Toronto Star 1999-11-12

Kosovo's horror can't be denied

THE SERBS dragged Afrim Imeraj, 2 years old, from his home in Kosovo and butchered him on the spot.

They hanged Argjend Demijaha, 5, from a tree.

They shot Rita Vejsa, 2, and her brother Arlind, 5. And Diona Caka, 2. And Rina Haxhiavdija, 4.

Most of these Kosovar Albanian children didn't end up in a mass grave.

But so what?

Their hasty murders, not their hasty burials, are why Canada went to war on March 24, and why Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, is wanted as a war criminal.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, a United Nations court, has charged him with crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in killing five of these children, and more than 300 other people.

Some ink has been spilled in the press recently on the difficulty that U.N. investigators are having locating the ``mass'' graves that many expected to find once the Kosovo war was over.

Much has been made - particularly by those who believe Canada had no business making war on Serbia - of the fact that suspected mass grave sites at the Trepca mines or in Ljubenic have failed to disgorge the bodies that were thought, wrongly, to have been disposed of there.

The Americans, some critics say, cynically duped Canada and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into believing the Milosevic regime was worse than it turned out to be.

No mass graves means that there was no Serb genocide against Kosovars and thus no justification for the war, the argument goes.

Tell that to Afrim, Argjend, Rita, Arlind, Diona and Rina.

All of Kosovo is a crime scene, just as Chechnya is being turned into a crime scene today. Much of it is a burial ground, pocked by hundreds of ``small'' mass graves, many with 5 or 10 bodies, but some with 100 or more.

Does the want of a few truly horrific common graves make such a difference?

For the number crunchers out there, here are the only statistics that matter, from a report to the Security Council on Wednesday by the U.N.'s chief prosecutor in Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte:

To date, the U.N. has probed 195 grave sites where 4,266 bodies had been reported buried. The investigators dug out 2,108 full corpses, half the number they expected to find. That's about 10 per grave. Partial corpses, and there were many, weren't counted.

In all, the Kosovars have reported a total of 11,334 deaths. There are 324 sites left to investigate, and more are being discovered.

If the U.N. teams continue to locate bodies at roughly the rate they have been, they'll have identified 6,000 or so when their work is done, not counting incomplete bodies.

So where are the rest?

Burned. Buried in unmarked graves. Dissolved in acid. Ploughed deep into fields. The Serbs have some experience getting rid of corpses.

``There were also a significant number of sites where the precise number of bodies cannot be counted,'' Del Ponte told the Security Council.

``In these places steps were taken to hide the evidence. Many bodies have been burned. The figures themselves may therefore not tell the whole story and we would not expect the forensic evidence in isolation to produce a definitive total.''

This does not sound like pimping for NATO. It sounds like a tough-minded Swiss prosecutor, calling it as she sees it.

Her job is not to compile a census of death. It is to bring the killers to justice.

Whether 11,000 Kosovars were murdered, or 6,000, or 2,108, the Milosevic government did its best to ``cleanse'' Kosovo of 2 million Albanian Muslims last March by launching a premeditated and furious campaign of terror, murder, rape, arson and plunder that devastated the region and drove 1.4 million from their homes.

The Milosevic regime already had killed 2,500 in the year before, and tens of thousands in Bosnia before that. Its capacity for crimes against humanity was notorious.

That NATO was braced for a much higher death toll and stiffened its spine accordingly, was understandable. That it may have been only partly right, is excusable.

That NATO should be accused of painting the Milosevic regime in too-dark colours, is risible.

U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen in particular has caught flak for his comment on May 16 that ``100,000 military-aged men missing ... may have been murdered.'' But it's a bum rap. They were missing. They might have been murdered. Many may have been. And Cohen went on to specify that at that point there were just 4,600 reports of killings.

But for most of the war NATO stuck to a relatively conservative guesstimate of 10,000 dead that still looks credible in the light of Del Ponte's findings.

Like any war, the Kosovo conflict must be re-evaluated once passions cool. There is much to criticize NATO for, not the least of which was its reluctance to deploy ground troops.

Did some NATO politicians go overboard in calling Kosovo a genocide, another Holocaust? Undoubtedly. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, not 6,000.

But Kosovo was undeniably a crime against humanity.

And that gave the United States, Canada and their allies every right to intervene, though without the U.N.'s approval because two Security Council members, Russia and China, blocked that avenue for their own cynical reasons.

NATO drew the line at allowing Milosevic to wage war unopposed against Kosovo's civilian population, and turning yet another chunk of Europe into a no-go zone for any tribe but his own.

Canadians couldn't stomach that, and rightly so.

If Kosovo is bereft of ``mass'' graves today, it is in part because we said No to monstrous criminality.

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