Was it rescue or revenge?

Robert Fisk There was a moment in April, early in the bombing campaign, when Nato's lie became obvious
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The Independent Culture
BESTIALISATION IS an unpleasant sport. The Serbs bestialised the Albanians for years. Terrorists, mafia, communists, Marxists, murderers. Officially directed at the Kosovo Liberation Army, these epithets came to be applied to the entire Kosovo Albanian community. And when General Nabojsa Pavkovic warned that "settling scores... is what we'll do if our country is attacked from the air or the ground," the Albanians knew what to expect. The moment Nato commenced its blitz against Yugoslavia, the harassment of the Kosovo Albanians turned into persecution, and the atrocities into mass murder.

But now it is we who are doing the bestialising. Nazis, Gestapo, blood- stained thugs, genocidal. The Serbs. In just a few short sound-bites, we are now bestialising a whole people. Serbs Out, Nato In, Refugees Back. That was how George Robertson - with appalling simplicity and even more awful results - summed up the west's ambitions in Kosovo earlier this month. And sure enough, the Serbs are moving out. At least 50,000 Serb civilians - half the remaining Serb population of the province - have already fled the homes that Messrs Clinton and Blair promised to protect. Perhaps half the gypsy population of Kosovo have fled with them on their wooden carts and ponies. Serbian Kosovo is turning into Albanian Kosovo.

True, it was Serb forces - not the KLA - which dispossessed the Albanians of Kosovo. Serb forces executed the Albanian men of countless villages across the province. The KLA have committed atrocities, but not on this scale. Yet it remains a sad and devastating fact that the vast majority of war crimes - almost the entire mass dispossession and "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians - occurred after Nato had begun its war.

Had we been prepared to intervene on land at the beginning - at the cost, no doubt, of Nato soldiers' lives - countless murdered Albanians would still be alive. And had we attempted to sort out the whole Kosovo crisis when the Albanians first appealed for our help at Dayton in 1995 - when Richard Holbrooke and his chums told them to get lost - the last three months' bloodbath might never have occurred, and hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Albanians would still be in their homes

Moral outrage is a very powerful emotion. I felt it a year ago when I saw the Serb police looting houses in the village of Comerane. I felt it a few days' later when a Serb police officer threatened to rape an Albanian woman who was travelling with me. I felt it when The Independent's own Albanian interpreter emerged from the heart of darkness just over a week ago with a frightful story of her two months' persecution in Kosovo. I knew what to expect when British KFOR troops entered the MUP police headquarters in Pristina and found their collection of baseball bats, strapped bed, knuckledusters...

Because I have visited another identical police station with a torture basement. Indeed, I have been interrogated on the first floor, surrounded by policemen holding identical baseball bats. And that police force was engaged in the persecution, dispossession and - with the help of that nation's armed forces - the burning of villages and the murder of their ethnic inhabitants. But readers who fear another Nato bombing campaign can relax. This police station happened to be in a city called Diyarbakir, and the country whose police forces are involved in torture and murder is called Turkey. And Turkey is a member of Nato, supporting - albeit without enormous enthusiasm - our righteous war against Serbia. And Turkey is not (quite) in Europe. Hence the need for our masters to say that we are discovering war crimes unknown "in Europe" since the Second World War.

But back to Kosovo, where our moral outrage is at its loudest. In our reporting of Kosovo's "liberation", there is no longer any mention of the bombing campaign that preceded it. The hundreds of Serb and Albanian civilians killed by Nato bombs have been expunged from the record. The train at Grdelica, the two hospitals, the Chinese embassy, the bridge at Varvarin - with its beheaded priest and its female high-school student with her stomach torn out - the housing estates in Nis, Surdelica and Cuprija, and the Albanian refugee convoy destroyed in April - all must now be forgotten. The evil we now uncover makes such matters irrelevant, even if most of that evil had not yet been committed when we began our blitz against Yugoslavia.

Having witnessed much of the war - far too much of the war - I am convinced it was unnecessary; that there must have been some way of avoiding Nato's brutal bombardment and the wickedness that Serb forces unleashed against the Albanians once that bombardment began. True, their "cleansing" of Kosovo had already started, but on an infinitely smaller scale. And Nato General Wesley Clark's assertion that the post-attack onslaught against the Albanians was "entirely predictable" still seems to be the height of cynicism.

I wonder, in the future, whether we can allow a European army to be driven by the United States. It was America, courtesy of Madeleine Albright, that pushed for this war. It was an American air force that took the leading role in bombing a European nation.

While the Albanians were being assaulted, US Defence Secretary William Cohen was referring (on 1 April) to "our gallant forces serving on the front line" - forces that were sitting on their bottoms in Albania doing nothing. And when the time came for Nato troops to move into Kosovo, what was America's role? It wanted the safest bit of the province to control, and wasted so much time arguing about its right to arrive along with the British that the Russians moved in to capture Pristina airport.

Nato unleashed a war that produced a refugee exodus on a Biblical scale. It went on to slaughter hundreds of civilians in order to return the refugees, most of whom were in their homes when the blitz began. And then it watched the exodus of half of Kosovo's other population - the Serbs - whom it was also meant to protect. And it then proclaimed a victory.

This may go down well in the United States, but I don't think Europe should suffer this kind of treatment. I don't believe that American generals should be in charge of the destruction of a European nation, however barbaric its ruler. I don't think think the European Union should tolerate any repeat performances.

Yes, we Europeans are weak. We prefer to let the Americans wield the big stick, and to fall into line behind their generals. But if we are going to control our own destinies, our future, those much trumpeted "values" that Tony Blair keeps talking about, and our defence, we've got to do it ourselves. Which means the end of Nato and the creation of a real European defence force, one which cannot be accused of obeying American orders; a brigade, or a division, or an army which - if it really intends to protect the innocent and keep the peace - has the moral courage to go in on the ground to save life, rather than wait until the lives are lost and then punish those responsible.

There was a moment back in April, early in the bombing campaign, when Nato's lie became obvious. "Had we not acted," said President Clinton, "the Serb offensive would have been carried out with impunity."

And there we have it. Ours was a punishment campaign, not a preventive action. It was intended to avenge the Albanians, not to save them - and to revenge ourselves on the Serbs, I have no doubt, for the humiliation we suffered at their hands in Bosnia. The Albanian refugees will now return to their "predictably" burned homes and the "predictable" mass graves of their loved ones. The Serbs will continue to flood out of the province that Nato had sworn to preserve.

And the Americans will continue to make the decisions. Europe deserves better. So do the Kosovo Albanians. So do the Serbs.

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