Toronto Star 1999-11-16

Body-count debate on Kosovo

FIVE MONTHS after the end of NATO's 78-day war against Yugoslavia, an intriguing debate has surfaced. Call it the body-count debate.

Or, to be more precise: How many deaths does it take to justify bombing another country?

On one side are those who argue that the number of bodies dug up so far in Kosovo by war crimes investigators does not support NATO's charge of genocide levelled against Yugoslavia.

On the other are those who say that numbers don't matter, that an atrocity is an atrocity. According to this camp, those who would distinguish among horrors on the basis of statistics are, themselves, engaging in an abomination.

Debate is here the pages of this newspaper

Luckily for readers of this newspaper, this interesting debate has been taking place right in the pages of The Star.

Columnist Richard Gwyn kicked it off on Nov. 3 with a piece questioning the rationale behind NATO's bombing. During the war, Gwyn pointed out, NATO officials used extravagant language to justify their actions. The Yugoslav government, they said then, was engaging in genocide; Kosovar Albanians were being slaughtered by the thousands. U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen said the number of murdered Kosovars could reach 100,000.

Months later, there is no evidence of genocide. When one suspected mass grave was opened, it was empty. True, ethnic Albanians were murdered. But the number did not approach 100,000.

Gwyn concluded that the scale of atrocities perpetrated by Serbs in Kosovo was not enough to justify NATO's bombing campaign - a campaign which itself killed between 500 and 1,000 civilians.

Nine days later, Star columnist and editorial writer Gordon Barthos joined the debate. In a powerful and angry piece, he disputed the logic of those who would use the lack of mass graves to denigrate NATO's war. Dead is dead, Barthos wrote. A 2-year-old Kosovar named Afrim Imeraj was brutally slaughtered by Serbs, as were five other ethnic Albanian children. War crimes investigators have already found 2,108 bodies in Kosovo. Surely the fact that most were not interred in massive gravesites is immaterial.

On Monday, Barthos was bolstered by Rosie DiManno, another Star columnist. Attacking ``the Serb apologists - along with a quite vocal group of media dissenters '' DiManno argued that to even try to quantify the horror in Kosovo was obscene.

``The numbers game is an alarming argument,'' she wrote, ``since it operates on the premise that there are degrees of calamity to justify humanitarian - or for that matter, strategic - intervention.''

It's hard not to be sympathetic to the Barthos-DiManno view. How can you quantify tragedy? Even if no one else had died in Kosovo, would the murder of 2-year-old Afrim Imeraj be any less vile? Isn't one death one too many?

We constantly engage in quantifying horror

Alas, it probably isn't. For while we may find the quantification of horror repugnant, we engage in it constantly. If 25 are killed in a bus crash near Ankara, a one-paragraph account might make the newspapers here. But when was the last time you saw a headline reading ``Bus plunge kills one in Turkey''?

So it is with barbarity. On June 21, according to the organization Human Rights Watch, a 77-year-old Serbian Kosovar named Marica Stamenkovic was murdered in her home, allegedly by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Since the war ended, more than 200 - mainly elderly Serbs and Roma - have been murdered in Kosovo.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says these killings are part of a ``disturbing pattern,'' a deliberate attempt to use terror to drive non-Albanians from the province.

It calculates that approximately 150,000 non-Albanians - mainly ethnic Serbs and Roma - have fled or been forced from Kosovo since NATO's bombing ended. This exodus has eased up recently, the U.N. agency concluded glumly, but only because there are so few non-Albananians left.

The Stamenkovic murder didn't make the papers here. Nor did Western leaders threaten to bomb KLA strongholds. In the world of real politics, one death isn't enough. Even 200 isn't enough. Probably 2,108 isn't enough.

That's why the gruesome statistics do matter so much. Approximately 2,000 people - Serbs, Albanians and others - were killed in Kosovo's civil strife during the 12 months before NATO bombed. But the Western public didn't much care. We needed more bodies to get our juices up. We needed - we really needed - those reports of mass graves. If the NATO campaign was to have popular support at home it had to have thousands and, preferably, tens of thousands of victims.

Otherwise, how could we justify killing Belgrade civilians, who had nothing to do with Kosovo? Otherwise, how could we justify putting our own pilots at risk?

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