Kosovo Killing Fields?

Report by John Pilger, New Statesman magazine
Dated 21/11/99

Kosovo is today's slow news. Slow news is news that is ignored or minimised. It is a highly effective, though generally unrecognised, form of censorship in democracies.

The expulsion and terrorising of 240,000 Serbs and other minorities from Kosovo since Nato took charge is of little media interest. The Society for Endangered People says 90,000 Gypsies have been forced to flee an ethnic-cleansing campaign conducted on a grand scale by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

But who cares about Gypsies, let alone the demonised Serbs?

Even slower news is the justification for this continuing violence, indeed for the Nato bombing that left several thousand civilians dead and maimed, both Serbs and Kosovars, and devastated the environment and economic life of the region.

Nato embarked on this epic destruction, the then defence secretary George Robertson said last March, to "prevent a humanitarian catastrophe" and stop "a regime which is intent on genocide". The G-word was repeated many times. Bill Clinton referred to "deliberate, systematic efforts at . . . genocide".

The British press took their cue. "FLIGHT FROM GENOCIDE," said a Daily Mail headline over a picture of Kosovar children in a lorry. Both the Sun and Mirror referred to "echoes of the Holocaust".

Figures were supplied. The US defence secretary, William Cohen, said: "We've now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing . . . They may have been murdered." Geoffrey Hoon, then Foreign Office minister, put the Albanian dead at 10,000, adding that "the final toll may be much worse". A widely quoted US Information Agency factsheet claimed: "The number of unaccounted-for ethnic Albanian men ranges from a low of 225,000 . . . to over 400,000." Cherie Blair told the Sun she was "horrified about the rape camps".

In recent weeks, disquieting questions have been raised about this propaganda blitzkrieg. It seems that, although no place on earth has been as scrutinised by forensic investigators, not to mention 2,700 media people, no evidence of mass murder on the scale used to justify the bombing has yet been found.

The head of the Spanish forensic team attached to the International Criminal Tribunal, Emilio Perez Pujol, says that as few as 2,500 were killed.

In an interview with El Pais, he said: "I called my people together and said, 'We're finished here.' I informed my government and told them the real situation. We had found a total of 187 bodies." He complained angrily that he and colleagues had become part of "a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines, because we did not find one - not one - mass grave".

The FBI has found 200 bodies in 30 sites. The village of Ljubenic was believed to hold a mass grave of 350 bodies. Seven bodies were found. So far, 20 forensic teams operating in Kosovo have found 670 bodies. Perhaps the most significant disclosure, confirmed by the International Criminal Tribunal on 11 October, was that the Trepca lead and zinc mines contained no bodies.

Trepca was central to the drama of the investigation: the corpses of 700 murdered Albanians were presumed hidden there. On 7 July, the Mirror reported that a former mine-worker, Hakif Isufi, had seen dozens of trucks pull into the mine on the night of 4 June and heavy bundles unloaded. He said he could not make out what the bundles were.

The Mirror was in no doubt: "What Hakif saw was one of the most despicable acts of Slobodan Milosevic's war - the mass dumping of executed corpses in a desperate bid to hide the evidence. War-crimes investigators fear that up to 1,000 bodies were incinerated in the Auschwitz-style furnaces of the mine with its sprawling maze of deep shafts and tunnels."

All this was false.

This is not to say that evidence supporting a figure close to 10,000 may not yet materialise; fewer than half of the 400 "crime scenes" have been examined. But a pattern of truth versus propaganda is emerging.

The numbers of dead so far confirmed suggest that the Nato bombing provoked a wave of random brutality, murders and expulsions, a far cry from systematic extermination: genocide. Other atrocities of particular media interest, such as the "rape camps" that so horrified Cherie Blair, are turning out to be fiction.

Dr Richard Munz, the doctor at the huge Stenkovac refugee camp told Die Welt: "The majority of media people I talked to came here and looked for a story . . . which they had already . . . the entire time we were here, we had no cases of rape. And we are responsible for 60,000 people." He stressed that this did not mean that rape did not happen, but it was not the tabloid version.

The same is true of the Milosevic regime. No one can doubt its cruelty and atrocities, but comparisons with the Third Reich are ridiculous.

These facts and the questions they raise have not been judged newsworthy. A data-base search reveals hardly a word in the news pages of the serious mainstream national papers, with the exception of the Sunday Times. The Guardian has published only a piece by their columnist Francis Wheen, critical of the author of an article on the Kosovo figures in the Spectator on 30 October. BBC News, to my knowledge, has remained silent on the subject.

This is understandable. With honourable exceptions, propagandists, not reporters, attended much of the Kosovo tragedy. Indeed, some journalists have been open in admitting that they, not Tony Blair's press secretary, deserve the credit for putting the government's case.

The forbidden question was put last week by a troubled Andrew Alexander in his column in the Mail. "Could it turn out to be," he asked, "that we killed more innocent civilians than the Serbs did?"