Nov 1 1999

After the ‘Humanitarian’ War

TV learns to accept ethnic cleansing in Kosovo

After the bombing of Yugoslavia, the U.S. media held up the safe return of Albanian refugees as proof of the success–and righteousness–of NATO’s war. How the bombing had affected the region’s chances for long-term stability was rarely discussed. The important thing, according to most mainstream pundits, was that the “Western world” had shown it wouldn’t stand for “crimes against humanity,” with columnist William Safire (New York Times, 6/7/99) summing up the prevailing sentiment: “Civilization is more civilized for having intervened to do the right thing.”

But by the end of August, about ten weeks after NATO stopped bombing Yugoslavia and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) took charge of Kosovo, only about 20,000 Serbs remained in Kosovo out of a prewar population of 200,000 (AP, 8/30/99). In other words, 90 percent of Kosovar Serbs had fled their homes and become refugees since the peace agreement went into effect.

Kosovar Roma, or Gypsies–a group nearly invisible in U.S. coverage of Kosovo–were also being made into refugees. The European Roma Rights Center, an international legal advocacy group, stated in a July 9 report, “the current situation is one of ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Roma and Serbs by ethnic Albanians; instances of pogroms have occurred.” The report found that “international authorities, and particularly KFOR, have reacted inadequately.”

Curiously, given the acceptance by much of the press that NATO had fought and won a war against ethnic cleansing, few reporters raised the question of whether in the aftermath of that war, Kosovar Serbs weren’t being ethnically cleansed right before KFOR’s eyes. Fewer still asked when refugee Serbs would be able to return home–a question that was regularly asked about Albanian refugees. Also taboo were questions about whether the U.S. and NATO bore any responsibility for Yugoslavia’s continuing instability.


What ethnic cleansing?

An August 13 CBS This Morning report was one of a handful of times the scale of Serb flight from Kosovo was mentioned on any of the three major networks, and the only time in the month of August that a network mentioned that the phrase “ethnic cleansing” could be used to describe what was happening to Kosovar Serbs. Even that report refused to treat the problems of Serb refugees with the same sympathy and gravity with which, as a rule, the press had treated Albanian refugees: “In a change of circumstance,” the CBS report glibly began, “angry Albanians have the Serbs on the run.”

Reporter Allen Pizzey noted that “the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] and its supporters are accused of trying to ethnically cleanse Serb civilians,” and that “U.N. officials estimate that as few as 5 percent of the prewar Serb population” remains in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. Viewers then saw a clip of a U.N. official explaining that the remaining Serbs are mostly elderly and disabled, and unlikely to have participated in the war. Somewhat inexplicably, this was followed by Pizzey characterizing continuing anti-Serb violence as an attempt by Albanians “to pay Serbs back in kind for what was done during the war.”

To explain anti-Serb attacks by Kosovar Albanians as “revenge” for the war is to accept the logic of collective guilt: As the U.N. official in Pizzey’s report pointed out, most who remained in Kosovo after the peace agreement and became targets for “revenge” were civilians, guilty only of being Serbian. Yugoslav military and paramilitary units, often brought in from Bosnia and other parts of former Yugoslavia, were generally responsible for wartime atrocities against Kosovar Albanians. Yet media reports repeatedly mischaracterized the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo as a spontaneous epidemic of neighbors killing neighbors. This tendency to blame “Serbs” instead of the Yugoslav government continued even in the face of numerous reports about Milosevic’s carefully planned campaign to rid the province of Albanians.

The attention that network news did pay to violence against Serbs often came in strange contexts. For instance, an August 31 piece about a U.S. infantry platoon in Kosovo on ABC‘s Good Morning America began with Charles Gibson saying that the platoon had “a tough assignment. They’re protecting Serb citizens from reprisals from the ethnic Albanians.” But he wasn’t leading in to a discussion of the efforts of U.S. troops to protect Serbs; the entire point of the report was to show the troop smiling and waving to their families at home, since, as Gibson pointed out, they hadn’t “had a chance to see their families for a long time.”

Superficial coverage like this underscored the impression that the flight of 180,000 Serbs was the natural, if regrettable, result of “centuries-old hatred in a region that has known violence for far too long” (ABC World News This Morning, 8/10/99). Some reports about the continuing violence verged on being sympathetic to efforts to expel Serbs from the province, as in one NBC Nightly News segment (8/28/99) that ended with the emotional image of Albanians mourning at the funeral of KLA soldiers and the sentence, “far from their minds is the thought of living in peace with Serbs.”

Rarely mentioned on the three networks was the possibility–which seems obvious, given the history of the region–that the exodus might be the outcome of a coordinated campaign to create an exclusively Albanian Kosovo. This suggestion did slip into an August 30 Good Morning America news item about Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, who had recently “urged Albanian leaders to stop a campaign of revenge against Serbs for atrocities committed by Serb forces.”

KFOR: Powerfully helpless

Stories about international peacekeepers in Kosovo on network news in August portrayed them as powerless to stop violence against Serbs. Yet peacekeepers were also, at least when U.S. troops were concerned, shown as exemplars of a powerful new type of military intervention force.

Questions about exactly why KFOR was having such “a tough time stopping the violence” were virtually never raised, even in a segment like the August 30 Nightline piece on “The War in Kosovo,” which claimed to give an in-depth, inside view of the war and its aftermath. Reporter Chris Wallace stated that “90 percent of the Serbs have left the country” (apparently forgetting that Kosovo is still officially a province of Yugoslavia, not its own nation), and went on to say that “there is reason to be afraid. There have been some 300 murders.”

Yet when interviewing Ambassador Holbrooke about the chances for a multiethnic Kosovo, Wallace refrains from asking why KFOR–ostensibly under U.N. auspices, but primarily led by the U.S.–had failed to live up to its mandate to “establish and maintain a secure environment for all citizens of Kosovo” (as stated in the June 9 agreement between KFOR and Yugoslavia). Issues like KFOR’s failure to disarm the KLA and properly patrol Kosovo’s borders, as mandated by the peace agreement, and NATO’s reneging on its pledge to allow some Yugoslav forces back into the province were virtually never raised in media discussions.

Occasionally, complaints from Serbs that “the NATO-led peacekeeping force is not protecting them against revenge attacks” were reported in passing. (CBS Evening News, 8/26/99) But when the issue was addressed in greater detail, there was almost never any suggestion that peacekeepers might not be doing the best job possible. NATO troops were fighting “an uphill battle” for a multiethnic Kosovo (ABC World News This Morning, 8/10/99), U.S. soldiers were “just doing their job, keeping the peace evenhandedly…trying to make Kosovo safe for everyone” (CBS This Morning, 8/13/99), and Holbrooke was working hard at his mission “to promote a multiethnic society, where ethnic Albanians can tolerate their Serb neighbors” (NBC Nightly News, 8/28/99).

Why, then, had most of the Serb population fled, and why were the rest living “in fear”? From the tone of the reports, it was inevitable: “Ethnic Albanians say this is their land and they will do as they please…. They’re taking revenge.” (NBC Nightly News, 8/28/99)

Even in the face of their own reports that KFOR was, to say the least, having trouble establishing a safe, multiethnic Kosovo, ABC ran stories about the success of the U.S. military in adapting to the peacekeeping roles created by the new breed of low-casualty, high-justice wars like Kosovo. The most extensive, an August 12 Nightline feature, was essentially a paean to the high-tech solutions the U.S. Marines brought to their tasks of “dealing with hungry refugees, keeping hostile factions apart.”

The main guest, retired Marine commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, was allowed to announce his plans to someday “use R2D2s on the modern battlefield,” without facing a more challenging question from Ted Koppel than whether, as a “warrior,” he was concerned that the “godlike omniscience” technology imparts to the U.S. armed forces would give Americans the false impression that “maybe war now doesn’t have to cost lives.”

That the Kosovo War had in fact cost lives and was continuing to do so, in part because of the KFOR’s failure to live up to its end of the peace agreement, did not come up.