Over the past two years, it has become commonplace to read that the casualties among Kosovo Albanians were not sufficiently high to warrant the NATO intervention that put an end–at some remove–to the rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Without saying so explicitly, many liberal and “left” types, and many conservatives and isolationists, have implied that the Kosovars did not suffer quite enough to deserve their deliverance. The dispute revolves around two things; the alleged massacre at Racak (which may or may not have been a firefight provoked by the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the relative emptiness of certain identifiable “mass grave” sites.
As to Racak, it might be argued that Western policy-makers seized too fast on the evidence of a Bosnian-style bloodbath, but–in view of what had been overlooked or tolerated for so long in Bosnia–it would be tough to argue that a “wait and see” policy would have been morally or politically superior. Wait for what? Wait to see what? And, since most of those who cast doubt on Racak were opposed on principle in any case to any intervention, as they had been in Bosnia, the force of their objection does not really depend on the body count, or on the issue of who shot first. For those of us who supported the intervention, with whatever misgivings, it was plain enough that Milosevic wanted the territory of Kosovo without the native population, and that a plan of mass expulsion, preceded by some exemplary killings, was in train. The level of casualties would depend on the extent of resistance that the execution of the plan would encounter.
The bulk of the European and American right had announced in advance that the cleansing of Kosovo by Milosevic was not a big enough deal to justify military action; this seems to remain their view. It was also, according to former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark in his new memoir, the institutional view of the Pentagon. It would therefore have been the right’s view, whatever happened or did not happen at Racak. It would presumably also have been their view even if the United Nations had passed a resolution authorizing the operation, over the entrenched objections of Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin. (The Genocide Convention, which mandates action by signatory powers whenever the destruction of a people in whole or in part is being committed, takes precedence in the view of some.)
So we’ll never know if another Rwanda was prevented or not, since another Rwanda did not in fact take place. However, on the issue of the mass graves there is now, as a result of the implosion of the Milosevic regime, more forensic evidence to go on.
At the time of the war itself I received a letter from a Serbian student of mine, a political foe of Milosevic but by no means a NATO fan. He told me that his family in Serbia had a friend, a long-distance truck driver whom they trusted. This man had told them of entering Kosovo with his refrigerated vehicle, picking up Albanian corpses under military orders and driving them across the “Yugoslav” border as far as the formerly autonomous province of Voivodina, where they were hastily unloaded. He’d made several such runs. At the time, I decided not to publish this letter because although it appeared to be offered in good faith it also seemed somewhat weird and fanciful, and because rumors of exactly this sort do tend to circulate in times of war and censorship.
In early May of this year, the Belgrade daily newspaper Blic, now freed from the constraints of censorship, published a report about a freezer truck, loaded with Albanian cadavers and bearing Kosovo license plates, that had been pulled from the river Danube in April 1999. The location was the town of Kladovo, about 150 miles east of Belgrade. Local gravediggers told of being hastily mobilized to load the bodies onto another truck, and to keep their mouths shut. The man who found the truck, Zivojin Djordjevic, was interviewed on Belgrade Radio B92. “It was a Mercedes lorry–the name of the meat-processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin. The license plates were from Pec…. When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses started sliding out. There were many bodies of women, children and old people. Some women had Turkish trousers, some children and old people were naked.”
To this macabre tale, identifiable people have put their names. The director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasha Kandic, has been collecting information about comparable incidents in the period between late March and mid-June 1999, with piles of corpses removed from cemeteries or graves in Kosovo and either reburied secretly or incinerated. This is not improvised wartime atrocity propaganda; it is the careful finding of patient human rights investigators after the fact.
One cannot yet say the same about another story, which concerns the mass burning of bodies in the blast furnaces of the Trepca steel plant. The eyewitnesses here are, so far, only a driver named “Branko” and a Serbian “special forces” officer named “Dusko.” They suggest that, in that terrible spring, as many as 1,500 murdered Albanian civilians were fed into the mills and furnaces of the steel complex. It would be premature to credit such unconfirmed and lurid reports, even though investigators from the Hague tribunal have already spoken about evidence being destroyed at the nearby Trepca mines. And at first, I didn’t quite believe the freezer-truck tale either.
In the relatively new atmosphere of post-Milosevic Serbia, the armed forces have charged some 183 soldiers for crimes committed in Kosovo. This might be part of an “isolated incident” strategy, or it might be the beginning of a real investigation. If the reports now in circulation prove to be true, it would mean (given the complicity of border guards, steelworks managers, traffic cops and cemetery authorities) there was a state design both to the original murders and the secret interments. Such a discovery would help constitute the emancipation of Serbia as well as of Kosovo. But it would owe very little to those who described the belated Western intervention as an exercise in imperialism based upon false reporting. We shall see.