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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 22:21 GMT

Death in Kosovo

About 40 people were slain in Racak

By Jackie Rowland

It was a sunny winter's morning and I had decided to drive south from Pristina to visit some villages where there'd been fighting the day before. Everything was quiet.

[ image: KLA soldiers patrol the area]
KLA soldiers patrol the area
A couple of fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army were standing on the roadside, their guns held casually at their sides. They confirmed there had been no new clashes.

I was starting to think this would be an uneventful day when the fighters said they had heard some people had been killed in a nearby village. What was the name of the village, I asked. Racak, they replied.

Twisted mass of bodies

The name meant nothing to me at the time, but by the end of the day it would be known to people all over the world. Racak is a pretty little farming village, lying in a valley and framed by hills.

Driving into the village, I met a local farmer who told me there was something I should see in the top field. We climbed up a steep slope for about ten minutes until we reached a gully on the hilltop.

[ image: A young woman cries at the discovery of her dead father]
A young woman cries at the discovery of her dead father
That was when I saw the first body. It was an elderly man who had been shot in the eye. We walked along the gully and came upon body after body. They were all ordinary men; farmers, labourers, villagers. They had all been shot in the head. At the end of the gully lay a twisted mass of bodies, about 15 in total.

It was then that I heard the crying. A boy of about 15 was staggering around the gully, wailing inconsolably. He told me he had just found three of his brothers slaughtered on the hilltop.

Masked police round up local men

The atmosphere in the village was one of shock and disbelief. Many of the villagers had only just returned to Racak after spending the night in the forest.

They had fled their homes the day before to escape shelling by Serbian security forces.

Those who had stayed told a terrifying story of masked police arriving and rounding up the menfolk. The police told the villagers they were taking the men to the local police station.

Instead, they took them up the hill and executed them.

I have not been in Kosovo for long and I had never seen anything like this before - the bodies, stiff and frosted with ice, their faces and hands frozen in expressions of fear and panic.


[ image: Serbian security forces ignore appeals to enter Racak]
Serbian security forces ignore appeals to enter Racak
With the boy's wailing still echoing in my ears, I stumbled back down the hill with tears streaming down my face. Why did they do it, I asked a colleague. What did they hope to achieve?

They did it, he answered, because they knew they could get away with it. His was a cynicism born of experience. That moment changed my thinking on Kosovo.

There was no shortage of cynicism in the days and hours that followed. Later that same day, a Yugoslav army general marched into the offices of the international monitoring mission in Pristina.

Impotence of the monitoring mission

The monitors thought he might have come to offer some conciliatory words about the massacre.

Not at all.

He had come to protest that ethnic Albanian rebels had failed to return an army vehicle and some weapons when they released eight soldiers captured the week before. The general was shown the door.

Serbia has never been the darling of the international community, but in the days following the Racak massacre its reputation fell to an all-time low. Serbian security forces blatantly ignored appeals from the monitors to stay out of the Racak area.

As if to underline the impotence of the verification mission, a column of armoured vehicles thundered past a team of monitors, leaving them standing in a cloud of dust at the roadside.

Walker blames Serbian security forces

[ image: William Walker, head of the OSCE mission, visits the site of the massacre]
William Walker, head of the OSCE mission, visits the site of the massacre
Serbia dealt with its bad press by using diversionary tactics. The diversion it chose was the head of the monitoring mission, William Walker.

Mr Walker visited the massacre site a few hours after me and was visibly shaken by what he saw.

Later the same day he made a strong statement blaming the security forces for the massacre. His comments cost him dearly - Belgrade ordered him out of the country.

So Ambassador Walker became the focus of visits to Belgrade by Nato generals, of arm twisting by Russian envoys, and of remonstrations by Western leaders.

As the countdown began to his enforced departure, the ambassador took on the allure of a swash-buckling hero, defying Belgrade's ultimatum.

Defying the expulsion order

[ image: Walker compares President Milosevic with General Noriega]
Walker compares President Milosevic with General Noriega
On the eve of the deadline set by Belgrade, Mr Walker invited journalists to what was instantly dubbed his last supper. As the wine flowed and the level of chatter increased, the ambassador, a veteran of Latin America, mused on the similarities between President Slobodan Milosevic and the infamous General Manuel Noriega.

As the deadline came and went, staff at the monitoring mission's headquarters behaved as though the building were under siege. The ambassador was holed-up in his office following instructions from his political masters to defy the expulsion order - high drama followed by relief when Belgrade said it would give the ambassador a reprieve, at least for the time being.

Belgrade's diversionary tactics seem to have worked.

As President Milosevic went to the brink with Ambassador Walker, I wondered how many people were thinking about the dead of Racak, whose bodies lie stiff and cold in the mortuary of Pristina Hospital.

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