Kosovo: The Crime of Racak

By the Society for Threatened Peoples (Germany)

March 18, 1999


On 17.3.1999 the Finnish pathologist Helena Ranta presented her final report on the events in the Kosovo Albanian village of Racak on 15.1.1999. It is now clear that the 45 people murdered by Serbian Special Police Forces with the support of the Yugoslav Army were unarmed civilians. The theory circulated by Serbian propaganda that the dead were Albanian "terrorists" who had been killed in armed combat can therefore be considered to have been disproved. It is probable that we will never learn the full truth of the matter. However the testimony of eye-witnesses, journalists, OSCE personnel and, not least, the Finnish pathologist responsible for carrying autopsies of the dead men makes one thing completely clear: there is no anti-Serbian conspiracy. The dead of Racak were the victims of a terrible crime.

On 16.1.1999 the OSCE found more than 40 corpses with horrendous injuries in Racak, a village in the south-east of Kosovo, the remains of a massacre. Visibly shaken by the grim scene William Walker, the American head of the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), held the Serbian police publicly responsible for the killings. The Serbian Government declared him an undesirable person and called for his departure from the country. They put forward the theory that overnight the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had removed the dead men's uniforms and dressed them in civilian clothing, fired shots into their heads after death and rearranged the bodies dramatically in a narrow defile in order to display them to the OSCE next morning as victims of a massacre.

Two French newspapers supported this account by claiming, that skull contents were missing from the head injuries, not enough bullet cases were found to substantiate the allegations of an execution. Both newspapers have referred in particular to the film shot by two Serbian cameramen who were filming in Racak on 15.1.1999, allegedly at the invitation of the Serbian police, and insist that they saw no execution take place. However the theory is contradicted not only by the pathologist's findings but also by investigations carried out at the scene the day after the crime and by eyewitness reports.

The background

The Albanian village of Racak is situated half a kilometre from the town of Shtime/Stimlje. Before the outbreak of the war (March 1998) approximately 2,000 people used to live there. Most of them fled after a major Serbian offensive in August 1998. Before the Serbian attack on 15.1.1999 there were between 300 and 400 people in the village. The Kosovo Liberation Army had a base in Racak. On 8.1.1999 the KLA carried out a raid on Dulje, near Shtime, in which three Serbian policemen were killed and one wounded. On 10.1.1999 the KLA attacked a police patrol at Slivovo; one policeman was killed. The Serbian police then proceeded to carry out a retaliatory attack on Racak.

The testimony of eye-witnesses

The U.S. human rights organisation Human Rights Watch Helsinki spoke to relatives and eye-witnesses of the Serbian operation that took place on 15.1.1999, beginning at 6.30 a.m. Yugoslav Army T-55 tanks and police armoured vehicles were deployed. The first families fled from Racak to Petrovo. Racak was surrounded by Serbian units. The KLA also fled during the course of the attack on the village. A woman eye-witness saw at least 40 police officers in blue uniforms, with their faces uncovered, opened fire from the hillside, at a range of 20 metres, on the people fleeing below. Her husband and her son were hit by bullets and fell to the ground. A 70-year-old man in the same group saw his 22-year-old grandson shot and his 18-year-old grand-daughter wounded together with her mother. Those villagers who did not manage to get away hid in the house of Sadik Osmani. Around 11 a.m. the Serbian police took 30 men from the house. They were forced to lie on the ground in the courtyard. Around 1 p.m. 23 men were led away by the police. The people who were left in the house suspected that the police were taking the men away into custody at the police station in Shtime/Stimlje. Around 3 p.m. an Albanian man heard shots coming from the direction where the bodies were later found.

What OSCE personnel and journalists saw the next day

On 15.1.1999, on the specific instructions of the Serbian forces, OSCE observers were prevented from entering Racak. They first went to the village in the late afternoon and heard unconfirmed reports that men and women had been separated and the men taken away by the Serbian forces. The OSCE were then obliged to leave the area as darkness fell. Early in the morning of 16.1.1999 more OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission teams arrived in Racak, accompanied by foreign journalists. Their report on what they found there (Special report: "Massacre of civilians in Racak") states that bodies were found with both long-range and short-range gunshot injuries. Among the bodies was that of a boy approximately twelve years old who had been killed by a shot in the neck.

OSCE spokesman Berend Borchardt, who was present during the inspection of the scene, later added that the dead men were "ordinary farming people", most of them wearing wellington boots and none of them wearing the sort of footwear appropriate to military activity. The British newspaper The Guardian was given a description of the bodies by an OSCE source (excerpt): one body of a man beheaded, two old men, killed by shots to the head fired at close range, three men aged approximately 45, 60 and 70 years old, lying dead, to the left hand side of a path at a frost-covered spot on the hillside, with gunshot wounds in the neck and head caused by large-calibre weapons, probably fired from a distance of more than 50 cm (no traces of gunpowder); one man was found with a knife wound below the shoulder inflicted while he was still alive. Two British journalists in Racak on the morning of 16.1.1999 who were able to take a close look at the dead men made similar observations.

The second Serbian attack on Racak on 17.1.1999

According to the U.S. newspaper The Washington Post, on 15.1.1999 the US secret service tapped into a number of telephone conversations between the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic and the Serbian Interior Minister General Sreten Lukic in which Sainovic, speaking from Belgrade, inquired about the situation regarding the ongoing operation in Racak. Concerned about international protests, according to the newspaper, the Serbian Ministers engaged in a detailed discussion of measures to be taken following the massacre - sealing-off of the border with Macedonia, in order to prevent the entry of the Chief Prosecutor of the UN Tribunal at The Hague, Louise Arbour, restoration of control over the scene using Interior Ministry troops, recovery of the bodies. On 17.1.1999 Serbian troops returned to the area to launch another attack on the village. A hundred or so people - journalists, OSCE and local people - were in the village. They fled in panic. The laid-out corpses were left behind unattended in the mosque. On 19.1.1999 the Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, Louise Arbour, was prevented from entering Kosovo by the Serbian authorities.

The Finnish and Serbian/Byelorussian pathologists' investigations

On 17.1.1999 the bodies were taken by the Serbian police to the Serbian Forensic Medicine Institute in Pristina. On 19.1.1999 a Serbian/Byelorussian team began the autopsy without waiting for the Finnish experts to arrive and without first taking X-rays, as the Finns had suggested. On 21.1.1999 the Finnish team arrived, under the leadership of Helena Ranta. She challenged the conclusion reached by her Serbian colleagues that none of the bodies showed signs of execution as being premature, since according to various witnesses they had not had suitable equipment at their disposal to conduct a proper autopsy. On 17.3.1999 she also rejected the Serbian authorities' use of the paraffin test method to test for the presence of traces of smoke as out-dated. As far back as 1968 an Interpol conference had described the method as unreliable. More modern methods would have yielded negative results - in other words, would have found that none of the dead men had fired a weapon.

Conclusions of the reports published to date

The final report of the Finnish pathologists, presented in Pristina on 17.3.1999 by the leader of the team, Helena Ranta, concluded that the dead were unarmed civilians, who had fired weapons. Many of the bodies had been moved. Ms Ranta described what had happened at Racak as a "crime against humanity".

  • The reports of the OSCE observers and several journalists, who were the first to inspect the scene on the morning of 16.1.1999, the day after the massacre, indicate very clearly that most of the dead had been shot at very close range - as confirmed by the evidence of injuries, smoke-marks and bloodstains. As for the facts that in some cases bodies had been moved and were not found where the men had been killed, there are various possible explanations and the fact does not in itself invalidate the observations which the observers made on the day after the crime.

  • The Serbian investigating authorities and pathologists were referring to the fabrication of evidence before they even saw the bodies, which hardly speak for their impartiality.

  • When the second Serbian attack took place on 17.1.1999 the OSCE left the village in haste. The bodies that had been laid out in the mosque were left without international supervision for several days before they were taken to Pristina, opening up the possibility of them having been moved and tampered with.

  • The manner in which the Serbian/Byelorussian team conducted their post-mortem was clearly not very professional. The criticism made by the Finnish pathologists concerning the fact that the autopsy was begun without X-rays being taken beforehand is highly significant in this regard. The competence of the Finns, on the other hand, has not been disputed by the Serbian pathologists.

  • An impartial investigation of the facts by investigating authorities from the UN Tribunal in The Hague was prevented by the Serbian authorities.

  • To date there has been no impartial examination of the videotapes of the Serbian cameramen from Associated Press, the decisive evidence on which the theory of the "anti-Serbian conspiracy" is based. This would clarify the question whether their film is factually relevant and whether it offers a true picture of what actually happened in Racak.

This document is an abridged version of a more extensive report containing additional details of the Racak massacre and footnotes with reference sources. The report is published in German and can be ordered from Gfbv's sales department for a nominal price of DM 5.00.


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