Who buried the evidence?
Mick Hume audits the creative accountancy of the Holocaust industry
'Serbs "burning bodies" in rush to hide war crimes evidence', announced the Observer's front page splash on 6 June 1999. The article reported that, having lost the war over Kosovo, Serb forces were trying desperately to destroy the evidence of their atrocities before the war crimes investigators arrived: 'Three separate sources identified the Trepca mine...as the site where the Serbs have been burning at least 100 bodies a day for the past two months' - making at least 6000 bodies in all.
At the time, the Observer's three sources seemed less than impeccable: a 38-year old ethnic Albanian who had seen nothing himself, but had heard stories about the mine from other refugees; an elderly man from near Trepca who had reportedly spoken to his daughter by satellite phone for three minutes; and a source 'close to the command of the Kosovo Liberation Army in Macedonia', whom the paper conceded 'must be treated with caution'. Yet this dubious-sounding mixture of hearsay and spin was considered enough to justify full front-page treatment.
Trepca was one of the first sites to be investigated by NATO forces after the war's end. Four months later, in October 1999, the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague had to admit that its intensive investigations into the mine had turned up no evidence of any bodies; not 6000, not even six, but none at all.
In August, Spanish forensic experts who had gone to Kosovo to help investigate massacres poured scorn on the official estimates of how many ethnic Albanians had been killed. One reportedly told the newspaper El Pais that they had been told 'to prepare ourselves to perform more than 2000 autopsies. We only found 187 cadavers and now we are going to return [to Spain]'. Another said, 'I have been reading the data from the UN. They began with 44 000 deaths. Then they lowered it to 22 000. And now they are going with 11 000. I look forward to seeing what the final count will really be'. For this forensic scientist, the search for mass graves had turned into 'a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines, because we did not find one - not one - mass grave'. A private US analytical group which has studied reports from the FBI and other police agencies working in Kosovo even suggests that the final death toll might be in the hundreds, not thousands (see John Laughland, 'The massacres that never were', Spectator, 30 October 1999; Jon Swain, 'Lost in the Kosovo numbers game', Sunday Times, 31 October 1999).
During the war, the message from NATO governments and media spokesmen was a little different, as they went all-out to justify their intervention by accusing the Serbs of Nazi-style genocide in Kosovo. British government ministers appearing at the daily press briefings seemed hardly able to open their mouths without mentioning the 'G' word. During one brief morning session on 28 March, the ridiculous defence secretary George (now Lord) Robertson told reporters that NATO was facing 'a regime which is intent on genocide'; that the sole purpose of the air strikes was 'to stop the genocidal violence' and the 'ethnic extermination'; that the air war would continue until 'the genocidal attacking stops'; that NATO was united in its determination 'to stop this ethnic cleansing extermination policy'; and that Serbian commanders should look to their consciences and refuse to obey 'these genocidal orders'.
The NATO-friendly media went further still, explicitly comparing the conflict in Kosovo to the Holocaust. On 29 March the Sun bluntly headlined its Kosovo spread 'NAZIS 1999 - Serb cruelty has chilling echoes of the Holocaust'. When the horror stories about burning bodies in Trepca mine broke in June, the Mirror had no hesitation in putting this site on a par with the Nazi death camps. 'Trepca - the name will live alongside those of Belsen, Auschwitz and Treblinka', the paper claimed: 'It will be etched in the memories of those whose loved ones met a bestial end in true Nazi Final Solution fashion.'
To back up that kind of rhetoric, the authorities hinted at frightening estimates of the death toll in Kosovo. On 18 April David Scheffer, the US ambassador for war crimes, told US television that up to 100 000 young ethnic Albanian men may have been killed by the Serbs. A month later, on 16 May, US defence secretary William Cohen told CBS that 'we've now seen about 100 000 military-aged men missing. They may have been murdered'. Or, as it turns out, most of them may not.
Of course, Serbs did commit atrocities in Kosovo, and there were many tragic deaths. But, as some of us argued at the time, to try to compare such a bloody but unexceptional civil war with the Nazi annihilation of the Jews is a serious mistake. Even if the current scaled-down claim of 11 000 deaths turned out to be true, to call that a Nazi-style genocide is akin to equating a motorway accident with a major earthquake. In political terms, such a comparison risks both distorting what is happening in the Balkans today, and rewriting the history of the Holocaust itself by diminishing the scale of that unique horror (see 'Genocide: what's in a word?', LM, May 1999.)
If presented with a blank sheet of paper, intelligent journalists would normally conclude that nothing had been written on it, not that somebody had scrawled all over it and then carefully erased it. And yet, when confronted by unsubstantiated atrocity stories in Kosovo, too many seemed prepared to assume that they must be true, and to see the lack of evidence merely as proof that witnesses were terrified to come forward and that the Serbs were destroying the evidence.
The Nazification of the Serbs, a process which has gathered pace through the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, ensured that most of NATO's mud stuck. Many journalists were prepared to report stories like the Trepca body-burning as good coin, not because they were stupid or part of some grand conspiracy, but because they accepted that the Serbs were Nazis and, as such, were capable of anything. Nazifying the Serbs became an excuse for ignorance. Anybody who questioned the official line risked being branded an apologist for genocide or, as New Labour minister Clare Short told Woman's Hour on 20 April, 'the equivalent to the people who appeased Hitler'.
For more articles and links on Kosovo, visit the updated LM Online Kosovo website at http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/documentary/kosovo.html
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000