Endgame in Kosovo


Across this near-exhausted century, imagery recurs. The knock at the door, the forced march, the mass evacuation—expressions now impossible to hear without their attendant echoes:

PRISTINA—The Albanian districts of the city have been pretty much emptied of their residents by now. Almost every home has been broken into, not even looted but simply destroyed.

The streets are filled with the sound of heavy gunfire both day and night…. Everyone seems to be shooting….

I just interviewed the doctors who saw the body of the slain human-rights lawyer Bayram Klimendi. They said they could not confirm how many times he’d been shot because his body showed “bad and deep signs of maltreatment”—torture….

My friends in the outside world call and tell me to leave. God, I do want to get out of here. I can’t stand it anymore….

But now it seems we have no choice. The knock on the door we had long feared has finally come. My family and I have been ordered to leave.

There is no time to finish this report. We have to leave NOW. I don’t know where. It seems I am about to join the ranks of the refugees I was writing about only a few days ago.

Pray for me. Goodbye.1

One can envision the scene even as these words were hastily written: looming in the doorway heavily armed Interior Ministry troops—automatic weapons, long knives, red berets, woolen masks covering their faces. Even as the correspondent and his family drag their suitcases out the door, the men prod them with the muzzles of their rifles, hustling them as they stumble out into the packed street, there to join a great river of frightened people trudging in silence toward the railway station. They arrive to find scenes of unmitigated chaos: jammed coaches, mobbed platforms, vast crowds waiting for hours in fields around the building. Babies cry, the old and the sick moan. Each family’s story is much the same:

Then they were herded into passenger cars and livestock cars. Their money and their documents were stolen….

Before the trains departed…, Serbian troops joked bitterly that refugees were being given free train trips to Macedonia in exchange for their homes and belongings….

Enver Vrajolli, 25, an economics student, said he saw what happened to a neighbor in his sixties who refused to leave his house. He was shot.

We had only one choice: to leave or be killed. We chose to go,” said Vrajolli…. “As we were leaving, [the city] was empty. There were only military forces and police left.”

It was very horrible,” Gjylizare Babatinca, 32, said as she described how her family was forced out of a house Wednesday by masked Serbs with automatic rifles…. “We were forced into the train cars they use for animals. We were packed tightly together…. It was completely dark, and we did not know where we were going.”2

The historical resonances could not be stronger, of course, and indeed perhaps the main difference is that here the victims themselves could hear the echoes: “You can’t imagine what kind of silence there was as we walked through the streets of Pristina,” one young woman said. “I thought Hitler’s time was coming back, and we were going to some kind of Auschwitz.”3

Such drawing of half-century parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory. How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, a mere few years ago. It is no accident that Serb forces—regular army soldiers, Interior Ministry specialists, and paramilitary marauders—were able to “cleanse” hundreds of thousands from Kosovo in a matter of days. For nearly a decade now, while Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and other Western leaders watched—while we watched—Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, his Bosnian Serb henchman Dr. Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic, and various army and paramilitary commanders have been developing these techniques, refining them, perfecting them.

From the well-documented stories of a great many cities and towns and villages, dating back to the cleansing of the Krajina of Croats during 1991 and 1992,4 one can extract a rough standard operating procedure:

  1. Concentration. Surround the area to be cleansed and after warning the resident Serbs—often they are urged to leave or are at least told to mark their houses with white flags—intimidate the target population with artillery fire and arbitrary executions and then bring them out into the streets.

  2. Decapitation. Execute political leaders and those capable of taking their places: lawyers, judges, public officials, writers, professors.

  3. Separation. Divide women, children, and old men from men of “fighting age”—sixteen years to sixty years old.

  4. Evacuation. Transport women, children, and old men to the border, expelling them into a neighboring territory or country.

  5. Liquidation. Execute “fighting age” men, dispose of bodies.

Too highly schematic to do justice to the Serbs’ minute planning—for each town, each village, each situation is different—these five steps nonetheless comprise the elements of the program that worked for the Serbs during 1991 to 1995, the main years of the Yugoslav wars. Serb troops, both regular army and security forces, working closely with their savage paramilitary protégés managed to “cleanse” more than 70 percent of Bosnian territory during a mere six weeks in the spring of 1992.

Percentages of Bosnians actually killed varied widely, partly according to the strategic value of the target. In Brcko, for example, which commands the critical and vulnerable “Posavina Corridor” linking the two wings of Bosnian Serb territory, Serb troops herded perhaps three thousand Bosnians into an abandoned warehouse, tortured them, and put them to death. At least some US intelligence officials must have strong memories of Brcko:

They have photographs of trucks going into Brcko with bodies standing upright, and pictures of trucks coming out of Brcko carrying bodies lying horizontally, stacked like cordwood….5

Similarly, pilots of American U-2 spy planes took photographs of the monumental “cleansing” operation General Ratko Mladic unleashed in and around Srebrenica during July 1995. An angry Madeleine Albright, then the US representative to the United Nations, released the photographs to her colleagues—doing so long after anything could have been done for the men of Srebrenica but at a time when “the international community” had begun to show sympathy for the Krajina Serbs, whom the Croats were then expelling en masse from their homes. 6 Thus we are able now to gaze upon photographs of Bosnian men gathered in a field, guarded by Serb soldiers; then of the same field days later, its grass now disrupted by what appear to be newly dug and refilled mass graves.

Together with a videotape showing another group of Bosnian men sitting terrified at the feet of their Serb captors, and a relatively large number of survivors’ accounts, we can now piece together the intricately planned and flawlessly executed minuet that allowed General Ratko Mladic and his Serbs, in less than a week, to expel nearly twenty-five thousand women, children, and old people from Srebrenica and to murder and bury perhaps seven thousand “fighting age”men there.7

What cannot be overemphasized, both in Bosnia and now in Kosovo, is the planned rationality of this project, the mark of brutality routinized:

Though many people were “indiscriminately” killed, tortured, beaten and threatened, the process was anything but random. The first objective was to force the Muslim populations to flee their home towns and create an ethnically pure Serb territory. A certain amount of immediate, “demonstrative atrocity” was therefore deemed necessary. The more random and indiscriminate the terror and violence, the easier this goal would be achieved.

Imposition of terror, the more “indiscriminate” the better, breeds fear; fear breeds flight. Some there were, however, who would not be encouraged to flee:

The second objective was to minimize possible future Muslim resistance. To the Yugoslav military, steeped in the Titoist tradition of territorial defence and people’s war, every man was a potential fighter. Thus, men of military age were singled out for particularly brutal treatment. In Visegrad, one observer witnessed a paramilitary gunman announcing, “The women and children will be left alone…” As for the Muslim men, he ran his finger across his throat.8

Today, as this plot is reinterpreted in the stories of refugees interviewed hard upon the Albanian and Macedonian borders9—reinterpreted, that is, as news—we must struggle to remember that by now the stories could not be more familiar, and hence more predictable.

Consider Selim Popei, for example, from the village of Bela Krusa, who on April 3 paused not far from the Albanian border to speak into the microphones and tell the world’s television viewers how, at eight o’clock on March 25, the morning after the NATO planes started bombing, the Serb army tanks came and surrounded his village; how the Serb special police caught two hundred of the fleeing villagers; how from those they separated out forty-six men. For his part, Selim was sent over with the women: an old man, he had now become a witness:

They killed five of my children. The youngest was thirteen, the oldest was forty-five. The others were thirty-two, twenty-two and eighteen. They killed my brother’s sons too. I was about twenty steps away when I saw it with my own eyes. We all saw it, the women too.

Then there is Jalai al-Din Sepulahu, another old man, who told how he and his friends from the village of Krusa Emade were cowering in a basement when the Serbs found them.

They collected all the people. They separated the women from the men. They told the women to leave. They put the men against the wall. And they killed the men. I don’t know what else to say. My brother was killed, three of my cousins, and the son of one of them. They were all killed.

And finally Mehmet Krashnishi, who comes from Krusa Evolva, a tiny village next door. He appears younger than the others, even with the burns on his face and his hands heavily wrapped in white bandages. Early on the morning after NATO warplanes dropped their first bombs, he said, Serb troops came to his village.

They rounded up all the villagers. They separated men from women. To the women they said, “You may go to the border,” and they put us men in two big rooms. They said, “Now NATO can save you,” and then they started to shoot. And when they finished shooting us they covered us with straw and corn and set it on fire. We were one hundred and twelve people. I survived with one other man.

Mehmet, reenacting a narrative familiar from the massacres at Srebrenica, collapsed and played dead as soon as the Serbs began shooting. He was burned in the fire, he said, but when the Serbs left to fetch more fuel to finish burning the bodies he managed to flee. 10

Why then look to Auschwitz when Prijedor and Srebrenica and Brcko lie so much closer to hand? The answer is not far to seek.


Endgame: we have finally stumbled into it, the confrontation the West has labored so long and so hard to avoid, the consequences of a politics of gesture. All the hesitations, hypocrisy, half-solutions, compromises, and wishful thinking on which Western, and above all American, policy have rested for nearly a decade—all stand revealed for what they are in the reality of those hundreds of thousands of people massed along the Macedonian and Albanian borders, deposited there with such efficiency by Slobodan Milosevic, the great peacemaker of Dayton.

Under the pressure of such events, memories of high officials flicker, grow dim. Consider Lawrence Eagleburger, George Bush’s former secretary of state and perhaps the dominant American official during the first months of Yugoslavia’s implosion, who wrote, on Day Twelve of the bombing:

When the Yugoslav Federation began to break up…and the first signs of ethnic strife became apparent, the Bush Administration took a relatively hard look at what to do. We had no illusions about the fact that to have an effect would mean involving several hundred thousand ground troops, and for better or worse we decided that it was a swamp into which we did not want to walk. NATO may no longer feel it has that choice; if so, it is vital that those who make the decisions take as realistic a view as we did as to what intervention would entail.11

Almost impossible not to admire the artistry here, the rhetorical subterfuges so densely interwoven and blithely deployed—from preventative shilly-shallying (“a relatively hard look,” “for better or worse”), to dubious and self-justifying opinion masked as inarguable conclusion (“would mean involving several hundred thousand ground troops”), to illogical severing of present difficulties from past mistakes (“NATO may no longer feel it has that choice”), to brazen pomposity (“it is vital that those who make the decisions take as realistic a view as we did”).

Of the half-dozen or so opportunities that “the international community” had to avert and then to halt the violence in the former Yugoslavia, at least two—and those with the lowest potential cost—came during the administration of Mr. Eagleburger’s former boss, the “foreign policy president,” George Bush. At least from September 1990, when the CIA issued a “National Intelligence Estimate” predicting that “the Yugoslav experiment has failed, that the country will break up” and that “this is likely to be accomplished by ethnic violence and unrest which could lead to civil war,”12 Eagleburger and others knew the war was coming, and for a number of reasons—including the victory in the Gulf War and a strong reluctance to endanger the political benefits it brought—they undertook no serious diplomatic effort to prevent it. When on the very eve of Yugoslavia’s break-up, in late June 1991, Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s one-day “flying visit” failed to solve the problem—the use of force had already been taken explicitly, and quite unnecessarily, off the table—Baker returned to Washington, licked his wounds, and uttered the now-famous dictum: “We’ve got no dog in this fight.” The wisdom of this homely judgment is now clear for all to judge.

President Bush unceremoniously handed off the Yugoslav problem to the Europeans, who, pleased to be granted such an important task, declared (in the words of Luxembourg’s foreign minister) that “this is the hour of Europe.” “Europe,” unfortunately, discovered it had no military—America’s retreat from the field had removed the NATO alliance as a fac-tor—and thus was forced to negotiate while lacking any powers of coercion.

By the fall of 1991, as the Serbs prosecuted bloody artillery sieges on the Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik, the Europeans’ diplomatic effort had clearly failed. President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia begged the Americans to send the Sixth Fleet on a “sail-by” of Dubrovnik which might, he thought, warn the Serbs off. General John Galvin, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, prepared plans, which could have included “clearing the Serbs gunboats off the water,” but Washington declined to go forward, unsure what the Serbs’ response would be. Said Eagleburger:

They “might” have gotten the message. They might also not have gotten the message and then we would be faced with the question of what to do next.

This is a rather puzzling attitude, as Wayne Bert writes in The Reluctant Superpower:

Eagleburger seemingly had no misgivings about the value of American credibility unless some overt threat was made for which there was no follow-through. Complete inaction, in his view, did not compromise US credibility.13

And complete inaction, of course, did not pose the terrible risks that action did; for if in the case of any forceful action, even a warning, the US could have no guarantee the Serbs would be deterred, and since, if they were not, the administration would be obliged to take another action to see that they were (for to do less would be to destroy American credibility)—well then, by definition, to act at all risked losing all control of American policy. Under this odd logic, even the slightest warning, or the refusal to take the use of force “off the table,” virtually equals a slide down a “slippery slope” to the use of Eagleburger’s “several hundred thousand ground troops.”

Missing from this calculus, of course—leaving aside the highly questionable assumption that only ground troops might have halted the war at this point, before it moved into Bosnia—is any notion that the war in Yugoslavia should be prevented or stopped, that the prosecution of a prodigiously brutal war in post-cold war Europe might somehow be harmful to American interests—that inaction, in a word, might hold within it its own severe risks. On this point Secretary Eagleburger, a former ambassador in Belgrade who had known Slobodan Milosevic there, was quite emphatic:

I have said this 38,000 times and I have to say this to the people of this country as well. This tragedy is not something that can be settled from outside and it’s about damn well time that everybody understood that. Until the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats decide to stop killing each other, there is nothing the outside world can do about it.14

Eagleburger believed that the war could be, indeed must be, left to “burn itself out.” The war’s continuance posed risk, apparently, only to the people “killing each other”—itself a remarkably misleading and harmful characterization coming from a high American official, since by then no one could doubt that, though all sides had committed atrocities, the Serbs, who were using “ethnic cleansing” as their main technique of war, had committed the overwhelming number. Rape, massacre, deportation: these were not regrettable byproducts of the fighting but actions intrinsic to achieving the Serbs’ territorial objectives.


The war did not burn itself out: indeed, it was in implicit recognition that it might not that Lawrence Eagleburger, now secretary of state for a lame-duck George Bush, chose in late 1992 to send Slobodan Milosevic and his military commander the so-called “Christmas Warning,” advising that “in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.” Bosnia and Croatia could burn and smolder for years, and did; Kosovo, bordered by Macedonia and Albania, was deemed to be the geopolitical limit, the “red line,” as a Clinton official later called it. If Eagleburger or other Bush officials even suspected that their refusal to commit resources of any sort, political or military, to stop Milosevic in Croatia or Bosnia might lead him to doubt their determination to prevent him taking what action he pleased in Kosovo—which, after all, remained Yugoslav territory—they showed no sign of it.15

For Governor Bill Clinton, campaigning against the “foreign policy president,” Bosnia and the atrocities being committed there had served as a superb issue; for President Bill Clinton, struggling to enact a tax bill and other controversial domestic programs, Bosnia represented a black hole that threatened to swallow his administration. As a candidate he had uttered bold words threatening the Serbs with bombing; as president he limited his boldness to scuttling the “Vance-Owen plan,” the peace proposal then on the table, which he criticized as not “going far enough” in reversing the Serb war gains, and then blamed his failure to attack the Serbs from the air on the recalcitrance of the European allies, whose troops were on the ground performing “humanitarian” missions.

And so, beneath the great welter of diplomatic activity, the matter essentially rested until the summer of 1995, when the Serbs seized Srebrenica, which had been designated, in a policy strongly advocated by then UN Representative Albright, a UN-protected “safe area.” The Americans, however, were unwilling to commit troops; the bedraggled city was defended only by a few hundred Dutch “blue helmets.” In their concern for the safety of those peacekeepers, the Europeans blocked air attacks, the only way possible to save the city. Shortly before Srebrenica was overrun, a Bosnian Muslim soldier showed a Dutch UN “blue helmet” a simple formula he had written on a sheet of paper meant to show the true value the “international community” placed on human life: “30 UN = 30,000 Bosnians.”16

In Srebrenica, no UN soldier died at the hands of the Serbs; seven thousand Bosnian men did. The collective savagery and humiliation of Srebrenica, together with the pressures of the coming US presidential election and Clinton’s belated realization that if the Europeans decided to withdraw their troops from Bosnia, as they now threatened to do, he would be obliged, because of his own pledge, to commit US troops to help extract them—all of these, in late August 1995, led NATO to send its warplanes at last to bomb the Serbs.

Three months later Slobodan Milosevic sat at the peace table at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. He had come, many American officials believed, because “the bombing had worked.” He had come as well because the tide had turned against his Bosnian Serb protégés; because Franjo Tudjman’s American-supported Croatian army had driven the Serbs out of Krajina, whch they had occupied during the war’s first days; because under the umbrella of their new NATO air force the Croats and Bosnians had fought and begun to win on the ground—and Milosevic had come, finally, because he knew the time had arrived to make a deal and to reap all the international prestige as “peacemaker” that would come with it.


As had the Yugoslav wars, the Dayton peace sprang from the forehead of Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of Greater Serbia, the man who had built his power by inciting and exploiting Serb nationalism. Milosevic would now be the “acceptable” representative of Dr. Radovan Karadzic and his Bosnian Serb associates; he “brought them along,” guaranteed their compliance. When the foreign troops arrived in Bosnia to enforce the agreement, his intelligence services provided information about the movements and intentions of Muslim and Serb “terrorists”—an indispensable service for the American military especially, whose first priority, because of the lack of political support for the mission at home, was to avoid casualties.

As Milosevic could not have failed to see, this priority would make of Dayton a “cold peace,” an agreement that would put an end to the fighting but would show little success in reversing ethnic cleansing or in punishing its most notorious practitioners. Clinton, in one of the more eloquent speeches of his presidency, had explained to Americans why he must send their sons or daughters to Bosnia. Still, approval ratings stayed low; his audience remained unconvinced. Given such inescapable realities, American officials sadly concluded, as they had in Haiti the year before, that the loss of even one soldier might threaten the mission. (Who could forget Mogadishu or the perils of “mission creep”?) Certainly they did not intend to risk American troops to capture Karadzic or Mladic or to escort refugees back to their homes.

And so it was left. The peace of Dayton was a half-peace. The Bosnian people were left with half a country, a quasi protectorate. Though at the start of each of the first two years that American troops were stationed in Bosnia President Clinton had twice promised they would be home in twelve months, he did not keep his promises, nor has he renewed them; for Clinton well knows that if American soldiers go home so will Europeans and that without either, Dayton, fragile as it remains, will surely collapse.

Milosevic, meantime, saw the men he had created, Karadzic and Mladic, marginalized, named as criminals, while he attained an importance to the West none could have imagined even months before. At home, however, he confronted an economy destroyed by sanctions and war and a political world that seemed to be closing tightly around him. Having bid a humiliating goodbye to Slovenia when it declared its independence in 1991; having fought a bloody war over the Croatian land of Krajina and then watched Franjo Tudjman’s tanks, three years later, sweep through and cleanse it of its two hundred thousand Serb residents; having seen the Dayton Accords make of the Republika Srpska an unworkable parastate built of stolen land and mass graves; having watched his last republican allies, the Montenegrins, vote into office an unsympathetically liberal government—having watched all this from his darkened Belgrade palace now become the heart of a shrunken, imploding Yugoslavia, was it not perfectly natural that Slobodan Milosevic would return to the scene of his greatest triumph, the Serb holy land of Kosovo?


How appropriate then that Kosovo should be the scene of the endgame, the confrontation that Slobodan Milosevic himself helped the West to escape in Bosnia. For Kosovo was not only the Serb leader’s political birthplace, where he had traveled in 1987 to declare to resentful Serbs (who by then comprised scarcely one in ten Kosovo residents) that the Kosovar Albanians “shall no longer dare to beat you!”—Kosovo was also where George Bush had drawn the “red line” on Christmas Day 1992, recognizing implicitly that however many people “killed each other” in Bosnia and Croatia, only “conflict in Kosovo”—beyond the red line—would so severely threaten American interests as to demand that the US “employ military force.” Four months later, Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, was rather more explicit:

We fear that if the Serbian influence extends into [Kosovo or Macedonia], it will bring into the fray other countries in the region—Albania, Greece, Turkey…. So the stakes for the United States are to prevent the broadening of that conflict to bring in our NATO allies, and to bring in vast sections of Europe, and perhaps, as happened before, broadening into a world war.17

One might have expected a matter of such magnitude to have occupied a central place on the peace table at Dayton, and yet, though the Americans, according to Richard Holbrooke, “repeatedly emphasized to Milosevic the need to restore the rights of Kosovo’s Albanian Muslims, which he had revoked [in 1989],” the accords ignored Kosovo. The Americans were in a hurry: they needed a Bosnia agreement, only Milosevic could deliver it to them, and he knew it; and he would brook no diplomatic meddling in what was unquestionably “Serb land.”

To say that at Dayton “the long-feared crisis in Kosovo was postponed, not avoided,”18 as Holbrooke does, does not go far enough; for the fact that the peacemakers, in “solving” Bosnia, ignored Kosovo dealt a severe blow to the prestige of Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, then the nonviolent “leader” of the Albanian “shadow republic” there. Rugova, writes Noel Malcolm,

had spent four years telling his people, in effect, that they must be patient until the international community imposed a final settlement on ex-Yugoslavia, in which their interests would also be respected. But that settlement…left the Albanians of Kosovo exactly where they were.19

Very quickly Rugova would find his political primacy challenged by the leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla band that, driven by long-suppressed grievances, rose up throughout the country with startling speed. American officials described the KLA publicly, and until very recently, as “a terrorist organization.”

Scarcely a year ago Milosevic began responding, as was his custom, by sending his security forces and policemen to storm those villages where the guerrilla presence seemed strongest—and to massacre anyone they found. The techniques could not have been more familiar. This, however, was Kosovo, beyond the red line. Had not the United States vowed to respond to such “Serbian action” by employing “military force…against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper”? It seemed, however, that the red line had begun to fade; Clinton officials now spoke not of warplanes and tanks but of “using every appropriate tool we have at our command” and making “the Serb economy…head further south.”20

In May, Richard Holbrooke managed to persuade Milosevic for the first time to meet with Rugova; then the Clinton administration brought the pacifist leader to Washington to “increase his international prestige.” It was a significant achievement—or would have been, had not American diplomacy already been overtaken by the reality on the ground, where Milosevic’s men went on murdering civilians, sending tens of thousands fleeing into the mountains. Under these conditions the “terrorist” KLA had decisively seized the political initiative.

Throughout the summer of 1998, the Americans and their Western allies struggled to negotiate a Kosovo agreement but were confounded both by Milosevic’s intransigence and by the Russians’ insistence that the matter should be handled under the auspices of the United Nations (where the Russians, increasingly concerned about the West’s exclusion of them from Balkan diplomacy, could have made use of their veto to protect their Serb allies). Only in October would Richard Holbrooke manage to negotiate a “unilateral” deal with Milosevic in which the Serb leader recognized Kosovo as a legitimate “international” issue; agreed to permit an “air reconnaissance regime” over the territory; and pledged to admit to the territory two thousand “unarmed observers.”

Perhaps it would have worked had they been armed peacekeepers, but this Holbrooke had not even proposed. Milosevic would, of course, have resisted an armed force, whatever it was called; more important, President Clinton, who would have had to contribute American troops to any such mission, felt himself too weakened by the impeachment scandal even to contemplate asking Congress or the public to approve it. Still, Holbrooke’s October agreement saved many lives: for a time Milosevic’s forces withdrew and tens of thousands of civilians were brought down from the mountains.

But as Milosevic’s forces moved out, in many areas KLA fighters moved in. And on January 15, Serb Interior Ministry troops stormed the village of Racak. Even as the operation unfolded, according to leaks from American intelligence sources, a Serb deputy prime minister was ordering the Kosovo police commander to “go in heavy.”21 Arriving in Racak the following day, Kosovo Verification Mission investigators would find:

1 adult male shot in the groin. He appeared to have been shot while running away.

3 adult males shot in various parts of their body including their backs….

1 adult male killed outside his house. The top of his head had been removed and was found approximately 15 feet away from his place of death. The wound appeared to have been caused by an axe….

5 adult males shot through the head.

1 adult male shot outside his house with his head missing….

1 adult male shot in head and decapitated. All the flesh was missing from the skull.

1 adult female shot in back….22

And so on. The Serbs had “gone in heavy.” Forty-five were dead.


From the bloody village of Racak to the elegant castle of Rambouillet: here the French held a farcical gathering complete with all the trappings of a grand diplomatic conference—Secretary of State Albright and her staff, her Western counterparts, various guerrilla leaders of the KLA. The two most important seats, however, were empty. No high-ranking NATO military leader attended, and neither did Slobodan Milosevic. Western leaders made their demands:Milosevic must withdraw most of his troops from Kosovo; must accept 28,000 armed peacekeepers (4,000 of them American); and agree to a three-year transition to Kosovo’s autonomy. If he did not accept these conditions by the end of the conference, the West would bomb Serbia. President Clinton vowed not to let the deadline pass, then did. Western leaders again threatened bombing, then seemed surprised when he didn’t give in. Finally, caught in their own ultimatum, they were at last forced to send their warplanes, and this time without Croatian tanks or Bosnian infantry to fight for them on the ground.

All the while, it is now clear, Slobodan Milosevic was preparing his vast operation in Kosovo. In a long career, this would be his masterpiece, cleansing the Serb homeland of its Albanian interlopers in a matter of weeks. This should, again, have come as no surprise; as late as February, George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, had actually predicted in public testimony that Milosevic would do precisely this.23

As Iwrite, the refugees keep coming, the bombs go on falling, in Washington the talk grows of dispatching “ground troops.” Though Milosevic may be trying to overthrow the Montenegrin government, though Macedonia is dangerously swollen with refugees, we hear less now of the “red line” or of the geostrategic importance of Kosovo. Matters, at last, have come to appear simpler than that: American officials, if they wish to consider themselves “leaders” in the “most successful military alliance in history,” are obliged to accept the reality of Bosnia and now of Kosovo—that in a country bordering a NATO member, soldiers shelled cities packed with defenseless civilians; paramilitary troops raped, tortured, mutilated, murdered; that troops took away many young men who have not reappeared. All of this happened under the eyes of American leaders; all of it was quite well known at the time, or very shortly afterward. And it happened, and is happening, in Europe, America’s strategic “backyard.”

That these events were allowed to unfold, and so soon after Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, says something about America. Not only is the world’s great liberal power, with all its might, unwilling, as we are so often told, to be “the policeman of the world”—even on ground where every precept of Realpolitik would suggest it should be—but the idealist values that were proudly assumed to be a vital part of America’s vision of itself as a democratic power in the world, and that American leaders so often hailed during the Cold War, appear suddenly desiccated and pale. Whatever happens in the coming weeks—whether Western leaders order their troops to fight in the Balkans or Slobodan Milosevic holds onto Kosovo and a reluctant West accepts the Kosovars—the ugly history that led up to this bloody impasse has not been confronted. Will Americans recognize this—and what conclusions will they draw? These are the questions posed by Kosovo’s future, and our own.

April 7, 1999

  1. 1

    See “The Knock on the Door: Letter from Pristina,” by an anonymous correspondent. Global Beat Syndicate, NYU Center for War, Peace, and the News Media: www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/ syndicate, April 1, 1998.

  2. 2

    See John Daniszewski and Elizabeth Shogren, “With Refugees From Kosovo, Tales of Terror,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1999, p. A5.

  3. 3

    See Daniszewski and Shogren, “With Refugees From Kosovo, Tales of Terror.”

  4. 4

    For a description of the techniques of ethnic cleansing see my earlier articles in these pages, among them “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” December 4, 1997; “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” December 18, 1997, and “The Killing Fields of Bosnia,” September 24, 1998, all three of which form part of a ten-part series.

  5. 5

    Though “photographs of the bloodbath in Brcko remain unpublished to this day,” the authors attribute this description to “an investigator working outside the US government who has seen the pictures….” See Charles Lane and Thom Shanker, “Bosnia: What the CIADidn’t Tell Us,” The New York Review, May 9, 1996, p. 10.

  6. 6

    In August 1995, with Srebrenica’s Muslims buried, Franjo Tudjman’s Croats launched a lightning attack to retake the Krajina region and succeeded in “cleansing” the territory of perhaps 150,000 Serbs, most of whom belonged to families that had lived in the territory for centuries. It was, until recent weeks, the largest single act of ethnic cleansing of the war.

  7. 7

    For an account of the Srebrenica operation, see “The Killing Fields of Bosnia, ” The New York Review, September 24, 1998, pp. 63-77.

  8. 8

    See Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both, Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime (Penguin, 1996), pp. 75-76.

  9. 9

    At this writing it appears that the Serbs have so far limited their massacres of military-age men to villages and towns, while in Pristina and other cities they have been more selective, murdering politicians, human rights lawyers, and other members of the intelligentsia, while in some cases detaining large numbers of men in police stations and military barracks.

  10. 10

    These stories are drawn from Christiane Amanpour’s report broadcast on “Strike on Yugoslavia,” Cable News Network, April 3, 1999.

  11. 11

    See Lawrence S. Eagleburger, “NATO, In A Corner,” The New York Times, April 4, 1999, Section 4, p. 11.

  12. 12

    See David Binder, “Yugoslavia Seen Breaking Up Soon,” The New York Times, November 28, 1990, p. A7.

  13. 13

    Wayne Bert, The Reluctant Superpower: United States Policy 1991-95 (St. Martin’s, 1997), p. 119. Italics added. See my “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1996, pp. 56-64, for a full treatment of this period.

  14. 14

    Quoted in “Method to the Madness,” Decision Brief (Center for Security Policy, Washington, D.C.), October 2, 1992, p. 3.

  15. 15

    See David Binder, “Bush Warns Serbs Not To Widen War,” The New York Times, December 28, 1992. Mr. Eagleburger’s recent statement that “NATO may no longer feel it has [the] choice” to avoid intervening in Kosovo seems further evidence that the “Christmas Warning,” however uncompromising its language, was hardly a firm commitment to “employ military force.”

  16. 16

    See David Rhode, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), p. 68.

  17. 17

    See Stephen Engelberg, “Weighing Strikes in Bosnia, US Warns of Wider War,” The New York Times, April 25, 1993.

  18. 18

    See Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (Random House, 1998), p. 357.

  19. 19

    See Kosovo: A Short History (New York University Press, 1998), p. 353.

  20. 20

    See “US Warns of ‘Serious Action’ Against Belgrade on Kosovo,” Agence France-Presse, March 4, 1998, and “US State Department Press Briefing,” March 5, 1998.

  21. 21

    See Julius Strauss, “Massacre Evidence Mounts Against Milosevic,” Sunday Telegraph, January 31, 1999.

  22. 22

    See “Massacre of Civilians in Racak,” Kosovo Verification Mission, January 17, 1999.

  23. 23

    See Craig R. Whitney with Eric Schmitt, “NATO Had Signs Its Stragegy Would Fail Kosovars,” The New York Times, April 1, 1999, p. A1.