Where Are All the Bodies Buried?
NATO commits acts of aggression
by Michael Parenti
Z magazine, June 2000
In March 1999, NATO forces launched an 11-week nonstop aerial
attack upon Yugoslavia that violated the UN charter, NATO's own
charter, the U.S. Constitution, and the War Powers Act. Yugoslavia
had invaded no UN or NATO member. The Congress had made no declaration
of war. No matter. The "moral imperatives" and humanitarian
concerns were heralded as being so overwhelming that legalities
would have to be brushed aside. Here were mass atrocities perpetrated
by the demonic Serbs and their fiendish leader, Slobodan Milosevic
not seen since the Nazis rampaged across Europe; something had
to be done-so we were told.
Thus, a week before the bombings began, David Scheffer, U.S.
State Department ambassador at large for war crime issues, announced
that "we have upwards of about 100,000 [ethnic Albanian]
men that we cannot account for" in Kosovo. A month later,
the State Department claimed that up to 500,000 Kosovo Albanians
were missing and feared dead. By mid-May U.S. Secretary of Defense
William Cohen stated that 100,000 military-aged men had vanished
and might have been killed by the Serbs. Not long after-as public
support for the war began to wane-Ambassador Scheffer escalated
the 100,000 figure to "as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian
men aged between 14 and 59" who remained unaccounted. He
considered this to be one of the greatest genocidal crimes against
a civilian population. Indeed it was, if true.
As the war dragged on and NATO officials saw press attention
drifting toward the contrary story-namely that civilians were
being killed by NATO's bombs-NATO stepped up its claims about
Serb "killing fields." Widely varying but horrendous
figures from official sources went largely unchallenged by the
media and by the many liberals who supported the "humanitarian
Just before the end of the air campaign, British Foreign Office
Minister Geoff Hoon said that "in more than 100 massacres"
some 10,000 ethnic Albanians had been killed (averaging 100 victims
per massacre). Though substantially reduced from the 100,000 to
500,000 bandied about by U.S. officials, this was still a considerable
number. A day or two after the bombings stopped, the Associated
Press, echoing Hoon, reported that 10,000 Albanians had been killed
by the Serbs. No explanation was offered as to how this figure
was arrived at, given that not a single war site had yet been
investigated and NATO forces were just beginning to roll into
Kosovo. A few weeks later, the New York Times reported that "at
least 10,000 people were slaughtered by Serbian forces during
their three-month campaign to drive the Albanians from Kosovo."
The story went on to tell of "war crimes investigators, NATO
peacekeeping troops, and aid agencies struggling to keep up with
fresh reports each day of newly discovered bodies and graves."
On August 2, another remarkable pronouncement, this time from
the irrepressible Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations' chief
administrator in Kosovo (and head of Doctors Without Borders and
friend of KLA leaders), who claimed that 11,000 bodies had been
found in common graves throughout the province. He cited as his
source the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Republic
of Yugoslavia (ICTY). But the ICTY mass graves. Some weeks after
its arrival, the FBI team returned home, oddly with not a word
to say about their investigation. Months later, the London Financial
Times reported that the FBI had found not thousands but 200 bodies
at 30 sites.
Forensic experts from other NATO countries had similar experiences
in Kosovo. "French investigator denied providing any such
information to Kouchner or anyone else. To this day, it is not
clear how he came up with his estimate.
The Kosovo-based Council for the Defense of Human Rights and
Freedoms, staffed in part by KLA officials, first promulgated
the figure of 10,000 missing, purportedly based on interviews
with refugees. The U.S. State Department and Western media echoed
the council's estimate. But the number had to be taken on faith
because the council would not share its list of missing persons.
As in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts, the image of mass
killings by vicious brutal Serbs was ceaselessly hyped. Humanitarian
organizations, KLA militants, NATO and State Department officials,
and the news media fed off each other. Through a process of unconfirmed
assertion and tireless repetition, evidence became irrelevant.
Unsubstantiated references to mass graves, each purportedly filled
with hundreds or even thousands of victims were daily publicized
as established facts. From June through August 1999, the New York
Times alone ran eighty articles, nearly one a day, that made some
reference to mass graves in Kosovo. Yet when it came down to hard
evidence, the graves seemed to disappear, as the FBI discovered
In mid-June, the FBI sent a team to investigate two of the
sites listed in the war crimes indictment against Slobodan Milosevic,
one said to contain 6 victims and the other 20. The team lugged
107,000 pounds of equipment into Kosovo to handle what was called
the "largest crime scene in the FBl's forensic history,"
but it came up with no reports about were frustrated at Izbica,"
reported the New York Times (July 18), "when a widely publicized
mass grave in which they expected to find about 150 bodies turned
out to be empty." It must have been "dug up with a backhoe
and the bodies spirited off, investigators said, between the indictment
and the arrival of NATO troops." A Spanish forensic team
was told to prepare for at least 2,000 autopsies, but found only
187 bodies, usually buried in individual graves, and showing no
signs of massacre or torture, contrary to the stories bandied
about by humanitarian groups and local residents. Most seemed
to have been killed by mortar shells and firearms. As reported
in the Times of London (October 31), one Spanish forensic expert,
Emilio Perez Puhola, acknowledged that his team did not find one
mass grave. He dismissed the widely publicized references about
mass graves as being part of the "machinery of war propaganda."
That same edition of the London Times reported that Stratfor,
a private research team, basing their analysis on reports from
forensic teams involved in the exhumation of bodies, determined
that the final total of those killed in Kosovo came to "hundreds
In July 1999, the Washington Post reported that 350 ethnic
Albanians "might be buried in mass graves" around a
mountain village in western Kosovo. Might be? Such speculations
were based on sources that NATO officials refused to identify.
Getting down to specifics, the article mentions "four decomposing
bodies" discovered near a large ash heap, with no details
as to who they were or how :hey died.
By late August 1999, the frantic hunt for dead bodies continued
to disappoint NATO officials and their media minions. The Los
Angeles Times tried to salvage the genocide theme with a story
about how the wells of Kosovo might be "mass graves in their
own right." The Times claimed that "many corpses have
been dumped into wells in Kosovo...Serbian forces apparently stuffed...many
bodies of ethnic Albanians into wells during their campaign of
terror." Apparently? When the story got down to specifics,
it dwelled on only one well in one village-in which the body of
a 39-year-old male was found, along with three dead cows and a
dog. Neither his nationality nor cause of death was given. "No
other human remains were discovered," the Times lamely concluded.
An earlier New York Times story (July 18) told of French investigators
who pulled the decomposed bodies of eight women from wells in
the destroyed village of Cirez, acting on reports from local residents.
Unconfirmed reports, from 44 villages in the district around Decani,
of 39 dead bodies in wells, had yet to be investigated. As far
as I know, there were no further stories about bodies in wells,
which would suggest that no more bodies were found.
At one reported grave site after another, bodies were failing
to materialize in any substantial numbers-or any numbers at all.
In July 1999, a mass grave in Ljubenic, near Pec-an area of extensive
fighting-believed to be holding some 350 corpses, produced only
seven after the exhumation. In Izbica, refugees reported that
150 ethnic Albanians were executed in March. But their bodies
were nowhere to be found. In Kraljan, 82 men were supposedly killed,
but investigators discovered not a single cadaver. In Djacovica,
town officials claimed that 100 ethnic Albanians had been murdered,
but there were no bodies because the Serbs had returned in the
middle of the night, dug them up and carted all of them away,
the officials believed. In Pusto Selo, villagers claimed that
106 men were captured and killed by Serbs at the end of March,
but again no remains were discovered. Villagers once more suggested
that Serbian forces must have come back and removed them. How
the Serbs accomplished these mass-grave disappearing acts without
being detected is not explained. Where was the evidence of mass
grave sites having been disinterred? Where were the new grave
sites now presumably chock full of bodies? And why were they so
impossible to detect? Questions of this sort were never posed.
The worst allegation of mass atrocities, a war crime ascribed
to Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was said to have occurred
at the Trepca mine. As reported by U.S. and NATO officials, the
Serbs threw 1,000 or more bodies down the shafts or disposed of
them in the mine's vats of hydrochloric acid. In October 1999,
the ICTY released the findings of Western forensic teams investigating
Trepca. Not a single body was found in the mine shafts, nor was
there any evidence that the vats had ever been used in an attempt
to dissolve human remains. Additional stories about a Nazi-like
body disposal facility in a furnace "on the other side of
the mountain" from the mine motivated a forensic team to
analyze ashes in the furnace. "They found no teeth or other
signs of burnt bodies."
The war crimes tribunal checked the largest reported grave
sites first, and found most to contain no more than five bodies,
"suggesting intimate killings rather than mass murder."
By the end of the year, the media hype about mass graves had noticeably
fizzled. The designated mass grave sites, considered the most
notorious, offered up a few hundred bodies altogether, not the
thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands previously
trumpeted, and with no evidence of torture or mass execution.
In many cases, there was no certain evidence regarding the nationality
of victims; and no report on cause of death. All this did not
prevent the Associate Press from reiterating the charge, as late
as November 30, 1999, that "10,000 people were killed in
No doubt there were graves in Kosovo that contained two or
more persons-which was NATO's definition of a "mass grave."
As of November 1999, the total number of bodies that the Western
grave diggers claimed to have discovered was 2,108, "and
not all of them necessarily war crimes victims," according
to a story in the Wall Street Journal (December 31). People were
killed by bombs and by the extensive land war that went on between
Yugoslav and KLA forces. Some of the dead, as even the New York
Times allowed, "are fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army
or may have died ordinary deaths"-as would happen in any
population of over two million over the course of a year. No doubt
there were despicable grudge killings and executions of prisoners
and innocent civilians as in any war, especially a civil war,
but not on a scale that would warrant the label of "genocide"
or justify the death and destruction and continuing misery inflicted
upon Yugoslavia by the Western powers.
No mass killings means that The Hague war crimes tribunal
indictment of Milosevic "becomes highly questionable,"
argues Richard Gwyn, in the Toronto Star. "Even more questionable
is the West's continued punishment of the Serbs." In sum,
NATO leaders used vastly inflated estimates of murdered Kosovo
Albanians as a pretext to intrude on the internal affairs of a
sovereign nation, destroy much of its infrastructure and social
production, badly damage its ecology, kill a substantial number
of its citizens, and invade and occupy a large portion of its
territory in what can only be termed a war of aggression.
Michael Parenti's most recent books are History as Mystery
(City Lights) and To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia (Verso,
International War Crimes