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The Big Lie: From Serbia to Syria

Kosovo: Where NATO Bombing Only Made the Killing Worse

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

So, was there serious evidence of a Serbian campaign of Genocide in Kosovo? It’s an important issue, since the NATO powers, fortified by a chorus from the liberal intelligentsia, flourished the charge of genocide as justification for bombing that destroyed much of Serbia’s economy and killed around 2,000 civilians, with elevated death levels predicted for years to come.

Whatever horrors they may have been planning, the Serbs were not engaged in genocidal activities in Kosovo before the bombing began. They were fighting a separatist movement, led by the KLA, and behaving with the brutality typical of security forces, though to a degree infinitely more restrained than those backed by the United States in Central America. One common estimate of the number of Kosovar Albanians killed in the year before the bombing is 2,500. With NATO’s bombing came the flights and expulsions and charges that the Serbs were accelerating a genocidal plan; on some accounts, as many as 100,000 were already dead. An alternative assessment was that NATO’s bombing was largely to blame for the expulsions and killings.

After the war was over, on June 25, Bill Clinton told a White House press conference that on Slobodan Milosevic’s orders “tens of thousands of people” had been killed in Kosovo. A week before, from the British Foreign Office came the statement from Geoff Hoon that “according to the reports we had gathered, mostly from the refugees, it appeared that around 10,000 people [that is, Kosovar Albanians] had been killed in more than 100 massacres.” Of course, the US and British governments had an obvious motive in painting as horrifying a picture as possible of what the Serbs had been up to, since the bombing had come under increasingly fierce attack, with rifts in the NATO alliance.

The NATO powers had plenty of reasons to rush charges of genocide into the headlines. For one thing, it was becoming embarrassingly clear that the bombing had inflicted no significant damage on the Serbian Army. All the more reason, therefore, to propose that the Serbs were collectively guilty of genocide and thus deserved everything they got.

Throughout the end of June and July 1999 there were plenty of press accounts running along lines similar to a July 4 dispatch in the New York Times from John Kifner with this sentence in its lead paragraph: “The bodies keep turning up, day after day, and are expected now to number 10,000 or more.” On August 2 Bernard Kouchner, the UN’s chief administrator in Kosovo, said that 11,000 bodies had already been discovered in mass graves in the province.

According to a useful and interesting analysis put out on October 17 by Stratfor.com (an independent operation based in Austin, Texas, that offers intelligence briefings gratis on the Internet), Kouchner cited the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Republic of Yugoslavia as his authority, but the tribunal has said it hadn’t provided any such information. Nonetheless, the 10,000 figure became the baseline, with some estimates soaring far higher. Teams of forensic investigators from fifteen nations, including a detachment from the FBI, have been at work since June. To date they’ve examined about 150 of 400 sites of alleged mass murder.

There’s still immense uncertainty, but at this point it’s plain there are not enough bodies to warrant the claim that the Serbs had a program of extermination. The FBI team has made two trips to Kosovo and investigated thirty sites, containing nearly 200 bodies. In early October, the Spanish newspaper El Pa?s reported what the Spanish forensic team had found in its appointed zone in northern Kosovo. “The UN figures,” said Perez Pujol, director of the Instituto Anat?mico Forense de Cartagena, “began with 44,000 dead, dropped to 22,000 and now stand at 11,000.” He and his fellows were prepared to perform at least 2,000 autopsies in their zone. To date they’ve found 187 corpses.

A colleague of Pujol, Juan Lopez Palafox, told El Pa?s, “In the former Yugoslavia there have been horrible crimes, but they stemmed from the war. In Rwanda we saw 450 bodies of women and children in church, all with their heads split open.” Palafox said he had the impression that the Serbs had given families the option of leaving. If they refused, or came back, they were killed. Like any murder of civilians, these were war crimes, just as any mass grave, whatever the number of bodies, indicates a massacre. But genocide?

One persistent story held that 700 Kosovars had been dumped in the Trepca lead and zinc mines. On October 12 Kelly Moore, a spokeswoman for the international tribunal, announced that the investigators had “found absolutely nothing.” The Stratfor analysis cites another claim of a mass grave containing 350 bodies in Ljubenic that turned out to hold seven. In Pusto Selo, villagers said 106 had been killed by the Serbs, and NATO rushed out satellite photos of “mass graves.” Nothing to buttress that charge has yet been found. Another eighty-two were allegedly killed in Kraljan. No bodies have as yet been turned up.

There’s an estimate that of the people living in Kosovo before the war, 17,000 are unaccounted for. But as Stratfor’s analyst points out, it’s unclear how this figure popped up. There’s been no census in Kosovo since the war ended, and no one knows how many Kosovars are still in exile or in Serbian prisons. Roy Gutman of Newsday conjectures that 20,000 were killed and believes there was a Serbian program of genocide. He offers no hard evidence to back up this claim, and one has to note that Gutman has co-edited a book, Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, with David Rieff, a man fanatically parti pris on the question of Serbian monstrosity.

Although surely by now investigators would have been pointed to all probable sites, it’s conceivable that thousands of Kosovar corpses await discovery. But as matters stand, the number of bodies turned up by the tribunal’s teams is in the hundreds, not thousands, which tends to confirm the view of those who hold that NATO bombing provoked a wave of Serbian killings and expulsions, but that there was and is no hard evidence of a genocidal program.

Count another victory for the Big Lie.

This essay is adapted from Imperical Crusades by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s memoir A Colossal Wreck (Verso) is now available from CounterPunch.