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Canadians should ask questions about Milosevic's transfer to The Hague and Canada's role in the war against Yugoslavia

Stephen Gowans

george Orwell once said that a lot of journalism is like prefabricated hen houses -- ready-made phrases and ideas slapped together without a lot of thought. Orwell's ghost must have smiled knowingly, reading media reports of Milosevic's abduction and transfer to The Hague. Drawing from a warehouse of ready made fallacies, one journalist noted there was an estimated 10,000 deaths related to Milosevic's crackdown in Kosovo. Passed from journalist to journalist, this canard spreads like a virus. After at time, it becomes part of the zeitgeist, accepted by all, because it's accepted by everyone else, even though it has no roots in reality, like people believing the earth is flat in the face of plenty of opportunities to see it isn't. Alan Freeman, a correspondent for the Globe and Mail, dragged out the 10,000 dead myth, even though his own newspaper has run articles on forensic pathologists failing to turn up the 10,000 dead NATO warned darkly of. That is that NATO once warned darkly of. NATO long ago backed away from the 10,000 dead figure. But once a virus starts to spread, it's difficult to stamp out.

So it is that media reports can be built around a myth, despite internal inconsistencies in the report that surrounds it. Freeman, for example, lays out the charges against Milosevic: deportation, murder, persecution. Nothing about genocide. Ten thousand deaths surely ranks as genocide. But Freeman doesn't ask why the genocide charge is absent, doesn't even seem to know that his prefabricated hen house is askew, its angles all wrong.

The charges against Milosevic involve the murder of 391 individuals, not 10,000, something Freeman might not even know. If he does, he's not saying. Nor does he know, or mention, that by the most conservative estimate -- that of Human Rights Watch -- NATO killed 500 civilians in its 78-day aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia, a bombardment that, without the backing of the UN, was illegal. That's in excess of a hundred deaths more than Milosevic is accused of. Other estimates put the civilian death toll higher. Yet NATO said it had to bomb Yugoslavia to stop a genocide.

Of course, the NATO death toll was accidental, NATO-supporters, and journalists, will object. NATO didn't mean to kill those civilians, so killing them was excusable. They were unfortunate collateral damage, the phrase Timothy McVeigh, ex-US serviceman, invoked to explain away the hundreds he murdered. He learned well.

Journalist haven't always had such an exculpatory attitude to aerial bombardment and its inevitable toll of "accidental" civilian casualties. Consider this, from the New York Times, May 10, 1940.

"(Three bombers) whipped down to the valley, whirled around and came back again...They knew what they were doing. They knew they were destroying private houses in a helpless village...and people in those houses if they were not quick enough.

The story of air warfare of this sort has been told and retold...It is not an accidental 'atrocity'...It is an attested, studied, boasted method of attack. These are the gangsters of the air."

It could have been a comment on NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, or, in particular, the attack on the quiet Serb town of Varvaran, well away from the fighting, where, one day, two years ago, a NATO jet fighter swooped down on a bridge filled with civilians, fired a missile, and then came back for a second attack while rescuers were pulling the dead and wounded from the rubble. But it wasn't. It was a comment on a Nazi air raid in Norway. The Nazis were the last to bomb Yugoslavia...that is, before NATO decided to see what cluster bombs, depleted uranium, cruise missiles and high-altitude bombing could do to embassies, radio-television buildings, trains, factories, refugee convoys, hospitals, bridges and...people.

If you're going to be gangsters of the air for 78 days, in violation of international law, killing hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, destroying civilian and economic infrastructure in contravention of the articles of war, then you'd better be able to show that you have a compelling reason. The murder of 391 people is hardly compelling. It's unconscionable, but by most standards, the killing of at least 500 in response, is even more unconscionable. Which is why it's handy that the media is willing to trot out the myth about 10,000 deaths in Kosovo. Five hundred "accidental" deaths against 10,000 planned deaths seems justifiable.

It's handy too that the media raises no embarrassing questions about the timing of the bombing. All of the murders of which Milosevic is accused, but one, happened after the NATO bombing commenced. And the one pre-bombing incident, the Racak massacre, is now believed to have been faked by the KLA, an organization which has since been revealed to have been trained, funded, and encouraged by Washington, to oust Milosevic. Before the bombing the US State Department denounced the KLA as a terrorist organization. The KLA has since transmuted into the NLA, another terrorist organization, this time bedeviling the Macedonian government.

The Racak incident is worth looking at. On the morning of January 16, 1999, William Walker, head of the Kosovo Verification Mission led the press to the Kosovar village of Racak, a KLA stronghold. There some 20 bodies were found in a shallow trench, and 20 more were found scattered throughout the village. The KLA, and Walker, alleged that masked Serb policemen had entered the village the previous day, and killed men, women and children at close range, after torturing and mutilating them. Chillingly, the Serb police were said to have whistled merrily as they went about their work of slaughtering the villagers.

It was a horrible tableau, sure to whip up the indignation of the world -- and it did.

Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as eager to scratch her ever itchy trigger finger as her boss was to scratch his illimitable sexual itches, demanded that Yugoslavia be bombed immediately. Albright, like a kid agonizingly counting down the hours to Christmas, would have to wait until after Milosevic's rejection of NATO's ultimata at Rambouillet to get her wish.

Bill Clinton, not to be surpassed in expressing indignation, said, "We should remember what happened in the village of Racak...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."

But not everyone was so sure that Walker's story was to be believed. The French newspaper La Monde had some trouble swallowing the story. It reported on Jan. 21, 1999, a few days after the incident, that an Associated Press TV crew had filmed a gun battle at Racak between Serb police and KLA guerillas. Indeed, the crew was present because the Serbs had tipped them off that they were going to enter the village to arrest a man accused of shooting a police officer. Also present were two teams of KVM monitors.

It seems unlikely that if you're about to carry out a massacre that you would invite the press -- and international observers -- to watch.

The film showed that as soon as the Serbs entered Racak they came under heavy fire from KLA guerillas positioned in the surrounding hills. The idea that the police could dig a trench and then kill villagers at close range while under attack troubled La Monde. So too did the fact that, entering the village after the fire fight to assess the damage and interview the villagers, the KVM observers saw no sign of a massacre. What's more, the villagers said nothing about a massacre either.

Yet, when Walker returned the next day with the press -- at the KLA's invitation -- there was the trench with the bodies. Could the police have returned later on and carried out the massacre under cover of darkness?

That seems unlikely. Racak is a KLA stronghold. Serb police had already discovered that if they were going to enter the village they would have to deal with the guerillas. How could they torture, mutilate and cold-bloodedly kill villagers at close range while harassed by KLA gunfire?

And why, wondered La Monde, were there few signs of spent cartridges and blood at the trench?

Finnish forensic pathologists who investigated the incident on behalf of the European Union, say there was no evidence of a massacre. In an article published in Forensic Science International earlier this year, the Finnish team writes that none of the bodies were mutilated, there was no evidence of torture, and only one was shot at close range.

Thirty-seven of the corpses had gunpowder residue on their hands, suggesting that they had been using firearms, and only one of the corpses was a woman, and only one was under 15 years of age. Not the picture Clinton painted of innocent men, women and children, dragged from their homes, and sprayed with gunfire.

The pathologists say Walker was quick to come to the conclusion that there was a massacre, even though the evidence was weak. And they point out that there is no evidence that the deceased were from Racak.

The KLA, the Serbs charge, faked the massacre by laying out their fallen comrades in the trench they, themselves, prepared, and the United States used the staged massacre as a pretext for the bombing.

The Washington Post said, "Racak transformed the West's Balkan policy as singular events seldom do. The atrocity...convinced the administration and then its NATO allies that a six year effort to bottle up the ethnic conflict in Kosovo was doomed."

We'll never know for sure what really happened at Racak, but the evidence linking Milosevic to a brutal massacre is pretty slim.

"The first casualty of war is the truth," says Paul Buteux, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, echoing a cliché that is sententiously uttered after every war, but never learned from.

"It gets very murky. I have no doubt that whoever was putting those intelligence reports together prior to the NATO air campaign would be under pressure to put things in the worst possible light. There was a point when the spin doctors came in."

And what of the deportation charges -- more spin? Possibly. Remember, there was a civil war raging between the KLA and Serb security forces, while bombs from NATO planes were raining down on Kosovo, killing whoever happened to get in the way. Who's going to stick around to get caught in the crossfire? More importantly, though, is the question of timing. The mass exodus from Kosovo, like the massacres Milosevic is accused of ordering, happened after the bombing, not before. And yet, the exodus was offered as a justification of the bombing.

In the end, Milosevic is in The Hague to answer for crimes that could not have been the reason for NATO's bombing, unless, somehow the universe has become disordered and cause follows effect. NATO starts dropping bombs and then the massacres happen and the exodus happens, and NATO says we had to drop bombs to stop the massacres and mass deportation. Huh?

Stratfor, the strategic forecasting organization, warns that Americans may be hoisted on their petards. If you can send Milosevic to The Hague on charges of deportation, persecution, and murder, you can send scores of leaders, political and military, to The Hague, including Americans, Stratfor warns. Imagine how many Israeli leaders could be sent to The Hague. Imagine how many NATO leaders could stand in the docket on more serious charges: crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, war crimes.

The reality, however, as Stratfor is quick to point out, is that "No court in the world has the ability to coerce China, Russia or the United States to hand over a current or former leader." Or to hand over leaders of strategic allies, like NATO partners. I doubt Jean Chretien ever lost a moment's sleep worrying that his butt might get dragged to The Hague to answer charges connected with Canada's participation in an illegal war that touched of a humanitarian tragedy, rather than preventing one.

Carla del Ponte, Chief UN Prosecutor, told a news conference that, "Nobody is above the law or beyond the reach of international justice." And yet asked why the Tribunal isn't pursuing others who are alleged to have committed war crimes, del Ponte replied, ""The primary focus of the Office of the Prosecutor must be on the investigation and prosecution of the (leaders of Yugoslavia) and Serbia who have already been indicted." By a most curious logic, "nobody", in del Ponte's reasoning, is equivalent to "all but the Serbs."

And so the second NATO campaign begins. The first was a campaign of bombs, missiles, and civilian deaths, explained away, Timothy McVeigh-like, as unfortunate accidents. The second is a bombardment of lies.

The American historian Howard Zinn argues that the most patriotic act a citizen can undertake is to ask questions, not to rally blindly behind leaders, who, on occasion after occasion, have shown themselves to be skilled and inveterate liars. Remember Jean Chretien's, "I never said I would cancel the GST"? Patriots might ask themselves: Is the evidence against Milosevic compelling? Is it true that there are no leaders beyond the reach of international justice, or is it closer to the truth to say that leaders of small countries are not beyond the reach of international law, while the leaders of the big powers, and their strategic allies, are ?


Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at sr.gowans@sympatico.ca.

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