By the Editorial Board of the WSWS
As NATO forces extend their reach throughout Kosovo, the American
and British media are seeking to bludgeon public opinion and justify the
war against Yugoslavia after the fact. At the center of this propaganda
effort is a series of reports on alleged mass grave sites found by NATO
soldiers and Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas.
The two most important American daily newspapers, the New York
Times and the Washington Post, each published lengthy and lurid
reports Wednesday about the extent of the carnage wrought in Kosovo
during the ten weeks between the onset of the NATO bombing and the
Yugoslav capitulation. Similar reports appeared on the American
In addition to reinforcing the Clinton administration's claims that
American warplanes dropped tens of thousands of tons of bombs on
Yugoslavia for "humanitarian" reasons, the press campaign over alleged
Serb atrocities provides a pretext to justify the expulsion of the 200,000
Kosovan Serbs from the province. This process has already begun, with
tens of thousands of Serb civilians fleeing as KLA forces take over towns
in the south and east of Kosovo.
There has been little coverage of the flight of the Serbs, which will
escalate as NATO and KLA forces enter the more heavily
Serb-populated areas in northeastern Kosovo and along the northern
border with Montenegro and Serbia proper.
Equally significant is the abandonment of any media reporting from within
Serbia on the casualties of the US-NATO bombing campaign. For every
heart-rending article about the deaths of Albanian civilians in the ethnic
civil war in Kosovo, an equally moving account could be provided of the
deaths of Serbian civilians under NATO bombing.
Moreover, the suffering and death in Serbia will continue, as the
long-term impact of the destruction of electricity, water supplies, roads,
bridges, hospitals and the basic infrastructure of modern life is felt. It is all
but impossible to estimate the ultimate effect of environmental
contamination caused by the destruction of oil refineries and storage
depots and the radiation released by US missiles containing depleted
The current US-NATO propaganda campaign makes no attempt to
square today's atrocity stories with yesterday's. A case in point is
Thursday's release by the British foreign office of an estimate that 10,000
Albanian Kosovars had been killed in 130 separate massacres, a figure
that was given enormous international publicity.
David Gowan, a British government spokesman on the investigation into
war crimes charges in Kosovo, said, "It's very difficult to give an overall
number but what's clear is that the picture is far worse than we thought."
This comment is inexplicable except as an attempt to extract the
maximum propaganda value from the pictures now coming out of
Kosovo. The British estimate actually represents a lowering, by at least a
factor of ten, of the most farfetched claims made during the war, when
US and NATO officials declared that between 100,000 and 225,000
Albanian men were missing and potentially murdered.
Nor is there any reason to believe that the figure of 10,000 is accurate.
The press accounts of the British claim conceal the fact that Whitehall
prepared this estimate several weeks ago, based on "military and media
reports as well as interviews with refugees in Albania and Macedonia." In
other words, the figure of 10,000 is not based on any tabulation of
graves or bodies actually found in Kosovo, although media reports give
Official US statements on the alleged death toll in Kosovo are equally
suspect. Pentagon spokesman Mike Doubleday said NATO soldiers had
"come upon or heard about 90 suspected mass grave sites since entering
Kosovo on Saturday." There are a sufficient number of qualifiers in that
sentence to send up many warning flags. What initially appears to be
significant evidence of several thousand deaths turns out to be more
rumor and speculation than fact: these are "suspected" sites, some only
"heard about," which troops have "come upon"—i.e., not investigated.
What becomes a "suspected" mass grave site, more often than not, is a
claim or suspicion voiced by someone from the KLA—officer, soldier,
interpreter—to a NATO military commander, who in turn communicates
it to an American or British reporter. No one in this chain is an objective
observer. All have a vested interest in depicting the conditions in Kosovo
in as dark and incriminating a fashion as possible, to justify the
The method of distortion
It is worthwhile to analyze one of the major reports on the mass graves,
which appeared on the front page of the New York Times Wednesday,
written by John Kifner and Ian Fisher. The report focuses on the town of
Djakovica, in southwestern Kosovo near the border with Albania, and
cites claims that as many as 1,000 Albanian men were seized there by the
Serbs, taken away and presumably murdered.
While the impression is given throughout the article that the events in
Kosovo were the outcome of a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing,
driven by the genocidal hatred of Serbs for Albanians, a number of facts
are acknowledged which suggest a different explanation.
Kifner and Fisher write: "Djakovica has long been a center of Albanian
nationalism. The whole region, known as Has on both sides of the
border, is regarded by the interrelated Albanian clans as one entity."
And later: "The Kosovo Liberation Army bases are on the other side of
the craggy mountains, in lawless northern Albania, and their supply routes
run down the mountain passes into the valleys here. Thus the town has
enormous strategic importance.
"Tactically, the area lies on the main highway close to the border."
These circumstances suggest that Djakovica was a particularly brutal
focus of military conflict between the Yugoslav Army and armed KLA
secessionists, the kind of civil war which in country after country
produces atrocities, especially among civilians linked to the guerrilla
But instead of this conclusion, the Times writers add, without any
substantiation: "In the Serbs' well-planned campaign, mass killings in the
first days spread terror, emptying villages near the borders, encouraging
others to follow on the routes now cleared."
Then come four or five examples of alleged mass graves, with a total
number of victims approaching 200, but with little proof that those buried
are civilians, rather than KLA fighters, or even that any bodies are buried
at all. One example is a "patch of churned earth" pointed out by KLA
soldiers who said up to 100 people were buried there.
The choice of words throughout the article is quite conscious. Albanian
deaths are the result of "massacres." The possibility that Albanians—and
Serbs—might have been killed as the result of fighting between the KLA
and Serb forces, especially in this town of admittedly "enormous strategic
importance," is nowhere raised.
The article is written as though atrocities in Kosovo come as a shock.
There is a tone of moral indignation, not found, for instance, when the
New York Times writes about the deaths of Palestinians on the West
Bank, or Kurds in Turkey, or Tamils in Sri Lanka, let alone the victims of
American military violence in Iraq, Somalia or Panama.
The reports in the Times, and reports and editorial commentary
throughout the American media, routinely assert that the Milosevic regime
in Belgrade executed a deliberate plan to expel the Albanian population
of Kosovo in order to ensure Serbian control of the territory. These
claims, made without any evidence, run up against one central
obstacle—the fact that the mass flight of Albanian Kosovars did not
begin until after the NATO bombing commenced on March 24.
The US-NATO version of events is that the bombing itself played no role
in the flight of the Kosovars. Given that the bombing of Serbia itself
resulted in the displacement of an estimated one million Serb civilians—a
fact virtually unreported in the American media—that is difficult to
But if one concedes, for the sake of argument, that NATO shares no
responsibility for the exodus of the Kosovo Albanians, then another
conclusion must follow. Since the mass expulsions did not get under way
until after the NATO bombing started and the 2,000 observers from the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had been
withdrawn, it follows that Milosevic's plan for “ethnic cleansing” was
predicated on the onset of an air war against his country. Indeed, to be
consistent one would have to conclude that Milosevic positively desired
devastation at the hands of the US and NATO and deliberately
provoked the air war, so as to carry out his plan for ethnic cleansing
under its cover.
The more one examines the claim of a Serb master plan to purge Kosovo
of Albanians, the less it holds together. Another explanation is more
persuasive. The Milosevic regime had plans for a military offensive
against the KLA, which included the forced removal of Albanian civilians
in areas, especially near the Albanian border, which were key KLA
supply routes. Similar methods have been employed in virtually all
“counter-insurgency” wars of the 20th century, nowhere more brutally
than by the US in Vietnam.
The combination of this intensified civil war and the NATO bombing
touched off a killing spree in which the most fanatical and brutal Serb
nationalist elements, especially paramilitary groups like the "White
Eagles," played a major role. This would explain why in some regions
terrible atrocities were carried out, while in many areas, especially those
where the Serb population was larger and more secure and the KLA had
less influence, the Albanian population suffered considerably less.
One significant account published in the New York Times Wednesday,
but buried on its inside pages, supports this analysis. The article is by
Steven Erlanger, who was the Times correspondent in Belgrade during
the bombing and one of a handful of Western journalists who have at
times written with a degree of objectivity.
Erlanger visited the Pec in western Kosovo, the province's second largest
city, and interviewed an Albanian woman who had worked for the
OSCE monitors. She said: "When NATO started bombing, the police
and the paramilitaries started destroying everything that was Albanian."
The reporter detailed the destruction in the city "by Serb forces and
paramilitaries in their rampage of revenge when NATO began bombing
Yugoslavia in March." This characterization suggests that the NATO
bombing played an indispensable role in touching off the wave of
atrocities against Albanians.
The next Kosovo
The political motivation for the barrage of atrocity stories in the American
media is spelled out in an editorial published in the Times on Thursday.
Under the headline, "Lessons of the Balkan War," the editors state
ominously, "This was the first military conflict since the end of the cold
war fought primarily for humanitarian purposes. It will probably not be
The Times declares that the intervention into Yugoslavia "is a powerful
signal to other tyrants that the instigation of ethnic violence, even within
their own borders, can reach a point that the world will not tolerate." This
is the language of colonialism, in which a handful of the most powerful
imperialist countries trample on the sovereignty and national rights of
lesser powers, even as they presume to speak for "the world." In the
19th century, military intervention and occupation by Britain, France,
Belgium, Germany, Holland and Italy of large parts of Africa and Asia
were given a moral gloss with phrases like "the white man's burden."
Going into the 21st century the rhetoric has changed, but the content
remains essentially the same.
The Times does not name the countries that could become the next
Kosovos, but the manipulation of ethnic antagonisms would provide
similar pretexts for US intervention across a broad swathe of
southeastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, all territories
formerly incorporated into or dominated by the Soviet Union.
According to the Times, "the immediate hazard in Kosovo was a
demonic assault on the principles of a civilized society. NATO bombed
Serbia for 78 days to combat lethal ethnic cleansing, to reverse the
expulsion of more than a million ethnic Albanians from their homes and to
prevent Slobodan Milosevic from terrorizing the Balkans."
At another point the editorial states: "The mass graves, gutted buildings
and torched farmhouses of Kosovo are not the inevitable product of
military conflict. They are the result of a premeditated assault by Mr.
Milosevic against ethnic Albanians."
We have examined elsewhere the complex historical background to the
war in Yugoslavia, which bears no relation to the simplistic version of the
Times. It should simply be pointed out that when NATO began
bombing, neither "lethal ethnic cleansing" nor the flight of the Kosovars
had yet taken place. As for Milosevic and the Balkans, the Serbian ruler
has never intervened beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia. It
was the US and NATO which, in the course of the war, bombed
Bulgaria, blocked shipping in Romania, turned Albania, Macedonia,
Hungary and Greece into military staging areas and converted the
Balkans as a whole into a war zone.
There was a premeditated assault in the Balkan War of 1999. It was the
deliberate attack on a small nation of 11 million people by a coalition of
19 of the richest and most powerful countries in the world, spearheaded
by the world's bully, the United States of America.