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Unearthing the Truth: The bottom line on a controversial Serb attack

By Joshua Hammer, Newsweek
April 24, 2000

In the buildup to the war in Kosovo, no incident did more to mobilize world opinion against Slobodan Milosevic than the attack on Racak. On Jan. 15, 1999, Serb police descended on the fortified Kosovar hamlet, searching for Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas. The Serbs shelled the village and rousted hundreds of civilians from their homes. The next day KLA fighters led journalists and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to a ravine outside Racak, where the bodies of 23 men between the ages of 18 and 60 lay side by side. All wore civilian clothing; most had been shot in the head and neck. The corpses of 22 others, including two women, were scattered about the village. After viewing the scene, the chief OSCE observer, U.S. diplomat William Walker, condemned the "massacre" of civilians "at close range in execution fashion."

But doubts about Walker's claims have never gone away. Yugoslav authorities insisted that the victims were KLA soldiers who had "fallen during combat" and accused the guerrillas of staging the massacre scene. Some senior NATO officials said privately that Walker had rushed to judgment. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, a team of forensic investigators is set to publish a new report on the controversial events of Jan. 15. Based on two unpublicized visits to the site in November 1999 and March 2000, the findings, sources say, will present incontrovertible proof of what really happened at Racak that day--and vindicate Walker and others who condemned the attack as a Serb atrocity.

A first forensic report was inconclusive. Led by investigator Helena Ranta, 16 Finnish experts arrived in Kosovo five days after the attack. But by then the bodies had been taken to a morgue and a blizzard had dumped a foot of snow in the ravine; there was little evidence to collect. The circumstances of the deaths were unclear, Ranta announced in March 1999, though the victims were most probably "shot where found."

Still, a crucial piece of the puzzle was missing. Despite a large number of victims' wounds, few bullets were ever found. The bullets had to be somewhere--but no one had looked for them. Last November, Ranta led a team back to the site. Exploring the ravine for the first time, she said, the experts found the forensic evidence that had lain untouched for all those months. They made an equally fruitful trip this March. Their report is expected in late May. The verdict? Ranta will say only that "I see no reason to change anything in my [initial statement]." In other words, the unarmed men were executed, not at point-blank range, but probably from at least a meter away. What happened at Racak can now be called a massacre with certainty.


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