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New Series no.11/12 August - November 1999
Death and Denial in Kosova
by Francis Wheen

According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, there is no such thing as reality – only a system of arbitrary signs, imagistic discourses and `multiple refractions in hyperspace'. Hence the title of his most notorious book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Even Baudrillard, however, might raise an eyebrow at a headline in the current issue of the Spectator: `The Massacres That Never Were. Contrary to propaganda, mass graves in Kosovo are a myth, says John Laughland.' Since Laughland is a former lecturer at the Sorbonne, you might assume that this is just another exercise in `playful postümodernism' or some such twaddle. But he is entirely serious. Laughland says that Nato maintained public support for its Balkan intervention by pretending that Serbian security forces and paramilitaries had massacred many thousands of Kosovans. `Of the impact such stories had, there can certainly be no doubt whatever; their veracity, however, is a different matter.' The true death toll, he reckons, is probably no more than a few hundred.

This revisionist account is also having quite an impact: its allegations have been repeated in a fullüpage article in the Sunday Times, and are being assiduously peddled by Stratfor, an online thinkütank based in Texas. Their veracity, however, is quite another matter.

Let's begin with Nato's alleged hyperbole. `On May 16, the US defence secretary, William Cohen, said that Yugoslav army forces had killed up to 100,000 Albanian men of military age,' Laughland writes. `Tony Blair himself implied that the numbers might be even higher when he wrote in the Times on June 5, ``We must be ready for what we know will be clear evidence of . . . as yet unknown numbers of people missing, tortured and dead.'' `

What William Cohen actually said, on the American TV programme Face the Nation, was that 100,000 men of military age `are missing'. As for the death toll, he continued: `We have had reports that as many as 4,600 have been executed, but I suspect it's far higher than that.' Not quite the same as asserting that all 100,000 of them had been killed.

Nor did Tony Blair imply a total `even higher' than 100,000 in his article of June 5. He gave no figures at all, predicting only that journalists and peacekeepers entering Kosovo would find `evidence of appalling atrocities and unbelievable cruelties'. And so they did. By June 16, the Foreign Office minister Geoff Hoon felt able to give a rough estimate. `According to the reports we have gathered, it appears that around 10,000 people have been killed in more than 100 massacres.'

Laughland dismisses this as `fantasy' ü and quotes a most surprising source to prove it. Paul Risley, the spokesman for the international warücrimes prosecutor, apparently told him that `a whole string of sites where atrocities were allegedly committed have revealed no bodies at all', adding that there were `not very many' mass graves.

'The guy's a complete asshole,' Risley told me this week, when I reached him by phone in Sarajevo. `I said nothing of the sort. We have over 500 ``scenes of crime'', and many of them are mass graves.' Of these 500 sites, only 150 have been investigated so far; the rest will not be dug up until next spring. (As Risley points out, you can't do exhumations when the ground is frozen.)

`So,' Laughland demands impatiently, `what is the final body count?' The question is absurd. After the Paddington rail crash, we had to wait for many days before the police issued a definitive list of victims. If it took so long to identify odd fragments of bone in one railway carriage, imagine the difficulty of searching an entire country – especially one where the retreating Serb forces did their best to destroy or hide the evidence of their crimes.

Nevertheless, the tribunal's prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, will present an interim report to the United Nations in the next two or three weeks. Laughland notes that a group of Spanish inspectors `only found 187 cadavers' in Kosovo this summer, as if this proves his hunch that `the number of bodies discovered to date is in the hundreds'. But the Spaniards comprised only one of 20 forensic teams. A squad of experts from the FBI, who arrived in the town of Gjakova at the end of June, retrieved 200 corpses within five days.

If these results are at all typical, the number of bodies already identified must be at least 3,000. And, I repeat, the tribunal's gumshoes have visited only 150 of the 500 `scenes of crime'. All this suggests that Hoon's figure of 10,000 was remarkably accurate.

We shall never know the exact total, of course – just as we still don't have a final tally of those massacred at Srebrenica, more than four years ago. `We do not anticipate recovering every body,' Risley says. `There's compelling evidence of tampering with evidence, and attempts to destroy the bodies of victims.' Even so, we get the picture; and those who seek to deny the scale and brutality of `ethnic cleansing' should watch John Sweeney's film Prime Suspects, to be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9.30 p.m., which describes how more than 100 people were lined up and shot dead in a hay barn in just one small Kosovo village.

None of the bodies has been recovered: the killers blew up the barn, leaving nothing but two huge holes in the earth. Laughland and his fellow revisionists could therefore argue that the deaths were yet another `fantasy', a Baudrillard-style refraction in hyperspace.

No doubt Rasim Batusha, who lost 22 members of his family in the massacre, will find this a great consolation.

This article was published in The Guardian on 3 November 1999.

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