What’s the story? Audrey Gillan, London Review of Books

See Guardian journalist Audrey Gillan’s account of her efforts to find Kosovo rape victims in Macedonia

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 an 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
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
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 alongtwenty buses before we found Mr and Mrs Nimari. A transit 
camp had been set up in the no man's land between the riverand 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 someof the great many who wait patiently at this border for 
entry to a country that doesn't want them and to which theyreally 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 wantedto 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
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 tokill. 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 a
worn 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 tothe 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.