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NATO's First Casualty

Labour & Trade Union Review, December 1999


As of 19th November, 2,108 bodies have been exhumed from "mass graves" in Kosovo. This figure was given by Carla del Ponte at a press conference at the UN in New York.

Carla del Ponte is the Swiss chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was set up by the UN about 5 years ago to try people for "war crimes" in the former Yugoslavia. Up to this year, its activities were directed against people engaged in the conflicts in Bosnia in the mid-90s, mainly against Serbs.

Earlier this year it turned its attention to Kosovo and, shortly after NATO bombs started to rain down on Serbia, Ms del Pont's Canadian predecessor, Louise Arbour, announced the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic and senior military figures in Serbia for "war crimes". Since NATO ground forces went into Serbia last June, the ICTY has been for searching for bodies in Kosovo to provide evidence for the prosecution of Milosevic amongst others.

Now after 4 months work the ICTY report that they have found 2,108 bodies, albeit from 195 out of 529 "reported" sites, so the expectation is that the number will eventually grow. Exhumation work has now ceased for the winter.

2,108 people dead is 2,108 too many. But it is a far cry from the numbers being suggested by our war leaders while the war was going on. Then, hardly a day passed without the word "genocide" passing the lips of George Robertson and/or Robin Cook, indeed on one occasion one of them spoke of the "mass genocide" of Albanians by Yugoslav forces. Then, the public was invited to believe that hundreds of thousands of Albanians had been massacred by Yugoslav forces.

Of course, they, and their apologists, now say that they never actually said that hundreds of thousands of Albanians had been killed. They admit they may have said that a hundred thousand Albanians had gone missing and might have been killed ­ which is of course entirely different. And even though this was accompanied by liberal use of the word "genocide", it was entirely wrong of people to assume that the hundred thousand Albanians who had allegedly gone missing had actually been killed.

Before he left to become Secretary General of NATO, George Robertson ordered the production of a glossy booklet on the war entitled "Kosovo: An Account of the Crisis". This has an introduction by Robertson himself ­ Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, to give him his proper title ­ consisting mostly of a personal photo. Readers who have the stomach for it can see the booklet on the MoD web site. Strangely, the word "genocide" is not used once in this "account of the crisis" and the word "massacre" is used only twice, in both cases to describe the killing of Albanian civilians by Yugoslav forces at Racak on 15th January 1999 before the NATO air war started. It contains no estimates of numbers of Albanians killed by Yugoslav forces after the NATO air war began, nor does it give any estimates of casualties inflicted by NATO itself in Kosovo or in the rest of Yugoslavia.

At the end of the war, the official estimate of the number of Albanians killed by Jugoslav forces was scaled down dramatically. On 16th June, Geoff Hoon, then a Foreign Office Minister (now Robertson's successor at the Ministry of Defence), said: "According to the reports we have gathered, it appears that around 10,000 people have been killed in more than 100 massacres."

Who are they?
The ICTY have exhumed 2,108 bodies so far. But they have given no other information about the graves or the bodies found within them. For example, can the bodies be identified as Albanian or were some of them Serb civilians or Yugoslav military personnel? Were they obviously the result of the massacre of Albanians by Serbs? Were any of them identifiable as casualties of fighting between the KLA and Yugoslav forces or Serb civilians? Were any of them obviously civilian victims of NATO bombs? Is it possible to say approximately when the killings took place in each case?

The ICTY seem to have been prompted to make public the figure of 2,108 bodies by an article by John Laughland in the Spectator on 30th October and another in the Sunday Times on 31st October, both of which called into question whether anything near 10,000 bodies would be found and also whether all those that had been found were bodies of Albanians massacred by Yugoslav forces. Time will tell if 10,000 is reasonable estimate of the numbers killed, though whether we will ever know the precise nature of the killings is another matter.

Humanitarian catastrophe
Foreign Office Minister, Peter Hain, had a letter in the Guardian on 13th November complaining about the Guardian's reporting two days earlier of Ms del Ponte's press conference, and, in particular, its headline "Graves put Kosovo death toll in doubt". He claimed that "the number of bodies reported to ICTY was 11,334" which wasn't in the Guardian's story. What is meant by "reported to the ICTY" is anybody's guess.

It is strange that the British Government is determined to talk up the scale of the "humanitarian catastrophe" in Kosovo triggered by NATO bombing (though it should be said they don't talk of "genocide" any more). After all, their clear cut military objectives were to avert it. Or so they said. To quote George Robertson in the House of Commons on the day the NATO bombing started:

"Hon. Members have asked about the military objectives of the Government and of NATO. They are clear cut; to avert an impending humanitarian catastrophe by disrupting the violent attacks currently being carried out by the Yugoslav security forces against the Kosovar Albanians, and to limit their ability to conduct such repression in future."

They failed in those clear cut military objectives. The precise scale of their failure in terms of Kosovo Albanians killed has yet to be fully revealed.

Serb info
In a document dated 10th January 1999 on their web site (, the Serbian Ministry of the Interior gives information about "terrorist" (presumably KLA) attacks in Kosovo in the 8 years from 1991 up to 27th December 1998.

To summarise, the document says that in this period, there were a total of 1997 attacks, 1202 against police and police buildings and the rest against civilian targets, and a total of 326 people were killed (128 policemen and 198 civilians) and 631 wounded (452 policemen and 179 civilians). Remarkably, the document says that 1863 (93%) of the attacks and 287 (88%) of the fatalities occurred in 1998, the number of attacks/deaths quoted for the years 1991 to 1997 being 11/1, 12/3, 8/2, 6/5, 11/6, 31/10 and 55/12 respectively.

There is no way of being sure of the accuracy of these figures but it is reasonable to assume that the Serbian Government is not in the business of understating the number of KLA attacks or the consequences of them.

More deaths than Yugoslavs
The Serb web site does not give any figures for casualties inflicted by the Yugoslav forces on the KLA or on Albanian civilians in the same period (and I have been unable to find any elsewhere). But thanks to George Robertson we know with certainty that up until mid-January this year the KLA was responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than Yugoslav forces.

"Up until Racak earlier this year the KLA were responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than the Yugoslav authorities had been", he told the Defence Select Committee on the day the NATO bombing started (see the Minutes of Evidence to the Committee of 24th March, which is included in a report on the future of NATO dated 13th April, available on the Houses of Parliament web site). The incident to which Robertson is referring took place on 16th January this year in the village of Racak when Yugoslav forces are alleged to have killed 45 Albanians.

If the Serbian Ministry of the Interior has not understated KLA activity and its consequences, the KLA were responsible for around 300 deaths in Kosovo in the years 1991-98 inclusive, the vast bulk of them in 1998 when KLA attacks intensified dramatically. And Yugoslav forces were responsible for roughly the same number of deaths in response to the KLA attacks.

I have not been able to find any definite casualty figures for the period from the end of 1998 to 24th March this year when the NATO bombing started. In an article in the Guardian on 11th November, Chris Bird suggests "roughly 15 to 20" fatalities a week "for the two months of mutual ethnic attacks before NATO air strikes began". Bird did not give any source for this estimate, but if it is true it represents an acceleration of killing compared with the average for 1998.

NATO intervention
Then on 24th March NATO intervened on the side of the KLA with predictable consequences. In a matter of weeks after NATO's intervention perhaps 10 times as many people were killed in Kosovo as had been killed in the conflict between the KLA and the Serbs up to then. "Genocide" of Albanians there wasn't, but it is no fault of NATO that there wasn't. Add to that the deaths caused directly by NATO bombs both in Kosovo and in the rest of Yugoslavia (perhaps two or three thousand of them) plus the widespread destruction of economic infrastructure across Yugoslavia and the awful horror of "humanitarian war" is apparent.

The end result in Kosovo
And what is the end result in Kosovo now? On 10th November K-For announced that since they entered Kosovo in late June, 379 people had been killed in Kosovo, a killing rate of almost 20 a week, despite the presence of 40,000 troops and the fact that most of the non-Albanian population has fled. This is roughly the same as Chris Bird's estimate for the period before the NATO bombing started. Add to this the fact that people continue to get killed by unexploded NATO cluster bombs ­ John Laughland (Spectator, 20th November) gives an unsourced figure of 200 killed in this way since NATO stopped dropping them.

The UNHCR and OSCE published a joint report on 3rd November entitled Overview of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo. It is available on the OSCE web site It begins:

"1. This brief overview highlights the latest developments and trends in the minority protection area that have emerged since the release of the second joint report on the situation of ethnic minorities in Kosovo, published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on 6 September 1999.

"2. The overall situation of ethnic minorities in Kosovo remains precarious. While the crime statistics released by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in mid-October indicate a decline in the overall number of violent incidents as far as minorities are concerned, this may be due in part to the fact that there has been a significant decrease in the overall non-Albanian population over the past four months Informed observers agree that there is a climate of violence and impunity, as well as widespread discrimination, harassment and intimidation directed against non-Albanians. The combination of security concerns, restricted movement, lack of access to public services (especially education, medical/health care and pensions) are the determining factors in the departure of Serbs, primarily, and other non-Albanian groups from Kosovo to date. While there have also been some return movements to Kosovo, these departures continue and seem unlikely to be reversed in the near future. This widespread disrespect for human rights has increasingly also affected moderate Albanians and those who are openly critical of the current violent environment."

The rest of the document details the parlous position of what remains of ethnic minorities in localities all over Kosovo.

Whatever hope there was of settling the ethnic problems of Kosovo without wholesale population movement evaporated when NATO's bombs began to fall. And the final outcome will most likely be an ethnically pure Kosovo, which will not rest until it is part of a Greater Albania.