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

The Firestorm After Racak

By Gjeraqina Tuhina (BCR No 1, 01-Feb-99)

seen, William Walker, chief of the international verification mission in

Kosovo, may have thought he was making a straightforward and human

judgement of a harsh reality. At the time, speaking to journalists on

January 16, he was standing in front of a group of more than twenty bodies

in a ravine. More than forty bodies in total were found on the hill in this

small village in the southern part of Kosovo, among them three women, a

child of 12 and one corpse of an 80-year-old.

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


“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demand (subsequently withdrawn) that Walker be removed from the mission,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


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.

More IWPR's Global Voices