Observer - War fantasies, Abacha family fortunes and Cabinet complaints

Francis Wheen

Wednesday November 3, 1999

Death and denial in Kosovo

According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, there is no such thing as reality - only a system of arbitrary signs, imagistic discourses and "multiple refractions in hyperspace". Hence the title of his most notorious book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Even Baudrillard, however, might raise an eyebrow at a headline in the current issue of the Spectator: "The Massacres That Never Were. Contrary to propaganda, mass graves in Kosovo are a myth, says John Laughland." Since Laughland is a former lecturer at the Sorbonne, you might assume that this is just another exercise in "playful post-modernism" or some such twaddle. But he is entirely serious. Laughland says that Nato maintained public support for its Balkan intervention by pretending that Serbian security forces and paramilitaries had massacred many thousands of Kosovans. "Of the impact such stories had, there can certainly be no doubt whatever; their veracity, however, is a different matter." The true death toll, he reckons, is probably no more than a few hundred.

This revisionist account is also having quite an impact: its allegations have been repeated in a full-page article in the Sunday Times, and are being assiduously peddled by Stratfor, an online thinktank based in Texas. Their veracity, however, is quite another matter.

Let's begin with Nato's alleged hyperbole. "On May 16, the US defence secretary, William Cohen, said that Yugoslav army forces had killed up to 100,000 Albanian men of military age," Laughland writes. "Tony Blair himself implied that the numbers might be even higher when he wrote in the Times on June 5, 'We must be ready for what we know will be clear evidence of... as yet unknown numbers of people missing, tortured and dead.'"

What William Cohen actually said, on the American TV programme Face the Nation, was that 100,000 men of military age "are missing". As for the death toll, he continued: "We have had reports that as many as 4,600 have been executed, but I suspect it's far higher than that." Not quite the same as asserting that all 100,000 of them had been killed.

Nor did Tony Blair imply a total "even higher" than 100,000 in his article of June 5. He gave no figures at all, predicting only that journalists and peacekeepers entering Kosovo would find "evidence of appalling atrocities and unbelievable cruelties". And so they did. By June 16, the for eign office minister Geoff Hoon felt able to give a rough estimate. "According to the reports we have gathered, it appears that around 10,000 people have been killed in more than 100 massacres."

Laughland dismisses this as "fantasy" - and quotes a most surprising source to prove it. Paul Risley, the spokesman for the international war-crimes prosecutor, apparently told him that "a whole string of sites where atrocities were allegedly committed have revealed no bodies at all", adding that there were "not very many" mass graves.

"The guy's a complete asshole," Risley told me this week, when I reached him by phone in Sarajevo. "I said nothing of the sort. We have over 500 'scenes of crime', and many of them are mass graves." Of these 500 sites, only 150 have been investigated so far; the rest will not be dug up until next spring. (As Risley points out, you can't do exhumations when the ground is frozen.)

"So," Laughland demands impatiently, "what is the final body count?" The question is absurd. After the Paddington rail crash, we had to wait for many days before the police issued a definitive list of victims. If it took so long to identify odd fragments of bone in one railway carriage, imagine the difficulty of searching an entire country - especially one where the retreating Serb forces did their best to destroy or hide the evidence of their crimes.

Nevertheless, the tribunal's prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, will present an interim report to the United Nations in the next two or three weeks. Laughland notes that a group of Spanish inspectors "only found 187 cadavers" in Kosovo this summer, as if this proves his hunch that "the number of bodies discovered to date is in the hundreds". But the Spaniards comprised only one of 20 forensic teams. A squad of experts from the FBI, who arrived in the town of Gjakova at the end of June, retrieved 200 corpses within five days.

If these results are at all typical, the number of bodies already identified must be at least 3,000. And, I repeat, the tribunal's gumshoes have visited only 150 of the 500 "scenes of crime". All this suggests that Hoon's figure of 10,000 was remarkably accurate.

We shall never know the exact total, of course - just as we still don't have a final tally of those massacred at Srebrenica, more than four years ago. "We do not anticipate recovering every body," Risley says. "There's compelling evidence of tampering with evidence, and attempts to destroy the bodies of victims." Even so, we get the picture; and those who seek to deny the scale and brutality of "ethnic cleansing" should watch John Sweeney's film Prime Suspects, to be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9.30pm, which describes how more than 100 people were lined up and shot dead in a hay barn in just one small Kosovo village.

None of the bodies has been recovered: the killers blew up the barn, leaving nothing but two huge holes in the earth. Laughland and his fellow revisionists could therefore argue that the deaths were yet another "fantasy", a Baudrillard-style refraction in hyperspace.

No doubt Rasim Batusha, who lost 22 members of his family in the massacre, will find this a great consolation.

Stash and carry

The traditional example of chutzpah is the man who murders his parents and then pleads for clemency on the grounds that he is an orphan. An equally fine specimen is the "urgent and confidential" letter which was faxed from Lagos a few weeks ago to a friend who is the senior partner in a firm of solicitors.

"I am Mohammed Abacha, son of the late president of Nigeria, General Sani Abacha," it began. "Since his death, my family has been losing a lot of money through vindictive government officials who are envious of his achievement... Because of this problem, the total sum of US$50m [30m] which I have access to must be moved out of the country immediately." Young Mohammed added that he had chosen my friend's firm because it was "a reputable company with which I could transact some confidential business that requires honesty".

And how did his high-achieving dad acquire the loot? "This money is from over-invoiced contracts [for arms deals] and... this sum of $50m was secretly stashed away by my father."

On the face of it, the letter bore a close resemblance to those received by victims of a now notorious scam in which European businessmen have been enticed to part with large sums of cash for the privilege of helping Africans with apparently lofty connections to "move" even larger sums of money. But this story had an intriguing postscript. A fortnight ago, shortly after sending the letter, Mohammed Abacha was arraigned before Lagos magistrates on charges of murder and corruption.

Swimming lessons

An apology: four weeks ago I suggested that Tony Blair's colleagues would be settling scores in their memoirs, "within a decade or so". What I should have said, of course, was "within a month or so".

The diary of Janet Jones, whose husband was leader of the Lords in Blair's first cabinet, gives a revealing glimpse of ministerial priorities. She notes that, less than a month after the election, Derry Irvine is running up a bill of 650,000 for new wallpaper and carpets in his official residence. On July 2 1997 we learn that "the prime minister has nominated Robin Cook to have the use of Chevening. He is happy to share it with John Prescott but this gang of [the residence's] trustees... will not countenance John Prescott using it too." A week later, Jones's husband, Lord Richard, chairs a meeting of the Chequers trustees. "Central to this is the Chequers swimming pool. Its roof needs looking at. 'The least we can do for those Blair children is keep the roof on the swimming pool. Why didn't the last government do anything about it?'"

Amid all this, the new rulers somehow find time to discuss the big issues - or one big issue, anyway. On September 23, John Prescott is said to be "furious with Blair and Brown" over... a pay-freeze for cabinet ministers. "We are the people's servants," Blair warned his backbenchers on May 7 1997. "Remember, you are not here to enjoy the trappings of power." Indeed not: otherwise there might not be any trappings left for the cabinet.

http://www.newsunlimited.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,99123,00.html