The Documentary

Background to the conflict Propaganda and truth: the media in Kosovo Genocide: what's in a word? Blair's moral crusade Opposition to the conflict


The Serbs have been accused of committing genocide against the Kosovo Albanians, by everybody from British defence secretary George Robertson to leading liberal journalists. LM Online presents critical arguments against describing Serb actions as another Holocaust.

  1. Mick Hume, editor of LM, takes issue with Holocaust-mongering over Kosovo
  2. Paul Watson: 'In one village, Albanian men are everywhere'
  3. Mojo: 'What ever happened to NATO charges of genocide?'
  4. Other views

1. Mick Hume, editor of LM, takes issue with Holocaust-mongering over Kosovo

From the first week of the war against the Serbs, New Labour defence secretary George Robertson and foreign secretary Robin Cook seemed hardly able to open their mouths without uttering the 'G' word. They have told us time and again that President Milosevic is 'intent on genocide' and 'ethnic extermination' in Kosovo, insisting that the NATO air strikes have 'one purpose alone and that is to stop the genocidal violence' against ethnic Albanians, and denouncing Serbian 'fascism'.

New Labour's German allies, the Social Democrats, have also weighed in with some ominous historical references. Defence minister Rudolf Scharping claimed that there was 'serious evidence' in Kosovo of 'concentration camps like there were in Bosnia', and of 'systematic extermination that recalls in a horrible way what was done in the name of Germany at the beginning of World War II'. Predictably others replied in kind, the Russian foreign minister accusing NATO of committing genocide against the Serbs, while Serbian TV renamed the US-led alliance the 'Nazi American Terrorist Organisation'.

Where NATO politicians have tended to imply that there are parallels between the Serbs and the Nazis, the newspapers have insisted upon it and added the dreaded 'H' word. On 29 March the British Daily Mail's front page reported, beneath a picture of Kosovo Albanian children in a lorry headlined 'FLIGHT FROM GENOCIDE', 'Their terrified and bewildered faces evoke memories of the Holocaust'. On 1 April, the Mirror ran a front-page black and white picture of refugees with a child picked out in colour, Schindler's List-style. Under the headline '1939 OR 1999?' it reported that 'Nazi style terror came to Kosovo yesterday in a horrific echo of the wartime Holocaust'. That same day, the Sun bluntly headlined its Kosovo spread 'NAZIS 1999 - Serb cruelty has chilling echoes of the Holocaust'. By now, the pattern was well established.

The continual, deliberate talk of genocide is much more significant than the usual wartime rhetoric. In terms of international law, the allegation of genocide provides a possible get-out for NATO governments accused of illegally invading the sovereign state of Yugoslavia. As the New York Times reported, 'Policymakers in the United States and Europe are invoking the word to help provide a legal justification for their military campaign against Serbia. It is one based in part on concepts of humanitarian law, where no word is more evocative' (4 April). In particular, the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 could allow for international intervention to prevent it.

In political terms, the way we have been bombarded with the language of genocide and concentration camps is even more significant. These words invoke modern moral absolutes. If there is genocide, the line is, then there can be no question of the need for intervention and retribution. The deployment of this language is designed to give an air of moral certainty to NATO's war against Serbia. Yet its real effect can only be to cloud and confuse the key issues further.

'Genocide' is not just another word for brutality, making people homeless, putting people on trains, or even murder. It means, according to the OED, 'annihilation of a race'. The word was first used in the 1940s, specifically to describe the Nazi campaign to wipe out European Jewry.

Similarly, for more than half a century, 'concentration camp' has not meant a place where large numbers of people are concentrated, even if it is against their will. Everybody should know that it means a death camp, on the Nazi model, designed for the industrial implementation of a policy of genocide.

On what basis have the likes of Robertson, Cook, Clinton and Scharping used this language to describe the crisis in Kosovo? Of course they have produced plenty of atrocity stories, but precious little independent evidence to support them. We should surely have learned our lesson by the end of the twentieth century. From the embellished tales of Belgian nuns maimed by Germans in the First World War, to the bogus reports of Kuwaiti babies thrown from incubators by Iraqis during the Gulf War of 1991, it is clear that horror stories coming out of a war zone should be viewed with a sceptical eye. (LM will be publishing a fuller analysis of this issue in relation to Kosovo at a later date.)

But let us be clear: even if the worst accounts of Serb brutality we have heard to date were true, it would still be wrong and dangerous to use the term genocide. To deploy that language, with all of the historical baggage that comes with it, is automatically to suggest that the Milosevic regime should be put on a par with the Nazis. And anybody who seriously tries to compare Hitler's Germany with Milosevic's Serbia, is in danger of losing all sense of perspective and proportion.

Hitler's Germany was the dominant economic and military power in Europe, a superpower of its age which applied all of its might to pursue the imperialist goals of colonial conquest and racial superiority. Milosevic's Yugoslavia, by contrast, is an inefficient and economically powerless state, desperately trying to hang on to what remains of its greatly diminished territory after a decade of war and sanctions.

To compare the two with talk of genocide and 'echoes of the Holocaust' is to risk seriously distorting the image we have of the Balkans today. It means branding the Serbs as the evil new Nazis. And once that is done, there is no need for (indeed there is no tolerance of) any further discussion of the issues. Never mind about the real situation in the Balkans, or the role of the Western states in stoking up the conflict; if there are Nazis involved, what more do we need to know? Anything becomes permissible to put a stop to them.

But the damage does not stop there. Comparisons between the Serbs and the Nazis distort not just the present, but also the past. They risk belittling the horror of the real Holocaust, by putting the slaughter of six million Jews and many others in the Nazi death camps on a par with a local conflict, bloody though it may be, in Kosovo or Bosnia.

The danger of rewriting history in this way is a point which LM has insisted upon throughout the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It is one important reason why we sought to expose the truth about the famous ITN pictures that wrongly convinced the world the Bosnian Serbs were running Nazi-style 'concentration camps'. And it is why we have fought the ensuing libel case for more than two years. See for details.

Now, as the cries of 'genocide' in Kosovo have grown louder, the diminishing of the Holocaust which this comparison implies has become an issue of concern for many others too. 'The sufferings of the Jews in the Second World War were special: effectively without precedent, almost without parallel', writes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. By contrast, 'Serb war objectives are depressingly familiar'. Nazi camp survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has also complained about the comparisons, insisting that 'the Holocaust was conceived to annihilate the last Jew on the planet. Does anyone believe that Milosevic and his accomplices seriously planned to exterminate all the Bosnians, all the Albanians, all the Muslims in the world?' Full article

But while Wiesel argues that what has been happening in Kosovo cannot be called genocide, he and many like him nevertheless support forceful NATO intervention. The Kosovo nightmare, he says, 'demands action, not comparison'. Yet the accusation of genocide levelled against the Serbs is not incidental to the West's legal and moral case for an extraordinary intervention; it is at the heart of that argument. Without such a rhetorical dressing, the local conflict in Kosovo would look like just another nasty little civil war. Similarly, the plight of the refugees only became an argument for increased intervention because it was viewed through the prism of the Nazi Holocaust. If their suffering had instead been interpreted as a consequence of NATO air strikes, some quite different conclusions could have been drawn.

The media must bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the way that the constant accusation of genocide has been used, both to distort perceptions of the situation in the Balkans, and effectively to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. Too many journalists have spent the war acting as audio typists for NATO, simply writing up the speeches of ministers and generals and splashing their spin across the front pages.

The loss of perspective brought on by indulging these casual comparisons between the Serbs and the Nazis is nowhere clearer than in the press stories mentioned above, where various papers dared to compare the experience of ethnic Albanians travelling out of Kosovo to that of the Jews being transported to Nazi death camps. As Julie Burchill commented, in her '40 reasons why the Serbs are not the new Nazis and the Kosovars are not the new Jews': '1. Because the Nazis did not put Jews on the train to Israel, as the Serbs are now putting ethnic Albanian Kosovars on the train to Albania.' Full article. Yet in the wave of Second World War nostalgia now engulfing the debate about Kosovo, to question the emotionally correct line on any of this is to risk being accused of 'appeasement' or even 'Holocaust denial'.

A more reasoned attitude surely comes from 76-year old Aca Singer, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, who lost 65 members of his family in the Holocaust. Sheltering from NATO bombs in Belgrade in April, he told the New York Times of his fury at the way in which the word 'genocide' was being degraded by all sides in the conflict. 'I don't at all agree that this is genocide', he said of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. 'There was no effort to wipe out an entire race - men, women and children - merely because of their ethnic or religious identity. Both the Serbs and the Albanians pressure us for sympathy and comparison. Both sides it seems want to be Jews. I put myself on neither side.' And Blair and Clinton, he added with disgust, by comparing Serb actions in Kosovo to mass murder by the Nazis, 'are also manipulating with the Jews'.

This article was originally published in the May issue of LM

2. In one village, Albanian men are everywhere

Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times, one of the few Western journalists reporting from the ground in Kosovo, finds no evidence of genocide

Something strange is going on in this Kosovo Albanian village in what was once a hard-line guerrilla stronghold, where NATO accuses Serbs of committing genocide.

An estimated 15 000 displaced ethnic Albanians live in and around Svetlje, in northern Kosovo, and hundreds of young men are everywhere, strolling along the dirt roads or lying on the grass on a spring day.

So many fighting-age men in a region where the Kosovo Liberation Army fought some of its fiercest battles against Serbian forces are a challenge to the black-and-white versions of what is happening here.

By their own accounts, the men are not living in a concentration camp, nor being forced to labour for the police or army, nor serving as human shields for Serbs.

Instead, they are waiting with their families for permission to follow thousands who have risked going back home to nearby villages because they do not want to give up and leave Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

'We wanted to stay here where we were born', Skender Velia, 39, said through a translator. 'Those who wanted to go through Macedonia and on to Europe have already left. We did not want to follow.'

A foreign journalist spent two hours in Svetlje over the weekend, his second visit in less than a week, without a police or military escort or a Serbian official to monitor what was seen or said.

The closest Serbian security forces were two policemen sitting at a checkpoint half a mile up the dirt road, who weren't pleased to see so many refugees moving back into the Podujevo area.

Just as NATO accuses Yugoslav forces of using ethnic Albanian refugees as 'human shields', the Serbs say KLA fighters hide among ethnic Albanian civilians to carry out 'terrorist attacks'.

But Velia and other ethnic Albanians interviewed in Svetlje said they haven't had any problems with Serbian police since the police allowed them to come back.

'For the month that we've been here, the police have come only to sell cigarettes, but there hasn't been any harassment', Velia said.

That isn't what North Atlantic Treaty Organisation secretary-general Javier Solana believes is happening in Kosovo.

Solana told BBC television Sunday that he expected much more evidence of 'ethnic cleansing' in the province to emerge once the war is over. 'You don't see males in their 30s to 60s', he said.

And on CBS-TV's Face the Nation on Sunday, defence secretary William S Cohen said that as many as 100 000 ethnic Albanian men of fighting age have vanished in Kosovo and may have been killed by Serbian forces.

The claims and counterclaims are only part of the tangled web that threatens to trap NATO after nearly two months of bombing intended to make peace here.

Kosovo Albanians continue to flee Yugoslavia, often with detailed accounts of atrocities by Serbian security forces or paramilitaries.

Yet thousands of other ethnic Albanians are coming out of hiding in forests and in the mountains, hungry and frightened, and either going back home or waiting for police permission to do so.

While Serbian police seize the identity documents of Kosovo Albanians crossing the border into Albania or Macedonia, government officials in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, issue new identity cards to ethnic Albanians still here.

The Kosovo Democratic Initiative, an ethnic Albanian political party opposed to the KLA's fight for independence, is distributing relief aid, offering membership cards and gathering the names of Serbs accused of committing atrocities.

'As an Albanian, I am convinced that the Serbian government and security forces are not committing any kind of genocide', Fatmir Seholi, the party's spokesman, said in an interview Sunday.

'But in a war, even innocent people die', Seholi said. 'In every war, there are those who want to profit. Here there is a minority of people who wanted to steal, but that's not genocide. These are only crimes.'

As an Albanian, Seholi also knows the risks of questioning claims that Yugoslavia's leaders, police and military are committing crimes against humanity in Kosovo.

His father, Malic Seholi, was killed 9 January, 1997, apparently for being too cooperative with Serbian authorities. The KLA later claimed responsibility for the slaying in a statement published in Bujku, a local Albanian-language newspaper, his son said.

There are pressures to toe the party line in villages like Svetlje too, where a man who overheard Velia speaking with a Serbian correspondent for Agence France-Presse told him to stop.

'Don't talk to the Serbs', the man said angrily in Albanian. 'They are to blame for everything that is happening.'

Velia, his wife, Hajiri, their three children and his mother, Farita, 56, were among as many as 100 000 Kosovo Albanians who fled the northern city of Podujevo in the early days of NATO's air war.

Some said Serbs drove them from their homes, while others said they were simply scared and left on their own. But they all ended up moving from one village to another, trying to escape fighting between KLA guerrillas and Serbian security forces.

Now they must live with another danger - the NATO bombs that fall ever closer to Svetlje as the alliance intensifies its attacks on Yugoslav forces across Kosovo.

Last week, a bomb exploded just 200 yards from the five-room school that houses about 60 refugees. The explosion killed an ethnic Albanian man named Bashota, who was about 22 years old and from nearby Lapastica, Velia said.

When the foreign visitor asked Velia whether he thought NATO's bombing was helping or hurting, he shifted at the wooden desk where he was sitting in one of the school's classrooms.

'My blood is the same as yours', he said. 'I just want the situation stabilised. People are not very interested in what is going on with big [political] discussions here and there. They are just interested in going home.'

Despite the mass exodus of Kosovo Albanians during the NATO bombing, several hundred thousand remain in the province, many of them still hiding without proper food, medicine and shelter.

After waves of looting, arson, killings and other attacks turned many of Kosovo's cities into virtual ghost towns, the government took steps to restore order, and ethnic Albanians began to move back, often under police protection.

Of an estimated 100 000 people living in Pristina, roughly 80 000 are ethnic Albanians and a quarter of those are displaced people from the Podujevo area living with relatives, friends or in abandoned homes, Seholi said.

An additional 32 000 ethnic Albanians are living in and around Podujevo itself, he added.

A total of 120 000 ethnic Albanians are waiting to return to their homes in four areas - near Podujevo, Pristina, Stimlje and Prizren - while 350 000 more have proper homes, Seholi estimated.

Home for Zajda Hasani, 76, and 10 others in her family is a classroom and an adjoining storage room, where the shelves are stacked with books by writers such as Twain and Tolstoy.

'I have no problems at all', Hasani said between long draws on a cigarette. 'I'm relaxed.'

In Svetlje, the biggest problem is getting enough to eat. None of the foreign relief agencies delivering food to refugees outside Kosovo has been able to come to feed those ethnic Albanians left behind.

Agencies such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are negotiating with Yugoslav authorities about security guarantees and other matters as a prelude to resuming work in Kosovo.

On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent a four-truck convoy carrying medicine, food and other relief, the first shipment since NATO launched the air war March 24.

It wasn't nearly enough to feed the tens of thousands who are going hungry. The last aid Velia's family received was from the Yugoslav Red Cross, which gave them four and a half pounds of flour and some yeast a month ago.

Like many of the children in Svetlje, Velia's 7-month-old daughter, Erinisa, is sick. The baby has received four injections but needs six more.

Her mother has to line up with other refugees at the edge of Podujevo for police permission to enter the town and visit the hospital.

The refugees have started a small, roadside market in Svetlje that sells pasta, coffee, onions, rubber sandals, cigarettes and a few other assorted items. But in the absence of any jobs, few people can afford to buy much.

'The entire day, we just sit here or walk and wander around', Velia said. Although no one in Svetlje has been forced to work for the police or military, 'Who knows what may happen tomorrow?' he added.

Just a few minutes' walk away, there was a horrible reminder of just how uncertain the future is.

It was a human skull, partly charred by fire. It lay in the grass outside a one-storey building where refugees once were sheltered in about half a dozen rooms that were previously municipal offices.

The floors were covered with hay, where families slept, and the clothes and other belongings they left behind were scattered everywhere.

A single, burned corpse lay in the middle of one room, not proof of genocide, but a hint of the dark mystery that is Kosovo.

This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on 17 May 1999.

All of Paul Watson's dispatches from Kosovo are available on the LA Times' website at

3. Whatever happened to NATO charges of genocide?

A Mojo staff writer looks at how the talk of genocide has become muted in some circles

War isn't just about bombs; it's also about words. And perhaps the most powerful one used so far has been the West's charge of 'genocide'.

At the beginning of the NATO campaign against Kosovo, Western politicians often used the term as a good way to whip up support for NATO's bombing campaign in Kosovo.

Secretary of defence William Cohen put it particularly eloquently at a press conference on April 7: '[T]his is a fight for justice over genocide, for humanity over inhumanity, for democracy over despotism....'

Meanwhile, this week, after more than a month of bombing, the State Department released its first report on human-rights violations in Kosovo. The report, titled 'Erasing history: ethnic cleansing in Kosovo', documents mass expulsions, the looting and burning of villages, and the killing of over 3,000 civilians in just seven weeks. But noticeably absent from the 20-page document is any mention of genocide. Why?

Several officials interviewed by the MoJo Wire now acknowledge that the West has backed off claims of "genocide" because it is a legal term for a crime, just like 'rape' or 'murder', which shouldn't be used without supporting evidence.

One NATO official complained that early on in the conflict, politicians in particular were guilty of using the term loosely.

Government officials and human-rights organisations seem to agree that, until representatives from the International War Crimes Tribunal are allowed to enter Kosovo to gather evidence, accusations of genocide cannot be substantiated.

The State Department continues to claim it has 'indicators of genocide', but refuses to use the term directly when describing events inside Kosovo. Asked to describe these 'indicators', State Department Spokesperson Joe Johnson referred to the 'Erasing history' report.

NATO, meanwhile, has backed away from the term completely. 'Utilisation of this term [genocide] has been avoided by NATO for some time now', said one official, 'because it contains very specific legal ramifications'.

Despite the newfound restraint of US and NATO officials, the temptation to invoke the spectre of Hitler in reference to Kosovo is difficult for politicians to resist. In Macedonia for a photo op with refugee children on Friday, First Lady Hillary Clinton said the refugees' suffering reminded her of Schindler's List and Sophie's Choice.

This article was originally published on the Mojo Wire on 14 May 1999

4. Other views

'Further doubt cast on US claims of genocide in Kosovo'
by Martin McLaughlin

'There are growing questions about the claims by US and NATO officials, accepted uncritically in the media for more than a month, that Yugoslav forces have carried out genocide against the Albanian population of Kosovo....These claims have been intensified in the wake of recent bombing atrocities such as the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the killing of as many as 100 Albanian Kosovars by NATO bombs in the village of Korisa....In an effort to excuse their own crimes, US and British officials in particular have repeatedly compared the actions of Serbian forces to the Nazi Holocaust.' More...

'Important internal documents from Germany's foreign office regarding pre-bombardment genocide in Kosovo'
from the Eric Canepa Brecht Forum in New York

'As in the case of the Clinton administration, the present regime in Germany, specifically Joschka Fischer's Foreign Office, has justified its intervention in Kosovo by pointing to a "humanitarian catastrophe", "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" occurring there, especially in the months immediately preceding the NATO attack. The following internal documents from Fischer's ministry and from various regional Administrative Courts in Germany spanning the year before the start of NATO's air attacks, attest that criteria of ethnic cleansing and genocide were not met.' More...

'Number of missing Kosovars is challenged'
by Charles A Radin at the Boston Globe

'Experts in surveillance photography, wartime propaganda, and Balkan diplomacy say there is every reason to believe that atrocities are being committed against the ethnic Albanian majority in strife-torn Kosovo, but little reason at this time to accept the huge numbers of dead and missing Kosovars that are being bandied about....The US State Department said Monday that a half million ethnic Albanian men are unaccounted for in the disputed province, which is part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia but 90 percent Albanian, and a department spokesman hinted that 100,000 may have met with foul play. The statements have stoked public outrage, but they are based on no publicly available documents or photographs.' More...

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