Media search for Kosovo horror stories


Jan Slakov

Date: Sat, 05 Jun 1999 01:42:48
From: Bill Koehnlein <•••@••.•••>

From: •••@••.•••
Date: Fri, 4 Jun 1999 22:14:17 EDT
Subject: The media's search for Kosovo horror stories

I'm sending a copy of this to a couple of shrewd contacts in Europe who are 
concerned deeply with the issues and may want to respond to me, and if so 
I'll share that response with you.

In the midst of the vast horror of what has happened on all sides it may seem 
obscene to quibble over whether it is genocide or simply a criminal action. 
It may seem terrible to ask whether the rape stories are all true, partly 
true, or rarely true. Just as it seems terrible to question whether some of 
the targets hit in Serbia by NATO bombs were perhaps really military, or, as 
Serb authorities claim, not military at all.,

But because the powerful war spirit in the West, which has dragged many 
otherwise sensible and cautious socialists into the cheering section for 
NATO, is based on these reports, I think this particular one is worth passing 
on. (We need to be aware of the ease with which we accept the media reports 
because they are pounded into us in an almost totalitarian manner - Tony 
Blair, the "mouth that roared" today referred to Milsovic as a 
dictator. But he isn't. He has been elected three times in reasonably free 
elections, there is at least some freedom of opposition in Belgrade, and the 
assembly did not vote unanimous approval of the peace pact - opponents of the 
agreement made their opposition to the terms very clear. In all the 
"dictatorships" I've known, this doesn't happen. Yet when a leader such as 
Blair says these things, young people pick them up and take them as truth. 
Who will correct Blair on our networks, noting that the problem with 
Milosevic is that unhappily he won three free elections? I was with a group 
of High School students yesterday - good kids, sharp, working class - and 
they referred to Milsosevic (whose name they barely knew) as a Hitler. This 
wasn't a political science club - it was a working class social club in 
Queens. The kids were repeating what they had heard on the media.

This is why it is important for us to be careful in our words. Too much of 
the left seems to have broken down into either the Workers' World line of 
denying ethnic cleansing, or the DSA line of denying that NATO's actions are 
also war crimes. The truth is complex. Thus this story, in all its ambiguity, 
reminds us that merely because Robin Cook or Tony Blair or Bill Clinton say 
something, it is not necessarily true. We should have pretty much the same 
suspension of belief with them that we have with Milosevic. 

David McReynolds
 London Review of Books
 Volume 21, Number 11
 27 May 1999
 (Audrey Gillan tries to find the evidence for mass atrocities in Kosovo)
 Ferteze Nimari had lost two of her brothers and her husband was 
 forced to bury all the dead in one grave. Later, packed into a stifling 
 bus with sixty fellow Kosovars, the couple held onto each other as he
 clutched a strap suspended from the ceiling. The bus stopped in the
 Stankovac I refugee camp in Macedonia and they told their story. 'The
 tank came to our village of Sllovi. The Serb neighbours said not to
 worry - it was just there to observe us. But by lunchtime the next day a
 teenage girl lay dead in the street. Then another 15 people were killed.
 They told us to run into the woods and they started shooting us.'
 I asked them so many questions about what they had seen. 'What happened
 when your brothers were shot?' 'How many people did you bury?' 'How do
 you feel now?' When they said the Serbs had forced an old woman into a
 tent and burned her alive I looked at them doubtfully and asked how they
 knew she had been alive. Someone from her family had seen it happen,
 they said.
 The Nimaris had arrived at what they thought was a safe haven, but I
 pursued them, and I did so unsparingly. I got on the bus when the driver
 opened the doors for air. They had stood for hours on that malodorous
 bus. I felt sorry for them: but not so sorry that I stopped the questions.
 They had yet to step down to the misery of the camp the
 British press has taken to calling 'Brazda'. All they had was a bottle
 of water passed to them through an open window - and my questions.
 Ferteze, eight months pregnant, caught me glancing at the watch on her
 wrist when Remzi, her husband, said all the women in the village had
 been robbed of their jewellery.
 Earlier that day, Ron Redmond, the baseball-capped spokesman for the
 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stood at the Blace border
 crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia and said there were new reports of
 mass rapes and killings from three villages in the Lipljan area: Sllovi,
 Hallac Evogel and Ribari Evogel. He spoke to the press of bodies being
 desecrated, eyes being shot out. The way he talked it sounded as if
 there had been at least a hundred murders and dozens of rapes. When I
 pressed him on the rapes, asking him to be more precise, he reduced it a
 bit and said he had heard that five or six teenage girls had been raped
 and murdered. He had not spoken to any witnesses. 'We have no way of
 verifying these reports of rape,' he conceded. 'These are among the
 first that we have heard of at this border.'
 Other UNHCR officials later told stories of women being tied to the
 walls of their houses and burned, 24 bodies buried in Kosovo Polje.
 Another report, again from Sllovi, put the dead at a hundred. Mr and Mrs
 Nimari were adamant that it was 16. Truth can be scarce at the Blace
 border and in the camps dotted around Macedonia, but you are not allowed
 to say that during a war like this, where it may be that bad things are
 being done on both sides, just as you are not allowed to doubt atrocity.
 It's as if Nato and its entourage were trying to make up for the
 witlessness of the past: trying to show that whatever we do, we won't be
 turning a blind eye. But the simple-minded reporter in me wants to ask a
 question: is there any real evidence for what is being said?
 In Macedonia, listening to the stories and the UNHCR accounts, you would
 find it hard to tell what was hearsay and what was fact. When you looked
 at the people clinging onto the carrier bags that now held the remnants
 of their lives, it seemed evident that terrible things had happened to
 them, that people had been forced to flee their homes and drag
 themselves to a non-life in another country. Each person arriving at the
 camps had experienced some kind of trauma, and most are still living it.
 Many have seen death and other horrors. It is just that there is little
 to suggest that they have seen it in the ways, and on the scale, that
 people want to say they have. Most of those who have seen killing have
 seen one or two shot and the bodies of others. Eye-witnesses to multiple
 atrocities are very rare and the simple - and not at all simple - truth
 is that it can often be hard to establish the veracity of the
 information. One afternoon, the people in charge said there were
 refugees arriving who talked of sixty or more being killed in one
 village, fifty in another, but I could not find one eye-witness who
 actually saw these things happening.
 Now, they may have happened. But what we have is a situation where
 Western journalists accept details without question. Almost every day,
 the world's media, jostling for stories in Macedonia, strain to find
 figures that may well not exist. In the absence of any testimony, many
 just report what some agency or other has told them. I stood by as a
 reporter from BBC World reeled off what Ron Redmond had said, using the
 words 'hundreds', 'rape' and 'murder' in the same breath. By way of
 qualification (a fairly meaningless one in the circumstances), he added
 that the stories had yet to be substantiated. Why, then, had he reported
 them so keenly in the first place?
 I found myself wanting to discover the evidence. I was also impatient to
 find a 'good' story - i.e. a mass atrocity. As each new bus trundled
 over the border, I told my interpreter to shout through the windows
 asking if anyone was from the three villages Redmond had mentioned. Did
 they know anyone, had they seen anything? We went along twenty buses
 before we found Mr and Mrs Nimari. A transit camp had been set up in the
 no man's land between the river and the frontier road at Blace. This was
 where the tens of thousands were trapped in fetid misery before
 Macedonian officials dispersed them one night to the newly-built camps.
 Now the place is used to give a night's rest to some of the great many
 who wait patiently at this border for entry to a country that doesn't
 want them and to which they really don't want to go. Every 20 minutes,
 the Macedonian police let around two hundred people clamber down a dirt
 path to be processed before being admitted into the camp. As they stood
 in line, I asked whether anyone was from those villages and whether
 they'd seen anything they wanted to talk about. No one was and no one
 did. Or at least they didn't want to tell us about it.
 It seemed that the Nimaris were the only people from Sllovi. I was moved
 by their fear and passion to believe everything they said. Remzi told me
 he'd buried the dead in a grave in the woods at Lugi i Demes. It will
 take the verifiers from the International Criminal Tribunal for the
 Former Yugoslavia in The Hague to put our agitated, agitating minds at
 The officers from ICTY, the verifiers from the Organisation for Security
 and Co-operation in Europe and researchers from Human Rights Watch are
 compiling reports of war crimes, which will be used at a later date for
 any trial at The Hague. Speaking to these people, I found them to be
 wary of using the hyperbole favoured by reporters and by the UNHCR. They
 say they have yet to see evidence of atrocities on the scale that they
 witnessed while working in Bosnia. When I went to see Benedicte Giaever,
 the co-ordinator for OSCE's field office in Skopje, I saw that she was
 angered by the behaviour of the media. I squirmed when she said she had
 heard of a female journalist getting onto a bus to question some
 refugees. She said almost every journalist who came to see her asked one
 thing: could she give them a rape victim to interview. She spoke of one
 woman being 'hunted down' by journalists and having to have her tent
 moved to shelter her from their intrusions: she had had a breakdown.
 I wanted at the same time to test the validity of the truths being
 offered us and to behave decently in the face of what could not be known
 for sure, and I knew it wasn't possible to do both. Yet I could see that
 much of this rough treatment of female refugees was a direct consequence
 of Robin Cook telling the world that there was evidence of rape camps
 inside Kosovo. 'Young women are being separated from the refugee
 columns,' he said, 'and forced to undergo systematic rape in an army
 camp. We have evidence from many refugees who have managed to escape
 that others were taken to rape camps.'
 I know of several tabloid reporters who were despatched to Macedonia and
 Albania with the sole purpose of finding a rape victim. Talking to each
 other in the bar of Skopje's Hotel Continental we rehearsed the question
 which has now become notorious: 'Is there anyone here who's been raped
 and speaks English?' We were aware of the implications of some of our
 more despicable behaviour. We knew that one woman, raped by Serbian
 soldiers then forced to leave her country, was traumatised all over
 again by a journalist looking for a good story.
 The things you come to know as a journalist do not march in single file.
 Facts are often renegade. But among the rape victims arriving in
 Macedonia nobody spoke of anything like the camps the British Foreign
 Secretary referred to. Benedicte Giaever told me there had been rape,
 but not systematic and not on a grand scale. The same was true of the
 killing. 'We don't have big numbers,' she said. 'What we have are
 consistent small numbers - two here, five there, ten here, seven there.'
 Unlike the media and the UNHCR, the OSCE works in a slow, methodical
 way, waiting a few days till the refugees have settled in before they
 begin to ask questions. 'These people have just arrived and I would say
 they are still under a lot of stress and tension,' Giaever says. 'In
 that situation, 5 people can easily turn into 75. It's not that they
 want to lie but often they are confused. It's not to say it didn't
 happen. But a story could have moved around from village to village and
 everyone from that village tells it as if it happened to them.'
 Another senior OSCE source spoke even more clearly than any of us were
 inclined to do. He told me he suspected that the Kosovo Liberation Army
 had been persuading people to talk in bigger numbers, to crank up the
 horror so that Nato might be persuaded to send ground troops in faster.
 Robin Cook's rape camp was the same thing, he said: an attempt to get
 the British public behind the bombing. And wasn't all this a lesson in
 how propaganda works in modern war?
 When I came back to London, I went to see the KLA's spokesman and
 recruiting officer in Golders Green. Dr Pleurat Sejdiu, sitting beside
 the KLA flag and busts of the Albanian national hero Skenderbeg, said
 there were indeed rape camps, and that the evidence of mass atrocities
 was to be found among the refugees in Albania, not in Macedonia. He is
 in daily contact with the KLA frontline command by satellite phone and
 has been told of rape camps in Gjakova, Rahovec, Suhareka, Prizren and
 Skenderaj. 'We know there are concentration camps and women are kept and
 raped there,' he said. 'I don't think we will get the evidence until we
 go in with the ground troops. There are a lot of stories confirming it.
 There are mass executions and mass graves are appearing now. We have
 reports from our special units moving around Kosovo. And the pertinent
 question is: where are the young men who have been taken from the
 refugee columns? I think everything will be proved when Nato troops go
 In Skopje I had been to see Ben Ward, a researcher for Human Rights
 Watch, in the flat he is renting (he had found the Hotel Continental too
 expensive and the behaviour of the reporters too disconcerting): he
 pored over maps of Kosovo and pointed to villages where he knows
 incidents have taken place. His information comes from eye-witnesses and
 is corroborated by the testimony of others. He has noted a very definite
 scorched-earth policy. But while his latest report details killings and
 the mutilation of corpses in the villages of Bajnica and Cakaj, he
 doesn't think there is evidence of mass executions. 'It is very rare for
 people not to know someone who knows about people being killed. But
 there doesn't appear to be anything to support allegations of mass
 killings,' he said. 'It is generally paramilitaries who are responsible.
 It doesn't seem organised. There appear to be individual acts of sadism
 rather than anything else. There seems not to be any policy or
 instruction, but that isn't to say that people have not been given the
 latitude to kill. However, I don't think at this stage we have anything
 that adds up to the systematic killing of civilians.' Ward believes that
 those who stayed longer in Kosovo have been subjected to more violence,
 that many have been terrorised because they have stayed so long. Many
 have fled terror but some of those Ward spoke to said they were fleeing
 the Nato bombs. 'The Serbs didn't touch us until Nato attacked,' a
 Kosovar told him.
 One morning I made a two-year-old girl hysterical. I had asked her
 parents to show me the wound the child suffered when the bullet that
 killed her grandmother entered her shoulder. I was getting desperate for
 some kind of truth to hold onto. They pulled up Marigona Azemi's dress
 and her pink T-shirt and pointed to a worn bandage. She squealed and
 said it was the 'licia' who shot her, unable to get her small tongue
 round the Albanian word milicia. Like the majority of those killed or
 wounded or abused by the Serbs, Marigona was attacked by paramilitaries,
 a vicious, marauding band. Seven people in her village of Lovc -
 including her grandmother Nexhmije - were killed. Some villagers claimed
 that a local teacher and his cousin were skinned alive before they were
 burned, others said they were burned alive. No one actually saw this but
 the rest of what they had to say tallied when they told their stories
 independently. The Azemi family had been trying to escape on its tractor
 when the paramilitaries opened fire: what they did was sadistic and it
 was a horrendous tale, but it couldn't be turned into a story of mass
 atrocity. Some people tell me that evil is evil; that there's no point
 in quantifying it. Does that mean I am to accept Robin Cook's unchecked
 facts because they align with my hunches?
 I feel bad for having made Marigona cry in order to prove to myself that
 there was truth in her story. (For days, I went to her - pathetically -
 with dolls and hair bobbles and sweets and orange juice.) But that is
 not all I feel. Watching the television images and listening to the
 newscasters thunder about further reports of Serb massacres and of
 genocide, I feel uneasy about saying that they have very little to go
 on. Yet almost every newspaper journalist I spoke to privately in
 Macedonia felt the same way. The story being seen at home is different
 from the one that appeared to be happening on the ground.
 Maybe the truth here is not one thing: but I don't want to be an
 accomplice to a lie. I don't want to bellow for my life or for theirs,
 yet there's something not right in this easy way with detail. It is a
 surreal place, Macedonia, and it was this aspect to which a friend drew
 my attention when I got home. Nobody much wants to return to Jean
 Cocteau, but there was something soothing in the words my friend quoted.
 'History is a combination of reality and lies,' he said. 'The reality of
 history becomes a lie. The reality of the fable becomes the truth.'
 Audrey Gillan is a reporter on the Guardian, for whom she went to
 * * *