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WHEN AND WHY DID THE ETHNIC CLEANSING BEGIN?

How we in Britain saw things through the media

Many in Britain were aware that Serb forces had terrorised part of Kosovo, provoking hundreds or even thousands to flee from their homes in 1998.
What was not so clear was that this was a result of a civil war in Kosovo fought by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) on one side and the Serb forces on the other  -  the police and army (VJ and MUP).. The KLA was a group (or rather several loosely connected groups) involved in an armed uprising against the legitimate, though vicious, Serbian government. 

It should be remembered that Serbs had lived Kosovo for generations, and that Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their civilisation. They have many monasteries there, dating back to medieval times. It is also true that Albanians and their forbears, the Illyrians, had also lived in the area for many hundreds of years.

Causes of Serbian violence

For a number of years the Serbian government had removed the rights of Kosovo Albanians and carried out organised harassment of the Albanian population. This was met for years with passive resistance. In 1996 violence began to be used occasionally against the Serb police and armed forces. (More details are to be found in the introduction to the book.  -  You can read it on this web site.)

From the spring of 1998 the Serbian government had been struggling to quell an ever more widespread armed uprising by the KLA which  took the form of continued attacks on military and police and armed attempts to expel Serbs from Kosovo. They were clearing the Drenica valley of Serb families, many of which had lived there for generations.

The KLA carried out abductions, beatings, and murders of Serbs. The Serbs responses to attacks were not focused on finding the guilty individuals. This would have been difficult when much of the Kosovo Albanian population was in sympathy with the aims of the KLA, and those who were not were frightened of reprisals from the KLA if they took sides with the Serbs. 

The Serbs therefore operated on the basis of counter-terror. Their forces would come into an area suspected of harbouring the KLA. They shelled villages, fought with the KLA, and took away or shot the men. 

KLA attacks became bolder and began to move to the towns.

An exceptional incident occurred on 24 June 1998 when the KLA captured the Belacevac coal mine which was an important source of fuel for the Serbian national grid. It was recaptured by Serbs five days later.

By the middle of 1998 the KLA controlled one third of Kosovo. The Serbs fought back with a violence which was greater than that of the KLA and were condemned by the United Nations for their actions. 

The KLA had been supported in their action by the United States. Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Yugoslavia had even allowed himself to be photographed sitting next to a masked KLA gun man holding a Kalashnikov. This photograph, published in newspapers around the world, sent a clear signal about whose side the US was on.  This year (2000) there have been admissions that the CIA trained members of the KLA. Details were published in The Sunday Times on 12 March 2000.

Better than violence  -  the war could have been avoided

If the Americans had condemned KLA violence, and taken action to stop the supply of weapons over the Albanian border, there would have been greater likelihood of a settlement. And this might have encompassed a multi-ethnic community with autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia. (NATO forces were in northern Albania in 1998 already in place to hinder or assist the KLA programme of violence.)

Mediation could have taken place. Talking is the only alternative to violence. The abuse of Kosovo Albanians by Serbs in Kosovo had to end. And there had to be genuine freedoms and democracy for Kosovo Albanians. At the same time there should have been safeguards for the freedoms and democratic involvement of the quarter of a million Serbs in Kosovo and other minority ethnic groups. 

If proper steps had been taken to deal with the issues rather than the encouragement of violence then  the present disaster would have been avoided. 

The ending of KLA attacks would have ended Serb reprisals.  Bombing would not have taken place. Ethnic tensions would not have escalated to new heights. Peaceful negotiation  was the only proper course of action that should have been taken.

 

Situation leading up to the Racak "massacre" and Rambouillet Talks

US planned intervention in 1998

The United States was looking for an excuse to intervene in Kosovo and had already formed plans in August 1998.

"Planning for a U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo is now largely in place.... The only missing element seems to be an event - with suitably vivid media coverage - that would make the intervention politically salable."

U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, August 12, 1998.

In the autumn of 1998, under threat of bombing from the USA, and in response to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199, the Serbs, no doubt with great reluctance since they could offer no protection to their own ethnic group, agreed to withdraw their forces from Kosovo. By doing this they left the Serb population at the mercy of the KLA who had no restrictions placed upon them by the UN.

US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, confirmed the withdrawal in a statement made on 9th November 98. "Today the Alliance was able to report that President Milosevic is in very substantial compliance with Security Council Resolution 1199".

As a result of the withdrawal the Kosovo Albanians, who had been hiding mainly in the hills, returned home. By the spring of 1999 and at the time of the Rambouillet Talks there were only a few hundred Kosovo Albanians who had not returned home.

This has been confirmed by Robin Cook, UK Foreign Secretary. "Most refugees have returned to their settlements, with only some hundreds living in the open.” (Quoted by Mark Littman QC in his “Law and diplomacy - how NATO's war against Yugoslavia breached international law."

During the winter the KLA carried out a number of attacks, mainly on Serb police. Provocatively they started to build bunkers overlooking the town of Podujevo. They abducted many Serbs.

Thirty-six KLA men were killed by Serbs on 14 December 98. The same evening the KLA killed six Serb teenagers in a cafe in Pec. On 18 December the KLA killed the Serb mayor of Kosovo Polje. In early January three Serb youths were killed when a bomb exploded outside a Pristina cafe. There were retaliatory attacks by Serb civilians on Albanians. 

On 8 January 1999 the KLA kidnapped 8 young Serb soldiers, and killed three Serb policemen in a village near Stimlje (which is close to Racak). On the 10th they killed another.

On Friday 15 January came the Racak "massacre" which evidence suggests was actually a battle. The death toll was higher than in many such instances, but it should be seen as part of an on-going war in which both sides targeted civilians. The Serbs killed 45, including a boy of 12 and two women. It is said that they were all unarmed civilians, but there were also 9 KLA men killed at the same time. The Serbs removed their own dead. 

The battle between the KLA and Serbs had been witnessed by the OSCE monitors and western media during the morning and was filmed by cameramen tipped off by a Serb policeman. The monitors had entered the village in the afternoon when the Serbs withdrew with their two tanks and several armoured personnel carriers. 

The next morning 23 bodies were found in a gully above the village. Were they victims of the fighting placed there by the KLA or were they truly massacred? Evidence that it was a genuine massacre and not a ghastly contrived show is weak. A full account of the evidence on both sides can be found on the web site of Kosovoforum. (See the links section  via main index.)

But this event is a key story in justifying American involvement. There are at least four contradictory descriptions of the bodies of the dead men. Readers can begin to see how a story may be developed by reading the accounts of two prominent tellers of the story.

1.  President Clinton, ""We should remember what happened in the village of Racak back in January, innocent men, women and children taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire." (Reuters, March 19, 1999)

2.  British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, "This atrocity is appalling... It plainly was not a battle, they were shot in the head at close range. Our observers saw absolutely no evidence of fighting." Statement on BBC TV.

The defining moment

Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, who masterminded the process of going to war had been waiting for KLA provocations to yield a sensational response from the Serbs. The Racak "massacre" she saw as her opportunity to whip NATO states into a sense of moral outrage. Now it was possible to cry, "Something must be done!" and "We cannot stand idly by!"

The Serbs and Kosovo Albanians were summoned to talks at Chateau Rambouillet near Paris.

Situation during the Rambouillet Talks - A Political settlement achieved - All quiet before March 1999

The two sides were in the same room for the opening of the talks where they were addressed by President Chirac of France who called for reconciliation. After that the two sides that had met to reach an "agreement" never met again. The United States had the agreement and took it back and forth between the two sides trying to get them to agree to it. 

The Office of the High Representative for the Contact Group issued a statement, on 23 February 1999,  that a consensus had been reached on "substantial political autonomy for Kosovo, including on mechanisms for free and fair elections to democratic institutions, for the governance of Kosovo, for the protection of human rights and the rights of national communities, and for the establishment of a fair judicial system. . . a political framework is now in place. . . and the groundwork has now been laid for the implementation Chapters of the Agreement including the modalities of the invited civilian and military presence in Kosovo." Remarkably the parties had agreed, "The economy of Kosovo shall function in accordance with free market principles." The meeting was adjourned for three weeks.

A week before the end of the meetings the parties were presented with non-negotiable implementation measures to which they were asked to assent.

The Rambouillet talks were ended by the Americans when Milosevic refused to agree to NATO troops occupying both Kosovo and the rest of Serbia - (See Appendix B of the Rambouillet Accord and also see the section on this web site, Americans Negotiated in Bad Faith in the page on how NATO broke international law.) He, and the Serb parliament offered to continue discussions on the nature of a force to occupy Kosovo. This offer was confirmed by the Serb Parliament on 23 March 1999. But Richard Holbrooke made it clear that by not signing the "agreement" Serbia and Kosovo would be bombed. Talks could have continued. The Americans were responsible for starting the war with the support of all her NATO allies.

Serb Psychology  -  reasons to drive out Kosovo Albanians

"For Serbs it was a them-or-us situation."

What was Milosevic to do? Passively waiting to be bombed might have been his best choice. Western media would have had to question the nature of Serbia’s crime. They would have found little to justify sustained bombing. 

But this would have left a quarter of a million Serbs inside Kosovo defenceless against the KLA who would have done their own ethnic expulsions (as they had in 1998 and did again, but on a massive scale, in the latter half of 1999, even though NATO troops by then were everywhere in Kosovo). 

Serb experience in the last ten years has been that NATO countries either supported or at best condoned the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from areas where they had long been resident. 500,000 Serbs had been expelled from their homes in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990's and are still refugees in Serbia.

NATO was once again backing a majority ethnic group against a Serb minority. NATO threats to bomb Serbia in the spring of 1999 could only have been read by Serbs as an attempt to remove Serbs for ever from an area they had occupied for many centuries. There was no option simply to walk away from Kosovo. For Serbs it was a them-or-us situation, a last ditch attempt to achieve the survival of Serbs in Kosovo. 

It appeared that  NATO troops would soon come over the borders from Albania and Macedonia to occupy Kosovo. Milosevic had to seize Kosovo for Serbs before NATO and the KLA seized it for the Kosovo Albanians. In view of the violence instigated by the KLA and supported by the US and NATO's threat of massive violence there was no possibility now of compromise or negotiation. The Americans had broken off the talks whilst the Serbs had an offer on the table.

The Yugoslav government felt that it had to take action and this meant driving the Kosovo Albanians out of Kosovo. Milosevic's ethnic cleansing was in response to NATO's threat to bomb.

James Rubin's View

The expulsion of Kosovo Albanians had not started on any scale before the bombing occurred according to James Rubin, US Assistant Secretary of State. He appeared to believe that bombing would prevent Serbs from taking such action. He said in a BBC interview on 25 March 1999 that if NATO had not acted "you would have had hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border." 

Tony Blair's View

Tony Blair's presented his view about what the bombing would do in a BBC interview on 26 March 1999. "Fail to act now . . .  and we would have to deal with . . .   hundreds of thousands of refugees."  (These two statements were quoted by Philip Hammond in "The Media and the Kosovo War" published by Pluto Press, London, 2000.)

US view of what precipitated ethnic cleansing by Serbs

The US State department is in no doubt about when and why Milosevic suddenly began to inflict terror on Kosovo.

‘Extensive mobilisation of Serbian security forces beyond earlier force deployments began several days prior to the March 19 withdrawal of the KVM [Kosovo Verification Mission] monitors and most NGOs [non governmental organisations] following the failure of the Paris talks and in anticipation of NATO airstrikes.’" [emphasis added.] Web site of the US Department of State, May 1999, opening statement from "Erasing History: Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo - Chronology of recent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo." The action by the Serbs was not under way during the Rambouillet talks or when the threat to bomb was first made.

It is important to establish the scale of the warfare in Kosovo before and after the NATO threat to bomb. Who better to comment than the US State Department? 


How are we to estimate the scale of this action? 

The US State Department itself contrasts the limited nature of the fighting before mid March 1999 with the scale and nature of the military activity after this date. 
Counterinsurgency operations against the KLA began in late February and early March 1998 . . .
In late March 1999, Serbian forces dramatically increased the scope and pace of their efforts, moving away from the selective targeting of towns and regions suspected of KLA sympathies toward a sustained and systematic effort to ethnically cleanse the entire province of Kosovo.’ - US State Department web site, May 1999, “Erasing History: Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo” - From the section headed OVERVIEW. 
‘Since the withdrawal of the KVM on March 19, 1999, Serbian military, paramilitary, and police forces in Kosovo have committed a wide range of war crimes . . .
In contrast to last fall, when attacks by Serbian security forces generally occurred in small villages, this spring VJ and MUP units have apparently joined with recently armed Serb civilians to expel their neighbors from both villages and the larger towns of Kosovo. . .The fact that many of the places targeted reportedly had not been the scene of any previous fighting or KLA activity, indicates that these expulsions were part of a systematic effort to depopulate the region of Kosovar Albanians.’ - DOCUMENTING THE ABUSES, US State Department web site, May 1999.

UN View

Describing the fighting that had gone on in Kosovo in the Spring of 1999, Kofi Anan, the Secretary General of the U.N. said it was "characterised by the disproportionate use of force, including mortar and tank fire, by the Yugoslav authorities in response to persistent attacks and provocations by the Kosovo Albanian paramilitaries." - Report dated 17.03.99 based on reports by the OSCE, the monitoring authority.

Bombing increased the tragedy manifold

It is beyond doubt that the Serbian violence towards Kosovo Albanians in 1998 and 1999 was in response to violent provocations by Kosovo Albanians, and that America's appalling promise to bomb Serbia was what precipitated the desperate ethnic cleansing of Kosovo between March1999 and June 1999. 

Lord Carrington, former UK Foreign Secretary and former Secretary General of NATO, supports the view that the bombing precipitated the ethnic cleansing.

NATO's support for the KLA and the return of the Kosovo Albanians paved the way for the cleansing o 250,000 Serbs from Kosovo after 10 June 1999 in full view of 30,000 NATO troops.

There are also the matters of the death and destruction in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999, and the setting back of inter-ethnic relations by a generation.

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