“Mutilated Kosovo Bodies Found After Serb Attack,” a page-one headline in the January 17, 1999 New York Times announced. “Kosovo Serbs massacre 45 villagers,” The Sunday Times of London put it. And at the Washington Post: “Villagers Slaughtered in Kosovo ‘Atrocity.’”
The New York Times’s report opened with the “bodies of 45 ethnic Albanians ... found shot or mutilated,” “all dressed in civilian clothing,” and added grisly details about “eyes gouged out or heads smashed in, and one man lay[ing] decapitated.” The London Times and Washington Post repeated the “eyes gouged out” line, as did many others; the Times picked up the “decapitated” line, the Post the line about “heads smashed.” Also brought to bear were Western luminaries from Bill Clinton (“deliberate and indiscriminate act of murder”) to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (“gravely concerned”). As well as, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana (“outrage and revulsion at this deliberate and senseless killing of civilians”), British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook (“I condemn this savage act”), and ICTY Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour, whose spokesman said she demanded “immediate and unimpeded access” to Kosovo and planned to travel there within forty-eight hours. (229) Suddenly, a heavily-fortified village that almost no one had heard of before, half-an-hour’s drive south from the capital city, Pristina, was headline-news in every major Western newspaper.
The “Račak massacre” of January 15, 1999 was extremely convenient for Clinton administration officials and NATO. The incident served as a “turning point” that led NATO to “authorize air strikes against targets on [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] territory” and to NATO’s ultimatum to the Serb leadership in Belgrade to engage in one last round of talks at Rambouillet— itself one of the great make-believe pieces of stagecraft in recent memory, designed to ensure that NATO could carry out its bombing war in time for its Fiftieth Anniversary Summit in Washington in April. When Madeleine Albright was first informed about the Račak incident, she enthused that “Spring has come early to Kosovo.” (230) News of the deaths of some forty Kosovo Albanians (one woman and thirty-nine men) was delivered directly to her by William Walker, a veteran U.S. administrator of Reagan-era wars in Central America, now assigned to the Kosovo Verification Mission, an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in name only and in fact a U.S. mission to prepare for war. (231) Walker rushed to Račak on the morning of January 16, instantly proclaimed it a “massacre,” and demanded accountability before the ICTY. That this was the same career U.S. apparatchik who, when serving as his government’s ambassador to El Salvador in 1989, performed spectacular apologetics in defense of the Salvadoran army’s massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in November of that year was missed by virtually everybody. (232) “Management control problems exist in a situation like this,” Walker explained when in El Salvador. “And it’s not a management control problem that would lend itself to a Harvard Business School analysis. I mean, this is war.” No deliberately executed bloodbath in El Salvador, according to the ambassador, just heat-of-battle excesses; and no “war” in Kosovo, just a cold-blooded massacre. As the Los Angeles Times later observed, this self-presentation as a “crusader for human rights represents quite a change for Walker.” (233) But he got away with it—this Los Angeles Times observation was virtually unique.
We do not believe there was any massacre at all at Račak. (234) In attacking this and other local Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) strongholds (Belince, Malopoljce, Petrovo) on January 15, the Serb forces were accompanied not only by invited OSCE observers but also by an AP camera crew that filmed events throughout the action. Multiple firefights took place between the Serbs and KLA fighters in several locations, mostly outside the towns in the surrounding woods. Serb forces withdrew from the area long before sunset. Later that same day, the French reporter Christophe Chatelet visited Račak and met with OSCE observers, none of whom reported any incident resembling a massacre. But the next morning, after the return of the KLA to Račak during the night, twenty-two dead bodies were discovered in a gully outside the village and at least eighteen more at different sites inside the village. Why the Serbs had not removed or buried any of these bodies while present as a fighting force the previous day, and why the OSCE and AP camera crew had not reported such facts, has never been clarified—and OSCE personnel have never been allowed to speak publicly about it.
William Walker, arriving quickly to the scene on January 16, failed to preserve its integrity for forensic study and potentially important details were forever compromised; Walker also blocked forensic experts from examining the site and the bodies until January 22. (235) But the body-strewn gully did form the backdrop for Walker’s famous denunciation that day: “From what I personally saw, I do not hesitate to describe the event as a massacre, obviously a crime very much against humanity. Nor do I hesitate to accuse the government security forces of responsibil-ity.” (236) Summing up the work of the Walker-led mission in Kosovo, KLA adviser Marc Weller argues that the “accidental [sic] discovery of the Račak massacre ... made it difficult for NATO to legitimize its inaction.” (237) For the “humanitarian” intervention regime a critical casus belli had been established.
The EU Forensic Team that began its work at University of Pristina on January 22 came to the site late, and its leader, Helena Ranta, was pressed by Walker and her government (Finland) to declare Račak a massacre of civilians and crime against humanity. This she eventually did, although contradictorily, relying on hearsay evidence from Walker and admitting that the EU Team never investigated the alleged crime scene and was unable to ascertain the chain of custody of the bodies between the time of death and the date when the autopsies began. Moreover, Ranta has been backtracking ever since her early claims, complaining about the political pressures under which she operated. A 2008 biography of Ranta published in Finland even quotes her saying that Walker “wanted me to say the Serbs were behind [the Račak massacre] so the war could begin.” (238)
All of this points up the extent to which the “Račak massacre” was above all a political artifact, serving, as Ranta suggests, a warjustification role, with the supposed research that went into its codification requiring heavy discounting. In addition to the testimony of Chatelet and the circumstances of the Serb action of January 15, there is also forensic evidence that the bodies recovered on January 16 were combatants, not simply civilians. Gunpowder residue was found on the hands of thirty-seven of the forty bodies autopsied at Pristina University’s Department of Forensic Medicine, according to the Serb forensic pathologist Dusan Dunjic, who worked with the EU Team; the “traces of gunpowder explosion indicated that directly before death, these people had handled firearms,” he has written. (239)
Also of importance is a 2001 reassessment of the EU Team’s findings. (240) Although the cause of death in all forty cases was gun-shot wounds, the number of wounds varied widely across the forty bodies. Six bodies had only one gunshot wound, which of course proved fatal; but fifteen bodies had between two and five wounds, fourteen bodies between six and ten, and five bodies between eleven and twenty. (241) Yet, on the “massacre” model, in which between twenty-two and forty Kosovo Albanian civilians were rounded up by Serb forces and executed in cold-blood, it is highly unlikely that six persons would have been executed by a single shot, while another thirty-four persons would have received between two and twenty bullet wounds. On the contrary, this variation in observable wounds suggests something else: Deaths occurring under a series of different circumstances (or different “manners of death,” in the terminology used by these experts (242)) in different locations and at different times. What is more, in only eleven cases was a “considerable uniformity consistent with sustained firing ... detected” in the forty bodies autopsied (or was “sustained firing ... probable,” as they put it elsewhere); otherwise, “Bullet path directions were mostly variable.” (243) Taken in whole, this suggests that the killings in and around Račak as well as the other three villages where Serb forces carried out their offensive on January 15 were mainly, if not exclusively, battle deaths rather than executions. (244)
But Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, the ICTY, Louise Arbour, NATO, and the mainstream media all took their cues from Walker’s first performance at the scene, and agreed unhesitatingly that Račak was a cold-blooded massacre of at least forty Kosovo Albanian civilians, thus establishing once again the ruthlessness and villainy of the Serbs. Bill Clinton repeatedly lied about Račak, even claiming in one nationally televised news conference just five days before the start of the war that “innocent men, women, and children [were] taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were.” (245) As we noted, Albright was positively delighted with William Walker’s news about a “massacre.” Louise Arbour quickly declared the “Račak massacre” a crime based solely on Walker’s news about it. The EU’s German president persuaded Helena Ranta to hold her news conference on March 17, where, under great pressure, she delivered a biased “personal” interpretation of the EU Forensic Team’s work—March 17 turning out to be the very last day of the Rambouillet talks, thus helping to cancel out Belgrade’s efforts to stave-off NATO’s imminent war. Indeed, so important was the “Račak massacre” to NATO’s march to war, this single incident on January 15, 1999 comprises the only charge in the ICTY’s May 1999 indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes that he allegedly committed in Kosovo that occurred prior to the start of NATO’s bombing war. (246)
Media collaboration in turning the “Račak massacre” into a casus belli was exemplary. Most notable was the media’s almost uniform failure to mention the circumstances of the Serb offensive: The KLA’s killing of Serb police officers the weekend before; the invited presence of OSCE monitors, the AP camera crew, and a French journalist—or the incompetence of the Serb forces that left dead bodies strewn across the ground (and which nobody spotted, until the overnight return of the KLA to the village); or William Walker’s background as an administrator of his government’s foreign wars; or Bill Clinton’s lie about Serb targeting of ethnic Albanian women and children “because of who they were;” or the pressures put on the EU Forensic Team and Helena Ranta; or the convenience of the “Račak massacre” for U.S. and NATO policy at the time. In short, a “massacre” served well the U.S. and NATO plans to launch a bombing war on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, already in the works for several months; and the media helped these powers to fashion the political artifact needed to make it real.
As can be seen in Table 3 the word “massacre” was used 312 times by the newspapers in discussing Račak, nearly three times more often than El Mozote, which involved between eighteen and twenty-two times as many deaths—real killings of civilians, not a mythical bloodbath based on atrocities management, and in the El Mozote case people for whom justice will never be obtained. If Račak is a mythical atrocity, as we believe, then the war that it helped sell to the world was based on a lie, and any notion that this war was in the pursuit of justice is called into question by this fact alone.