What’s the story? – Audrey Gillan 27 May 1999

London Review of Books

Volume 21, Number 11, Cover date 27 May 1999

What’s the story?

               Audrey Gillan tries to find the evidence for mass

               atrocities in Kosovo

               Ferteze Nimari had lost two of her brothers and her husband was forced to bury all the dead in one grave.  Later, packed into a stifling bus with sixty fellow Kosovars, the couple held onto each other as he clutched  a strap suspended from the ceiling. The bus stopped in the Stankovac I refugee camp in Macedonia and they told their story.

‘The tank came to our village of Sllovi. The Serb neighbours said not to worry – it was just there to observe us. But by lunchtime the next day a teenage girl lay dead in the street. Then another 15 people were killed. They told us to run into the woods and they started shooting us.’

I asked them so many questions about what they had seen. ‘What happened when your brothers were shot?’ ‘How many people did you bury?’ ‘How do you feel now?’ When they said the Serbs had forced an old woman into a tent and burned her alive I looked at them doubtfully and asked how they knew she had been alive. Someone from her family had seen it happen, they said.

The Nimaris had arrived at what they thought was a safe haven, but I pursued them, and I did so unsparingly. I got on the bus when the driver opened the doors for air. They had stood for hours on that malodorous bus. I felt sorry for them: but not so sorry that I stopped the questions.

They had yet to step down to the misery of the camp the British press has taken to calling ‘Brazda’. All they had was a bottle of water passed to them through an open window – and my questions. Ferteze, eight months pregnant, caught me glancing at the watch on her wrist when Remzi, her husband, said all the women in the village had been robbed of their jewellery.

Earlier that day, Ron Redmond, the baseball-capped spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stood at the Blace border crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia and said there were new reports of mass rapes and killings from three villages in the Lipljan area: Sllovi, Hallac Evogel and Ribari Evogel.  He spoke to the press of bodies being desecrated, eyes being shot out. The way he talked it sounded as if there had been at least a hundred murders and dozens of rapes.

When I pressed him on the rapes, asking him to be more precise, he reduced it a bit and said he had heard that five or six teenage girls had been raped and murdered. He had not spoken to any witnesses. ‘We have no way of  verifying these reports of rape,’ he conceded. ‘These are among the first that we have heard of at this border.’

 Other UNHCR officials later told stories of women being tied to the walls of their houses and burned, 24 bodies buried in Kosovo Polje. Another report, again from Sllovi, put the dead at a hundred. Mr and Mrs Nimari were adamant that it was 16.

Truth can be scarce at the Blace border and in the camps dotted around Macedonia, but you are not allowed to say that during a war like this, where it may be that bad things are being done on both sides, just as you are not allowed to doubt atrocity. It’s as if Nato and its entourage were trying to make up for the witlessness of the past: trying to show that whatever we do, we won’t be turning a blind eye.

But the simple-minded reporter in me wants to ask a question: is there any real evidence for what is being said?  In Macedonia, listening to the stories and the UNHCR accounts, you would find it hard to tell what was hearsay and what was fact. When you looked at the people  clinging onto the carrier bags that now held the remnants of their lives, it seemed evident that terrible things had happened to them, that people had been forced to flee their homes and drag themselves to a non-life in another country. Each person arriving at the camps had experienced some kind of trauma, and most are still living it. Many have seen death and other horrors. It is just that there is little to suggest that they have seen it in the ways, and on the scale, that people want to say they have.

Most of those who have seen killing have seen one or two shot and the bodies of others. Eye-witnesses to multiple atrocities are very rare and the simple – and not  at all simple – truth is that it can often be hard to establish the veracity of the information. One afternoon, the people in charge said there were refugees arriving who talked of sixty or more being killed in one village, fifty in another, but I could not find one eye-witness who actually saw these things happening.

 Now, they may have happened. But what we have is a situation where Western journalists accept details without question. Almost every day, the world’s media,  jostling for stories in Macedonia, strain to find figures that may well not exist. In the absence of any testimony, many just report what some agency or other has told them. I stood by as a reporter from BBC World reeled off what Ron Redmond had said, using the words ‘hundreds’, ‘rape’ and ‘murder’ in the same breath. By way of qualification (a fairly meaningless one in the circumstances), he added that the stories had yet to be substantiated. Why, then, had he reported them so keenly in the first place?

I found myself wanting to discover the evidence. I was also impatient to find a ‘good’ story – i.e. a mass atrocity. As each new bus trundled over the border, I told my interpreter to shout through the windows asking if anyone was from the three villages Redmond had mentioned. Did they know anyone, had they seen anything? We went along twenty buses before we found Mr and Mrs Nimari.

A transit camp had been set up in the no man’s land between the river and the frontier road at Blace. This was where the tens of thousands were trapped in fetid misery before Macedonian officials dispersed them one night to the newly-built camps. Now the place is used to give a night’s rest to some of the great many who wait patiently at this border for entry to a country that doesn’t want them and to which they really don’t want to go. Every 20 minutes, the Macedonian police let around two hundred people clamber down a dirt path to be processed before being admitted into the camp. As they stood in line, I asked whether anyone was from those villages and whether they’d seen anything they wanted to talk about. No one was and no one did. Or at least they didn’t want to tell us about it.

It seemed that the Nimaris were the only people from Sllovi. I was moved by their fear and passion to believe everything they said. Remzi told me he’d buried the dead in a grave in the woods at Lugi i Demes. It will take the verifiers from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague to put our agitated, agitating minds at rest.

The officers from ICTY, the verifiers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and researchers from Human Rights Watch are compiling reports of war crimes, which will be used at a later date for any trial at The Hague. Speaking to these people, I found them to be wary of using the hyperbole favoured by reporters and by the UNHCR. They say they have yet to see evidence of atrocities on the scale that  they witnessed while working in Bosnia.

When I went to see Benedicte Giaever, the co-ordinator for OSCE’s field office in Skopje, I saw that she was angered by the behaviour of the media. I squirmed when she said she had heard of a female journalist getting onto a bus to question some refugees. She said almost every journalist who came to see her asked one thing: could she give them a rape victim to interview. She spoke of one woman being ‘hunted down’ by journalists and having to have her tent moved to shelter her from their intrusions: she had had a breakdown.

I wanted at the same time to test the validity of the truths being offered us and to behave decently in the face of what could not be known for sure, and I knew it wasn’t possible to do both. Yet I could see that much of this rough treatment of female refugees was a direct consequence of Robin Cook telling the world that there was evidence of rape camps inside Kosovo. ‘Young women are being separated from the refugee columns,’ he said, ‘and forced to undergo systematic rape in an army camp. We have evidence from many refugees who have managed to escape that others were taken to rape camps.’

I know of several tabloid reporters who were despatched to Macedonia and Albania with the sole purpose of finding a rape victim. Talking to each other in the bar of Skopje’s Hotel Continental we rehearsed the question which has now become notorious: ‘Is there anyone here who’s been raped and speaks English?’ We were aware of the implications of some of our more despicable behaviour. We knew that one woman, raped by Serbian soldiers then forced to leave her country, was traumatised all over again by a journalist looking for a good story.

The things you come to know as a journalist do not march in single file. Facts are often renegade. But among the rape victims arriving in Macedonia nobody spoke of anything like the camps the British Foreign Secretary referred to. Benedicte Giaever told me there had been rape, but not systematic and not on a grand scale. The same was true of the killing. ‘We don’t have big numbers,’ she said. ‘What we have are consistent small numbers – two here, five there, ten here, seven there.’

Unlike the media and the UNHCR, the OSCE works in a slow, methodical way, waiting a few days till the refugees have settled in before they begin to ask questions. ‘These people have just arrived and I would say they are still under a lot of stress and tension,’ Giaever says. ‘In that situation, 5 people can easily turn  into 75. It’s not that they want to lie but often they are confused. It’s not to say it didn’t happen. But a story could have moved around from village to village and everyone from that village tells it as if it happened to them.’

Another senior OSCE source spoke even more clearly than any of us were inclined to do. He told me he suspected that the Kosovo Liberation Army had been persuading people to talk in bigger numbers, to crank up the horror so that Nato might be persuaded to send ground troops in faster. Robin Cook’s rape camp was the same thing, he said: an attempt to get the British public behind the bombing. And wasn’t all this a lesson in how propaganda works in modern war?

When I came back to London, I went to see the KLA’s spokesman and recruiting officer in Golders Green. Dr Pleurat Sejdiu, sitting beside the KLA flag and busts of the Albanian national hero Skenderbeg, said there were indeed rape camps, and that the evidence of mass atrocities was to be found among the refugees in Albania, not in Macedonia. He is in daily contact with the KLA frontline command by satellite phone and has been told of rape camps in Gjakova, Rahovec, Suhareka, Prizren and Skenderaj.

‘We know there are concentration camps and women are kept and raped there,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we will get the evidence until we go in with the ground troops. There are a lot of stories confirming it. There are mass executions and mass graves are appearing now. We have reports from our special units moving around Kosovo. And the pertinent question is: where are the young men who have been taken from the refugee columns? I think everything will be proved when Nato troops go in.’

In Skopje I had been to see Ben Ward, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, in the flat he is renting (he had found the Hotel Continental too expensive and the behaviour of the reporters too disconcerting): he pored over maps of Kosovo and pointed to villages where he knows incidents have taken place. His information comes from eye-witnesses and is corroborated by the testimony of others. He has noted a very definite scorched-earth policy. But while his latest report details killings and the mutilation of corpses in the villages of Bajnica and Cakaj, he doesn’t think there is evidence of mass executions. ‘It is very rare for people not to know someone who knows about people being killed. But there doesn’t appear to be anything to support allegations of mass killings,’ he said. ‘It is generally paramilitaries who are responsible. It doesn’t seem organised. There appear to be individual acts of sadism rather than anything else. There seems not to be any policy or instruction, but that isn’t to say that people have not been given the latitude to kill. However, I don’t think at this stage we have anything that adds up to the systematic killing of civilians.’ Ward believes that those who stayed longer in Kosovo have been subjected to more violence, that many have been terrorised because they have stayed so long. Many have fled terror but some of those Ward spoke to said they were fleeing the Nato bombs. ‘The Serbs didn’t touch us until Nato attacked,’ a Kosovar told him.

 One morning I made a two-year-old girl hysterical. I had asked her parents to show me the wound the child suffered when the bullet that killed her grandmother entered her shoulder. I was getting desperate for some kind of truth to hold onto. They pulled up Marigona Azemi’s dress and her pink T-shirt and pointed to aworn bandage. She squealed and said it was the ‘licia’ who shot her, unable to get her small tongue round the Albanian word milicia. Like the majority of those killed or wounded or abused by the Serbs, Marigona was attacked by paramilitaries, a vicious, marauding band. Seven people in her village of Lovc – including her grandmother Nexhmije – were killed. Some villagers claimed that a local teacher and his cousin were skinned alive before they were burned, others said they were burned alive. No one actually saw this but the rest of what they had to say tallied when they told their stories independently. The Azemi family had been trying to escape on its tractor when the paramilitaries opened fire: what they did was sadistic and it was a horrendous tale, but it couldn’t be turned into a story of mass atrocity.

Some people tell me that evil is evil; that there’s no point in quantifying it. Does that mean I am to accept Robin Cook’s unchecked facts because they align with my hunches? I feel bad for having made Marigona cry in order to prove to myself that there was truth in her story. (For  days, I went to her – pathetically – with dolls and hair  bobbles and sweets and orange juice.) But that is not all I feel. Watching the television images and listening to the newscasters thunder about further reports of Serb massacres and of genocide, I feel uneasy about saying that they have very little to go on. Yet almost every newspaper journalist I spoke to privately in Macedonia felt the same way. The story being seen at home is different from the one that appeared to be happening on the ground.

Maybe the truth here is not one thing: but I don’t want to be an accomplice to a lie. I don’t want to bellow for my life or for theirs, yet there’s something not right in this easy way with detail. It is a surreal place, Macedonia, and it was this aspect to which a friend drew my attention when I got home. Nobody much wants to return to Jean Cocteau, but there was something soothing in the words my friend quoted. ‘History is a combination of reality and lies,’ he said. ‘The reality of history becomes a lie. The reality of the fable becomes the truth.’

               Audrey Gillan is a reporter on the Guardian, for whom she went to Macedonia.