NATO commits acts of aggression
In March 1999, NATO forces launched an 11-week nonstop aerial attack upon Yugoslavia that violated the UN charter, NATO’s own charter, the U.S. Constitution, and the War Powers Act. Yugoslavia had invaded no UN or NATO member. The Congress had made no declaration of war. No matter. The “moral imperatives” and humanitarian concerns were heralded as being so overwhelming that legalities would have to be brushed aside. Here were mass atrocities perpetrated by the demonic Serbs and their fiendish leader, Slobodan Milosevic not seen since the Nazis rampaged across Europe; something had to be done-so we were told.
Thus, a week before the bombings began, David Scheffer, U.S. State Department ambassador at large for war crime issues, announced that “we have upwards of about 100,000 [ethnic Albanian] men that we cannot account for” in Kosovo. A month later, the State Department claimed that up to 500,000 Kosovo Albanians were missing and feared dead. By mid-May U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen stated that 100,000 military-aged men had vanished and might have been killed by the Serbs. Not long after-as public support for the war began to wane-Ambassador Scheffer escalated the 100,000 figure to “as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59” who remained unaccounted. He considered this to be one of the greatest genocidal crimes against a civilian population. Indeed it was, if true.
As the war dragged on and NATO officials saw press attention drifting toward the contrary story-namely that civilians were being killed by NATO’s bombs-NATO stepped up its claims about Serb “killing fields.” Widely varying but horrendous figures from official sources went largely unchallenged by the media and by the many liberals who supported the “humanitarian rescue operation.”
Just before the end of the air campaign, British Foreign Office Minister Geoff Hoon said that “in more than 100 massacres” some 10,000 ethnic Albanians had been killed (averaging 100 victims per massacre). Though substantially reduced from the 100,000 to 500,000 bandied about by U.S. officials, this was still a considerable number. A day or two after the bombings stopped, the Associated Press, echoing Hoon, reported that 10,000 Albanians had been killed by the Serbs. No explanation was offered as to how this figure was arrived at, given that not a single war site had yet been investigated and NATO forces were just beginning to roll into Kosovo. A few weeks later, the New York Times reported that “at least 10,000 people were slaughtered by Serbian forces during their three-month campaign to drive the Albanians from Kosovo.” The story went on to tell of “war crimes investigators, NATO peacekeeping troops, and aid agencies struggling to keep up with fresh reports each day of newly discovered bodies and graves.”
On August 2, another remarkable pronouncement, this time from the irrepressible Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations’ chief administrator in Kosovo (and head of Doctors Without Borders and friend of KLA leaders), who claimed that 11,000 bodies had been found in common graves throughout the province. He cited as his source the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (ICTY). But the ICTY mass graves. Some weeks after its arrival, the FBI team returned home, oddly with not a word to say about their investigation. Months later, the London Financial Times reported that the FBI had found not thousands but 200 bodies at 30 sites.
Forensic experts from other NATO countries had similar experiences in Kosovo. “French investigator denied providing any such information to Kouchner or anyone else. To this day, it is not clear how he came up with his estimate.
The Kosovo-based Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, staffed in part by KLA officials, first promulgated the figure of 10,000 missing, purportedly based on interviews with refugees. The U.S. State Department and Western media echoed the council’s estimate. But the number had to be taken on faith because the council would not share its list of missing persons.
As in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts, the image of mass killings by vicious brutal Serbs was ceaselessly hyped. Humanitarian organizations, KLA militants, NATO and State Department officials, and the news media fed off each other. Through a process of unconfirmed assertion and tireless repetition, evidence became irrelevant. Unsubstantiated references to mass graves, each purportedly filled with hundreds or even thousands of victims were daily publicized as established facts. From June through August 1999, the New York Times alone ran eighty articles, nearly one a day, that made some reference to mass graves in Kosovo. Yet when it came down to hard evidence, the graves seemed to disappear, as the FBI discovered for itself.
In mid-June, the FBI sent a team to investigate two of the sites listed in the war crimes indictment against Slobodan Milosevic, one said to contain 6 victims and the other 20. The team lugged 107,000 pounds of equipment into Kosovo to handle what was called the “largest crime scene in the FBl’s forensic history,” but it came up with no reports about were frustrated at Izbica,” reported the New York Times (July 18), “when a widely publicized mass grave in which they expected to find about 150 bodies turned out to be empty.” It must have been “dug up with a backhoe and the bodies spirited off, investigators said, between the indictment and the arrival of NATO troops.” A Spanish forensic team was told to prepare for at least 2,000 autopsies, but found only 187 bodies, usually buried in individual graves, and showing no signs of massacre or torture, contrary to the stories bandied about by humanitarian groups and local residents. Most seemed to have been killed by mortar shells and firearms. As reported in the Times of London (October 31), one Spanish forensic expert, Emilio Perez Puhola, acknowledged that his team did not find one mass grave. He dismissed the widely publicized references about mass graves as being part of the “machinery of war propaganda.”
That same edition of the London Times reported that Stratfor, a private research team, basing their analysis on reports from forensic teams involved in the exhumation of bodies, determined that the final total of those killed in Kosovo came to “hundreds not thousands.”
In July 1999, the Washington Post reported that 350 ethnic Albanians “might be buried in mass graves” around a mountain village in western Kosovo. Might be? Such speculations were based on sources that NATO officials refused to identify. Getting down to specifics, the article mentions “four decomposing bodies” discovered near a large ash heap, with no details as to who they were or how :hey died.
By late August 1999, the frantic hunt for dead bodies continued to disappoint NATO officials and their media minions. The Los Angeles Times tried to salvage the genocide theme with a story about how the wells of Kosovo might be “mass graves in their own right.” The Times claimed that “many corpses have been dumped into wells in Kosovo…Serbian forces apparently stuffed…many bodies of ethnic Albanians into wells during their campaign of terror.” Apparently? When the story got down to specifics, it dwelled on only one well in one village-in which the body of a 39-year-old male was found, along with three dead cows and a dog. Neither his nationality nor cause of death was given. “No other human remains were discovered,” the Times lamely concluded.
An earlier New York Times story (July 18) told of French investigators who pulled the decomposed bodies of eight women from wells in the destroyed village of Cirez, acting on reports from local residents. Unconfirmed reports, from 44 villages in the district around Decani, of 39 dead bodies in wells, had yet to be investigated. As far as I know, there were no further stories about bodies in wells, which would suggest that no more bodies were found.
At one reported grave site after another, bodies were failing to materialize in any substantial numbers-or any numbers at all. In July 1999, a mass grave in Ljubenic, near Pec-an area of extensive fighting-believed to be holding some 350 corpses, produced only seven after the exhumation. In Izbica, refugees reported that 150 ethnic Albanians were executed in March. But their bodies were nowhere to be found. In Kraljan, 82 men were supposedly killed, but investigators discovered not a single cadaver. In Djacovica, town officials claimed that 100 ethnic Albanians had been murdered, but there were no bodies because the Serbs had returned in the middle of the night, dug them up and carted all of them away, the officials believed. In Pusto Selo, villagers claimed that 106 men were captured and killed by Serbs at the end of March, but again no remains were discovered. Villagers once more suggested that Serbian forces must have come back and removed them. How the Serbs accomplished these mass-grave disappearing acts without being detected is not explained. Where was the evidence of mass grave sites having been disinterred? Where were the new grave sites now presumably chock full of bodies? And why were they so impossible to detect? Questions of this sort were never posed.
The worst allegation of mass atrocities, a war crime ascribed to Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was said to have occurred at the Trepca mine. As reported by U.S. and NATO officials, the Serbs threw 1,000 or more bodies down the shafts or disposed of them in the mine’s vats of hydrochloric acid. In October 1999, the ICTY released the findings of Western forensic teams investigating Trepca. Not a single body was found in the mine shafts, nor was there any evidence that the vats had ever been used in an attempt to dissolve human remains. Additional stories about a Nazi-like body disposal facility in a furnace “on the other side of the mountain” from the mine motivated a forensic team to analyze ashes in the furnace. “They found no teeth or other signs of burnt bodies.”
The war crimes tribunal checked the largest reported grave sites first, and found most to contain no more than five bodies, “suggesting intimate killings rather than mass murder.” By the end of the year, the media hype about mass graves had noticeably fizzled. The designated mass grave sites, considered the most notorious, offered up a few hundred bodies altogether, not the thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands previously trumpeted, and with no evidence of torture or mass execution. In many cases, there was no certain evidence regarding the nationality of victims; and no report on cause of death. All this did not prevent the Associate Press from reiterating the charge, as late as November 30, 1999, that “10,000 people were killed in Kosovo.”
No doubt there were graves in Kosovo that contained two or more persons-which was NATO’s definition of a “mass grave.” As of November 1999, the total number of bodies that the Western grave diggers claimed to have discovered was 2,108, “and not all of them necessarily war crimes victims,” according to a story in the Wall Street Journal (December 31). People were killed by bombs and by the extensive land war that went on between Yugoslav and KLA forces. Some of the dead, as even the New York Times allowed, “are fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army or may have died ordinary deaths”-as would happen in any population of over two million over the course of a year. No doubt there were despicable grudge killings and executions of prisoners and innocent civilians as in any war, especially a civil war, but not on a scale that would warrant the label of “genocide” or justify the death and destruction and continuing misery inflicted upon Yugoslavia by the Western powers.
No mass killings means that The Hague war crimes tribunal indictment of Milosevic “becomes highly questionable,” argues Richard Gwyn, in the Toronto Star. “Even more questionable is the West’s continued punishment of the Serbs.” In sum, NATO leaders used vastly inflated estimates of murdered Kosovo Albanians as a pretext to intrude on the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, destroy much of its infrastructure and social production, badly damage its ecology, kill a substantial number of its citizens, and invade and occupy a large portion of its territory in what can only be termed a war of aggression.
Michael Parenti’s most recent books are The Culture Struggle (2006), Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (2007), God and His Demons (2010), Democracy for the Few (9th ed. 2011), and The Face of Imperialism (2011). For further information about his work, visit his website: www.michaelparenti.org.