21 Janury 1999
Nine questions concerning the Racak dead
Pierre Hazan (a Pristina),
and Jean-Dominique Merchet
Will the massacre of Racak be a turning point? In the fall, a massacre, of a family with babies, in Gornje Obrinje, affected world opinion and moved NATO to act; Belgrade was menaced with airstrikes and the mediator R. Holbrooke got S. Milosevic to stop the campaign which had sent thousands of refugees onto the roads. Will it be the same today? On Saturday, William Walker, chief of OSCE, spoke of "crimes against humanity." Yesterday, he told Liberation in Pristina, that wouldn't " take back a word of his accusations." Here, we review, in nine questions, the shadowy facts of a massacre which has contradictory versions.
1. What is certain?
Last Friday, at 7AM, the Serbian police operation was carried out in the village of Racak. They announced that they are after a group of "terrorists" of the KLA which a few days before had killed a policeman. The fighting lasted the whole day long, encompassing three villages, Racak, Belince, and Malopoljce. The political branch of the KLA announced at 11:30 that the fighting resulted in deaths on both sides. The battle was the subject of numerous wire reports (AFP, Reuters, AP). The reporters are on the periphery. All reporters are in agreement that they saw international observers there (certain specify that the observers are American) and they were also on the periphery. They observe heavy fighting. Tanks and anti-aircraft guns are used by Serbs. The Albanians use mortars and rifles. One television crew, the American APTV, is authorized by the Serbs to enter the village and film the operation. The Serbian information center, from police sources, announce that 15 "terrorists" are killed and much armament is seized. At 15:20 the number two in OSCE, whose verifiers have watched since 8:45, contacts a Serb general and demands the cessation of combat. At 17:00 the Serb forces withdraw. In the evening, the Albanian information center, which in an earlier report had stated a death, mention seven killed.
The next morning, the verifiers of OSCE find corpses, about 20 of which are in a ravine above the village besieged by the KLA. The chief of the OSCE, the American William Walker, speaks of "crimes against humanity" implying that the victims are civilians shot at close range. The same morning, the Serb police claim victory and speak of dozens of slain "terrorists."
2. Who are the dead?
They are called Bajram Sokol Mehmeti, 54, Hanumshahe Bajram Mehmeti, 22, Razah Makiq Beqa, 54, Zenel Shefket Beqa,12, Kamile Mustafa Selmani, 80, .... Their bodies were found at Racak. According to an Albanian source, they are civilians to which are added the bodies of eight or so KLA soldiers, among whom are Shaqir Berisha, Mehmet Zenun Mustafa, Kadri Syla.
The number of victims varies according to the source. OSCE says 37, Americans say 45, Albanians say 51. According to OSCE, two thirds of the victims in the ravine are over 50 years old [2/3 of 20 is less than 14]. According to the same sources, there are Serbian shells found nearby. On Monday there is fighting between the guerillas and the Serbian forces, who grab the corpses that have meanwhile been put in the mosque. They are put in the morgue in Pristina. Two teams of foreign medical examiners have just arrived in Yugoslavia to examine them. But, besides the Serbs, only OSCE and Belarussian doctors have access to them. The Finnish team is still in Belgrade. A statement from OSCE declares that the Finnish team "does not have authorization to work in Pristina." In the fall, the Finnish medical examiners did not have access to the victims of a massacre.
3. How has the information arrived?
OSCE has said, yesterday, that after the withdrawal of the Serb forces at 1700 on Friday, villagers reported to OSCE verifiers at an undetermined locale (which is not Racak), that twenty-four men had been arrested at Racak. These verifiers were not successful in finding evidence of this, and, the night falling, went back home. Journalists and verifiers arrived almost simultaneously at the seen of the previous days confrontation. In the village, they find the KLA who lead them straight to a small ditch where they find about twenty bodies. They find other bodies here and there. There was one who had been brought to his house, a man without a head. Journalists interviewed 2 or 3 witnesses (always the same ones). William Walker rejoined his team observers and immediately took a forceful demeanor, accusing the Serbs of a "crime against humanity."
4. What are the versions of what happened?
Saturday, in the village, present the operation as a punitive expedition against a tranquil village, guarded by only 8 guerillas, all of whom perished: Once circled, the people in the houses above the village were shot down as the attempted to flee. Towards noon, the Serb forces enter the village, shutting women and children in basements, and carrying away twenty men, that are found later higher above the village, many with bullets in the head. A young girl who interposes herself is shot in the head. A man is decapitated. On the other hand, the Serb authorities say that there was no massacre, but a staged atrocity ("mise en scene"). Their forces encountered resistance and wiped out the combatants. These were later assembled together, divested of their uniforms and re-dressed in civilian clothes. The Serbs accuse the American William Walker of having gone for the manipulation and declare him persona non grata.
5. What are the elements to make one doubt?
A journalist with AFP [Agence France Press] met a foreign observer Saturday morning in Racak who confidentially told him that he had actually entered the village the night before. The observer, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that he saw nothing out of the ordinary.
The French members of the mission, interviewed Monday by Liberation, said they didn't know that observers [verifiers] had entered the village the same night. They said only that they knew that verifiers were in the neighborhood, but explain that rumors about civilian victims started to circulate in the hallways of the foreign observers' mission on Friday night. Another witness, cited by Le Monde and Figaro, confirms the existence of these phantom observers. It was reported by another French journalist what happened upon Racak after the battle on Friday night. He saw three orange OSCE vehicles and the observers casually conversing with the Albanians. He asked them if they had any casualties (wounded). He saw them later evacuate some lightly wounded and they told him they there were, at that time, "incapable of giving an evaluation of the casualties."
Another troubling point is the confusion over the number of dead. An OSCE investigator said to have seen 38 allow in civilian dress. Walker spoke of 45. The KLA reported losing 8 men. Nobody mentions having seen the bodies of these soldiers. Sunday, there are 40 bodies on display in the mosque.
More disquieting points. If the inhabitants had been in the village Friday night, why did they not alert the observers, why did nobody check on the state of the women locked in the basements? If the villagers had truly informed the OSCE that 24 men had been taken away, why does OSCE not say where they got that information, nor who were those observers, and why do they insist that none of their teams were in the village the night in question.
Le Figaro and Le Monde revealed yesterday -- confirmed by OSCE -- that a team of the American agency APTV had entered Racak with the Serbian police who had invited them. Journalists who have seen the film say that it shows a village empty of inhabitants and the police under heavy fire.
6. Is a manipulation possible?
More than 12 hours passed between the end of the fighting and the return of some inhabitants and the discovery of the bodies the next day. A time that, theoretically, allows for a mise en scene. The fact that it is possible does not mean that it took place. If there is manipulation, it could be total (deaths in combat rearranged in a scene macabre by the guerrillas) or partial (the victims in the ravine are soldiers executed by the Serbs after the fighting). "It is possible that the Albanians were executed and the scene was arranged," confides a perplexed western diplomat in Prishtina. Because the massacre of civilians is much more powerful in moving public opinion than that of soldiers, even though the latter is also a crime.
7. What is OSCE?
The mission of the verifiers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is, in Kosovo , is the most important and most difficult ever for the OSCE. They must verify that the government in Belgrade observes the resolutions 1160 and 1199 of the Security Council.
In practice, the mission is to verify that cease-fire is respected, to spy on troop movements, to offer assistance to refugees, to supervise elections, to aide in reforming institutions, to reform the police force, to promote human rights and Democracy. The cost of the mission is estimated at $204 Million (174 Euros) per year. The start of the mission was at the end of October 1998. Theoretically, there should be 2000 verifiers. Right now, there are 870 and they cannot be everywhere at once.
The OSCE is a mixed group, military, civil, of people from defense agencies and human rights groups. Among the 150 French verifiers, all them government types, a third a military personnel in civilian clothing. The rapidity of its get-up explains the lack of unity in this mission for such a difficult task. The essential goal of these non-armed verifiers is to oversee a cease-fire that is constantly being violated. This mission was preceded by a diplomatic mission, with limited aims, established in May 1998, which joined Americans and Russians: the KDOM. This mission passed the torch to OSCE at the beginning of the month, but certain elements remain, namely US-KDOM, the American mission.
8. What can NATO know?
Thanks to airplanes and spy satellites in continual surveillance of Kosovo, Nato has at its disposal important methods of information gathering. At NATO the story is "its very difficult right now, particularly because of the weather." Since October 1998, western spy planes and satellites participate in the surveillance of Kosovo under Operation Eagle Eye. There are U2 high-altitude spy planes, unmanned spy drones such as the American Predator or the German CL 289 and electronic surveillance equipment such as the C160 Gabriel of the French Air Force. Without a doubt the Pentagon has focused on Kosovo its satellites Key Hole-11 and Lacrosse, as have France and Italy with their observation platform Helios-1.
What can they see? The resolution is "decametric": they are capable of distinguishing objects of less than a meter. The movements of troops or a crowd in a village, battles in the hills, are thus observable from the sky. But, unless they were pointed directly at Racak at the moment of the incidents, it is improbable that Imint (Imagery intelligence) could furnish definite proof. On the other hand, listening in on communications (Comint) of the ground forces, thanks to electronic spy planes and the American NSA spy network could be useful. No military or police operation takes place without radio communications, or at least with portable telephones. Do such tapings exist? What do they say? These are questions that Louise Arbour, judge of the international law court will ask western agents.
[The CIA has recently announced that they do have tapings of Serbian managers talking of the incident. However, they are not going to release the tapes to the public, because they are "illegal."]
9. Will we find out the truth?
Only an independent international investigation will allow light to be shed on the affair. It will be difficult because the bodies were moved at least twice (to be assembled in the mosque and to be transferred to the morgue in Prishtina). In any case, autopsy should permit a determination of whether the bodies showing traces of post mortem mutilation. The results of the autopsies conducted by Serbian doctors assisted by those from Belarus (a country with a bad reputation), concluding that there was no massacre, are not perfectly credible. Only independent experts could determine whether there have been further manipulations. The film of APTV, that shows a village empty of inhabitants, cautiously besieged by Serbian police under fire from KLA trenches on the hill above the town should be viewed with caution because the cameraman was a Serb and was invited by the Serbian police to follow the action. The journalists could have frame the action so as to leave out unpleasant circumstances. The film should also be expertly authenticated in order to find out whether it had been cut, which is just another good reason to bring in the international justice system.