Leading Article: Truth is always the best basis for reconciliation

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THE INTEREST in massacres, murders and dead bodies in Kosovo may seem tasteless, but it is justified. It is important to know exactly what has happened during and before the two-and-a-half months since the international observers were withdrawn and Slobodan Milosevic's forces had the run of the place.

However, it is important, too, that the investigation of crimes against humanity is dispassionate and factual. There have been rather too many emotive analogies drawn with the Nazi Holocaust, which are in danger of clouding the truth rather than illuminating it. The Prime Minister has talked throughout the war of "genocide" being carried out by Serb forces, which is almost accurate but not quite: this should make him feel uneasy.

Nato's policy - and Tony Blair's forceful advocacy of it - has been so completely vindicated on the facts alone that it does not need inflated language to sustain it. It is worth saying that now, at last, as the refugees are indeed beginning to return to their homes, justice has triumphed over evil. But the nature of that evil does not need to be exaggerated in order to justify the war.

Language is important and, although the Serbian state pursued a policy of vilification, expulsion and murder against the ethnic Albanians, it did not amount to genocide, which is the systematic extermination of a group of people defined by their race, religion or culture. There is a difference between Serb expansionism and the Holocaust of both scale and degree, despite the frightening similarities. If there are 10,000 dead in Kosovo that is a terrible crime, but it is not the same as the hundreds of thousands that were once feared. There is a parallel between Hitler's ambition for a racially pure Greater Germany and Milosevic's ethnically homogenous Greater Serbia, but Milosevic was not working towards a Final Solution; he did not aspire to world domination; he did not espouse an ideology of eugenics. The Nazi army was a highly disciplined, efficient killing machine; many of the Serb forces were irregulars engaged in looting and killing for gain.

The power of analogy is useful in helping to understand new events - one of the reasons why the study of history is so valuable is because it enables us to have a better understanding of the present. Mr Blair was quite justified in saying of the refugee columns and the people herded on to trains that we did not expect to see such scenes again in 20th-century Europe, as a means of rousing our righteous and justified anger.

But analogy is only an aid to understanding: the facts of every case will be different, and so will the moral implications. Comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler have their limits, and this week those limits have been breached. The tabloid headline "Serb Auschwitz" on reports of evidence of torture was over that line. So was Clare Short's complaint in the Commons on Thursday that the media would not have let the Allies win the Second World War. Although, when she attacked the opponents of Nato bombing for effectively saying that, because there were no concentration camps in Germany at the start of the Second World War, the Allies were responsible for them, she was essentially correct, if a little colourful.

All inter-communal conflicts are different in their histories, causes and the extent to which culpability is spread throughout a group. So, although parallels can be drawn with Armenia, Russian pogroms, the Holocaust, Indian partition, Cambodia or Rwanda, in the end, each crime against humanity must be judged on the unique facts of each case. That is why it is more important for the war crimes investigators to collect the detailed evidence of names, places and dates - some of which were detailed in our pages yesterday - than it is to make sweeping assertions about genocide. Equally, the media should show some restraint in their reporting of alleged mass graves, to which they have invariably been led by soldiers of the KLA.

There is the danger in demonising the Serbs as an entire people that it will make it even harder to ensure a multi-ethnic Kosovo. We should desist not for that pragmatic reason, however, but because we do not yet know, if we ever will, to what extent "ordinary" Serbs were complicit in the looting and expulsion of their neighbours - just as the degree of German guilt is still argued over 60 years later.

Knowing the truth of what happened is ultimately the best basis for reconciliation in Kosovo, and it matters what the histories and school textbooks will tell the next generation. Discovering and recording the truth - without belabouring comparisons with what has happened in other places at other times - will help us understand better what it is that makes ethnic and religious groups turn against their neighbours with murderous intent, so that it is less likely to happen again.