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Did the War on Yugoslavia prevent Ethnic Cleansing?

The evidence from the Milosevic trial

by Peter Brooke, February 2008



The Milosevic trial

The Kosovo Verification Mission - John Drewiekiewicz

The Kosovo Verification Mission - Richard Ciaglinski

Ratomir Tanic and 'Operation Horseshoe'

Klaus Naumann and Wesley Clark: 'We killed them all'



Kosovo is back in the news and with it the assertion, constantly repeated, that the war on Yugoslavia was necessary to prevent a 'humanitarian catastrophe' - the 'ethnic cleansing' of Kosovo's Albanian population.

The bombing campaign against Yugoslavia began on 24th March 1999. It was indeed accompanied by pictures of large numbers of Albanians leaving Kosovo to go to Macedonia or Albania, creating a humanitarian crisis in those countries. But this began after the bombing. Serbs argue that a large proportion at least were fleeing the bombs (a large number of Serbs, unnoticed by the media, were also fleeing) or clearing the way so that the bombers (operating as is the wont of the Western powers from a very great height) would not have to worry too much about hitting Albanians rather than Serbs. Certainly from a strategic point of view one would have thought the Serbs would have an interest in keeping the populations jumbled. But at the same time it seems unlikely that, under the circumstances, Serbs would not have attacked Albanians, either through sheer rage at what was happening, or from fear that the Albanian population would shelter militants acting in support of the NATO campaign (the apparently near total military ineffectiveness of the Kosova Liberation Army was one of the striking features of the war).

On all those counts, the exodus of Albanians would have to be seen as a consequence of the bombing campaign. The assertion that the bombing was necessary to prevent ethnic cleansing presupposes that the Serbs intended a radical ethnic cleansing anyway and that the process was merely precipitated by the bombing. It also presupposes that the Western leaders knew this and that was why - with all the reluctance they tell us they always feel in these circumstances - they felt obliged to go to war.


The Milosevic trial

How can we find out if that is the case? Some time ago, I had the notion that the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) would be a good place to search. The trial was such a huge, sprawling, chaotic affair that it is difficult to find one's way through it, but many of the main players did appear in it and were subject to sometimes quite intensive cross examination. Like all the ICTY trials, therefore - whatever their value as examples of juridicial procedure - it is a wonderful resource for historians. However, it was full of surprises, and one of them was that planning the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population - though it was the main pretext for the war - was not one of the charges brought in the indictment.

There were three indictments - one covering events in Croatia, one on Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the one on Kosovo. The one on Kosovo was the first to be issued, in May 1999, during the course of the war (at a time, some of us will remember , when our Prime Minister was telling us that Albanians were being flung alive into the Trepca mines in Northern Kosovo. The mines were searched after the war and no bodies, it need hardly be said, were found).

The Kosovan charges cover the period from 1st January 1999 to 20th June 1999, when the war ended. The war, as we have said, began on 24th March. All the specific cases of 'deportation', 'forcible transfer', 'murder', and 'persecutions' that are listed occurred on or after 24th March, with the one specific exception of the murder of some 45 Albanian men said to have taken place at Racak on 15th January, which provided the occasion for the Rambouillet ultimatum which set the process of war rolling.

Nonetheless quite a large portion of the exchanges in the trial did deal with events prior to 24th March. I have gone through this material trying to identify those parts most likely to provide evidence that:

a) prior to the NATO campaign the Serbs were planning a substantial campaign of ethnic cleansing and/or

b) that the governments engaged in the NATO campaign had good reason to think that this might be the case.


The Kosovo Verification Mission - John Drewiekiewicz

The obvious place to start was with evidence provided by members of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) established in Kosovo from October 1998 as a result of an agreement made between Slobodan Milosevic and the American envoy, Richard Holbrooke.

During the Summer of 1998 Kosovo had been in a state of outright war between the Serb forces and the Kosova Liberation Army. The Serbs were accused of widespread abuses most notably the shelling of villages. Large numbers of people had left their homes and were internally displaced as refugees. By September, however, the KLA appear to have been more or less defeated. At that juncture the US and British governments threatened military intervention if the Serb police and military forces were not reduced to peace time levels. Milosevic agreed (the NATO commanders Wesley Clark and Klaus Naumann threatened him with bombing if he didn't) and the KVM was sent in in large numbers to monitor events, in particular Serb compliance. It is reasonable to assume that the KVM would be a major source for any evidence that the Western powers might have had that the Serbs were planning a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Several members of the mission gave evidence for the prosecution, all of them very senior, most notably the head of the mission himself - William Walker, but also, and most interestingly, his immediate subordinate, the British General John Drewienkiewicz and Drewienkiewicz's assistant - also from the British army - Richard Ciaglinski.

Walker's evidence is almost entirely to do with the Racak incident. He does not discuss the question of any wider Serb intentions. Drewienkiewicz, of Polish origin, describes himself as 'Chief of Planning' of the KVM, sent by the British Foreign Office though he had been involved with the Yugoslav question since 1995. He mentions that he had spent six days preparing evidence with the prosecution and he arrived with a large quantity of documentation. But his evidence turns largely on the Serbs' failure to abide by the terms of the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement, which is of course important background but is not actually one of the charges in the indictment. The failure in co-operation itself turns largely on the Mission's efforts to quantify and map Serb military capacity, ostensibly for the purposes of verification. But since everything was taking place under the likelihood of imminent war, the Serb reluctance to give this information is perhaps understandable.

Drewienkiewicz is also interviewed extensively on the events at Racak. But when asked specifically - by the prosecution - about the question that interests us here: what evidence did NATO have that the Serbs were planning a radical ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population, he replies that, although

'there was planning going on for a major VJ [Yugoslav army - PB] offensive against the KLA and that this was planned to take place as and when the KVM departed ... My opinion was that up until the moment that we drove out of Kosovo on the 20th March I came across no indication that there was a plan to expel the civilian population. I was absolutely clear that there was a plan to deal with the KLA which would involve bringing in reinforcements of the Yugoslav army and those reinforcements had started to arrive before we left. But ... I saw no evidence myself that such a plan to expel the civilian population existed as at the 20th March.' (pp.2939-40)

He confirms this under cross-examination by Milosevic (p.3070).


The Kosovo Verification Mission - Richard Ciaglinski

The evidence from Drewienkiewicz's assistant, Richard Ciaglinski, likewise turns mainly on the lack of co-operation between the Serb administration and the Verification Mission, and there is also a discussion of Racak - the only incident included among the charges that occurred while the KVM was present - specifically on Ciaglinski's efforts to persuade the Serb judge Danica Marinkovic not to try to enter the village with an armed escort. He also talks about the Albanian refugees in Macedonia after the NATO campaign had begun. With regard to our question he does provide one piece of evidence. He describes a conversation he had with a senior official with whom he says he was on good terms. The official's name was given in closed session. According to Ciaglinski he gave a detailed account of the plan the Serbs had for the 'total and permanent elimination, as he put it, of the KLA.' This information amounted to a more or less complete account of the actual movements of the Yugoslav army in the early stages of the war and Milosevic in cross examination naturally expressed surprise that anyone would reveal such information to an enemy officer on the eve of a war. But Ciaglinski continues:

'The second thing he told me - I remember the exact words. He said to me "And when we have finished dealing with the KLA, we will remove all the Albanians from the territory of Kosovo forever." ... He also informed me, by the way, that - at the conclusion of this, when I looked sort of completely puzzled, he said we're only doing a job. We're only saving NATO and you and [sic - PB] a job because if we don't deal with the KLA and the Albanian problem you will have to act some time in the future.' (p.3224)

In the cross examination, the amicus curiae (defence lawyer appointed by the court over Milosevic's objections) Branislav Tapuskovic pointed out that this detail about expulsions of the general population had been added to Ciaglinski's submission to the court only at the very last moment. Ciaglinski admits this and explains it by saying: 'I had a good relationship with this person and the last thing I wanted to do was to damage him or destroy him or put him in danger ... probably a stupid loyalty to this man.' (p.3331) He says he mentioned the incident to Drewienkiewicz, who dismissed it as merely one person's opinion. There is no suggestion that this exchange - whatever its evidential value - was known to the authorities who decided to launch the war on Serbia.


Ratomir Tanic and 'Operation Horseshoe'

The best evidence I have seen that the Serbs, prior to the NATO offensive, had manifested an intention to ethnically cleanse Kosovo comes from one of the few Serb 'insiders' to testify on the prosecution's behalf - at least in this part of the trial - Ratomir Tanic. Tanic was involved with a political party called 'New Democracy' which was in coalition government with Milosevic from 1994 to 1997. It is worth remembering that, despite the widespread insistence on calling Milosevic a 'dictator', Serbia did have several elections in his time and in each one of them his position was seriously challenged. He was continually obliged to make deals with other parties. After the election of September 1997, for example, Milosevic attempted to form an alliance with the Serbian Renewal Party of Vuk Draskovic. But Draskovic insisted as part of his price that the Cetniks (the Royalist resistance led by Dragoljub Mihailovic) be afforded equal honours for their role in the war against Hitler as the partisans (the Communist resistance led by Tito). This was too much for Milosevic (or perhaps for his wife, the more ideologically minded Mira Markovic) so he turned instead to the much more 'radical' Vojislav Seselj (it happens that the leader of New Democracy was Dusan Mihailovic, son of Dragoljub Mihailovic, who was executed by Tito after the war on an absurd charge of collaboration with the Nazis).

Tanic claims that he had access to high circles in the Serb government and security apparatus. He claims that, starting about 1997, 'Mr Milosevic suddenly, just like his closest associates, began to link the number of Albanians with terrorism and support to terrorist activities, and ultimately there was a definition that was repeated by Milosevic himself ... that the Serbian authorities should first of all quite simply reduce the number of Albanians to realistic numbers to settle accounts with terrorism and then to see what was going to happen with political negotiations.' (p.4910)

At the same time Tanic quotes Vladimir Stambuk (Vice President of Yugoslavia) as saying that the government shouldn't try to mollify the western powers because:

'a small-scale bombing would be a great pretext and alibi for us to continue with the persecution of the Albanians and the Serb opposition as well because in times of war nobody can ask anything ... he said to finish ethnic cleansing, to have a pretext for completing the ethnic cleansing of Albanians or to throw them out of the territory of Yugoslavia, and I heard words to that effect from others as well ...' (p.4957 - Stambuk isn't among the indictees at the ICTY).

This charge - that the Serb leadership were plotting to use the NATO bombing to provide a cover for ethnic cleansing - features in the Prosecuting Counsel's opening remarks:

'May it be that the NATO campaign he brought upon himself provided him with the opportunity to accomplish these goals while purporting to defend his country' (p.165).

Tanic also evokes something called 'Operation Horseshoe'. The existence of an elaborate plan under this name - supposedly a Serb blueprint for the expulsion of the Albanians - had been announced shortly before the NATO campaign by the German secret service, the BND, which was later to prove diligent in discovering evidence of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Tanic's evidence is confusing (and his efforts to affirm his own importance in the face of the very unkind scorn poured on him by Milosevic are rather offputting) but he describes 'the Horseshoe plan' as 'an exercise of the Yugoslav army while it was the JNA, the Yugoslav People's Army, and the plan provided for training and exercise in case of an aggression on Yugoslavia from South East Europe, and if the Albanian population should take the side of the foreign aggressor, then it should come into force ... They [the army] would take seven defensive positions and they would be geared towards neutralising the Albanian strongholds, and this exercise - this plan was actually stored in an archive and then it was reactivated and would be reactivated with all the rest for taking action in Kosovo' (p.4950).

This comes up in the context of a complaint that in 1998 the leadership of the army was being sidelined. He says they (Jovica Stanisic, head of state security in Serbia; Zoran Mijatovic, his deputy; General Momcilo Perisic, Chief of General Staff; General Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, head of intelligence - p.4995) opposed this because 'first and foremost there was no external aggression and therefore there was no Albanian population that sided with the foreign aggressor. Therefore there was less need to use the army in such a large scale and all these special units' (p.4997).

It is clear that he is referring to events in 1998, not 1999, when there was a foreign aggressor supported by a large section of the Albanian population. If Tanic is to be believed - and I think he is the only witness who gives evidence related to 'Operation Horseshoe' - it is the name (he stresses that it was a nickname not the official military name for the plan) given to plans prepared during the Tito era which Milosevic wanted used - against the opposition of the army - during the 1998 campaign. If I've misunderstood this and it was referring to preparations for the NATO assault then it is obviously appropriate under those circumstances that the Serbs should dust down old plans for precisely the circumstances they were facing - an external invasion backed by a large section of the Kosovan Albanian population. Either way the best witness that the prosecution managed to find on the matter indicates that it was not what was alleged at the time - a blueprint for a policy the Serbs would have pursued in 1999 if they hadn't been prevented by the NATO intervention.


Klaus Naumann and Wesley Clark: 'We killed them all'

One last piece of evidence for a policy of radical ethnic cleansing comes in the examination of General Klaus Naumann, senior military officer in NATO, who accompanied Wesley Clark on the mission to force Milosevic to agree to the reduction of forces in Kosovo and the introduction of the KVM. Naumann says that after they had secured Milosevic's agreement (by the threat of overwhelming force - which incidentally puts a question mark over the suggestion that Milosevic would have welcomed a bombing campaign as a cover for expulsion of the Albanians):

'Mr Milosevic stated that he will try to find a solution for the Kosovo crisis in Spring of 1999. We had - I should add for the information of the court, Your Honours, that we had talked about the proportion between the Serb and the non-Serb population in particular the Albanians or Kosovars and we discovered that Mr Milosevic and we had different numbers in our mind. He was always talking of a relationship which more or less meant that the [sic-PB] approximately 900,000 Kosovar Albanians should be in Kosovo, and approximately 600,000 other nationalities, including Serbs. Our figures were considerably larger with regard to the Kosovar Albanians.

'In that context he had also stated, and I think Sainovic as well [Nikola Sainovic - Vice President of the Socialist Party of Serbia - PB] that one of the preconditions for a solution in the Kosovo area is to achieve a balance between the two ethnic groups [sic - PB. Milosevic continually insisted that there were many ethnic groups in Kosovo] and he expressed - or Sainovic, I think it was, expressed his concern that the reproduction rate of the Kosovar Albanians was much higher than of the Serbs, and that they had to find a solution which would not bring them back into the same problem within a couple of years. And in that context it was talked about a solution in Spring 1999. And we were wondering what he meant, and so we asked "what do you mean with a solution." And the answer was then "We'll do the same what [sic] we did in Drenica in '45 or '46.'

When Naumann and Clark asked what he meant 'it was difficult for us to take, but the answer was, "we got them together and we shot them."'(pp.6989-6991)

A similar story appears in a book written by Clark, Waging Modern War (2001). Clark quotes Milosevic as saying "You know General Clark that we know how to hadling [sic in the ICTY transcript - PB] these Albanians, these murderers, these rapists, these killers of their own kind. We've taken care of them before." His face turned red and his voice rose in strength as he condemned them ... "In Drenica in 1946 we killed them all, we killed them all." Naumann and I were just staring at him. He must have thought we didn't believe him, so he began to qualify the accomplishment. "Oh it took several years but we eventually killed them all."'

That is quoted to Naumann by the prosecutor (p.7122) and Naumann says that in substance its the same as his own account: 'The wording is slightly different but all in all I think its identical.' But actually it isn't. Naumann's account is clearly placed in the context of reducing the numbers of the Albanian population to a manageable proportion. If that was really what Milosevic said - that the way to do it was to kill them all, then it would have been quite memorable and one would have expected Clark - charged with the job of defending the NATO assault - to have used it. Without saying that Clark's account is accurate (it has the fingerprints of a ghost writer upon it) one can see that there could be something behind it since there had been an Albanian armed revolt against the new Yugoslav order, which could be presented as a prolongation of the Fascist struggle and was repressed very violently. The historical analogy here is quite clearly with the KLA not with the Albanian population as a whole and Milosevic is not the only person who has used extreme language when talking about the proper way of dealing with 'terrorists'. We may also note that, far from wiping out the whole Albanian population in the late forties, the Yugoslav government gave them a status of autonomy and refused to allow the large number of Serbs who had been ethnically cleansed under the Fascists to return to their homes.

That's about all the evidence I could find for the existence of a Serb plan for ethnic cleansing that could be said to have been prevented by the NATO bombing. Drewienkiewicz said he had no evidence of such a plan. Ciaglinski mentions a conversation with a Serb soldier who outlines a plan for dealing with the KLA then adds as an afterthought that they would get rid of all the rest of the Albanians as well (I can personally imagine such a thing being said in the context of the imminent NATO attack). Tanic says the higher elements in the Serb government from 1997 were consistently underestimating the number of Albanians in Kosovo, and he saw this as an indication of intent to reduce those numbers. A similar view is given by Naumann, who adds that Milosevic expressed admiration for the brutal way the partisans had dealt with an Albanian rising at the end of the war.

None of this amounts to evidence that NATO, prior to the bombing, had good reason to believe their intervention was necessary to prevent a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing.