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What happened at Racak ?

Labour & Trade Union Review, June/July 2001

On 15 January 1999, Yugoslav forces massacred 45 Kosovo Albanian civilians at the village of Racak. That was the story told by the West at the time.

That story was an essential part of NATO's justification for its air war against Yugoslavia two months later. It was central to the humanitarian excuse for making war on a sovereign state without the sanction of the UN Security Council. Without it, the NATO war would never have been launched.

What is more, it is the only incident prior to the NATO bombing mentioned in the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic and his colleagues for war crimes by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Here is the relevant section of the indictment (paragraph 98):

Beginning on or about 1 January 1999 and continuing until the date of this indictment [24 May 1999], forces of the FRY and Serbia, acting at the direction, with the encouragement, or with the support of Slobodan MILOSEVIC, Milan MILUTINOVIC, Nikola SAINOVIC, Dragoljub OJDANIC, and Vlajko STOJILJKOVIC, have murdered hundreds of Kosovo Albanian civilians. These killings have occurred in a widespread or systematic manner throughout the province of Kosovo and have resulted in the deaths of numerous men, women, and children. Included among the incidents of mass killings are the following:

a On or about 15 January 1999, in the early morning hours, the village of Racak (Stimlje/Shtime municipality) was attacked by forces of the FRY and Serbia. After shelling by the VJ units, the Serb police entered the village later in the morning and began conducting house-to-house searches. Villagers, who attempted to flee from the Serb police, were shot throughout the village. A group of approximately 25 men attempted to hide in a building, but were discovered by the Serb police. They were beaten and then were removed to a nearby hill, where the policemen shot and killed them. Altogether, the forces of the FRY and Serbia killed approximately 45 Kosovo Albanians in and around Racak.

That is the official NATO version of what happened. A BBC programme on the Kosovo conflict broadcast on 12 March last year cast doubt on this official line, saying: "Even now, more than a year on, important questions about what happened here remain unanswered".

Below we reproduce an English translation of an article by French journalist, Christophe Chatelot, published in Le Monde on 21 January 1999. Chatelot himself was in Racak on the afternoon of 15 January after the Yugoslav forces had withdrawn from the village and observed nothing out of the ordinary.


Were the Racak dead really massacred in cold blood?

The version of events spread by the Kosovars leaves several questions unanswered. Belgrade says that the forty-five victims were KLA "terrorists", killed in combat, but rejects any international investigation.

PRISTINA. Isn't the Racak massacre just too perfect? New eye witness accounts gathered on Monday 18 January by Le Monde throw doubt on the reality of the horrible spectacle of dozens of piled up bodies of Albanians supposedly summarily executed by Serb security forces last Friday. Were the victims executed in cold blood, as the KLA says, or killed in combat, as the Serbs say?

According to the version gathered and broadcast by the press and the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the massacre took place on 15 January in the early afternoon. "Masked" Serbian police entered the village of Racak, which had been shelled all morning by Yugoslav army tanks.

They broke down the doors and entered people's homes, ordering the women to stay there while they pushed the men to the edge of the village to calmly execute them with a bullet through the head, not without first having tortured and mutilated several. Some witnesses even said that the Serbs sang as they did their dirty work, before leaving the village around 15:30.

The account by two journalists of Associated Press TV television (APTV) who filmed the police operation in Racak contradicts this tale. When at 10:00 they entered the village in the wake of a police armoured vehicle, the village was nearly deserted. They advanced through the streets under fire from KLA fighters lying in ambush in the woods above the village. The exchange of fire continued throughout the operation, with more or less intensity. The main fighting took place in the woods. The Albanians who had fled the village when the first Serb shells were fired at dawn tried to escape. There they ran into Serbian police who had surrounded the village. The KLA was trapped in between.

The object of the violent police attack on Friday was a stronghold of KLA Albanian independence fighters. Virtually all the inhabitants had fled Racak during the frightful Serb offensive of the summer of 1998. With few exceptions, they had not come back. "Smoke came from only two chimneys", noted one of the two APTV reporters.

The Serb operation was thus no surprise, nor was it a secret. On the morning of the attack, a police source tipped off APTV: "Come to Racak, something is happening". At 10:00, the team was on the spot alongside the police. It filmed from a peak overlooking the village and then through the streets in the wake of an armoured vehicle. The OSCE was also warned of the action. At least two teams of international observers watched the fighting from a hill where they could see part of the village. They entered Racak shortly after the police left. They then questioned a few Albanians about the situation, trying to find out whether there were wounded civilians. Around 18:00, they took four persons ­ two women and two old men ­ who were very slightly wounded toward the dispensary of the neighbouring town of Stimje. The verifiers said at that time that they were "incapable of establishing the number of casualties of that day of fighting".

The publicity given by the Serbian police to that operation was intense. At 10:30, they gave out their first press release. They announced that the police had "encircled the village of Racak with the aim of arresting the members of a terrorist group who killed a policeman" the previous Sunday. At 15:00 a first bulletin announced fifteen Albanians killed in fighting. The next day, Saturday, they welcomed the success of the operation which, they said, had resulted in the death of dozens of KLA "terrorists" and the capture of a large stock of weapons.

The attempt to arrest an Albanian presumed to have murdered a Serb policemen turned into a massacre. At 15:30 the police evacuated the site under the sporadic fire of a handful of KLA fighters who continued to hold out thanks to the steep and rough terrain. In no time, the first of the Albanians who had got away came back down into the village, those who had managed to hide came out in the open and three KVM vehicles drove into the village. One hour after the police left, night fell.

Guided by the KLA

The next morning, the press and the KVM came to see the damage caused by the fighting. It was at this moment that, guided by the armed KLA fighters who had recaptured the village, they discovered the ditch where a score of bodies were piled up, almost exclusively men. At midday, the chief of the KVM in person, the American diplomat William Walker, arrived on the spot and declared his indignation at the atrocities committed by "the Serb police forces and the Yugoslav army".

The condemnation was total, irrevocable. And yet questions remain. How could the Serb police have gathered together a group of men and led them calmly toward the execution site while they were constantly under fire from KLA fighters? How could the ditch located on the edge of Racak have escaped notice by local inhabitants familiar with the surroundings who were present before nightfall? Or by the observers who were present for over two hours in this tiny village? Why so few cartridges around the corpses, so little blood in the hollow road where 23 people are supposed to have been shot at close range with several bullets in the head? Rather, weren't the bodies of the Albanians killed in combat by the Serb police gathered into the ditch to create a horrendous scene, which was sure to have an appalling effect on public opinion? Doesn't the violence and rapidity of Belgrade's reaction, which gave the chief of the KVM 48 hours to leave Yugoslavia, show that the Yugoslavs are sure of what they are saying?

Only an international inquiry above all suspicion will make it possible to clarify these obscure points. Finnish and Belorussian legal doctors were expected to arrive in Pristina on Wednesday to attend the autopsies being carried out by Yugoslav doctors. The problem is that the Belgrade authorities have never been co-operative in this matter. Why? Whatever the conclusions of the investigators, the Racak massacre shows that the hope of soon reaching a settlement of the Kosovo crisis seems quite illusory.