Where Are All the Bodies Buried?

In March 1999, NATO forces launched
an 11-week nonstop aerial attack upon Yugoslavia that violated the UN charter,
NATO’s own charter, the U.S. Constitution, and the War Powers Act. Yugoslavia
had invaded no UN or NATO member. The Congress had made no declaration of
war. No matter. The “moral imperatives” and humanitarian concerns
were heralded as being so overwhelming that legalities would have to be brushed
aside. Here were mass atrocities perpetrated by the demonic Serbs and their
fiendish leader, Slobodan Milosevic not seen since the Nazis rampaged across
Europe; something had to be done—so we were told.

Thus, a week before the bombings began, David Scheffer, U.S. State Department
ambassador at large for war crime issues, announced that “we have upwards
[of] about 100,000 [ethnic Albanian] men that we cannot account for”
in Kosovo. A month later, the State Department claimed that up to 500,000
Kosovo Albanians were missing and feared dead. By mid-May U.S. Secretary of
Defense William Cohen stated that 100,000 military-aged men had vanished and
might have been killed by the Serbs. Not long after—as public support
for the war began to wane—Ambassador Scheffer escalated the 100,000 figure
to “as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59”
who remained unaccounted. He considered this to be one of the greatest genocidal
crimes against a civilian population. Indeed it was, if true.

As the war dragged on and NATO officials saw press attention drifting toward
the contrary story—namely that civilians were being killed by NATO’s
bombs—NATO stepped up its claims about Serb “killing fields.”
Widely varying but horrendous figures from official sources went largely unchallenged
by the media and by the many liberals who supported the “humanitarian
rescue operation.”

Just before the end of the air campaign, British Foreign Office Minister Geoff
Hoon said that “in more than 100 massacres” some 10,000 ethnic Albanians
had been killed (averaging 100 victims per massacre). Though substantially
reduced from the 100,000 to 500,000 bandied about by U.S. officials, this
was still a considerable number. A day or two after the bombings stopped,
the Associated Press, echoing Hoon, reported that 10,000 Albanians had been
killed by the Serbs. No explanation was offered as to how this figure was
arrived at, given that not a single war site had yet been investigated and
NATO forces were just beginning to roll into Kosovo. A few weeks later, the
New York Times reported that “at least 10,000 people were slaughtered
by Serbian forces during their three-month campaign to drive the Albanians
from Kosovo.” The story went on to tell of “war crimes investigators,
NATO peacekeeping troops, and aid agencies struggling to keep up with fresh
reports each day of newly discovered bodies and graves.”

On August 2, another remarkable pronouncement, this time from the irrepressible
Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations’ chief administrator in Kosovo (and
head of Doctors Without Borders and friend of KLA leaders), who claimed that
11,000 bodies had been found in common graves throughout the province. He
cited as his source the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Republic
of Yugoslavia (ICTY). But the ICTY denied providing any such information to
Kouchner or anyone else. To this day, it is not clear how he came up with
his estimate.

The Kosovo-based Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, staffed
in part by KLA officials, first promulgated the figure of 10,000 missing,
purportedly based on interviews with refugees. The U.S. State Department and
Western media echoed the council’s estimate. But the number had to be
taken on faith because the council would not share its list of missing persons.

As in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts, the image of mass killings by vicious
brutal Serbs was ceaselessly hyped. Humanitarian organizations, KLA militants,
 NATO and State Department officials, and the news media fed off each
other. Through a process of unconfirmed assertion and tireless repetition,
evidence became irrelevant. Unsubstantiated references to mass graves, each
purportedly filled with hundreds or even thousands of victims were daily publicized
as established facts. From June through August 1999, the New York Times
alone ran eighty articles, nearly one a day, that made some reference to mass
graves in Kosovo. Yet when it came down to hard evidence, the graves seemed
to disappear, as the FBI discovered for itself.

In mid-June, the FBI sent a team to investigate two of the sites listed in
the war crimes indictment against Slobodan Milosevic, one said to contain
6 victims and the other 20. The team lugged 107,000 pounds of equipment  into
Kosovo to handle what was called the “largest crime scene in the FBI’s
forensic history,” but it came up with no reports about mass graves.
Some weeks after its arrival, the FBI team returned home, oddly with not a
word to say about their investigation. Months later, the London Financial
reported that the FBI had found not thousands but 200 bodies at
30 sites.

Forensic experts from other NATO countries had similar experiences in Kosovo.
“French investigators were frustrated at Izbica,” reported the New
York Times
(July 18), “when a widely publicized mass  grave
in which they expected to find about 150 bodies turned out to be empty.”
It must have been “dug up with a backhoe and the bodies spirited off,
investigators  said, between the indictment and the arrival of NATO troops.”
    A Spanish forensic team was told to prepare for at
least 2,000 autopsies, but found only 187 bodies, usually buried in individual
graves, and showing no signs of massacre or torture, contrary to the stories
bandied about by humanitarian groups and local residents. Most seemed to have
been killed by mortar shells and firearms. As reported in the Times
of London (October 31), one Spanish forensic expert, Emilio Perez Puhola,
acknowledged that his team did not find one mass grave. He dismissed the widely
publicized references about mass graves as being part of the “machinery
of war propaganda.”

That same edition of the London Times reported that Stratfor, a
private research team, basing their analysis on reports from forensic teams
involved in the exhumation of bodies, determined that the final total of those
killed in Kosovo came to “hundreds not thousands.”

In July 1999, the Washington Post reported that 350 ethnic Albanians
“might be buried in mass graves” around a mountain village in western
Kosovo. Might be? Such speculations were based on sources that NATO officials
refused to identify. Getting down to specifics, the article mentions “four
decomposing bodies” discovered near a large ash heap, with no details
as to who they were or how they died.

By late August 1999, the frantic hunt for dead bodies continued to disappoint
NATO officials and their media minions. The Los Angeles Times  tried
to salvage the genocide theme with a story about how the wells of Kosovo might
be “mass graves in their own right.” The Times  claimed
that “many corpses have been dumped into wells in Kosovo…Serbian forces
apparently stuffed…many bodies of ethnic Albanians into wells during their
campaign of terror.” Apparently? When the story got down to specifics,
it dwelled on only one well in one village—in which the body of a 39-year-old
male was found, along with three dead cows and a dog. Neither his nationality
nor cause of death was given. “No other human remains were discovered,”
the Times lamely concluded.

An earlier New York Times story (July 18) told of French investigators
who pulled the decomposed bodies of eight women from wells in the destroyed
village of Cirez, acting on reports from local residents. Unconfirmed reports,
from 44 villages in the district around Decani, of 39 dead bodies in wells,
had yet to be investigated. As far as I know, there were no further stories
about bodies in wells, which would suggest that no more bodies were found.

At one reported grave site after another, bodies were failing to materialize
in any substantial numbers—or any numbers at all. In July 1999, a mass
grave in Ljubenic, near Pec—an area of extensive fighting—believed
to be holding some 350 corpses, produced only seven after the exhumation.
In Izbica, refugees reported that 150 ethnic Albanians were executed in March.
But their bodies were nowhere to be found. In Kraljan, 82 men were supposedly
killed, but investigators discovered not a single cadaver. In Djacovica, town
officials claimed that 100 ethnic Albanians had been murdered, but there were
no bodies because the Serbs had returned in the middle of the night, dug them
up and carted all of them away, the officials believed. In Pusto Selo, villagers
claimed that 106 men were captured and killed by Serbs at the end of March,
but again no remains were discovered. Villagers once more suggested that Serbian
forces must have come back and removed them. How the Serbs accomplished these
mass-grave disappearing acts without being detected is not explained. Where
was the evidence of mass grave sites having been disinterred? Where were the
new grave sites now presumably chock full of bodies? And why were they so
impossible to detect?  Questions of this sort were never posed.

The worst allegation of mass atrocities, a war crime ascribed to Yugoslav
president Slobodan Milosevic, was said to have occurred at the Trepca mine.
As reported by U.S. and NATO officials, the Serbs threw 1,000 or more bodies
down the shafts or disposed of them in the mine’s vats of hydrochloric
acid. In October 1999, the ICTY released the findings of Western forensic
teams investigating Trepca. Not a single body was found in the mine shafts,
nor was there any evidence that the vats had ever been used in an attempt
to dissolve human remains. Additional stories about a Nazi-like body disposal
facility in a furnace “on the other side of the mountain” from the
mine motivated a forensic team to analyze ashes in the furnace. “They
found no teeth or other signs of burnt bodies.”

The war crimes tribunal checked the largest reported grave sites first, and
found most to contain no more than five bodies, “suggesting intimate
killings rather than mass murder.” By the end of the year, the media
hype about mass graves had noticeably fizzled. The designated mass grave sites,
considered the most notorious, offered up a few hundred bodies altogether,
not the thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands previously
trumpeted, and with no evidence of torture or mass execution. In many cases,
there was no certain evidence regarding the nationality of victims; and no
report on cause of death. All this did not prevent the Associate Press from
reiterating the charge, as late as November 30, 1999, that “10,000 people
were killed in Kosovo.”

No doubt there were graves in Kosovo that contained two or more persons—which
was NATO’s definition of a “mass grave.” As of November 1999,
the total number of bodies that the Western grave diggers claimed to have
discovered was  2,108, “and not all of them necessarily war crimes
victims,” according to a story in the Wall Street Journal  (December
31). People were killed by bombs and by the extensive land war that went on
between Yugoslav and KLA forces. Some of the dead, as even the New York
allowed, “are fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army or may
have died ordinary deaths”—as would happen in any population of
over two million over the course of a year. No doubt there were despicable
grudge killings and executions of prisoners and innocent civilians as in any
war, especially a civil war, but not on a scale that would warrant the label
of “genocide” or justify the death and destruction and continuing
misery inflicted upon Yugoslavia by the Western powers.

No mass killings means that The Hague war crimes tribunal indictment of Milosevic
“becomes highly questionable,” argues Richard Gwyn, in the Toronto
. “Even more questionable is the West’s continued punishment
of the Serbs.” In sum, NATO leaders used vastly inflated estimates of
murdered Kosovo Albanians as a pretext to intrude on the internal affairs
of a sovereign nation, destroy much of its infrastructure and social production,
badly damage its ecology, kill a substantial number of its citizens, and invade
and occupy a large portion of its territory in what can only be termed a war
of aggression.                                                   Z

Michael Parenti’s most recent books are
History as Mystery
 (City Lights) and
To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia
(Verso, forthcoming).