Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Expert Testifies Racak Not Staged

Day 161
The events at Racak, Kosovo on January 15, 1999, continue to be hotly debated inside and outside the courtroom where Slobodan Milosevic is standing trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. At least 41 people, including a 12 year old boy and an 18 year old girl, were found shot to death after an assault by Serbian and Yugoslav Army (VJ) forces. The debate is between those, including Milosevic, who maintain it was an event staged by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and NATO to generate a public outcry that would justify NATO intervention against Serbia, and those who claim it was an indiscriminate assault on a civilian population. The Prosecution in the Milosevic trial has provided testimony from survivors, a KLA commander, and international observers to support the latter thesis. Having heard this testimony, the Trial Chamber decided it wanted to hear from Dr. Helena Ranta, head of the Finnish forensic team that investigated the killings.

Dr. Ranta has been quoted and misquoted in the press over the team's assessment since her initial press conference in March 1999. One source reported her stating it was possible to say the entire scene had been staged. On the witness stand, Dr. Ranta testified she had only presented that as one possibility that had to be considered. She could not recall that it remained among the hypotheses after her team had conducted a scene investigation in November 1999. In Court, she stated categorically that the scene had not been staged. The victims died where they had been shot.

Reportedly, Dr. Ranta was called to testify because of an interview she gave to Bernhard Odenhal which appeared in a German Swiss publication last summer. The article states that Dr. Ranta's conclusions on the Racak event were: the victims were shot where their bodies were found, their clothing was not changed after death, and there was convincing proof by mid-2001 [sic, actually 2000] that the scene had not been faked. With the exception of correcting the year from 2001 to 2000, Dr. Ranta stated in Court that she stood by her statement.

The Doctor was asked about the possibility that some of the bodies had been moved, as appeared in photographs seen by the Court. She agreed that most had been moved at some point, but she said it was a perfectly natural reaction on finding a body face down. People turn a body face up to make sure the person is dead and to determine if they know who it is.

As for questions about the lack of visible blood on the ground, Dr. Ranta testified there was significant coagulated blood in the multiple layers of clothing the people were wearing. On cross examination, Amici Branislav Tapuskovic suggested that they were wearing so many layers because they were living in the mountains, as KLA soldiers did. Dr. Ranta said people without proper heating also wear multiple layers inside during winter.

Though pressed by the accused, Dr. Ranta refused to give an opinion on whether the killings occurred in battle or in a massacre. That, she said, is something the court will have to decide based on the evidence. How then, Milosevic demanded, can you describe the events at Racak as the killing of unarmed civilians? The doctor, trained to be precise, corrected his characterization of what she said. 'There were no indications of people being other than unarmed civilians. I said nothing more or less than that.'
The doctor discredited the results of paraffin tests used by Serbian authorities to claim that 37 of the dead had gun powder residue on their hands, showing they'd fired weapons recently. 'It is the first time in my professional career I have come across a paraffin test to find gunshot residues.' Dr. Ranta said the test was developed in the 1930's but had been abandoned in 1968 because it was 'of no scientific value.' The paraffin test is used widely in Serbia, with many people convicted on the results of it alone.

On cross examination, Milosevic accused Dr. Ranta of being part of a NATO/OSCE/ KLA conspiracy that he claimed staged the Racak massacre as a pretext for NATO intervention against Serbia. He also challenged her findings because they were based in part on a scene investigation that occurred 10 months after the killings without the crime scene having been isolated and secured. Dr. Ranta, who has participated in archeological excavations, said that photographs showed the scene had changed little over that time period. Regardless, they were able to recover bullets, bullet fragments and human material from beneath the surface of the soil, which assisted them in eliminating some hypotheses. Their report also included a review of autopsy reports by Serbian authorities, as well as autopsies they performed. In addition, the team compared bullets found at the scene with those recovered from bodies and found they had identical markings. The latter finding provides support for the conclusion that the people died where they were shot. Dr. Ranta admitted she could not conclude the dead had been shot at close range, since the reports from ballistics experts varied.

Referring to the autopsy reports, Milosevic asked the witness whether the fact that the bullets had entered the bodies from various angles and some bodies were hit with one bullet, while others were hit with 16 indicated they had been killed in battle. Dr. Ranta said that autopsy reports alone do not give enough evidence to establish the circumstances of death, only how the people died.

Milosevic also spent considerable time trying to establish that the dead people were KLA fighters. Dr. Ranta held to her conclusion that there was nothing to indicate they were anything besides civilians. Milosevic produced a photograph of a grave of a KLA soldier killed in Racak on January 15, 1999. However, as Judge May pointed out, the presence of KLA at Racak is not contested. Last June, KLA Commander Shukri Buja testified that about 45 KLA soldiers were billeted near Racak. In the early morning hours of January 15, they underwent a surprise attack by Serbian forces that left 8 to 10 KLA soldiers dead with 8 more wounded. Having lost such a substantial part of their force, the KLA withdrew. According to KLA rules, they took their dead with them. Following the KLA withdrawal, forty-one villagers were killed, twenty of them in a nearby gully. It was these twenty who were the subject of Dr. Ranta's investigations and her testimony to the Court.

While Dr. Ranta would not provide a definitive answer about whether they were killed in battle or were executed, she was clear that the scene was not staged. That should lay to rest the conspiracy theories, for those whose world view allows for adjustment based on new information. It should also provide the Court with evidence to corroborate, clarify and assess what they've heard from other witnesses -- survivors as well as international monitors and experts. The Court must feel it was right to call Dr. Ranta, even without a definitive answer on all the events at Racak.

In addition, except for his personal attack on Dr. Ranta, Milosevic's cross examination was generally relevant and addressed important issues. That, too, should assist the Trial Chamber, since it helped to focus the issues and raise arguments the Court would wish to consider. With a little more practice, Milosevic just might become a good jailhouse lawyer.