Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reply to Ed Herman on Body Counts in Kosova

Reply to Ed Herman on Body Counts in Kosova

by Michael Karadjis


Edward Herman (Z-Magazine, February 2002, Body Counts in Imperial Service) sets out to reveal the ways in which mass killings are highlighted when such figures are in the service of western propaganda, but ignored when carried out by the same western leaders, or their clients such as Israel, Turkey and Indonesia. There is no question that such exposure is essential work for anti-imperialists to campaign against US and other western aggression as in the cases of the Gulf, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Herman seems completely unable to remain on that fine line between justifying imperialist propaganda and war – where Hitchens etc have fallen – and scabbing on the oppressed and terrorised in places where western propaganda does sometimes suddenly find a need to exploit their suffering. Above all, this means the Kosovars and Bosniaks, whose terrorisation at the hands of the massive Serbian-Yugoslav military machine is surely equivalent to the terrorisation of the Kurds, Palestinians, Timorese and Iraqis by the massive Turkish, Israeli, Indonesian and US military machines.

Herman and others may argue that there is little point pointing out the suffering of these peoples as this is already done in the mass media. That, however, is not the problem. The problem is that Herman simply employs the same selective methods as the mass media in reverse, aiming to delegitimise the suffering and the struggles of the Kosovars and Bosniaks.

In so doing, he does a great disservice to the anti-imperialist cause. Our struggle against imperialist war and slaughter should centre on the fact that such aggression does not help the oppressed – even the cases where the oppressed are sometimes used for propaganda purposes – and that our solidarity is with all oppressed and terrorised peoples, wheter they are currently in or out of favour. Putting a minus everywhere that the US government propagandistically puts a plus does not create principled politics.

Regarding the conflicts in the Balkans, it would require us to write entire polemical books to thrash out all details of our differences. However, what appears indisputable is that previous to March 1999, in all the Balkan conflicts (Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova), one side, the Belgrade regime, possessed an absolutely overwhelming monopoly on means of state terror, with one of Europe’s largest military and police machines inherited from the former united Yugoslavia. On the other side, the West imposed an arms embargo on “all of Yugoslavia”, which meant that those republics which broke away were unable to arm themselves to resist Belgrade’s terror. The Yugoslav army had been the fourth most powerful military machine in Europe, its suppliers including the US up until the outbreak of war in 1991. The Serb republic managed to get hold of the entire arsenal, which belonged to all Yugoslavs and hence should have been divided between them, due to the Vance Plan in early 1992. As the Serbo-Croatian war was coming to an end, and Croatia was now on the offensive, the US via Cyrus Vance stepped in to force Croatia to allow the UN to occupy the zones which had been seized by the Yugoslav army, about one third of Croatia. Most of this had not been Serb-majority territory and the Croat majorities had been expelled. The UN was now to police the new border, with one third of Croatia now run by Serb nationalists.

Most crucially, Vance insisted that the Yugoslav army be allowed to take its entire arsenal, which was now scattered around Croatia and could have been divided among the republics, back to Serbia, and above all into Bosnia, which was still officially part of ‘Yugoslavia’. The JNA took from Croatia 300 tanks, 280 artillery pieces, 210 aircraft, tens of thousands of tons of equipment and supplies, and took it all into Bosnia, despite the fact that Serbian plans for Bosnia were very well known, Bosnian Serb rightist leader Karadzic had even threatened to make the Bosnian Muslims “disappear from the face of the Earth”. Croatia demanded that the JNA’s arsenals be placed under international supervision, warning that what had been done to Vukovar and Dubrovnik would be repeated on Bosnian cities, as was to occur; this was ignored by Vance and others who made “ultimatums and demands” on Croatia that JNA be allowed to withdraw its heavy weaponry to Bosnia.

The callousness with which Herman and so many apologists for Milosevic have for years made an issue of Kosovar death counts borders on the morbid. Certainly, if people like US defense secretary Cohen had suggested there were 100,000 dead, as Herman quotes, such a gigantic difference with the reality should well have been exposed as absurd propaganda. Cohen’s story of “100,000 missing” was indeed “a meaningless propaganda ploy” in the circumstances of war, when it was difficult to know who was missing and who was not, as Herman correctly states. Perhaps it was aimed at suggesting that such a number had already been killed, but that is drawing a long bow given that the realistic figure of 4600 dead was given by Cohen in the very next sentence.

However, the discussion rarely revolves around the obscure ‘100,000’ quote but over the somewhat less significant difference between around 4-5000 dead (the figure beloved by Belgrade apologists and the bulk of others who thought opposition to NATO’s terror meant we had to downplay that of Belgrade), and 10,000 dead, the figure given by the UN, which was the figure most quoted *by far* in the western media. Before looking at this in detail, let us for argument’s sake assume the lower figure to be correct.

Why, in that case, did nearly all imperialist propaganda only inflate the figures by a few thousand, surely not a very useful exaggeration? And indeed, if I am correct and the 10,000 is indeed closer to the mark, why do I believe NATO barely exaggerated the numbers at all? Could it be that with 850,000 Kosovars, half their entire population, brutally expelled from their country and languishing in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, for all the world to see (especially since they were in Europe rather than some ‘far off land’ easily ignored), that NATO simply had no need for any further propaganda other than this superb propaganda which Milosevic was handing it?

After all, if there were only 4-5000 deaths rather than 10,000, does that mean the expulsion of half the Kosovar population from their homes was any less of a crime against humanity?

No, NATO did not need any further propaganda. But surely Herman and company would have noticed that these 850,000 people were only expelled from Kosova after NATO began its terror bombing, a terror which had produced the political conditions under which it was now possible for Milosevic to do what his regime was previously incapable of. Therefore, rather than denying the extent of the attempted genocide, wouldn’t it be better for our propaganda to point out that this was a direct consequence of NATO’s actions? Why underestimate the consequences of NATO’s actions? If the real figures were 10,000 dead, then they were killed by the Yugoslav army, police and semi-fascist Serbian paramilitaries after and as a direct result of NATO’s aggression. They were part of the same region-wide catastrophe created by NATO which simultaneously was leading to the massacre of defenceless Serb civilians and the destruction of factories, power plants, bridges, trains, buses and so on in Serbia itself.

And here let me ask Herman a further question: as we are in agreement in opposing NATO’s terror against Serbian civilians and Serbian civilian infrastructure, if indeed there had been 10,000 rather than 4000 killed (after NATO’s attack) would this in any way give any retrospective justification for NATO’s attack? I fail to see how it could so what’s the point? Imperialist terror has to be opposed due to its own demerits; deliberately downplaying the crimes of the opponent, when such crimes are real, ends up being reverse liberalism: if the greater numbers were true, would imperialist intervention then be OK?

Perhaps the point is that even a small difference should be exposed to show that western leaders lie. However, if this is then done by deciding that the minimum possible figures must be the correct ones, in contrast to citing maximum death figures in other cases (Afghanistan, Timor), it serves far more to reveal how much Herman wants to underestimate the suffering of a people he considers ‘unworthy’ of sympathy, since their horrendous oppression drove them into the arms of NATO – in a mirror image of imperialist media concepts of ‘unworthy’ victims.

So how many did die? According to Hague boss Carla Del Ponte, “approximately 4000” bodies had been dug up from the search of 529 “mass graves” by the end of 2000 ( This figure combines the 2108 bodies dug up by the end of 1999 with the further 1835 by the end of 2000. As victims of NATO bombing were unlikely to have been buried in “mass graves”, and as Yugoslav army troops killed would have been retrieved by the army, and also unlikely to be in “mass graves”, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of these 4000 were murdered Albanians. Herman does not waste time disputing this, as some others do, as he uses the fact that the number of bodies found in Kosova is “under 4000” to show this cannot “demonstrate that 4600 people had been executed,” as suggested by Cohen, or for that matter, the later figure of 10,000.

This is a strange argument, because Herman’s own polemics create problems for it. He quotes an earlier figure of 2,108 bodies by late 1999, showing that further search almost doubled the body count in one year. Does this not suggest there may be more?

In fact, Herman himself suggests this, apparently without realizing the logic of what he is saying. He writes “according to the ICRC, there were some 3500 Kosovo residents still missing in May 2001, a figure which included some 900 Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians.” Therefore, according to his figures, there could be another 2600 Albanians dead, taking the figure to some 6600. According to ICRC figures I came across at the time of Herman’s article, there were still 2915 missing Albanians, alongside 1,035 non-Albanians (646 Serbs, 67 Montenegrins, 219 Roma and 103 Bosniaks, plus a number of Goranci). As such, the total figure for killed or missing Albanians would be some 6900. Herman adds “whether these were all genuinely missing or had died is unclear.” But if they were not “genuinely missing” but “had died” then we must obviously add them to the 4000 dead. If they are still “genuinely missing” after so long the likelihood would seem to be that they are also dead.

But then there are those whose bodies have turned up in Serbia. Herman dismisses as a “story” the discovery of a refrigerator truck with dozens of Albanian bodies which had been dumped into the Danube. He confidently proclaims that no further such trucks have come to light. In fact, many further such trucks and mass graves inside Serbia did indeed come to light, with a total of some 1100 Albanian bodies. This figure is a public figure which can be found on Serbian government official sites and in Serbian media. Far from being a “story,” the Serbian government, UN and Kosova authorities have been involved for several years in a process of identifying and returning the bodies to Kosova.

This may not be the final figure – the Serbian government of Zoran Djindjic called off the search at that point. The reason is very obvious. The current western-backed Serbian government is full of former politicians, generals, police officers and mega-capitalists attached to the Milosevic regime. They were up to their eyeballs in the same crimes for which a select few have been chosen as scapegoats. In particular, Djindjic had powerful links with the Serbian Interior Ministry Police, who are credited with far more crimes in Kosova than the Yugoslav Army, linked more to Kostunica. And the embarrassing thing was that many of these trucks or graves of Kosovar Albanians were turning up on or near police grounds in Serbia.

If we add this minimum of 1100 bodies, we now have at least 7700 Albanian dead or missing, somewhere in between the lowest possible figures beloved by Herman and others, and the UN figures. But if we consider the fact that the Tribunal search teams were looking for “mass graves”, their figures would exclude the fact that returning Kosovar refugees no doubt immediately buried any dead relatives in proper individual graves. There is simply no reason to believe that most dead were buried in ‘mass graves’, let alone these designated 529 ‘mass’ graves.

Therefore, what is required is a thorough survey of the numbers killed, not merely a grotesque ‘body count’ methodology, with the well-known historical parallels of the use of such methodology. Has one been done? Fortunately, the one that has been done was carried out by the highly respected British medical journal the ‘Lancet’. Now, since the ‘Lancet’ did a similar survey in Iraq in 2006 which showed that at the time some 660,000 Iraqis had been killed since the US invasion, and this report has been widely quoted – and rightly – by Herman and his co-thinkers, then presumably Herman will be happy with the Lancet study of deaths in Kosova during the 1999 war?

So let me try. According to the study carried out by the Lancet, some 12,000 Albanians were killed in 1998-99, and another 4000 were still missing in September 1999 (4 months after the end of the war) when the study was carried out. Given that of these 4000, some 2000 turned out to be in Serbian prisons and have since returned, it suggests some 2000 missing, presumed dead, on top of 12,000 killed. This means the death toll may have been well over 10,000 Albanians. The Lancet study is at Note that its sample is much greater than that in the Iraq study.

What does any of this have to do with ‘genocide’? Is ‘genocide’ the difference between 5000 and 10,000 killed over a couple of months? A horrendous massacre, but not genocide. However, the reason many of us used the term genocide had little to do with numbers of deaths, but rather the attempt to destroy a whole people by driving them out of their country. The forced expulsion of 850,000 Albanians, nearly half their population, was what constituted attempted genocide, and there is no knowing whether or not more would have been expelled. This was combined with the destruction of 100,000 homes, and 215 mosques, a full one third of the mosques in Kosova, many going back to medieval times. An expulsion this size is similar to the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians by the new Zionist state in 1948. I’m not sure how many thousands were killed during the ‘Nakbah’, or ‘Catastrophe’, but it is called such because such a mass expulsion destroyed their entire society, destroyed the Palestinians as a people living in Palestine, not specifically based on the numbers killed. Chomsky in his ‘New Military Humanism’ makes this comparison explicit. On the left, we have never had any qualms about calling the Palestinian Nakbah a form of genocide, and so we shouldn’t. For the sake of consistency, the same goes for the Kosova Nakbah of 1999.

And it is here, on the attempted Kosova genocide, the Kosova Nakbah, that I have yet to see any coherent genocide revisionism, that seriously questions the organized mass expulsion of the Kosovar population by the Serboslav army and rightist paramilitaries. In ‘Fool’s Crusade’, Diana Johnstone devotes a mere one page to this, and suggests the Albanians may have gone on holidays at relatives' houses in Albania and Macedonia to sit out the war; Parenti in ‘To Kill a Nation’ reports on a journalist who allegedly spoke to one (1) unnamed Albanian on a boat to Italy who allegedly said she had fled bombs rather than being expelled by the Serbian army. Not real heavy stuff from the two leading revisionist books.

However, it is in the case of Bosnia that Herman’s number-crunching, logic and politics is most skewed. At least in the case of Kosova, the fact that many lost sympathy for the terrorised Kosovars may be explained by their sympathy with the Serbian people being simultaneously terrorised by countries whose superiority over Yugoslavia in possession and use of means of terror was equivalent to the superiority which Yugoslavia had over the Kosovars.

In the case of Bosnia, however, there was no such US or NATO aggression; throughout the entire war it was clearly the Belgrade regime and its Bosnian Serb proxies it paid and armed that possessed and used absolute military superiority over the almost defenceless Bosnians.

Before going into the political questions, let’s look at Herman’s number-crunching. He disputes the widely quoted figures of 200,000 dead (or the unusually large figure of 250,000 given by David Rieff who he quotes), claiming “he gives no source, and is clearly regurgitating claims of Bosnian Muslim officials.” Yet later, referring to East Timor, he tells us that the Indonesian army and paramilitary forces killed over 5000 defenceless civilians even before the August 30, 1999 vote, according to Church estimates.”

So (Christian) “Church estimates” are worth quoting, especially when the killers are Muslims, but “Muslim officials” are not, especially when the killers are Christians. And we might add, alongside the “Muslim officials”, also the Christian Serb and Croat and atheist and Bosnian (of no declared nationality) officials, military leaders, clergy and so on who stood firmly alongside their Muslim allies in the Bosnian government or in defence of multi-ethnic Bosnia against the allied Serbian and Croatian right-wing chauvinists – the figures they mostly gave were also around the 200,000 mark.

Herman quotes George Kenney to the effect that the ICRC estimates 20-30,000 dead in Bosnia. Kenney in fact estimates between 25,000 and 65,000 dead, and it is clearly Herman who chooses to provide only Kenney’s minimum figure to the Z-Net readership. As for the ICRC, I have not found any figure for estimated dead in an admittedly quick search of their records on Bosnia, but I did find the figure of 20,000 for the numbers still missing, as Herman quotes. Amnesty International gives two figures for numbers missing, one of around 20,000 and one of around 27,000. Assuming the lower figure to be correct, Herman then jumps in with the following piece of “meaningless propaganda”: “which again doesn’t get us near 250,000 or genocide.”

Presumably, then, Herman believes the total number still missing equals the total number killed in the entire war. So for three and a half years, there was presumably not a single body found. Forget the thousands that the Red Cross had already reported from the concentration camps in 1992. Forget the 13,000 graves in Sarajevo, a city where all the cemeteries were full so early that parks and sports grounds and numerous other places had to be used to bury the dead. Forget the non-stop sieges by massively armed Serbian chauvinist forces who daily and endlessly poured enormous firepower into the defenceless citizenry not only of Sarajevo but also of Tuzla, Zenica, Bihac, Srebrenica, Zepa, Gorazde, Zepce, Mostar (first by the Serbian chauvinists and then by their Croat chauvinist allies) and a host of other towns. Forget the ongoing battles for three and a half years as Serbian and allied Croatian forces attempted to conquer even more non-Serb and non-Croat majority territory (most of which they had already conquered) while the Muslims and multi-ethnic populations attempted to hold them back. Is it entirely unreasonable that in three and a half years the death toll would have mounted to 150-200,000?

In Vietnam, there are 300,000 Vietnamese still missing after nearly 30 years. There are usually estimated to have been 3 million killed. That’s a rate of one in ten missing. There are also some 3-4000 Americans missing – again about the same ratio to the 50,000 Americans killed. I’d hazard a guess that these figures are about average to many conflicts. In that case, 20,000 missing and 200,000 killed seem most likely round figures. However, if we take out the particular case of the 7000 missing from Srebrenica following the June 1995 massacre, and multiply the remaining 13,000 by 10 we get a possible figure of 130,000.

Incidentally, doesn’t the figure of 300,000 Vietnamese still missing after 30 years make Herman and those who engage in this nonsense stop to think how silly it looks to decide that the latest body count in Kosova after only a few years must without doubt be the final one? Do Herman and company perhaps believe that the Vietnamese government has merely invented this figure for propaganda purposes? Has he researched the evidence? Or does he believe that Vietnamese tell the truth but Balkan Muslims lie?

In fact, a study comparing the pre-war and post-war population of Bosnia, and adding all the known Bosnians living elsewhere in the world, the total number of dead or missing comes to 229,000, of whom 75 percent were Muslims, if it is assumed that there would have been no population increase over that period. If the rate of growth that existed previous to the war is assumed, the numbers of dead or missing rise to 343,000, of whom 64 percent were Muslims (‘Demographic Consequences of the Bosnia War’, by Murat Praso, ). Muslims were 43 percent of the population. Take your pick – my guess is somewhere in between.

(Since writing this, the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre has done a very thorough study of Bosnian deaths and as of 2007 the still-rising total is nearly 100,000, of who 66 percent are Muslims, and 83 percent of civilian deaths are Muslims. For elaboration on this, see my post on this site ‘How many, and who, died in Bosnia? at

The most appalling point is reached when Herman talks about the Srebrenica massacre of 8000 defenceless Muslim men and boys in July 1995, surely the crowning atrocity of the entire Balkan wars. “In Srebrenica, there have been only 473 bodies recovered, and there is absolutely no credible evidence that 7500 men and boys who allegedly disappeared in this area in July 1995 were murdered.” No credible evidence. The Muslim women survivors of Srebrenica are all a bunch of liars.

It would be one thing if this statement were simply the kind of gratuitous ignorance that much of the left has prided itself on regarding this issue, basically, “the less I know, the better” attitude, so they can parade around sounding very sophisticated by voicing inanities like “all sides committed atrocities”, without the trouble of having to distinguish oppressor and oppressed, a bit like the received liberal wisdom on “both sides” committing atrocities and not compromising on Palestine. Yet Herman is in fact worse than this.

As he has just quoted the ICRC on the numbers missing in Bosnia, he would have had in his face the ICRC figure (13/7/2000) of 7439 missing from Srebrenica alone, among 20,000 missing in Bosnia. Added to the 473 bodies recovered, this gives a total figure of 7912. “No credible evidence” that these “alleged missing” have been killed. Presumably Herman thinks they are all hiding out with Karadzic and being fed by their generous Chetnik captors. Just to compare, the Amnesty International website at the same time gave a figure of 6-8000 missing in Srebrenica, and claimed “every one of the scores of Moslems we have met who left Srebrenica in 1995 has a relative or friend now among the missing” (the site also claimed 1000 Croatian Serbs were missing following Croatia’s ‘Operation Storm’ in the Krajina). Since Herman wrote this, in fact 5000 bodies have now been uncovered, and in mid-2004, the Bosnian Serb government of the ethnically-cleansed ‘Republika Srpska’ formally confessed to the crime and claimed 7800 were killed by their henchmen.

Interestingly, Herman notes: ‘In 1999, when the people of Australia's closest northern neighbour, East Timor, which had been invaded and annexed by the Indonesia dictatorship of General Suharto, finally had an opportunity to vote for independence and freedom, it was the Howard government that betrayed them. Although warned by Australia's intelligence agencies that the Indonesian army was setting up militias to terrorise the population, Howard and his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, claimed they knew nothing; and the massacres went ahead. As leaked documents have since revealed, they did know.’

He claims UN troops finally went in to end the carnage, but not till after so many Timorese had already been killed. Quite so. Funny how he can make no analogy with Bosnia. Just as the UN refused for months to defend the Timorese after a UN-called referendum, so likewise, after an EU-called referendum in Bosnia in early 1992, neither the EU nor UN did anything to protect the Bosnians for three and a half years when they immediately came under massive attack by the most massive military force in the region. The UN even set up “safe havens” in a few cities a year or so later, where they disarmed the Bosnians, promising to “protect” them themselves. They never did. The “safe havens” continued to get bombed for years. Srebrenica was one of those “safe havens”, overrun by the Chetniks in July 1995. The UN politely made way for them.

Pity Herman cannot see any analogy.

Michael Karadjis

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