Diary of an Uncivil War
by Scott Taylor
February 14, 2001

This is the first chapter of Scott Taylor's upcoming book, Diary of an Uncivil War, detailing the author's war reporting in Macedonia.

PRISTINA, KOSOVO - 15 JUNE 1999 (Tuesday)

Queuing up at 6:00 a.m., I was lucky to get a ticket on the last Belgrade-bound bus. It was standing room only as I boarded with 67 Serb refugees carrying all their worldly possessions. The 78-day bombing campaign had reduced the Pristina bus station to little more than a pile of rubble. (The first NATO ground troops had arrived in the capital of Kosovo two days earlier, and it was now serving as a major logistics point for the British 5th Brigade.) As our overloaded bus backed away from the platform, British soldiers came out of their tents to laugh at the spectacle.

Since Sunday, the streets of Pristina had been clogged with dusty columns of retreating Yugoslav Army units. British tanks and armoured vehicles were overseeing their progress at every major intersection. Under the terms of the Technical Agreement, signed June 9 in Kumanovo, Macedonia, the Yugoslav security forces still had 48 hours to withdraw from Kosovo. The presence of 4800 NATO peacekeepers had done little to reassure Serbian civilians of their continued safety. Televised statements by U.S. State Department officials fuelled their fears by warning, "Kosovo will not be a very healthy place for Serbs in the coming days."

The Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army wasted little time in making that prophecy a reality. As the first NATO vehicles rolled into the embattled province, several off-duty Serbian soldiers waiting for withdrawal orders were gunned down in Pristina while dozens of farmers were brutally murdered outside Prizren. The outbreak of violence sparked the exodus of hundreds of thousands of terrified Serbian civilians.

Although I had been offered safe passage back to Belgrade with a NATO-escorted convoy of foreign journalists, I felt the major news story was the reverse ethnic-cleansing. What better way to cover it than as a participant.

Just before noon our bus reached the northern city limits of Pristina. There to greet us were 600 or so rock-throwing Albanians. British soldiers were on hand, but they made no attempt to disperse the crowd. As our driver accelerated, the bus was pelted with rocks. It was a terrifying experience, particularly for the young children and elderly.

The gauntlet had been established coincidentally with the arrival of the NATO vanguard on Sunday. For two days and nights groups of Albanians manned this checkpoint to "see off" their Serbian neighbours. Several vehicles had been disabled and their Serbian occupants hauled out and beaten.

Pristina, June 1999. Despite the presence of NATO troops, not all Serbian refugees passed through the Albanian gauntlets unharmed. When vehicles were disabled by the stone-throwing mobs, the occupants would often be dragged into the streets and beaten. (Photo by Scott Taylor)

Here too, British troops stood by, laughed and did nothing. Except for me, no reporter was there to record the incident, despite the fact that 2700 foreign journalists had been accredited by NATO to report from Kosovo.

Apparently, this gauntlet was not considered newsworthy enough. Journalists were distracted by the victory celebrations following NATO's "liberation" of Kosovo, and images of terrified Serbs being taunted and stoned by Kosovars might have also altered the cultivated image of Albanians as "innocent victims of an oppressive regime."

Of course, it was largely these same journalists, through their one-sided reporting on the war, who had created this simplified picture of a complex situation. When the NATO campaign began, only a handful of Western journalists had been allowed to remain inside Serbia and Kosovo. The Serbs had great difficulty in presenting their side of the story as television studios and transmitters were bombed. As a result, most of the daily news coverage came from either the NATO press center in Brussels or from unconfirmed witness statements collected from refugee camps in neighbouring Macedonia. Although the exodus of Albanians from Kosovo started two days after the air strikes began, this humanitarian crisis and allegations of genocide were accepted as justification for the Alliance's military intervention.

As the bombing campaign dragged on and the Serbs showed no sign of surrender, the prospect of NATO launching a ground assault loomed larger.

In order to strengthen support for such a risky escalation of the conflict, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea simply upped his numbers. Overnight, the figure of Albanians presumed murdered by the Serbs was multiplied tenfold to 100,000.

Similarly, NATO's tactical successes were wildly exaggerated by Shea, and dutifully reported by the Western media.

When the horde of journalists finally descended upon Kosovo, reporters weren't interested in Albanian revenge killings of Serbs - they were on a collective race to uncover the first "mass graves," discover the "rape camps," and the shattered remains of the Serbian army.

What they found was evidence of a very different war from the one they had just spent the past three months reporting. The mass grave sites proved to be elusive. Despite much-repeated eyewitness accounts of the execution of 700 Albanians at the Trepca mines for example, not a single body was found. The biggest find was seven corpses exhumed at Ljubenic - a site which had purportedly been the burial ground of over 350 Kosovars. After five months of searching, UN forensic teams had uncovered only 670 bodies: Keeping in mind that this tally included Albanian, Serbian and Gypsy civilians plus suspected combatants, the numbers did not justify the careless use of the word genocide, and was a far cry from Jamie Shea's wildly exaggerated claims.

As the last of the Yugoslav Army and police columns withdrew, journalists were equally hard-pressed to locate the burnt-out hulks of vehicles promised them by Jamie Shea. In his daily press briefings, Shea had kept a running tally of destroyed Serbian weapon systems, boasting that NATO air power had effectively created "a ring of death around Kosovo."

The truth was sobering. Despite dropping over $15 billion (U.S.) worth of ordnance, only 13 Serbian tanks were destroyed in 78 days of bombing, and five of these were credited to UCK land mines.

Claims of mass rape also failed to stand up to scrutiny.

At the height of the fighting, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a short documentary profiling a female fighter in the Kosovo Liberation Army. Her heart-rending story was that she had taken up arms after being forced to watch as Serbian police raped, then killed, her sister. When a television news crew tracked her down for a follow-up homecoming piece, they found her sister very much alive - and unmolested. When the CBC aired what amounted to a retraction of the original story, she was unrepentant. "We did what we had to do," she said. "We could not beat the Serbs ourselves."

As journalists are loathe to admit they've been duped, retractions or corrections rarely receive the same prominence as the original stories - and once public opinion has been shaped, it is difficult to shift. Since news reports are considered the first rough draft of history, books based on this one-sided coverage of the conflict exacerbate the original distortions.

As Serbian refugees fled their homes, their departure from Kosovo was hastened by angry mobs of Albanian civilians. The Western media largely ignored this reversal in ethnic cleansing. (Photo by Scott Taylor)

In Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, Canadian author and Balkan analyst Michael Ignatieff perpetuated many of the falsehoods generated to justify NATO's intervention. Although it can be gleaned from the anecdotes he uses that only one side of the conflict is being presented, Ignatieff gives the impression that he is telling the whole story. His interviews with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, The Hague War Crimes chief prosecutor Louise Arbour, and General Wesley Clark are not offset with the views of the Serbian leadership. Much of Virtual War was written during the air campaign and was based only on information available at the time.

Consequently, Ignatieff's supporting arguments for the campaign are based on the same two "galvanizing incidents" used by NATO spokesmen to justify their actions: the January 1999 massacre of Albanian civilians by Serbian police at Racak, and Operation Horseshoe, the plan for Yugoslavia to ethnically-cleanse Kosovo.
By the time Virtual War was published in 2000, German intelligence confessed to having fabricated the Operation Horseshoe documents, and a UN forensic team had concluded that "no massacre" had taken place at Racak. Despite the importance of these findings, Ignatieff chose to ignore them rather than rethink his basic premise.

Likewise, veteran CBC journalist Carol Off failed to note that Racak was a hoax in The Lion, The Fox and The Eagle: A story of generals and justice in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Although Off devoted one-third of her book to Hague prosecutor Louise Arbour (the Eagle), no mention was made of this new evidence.

Arbour's indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as a war criminal on the basis of the Racak massacre during the NATO air campaign had served the U.S. State Department's propaganda interests. However, by proceeding with this indictment without corroborating forensic evidence, Arbour undermined not only the credibility of The Hague Tribunal, but also her professional reputation as an impartial prosecutor.

In her book, and her subsequent defence of it, Carol Off displays a marked anti-Serbian bias, which is echoed by many of the Western journalists who ventured into the Balkans from time to time over the past decade to size up the situation. Their stories were often misleading. Conditions in the "besieged" Muslim enclave of Sarajevo, for example, were deemed representative of the overall situation in Bosnia.

A dumbed-down version of 'Serbs as aggressors' became the media-accepted template for coverage, even when it completely ignored the complexity behind the multi-factional violence taking place in the former Yugoslavia.

In reporting the civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia, journalists often described the Serbs as invaders and whatever territory they occupied was referred to as captured.

Such simplistic interpretations ignore history. Most of the ethnic Serbian inhabitants of disputed areas have been living there for over 250 years. Forced from Kosovo, their religious heartland, by the Turks in 1737 during the Great Migration, thousands of displaced Serbs resettled in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and formed a buffer zone against further Turkish expansion.

In addition to ignoring past population shifts, the Western media also chose to rewrite modern history. Inspired by Croatian- and Muslim-funded U.S. public relations firms, the Serbs were often compared to Nazi stormtroopers. For the Serbian people to be depicted in this fashion is particularly puzzling. In World War II, when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, Hitler had exploited underlying ethnic hatreds to divide and conquer. Croatia was recognized as an independent state and its Ustasha pledged allegiance to the Nazis. Albanians in Kosovo were recruited in great numbers into an SS Division, Skenderberg, while the Bosnian Muslims joined another SS Division, Handschar, noted for its brutality. As they had in World War I, the Serbs supported the Allied cause and fiercely resisted German occupation. As Communist partisans, or Royalist Chetniks, the Serbs were dogged fighters, much admired in the West. But they paid a hefty price for their defiance. As part of the Nazi policy of retribution, the death of every German soldier was avenged with the execution of 100 Serbian civilians. At concentration camps in Croatia, the Ustasha exterminated Serbs, Jews and Gypsys with such savagery that even the German SS commanders were compelled to protest.

The media continued to refer to the Serbian military as a Nazi-like juggernaut throughout the various Balkan wars of the past decade. Some juggernaut. By the time the Dayton Peace Accord was signed in December 1995, it had been defeated on all fronts and over 750,000 Serb civilians had been expelled from lost territory in western Slovonia, the Krajina, eastern Croatia and Bosnia.

Despite military setbacks and widespread suffering in Yugoslavia after a decade of economic sanctions, the media stereotype remained unchanged. In March 1999, on the eve of the Kosovo conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright likened Slobodan Milosevic to "Adolf Hitler in 1938."

Milosevic was the very man who, in 1996, Albright had praised as a "man of peace," in recognition of the part he played in securing the Dayton agreement. When hundreds of thousands of Serbs took to the streets of Belgrade later that same year to protest his manipulation of municipal elections, the U.S. refused to intervene. With a U.S.-led NATO stabilization force maintaining a shaky cease-fire in Bosnia, the Americans needed Milosevic.

On June 16, 1999, British troops watched as hundreds of cheering Albanians formed a gauntlet on the streets of Pristina. (Photo by Scott Taylor)

While the American media chose to ignore Albright's flip-flop, the Serbs did not forget. As NATO bombs rained down on Belgrade, so did U.S. propaganda leaflets urging Yugoslavs to rise up and overthrow Milosevic. Despite their hatred for the president, they were not about to do America's bidding while in the cross-hairs of a bombsight.

In the end, NATO had been forced to back down and negotiate the Kosovo peace deal with indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.
In return for allowing NATO ground troops to enter the province (under a United Nations mandate), Kosovo was to remain the sovereign territory of Yugoslavia, the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army was to be disbanded, and Serbian security forces were to remain in control of the border crossings.

The neighbouring Republic of Macedonia expected its own reward for having provided emergency assistance to the flood of Albanian refugees and for allowing NATO troops to use its territory as a staging ground for the Kosovo operation. Bankrupt and militarily unprepared, the Macedonians believed that they would be accepted as partners in NATO and the European Union, and that they would not be caught up in the escalating regional violence.
Events would prove them wrong.

Scott Taylor is editor of Esprit de Corps magazine and writes for the Canadian press."

Thanks to Benjamin Works of the Strategic Issues Research Institute of the US (SIRIUS).

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