The massacre that forced the West to act

By Peter Beaumont and Patrick Wintour with reporting by Chris Bird in Pristina, John Henley in Paris, John Hooper in Rome
Sunday July 18, 1999

Four months earlier, after a long period of confused and bumbling diplomacy, the West had been forced into a concerted response to the Kosovo crisis by shocking events in a village above the town of Stimlje. It was called Racak.

The first monitors and journalists who walked into Racak, 18 miles south of Kosovo's capital Pristina, on Saturday 16 January had feared what they might find. And what lay there, spread out before them, was an unspeakably awful tableau: the only sound, the quiet moaning of men and women behind the stone walls of their homes. Chris Bird of The Observer was one of the first on the scene.

In the first house he found the body of 18-year-old Hanushune Mehmeti, shot when she had tried to protect her brother when the killers came. In the next house was 58-year-old Bajram Shunumehmeti, his arms, frozen with rigor mortis, raised in front of him in supplication. He had been shot in the head.

In the next house he found four bodies laid out on the floor. The eldest, 58-year-old Riza Beqiri, lay next to the wall, a stiff white hand still clutching his walking stick. His son Zenel Beqiri lay near the darkened door frame.

But it was above the village, up a steep hill slippery with ice, where the most terrible sights had been saved until last. The body of a middle-aged man, his trousers stiff with frost, lay on the path where he had fallen, blasted in the head. A few yards further up was the body of an elderly man. Part of his head had been shot away. Round a corner they were confronted by a scene that would become infamous when images of it sped round the globe: the tumbled bodies of 19 men, all in civilian clothes, all shot at close range, their bodies riddled with bullets.

What had happened in Racak became clear during the next few hours and days. According to survivors, the first Serb troops, led by the men of the Specialna Antiterroristicka Jedinica (SAJ), had arrived by car and armoured personnel carrier, supported by artillery of the Yugoslav army. Its tanks motored up the narrow road, tracks clattering on tarmac, firing directly into houses. Mortar rounds lobbed from the nearby hills, smashed roofs and crashed through walls.

There it might have stopped - another clumsy attack by Serb forces against a village held by the Kosovo Liberation Army - but for the actions of the men from the SAJ in their black uniforms and balaclavas, accompanied by the Ministry of Interior police in their blueboiler suits, and the local paramilitaries, as they moved on foot through the village. As the forces entered the village searching for 'terrorists' from the Kosovo Liberation Army they tortured, humiliated and then murdered any men they found.

A German diplomat, Berend Borchardt, was one of the first to visit the scene. He had been sent to prepare a report for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose 1,800 unarmed monitors had been deployed in Kosovo the previous autumn to police a US-brokered cease-fire between Serb forces and the ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The events that led to the massacre in Racak began - as Borchadt spelt out in his report - with a 'well prepared ambush' by KLA fighters on 8 January that left four Serbian policemen dead. Borchadt conceded that the attack had not been a one-off, despite the fact that a cease-fire, negotiated in October by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and backed with the threat of air strikes by 400 Nato bombers, was allegedly in force.

In October, Holbrooke had persuaded President Slobodan Milosevic to halt a furious campaign against the KLA and ethnic Albanian civilians that had been raging since the summer and had killed more than 2,000, displacing 200,000 more.

But in January with the monitoring mission on the ground, and with diminished Serb forces - in theory at least - back in their barracks, the ethnic Albanian guerrillas had once again become emboldened. Wary of head-on confrontation with the Serbs, which had proved a disaster for the nascent guerrilla army and the population that supported it in the summer of 1998, the KLA had shifted to a policy of hit-and-run attacks.

The truth was that on the Serb side, too, Holbrooke's cease-fire had become a sham. Actions by Milosevic's Interior Ministry Police - the infamous MUP - continued. Columns of police and Yugoslav army armour used the pretence of training exercises to leave barracks and to harass villages in the countryside. Assassinations, murder and kidnapping continued on both sides.

And in response to the KLA's January attack Yugoslav forces, under General Sreten Lukic, head of the Ministry of Interior forces in Kosovo, planned a revenge attack on Racak, where they believed some of the killers lived. They would crush it in a vice with simultaneous assaults from three sides.

According to Borchadt, the Yugoslav army had moved artillery, tanks and other armoured vehicles into the area early in the week, so that by Thursday 14 January skirmishing had begun in earnest.

By the Friday morning - the day of the massacre - the situation had deteriorated seriously. Through their binoculars, concerned monitors, who had been blocked by the Serbs from reaching the area to attempt to negotiate a halt to the fighting, could see 'houses burning' in the distant village. They could also see tanks and armoured vehicles firing directly into the houses. Most worrying of all, residents of Racak who had fled the fighting, described men being rounded up and 20 of them being 'led away'.

They were determined to try to reach the village the next morning. When William Walker, the US diplomat at the head of the monitoring mission, finally succeeded in gaining access to the quiet village at 1pm on Saturday 16 January, it was again in KLA hands.

The rebels led them to the bodies in and around the village. Walker had little doubt about what had happened: 'As a layman,' he said, 'it looks to me like executions.' He was also categorical about whom he blamed: Milosevic's forces.