Hypocrisy and blunders in the Balkans

By Robert Fisk

31 December 1999

This year, a brutal army – acting on the orders of a ruthlessly ambitious politician – laid waste to one of its historic provinces, slaughtering thousands, driving up to a half a million people from their homes. Human rights workers, the European Union and the United States warned that the killing must stop. The rampaging army claimed it was fighting separatist "terrorism". So what did we in the West do about it?

Absolutely nothing. We didn't bomb Russia's bridges or power stations or railway lines or barracks or television transmitters or – by mistake, of course – buses and a passenger train and a hospital and refugee convoys. No, we tut-tutted and appealed for a political solution in Chechnya. And Madeleine Albright, the scourge of President Slobodan Milosevic, told us how important it was to keep good relations with Russia, that Moscow should not be ostracised.

Perhaps the double standards would have been sharper had the two events coincided. If the Russian army had bombarded Grozny as NATO was bombing Belgrade, a few more questions would have been asked about the "human values" which the West was supposedly upholding in Kosovo.

If we can go to war because Albanians were being persecuted in Kosovo by the Serbs, why couldn't we go to war when Chechens were being dispossessed of their homes and driven from their villages? Instead, NATO's campaign closed just in time for President Boris Yeltsin and his prime minister to claim that it gave Russia the right to crush the rebels of its recalcitrant southern province. One day, perhaps, historians will add the Chechen dead to the casualties of Kosovo and Serbia.

If, that is, we ever know the casualty figures. For the dead of the only war fought by the European powers since 1945 have still to be counted; more than half the mass graves of Kosovo have still to be opened and the Serbs have still to give a final figure for their civilian and military losses.

There may be 4,000 Albanian corpses –victims of Serb forces – still undiscovered in the frozen soil of Kosovo this winter; around 2,000 have already been dug up. And the town war memorials of Serbia suggest that the Yugoslav army's dead may be more than the 600 claimed by Milosevic. Perhaps 1,500 Serb civilians were killed by NATO. In all, more than 8,000 people were killed in the war for Kosovo. Not one of them was a soldier of the NATO alliance. For if we went to war with the Kosovo Albanians, we were not prepared to die for them.

In Pristina, another variation of the old joke – that NATO was ready to fight to the last Albanian – is going the rounds. As one survivor put it to a French reporter when NATO troops eventually entered the ruins of Kosovo: "While you were flying high in the skies above us, we down here were dying." And it is true.

Once the NATO bombardment began, the Serbs turned with far greater savagery upon their Kosovo Albanian enemies who – having waited with enthusiasm for the bombs that would free them from their Serb oppressors – found that NATO could not save them. While Franco Stamatovic and the other Serb war criminals were unleashing their cruelty upon the Albanians, up to half a million men, women and children were driven from their homes. Only more than four months later would NATO's "bloke-in-the-street" spokesman, James Shea, cynically sum it all up. "Sometimes," he said, "things have to get worse in order to get better." They didn't tell the Albanians that at the time.

The aim of the war – to force the Serbs to accept a political settlement in Kosovo that would also give the Albanians a referendum to decide their own future – had quickly to be redefined. Instead of bombing Serbia to save the Albanians, we were now apparently bombing Serbia to get the Albanian refugees "back into their homes" – most of whom were still in their homes when the war began. And when, after 79 days of bombing, NATO marched into Kosovo, the referendum that might have given the Kosovo Albanians independence was quietly dropped from the peace agreement.

"Independence for Kosovo – the only way to peace in the Balkans," say the Albanian bumper stickers in Pristina today. But the honeymoon is over. Soldiers from the NATO-led "peace-keeping" force are tearing the stickers off cars entering the few remaining Serb areas. UN police forces in the province are being abused in public. The Albanians want their own land, not a UN-created administration linked to Serbia. As for the remaining minority Serbs, only around 40,000 of the pre-war population of 250,000 are still there. Serbia drove 50 per cent of the Albanian population out of the province. Now Kosovo Albanians have driven 80 per cent of the minority Serb population out of the province. The "peace-keepers" could not keep the "peace".

Should we have tried to save the Albanians in their moment of agony? Could we have crossed the frontier and fought the Serbs instead of skulking along the Macedonian border while President Bill Clinton opposed a ground offensive? At the least, the Serbs would not have had time to slaughter so many innocent civilians. But war for the West must now be cost-free. We bomb. Others die. We got a taste of this in the 1991 Gulf war, then again in the year-long bombing campaign against Iraq that started once more in December, 1998. The Kosovo war reached perfection. Not a single Serb bullet hit a single NATO soldier. Just one NATO pilot was shot down and – and he was rescued.

Our Western leaders – Tony Blair's "spokesman" Alastair Campbell and NATO – demanded that the few foreign journalists in Yugoslavia should "break free" from the Serbs accompanying them to scout around Kosovo. But NATO didn't have the guts to send a single heavily-armed NATO soldier into Kosovo to save the Albanians. Our soldiers never engaged the enemy. Instead, fearful that the Western alliance might start to disintegrate as the bombing failed to bring Milosevic to heel, NATO's bombing targets became more promiscuous. Power stations, housing estates, small bridges were hit, even a tobacco factory. NATO apologised when it bombed a mass convoy of refugees being driven from their homes by the Serbs. But just over half way through the air bombardment, NATO took a strategic decision. It would no longer apologise for anything it did. So when American jets struck a narrow bridge at Varvarin at midday on the village's market day – blasting Serb civilians into the Morava river – and then came back 20 minutes later and killed the rescue workers, there was not a word of regret.

When NATO arrived in Kosovo, it watched the Serb war criminals streaming out in their trucks along with the Yugoslav army. And did nothing. It wasn't worth a single NATO casualty to arrest a single Serb paramilitary – even though hundreds of Hague war crimes investigators would subsequently be working for months in the province to identify the very same criminals. Most of the Serb killers retired to Montenegro or central Serbia, confident that NATO would not pursue them. And they were right. NATO's original demand for complete access to all of Serbia – made at the "peace" talks in Paris which preceded the war and refused by the Serbs – was also quietly dropped once Milosevic allowed NATO troops into Kosovo.

For now, NATO will stay in Kosovo, just as it will stay in Bosnia. And for now, Milosevic will remain in power. His opponents cannot stir a people who are using all their energy to survive a winter any more than American exhortation can provoke the crushed people of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Besides, Milosevic's enemies in Belgrade are only protesting at his mistakes – not at the atrocities committed in Serbia's name in Kosovo.

We have taken our revenge on Milosevic for Bosnia. We have "taught the Serbs a lesson". We have fought for "human values" in Europe. As for Chechnya, that's too bad. Russia has nuclear weapons. Serbia does not.

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