Published on Friday, August 18, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian (UK)
'Motivated To Believe The Worst'
by Jonathan Steele
The horror in Kosovo was "a story that has not yet been fully told," the US defence secretary, William Cohen, told American marines on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt a few days after Nato ended its bombing campaign. "When it is, people all over the world will understand why it was that America believed it had to take action."
Flushed with victory after 78 days of air strikes finally led President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, Mr Cohen was still in combative mood as he visited US units around the Adriatic.
Yet, as new details about the war emerge, Mr Cohen's "untold story" reveals the opposite of what he predicted. The reality of what was going on in Kosovo was less, not more, appalling than Nato claimed.
The International Criminal Tribunal's disclosure that the final toll of bodies dug up in Kosovo would be under 3,000 contrasts starkly with the estimates of mass murder given by Nato while the bombs were falling. Mr Cohen told a CBS interviewer in May that 100,000 men of military age were missing, and "may have been murdered".
David Scheffer, the US envoy for war crimes issues, put the figure even higher. He told reporters at Nato headquarters on May 18 last year that more than 225,000 ethnic Albanian men between the ages of 14 to 59 were unaccounted for.
In fact, the atrocities during the Bosnian war were on a larger scale than Kosovo. Ethnic cleansing accounted for more people in Bosnia, and some 200,000 were murdered. The hyperbole over the atrocities in Kosovo seemed to flow from Nato's need to shore up public support for its bombing, especially when the air strikes failed to secure Mr Milosevic's surrender after the first few days. "It was hard to know what was going on. But we were motivated to believe the worst," recalls Jack Seymour, a former US state department official who works for the non-governmental British American Security Information Council.
Although most Nato allegations of atrocities were covered by caveats that the reports could not be verified, officials knew these reservations were the equivalent of the small print in a contract. Headlines and soundbites were what counted. Nato also had the authority, spurious or otherwise, of data from intelligence.
Brendan Paddy of Amnesty International says: "During the war people were asking us to stand up the figures of deaths and we said we couldn't corroborate them because we had no access to Kosovo. We didn't know to what extent Nato statements were based on military intelligence. If there was intelligence to back it up at the time, it would be useful if Nato would come forward now."
When the war ended, Geoff Hoon, then a junior minister at the Foreign Office, said on June 17 last year that "at least 10,000" Albanian civilians were killed. Five months later the Foreign Office in a memorandum to the House of Commons repeated the phrase, saying it was based "on a variety of intelligence and other sources".
But it continued to make assertions without providing evidence. The memorandum claimed that a "high proportion of bodies will never be recovered, given the degree to which Serb forces, fearing war crimes charges, attempted to destroy bodies". Was this unverifiable statement an alibi to explain the relatively low number of bodies being dug up? The Hague war crimes tribunal itself refuses to give a toll of murdered civilians. It is not its job to come up with a figure, officials say.
Besides the bodies exhumed, the search for a final total would have to include the people reported missing and still unaccounted for. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), which has a mandate to trace missing people, has received 4,941 requests from families in Kosovo. In 1,573 cases the file was closed, with 199 missing people being confirmed dead and the Serb authorities admitting they were holding 1,374 Albanian men in prisons in Serbia. Of the remaining 3,368 cases some 370 are of people reportedly abducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army or Kosovo Albanian civilians.
Neither the Red Cross or the Hague tribunal can say how many of the missing 3,000 coincide with the bodies unearthed. "Between 60 and 80% of the bodies which the tribunal unearthed last year were identified but they haven't given us the lists of names," says Victoria Romano, the ICRC's protection officer in Pristina, Kosovo. Even if no names on the two lists coincided, this would raise the total of the Serbs' potential victims to a maximum of 6,000, still substantially less than the Foreign Office's "at least 10,000".
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000