by Matthew Hogan email@example.com
TRUTH VERSUS PARTISANSHIP George Orwell’s novels and essays warn against allowing one’s judgment to lie at the mercy of one’s desires. He gave that admonition in his 1940s essay "Notes on Nationalism," in which he critiqued nationalists of various stripes who refuse to believe in the evils committed by their own side. That warning is still valid, particularly in the case of one very recent politically decisive massacre.
On January 15, 1999, about 45 ethnic Albanians, mostly men, several elderly, were killed in an act of unnecessary and deliberate slaughter in the course of the capture of a town by security forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The massacre occurred during a period of heavy crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels in the Kosovo province. The massacre reports reverberated worldwide and helped prompt the Clinton Administration to lead NATO into a sustained bombardment of Yugoslavia, at the time dominated by Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic.
Circulating about the Web, various publications, and certain political circles is the contention that the Racak massacre was not a massacre but a "hoax" concocted by locals, and publicized by the international media and the United States. All this was done, they argue, to mold public opinion in Western countries in favor of the NATO assault which would force a withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo.
This indeed happened and soon afterward, the Milosevic regime was overthrown from within. Milosevic himself is now charged with war crimes at the UN tribunal in The Hague. Racak is the first accusation in the indictment.
Two relatively well-known and ideologically divergent American media advocacy groups, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Accuracy in Media (AIM), have advanced the idea that the massacre was a "hoax":
FAIR, "Doubts on Massacre: Media Ignore Questions About Incident That Started Kosovo War".
R eed Irvine, "Kosovo, The Hoax-Begotten War"
Meanwhile, the two articles below contain reports of independent observers from the time who questioned the accounts of massacre and a look at how reports -- sometimes false -- of outrages are often the spark for larger conflict.
Diana Johnstone, "The Racak Hoax” .
Carl Savich, "Viewpoint: Racak and Consequences, Propaganda of the Deed"
The last article’s discussion of atrocity as a stimulant of war, even if wrong about Racak, shows that it is worth the effort to figure out how to evaluate reports of atrocities. It is more than an academic or true-crime exercise. The ordinary citizen ought have the basic tools to critically evaluate such incidents. Politically decisive events ought not be judged solely by interested factions and governments, nor solely by tribunals constrained by time, procedure, and politically-influenced practicality. Accusations of evil acts have direct effect on all of us and influence decision-making in real time. They directly affect whether you or your kids, or someone else’s kids, kill or get killed in the hostilities that accompany and follow them.
In the case of Racak, the consequences were historic and the issues remain unresolved, with Americans positioned on the front lines, although attention to the American presence in Kosovo is drowned out by the current conflicts with al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Americans are there because NATO was indeed prompted by reports of Racak and related events to begin bombing Yugoslavia.
(After the bombardment began, violence escalated and ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo in vast numbers. That flight was reversed by the NATO assault, ultimately the current occupation of Kosovo by NATO followed, known by the acronym KFOR. Subsequent to the Yugoslav withdrawal -- and far less remarked upon in the Western media than the now-reversed Albanian displacement -- Serbian civilians were frightened out of Kosovo by many of its ethnic Albanians even as American and other troops began to take over.)
How did all this contribute to the idea of Racak as a "hoax"?
Well, the central role of Racak in making possible the NATO intervention against Yugoslavia has given rise to a natural desire among those opposed to the intervention to discredit the justifications for the intervention. The interests seeking to challenge the justifications are pro-Serbian nationalists, opponents of American interventionism, opponents of President Bill Clinton, opponents of Albanian nationalism, and advocates of strictly interpreted international conflict law. Unfortunately, many of these advocates have adopted the knee-jerk attitude of merely gainsaying the pro-interventionist case. Judgment about the facts of the Racak incident has fallen to the mercy of the desire to gainsay the opposing point of view. This has led many to label the Racak massacre a "hoax" in order to gainsay one justification for the NATO intervention.
Nevertheless, the facts say otherwise. The Racak massacre account is more or less true, and should appear so to the informed critical observer, regardless of viewpoint on the rights and wrongs of the NATO assault. In fact, the denials only weaken the arguments against the assault Valid arguments against the NATO bombardment (and this author feels there are many) need to be found elsewhere, not in the denial of reality.
Now to the reality. . . .
THE FACTS: WHAT JUST ABOUT EVERYONE AGREES ON
Intense conflict raged inside the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia in 1998-1999. Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas, acting in the name Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority population, were rebelling against the Serbian-dominated central Yugoslav government. Western powers were teetering on the edge of intervention on behalf of Kosovo’s Albanians.
Near the town Racak, where a group of uniformed full-time KLA fighters were based, Serbian police had been ambushed more than once and killed. On January 15, 1999, local police and Yugoslav army units decided to act. They attacked the mostly empty village (original population 2000, reduced during the strife to about 300) in a coordinated fashion.
There were a heavy exchanges of fire during the morning. Sometime later in the day, members of a Western observer mission which overlooked Racak, entered the town and conversed with some townspeople. About four wounded from the town were then taken to a hospital. The police departed sometime in the late afternoon/early evening. There are no reports of any casualties among the security forces. Over the night, uniformed KLA members re-entered the village. In the morning they brought in the outside observers and led them to a gully in which over 20 Albanians lay dead, killed by bullets. (The total down including those found in the town was over 40.)
The KLA averred that there had been a massacre of villagers. The American observer on the scene, William Walker, a former State Department hawk, immediately and loudly condemned the events as a Serbian government crime against humanity.
In response, it was alleged -- and continues to be alleged by those claiming a “hoax” -- that the dead were KLA and/or accidental civilian dead whose bodies were removed to the gully site to "stage" a massacre scene. The motive for that, the skeptics contend, was to incriminate the government, accelerate sympathy for ethnic Albanians, and provoke NATO intervention.
ANALYZING THE FACTS
The Profile. How to proceed ? The best way to evaluate whether a massacre happened is to see whether it "fits the profile" of a massacre. Do massacres have a profile? They sure do.
In normal military ground combat, certain features are typical. Usually wounded outnumber dead by a ratio of about two-to-one. If people are killed by concentrated air bombing, heavy artillery or large-scale explosives, or by super-intense direct automatic fire, the ratio of dead to wounded might increase . But in the latter cases, the bodies are often violently dismembered, and fresh large scale destruction is seen. Further, if there is a close-in gun battle overcoming heavy resistance, the attackers usually suffer some casualties. Additionally, civilians are typically hit by deadly fire in far less proportion than fighters are hit, and in small villages and towns this is typically quite low absolute numbers, usually single-digits if any.
How and why massacres differ from heavy fighting is explained as we examine the case of Racak. We will discover not one but several anomalies at Racak illustrating a significant difference from an ordinary battle. The anomalies, the "red flags" of massacre, are easily found in the generally agreed facts or the facts admitted by those who deny a massacre took place.
Anomaly #1: Where are the wounded? Only about four wounded Albanians are reported. An official Serbian report claimed at first 15 KLA killed, and later several dozen. If it had been combat, there should then also have been scores of seriously wounded. A low number of wounded relative to killed suggests many, if not all, of the dead were killed under more murderous deliberate controlled circumstances, i.e. a situation with sufficient time and freedom to aim and kill carefully, and to do so with the possible incidental motive of eliminating witnesses.
Anomaly #2: Where are the security forces’ dead and wounded? A French camera crew recorded some heavy shooting in the town and its surroundings in the morning. But if it was overcoming that resistance that caused the dead, can we accept that also no police or Yugolav military took a serious hit? The official Yugoslav statement at the time claimed the government forces had killed over a dozen. What then of Yugoslav/Serbian casualties? This was, after all, a village with guerrillas inside homes having the advantage of hiding and surprise.
There was some artillery fire reported, but there are no accounts of fresh widespread destruction. Or of dismembered bodies caused by direct artillery hits. The absence of casualties among the security forces suggests that the resistance was not very effective, and required no heavy combat to overcome them or drive them off. This further indicates that the dead were likely to be killed while offering little or no resistance, as in a massacre.
Anomaly #3: If the dead were civilians (a debated question but conceded by some) caught in the crossfire, why are there so many? There may have been only 300 or fewer civilians in the town at the time, to kill even a handful of those is a lot. Civilians do get killed in crossfire but typically not in large numbers. In Vietnam, for example, it was odd if twenty civilians were killed in a heavier full-scale assault on a village, with full mortars and helicopter gunships blazing. (Initial reports of 20 dead at My Lai, for example, were enough to suggest there should have been a special inquiry at the time.)
Civilians hide and flee. Typically attackers do not shoot at them unnecessarily, especially if preoccupied by enemy fighters. Nor are civilians very useful as defenders. (At the USA Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, which included two armies chasing each other through a town, there was only one civilian death in over three days of some of the worst war carnage to that time.) The large number of deaths in a village with 300 in it, if even only half the dead were civilian, is quite telling.
Having already established not one but several powerful presumptions that there was a massacre, i.e., an execution of persons after capture (whether guerrillas or civilians, killing after capture is still a war crime), we need to see if other evidence is consistent with the massacre scenario. It is.
The Forensic Study. A post-mortem on the bodies by an obviously interested Yugoslav investigative team and a related one by doctors from Belarus led to an agreement by the Milosevic government to a definitive independent examination being done by specialists from Finland. Its leader, Dr. Helena Ranta, eventually gave a presentation after the examinations in which she stated she could not conclude that there had been a "massacre."
Astonishingly, one can find this being trumpeted as if the Finns had concluded there was no massacre. Hardly. She merely said that the precise legal characterization was not up to her, as even the account by FAIR concedes. But what she did say, at the time and thereafter, is that the forensic examiners had found the aftermath of something that was clearly a "crime against humanity".
On more technical issues, she questioned the use of paraffin to test for gunpowder residue as the Serbian team had claimed to do. Using a more modern test, Ranta observed (as paraphrased by the BBC) that there were "no signs that the victims were anything other than unarmed civilians and that they were most likely shot where they were found."
Thus in addition to the casualty figures from the scene, the key independent forensic investigation basically leads one to conclude that a massacre likely took place.
The Cartridges Near The Dead. Some reports say that there were “few” bullet cartridges near the gully, suggesting they were shot elsewhere (presumably in battle) and then moved. The meaning of "few" is relative and in any case they could always have been removed afterwards possibly by the security forces themselves or other persons present. In one account, a French reporter claims he was told by a mysterious American captain from the observer force that he had removed the cartridges. No reason is given for that act, and the reporter could not verify the captain’s presence . In any event, it hardly shows fabrication of the massacre, just mishandling of evidence. A fabricator would have claimed to have thrown down the bullets, not removed them!
Witnesses Tell a Chilling Consistent Story. Diana Johnstone, who has repeatedly alleged the falsity of the massacre charge, cites a French journalist who writes that "all the Albanian witnesses gave the same version: at midday, the policemen forced their way into homes and separated the women from the men, whom they led to the hilltops to execute them without more ado."
If all witnesses are telling the same story, it is yet more strong independent evidence that it happened. In fact, it is downright overwhelming in light of the casualty numbers and the forensic team’s conclusion.
The story the witnesses tell is chilling and, more importantly, it was investigated by a very credible and experienced organization, Human Rights Watch. That organization is sufficiently credible and fair to have also examined and criticized mistreatment of Serbs in Kosovo after the NATO victory. (See Human Rights Watch, “ Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Abuses Against Serbs and Roma in the New Kosovo.” ) It gathered its evidence on Racak through a Serbian worker, Gordana Igric, who was no fan of the KLA,, describing one KLA leader as an anti-Serb racist and another KLA soldier as willing to kill his own family to provoke NATO intervention. Igric collected accounts separately from a wide range of witnesses, many of whom were terrified and distrustful.
As the Yugoslav forces went through the town they shot at fleeing civilians, townspeople recalled. Women and children were hit. "Zyhra and her daughter Fetije were both wounded,” one woman remembered of two others and the paralyzing fear that prevailed, “and crawled towards us for two hours. Nobody dared come out and help them." Accounts indicated some of the forces were masked and some were local police.
Human Rights Watch in a summary report from the time of the event recorded that:
Villagers told consistent stories of how government forces rounded up, tortured, and then apparently executed the twenty-three ethnic Albanians on a hill outside of the village. Two witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw these men being beaten by the police and then taken off in the direction of the hill. Local villagers, foreign journalists, and diplomatic observers who saw the bodies the next day said that the victims had been shot from close range, most of them in the head; some of them appeared to have been shot while running away. Four men are known to have survived. Eighteen other people were killed inside Racak, including a twelve-year-old boy and at least two female civilians, as well as nine soldiers of the KLA. At least one civilian, Nazmi Ymeri (76), was executed in his yard. Witnesses claim that Banush Kamberi, whose headless body was found in his yard, was last seen alive in the custody of the police. At least two people, Bajram Mehmeti and his daughter Hanumshahe (20), were killed by a grenade thrown by the police as they were running through the street.
Human Rights Watch confirmed that a group of approximately forty policeman [sic], in blue uniforms and without masks, shot from a distance of twenty meters on unarmed civilians who were running through their yards.
Some bodies of the dead lying open in the town appear to have been taken by the police in cars. Others appear to have been found later scattered in yards and other places.
It is true that in war, particularly ethnic guerrilla war, there are pressures and threats to tell falsehoods. But ultimately the same consistent story told by many interviewed separately and contemporaneously tends to support the case, especially when the story is consistent with both the forensic examinations’ conclusion, and the casualty anomalies of the scene. Besides, a critical observer has to have more to challenge witnesses than the mere fact that they are all Albanian.
Limitations of Observer Group. A related issue is the fact that the Western observers in the town the day of the attack saw only a few injured and heard no reports of massacre. But in light of the fact that many villagers were in hiding, along with the belief that the captured men had merely been arrested, the observers might have learned nothing. There is no evidence the observers did a thorough search or that they would have seen the gully slaughter. There is no evidence that the site of that killing could be seen from the observer station.
Broad statements do appear in news accounts saying the observers were in a position to see into the village but another report says they could only see part of the town. It is not sufficiently clear what they could or could not see, what they were doing the whole day, what they asked those residents who felt safe enough to come outside on the day of a heavy attack, or what was the extent of the knowledge and openness those residents had. Thus, the behavior of the observers on the day of attack tells little of any use. What someone did or did not see, if they were not there the whole time and could not see everything is not powerful evidence one way or the other. It hardly begins to overcome the great weight of evidence telling of a massacre.
The Counter-Explanation. The general counterclaim is that the KLA took the dead from inside and/or near the village and placed them in the town’s remote gully. A little problem: human bodies are heavy and moving two dozen or more around requires a lot of people, energy, and a high psychological sense of security and purpose. (The traditionalistic townspeople later took special steps to put the bodies in a mosque and would complain bitterly of their removal by government forces for examination, thereby preventing timely burial.)
As a practical matter, to coordinately plan and haul bodies (100-200 lbs. each) to a far side of town in the dark, while supposedly redressing them in civilian clothes(!), is much tougher than it sounds. (It eventually took hundreds to carry the bodies to their ultimate burial place.) It might also require the noisy movement of vehicles. Unlike the song "He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother", carrying those who were one’s fellow-fighters, friends, or relatives, or are civilians from the population one wishes to defend, and then putting them on display, is not going to happen easily and with unanimity.
We hear, however, of no tell-tale trails of blood, or night-time vehicle lights. We are expected to believe they did all this while subject to possible further sudden attack at any moment by a military force that had earlier inflicted very heavy casualties? And we are to believe there is no witness, no turncoat, and no "slip-up" by any villagers or KLA which would give evidence of this emotionally-draining massive movement and exhibition of the remains of comrades and loved ones?
Is it not more credible to believe many were indeed shot after capture at the gully? Or otherwise killed unnecessarily while scattered in various parts of a mostly deserted town of farms and dwellings?
Isn’t it easier for a victorious and nervous execution squad, or other interested witnesses, to remove bullet cartridges in the day-time than for a defeated, decimated, and probably exhausted force to haul, arrange, and redress bodies in the middle of the night, a form of desecration especially for culturally traditional Muslims? And then to remember to put new clothes on their bodies, but forget to leave bullet cartridges?
Again, the evidence of a massacre is overwhelming and consistent, the evidence of fabrication or "hoax" strains credulity.
Emotional Factors. KLA guerrillas from Racak had been, previous to the attack, killing police with violent ambush tactics During the attack, the KLA and perhaps some townspeople had resisted violently at first. The remaining villagers of Racak would thus be imputed to be terrorists, because they knew about the KLA headquarters in their midst. "They are not people," one policeman, a near-victim of KLA ambushes, said of the Racak dead to a Serbian Human Rights Watch observer. "They are terrorists."
Such a dehumanizing state of mind, with ever growing rage at the townspeople, makes prisoner execution and indiscriminate slaughter possible and perhaps likely. The proverbial "Occam’s Razor" really works here, the simplest direct answer is likely the best: the security forces were primed for a massacre by the circumstances alone. The KLA presence and tactics in around Racak thus provide more indications of a massacre, aside from consistent eyewitnesses, tell-tale casualty figures, and the conclusion of professional medical examiners.
Irrelevancies and Other Assertions. Arguments that the massacre was falsified frequently rely on irrelevancies, details that are not very significant, and factors which, when reflected upon fully, actually enhance the likelihood of a massacre having happened.
For example, if evidence showed that the dead had recently fired weapons, what does that prove? If they were all village fighters or KLA captives, the fact remains that if they were executed after capture, that’s still a massacre. Also, the existence of video of fighting in the morning at Racak is irrelevant to the issue and actually can be further damning. Massacres often happen in the angry aftermath of fighting (Wounded Knee, Rape of Nanking, Biscari, Deir Yassin....).
Another issue brought up is that the police pre-announced their attack to the press and the observers. This is not irrelevant, but it does not negate a massacre. It is possible they did not go in with the intent of massacre but as the day went on it changed. It is also possible that some security forces on the scene may have acted more viciously than others or more viciously than the officials who supervised the attack were aware or had instructed. In any event, the publicizing of the attack does not negate the fact of massacre. Massacres occur in the course of well-publicized offensives (e.g. My Lai).
It is also common to hear from those denying the massacre complaints about the lack of attention in the media to war crimes against Serbs, including the savagery of their displacement from Krajina, Sarajevo, and post-war Kosovo. (The author of this article personally heard a member of a CNN production crew exclaim "Good! They deserve it!: when the author complained about expulsions of Serb civilians from Kosovo after the NATO intervention.) The issues of bias are extremely valid points in themselves, but tell us nothing specific about whether or not some Yugoslav security forces murdered Albanians in Racak on January 15, 1999.
Finally, the biggest irrelevancy is the self-deluding political-emotional one that started it all: the implication that because the reports of massacre were publicized widely with an inflammatory spin, and then became the emotional instigator of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, the massacre therefore cannot be true.
This is addressed next.
The Abuse of "Cui Bono?". The problem with accusations regarding events of the Racak type is the misuse of the "cui bono?" analysis. "Cui Bono?" is Latin for "to whose benefit?" It is a type of investigative approach for examining who might have caused a still-mysterious event. The analysis proceeds by asking who would benefit from such an event happening. It provides a good logical method for investigators to create a theory of who might have done something. But in political and related conspiratorial arguments, this investigative tool is often wrongly elevated into a full-blown argument.
The wrong-headed logic runs as follows: since the Bad Guy benefited from the bad act, the Bad Guy MUST have caused the bad act. It is quite common for political partisans to fall for this. This is not to deny that political forces seeking war successfully engage in deceptions to "frame" their adversary. (A classic example of this was the false report given by pro-Kuwait forces before the 1991 Gulf War that occupying Iraqi troops had removed babies from incubators in a Kuwait hospital.) It is just that one needs evidence beyond speculation, anger, and a few similar events culled from the entire record of history in order call a specific allegation a "hoax".
Accusations can be true even when made by the Bad Guys. The fact that the chief Western observer to report the massacre was William Walker, an American “hawk” on Kosovo and elsewhere, doesn’t affect the truth of the massacre. The truth is not dependent on his observations, instead it can be derived from the telling facts of the case, which we have examined and which are summarized in the next section.
SUMMARY: CAN THE MASSACRE REALLY BE DENIED?
Was the Racak massacre a hoax? No. Overhyped? Maybe. But anyone who asserts that the Racak massacre was a fabrication or a hoax is either ill-informed or has allowed partisanship to interfere with his honesty and sense of critical thinking.
Applying common sense and generally available information, one is more than hard-pressed to deny a massacre where:
-- there were few wounded found but many dead
-- there were no reported casualties of any significance among the attackers
-- there were many civilian dead in one town
-- the agreed-upon independent forensic team felt the dead to be unarmed civilians who were killed where they were found, and who concluded that the victims’ deaths amounted to some kind of crime against humanity
-- townspeople are essentially unanimous about the general sequence of events, including more than one eyewitness to the gully killing being reported, and these witnesses were interviewed by a Serbian, and not Albanian, investigator who had little respect for the KLA, and who was working for a credible, fair, and experienced human rights organization
-- there had been, immediately before, a high-level of guerrilla violence ambushing and killing Yugoslav security forces which emanated from the town of Racak, all of which would be likely to provoke an intense level of fear and anger at the town’s inhabitants on the part of the army and police
-- the explanation of how a fabrication was done (by moving and redressing the bodies) would have required extraordinary efforts under the existing circumstances, and would have involved a ridiculous oversight (forgetting to leave spent bullet cartridges)
-- the most asserted counter-arguments -- evidence of the dead having shot weapons or the alleged "few" cartridges at the death scene -- are vague, irrelevant, or have simple explanations.
A good collection of links to sources addressing the above points is available at
Yes, it is true that the media in the West have had a strong anti-Serbian bias. And that does merit critical examination and skepticism about categorical assertions of a massacre at Racak And, yes, there has not been sufficient attention to the atrocities against and displacement of Serbs in the Croatian offensive of 1995, or in the wake of the Kosovo occupation by NATO. But these do not necessarily mean there was no massacre on January 15, 1999 in Racak.
Yes, there has been insufficient debate over the legality and merits of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, both internationally and within the United States. Yes, the relative rights and wrongs of the KLA and the 1999 insurgency during which Racak happened need a full airing. Yes, William Walker, the US observer who immediately blustered about the massacre, was a hawkish political figure who had been part of American interventionist efforts in the past. But again those also do not come close to proving there was no massacre in Racak.
True, the precise reason for the massacre is still on fully established. Just what level of policy, orders, or spontaneity sparked it, we don’t know. But that is merely an issue for a fair trial with full powers of investigation, journalists willing to walk the extra mile, and historians with full access to the documents and participants.
Perhaps the Racak massacre was an over-hyped and cynically exploited incident. Resolving that question belongs to the serious debate among partisans of one or another set of policies, interpreters of history, and among advocates for one or another ideal for Yugoslavia’s future. Those issues ought also to engage Americans particularly, as we have affected events there enormously and violently, and American troops are still deployed in much of the territory of former Yugoslavia.
But serious debate over whether there was or was not a massacre at Racak remains only a debate against reality. George Orwell noted in his "Notes on Nationalism" essay that the emotions necessary for political action ought to exist side-by-side with the acceptance of reality. In a world plunging into wars, near-wars, and conflicts of varying intensities, assessing reality clearly, critically, and quickly is vital. It may be our remaining hope. In the matter of the Racak massacre, it is perhaps best to keep that hope alive by not being part of the hoax that claims the reality of the atrocity to be a "hoax".