The Firestorm After Racak

By Gjeraqina Tuhina (Published on February 1, 1999)

The Firestorm After Racak

By Gjeraqina Tuhina (Published on February 1, 1999)

Monday, 1 February, 1999

But as news of the killings was broadcast around the world, his remarks unleashed a political firestorm in Belgrade, Pristina and Washington. To the Kosovo Albanians, the incident, tragic as it was, “merely another massacre” by Serbian forces. Witnesses from the village claimed that all of the victims had been arrested by Serbian forces the night before. They had no doubts as to what had occurred.

Foreign journalists descending on the village, declared the killings “a slap in a face” of the international community,” yet another demonstration by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that he can do whatever he wants in Kosovo. Some analysts reported that the incident was a Serb response for the eight Serbian soldiers taken as hostages (and subsequently released).

Following Walker’s initial statements, OSCE officials became more precise, with some referring to Racak as a “crime against humanity”. Walker personally requested experts from the war crimes tribunal in The Hague to arrive immediately to investigate the case. Such statements led Yugoslav authorities to attack Walker for levelling snap accusations against Serb forces (he had arrived at the scene and issued his first statement within hours of the killings) and for entering the village “without a license.” Some Yugoslav officials, interviewed in the international media, recalled the bread queue massacres in Sarajevo (widely blamed on Serb forces in the hills, and later hotly disputed by Serb representatives and some other observers).

“Police killed armed terrorists, and afterwards Albanian members did the massacre, in order to blame Serbs once more for the crime that didn't take place at all," asserted Serbian Vice-president Vojislav Seselj, who visited the province a few days later. While Yugoslav authorities levelled the demand (subsequently withdrawn) that Walker be removed from the mission, within the country a huge anti-Walker campaign started. The most vociferous contingent was in Kosovo itself, where local Serbs passed by the office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, held up the three-fingered Serbian salute, and shouted, “Betrayers!” “Go home!”

While continuing to deny responsibility for the massacre, Serbian authorities removed 40 bodies from the village mosque immediately after the departure of the last mourner. Yugoslav medical experts were dispatched to Kosovo to examine the corpses, and themselves issued fast assessments of the killings, exonerating Serb forces. The damage to the bodies was caused by bullet wounds, but also “by birds, mice and other small animals,” they stated.

Among Kosovo Albanian politicians, the immediate effect of the killings was to throw a spanner in efforts to bring Albanians together. A key meeting of all parties had been scheduled in Tirana. The aim of the meeting was to forge a common platform among the parties which could lead to direct negotiations with the Serbs. For the first time, Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova of the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) agreed provisionally to participate in the meeting, as did representatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army. After almost a year of continuous effort, US Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill and EU envoy Wolfgang Petrisch also won the commitment of the divided Albanian parties to gather soon at an international meeting in Vienna.

Racak threw these plans into doubt, however, as non-LDK Albanian parties raised questions about the value of any discussions. “Political process and negotiations on one side, and massacres and fighting on the other, never give any result,” argued Albin Kurti, KLA spokesman. Indeed, even as pressure grew from the international community, conflicts flared again a week later in northern Kosovo, around Mitrovica. This is the area where 8 Yugoslav solders were taken as hostages two weeks ago. Several deaths were reported by both sides. Five Serbs were kidnapped in the area on January 22, and released a day later - presumably a warning action by the KLA. Yugoslav forces then released 9 LKA soldiers.

Further killings followed, this time of five Albanians in the south-west near Rakovina. On January 25, two adults and three children from the same family were found on a farm tracker and its trailer, reportedly shot with a hand gun and a powerful machine gun. Amid this, Albanian parties, including representatives of the LDK and the KLA, went ahead and held their meeting in Tirana.

Yet as international concern rose, so did the likelihood of a KLA response - despite renewed efforts by Hill to kick-start Serb-Albanian talks. If the cease-fire agreement with Serb forces is not implemented, warned Geneva-based KLA spokesman Bardhyl Mahmuti, then “ the international community has no more right to ask anything from KLA.”

Gjeraqina Tuhina is a journalist with RFE/RL in Pristina.

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