Where have all the bodies gone?

Five months after the war, teams searching for mass graves in Kosovo are NOT finding much evidence of Serb atrocities. Was the Western public misled, asks the Canadian general who commanded UN forces in Bosnia

by General (retired) LEWIS MacKENZIE

As a rule, Western democratic leaders have available to them the very best processed information, referred to by the military and security communities as intelligence, to assist them in making decisions. Unfortunately, that information is frequently highly classified and cannot be shared with the general public for fear of revealing the source and thereby endangering the life of the "spy" or alerting a potential adversary to new high-tech intelligence-gathering systems. Therefore, by default, political leaders have to react to the mood of their public who obtain their "intelligence" from the media.

Before the March, 1999, negotiations at Rambouillet, France, presumably convened to seek a diplomatic solution to the civil war being fought at the time between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s security forces and the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army, we were advised by the media that there had been approximately 2,000 people killed in the war between 1998 and March 1999. The number included about 650 Serbs; the remainder were Kosovo Albanians. The numbers seemed believable, and were similar to the total death count from the continuing "troubles" in Northern Ireland.

Days before the breakdown of Rambouillet 2 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s subsequent bombing campaign against the Serb forces in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed that NATO had to act to save "thousands of innocent men, women and children from death." The U.S. State Department frequently referred to "genocide" in Kosovo – a somewhat surprising description by the American administration, given that Washington refused to use the term genocide when describing the slaughter of more than 500 000 Tutsies and their sympathizers in Rwanda in 1993.

Throughout the war, the NATO briefings would remind the assembled media of the appalling death toll being suffered by Kosovo’s Albanian population, and would use this as a justification to continue and intensify the bombing campaign. Scores of Western reporters located in refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania were quick to repeat, verbatim, refugee stories of atrocities and mass murder with no way of verifying their accuracy.

Massive forced movement of displaced people by the Serb security forces certainly took place. However, one of NATO’s key stated objectives was to stop the murder of innocent civilians. Early on in the war and seemingly out of nowhere, the figure of 10,000 to 11,000 murdered Kosovo Albanians was mentioned in every NATO briefing. Without this commonly used figure, the alliance’s solidarity could well have crumbled. Forced relocation, particularly in that "neighbourhood," would not have been adequate justification for NATO’s intervention for a significant number of alliance members – France, Germany, Greece and Italy immediately come to mind.

Since the war, more than four months of investigation by 15 forensic teams from 15 different nations, including Canada, has many Europeans asking: "Where are the bodies?"

One hundred and fifty of the 400 suspected mass grave sites have been investigated. Mass graves are defined by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as any grave site suspected of containing more than one body. Teams were dispatched to the most probable large sites first, some of which featured in air photos shown during the daily NATO briefings. There were more witnesses to the alleged atrocities at these sites, and it was assumed that the necessary incriminating evidence would be all too obvious.

To date, fewer than 500 bodies have been found, and hundreds of those were individually buried – not what you would expect during a mass-murder campaign. Forensic teams have expressed frustration as they follow up specific stories of atrocities and find no evidence at the precise alleged site.

Undoubtedly, the site of the best-known and most horrific NATO allegation was the infamous mine at Trepca, where, according to reports shared with the Western media, more than 700 murdered Kosovo Albanians were thrown down the mine shafts and boiled in vats of hydrochloric acid. The ICTY itself investigated this site and found no evidence to support the allegations.

There are those who hope that 9,000 more bodies are found so that NATO’s justification of its bombing campaign will be vindicated. I am not one of them. I am delighted that only a small percentage of the original estimates of those murdered are being exhumed. I hope that means 9,000 fewer fellow human beings died than we were led to believe. I would hope NATO agrees.

That is the good news. What is extremely disturbing is the thought that the Western public was knowingly misled – lied to – to hold the NATO alliance together and to justify bombing a sovereign nation.

This absence of evidence is not a big story in North America, where we have the luxury of putting Kosovo behind us and getting on with life. Not so in Europe, where numerous governments trusted U.S. intelligence. If it transpires that they knowingly sold their citizens a lie or were duped by the United States, NATO solidarity could be seriously jeopardized, with all that implies.

Perhaps we should stick to what the alliance does best – defence!

Retired Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie reported for Canadian television from Belgrade during four weeks of the NATO bombing campaign.

[Reprinted from and copywrite by THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Tuesday, November 9, 1999 COMMENT p. A17]