Racak Revisited: Whose Massacre?

By Reed Irvine

January 13, 2000

Using dubious excuses to start wars has been common throughout history, but it usually takes historians a long time to get at the truth. The excuse that President Clinton used to start NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia last year was the alleged massacre of 45 Albanian civilians in the little village of Racak in Kosovo on Friday, January 15, 1999. This was denounced as a crime against humanity and a violation of the cease-fire agreement worked out between the Serbs and the Albanians a few months earlier.

But only two days after the French newspaper, Le Figaro, published a big story by Renaud Girard, its correspondent in Yugoslavia, about this terrible crime against humanity, it ran a second story by him charging that he and other foreign journalists had been fooled by the KLA. At least two other French newspapers, Le Monde and Libération, exposed the deception.

In a telephone interview, Girard explained why he had repudiated his story about the Racak massacre. He said that on the morning of January 15, the government media center in Pristina called the AP TV and suggested that they be at Racak at 10:30 a.m. He and the other foreign journalists had other plans that day. At 2:30 p.m., the media center issued a press release saying that an attack on the KLA-controlled village had been carried out and 15 terrorists had been killed. AP TV had videotaped the operation, and some of it was shown on television. In addition, observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had watched it from a nearby hill.

The next day, the press center urged foreign journalists to go to Racak. Girard and a few others did so. Two teams of OSCE observers were already there, and the village was filled with uniformed KLA soldiers. The journalists were shown a lot of dead bodies in a ravine just a few kilometers from the village. Villagers told them that they had been massacred by the Serbs. Girard was shocked. He wrote a long story about what he had seen and heard. It was published on Jan. 18.

Christophe Chatelot, the reporter for Le Monde, then told him that he had gone to Racak the previous Friday, the day of the police operation, arriving at 4 p.m. He said the village appeared to be more or less normal. He spoke to an American OSCE observer who had been there all day. He said nothing about a massacre, and there were no bodies in sight. There were a few people with minor wounds. He found nothing worth writing about, and so he didn’t revisit Racak the next day with the other journalists.

Girard and Chatelot interviewed the Serbian AP TV camera crew and viewed their tape. There was no one to be seen in the village, and the attacking force went after the KLA soldiers entrenched in the hills. Girard described the village as "fortified" with lots of trenches. He found the whole thing "weird." Why did the Serbs urge the journalists to go to Racak if they intended to commit a massacre or had committed one? Why was no mention or sign of a massacre encountered by those who were there on Friday? Why did the observers who had been there on Friday swallow the stories the villagers told them on Saturday? Why didn’t they go to the police in the village a few kilometers away and ask what they knew about what had transpired the previous day or during the night?

Le Figaro on Jan. 20 published Girard’s story challenging the claim that there was a massacre of innocent civilians in the peaceful village of Racak on Jan. 15. He said it angered the "Anglo" reporters, who accused him of "killing their story" and the AP told its Serb camera crew they would be fired if they talked to any more reporters.

Amb. William Walker, who was in charge of the observers, was also angry about what he had written. Girard thought that Walker was partial to the KLA, and he questioned whether he wanted the observer mission to succeed. Walker had met privately with the KLA leaders for 45 minutes after he arrived at Racak late on Saturday. He did not meet with the Serbs.

Girard said he himself had no bias in favor of the Serbs. He had exposed their atrocities in Bosnia. At Racak, however, it was the KLA that deceived the foreign reporters with the help of those OSCE observers who knew that the dead bodies appeared long after the Serb forces had withdrawn, returning control of Racak to the KLA.