Articles on the Kosovo Conflict


Yes, there were mass killings
By Noel Malcolm
The Spectator
December 4, 1999

Noel Malcolm, in a riposte to John Laughland, says there is irrefutable evidence of massacres in Kosovo

READERS of The Spectator may have been surprised by John Laughland's two recent articles (30 October and 20 November) casting doubt on the existence of mass grave sites in Kosovo, but readers of Politika, the daily organ of the Milosevic regime, will have taken them in their stride. On 12 May, in the middle of the Nato bombing campaign, the Belgrade newspaper published an interview with Mr Laughland, who had come to the Yugoslav capital as a guest of the Serbian Academy of Sciences.

The purpose of his visit, the Politika journalist explained, was 'to bear witness to the sufferings of our people under Nato aggression'. To show their 'solidarity with our people', Mr Laughland and the other members of his group had bought 'target' stickers (sold on street corners, and sported by some Belgraders as an ironic 'aim here' message to Nato), and were wearing them proudly on their lapels. Neither the interviewer nor Mr Laughland made any mention of the sufferings of the Kosovo Albanians. We now know that he believes those sufferings to have been hugely exaggerated. But when he visited Belgrade he was in no position to judge whether the number of murdered Albanians was in the hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands. Apparently, this just did not seem important to him at the time.

I read that interview with a strong and rather personal sense of dismay. I have known John Laughland for many years; I regard him as an unusually intelligent and talented person. Spectator readers with long memories may recall that he was first launched as a journalist in this magazine, producing trenchant commentaries on German and French politics. This took place during my period as foreign editor: reader, I launched him. But his non-stop one-man campaign on the issue of Kosovo (in this and other papers) makes me feel that something has gone terribly wrong. Both of his recent articles were riddled with gross misrepresentations.

'I Was Right About Kosovo', said the headline on the second article. But what exactly had his central claim been? It was that, in the words of 'a Texas-based thinktank', the number of bodies found so far in Kosovo was only 'in the hundreds', not thousands. Indeed, a 'senior intelligence source' had informed him that the figure was just 670. And yet, barely one week after his article was published, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia announced that the current total was 2,108 - in other words, thousands, not hundreds. And this was merely an interim report: out of 529 'scenes of crime', only 195 have been investigated so far.

For an article billed as a reply to his critics, Laughland's second piece is strangely silent about the most devastating criticism of all - one made by the Guardian's Francis Wheen in a rebuttal which Laughland cites, but does not answer. Laughland had originally written: 'On 16 May, the US defence secretary William Cohen said that the Yugoslav army forces had killed up to 100,000 Albanian men of military age. This number was declared missing ... Tony Blair himself implied that the numbers might be even higher... in the Times on 5 June.' Wheen pointed out that Cohen had specifically not said that the 100,000 men had been killed: having explained that they were unaccounted for, he went on to say, 'We have had reports that as many as 4,600 have been executed.' As for Mr Blair, his article in the Times did not offer any figures at all, either above or below 100,000. Laughland's claim, that the public in the West was bamboozled into thinking that 100,000 or more Albanians had been murdered, is false. The only people who have been bamboozled are the readers of Laughland's articles - and readers of those by other journalists who have blindly repeated his claims elsewhere.

In fact the official estimate, used by international agencies and Western governments since the summer, is between 10,000 and 12,000. The ICTY uses a total of 11,334. How were such figures arrived at? Laughland suggests that a principal source is the 'wild imaginings' or 'deliberate lies' of the US government. The true answer is more prosaic. They were compiled from interviews with thousands of refugees, who often provided independent but mutually confirmatory testimony of the same events.

The ICTY, in particular, has used the evidence of eye-witnesses who saw either the actual killings or the corpses: in many cases these witnesses buried the bodies themselves, having fled from their villages and then returned after the Serb forces had gone. It is possible, of course, that some of them have exaggerated, deliberately or unwittingly, the number of dead. Laughland has managed to find one recorded example of a girl who has admitted to reporting, falsely, the death of her sister. In his first article he used this to rhetorical effect, implying that all reports by all Albanians could therefore be disbelieved. But it is absurd to suppose that thousands of ordinary villagers have taken part in such an ingenious project of mass deception - particularly when their reports, in many cases, have already been borne out by the evidence on (and in) the ground.

Does this mean, then, that the ICTY investigators will eventually find every one of those reported 11,334 bodies? Of course not. In some cases the death was witnessed, but not the burial. Some bodies were just left on the surface: these decomposed quickly in hot weather, and were then dispersed by scavenging animals. Massacre sites seldom yield all their victims; in the case of Srebrenica, for example (the most exhaustively studied massacre in recent history), the number of dead is known to be 7,300 (plus or minus a few hundred), but the number of bodies recovered after four years is less than half of that total. And in any case the purpose of the ICTY investigation is not to produce a body-count, but to provide the sort of detailed evidence - preferably including the identity of the victim and the place, time and manner of death - that can be used in a criminal trial. For that reason, 'partial remains' have been excluded from the interim total it has issued, even when those body-parts had clearly belonged to several human beings.

There is, however, another reason why many of the bodies will never be found. The Serb forces had learned an important lesson from the ICTY's investigations in Bosnia: at one site after another in Kosovo they made great efforts to destroy, disguise or remove the evidence of their killings. The ICTY's report refers to 'sites where there was obvious evidence of grave tampering, body removal, disposal of bodies by other means ..... Where only ashes remain, even when it is clear that many people were burnt, the ICTY does not assign any number to the body-count.

The ICTY's investigators have interviewed the grave-diggers at local cemeteries in Kosovo: they described frequent visits by the Serb police or military, who would unload heaps of bodies from their vehicles and order them to dispose of them. Those bodies now rest in 'ordinary' graves. At some of the massacre sites the victims were later buried by their own neighbours or relatives - also, naturally enough, in rows of individual graves. But here Laughland deploys what is surely the most grotesque part of his argument: he suggests that these deaths do not count, because the bodies were not placed in 'mass graves'. The method of burial, apparently, is sufficient to turn a massacre into a mere multiplicity of individual deaths.

The ICTY seldom uses the phrase 'mass graves'; it prefers to say 'mass grave sites'. But, given the syntactical fluidity of the English language, this could have an implicit hyphen in either of two places: mass grave-sites' or 'mass-grave sites'. Switch it from the former to the latter, and, with a whisk of Laughland's magic wand, the evidence can then be dismissed as insignificant or non-existent. The murder of thousands of people can thus be turned into, in the words of The Spectator's headline-writer, 'The Massacres That Never Were'.

In some cases there is direct proof, both of the original burials and of the subsequent tampering. At Pusto Selo a villager videoed first the burial of more than 100 people (in individual graves), then the arrival three weeks later of Serb officials with a small truck: they removed some of the bodies and reburied them elsewhere. The same thing happened at Izbica, where the burial of 143 people was also videoed, and the graves were then clearly photographed by US aerial reconnaissance. But when French troops arrived in June, they found that every grave had been opened; there were no bodies (only scattered 'partial remains'), but there was some abandoned earth-moving equipment.

In his second article, Laughland produced a list of places where the US State Department had reported massacres in May; triumphantly, he announced that 'the ICTY investigators have not discovered one single body at any of these 16 sites'. Prominent among them was Izbica. The local Serb commanders may have doubted whether they could find anyone gullible enough to suppose that no one was killed at Izbica, in the face of video footage, aerial photographs and the testimonies of eyewitnesses. If so, we must conclude that their doubts were unjustified.

Other items on Laughland's list are simply bogus. He says that 'not one single body' has been found at Suva Reka; in fact the interim report, which he claims to have read, specifies three grave-sites at Suva Reka, with a total of 103 bodies. He says the same about Podujevo; the report lists 19 bodies there. He says the same about 'Kaaniku'; this is just a misprint for 'Kacaniku' (the definite form of Kacanik), for which the report lists 76 bodies at five different sites. (Later in his article he says that 16 bodies were found at Kacanik, thus unwittingly contradicting himself, but still not getting it right.)

At the mining and industrial complex of Trepca, local Albanians reported that bodies were being incinerated and dumped in the mines. Laughland writes that 'tribunal investigators have categorically denied that there were any human remains either in the mine shafts or in the incinerators'. This too is false. The ICTY has made no such categorical denial, for the simple reason that it has not investigated the majority of the shafts - of which there are a great number, both active and abandoned. One sample investigation was made, of a few shafts, by a French caving team, but even these searchers did not descend all the way to the bottom (which in many cases is below the water table). The tribunal merely announced that it had found no human remains so far.

What, in the end, is the point of Mr Laughland's efforts? It is to suggest that 'the Kosovo conflict' - both before and during the Nato bombing - was just a normal 'civil war', characterised by typical military actions by Serb forces, plus a few crimes on the side. This is not an adequate way to describe an operation directed mainly against a civilian population, which involved, even in 1998, the looting and mass-burning of houses: roughly 300,000 people fled from their homes during that year.

Certainly there was an increase in the intensity of the assault on the civilian population after the Nato bombing began: the German government (whose views Laughland pretends to take as authoritative) has described what followed as 'genocide'. The real question Nato governments have to answer is whether there is evidence to show that some such intensification of the Serb anti-civilian campaign would have happened anyway; this question may be disputed, but Laughland does not even attempt to consider it.

What is indisputable is that during the spring of 1999 crimes were committed by Serb forces on a huge scale: the destruction of more than 60,000 homes, and of hundreds of mosques and historic buildings; the theft of property and money from thousands of refugees; the expulsion of 800,000 people into neighbouring countries; and the murder of thousands of civilians, including old people, women and children. To dismiss or minimise these events, either on the grounds that some of the bodies have not yet been found, or because some of them were buried in separate graves, seems like a bad joke. There are many thousands of grieving relatives in Kosovo to whom the humour of it will not be apparent.

More by Noel Malcolm here

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