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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Was Kosovo 'Genocide'?

It was as inevitable as the news cycle itself. As some of the "mass graves" in Kosovo that were identified from aerial reconnaissance or refugee reports during the war last spring turned out to contain few or no bodies, allegations began to emerge that there has been no genocide in Kosovo. A spot of mass murder here and there, maybe, but the rest was just NATO propaganda.

It began in September with a Spanish forensic expert, Emilio Perez Pujol, who pulled his team out of Kosovo after finding a total of only "187 bodies, 97 in one place, eight in another, four in another, and so on." He angrily claimed that the whole exercise was "a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machine, because we did not find one - not one - mass grave." (Ninety-seven bodies in one place is apparently just a rational approach to land use.)

Then a private analytical outfit called Stratfor got some useful publicity by announcing that its study of reports from the FBI and other police agencies suggested a final death toll only in the hundreds, not the thousands. In late October, a senior intelligence source in Croatia was quoted in the British magazine The Spectator as claiming that with 20 forensic teams operating in Kosovo, the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICTY) in charge of the search for evidence had uncovered only 670 bodies.

At that point, everybody who had been against the war, plus every journalist desperate for a new angle on the story, piled in with allegations that the whole genocide issue had been a fiction concocted by NATO to conceal its true and nefarious aims in attacking Serbia. Quotes by various senior NATO authorities from the height of the war were unearthed to prove that there had been a deliberate and huge inflation in the numbers of people killed by the Serbian army and paramilitaries. So what is the truth?

Journalists love unmasking conspiracies, whether they exist or not. These claims were therefore bound to arise at some point in the year after the war, but the fact that they were inevitable doesn't necessarily mean that they are false. Three separate questions need to be resolved in order to get to the bottom of this controversy.

Approximately how many people were killed? Did NATO leaders deliberately inflate the numbers of murdered civilians in order to establish a "genocide" that would justify their actions? And just how many dead do you need for a genocide, anyway?

In mid-November, Carla del Ponte, the Swiss chief prosecutor appointed by the ICTY, reported that 2,108 bodies had been exhumed by war crimes investigators so far - but they had only managed to open 195 of the 529 suspicious grave sites registered with the tribunal, and with the ground now frozen in Kosovo the rest would have to wait until spring. This suggests that they may end up recovering between 5,000 and 6,000 bodies.

This coincides quite closely with the estimate of Bajram Krasnici, head of the Kosovo Albanian "commission for war crimes and missing people," based mainly on the testimony of survivors, that there were around 6,000 Kosovo Albanians killed in the three months of the war and around a thousand more in the preceding year, plus another two thousand missing whom they hope will eventually turn up in Serbian prisons.

How does that correspond to NATO's wartime estimates? Not all that badly, actually.

There was a brief moment of panic when hundreds of thousands of terrified Moslem deportees were flooding across the borders into Macedonia and Albania, as most of them were women and children telling tales of having been separated from their menfolk by the Serbs. There was indeed a worrisome shortage of males in the refugee camps, which led U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen to say on 16 May: "We've now seen about 100,000 military-age men missing. They may have been murdered." It was a legitimate worry at that moment, but he did not say they were dead. Nobody did.

Throughout the latter stages of the war, the actual figure most often used by NATO leaders and spokespersons was that "up to 10,000 ethnic Albanians" had been murdered. Given the fog of war and the dearth of hard information at the time, that was a pretty good estimate, and certainly not a gross and deliberate exaggeration.

But does it qualify as "genocide?" Of course it does. You can play semantic games about how many bodies it takes to make a mass grave, but genocide has a legal definition, and it doesn't say anything about numbers.

Genocide is an attempt to exterminate or to dispossess and expel an ethnic, linguistic or religious group by force. It certainly covers the policy of exemplary massacre of some thousands of people, intended to terrify everybody else of the same group into fleeing the territory, that was adopted by the Serbian authorities in Kosovo.

Given the previous record of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in similar acts of 'ethnic cleansing' in mixed Serbian-Croatian areas of Croatia (before the Croatian counter-attack and counter-cleansing), not to mention the horrendous genocide the Serbian regime sponsored against the Moslem people of Bosnia, it's hardly reasonable to insist that NATO should have waited until more people were killed in Kosovo before acting.

"Only" 10,000 civilians murdered, or even "only" 6,000, is not proof that NATO was wrong to act in Kosovo. It is evidence that it acted in time.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent, London-based journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.