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

Witness Disputes Racak Findings

Milosevic trial hears alternate view of life in Kosovo – and of infamous massacre.
By Ana Uzelac

For the first time since he took control of his defence case last November, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has tried to challenge a factual part of the indictment against him – the alleged murder of more than 40 Kosovar Albanians in the village of Racak in January 1999.


For this purpose, Milosevic this week called a reporter for the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung to The Hague. Bo Adam testified about his own journalistic investigation of the Racak massacre, the findings of which, in his opinion, differed considerably from the version of events presented by the various international investigators.


The Racak incident is generally perceived as the turning point in the history of the Kosovo conflict.


The bodies of some 45 Kosovar Albanians – mostly men in civilian clothes, but also two women and a boy - were found in a ravine near the village in mid-January 1999. The ensuing investigation by different international teams established that many had been shot at close range.


The incident was the starting point for the build-up of international pressure to resolve the growing Kosovo crisis, which resulted in the NATO air strikes against Serbia some two months later.


Milosevic is accused of ordering - or at least encouraging or supporting - the troops that conducted these killings. He was at the time the president of the federal Yugoslavia, and as such also the commander in chief of its security forces.


According to the indictment, the Serb forces shelled and then stormed Racak on the morning of January 15, and approximately 45 Albanians were killed “in and around” the village - many in a house-to-house search of the place. The prosecutors state that 25 of them were civilians who were found hiding in a shed and later killed, execution style, at the ravine.


However, Milosevic insists that this incident was staged in order to put pressure on his government. He claims the majority of the people found in Racak were Albanian fighters who died in a battle and were then dressed in civilian clothes and left in the gully in order to depict the Serb security forces as cold-blooded executioners.


Adam, who investigated the event a year after it happened, told the court how he learned from the villagers that a boy found in the gully and one of the two women listed among the victims were not executed there, but killed elsewhere in the village.


He explained that the villagers he interviewed suggested the two may have been killed in cross-fire between the Serb security forces and the Albanian fighters who operated near the village.


In his view, the representatives of the various international organisations that investigated the incident misled the international public about some crucial issues, such as the presence of these fighters in the village and the manner in which many of the people listed as the Racak victims died.


The indictment indeed does not mention any Albanian fighters operating in the village.


The witness also quoted the autopsy protocols he obtained, claiming they showed that some of the victims did not have wounds consistent with executions.


And while all these inconsistencies did not give him enough material to formulate an alternative version of the Racak killings, the witness insisted they were enough to shake the version presented by the international investigators.


“I cannot tell you what happened in Racak,” he told the judges. “But I can tell what did not happen.”


But during cross-examination, the prosecutors presented the witness with a copy of the forensic team’s report stating that they found the bullets and bullet fragments in the ground at the scene of crime, at places coinciding with the location of the victims, suggesting that they were killed in the ravine.


“Had you read this report before, would that have changed your mind or altered your view as to whether an execution did take place in Racak?” the prosecutor asked.


After some attempts to discredit the professionalism of the forensic team and its leader Helena Ranta, who had testified earlier in the prosecution phase of the trial, the witness finally conceded.


“I am not saying that people were not shot there,” he said. But he added he still doubted whether they were executed or shot in a combat situation.


With his other witness this week, Milosevic continued to focus on Kosovo, but again ventured away from the actual criminal allegations against him, choosing instead to disprove the part of the indictment used to provide the background for the prosecutor’s case.


Mitar Balevic, a Montenegrin who spent his whole life in Kosovo, spoke at length this week about the alleged persecutions of Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo by their Albanian neighbours. The testimony seemed to be aimed at bolstering Milosevic’s claims that all he did was fight aggressive Albanian nationalism in the province.


The bulk of this testimony focused on Milosevic’s visit to Kosovo in April 1986, when according to the indictment the Serbian communist party leader “in meetings with local Serb leaders and in a speech before a crowd of Serbs … endorsed a Serbian nationalist agenda”.


Bizarrely enough, in this testimony Milosevic used some of the same video material that the prosecution had used in their case against him, trying to elicit a different interpretation of the same events from the witness.


The 76-year-old witness, a long-time communist party functionary in Kosovo and local railway manager, told the court that non-Albanians in the area had suffered numerous abuses from the time of the Second World War. The root of the ethnic tensions that regularly gripped the province, he insisted, was the Albanian desire for an ethnically pure independent Kosovo.


Balevic insisted that throughout the modern history of Kosovo, the Serbs had never enjoyed an advantageous position to Albanians – and that the reverse was in fact true.


Even in the late Eighties, when the province lost its autonomy and many of its political and educational institutions were brought under Serb control, he insisted that the Albanians had not been disenfranchised in any way. They were never expelled from work or school, but instead “massively chose to leave” in order to attract the attention of the international community, he claimed.


Balevic, who is also a member of the Belgrade-based Sloboda committee to promote Milosevic’s defence, spoke of many attempts made by Kosovo Serbs to reach the former Yugoslav leaders and ensure their cooperation in fighting the pressures they felt they faced in Kosovo. The only one to hear them out was the accused, the witness said.


To show the extent of Serb sufferings in Kosovo and disprove the claims that he “endorsed a nationalistic agenda”, Milosevic played a 40-minute long tape from a meeting with local Serbs, which is mentioned in the indictment.


One after another, Kosovar Serbs could be heard speaking of the mistreatment they were exposed to by Albanians, and asking Milosevic to prevent his people from leaving the province in droves.


The meeting finished with a speech from Milosevic, criticising “Albanian counter-revolutionaries” while making formal references to national unity in the province.


Milosevic also played a full version of the speech he gave some three years later at the celebration of the 600 anniversary of a famous battle that took place in Kosovo, and which is still a focus of Serbian national pride.


The prosecution insisted that one sentence from this speech - where Milosevic warns the gathered masses of almost exclusively ethnic Serbs that they are “once again facing battles ... not armed battles, although such … are not excluded” - corroborated that even at that early stage the defendant was not excluding the possibility of ending ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia by force.


At that time, Kosovo was stripped of its autonomy, placed under special security measures and riven by ethnic animosity. Tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs had been bussed in or brought by trains from all over the country to attend this rally.


Baletic - a senior railway manager in the province - was in charge of “receiving” them at the railway station and bussing them to the place where the rally was happening.


Milosevic’s speech again contained references to the values of a multi-ethnic society, but only a few mentions of the province’s 90 per cent Albanian majority.


The former Yugoslav president has insisted that his warnings were taken out of context, and asked Baletic to help “straighten out” this misconception.


The witness insisted repeatedly that he had heard nothing in the speech but calls for national tolerance and equality.


His testimony will continue next week.


Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s programme manager in The Hague.