the European Union, say there was no evidence of a massacre. In an article to be published in Forensic Science International at the end of February, the Finnish team writes that none of the bodies were mutilated, there was no evidence of torture, and only one was shot at close range.
Thirty-seven of the corpses had gunpowder residue on their hands, suggesting that they had been using firearms, and only one of the corpses was a woman, and only one was under 15 years of age. Not the picture Clinton painted of innocent men, women and children, dragged from their homes, and sprayed with gunfire.
The pathologists say Walker was quick to come to the conclusion that there was a massacre, even though the evidence was weak.
And they point out that there is no evidence that the deceased were from Racak.
The KLA, the Serbs charge, faked the massacre by laying out their fallen comrades in the trench they, themselves, prepared, and the United States used the staged massacre as a pretext for the bombing.
The Washington Post said, “Racak transformed the West’s Balkan policy as singular events seldom do. The atrocity…convinced the administration and then its NATO allies that a six year effort to bottle up the ethnic conflict in Kosovo was doomed.”
We’ll never know for sure what really happened at Racak, but the evidence linking Milosevic to a brutal massacre is pretty slim.
“The first casualty of war is the truth,” says Paul Buteux, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, echoing a clich that is sententiously uttered after every war, but never learned from.
“It gets very murky. I have no doubt that whoever was putting those intelligence reports together prior to the NATO air campaign would be under pressure to put things in the worst possible light. There was a point when the spin doctors came in.”
Putting things in the worst possible light? There’s a big difference between putting things in the worst possible light and turning 1,800 corpses into 100,000, between arguing that a genocide had to be stopped by a bombing campaign, and being able to adduce only one incident of a war crime — and a doubtful one at that — occurring before the bombing.
That’s not putting things in the worst possible light. It’s doing what the leaders of NATO countries do repeatedly — lie.
And yet, the press, uncritically conveying official lies, acts as if it trusts politicians not to lie about war. It behaves as if the latest war, unlike every other, is free of propaganda, distortion, manipulation and lies.
Is it the media’s patriotic duty to turn off its bullshit detectors whenever a king’s ransom of high-tech military equipment is pressed into service to beat the tar out of yet another weakling country?
There’s a belief that in times of war patriotism demands that we rally around our leaders.
But as the American historian Howard Zinn points out, the most patriotic act in times of war is to ask questions, not to blindly follow leaders we know to be skilled and inveterate liars.
Since the media can’t be depended on to ask questions, it’s up to the rest of us.
And the first question patriots should ask themselves is why our leaders lied about Kosovo — and why they continue to lie about it today?
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.
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