Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Three Macedonian health workers, who helped provide emergency care for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees who poured over the border from Kosovo in 1999, testified that they saw no evidence that they had been driven out of the province by Serbian government forces.
Instead, they claimed that this story – now a major part of the prosecution’s legal case against Milosevic – was invented after the Kosovar refugees had been settled in camps.
Later in the week a former German army officer, who headed the European Community Monitoring Mission in Kosovo in the run-up to the NATO bombing, also testified that what he saw during his time there did not sit comfortably with the reports carried by the western media.
Milosevic, who is conducting his own defence and refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the UN court, is facing more than 60 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in three indictments relating to events during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Dr Dobre Aleksovski, the first Macedonian health worker to take the stand in The Hague this week, was head of Skopje’s emergency medical service when refugees first began trickling over the border in March 1999.
This trickle quickly turned into a flood, he told the court, and the situation soon took up most of his time and that of his staff.
Alekovski told the court that when the refugees first began to arrive, they told him that they had left Kosovo to escape the NATO bombing. But he claimed that once the Macedonian authorities had resettled the displaced in two large camps in April of that year, their stories changed abruptly.
After that, the witness said, “Almost all of [the refugees] said they were forcibly expelled from Kosovo by the police and the army, who shot at them, beat them up and so on.”
However, Aleksovski was unable to answer Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson’s question as to whether he was referring to the same group of refugees or an entirely different set of people.
The witness told the court that he had not seen any evidence that any of the displaced people had suffered violent treatment.
“I personally did not see any bruises from batons or truncheons or anything like that,” he said. “And based on the official reports coming in from my colleagues, [such] things weren’t noted.”
Aleksovski denied hearing reports of Albanian women being raped by Serbs, and said that the only person he saw with a gunshot wound was a man who was armed with a pistol and had already undergone surgery in Kosovo.
Ambulance driver Goran Stojcic and medic Mirko Babic, who gave their testimony later in the week, gave broadly similar accounts.
All three witnesses also told the court that they had witnessed western camera crews effectively stage-managing the refugees to exaggerate their suffering in order to create compelling television footage for broadcast.
Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice raised a number of objections to this week’s testimony, arguing that the witnesses were difficult to cross-examine as Milosevic had not shared some details of their testimony and certain documentary evidence supporting it with the prosecution, as required by the court’s rules.
Nice also pointed out that much of the testimony was hearsay, and that as no individual refugees had been identified by the witnesses, it was impossible for his investigators to check the stories presented in court.
He reminded the court that evidence concerning specific Kosovo Albanian refugees recently introduced by the defendant had been cast into doubt after the individuals were traced by prosecutors and asked to tell their stories again.
During his cross-examination, Nice presented Aleksovski with reports from the then United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes, David Scheffer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and the Physicians for Human Rights organisation.
These documents described the horrific conditions inside the Macedonian refugee camps, and appeared to show that their medical facilities fell far below the standard described by the witness - raising doubts as to whether Aleksovski’s medical teams could have seen all those who needed treatment.
The reports also noted the consistency between refugees’ reports that they had been driven from their Kosovo homes by force.
Towards the end of the week, Milosevic called Dietmar Hartwig, who was in charge of the European Community Monitoring Mission in Kosovo from January 1999 until just before the commencement of NATO airstrikes as a further witness.
Hartwig told the court that he and other monitors had noticed a striking contradiction between what they saw on the ground in the run-up to the NATO intervention, and the image subsequently portrayed in the international media - which he claimed often took events out of context and was very one-sided in its reporting.
He said that Yugoslav forces - who were at the time accused of arbitrary and heavy-handed attacks in retaliation for actions by the Kosovo Liberation Army – had in fact behaved with great discipline and control.
And he argued that the Serbian authorities took a far more conciliatory attitude to the crisis than their Albanian counterparts, who were determined not just to win independence for Kosovo but also to drive the ethnic Serb minority from the province.
Hartwig blamed what he suggested was significant misinformation on “politically biased” international media seeking to reduce complex situations to the simple distinction between “perpetrators” and “victims”.
The prosecution will cross-examine Hartwig when the trial resumes next week.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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