The Real Story of
a massacre in Kosovo
On 18 August 2003, BBC1 broadcast a programme in its Real Story series. This one was an account of a massacre of Kosovo Albanians in Podujevo and of the return of four survivors from Britain to Serbia to give evidence at the trial of a member of a Serb paramilitary unit accused of the massacre.
14 members of the Bogujevci and Duriqi Albanian families, 7 women and 7 children were killed in the massacre. 5 other children were left for dead, but survived and came to Manchester for medical treatment, and were eventually granted asylum in Britain. The men of the families were not present when the massacre happened.
In the programme, the events leading up to the massacre, and others in which thousands of Kosovo Albanians were killed, were described as follows:
“Saranda [one of the survivors] was born in the town of Podujevo in Kosovo. It’s just a few miles from the border with neighbouring Serbia. Her family are Kosovo Albanians, and had lived there happily for generations.
“All this changed in 1999 when Serbian forces entered Kosovo. They killed an estimated eight and a half thousand Kosovo Albanians in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Virtually the entire population fled in terror.”
This was followed by an unidentified person saying:
“We now estimate that the number of people who have fled from their homes in Kosovo has gone over the half million mark”
The programme did not give the precise date on which the massacre in Podujevo took place, but the accompanying story on the BBC website gives it as 28 March 1999. Readers may recall that, 4 days earlier on 24 March 1999, the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia began. The NATO bombing triggered the killing by Serb forces of Albanian civilians at Podujevo and other places in Kosovo.
Whether eight and a half thousand were killed is open to question, but there is no doubt that substantial numbers were killed – and there’s equally no doubt that the NATO bombing campaign triggered the killings. Without it, the Bogujevci and Duriqi families wouldn’t have been massacred in Podujevo on 28 March 1999, and the BBC wouldn’t have had a story to tell.
Yet neither the Real Story programme, nor the accompanying story on the BBC website, mentions the NATO bombing campaign at all.
It is difficult to believe that this was not deliberate. The programme showed, but did not identify, NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea, giving a NATO estimate of the numbers who had fled their homes (see above). But the programme failed to mention that at the time NATO was raining bombs down on Yugoslavia including Kosovo. NATO did get a mention later in the programme, ironically as Good Samaritans, who rescued the survivors of the Podujevo massacre from a Pristina hospital and arranged for them to go to a Manchester hospital for treatment.
Apart from omitting to mention the NATO bombing campaign, the description of events prior to the massacres shows a remarkable lack of knowledge of the basic political geography of Yugoslavia in 1999. Kosovo was then (and formally still is) a part of Serbia, which together with Montenegro then made up Yugoslavia, now renamed Serbia & Montenegro.
However, the author of the script was clearly under the mistaken impression that Kosovo was a separate political entity from Serbia in 1999, and that it was invaded by Serb forces in 1999. In reality, Serb forces didn’t have to “enter Kosovo” in 1999 – they were there all along because Kosovo was part of Serbia. And in the year or so before the NATO intervention, a fierce battle was going on in Kosovo between them and the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The KLA and its fight for independence from Yugoslavia wasn’t mentioned in the programme either.
From the safety of 15,000 feet, NATO triggered a humanitarian catastrophe for Kosovo Albanians on 24 March 1999. Thousands who were alive when the bombing started were killed. Hundreds of thousands more, who were in their homes when the bombing started, were expelled from their homes or fled because they feared for their lives.
Nevertheless, the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia is regarded as a highly successful humanitarian intervention, in which displaced Albanians were returned to their homes (and Yugoslavia was forced to withdraw its forces from Kosovo). It is rarely mentioned that the people who were returned were mostly in their homes before the bombing started.
Unfortunately, the Albanians who were alive on 24 March 1999, and who were massacred by Serb forces shortly after, couldn’t be brought to life again, and neither could the thousands of other people killed in the war. Nor have the Serbs, and the other minorities, who fled from their homes in Kosovo after the Yugoslav withdrawal, been returned to their homes in Kosovo – perhaps as many as 200,000 of these people who were in their homes on 24 March 1999 are still not back in their homes, and are unlikely ever to be back.
But, the defenders of the NATO intervention will say, the Serbs led by Slobodan Milosevic were engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo. For example, 45 Albanian civilians were shot in cold blood by Serb forces at Racak on January 1999. And NATO intervened to save the Albanians from further ethnic cleansing and butchery.
The truth is that for a few years prior to 1999 the KLA had been waging a guerrilla campaign for independence for Kosovo. It greatly intensified its campaign in early 1998, and the spring and summer of 1998 saw a concerted offensive by Yugoslav forces in response, which drove the KLA out of much of Kosovo. In the process, military personnel on both sides were killed, and so were Serb and Albanian civilians, including Albanian civilians who were deemed by the KLA to be collaborators.
One would never guess that from the reporting at the time or since that, prior to the NATO intervention, the KLA were responsible for roughly the same number of deaths in Kosovo as Yugoslav forces. We have that on no less an authority than the then UK Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson (who later became NATO Secretary General). Giving evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on the day the bombing started, he said:
“Up until Racak earlier this year [on 15 January] the KLA were responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than the Yugoslav authorities had been.”
The numbers killed on either side were small compared with what happened after the NATO intervention, probably around 300 on either side.
What actually happened at Racak has always been disputed. On 21 January 1999, Le Monde published an article, entitled Were the Racak dead really massacred in cold blood?, by French journalist Christophe Chatelot. See here for an English translation. 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. It is almost impossible to reconcile his account with the orthodox view that there was a massacre of Albanian civilians by Yugoslav forces in Racak on 15 January 1999.
Nevertheless, Racak was seized on by the West to justify intervention – which triggered a humanitarian catastrophe for Kosovo Albanians.
Labour & Trade Union Review