The Sunday times - October 31 1999
As doubts rise about the number of dead in Kosovo, Jon Swain, who reported the war, says Serbian barbarity must not be forgotten

Lost in the Kosovo numbers game

IN A grim and icy-cold corner of northern Kosovo is the site of what was suspected to be the country's largest mass grave. To date, however, four months later, the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague has had to admit that its investigation of the site has turned up no evidence of bodies or of any wrongdoing by the Serbs.

Back in June, in the full heat of a Balkan summer, some Nato officials and local residents said the deep shafts, the vats and the hydrochloric acid tanks of the Trepca mining complex where gold, silver, lead and zinc are extracted, were used as a disposal site to hide the bodies of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian forces. The bodies were brought in trucks in the dead of night escorted by Serbian jeeps and troop carriers. They were dropped down the shafts, incinerated or dissolved by the acid.

The first day local Kosovan Albanians said they saw the trucks was back in September 1998 and they said they continued to enter the mine until a few days before Nato troops arrived in June. Some reports at the time said as many as 1,000 bodies a day had been incinerated in the mine over the past two months.

"There are Kosovar witnesses and still photos of these trucks," an anonymous American official was quoted as saying in Koha Ditore, the Kosovo Albanian daily, giving the report the imprint of authenticity.

The idea that the Serbs were using Trepca to hide the evidence of mass killings quickly caught on in western newspapers. "Trepca - the name will live alongside those of Belsen, Auschwitz and Treblinka," said The Mirror. "It will be etched in the memories of those whose loved ones met a bestial end in true Nazi final solution fashion." Another report, in The New York Times, said residents on the edge of the mine reported an "unusual, pungent bittersweet smell, which they assumed to be burning bodies".

Trepca is near the town of Kosovska Mitrovica, in the sector of Kosovo assigned to the French forces. It was one of the first places to be searched by Nato peacekeeping troops after the war's end. And the French troops who entered the mines were certainly suspicious of Serb activities. They informed the Hague tribunal (ICTY) that they had uncovered piles of Albanians' clothing, shoes, family photographs and identity documents when they searched the smelting area and mine shafts. The French also found that the vats had been cleaned before the Serb troops stationed in the complex had left, suggesting they had destroyed the evidence of their crimes.

Trepca was clearly earmarked to be one of the keys to documenting mass killings of ethnic Albanians by Serbs in Kosovo, and the mine was immediately made a priority investigation site for the ICTY's forensic scientists, who began arriving in Kosovo in droves in June on the heels of the Nato victory. Their mission was to conduct a war crimes investigation unprecedented in military history.

The finding by the tribunal that there are no bodies at Trepca, and the fact that another infamous mass grave site at Ljubenic, near Pec, which was widely publicised as containing 350 bodies and which turned out to hold only five, are now being presented as evidence that the number of civilian ethnic Albanians killed by the Serbs is much lower than Nato had originally claimed.

One analysis by Stratfor, a private analytical group that looked at reports from the FBI and other police agencies sent to Kosovo to exhume bodies, suggests that the final death toll might be in the hundreds, not thousands. And the estimate of a Spanish forensic surgeon, Emilio Perez Pujol, who has just returned home, disillusioned after investigating war crimes in Kosovo, is that as few as 2,500 civilians were killed.

In an outspoken interview, Pujol complained he had been sent to head a large investigation team attached to the ICTY, consisting of pathologists and police specialists, to work in the north of the country. But he found that what was publicised as a search for mass graves was "a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines, because we did not find one - not one - mass grave".

Pujol said his team had material for 2,000 autopsies and had expected to be in Kosovo for two and a half months. But in mid-September, after digging up 97 bodies in a cemetery, which showed "no signs of mutilation or torture, but rather death from shrapnel or bullets", he decided to go home.

"I called my people together and said: 'We've finished here.' I informed my government and told them the real situation. We had found a total of 187 bodies, 97 in one place, eight in another, four in another and so on. Four or five had died from natural causes." He added: "A military action prejudices truth and I want to stress that trying to manipulate an international court does not benefit anyone."

There never was much doubt in many reporters' minds, including my own, that the final death toll in Kosovo would turn out to be significantly lower than the more outrageous claims made by Nato. How much lower is still a question that cannot yet be answered.

As we roamed the devastated countryside we calculated that it probably was somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000. There are 2,000 villages in Kosovo and, if each village lost on average five people, perhaps a conservative figure, that would suggest 10,000 killed.

The ICTY is rightly cautious about revealing its findings, although Kelly Moore, a spokeswoman, said thousands of bodies had been exhumed. The American State Department says international investigators have recovered just 1,400 bodies, but these come from only 20% of the suspected grave sites.

The ICTY was never mandated, however, to do a proper body count. Its role is to prosecute individuals accused of serious human rights violations in Kosovo, including genocide and crimes against humanity. What is important so far is that it has been able to turn up valuable forensic and documentary evidence of war crimes that it believes will help it establish a chain-of-command responsibility that will help in its indictment of President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his top aides.

In May the tribunal indicted Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by his forces in Kosovo, and further indictments of figures in the Serbian war machine are in the pipeline.

The tribunal has now packed up for the winter as snow and cold weather grips Kosovo. It will resume next summer when the bulk of its work will be done, said Paul Risley, another spokesman.

In the past four months the tribunal has investigated 150 of 400 crime sites. There have been many chilling discoveries of grievous human rights abuses. Even though no evidence of disposed human remains were found down the Trepca mine shafts, in a mass grave nearby French troops recently discovered 28 bodies of ethnic Albanians, all believed to be the victims of a raid by Serbian paramilitaries. Four people have been arrested.

It is a pity that, during the war, Nato and western politicians repeatedly and deliberately overstepped the mark in their passionate justification of military action against Serbia to end atrocities in Kosovo.

The gap between the hyperbole of the western propaganda machine and the realities of Kosovo were wide throughout the air campaign and led to the publication of wild, misleading and just plain untrue stories. Above all, there was a tendency to claim there was a systematic campaign of genocide in Kosovo.

Just some examples. On April 19, in the midst of Nato airstrikes against Serbia, the American state department reported that up to 500,000 Kosovar Albanians were missing and feared to be victims of Serbian genocide. On May 16, William Cohen, the American defence secretary, said that up to 100,000 ethnic Albanian men in Kosovo had vanished and might have been killed by the Serbs. "We've now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing," Cohen told CBS. "They may have been murdered." A column of 35,000 refugees vanished and Kosovar Albanian sources reported that tens of thousands of people had been rounded up in a sports stadium and were never heard from again.

The war in Kosovo was Nato's first intervention in a sovereign country, so building a case to sway public opinion was crucial for it and member governments. "Public opinion wins wars," General Eisenhower said during the second world war; a remark that is as apt today as it was then.

War reporting is now experiencing extraordinary changes. In the case of Kosovo, western military officers, officials and ministers all conspired to push out the party line. There was spin-doctoring on an unprecedented scale, which has damaged Nato's reputation for fairness and truth. And journalists as well as some military officers have been angered by the way Nato tried to stop its own mistakes and incompetences being exposed.

All this has left a dedicated forensic scientist such as Pujol, who had come to Kosovo to help establish the truth, deeply irritated. In an interview with El Pais, he says: "We had been working with two parallel problems. One was the propaganda war. This allowed them to lie, to fake photographs for the press, to publish pictures of mass graves, or whatever they had to influence world opinion in favour or against Milosevic or in favour of the Nato bombings. At first, based on the 'witnesses' who arrived in Albania, they spoke of the massacre of 22,000 people by the troops of Milosevic. Later, when the Nato troops entered, they spoke of 11,000 dead. Later they started to talk of 9,000, but I believe they will arrive at a much lower figure."

There never was a genocide in Kosovo. It was dishonest and wrong for western leaders to adopt the term in the beginning to give moral authority to the operation. Contrast the stark and emotive language over Kosovo, accompanying intervention, with the inaction of western governments when faced with a real genocide, as in Rwanda. When at least 500,000 people perished in 13 weeks in 1994, the American government forbade its officials to use the word "genocide" because of the moral and legal imperatives attached to it. The extermination continued.

The only point that has ever needed to be made over Kosovo is that Serbian forces were committing atrocities on a scale that had to be stopped militarily because Milosevic was impervious to all forms of diplomatic, economic or moral pressures since the war began early in 1998.

They rounded up and executed young and old men. They murdered children and expelled tens of thousands of people from their villages and then burnt them in a systematic ethnic-cleansing campaign which the tribunal's evidence suggests was planned in advance at a high level. In Kosovo, as in Bosnia, aid workers and journalists came across conduct reminiscent of the holocaust.

Personal observation and the evidence of refugees was much more telling than Nato's dubious information campaign.

A lower death toll, if indeed there is one, which has yet to be proved, does not erase the culpability of the Serbian leadership and its military forces in trying to destroy Kosovo. One western doctor I have talked to can, from her own experience, account for at least 50 deaths, mostly elderly people, women and children.

In Glina, for example, the doctor has a young patient who says 93 people were taken from a convoy. He personally was in a group of 10-15 boys and he escaped. He does not know what happened to the rest, but included in the doctor's list of patients are the female relatives who cannot find the bodies of the 93. Perhaps they are in prison in Serbia. Their relatives would be delighted if they were.

In Kosovo, it was not often necessary for the Serbs to kill masses of people in large-scale massacres, because they could be driven out at speed. Small amounts of terror were horribly effective. But there was also deliberate killing, for example the rounding up of a family who had rented their house to the OSCE, which I know about personally.

Today there is one surviving member of that family. She watched while they were gunned down, including her four children. All of them were under 14 and they clung to her body as the bullets flew. She was then put in a lorry with all the bodies. The Serbs thought she was dead as well, but she managed during the journey to throw herself off the lorry.

So what the Kosovar revisionists may be forgetting, as they bandy about lower death-toll figures, is that the quality and nature of the Serbian attacks is more significant than the numbers of dead. How one incident like the murder of that woman's children resonates through her village.

My doctor friend still has five children in hospital undergoing treatment because they managed to survive while the rest of their family was gunned down - 22 people, in all, including the eldest girl's mother, brothers and sisters. They saw it happen in their garden. The dead are buried and they wish the war crimes investigators would come and interview them. It would make some sense of the tragedy and help them come to terms with their loss.

The bottom line in Kosovo has to be that one murder is one murder too many. It is not the size of the figures that matters, but what was done: and that was the murder of civilians.

Nato was wrong to exaggerate as it did. The final death toll will never match its hyperbole. But just because fewer Kosovar Albanians may have been murdered than was originally thought can never mean that we should not pursue the normal course of criminal justice.

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