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The Kosovo Numbers Game

So how many people were killed in Kosovo? Opponents of the NATO bombing campaign claim estimates were wildly exaggerated through cynical propaganda. But the totals for confirmed dead are mounting.
By Ian Williams

'Holocaust revisionism' - denial of the genocide of the Jews during World War II - is illegal in some countries. But the downward revision of the numbers murdered in Kosovo is proving very fashionable - even in the New York Times.

In mid-October a Texas-based analytical group called Stratfor issued a report claiming that casualty figures among civilians in Kosovo were deliberately exaggerated to justify NATO's attack on Serbia.

"It really does matter how many were killed in Kosovo," the report said. "The foreign policy and political implications are substantial. There is a line between oppression and mass murder. It is not a bright shining one, but the distinction between hundreds dead and tens of thousands is clear. The blurring of that line has serious implications not merely for NATO's integrity, but for the notion of sovereignty".

The report was widely circulated on the Internet by opponents of the war, who seized upon it for retrospective justification of their position - and their indifference to Kosovo Albanian casualties.

Stratfor's own summary, published on October 17, stated that "during its four-month war against Yugoslavia, NATO argued that Kosovo was a land wracked by mass murder; official estimates indicated that some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed in a Serb rampage of ethnic cleansing. Yet four months into an international investigation, bodies numbering only in the hundreds have been exhumed. The FBI has found fewer than 200."

The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) was dismissive. Paul Risley, ICTY spokesman, said the Stratfor report was "like reading a bad term paper, a few loose hanging pieces of evidence and then these dramatic conclusions."

Carla del Ponte, the new ICTY prosecutor, should have put paid to this fad for undercounting in her speech to the United Nations (UN) Security Council on November 10. But the New York Times report the following morning almost reversed the thrust of her figures under the headline: "Early Count Hints at Fewer Kosovo Deaths."

In fact del Ponte told the Security Council that investigators had reports of 11,334 dead from eyewitnesses and had identified 529 grave sites. Of these they had investigated only 195 of the sites, from which they had exhumed 2,108 bodies - half the 4,256 their information had led them to expect there.

To some people this came as confirmation that "only" 2,000 were killed and therefore the Serb massacres did not meet some kind of quantitative test for genocide.

In fact, the 2,108 bodies found are a bare minimum. As del Ponte herself told the Security Council, there was extensive evidence of tampering with grave sites, some of which only revealed parts of cadavers left behind by digging equipment, and others where bodies were burnt, making it impossible to count how many had fed the flames.

Opponents of the NATO intervention were quick to seize on the failure of investigators, for example, to find any bodies at the Trepca mines, for example.

But Risley asserts that investigators still have credible eyewitness evidence that 700 bodies were taken there for disposal. Only some shafts in the extensive complex have been searched, he says, and many of them are flooded. If bodies were burnt in the numerous industrial facilities in the area and the ashes disposed of underwater, it would be almost impossible to find them.

For example, at Izbica, there were clear satellite photographs from April of 142 individual graves. But by the time NATO arrived in the summer, those graves had been emptied and the bodies disposed of. There were visible tracks left by heavy trucks and equipment at the site.

It is of course possible that the Serb forces were digging decoy graves to fool investigators. But the most likely hypothesis, accepted by all but the most devoted opponent of NATO action, is that those graves represented 142 dead Albanians as surely as finding the corpses.

Del Ponte was at pains to point out that it is not her investigators' prime task to count how many had been killed. Their task is to identify the victims and search for evidence against those responsible.

Yet even the numbers cited by Stratfor as evidence of political manipulation do not bear close examination. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea's maximum estimate during the war was a cautious 4,000. Even with "only" 2,000 bodies so far found in only one-third of the grave sites, this looks like being a considerable underestimate.

Others have cited William Cohen, US Defence Secretary. In the early stages of the war, he referred to 100,000 missing - and possibly killed. Those people were certainly missing at the time and the Serbs were most definitely killing people at the time. So was Cohen exaggerating or raising a legitimate concern?

To be sure, NATO spokesmen used sweeping terms. Jamie Shea, for example, described Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as "the organiser of the greatest human catastrophe since 1945" and as "the instigator of a flight similar to the evacuation of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouges".

The figure of 10,000 casualties was first used at the end of the war when the scale of the mass graves and the refugee reports were assessed. Stratfor and others complained that Bernard Kouchner, later to become the UN chief in Kosovo, used the figure of 11,000, and could not back it up.

In fact, in the light of del Ponte's report, it is clear that Kouchner based the figure on information from ICTY investigators, who in turn based their estimates on reports from eyewitnesses.

As Risley, the tribunal spokesman, says, "All through April, May and June, our investigators were interviewing refugees as they arrived in Macedonia, so when we went into Kosovo we had lists of places where massacres had been reported and where burials had taken place. In each place we would have an eyewitness who would number or even name the victims."

Indeed, perhaps unaware of this ghoulish numbers game being played, the ICTY prosecutor's office could be accused of indolence, or at least political na?vet?, in keeping the running total close to their chest. Risley says that the difficulty was that the numbers were changing - upwards - every week. He says that the reason for releasing them now was that

"This past week was the end of the season for exhumation, because now the ground begins to freeze. It seemed an appropriate time to release the numbers because they won't change," he says.

In fact, a total of 10,000 dead seems quite feasible in face of the evidence of actual bodies, hidden grave sites and eyewitness reports. Of course, according to the logic of the revisers, the police should not investigate a murder unless they have a body. For example, the question of whether six million actually died in the Holocaust is somewhat moot because of the industrial efficiency in dealing with the corpses. But in any case does an assertion that "only" one million, or five million, died really diminish the scale of the crime committed?

Stratfor argues that "evidence of mass murder has not yet materialized on the scale used to justify the war." Does this mean that if Milosevic's men had "only" killed 200 or 2,000 or 10,000 in the process of driving almost the entire indigenous population of Kosovo from their homes, then the international community was under no obligation to act?

If Yugoslav forces try the same thing in Montenegro, should the international community not intervene until some trigger threshold of rotting corpses is reached? Or should the figures in fact be based on a cumulative total, so casualties from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo can be "carried over" until the magic number is reached?

One could almost morbidly imagine some Serb commander ordering his men to cease fire, lest they lift their kill quota over some academic genocide threshold. Indeed, if the number of dead appears comparatively less than Bosnia, might that not only mean that the methods of were refined in pursuit of the same policy of ethnic cleansing?

Numbers matter. Yet while the grim task of counting the corpses continues, it is important not to lose sight of the broader issues at stake, over which their lives were lost in such horrible and sordid circumstances.

Ian Williams, UN correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of the book The United Nations for Beginners, was for many years US editor of the IWPR magazine WarReport.